Listen to the Prophets (Jeremiah 25:1-14)

St. Nicholas Church fresco of the prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel by Leopold Bruckner, Prešov, Slovakia

This is the Message given to Jeremiah for all the people of Judah. It came in the fourth year of Jehoiakim son of Josiah king of Judah. It was the first year of Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon.

Jeremiah the prophet delivered the Message to all the people of Judah and citizens of Jerusalem:

From the thirteenth year of Josiah son of Amon king of Judah right up to the present day—twenty-three years it’s been!—God’s Word has come to me, and from early each morning to late every night I’ve passed it on to you. And you haven’t listened to a word of it!

Not only that but God also sent a steady stream of prophets to you who were just as persistent as me, and you never listened. They told you, “Turn back—right now, each one of you!—from your evil way of life and bad behavior and live in the land God gave you and your ancestors, the land he intended to give you forever. Don’t follow the god-fads of the day, taking up and worshiping these no-gods. Don’t make me angry with your god-businesses, making and selling gods—a dangerous business!

“You refused to listen to any of this, and now I am really angry. These god-making businesses of yours are your doom.”

The verdict of God-of-the-Angel-Armies on all this: “Because you have refused to listen to what I’ve said, I’m stepping in. I’m sending for the armies out of the north headed by Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon, my servant in this, and I’m setting them on this land and people and even the surrounding countries. I’m devoting the whole works to total destruction—a horror to top all the horrors in history. And I’ll banish every sound of joy—singing, laughter, marriage festivities, genial workmen, candlelit suppers. The whole landscape will be one vast wasteland. These countries will be in subjection to the king of Babylon for seventy years.

“Once the seventy years is up, I’ll punish the king of Babylon and the whole nation of Babylon for their sin. Then they’ll be the wasteland. Everything that I said I’d do to that country, I’ll do—everything that’s written in this book, everything Jeremiah preached against all the godless nations. Many nations and great kings will make slaves of the Babylonians, paying them back for everything they’ve done to others. They won’t get by with anything.” God’s Decree. (The Message)

An ancient rabbi once said that we have two ears and one mouth so that we will listen twice as much as we talk. 

Listening with curious and focused attention is a forgotten skill and a lost art in Western society. 

Slick marketing, political punditry, and over-the-top speech all scream into the culture because there is such a dearth of listening. It seems many people are more concerned to make their opinions known than do any kind of deep listening to another.

No one seems to want to put in the work of discovering another’s true thoughts, feelings, and needs. Instead, we’d rather rant, play armchair quarterback, and make uninformed comments on things we don’t understand.

It’s really downright sad and tragic that we fail to listen to each other. And it is especially terrible when we do not listen to God. 

The Old Testament prophets exist because of a failure to listen. At the time of Jeremiah, not only did the people not hear; they refused to listen. They put their fingers in their ears and babbled “la-la-la-la-la.” So, it was only fitting that the Lord sent the people to Babylon.

This was not merely the inability to listen because they were overworked, too tired, or “hangry.” The problem was much deeper than that. For years, God kept up a steady stream of words, telling the people exactly what was expected. But they didn’t listen, on purpose. Like a parent speaking to an angsty teenager, it all went in one ear and out the other with nothing getting done.

God passionately desired the people to amend their evil ways. But they didn’t want to hear it. 

So, after years, even centuries of unfaithfulness, unrighteousness, and injustice, God’s patience came to its limit. Tragedy happened. The Babylonian Exile became a terrible and harsh reality.

If there is no deep listening to God and God’s Word to us, there will be deep repercussions. 

Listen, my friends: None of us can do the will of God if we don’t know what God wants. It takes listening. And listening takes focused attention. And focused attention requires a posture of humility. And humility requires being emptied of all pride and hubris. 

Apart from genuine listening with the intent to understand and alter actions accordingly, there will be no peace, no love, no grace. The space of inattention quickly fills with lazy ears, emotional heaviness, spiritual sickness, xenophobic suspicion, anxious fear, dark thoughts, angry rants, and a retreat into selfish caring for oneself. 

The beginning of wisdom and human flourishing starts with listening well. Paying attention through deep listening brings humility of heart, purification of pride, and love of God and neighbor.

Truly hearing the words of God leads to self-awareness, cries for God’s mercy, a knowledge of humanity, the study of Holy Scripture, and a familiarity with the Church’s long tradition of sound teaching.

Therefore, silence is vital for everyone. Prayer needs to be more about sitting still in solitude and silence in order to listen and much less about talking at God.

But if we insist on making more noise than a couple of skeletons dancing on a tin roof, we will eventually be those skeletons – without any substance and only good for the grave.

So, read the prophets. Listen to them. Pay attention to their message. And heed their warnings and exhortations. Your ears will be glad you did.

Holy Father and God of all, your speech goes out into all the earth. Your Word is there for us to hear if we will only but listen. 

Lord Jesus, let your words and your teachings penetrate so deeply into my soul that your loving ways come out of me in all I say and do.

Blessed Holy Spirit, help me to so listen to your inner voice that encouragement and forgiveness pours forth from the wellspring of a heart which is baptized in God’s Word. Amen.

Romans 2:12-16 – Doing, Not Just Hearing, Makes the Difference

If you sin without knowing what you’re doing, God takes that into account. But if you sin knowing full well what you’re doing, that’s a different story entirely. Merely hearing God’s law is a waste of your time if you don’t do what he commands. Doing, not hearing, is what makes the difference with God.

When outsiders who have never heard of God’s law follow it more or less by instinct, they confirm its truth by their obedience. They show that God’s law is not something alien, imposed on us from without, but woven into the very fabric of our creation. There is something deep within them that echoes God’s yes and no, right and wrong. Their response to God’s yes and no will become public knowledge on the day God makes his final decision about every man and woman. The Message from God that I proclaim through Jesus Christ considers all these differences. (The Message)

Every single person on planet earth has been created by a good Creator in the image and likeness of God, without exception.

Because we are all stamped with the Lord’s divine image deep within us, there is a universally inherent sense of justice, rightness, fairness, integrity, morality, and love. Particulars of ethics may differ from culture to culture, yet all persons and societies have a broadly similar innate understanding of right and wrong.

Within the ancient Roman Church were a mix of Jews (the historical people of God who were given the law and the covenant through Moses) and Gentiles (non-Jewish persons). The Apostle Paul wrote his lengthy and probing letter to them because the two groups of Jew and Gentile were at odds with one another.

The Gentile Christians could not understand the Jewish Christian fondness and insistence on ancient rules and particular commands, and so, they looked down on their brothers and sisters in the faith as being hopelessly locked into outdated traditions and practices.

Conversely, the Jewish Christians could not understand the Gentile Christian affinity for a freedom that seemed to not care about the religious importance of food and eating, seasons and holy days, and outward signs of Christianity, and so, they tended to look down on their brothers and sisters in the faith as ignorant, immature, and in need of ritual practices.

We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are.

Romans 3:22, NLT

The Church back then was almost like putting a group of people with O.C.D. (Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder) with a group of people with A.D.D. (Attention-Deficit Disorder). At the least, it’s going to very interesting to watch them try to live and worship together; at the worst, it’s going to spark an all-out battle for supremacy.

Paul was intervening somewhere in the middle between the interesting situation and the pitched battles so that the Church would not turn into total war. The last thing he wanted was two churches: one Jewish and one Gentile. No, there is one church, just as there is one God. Paul was determined that these knuckleheads are going to have to learn to get along.

Since Paul himself was a Jewish Christian, he tended to get pretty testy with his fellow Jews. Although Paul often went back-and-forth throughout his letter to the Romans, addressing Jews, then Gentiles, he most often had more to say to the Jewish brothers and sisters.

And that is what’s happening in today’s New Testament lesson. The Apostle Paul is directing his words chiefly toward the Jewish believers. He is lifting the Gentile believers and placing them on the same level as the Jews. Although the Gentiles weren’t the ones who received the law, they’ve always had that law deep inside them.

God is not only the God of the Jews. He is also the God of those who are not Jews. There is only one God. He will make Jews right with him by their faith, and he will also make non-Jews right with him through their faith.

Romans 3:29-30, ERV

Not only ought the Gentile Christians to be respected because of their inherent sense of God’s law, but this also makes them accountable for their own words and actions. In other words, there’s no excuse for any sinful talk or behavior.

What’s more, the real issue isn’t whether one group has the law, or not. The rub is whether one actually obeys and does the will of God. It doesn’t matter whether one hears the law read aloud in a Jewish synagogue or whether one hears the law spoken in the individual conscience. All are responsible for acting on that voice and engaging in deeds of justice, peace, and love. All must connect with the stamped image of God within us.

I’m not sure what is worse: committing overt sins or observing the sin and doing nothing about it. Indifference is at the core of most sin – both for the perpetrator and the passive spectator seeing it. Each one is living against both their conscience and by what they’ve heard and been taught.

The Word of God has not been truly received until it is put into practice. This is a consistent theme in the New Testament: 

Jesus said, “The people who are really blessed are the ones who hear and obey God’s message!”

Luke 11:28, CEV

Obey God’s message! Don’t fool yourselves by just listening to it. If you hear the message and don’t obey it, you are like people who stare at themselves in a mirrorand forget what they look like as soon as they leave. But you must never stop looking at the perfect law that sets you free. God will bless you in everything you do, if you listen and obey, and don’t just hear and forget. (James 1:22-25, CEV)

Listening to the Word without obedience is just that – it is mere hearing.

Profession of faith in Jesus means nothing without a practice of that faith.

Learning the Bible is useless without living it.

Acceptance of the Word is nothing more than a mental exercise without action to back it up.

Profession, knowledge, and acceptance alone does not satisfy God’s plan for our lives. 

The danger is that we have the potential to deceive ourselves into thinking we are okay just because we know the right things and believe the right things. Christianity is a vital love relationship with Jesus, and, so, is not merely a matter of hearing and affirming orthodox truth; it also involves orthopraxy, that is, having right practice, the doing of truth.

Whenever the Gentile Christians in Rome refused to love the Jewish Christians, they were not hearing God and doing his will.

Whenever the Jewish Christians listened to law and gospel, but then had no intention of changing to accommodate the Gentile Christians, they were being disobedient.

And whenever we hear about how God forgives us in Jesus’ name, but then we insist on not forgiving another person, we are not being doers of the Word.

So, let’s take a lesson from the ancient Roman Church: Live by faith. Be attentive to all persons in the Body of Christ. Include them and care for them. Pay attention to God’s Word. Include it and engraft into your life. Because care of the Body and care of the Word go hand-in-hand together.

May the God who created a world of diversity and vibrancy,
Go with us as we embrace life in all its fullness.

May the Son who teaches us to care for stranger and foreigners,
Go with us as we try to be good neighbors in our communities.

May the Spirit who breaks down our barriers and celebrates community,
Go with us as we find the courage to create a place of welcome for all. Amen.

Luke 9:28-43 – Transfiguration Sunday: Listen to Jesus

Transfiguration by Laura James

Jesus took Peter, John and James with him and went up onto a mountain to pray. As he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became as bright as a flash of lightning. Two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendor, talking with Jesus. They spoke about his departure, which he was about to bring to fulfillment at Jerusalem. Peter and his companions were very sleepy, but when they became fully awake, they saw his glory and the two men standing with him. As the men were leaving Jesus, Peter said to him, “Master, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what he was saying.)

While he was speaking, a cloud appeared and covered them, and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” When the voice had spoken, they found that Jesus was alone. The disciples kept this to themselves and did not tell anyone at that time what they had seen.

The next day, when they came down from the mountain, a large crowd met him. A man in the crowd called out, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son, for he is my only child. A spirit seizes him, and he suddenly screams; it throws him into convulsions so that he foams at the mouth. It scarcely ever leaves him and is destroying him. I begged your disciples to drive it out, but they could not.”

“You unbelieving and perverse generation,” Jesus replied, “how long shall I stay with you and put up with you? Bring your son here.”

Even while the boy was coming, the demon threw him to the ground in a convulsion. But Jesus rebuked the impure spirit, healed the boy and gave him back to his father. And they were all amazed at the greatness of God. (New International Version)

When Jesus is around, extraordinary things happen. And yet, sometimes we just don’t perceive it. The three disciples of Jesus – Peter, James, and John – experienced something incredible, yet they were not really aware of what it meant, at the time. The Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain was unimaginable and awesome. The disciples, however, were confused, sleepy, and walked away silent about the whole affair. 

Woodcut of the Transfiguration by Sister Mary Grace Thul

Coming down from the mountain, the other disciples were found scratching their heads about a boy in need of healing. Jesus seemed rather perturbed about the all-around lack of faith. After curing the boy, everyone was amazed, as if they did not expect such a thing to occur.

We are not always told in the Gospels why Christ’s disciples often did not understand or perceive the significance of the miraculous, supernatural, or extraordinary events that took place right in front of them. Maybe their minds were somewhere else.

It could be that Peter had ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and was having trouble focusing.

Perhaps James trying to do some sort of ancient multi-tasking. 

Maybe John had some road rage on his way to the meeting on the mountain and was having a hard time thinking straight.

It could be that the three disciples were caught up in the anxiety of wondering where their next shekel was coming from.

Perhaps they were just up too late the night before binge watching the fishermen on the lake. But whatever was going on with the disciples, they were distracted.

So, we actually have God the Father step into the scene at the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain and speak. God isn’t typically in the business of exhorting people to listen unless they are not paying attention. The heavenly Father is clear, succinct, and to the point:

“This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.”

We are to listen to Jesus because he is God’s Son. Everything centers round him. 

Jesus is the full bodily and human representation of God on earth. Jesus is Savior, Lord and Master, Teacher and Healer.

Jesus is the complete fulfillment of all the Old Testament promises, and the one who will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Jesus is the mid-point of history, the hinge upon which all the universe swings. Jesus is the one whom we must listen to when he speaks and acts.

Therefore, our identity is to be fully bent, molded, and shaped in Jesus Christ. This spiritual formation of our lives happens as we intentionally seek to be with Jesus, listen to him, and do what he says. 

Transfiguration by Macha Chmakoff 

Jesus took Peter, James, and John up the mountain to experience his Transfiguration in a prayer meeting. Extraordinary things happen in prayer meetings. The early church gathered often in prayer meetings, following the example of their Lord Jesus. As the church listened to God and responded (in a rhythm of revelation and response) they saw Peter miraculously delivered from jail; ordinary people delivered from empty lives and demonic influence; and guidance in how to proceed as followers of Christ. 

Prayer is as much or more about listening to God as it is talking to him. It is in listening to God that we are filled with God’s Spirit and empowered to come down from the mountain and engage in God’s mission.

Jesus wanted the disciples to learn and discern something on the mountain. Jesus was changed in front of them. Moses and Elijah showed up and talked with him about his “departure,” that is, his “exodus.”

Moses was the one who listened to God and led the people in a mass exodus from slavery in Egypt to the freedom of the Promised Land.

Elijah was a prophet who listened to God and led the people out of centuries of idol worship and dead religion into the freedom of spiritual and national revival in Israel. 

And Jesus came to lead people in an exodus out of sin, death, and hell so that they can experience a new life of freedom, hope, peace, and joy.

Changed lives are God’s goal for us.  And a changed life will occur when we listen to God’s Son, Jesus, learn from him, and lean into faith in him – all of which takes humility.

Eventually, Jesus and his disciples came down from the mountain. Prayer meetings are great, but there is a time to descend the mountain and engage in God’s mission.

We are to participate with God in seeing changed lives through the work of Jesus.

We must bear witness to the redemptive saving events of Jesus to a world which desperately needs him – his healing work of both body and spirit.

The glory of God is presently here among us. We need to perceive it and be aware of it.  But to do so, we must listen well. 

Erik Weihenmayer is blind, yet on May 25, 2001, he reached the peak of Mount Everest. Suffering from a degenerative eye disease, he lost his sight when he was thirteen years old. But that did not stop him from mountain climbing. On a mountain where 90% of climbers never make it to the top—and 165 have died trying since 1953—Erik succeeded in large measure because he listened well. 

He listened to the little bell tied to the back of the climber in front of him, so he would know what direction to go. He listened to the voice of teammates who would shout back to him, “Death-fall two feet to your right!” so he would know what direction not to go. He listened to the sound of his pick jabbing the ice, so he would know whether the ice was safe to cross. 

When we journey through this life, listening well makes all the difference. So, how might we listen well to Jesus?  Here are some basic principles of active listening:

  1. Stop talking.  It was Mark Twain who said: “If we were supposed to talk more than we listen, we would have two tongues and one ear.” Proverbs 12:15 says, “The way of a fool seems right to him (therefore he has no need to listen) but a wise person listens to advice.”
  2. Prepare yourself to listen to God.  One of the ways I do this is by sitting in a quiet spot, free of distraction, and repeat several times to God, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10). Then, I am quiet… and listen….  If this practice is way off your radar then I would recommend, at first, being quiet for only a few minutes. Then, after a few weeks, be quiet in longer stretches so that you can go 20-30 minutes or even an hour. We might even consider a silent retreat in which the sole purpose is to listen to what God is saying to us.
  3. Slowly and carefully read God’s Word. Scripture is meant to be digested in small bites and thoroughly savored. Slow down and be quiet enough to hear God speak through the Word. A contemplative and meditative readings of Holy Scripture will always yield spiritual health and vitality.
  4. Pray back to God what you hear him saying to you. This is active listening – a genuine dialogue between us and God. “Come, now, let us reason together,” the Lord has said (Isaiah 1:18). God wants a conversation with us.

God speaks, if we have ears to hear, through so much more than an audible voice.

The Lord’s Supper is a tangible proclamation of the person and work of Jesus Christ. It speaks to us, and, so, we must listen well. The Table proclaims Christ’s identity as God’s Son, the one who came to live a holy life, teaches us the way to live, and how Jesus died a cruel death so that we might be born again and experience new life. 

We Are All One in Jesus Christ by Soichi Watanabe, 2009

The Table proclaims our mission, that as often as we share in communion, we proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes again. That is, we witness to the reality of Christ’s redemption in our own lives. We share our own changed lives with others. We pray for them so that they will experience new life, as well. 

The Table proclaims our spiritual formation in Christ. At the Table, we are lifted and joined with Christ through the Holy Spirit. It is a mysterious joining that defies description, just as the disciples had a mysterious encounter that they could not fully explain. Yet they experienced it, nonetheless.

May we listen well, without distraction, to God’s Son. May we know God’s purpose for our life. And may we encounter Jesus at the Table, and in all of life, so that we experience new life. 

O God, teach us to listen to those nearest to us, our family, our friends, our co-workers. Caring God, teach us to listen to those far from us – the whisper of the hopeless, the plea of the forgotten, and the cry of the anguished. Holy Spirit of God, teach us to listen for your voice — in busyness and in boredom, in certainty and doubt, in noise and in silence. Gracious God, teach us to listen well to the message of your Table. May you change and transform us to be like Jesus. Teach us, Lord, to listen. Amen.

Luke 11:24-28 – Human Nature Abhors a Vacuum

Photo by Rene Asmussen on Pexels.com

“When an evil spirit leaves a person, it goes into the desert, searching for rest. But when it finds none, it says, ‘I will return to the person I came from.’ So, it returns and finds that its former home is all swept and in order. Then the spirit finds seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they all enter the person and live there. And so that person is worse off than before.”

As he was speaking, a woman in the crowd called out, “God bless your mother—the womb from which you came, and the breasts that nursed you!”

Jesus replied, “But even more blessed are all who hear the word of God and put it into practice.” (New Living Translation)

You have likely heard the old adage, “Nature abhors a vacuum.” This idiom is used to express the idea that empty or unfilled spaces are unnatural as they go against the laws of nature and physics. Jesus expressed a similar statement, not about physical nature but human nature.

People experience emptiness whenever something, or someone, has been expelled from our lives, creating a vacuum. In today’s Gospel lesson, the expulsion is that of an evil spirit. The bad spirit is kicked to the curb, so it goes looking somewhere else to settle, with no success. Then, the spirit decides to go back, check, and see if the person is occupied, or not.

Everything in nice, neat order. Cleaned up, looking good. But empty. For the spirit, this is ideal. So much space in such an organized environment that it becomes the ideal spot for a party of peers to turn the order back into chaos.

Yet, if there had been something to fill the void, the spirits could never have come and occupied the space.

It’s a pointed lesson about truly hearing. There’s the kind of hearing that goes in one ear and out the other. There’s also a type of hearing which listens yet does nothing to act on what is being heard. That seems to be the kind of hearing Jesus was talking about.

To hear God’s Word is one thing. To make it stick by putting into practice, is another thing altogether. It’s akin to the difference between having an attractive and expensive goatskin leather Bible adorning a coffee table in the center of the house. Looks great. Problem is, it never gets a genuine hearing because the cover rarely gets cracked open.

Once, in my first church as their Pastor, a man had a bevy of family issues which seemed endless. At first, I didn’t understand it. He seemed like a really nice guy. Every Sunday he was there, without fail, and always brought his Bible.

Then, one Sunday, after everyone had left, I found a Bible sitting in the pew where the man always sat. I opened it, and sure enough, it was his, his name written inside the cover. It appeared to be a brand spanking new one, until I looked at the publication date and inscription from when it was given to him: 1949.

In returning the Bible to the man the next day, I discovered that he indeed never read it. In fact, I quickly found out that in the thousands of sermons he had heard over the decades, none of them seemed to ever stick. He heard but didn’t really hear. Instead, he spent most of his life trying not to be involved in much of anything as a means of protecting himself from hurt.

Hearing God’s Word without putting any of into practice isn’t ever going to end well.

Obey God’s message! Don’t fool yourselves by just listening to it. If you hear the message and don’t obey it, you are like people who stare at themselves in a mirror and forget what they look like as soon as they leave. But you must never stop looking at the perfect law that sets you free. God will bless you in everything you do, if you listen and obey, and don’t just hear and forget. (James 1:22-25, CEV)

The Word of God has not been truly received until it is put into practice.

The person who only hears is like a Mr. Potato Head that is only ears. He can’t stand because he has no feet.  He cannot do anything because he has no hands. Mr. Potato Head needs some feet so that he can follow Jesus wherever he goes.  And he needs hands so he can do God’s will.

Listening to the Word without obedience is just that – it is mere hearing. 

Profession of faith in Jesus means nothing without a practice of that faith.

Learning the Bible is useless without living it.

Acceptance of the Word is nothing more than a mental exercise without action to back it up. 

Christianity is a vital love relationship with Jesus, and, so, is not merely a matter of hearing and affirming orthodoxy; it also involves orthopraxy, that is, having right practice, the doing of truth.

Good hearing leads to a good response.

When my firstborn daughter was still in her mother’s womb, I constantly talked to her. I was in seminary at the time, and I would come home and read her fairy tales in Hebrew. I spoke to her when I got up in the morning and when I went to bed. I told her all about how God was going to bless her and do great things through her. I told her of Jesus and his love for her. I practiced my sermons and Sunday School lessons on her – all before she was born.

When the day finally came of her birth, the nurses took her, and she cried and cried. She cried so much and so hard that I finally said to them, “Let me hold her.” The minute I held her, I began speaking to her, and what happened next got the attention of everyone in the room: my little baby daughter immediately got quiet. It was like that the entire time she was in the hospital. The only time she was happy was when I was speaking to her.

We respond to God’s voice when we recognize it. If we are not in the habit of responding to God’s Holy Word, it is likely that we do not know the Divine voice. My baby daughter didn’t need a lesson on how to respond to me. She knew exactly who I was: her father. 

Do we know our heavenly Father? Can we distinguish God’s voice?

We need to be servants who hear and respond to the voice of God, and not soakers who just sit and hear without any response at all.

Human nature abhors a vacuum. Our own inner emptiness needs to be filled with practicing the words of life we hear. This is the true path of blessing.

Gracious Lord, you have caused Holy Scripture to be written for our learning: help us so to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest the Word so that we may do what it says and embrace the joyful hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.