III Lent, Year A
III Lent, Year A
Psalm 95: 7b-11
Sermon by Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Listening. A listening faith. The gift of hearing. Most of us who enjoy the faculty of hearing likely don’t think much about it, and maybe tend to take it for granted. Yet, in the scriptures, listening is extremely important. Israel’s creed, as set out in Deuteronomy 6:4, begins with the word “Hear.” And Jesus, in his parables often ends them by admonishing his audience with these words: “Let anyone with ears listen!” Listening is both a gift of grace and a work of loving response to God’s grace. Listening, as we learn in Psalm 95, verses 7b to 11 does not always come easy. Listening, as our psalmist points out, has some very profound, and long-term consequences in our relationships with God and one another.
Indeed, the first thing we learn about listening, and a listening faith is that it is intricately connected with relationships. When we really listen to God; when we really listen to another person; we are giving them respect and honour. To listen with care to God and other people is an exercise of love and care; it is an act of faith. Failure to listen means failure to love, and failure to act in faith.
The great theologian, Martin Buber described an event that changed his life forever. Once, a student came to see him during his office hours. Busy, the distracted Professor Buber thought of other things until the student left. Relieved, he returned to his work. Sometime later, Buber learned that the student had died. He was devastated. He realized how absent he had been in the student’s presence. What use, he asked, was theology, when he had been blind to the real human being standing before his eyes?
It was that encounter that would lead Buber to develop the notion that we bring God’s presence into the world through relationships. 1
How many times have we, like Martin Buber, been too preoccupied, too absent to really listen to other people? How many times have we missed opportunities to deepen our relationships with other people because we have failed to listen with care and love to others? Many of our young people today ask only one thing of us—that is to listen to them with care, respect and love. Likely at least half of our problems could be solved by careful, loving, faithful listening. Most of our misunderstandings and differences with one another could likely be worked out if we were willing to listen in such a way as we bring God’s presence into the world through our relationships.
When we listen, another thing we learn is that faithful listening leads us into obedient action. Faithful listening leads into doing God’s will. It reminds us of the petition in the Lord’s Prayer: “your/thy will be done,” or of Jesus’ prayer at Gethsemane, when he said: “Father… remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.” For us to respond in obedient action; for us to do God’s will, not ours; oftentimes we need to swallow our pride, set aside our selfishness and repent—turn around from doing what we want and turn toward our LORD and do what he wants.
A beautiful old legend tells of a cooper—a barrel-maker—who was notorious for his meanness and greed. One day an old man, dressed in rags, stood at the door of the cooper’s workshop and asked for a drink of water.
“Go to the well in the village if you want water,” snarled the cooper. “I never give to beggars.” He expected the beggar to shuffle away, but instead, to his astonishment, the old man drew himself to his full height and in ringing tones cried, “Cooper! You shall be punished for your meanness. Take a barrel to the well and fill it with water.”
As the cooper hesitated, his visitor added in tones that could not be disobeyed, “Now!” The cooper rolled his barrel to the well, but though he sank it in the water it refused to fill. Time and time again he tried to no avail, and at last he realized that this was the punishment his strange visitor had prophesied. This was the consequence of his meanness.
He began to shed tears of sorrow and penitence. One of his tears fell into the barrel, which suddenly filled to the brim and overflowed. He was forgiven. 2
There are times in our lives too when we need to repent, to return to our God and his will for our lives. There are times when the direction that we’re going leads to the destruction of others and ourselves. At such times God’s Word calls out to us: “Repent! Return to the LORD. Change your direction. O that today you would listen to his voice!” Genuine repentance involves a deep-felt sorrow for the consequences of our sin; the wrongs we have done; as well as a new commitment to practical caring for the needs of others by serving them with the love of Christ.
In relation to repentance, faithful listening also requires humility on our part. A lot of people today no longer regard humility as a virtue or something to be desired. However, when we practice humility in our faithful listening, we can learn from others. It has been observed that: the best teachers say they learn from their students by listening to them—thus their students are their best teachers. In order to do this it requires practicing humility. When we look carefully at the people of faith in the Bible, many of them are humble and are able to accomplish wonderful deeds for the LORD by practicing humility. Indeed, Jesus himself is our perfect example of humility and in practicing humility, was able to offer all humankind his forgiving, saving love by his death on a cross. By following Christ’s humble example of sacrificial service of all people, regardless of their background—God is able to accomplish many wonderful things. For example, listen to the following words of Jean Vanier, as he explains how the L’Arche community began.
I’d been a naval officer. I left the Navy to follow Jesus and it was in 1964 that the priest that I had known on leaving the Navy, was Chaplain of a small institution for people with disabilities, and he’d been very touched by these people and he invited me to come and meet them, because he felt that I would discover something about being human, so I came to this little institution, thirty men, some of them quite angry, but each one came forward and said: “Do you love me?” I met two men; there was Raphael and Philippe. Raphael had meningitis, had lost his capacity to speak. Philippe, on the other hand, had had encephalitis, one leg paralysed, one arm paralysed, so I asked both of them: “Would you like to come and live with me?” Some people came to help me and so L’Arche began in that very simple way. 3 From Jean Vanier’s humble, faithful listening and acting, God has blessed the L’Arche community, which now has grown to serve the needs of disabled people around the world.
According to our first lesson and psalm for today, faithful listening and acting is a matter of the heart. In both passages, we learn that the Israelites had hardened their hearts, had quarrelled and tested God and God’s servant, Moses. The psalmist also warns us of the consequences of not listening; of hardening our hearts.
A fellow in the hospital spoke about his heart surgery, from which he was recovering. Apparently the heart is contained within a membranous sac. In this chap, that sac had picked up calcium and had become hard, hampering the heart’s functioning. So the man was tired and weak much of the time. Once this hardened sac was removed through surgery, he felt much better.
So too, God needs to perform heart surgery on each one of us, if we’re going to be healed of a hardened heart. In their hard-heartedness, the psalmist tells us that God had kept the Israelites at bay in the wilderness wandering about for forty years. What kind of aimless wanderings do we suffer from because of our hard-heartedness? The psalmist goes on to tell us that in God’s anger with the hard-heartedness of Israel, “They shall not enter my rest.” In other words, they were prevented from entering the Promised Land. They were not able to live in peace and prosperity in the Promised Land until their hearts had turned to God and become softened and loving.
A few years ago, French theologian, Jacques Ellul, in one of his books, wrote that perhaps God’s Spirit had withdrawn from the Western world due to the majority of people abandoning their faith. Maybe that too explains the violent crimes in society, along with a host of other social, ethical and spiritual problems that we’re struggling with today.
Yet, as was the case with ancient Israel, God’s anger and withdrawal did not last forever. God gave the Israelites another chance—and eventually, they were allowed to enter and settle in the Promised Land. During this Lenten season, our Lord Jesus Christ offers us another chance too. He bids each one of us to drink of his living water. He invites us to receive his love and forgiveness so that our hardened hearts might be healed, softened and filled with his love. In so doing, we are drawn to walk with him as he journeys to the cross; to bear our cross; to die to sin, death and all the powers of evil; to be reborn children of God through the eternal, saving power of the word and the sacraments. For this, thanks be to God!