When was the last time that we felt like we heard the Word of God speaking to us? Before we jump in and blame the preacher – consider whether or not we are open to hearing the word of God. Do we expect to hear God’s word? Do we open the Bible daily in search of God’s word for us? Perhaps. Perhaps as individuals some of us are seeking God’s word. But the world isn’t. The world isn’t listening for God, or reading scriptures daily to immerse itself in what God has been speaking to God’s people for millennia. The world in which we live seems rather apathetic about the things of God, certain that either God has ceased to speak or that whatever God once said is so mired in antiquity that it means nothing for us today. We look around and the world is complicated – with the erosion of our cultural foundations of faith and families, strife in our civil systems, a widening economic gap between rich and poor, a widespread failure to care for those outside “our” families or groups, and escalating debt for families, institutions and even our government. We all have ideas on what would help – but do we really turn to GOD for those answers? Word of God, speak….
We have some problems hearing the Word of God in scripture.
We have some problems hearing the Word of God in scripture.
We don’t look to scripture to be the Word of God speaking to us in part because we have rather ambivalent feelings about scripture. We love it, or at least want to love it – and we also ignore it. PLUS there are places where we are challenged by scripture and it makes us uncomfortable. Our “go to” is to reject those ideas as out of date or not really meaning what they say. PLUS there are these passages like this one from Isaiah, telling us that “God is doing a new thing.” We don’t like them much either – at least not much of the time.
What if we don’t want “a new thing?” (Don’t change the desert!)
18 “Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. 19 See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the wilderness and streams in the wasteland.
We LIKE dwelling on the past. It is, after all, what we know. Hindsight is helpful. We understand better after reflection. And we like knowing that what has always been wilderness, for example, will remain the way we expect it. Wilderness is not supposed to be a travel destination and deserts aren’t supposed to be cultivated. If we are honest, we would prefer for God to continue to work in the present and future the ways that God has worked in the past – the ways we know. We don’t like change. And God doing new things, turning our world upside down, doesn’t please us at all.
CHURCH CONSULTANTS: We all get tired of hearing church consultants tell us that we need to change things, or church leaders telling us the same thing. In one visioning conversation, a church leader said, “When I think about the church I want to see in the future I really want the church to go back to how it was 25 or 30 years ago.” She was saying honestly that she didn’t want God to do a new thing in her church – she wanted to return to the comfort of the past. For many of us, the church that we would like to see in the future is a return to the glory days of the past. God doing a NEW thing – we don’t have much enthusiasm for THAT!
Then there is our ambivalence. On the one hand, many of us have grown up with a reverence for scripture. We may have developed a practice of devotional reading. And we undoubtedly have favorite stories and passages that we turn to in moments of trouble.
ABSOLUTE. But on the other hand, we have probably heard from someone that every word of scripture was chosen by God, or that we have to choose between science and Christianity. We don’t want to feel that we can’t question – we are, after all, people who question a great deal of what we hear. Being told that we have to accept the Bible on faith doesn’t make sense to us. And we know that each passage of scripture was written in a particular time in history for a particular situation – and none of them were us. And yet, they may still speak to us in our own time. We don’t feel equipped to process all that!
And then there are the challenges of scripture – to give one coat away if we have two -- so everyone has a coat. We like both of our coats – and that sounds pretty socialist to us. And to love our enemies? – that sounds like crazy talk. Our enemies will run all over us if we do that! There is a meme on Facebook saying that when Jesus met a caravan of over 5,000 refugees – he met them and fed them. Never mind that is literally true – does the same thing apply today? The Bible keeps pushing us past our comfort zones. We would prefer our scripture watered down a bit. Thomas Merton told about going off to school and listening to the chaplain at Oakham’s finest sermon, which was on I Corinthians 13.
“His exegesis was a bit strange. “Charity” simply stood for “all we mean when we call a chap a ‘gentleman.’” In other words, charity meant good-sportsmanship, cricket, the decent thing, wearing the right kind of clothes, using the proper spoon, not being a cad. “A gentleman is patient, is kind; a gentleman envieth not…” and so it went. The boys listened tolerantly to these thoughts. But I think St. Peter and the Apostles would have been rather surprised at the concept that Christ had been scourged and beaten by soldiers, cursed and crowned with thorns and finally nailed to the Cross and left to bleed to death in order that we might all become gentlemen.”[i]
No, the Word of God is rarely simple nor is it merely “nice.” More often, it challenges us to change the things in our lives that we are comfortable with and rethink ideas we thought were settled.
Perhaps we are missing the Word of God speaking to us in scripture because it challenges us or makes us uncomfortable.
But we miss something VITAL to our living if we turn away from God’s Word because it is different from what we want to hear. Consider for a moment that what we now accept as scripture was a new word when it was first shared.
-- God’s call to Abraham and Sarah to leave their home country for a new place was a very strange ask for an older couple. And while we remember Abraham as a man of faith – this call to leave Haran was the first conversation he had with God in the Bible. “Leave security for a long trip into the unknown at age 75? Crazy talk,” we would say. But he would have missed a son and the Promised Land – as well as a journey with God. And the whole story would have been different. God would still act – but Abraham and Sarah would have missed it.
-- Or to Moses – to go back to Egypt where he was a wanted man to speak to Pharaoh about letting slaves go free. I think we can agree that had never been done before. But he would have missed being the Deliverer of God’s people, the signs and wonders – a life lived with God. And God’s people might have remained in slavery and never reached the promised land.
-- Or to Ruth -- hearing Naomi’s advice on how to catch a man and ensure their place in the community. How could God be behind a seduction scene, we might well ask. But she would have missed family, a son, and we all would have missed King David – the greatest king of Israel who formed a people into a nation.
-- Or to the disciples to leave the homes, families and livelihood to follow a wandering preacher. Talk about a new thing God was doing! And they might have missed it! If Peter had stayed with his boats and his family – the story would have been different – and he would have missed it!
When God speaks, it is often a new word – often a new challenge.
17 So I tell you this, and insist on it in the Lord, that you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their thinking. 18 They are (full of greed and sensuality).
TRY SOMETHING NEW:
20 That, however, is not the way of life you learned 21 when you heard about Christ and were taught in him in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus. 22 You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires;23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.
REPENTANCE – to TURN AND LIVE: This, we call conversion, is essential to the Bible, but isn’t limited to these pages. God keeps throwing out challenges to change, to draw closer, to be renewed in our minds and changed in our hearts. God keeps calling us into a closer covenant with God and with our fellow human beings. God continually invites us to be a part of a new community with a covenant that is our unifying focus – a covenant with God as our first loyalty and obedience. And we need God’s help in order to SEE the new creation that God is bringing into being. We need God’s help to SERVE the new creation that God is bringing forth.[ii] Can you see it? Word of God, speak.
WHAT does God speak? What is the Word God is speaking to us?
--It is this eternal word of invitation to a conversion. A reminder that at the moments that we find life to be empty or meaningless that new life is possible for us, young and old, if we open up our lives for God to work in us.
--It is the insistence that we can BE more, DO more than our everyday existence. It is the invitation to SIGNIFICANCE and LEGACY as we live life with God.
--It is the whisper of “YES” to life despite our struggles, our pain, our brokenness that is made possible when God is working IN us in the midst of all of it.
-- It is the word of instruction that helps us to love despite separation and alienation from others. Because we see each other and ourselves as broken and beloved children of God – we can love despite our hurt.[iii]
--The Word of God whispers life into our death, hope into our despair, and joy into our sorrow just as God has been whispering to God’s people from the beginning. Just as God’s whispers come down to us through the stories, poems, songs, and wisdom of scripture. God’s word still speaks.
God is speaking to us all of the time – in the world, in our communities, in our families and churches. We don’t want to miss it! Word of God, speak!
It helps if you are hungry.
God says to us today: Listen! I am here! I am speaking! We can go about our business – or we can stop to listen. It all depends of what is essential to us. And if we are full or hungry.
Joshua Bell. A man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin; it was a cold January morning. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousands of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.
Three minutes went by and a middle aged man noticed there was musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried up to meet his schedule. A minute later, the violinist received his first dollar tip: a woman threw the money in the till and without stopping continued to walk. A few minutes later, someone leaned against the wall to listen to him, but the man looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly he was late for work.
The one who paid the most attention was a 3 year old boy. His mother tagged him along, hurried but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally the mother pushed hard and the child continued to walk turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.
In the 45 minutes the musician played, only 6 people stopped and stayed for a while. About 20 gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected $32. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed it. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.
No one knew this but the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the best musicians in the world. He played one of the most intricate pieces ever written with a violin worth 3.5 million dollars. Two days before his playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston and the seats averaged $100.
This is a real story. Joshua Bell playing incognito in the metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and priorities of people. The outlines were: in a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour: Do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context?[iv]
It helps if we are listening.
Most of us have had the experience of going to a buffet. A really good buffet offers a wide variety of foods from several different cuisines. A buffet costs more, of course – and especially if it is all you can eat with multiple trips (clean plates required) possible. But a buffet is rather pointless unless you are hungry. It helps if we are hungry.
In Elizabeth von Arnim’s novel, The Enchanted April, a woman notices a strange ad in the newsletter: “To those who appreciate Wisteria and sunshine. Small medieval Italian castle on the shores to the Mediterranean to be let furnished for the month of April. Box 1000, The Times.” This woman, whose life is bound up in duty to her family and home, answers the ad and arrives with a friend at the castle, at night and in the pouring rain. She wonders if it was worth the trip to come. But in the morning, she opens the windows to the radiance of April in Italy… “The sun poured in on her, the sea lay asleep in it, hardly stirring, across the bay lovely mountains, the wall of the castle, flower-starred slope. She stared. Such beauty; and she there to see it, and she alive to feel it. Her face was bathed in light, lovely scents caressed her, a tiny breeze gently lifted her hair. Not to have died before this, to have been allowed to see, breathe, feel this – her lips parted. But what could one say?...The familiar words of the Great Thanksgiving came quite naturally into her mind, and she found herself blessing God for her creation, preservation, but above all of God’s inestimable Love – out loud, in a burst of acknowledgement.[v]
May we be hungry, listening – and O Word of God, Speak!
PRAYER: O God, speak into our silence…
Speak truth to us in a world where self-interested claims too often get claimed as truth.
Speak hope into our despair that the things that hurt those we love will never change, and tell us how to act to change them.
Remind us of who we are…..your children, born to new life and freedom as we live in covenant relationship with you.
Remind us that we are loved by you, our creator who formed us in all our beautiful diversity.
O God, whisper to us, shout. Cry out – whatever it takes for us to hear that life is great and holy,
Deep and abundant,
Sober and full of joy,
Full of both time and eternal possibilities
As we live it together with you. Word of God, speak. Bring this to be. Amen.
[i] Thomas Merton, The Seven-Storey Mountain (New York: Harcourt Bace Jovanovich), 73.
[ii] Needing God’s help to serve the new creation is Tillich’s point. Paul Tillich, “Spiritual Presence,” in Sermons to Intellectuals, 150.
[iii] Shaped by Tillich’s sermon “Spiritual Presence,” 153.
[v] Elizabeth von Arnim, The Enchanted April, (New York: New York Review Books, 2007), 55f.