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.

1 Timothy 1:1-11 – A Plea for Grace and Truth

From Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by order of God our Savior and Christ Jesus our hope—

To Timothy, my true son in the faith:

May God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord give you grace, mercy, and peace.

I want you to stay in Ephesus, just as I urged you when I was on my way to Macedonia. Some people there are teaching false doctrines, and you must order them to stop. Tell them to give up those legends and those long lists of ancestors, which only produce arguments; they do not serve God’s plan, which is known by faith. 

The purpose of this order is to arouse the love that comes from a pure heart, a clear conscience, and a genuine faith. Some people have turned away from these and have lost their way in foolish discussions. They want to be teachers of God’s law, but they do not understand their own words or the matters about which they speak with so much confidence.

We know that the Law is good if it is used as it should be used. It must be remembered, of course, that laws are made, not for good people, but for lawbreakers and criminals, for the godless and sinful, for those who are not religious or spiritual, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the immoral, for sexual perverts, for kidnappers, for those who lie and give false testimony or who do anything else contrary to sound doctrine. That teaching is found in the gospel that was entrusted to me to announce, the Good News from the glorious and blessed God. (Good News Translation)

We all need to be continually reminded of the supreme, overarching, and divine imperative of love. Love God and love neighbor is the summation of all other commands in Holy Scripture.

Whenever we lose sight of love as the guiding ethic of law, we stray into foolish discussions which are always unhelpful, and oftentimes harmful. As a result, there is today a plethora of shortsighted and small-hearted pundits who don’t even understand their own speech.

The irony is that those who rail against particular sins are themselves the most egregious sinners of all; and the ones calling for observance of Christian ethics are themselves acting unethically.

While there a large chunks of the Christian world who condemn same sex relations because “the Bible says it is sin,” they never question the translation of what they’re reading in Scripture – failing to realize that the original scriptures were not authorized by King James to be written in English.

Translation is no easy task. Believe me, I’ve done my share of it. Unfortunately, many translations simply go with “homosexuality,” even though it’s difficult to translate from the original Greek. It seems to me that the Good News Translation of “sexual perverts” is about as accurate as one can get.

The word has much more to do with pederasty (same sex relations with a minor) and rape than it does with all same sex relations. If we can easily understand the nuances of opposite sex relations, then why not same sex relations?

Frankly, I am genuinely grieved, and I lament over how Christians talk to one another about these matters.

On the one hand, there are the “truth tellers.” They have a passion for holiness and a zeal for righteousness. They point out that Jesus got angry and did not put up with people watering down the gospel. Jesus, for them, is the Divine Warrior who is ready and armed to oppose same sex marriage.  

On the other hand, there are the “lovers.” They are sincerely hurt by chatter about homosexual sinners bound for hell. For them, Jesus loves, period. He would never hurt a fly, drives a Prius, and tries to leave the most loving impact he can on the earth without a harmful spiritual footprint or a rebuke from anyone.

I, of course, have painted two extremes. But therein lies the point: The rhetoric from both hands is extreme, as if, somehow, love and truth cannot co-exist together.

Methinks one of the great problems is that few people want to take the time to listen; few are interested in understanding the other.  

Failing to possess a listening spirit means there isn’t much poverty of spirit, very little mourning over personal sin, and even less meekness.  

Instead, we look down our noses at one another.  

But is listening really that important?  Yes, it is.  

Jesus said, “If your brother sins against you, go to him and show him his fault. But do it privately, just between yourselves. If he listens to you, you have won your brother back.” (Matthew 18:15, GNT)

It’s hard to listen when people are taking pot shots at each other through social media and huddling together in their own small worlds without any diversity or contrary thought. The aforementioned quote from Jesus presupposes relationship; and there seems to be little of it going around.

“Truth teller,” will you take the time and effort to build a relationship with someone, or even a group of people, very different from yourself? Will you seek to ask questions, listen, and understand without judgment or making comments? Are you able to see the image of God in them?  

“Lover,” do you have room to love someone who is at the complete opposite end of your own understanding? Are you willing to take the time and effort to see why this person or group of people are so passionate about the issue – without believing that you already know why they think the way they do? Can you see that God’s love is big enough to extend to the unloving?

Everyone has their hot button issues in which people are at very different ends of the spectrum of thinking.  

What I am pleading for is that we in the church must take the lead by having the maturity to learn how to talk to one another without assuming we already know what the other side is all about. We don’t. And we won’t unless we listen. And we won’t listen unless we are humble; we will never be humble unless we realize our poverty of spirit before God.

Please don’t turn the good news of grace into the bad news of judgment. That, perhaps, is the worst blasphemy of all. Instead, may you embrace the mercy and peace which has been graciously given to you at the cost of great suffering.

Almighty God, from whom all thoughts of truth and peace proceed: kindle, we pray, in the hearts of all, the true love of peace and guide with your pure and peaceable wisdom those who take counsel for the nations of the earth – so that in tranquility your kingdom may go forward, till the earth is filled with the knowledge of your love; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Daniel 1:1-21 – Cultural Humility

In the third year of the reign of Jehoiakim king of Judah, Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it. And the Lord delivered Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand, along with some of the articles from the temple of God. These he carried off to the temple of his god in Babylonia and put in the treasure house of his god.

Then the king ordered Ashpenaz, chief of his court officials, to bring into the king’s service some of the Israelites from the royal family and the nobility—young men without any physical defect, handsome, showing aptitude for every kind of learning, well informed, quick to understand, and qualified to serve in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the language and literature of the Babylonians. The king assigned them a daily amount of food and wine from the king’s table. They were to be trained for three years, and after that they were to enter the king’s service.

Among those who were chosen were some from Judah: Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. The chief official gave them new names: to Daniel, the name Belteshazzar; to Hananiah, Shadrach; to Mishael, Meshach; and to Azariah, Abednego.

But Daniel resolved not to defile himself with the royal food and wine, and he asked the chief official for permission not to defile himself this way.Now God had caused the official to show favor and compassion to Daniel, but the official told Daniel, “I am afraid of my lord the king, who has assigned your food and drink. Why should he see you looking worse than the other young men your age? The king would then have my head because of you.”

Daniel then said to the guard whom the chief official had appointed over Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah, “Please test your servants for ten days: Give us nothing but vegetables to eat and water to drink. Then compare our appearance with that of the young men who eat the royal food and treat your servants in accordance with what you see.” So, he agreed to this and tested them for ten days.

At the end of the ten days, they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food. So, the guard took away their choice food and the wine they were to drink and gave them vegetables instead.

To these four young men God gave knowledge and understanding of all kinds of literature and learning. And Daniel could understand visions and dreams of all kinds.

At the end of the time set by the king to bring them into his service, the chief official presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. The king talked with them, and he found no one equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah; so, they entered the king’s service. In every matter of wisdom and understanding about which the king questioned them, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and enchanters in his whole kingdom.

And Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus. (New International Version)

Cultural humility is a humble and respectful attitude toward individuals of other cultures that pushes one to challenge their own cultural biases, realize they cannot possibly know everything about other cultures, and approach learning about other cultures as a lifelong goal and process.

Daniel is a much revered biblical figure. And for good reason. He exhibits the best qualities of humanity.

The mighty Babylonian Empire invaded Judah, tore down the wall of Jerusalem, seized the Temple, and carried off the best and the brightest Jews to Babylonia for service to the powerful King Nebuchadnezzar.

By the king’s orders, the young men were given to Ashpenaz, the head official, to be trained in the cultural ways of the Babylonians. And this is where it gets interesting. The interaction between Daniel and Ashpenaz is a master class in cultural competence and cultural humility.

Cultural competence emphasizes the knowledge of the person in the majority. Cultural humility, however, allows other people to share their own experiences.

Cultural humility is about curiosity. The real discovery, and real competence, is in knowing there’s something you may not understand about another individual or group. Being open to finding out or figuring out what that difference is, is the humble curiosity which can lead to new and good possibilities.

Daniel and the others were forcibly taken from their home. They are in a strange place and are not about to acquiesce in becoming Babylonians instead of a Jews.

Ashpenaz was given a clear task by the king, which was essentially to make Babylonians out of them. This could be an explosive situation. Yet, it wasn’t, because both Ashpenaz and Daniel were willing to have some cultural humility about their situation.

The humility of Daniel, his way of being civil and present, opened the way for Ashpenaz to listen. The young men did not want to go against their religious convictions. At this point, Ashpenaz took the way of humility. He learned something about these Jewish men under his charge. Instead of filing that information away in his head or in some papyrus library, Ashpenaz became open to Daniel’s suggestion.

And, as it turns out, both Ashpenaz and the Babylonians were much better off because of two men’s interactions based in humility. Furthermore, Daniel and the others navigated a dicey situation and came out holding to their integrity, not to mention their lives.

Ashpenaz was not only willing to learn about another culture (cultural competence) but took the next necessary step in letting that knowledge affect how he went about his job. The open discussion about differences is what led to belonging.

Today, we must realize that the idea you can arm yourself with a body of knowledge about a culture and believe that’s all you need to do, doesn’t give anyone or any culture much space to change. In other words, knowledge by itself isn’t being inclusive of another’s perspective or ways. Knowledge alone doesn’t bring connection between differing people.

We need people (you and me!) who are willing to be curious and take the understanding we have about another culture and pursue changing something that isn’t right in our own culture. We must have people who are humble enough to discern that our own cultures have their good practices and their bad approaches.

Daniel wasn’t obnoxious about what he wanted and didn’t decry or verbally attack Ashpenaz and the Babylonian culture. And Ashpenaz didn’t simply ignore Daniel and force cultural colonization on him and the others.

This interaction between two people was the seed which eventually led to the Jews leaving exile and returning to Jerusalem. I doubt that ever would have happened, had Daniel and Ashpenaz held tightly to cultural pride.

Holy God, who sent your only Son Jesus Christ to be crucified for our sins, have mercy upon me. May I follow in his example, leading and loving in great humility, for you oppose the proud but raise up the humble. Help me to be gracious, patient, loving, and kind in every interaction, especially with those who are very different than myself. Amen.

Proverbs 4:1-9 – Pay Attention to Wisdom

Listen, children, to a father’s instruction,
and pay attention so that you may gain discernment.
Because I hereby give you good instruction,
do not forsake my teaching.

When I was a son to my father,
a tender, only child before my mother,
he taught me, and he said to me:
“Let your heart lay hold of my words;
keep my commands so that you will live.
Acquire wisdom, acquire understanding;
do not forget and do not turn aside from the words I speak.
Do not forsake wisdom, and she will protect you;
love her, and she will guard you.
Wisdom is supreme—so acquire wisdom,
and whatever you acquire, acquire understanding!
Esteem her highly and she will exalt you;
she will honor you if you embrace her.
She will place a fair garland on your head;
she will bestow a beautiful crown on you.” (New English Translation)

Pay Attention to Instruction

Once, when I was a kid growing up on the farm, I was playing hide-and-seek with my brother and got lost in a cornfield. The stalks were taller than me, and I couldn’t jump up and try to see over them. I started to panic.

Then, I got my wits about me and looked straight up into the sky. Even though I was only seven or eight years old, I had looked up at the sky a bajillion times in my short lifetime. My dad had taught me how to read the sky and the weather above us. Fortunately, I had listened well and paid attention to all those times we looked up together.

I knew that the position of the sun in the bright blue sky would give me a fixed point of direction. Once I did that, I walked in the direction I was certain would take me out of the cornfield, trying not to let fear take hold of me. In no time at all, I was out. I lost the game of hide-and-seek. But I didn’t care.

Wisdom is personified in the book of Proverbs as a sage woman and a discerning counselor for whom we must hear and heed her advice. 

In the Old Testament, wisdom is the practical daily application of knowledge and understanding. It’s the ability to take the knowledge of God and use it in everyday life in a way that leads to human peace, contentment, and flourishing. There are two important aspects to wisdom. 

Pay Attention to Knowledge

First, the individual must possess some body of knowledge. If we are ignorant (without knowledge) then we have no ability to exercise wisdom. More than once, I rescued cousins and friends from the cornfield while playing hide-and-seek, because they didn’t have the same understanding of the sky that I did.

So, it’s absolutely imperative for us to actively seek understanding. It’s not going to simply drop into our lap. We must purposely strive to look up and see the Son, to view life from God’s perspective, and to put ourselves in another person’s shoes. 

To gain wisdom, we must become readers, listeners, and devoted learners. Why? Because without books to read, without spiritual directors to consult and listen to, and without adopting the humble posture of learning from others, we will never realize wisdom.

The telltale sign of one who fails to read, listen, and learn, is that they continually opine on everything with no evidence to back up their opinions, no insight into the human condition, and no grace in their language. In the book of Proverbs, such as a person is labeled the “fool.”

Pay Attention to Behavior

The second aspect to wisdom is that the individual must use the acquired knowledge to have good behavior and to live well. 

Knowledge by itself, apart from actual practical use, only produces puffed-up pride (1 Corinthians 8:1). The reason for accumulating understanding is to use it for the welfare of others, for the benefit of the common good. 

We have quite enough preening peacocks in this world who have answers for every earthly problem under the sun. This world needs much less of them, and more of those who seek the humility that comes from biblical wisdom. As the Apostle James in the New Testament once put it, we must be doers of the Word and not hearers only (James 1:22).

Wisdom is realized whenever there is learning that has come through both the head and the hands. Proverbs is a very good place to begin constructing a life of wisdom. Reading one chapter a day, for one month, will get you through the entire book. 

Make a wise plan to carefully go through Proverbs sometime this spring or summer. You’ll be glad you did. And so will those around you.

Pay Attention to Prayer

God of all wisdom, save me from pride and arrogance, and take me to the place where Christ’s humility is center stage, where I’m lifting up clean hands and a pure heart to you.

Spirit of discernment, take me to the place where I’m no longer looking with panic or anxiety at the cornfields and situations I face, but look up to you, where I can see clearly, and my decisions are flooded with your bright light, truth, and justice.

Jesus, teacher of all that is right and good, I submit to your instruction and humbly seek to live into your words and ways. I keep my ears open to receive your counsel, my heart open to receive your eternal wisdom, and my eyes open to see your risen and ascended glory.

Just, right, and wise God – Father, Son, and Spirit, the God whom I serve – know that I love wisdom. I desire it more than money, fame, or power. Help me to use biblical common sense, spiritual savvy, and Scriptural discernment so that I might learn the good and the beautiful. Amen.