The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
March 4, 2018
Pastor Lee Eclov overheard a conversation between a church member, Todd, and his first grade son, Max, which went like this – Dad: “Max! Why didn’t you answer me when I called you?” Max: “I didn’t hear you, Dad.” Dad: “Max, how could you not hear me?” Max does not respond. Dad: “Max, how many times do you remember not hearing me?” Max: “I don’t know, maybe 3 or 4.”
God must often feel like that father. Though He speaks to us again and again, we again and again choose not to hear Him.
Psalm 19 tells us that God is a talking God, albeit an often unheard talking God. Day after day, night after night, God addresses us, through nature as well as through scripture. His voice “goes out through all the earth”, it says, but rarely are His messages picked up.
The resulting tragedy is that we miss out on words that, Psalm 19 says, enlighten the eyes and make wise, that cause the heart to rejoice and bring great reward, that are more to be desired than much fine gold.
How then might we hear them and not miss out?
First, in this loud and clamoring world in which so many voices vie for our attention, we do well to get familiar with the unique sound of God’s voice, that we might distinguish it from all the others. We get familiar with the sound of God’s voice primarily by listening to Him speak through scripture and those who walk with Him. By such familiarity we come to know His voice, pick it out from the many, and attune our ears to it.
We are like children being taught music appreciation and being asked, while listening to a symphony, to pay special attention to the flutes so as to note their particular beauty and eloquence. We can only distinguish flutes, detect them in an orchestra, and discern their magnificence after listening to them all by themselves.
Likewise, if we grow acquainted with the sound of God’s voice by attending to it alone in quiet moments of Bible study and of learning under those who know Him well, we will be pick it up in the multi-toned symphony of our lives.
In Palestine to this day, half a dozen or more Bedouin shepherds will at dusk gather their various flocks at a single water hole to provide their sheep a drink before bedding them down in their separate pastures. At that water hole all the sheep get mixed together in a crazy, cacophonous convention of bleating animals. The shepherds, however, don’t worry about losing track of any sheep. For each shepherd has his own special call to which his sheep have grown accustomed and attuned; so that, when it is time to go home, the shepherd sounds it out, and his sheep extract themselves from the crowd to trudge over to follow him. Those sheep may not know much, but they know that voice – and to whom they belong and whose guidance they can trust.
To hear from God, we do well to grow familiar with His voice. We also do well to grow hopeful of hearing it. For we notice only what we hope for, and we hope for only what we feel a need of. For example, if money were to start growing on trees, we wouldn’t at first notice it on them because we wouldn’t expect to find it there; and we certainly wouldn’t, if we’re otherwise preoccupied.
Two researchers from Western Washington University established this by studying something called “inattentional blindness”. This form of obliviousness occurs when people fail to become aware of objects unexpected and unrelated to their current concerns, even if they are objects that are normally valued highly.
Inspired by a YouTube video, the researchers attached bills of various denominations on a tree branch and then observed the reaction of those who walked up to it. The branch hung at head height over a sidewalk, and the bills rustled in the breeze right in front of people’s faces. Of the 396 who passed by, only 12 people failed to see and avoid the branch, but well over 200 failed to notice any money in it (including 94% of those talking on their cell phones). We don’t see what we’re not looking for, and we don’t hear what we’re not listening for.
But we do hear what we expect and hope to hear. So, as we value more the voice of God as we’ve come to know it, we grow more alert to it and more perceptive of even its whisperings.
To come to recognize God’s voice and become sensitive to its addressing us, we do well to make moments in which we still every other voice and listen to the silence until we hear from the other side of the silence. God will on rare occasions, as a last resort, shout at us by means of pain and difficulty; but generally God will not raise His voice and demand our attention. Thus, His voice can get drowned out in the noise of our days. But if we regularly create times in which we are still and quiet, and become all ears for God to break the silence, we’ll sometimes hear from Him loud and clear.
Yet, even then, we will hear from Him only if we are submitted to His wishes for our lives and committed ahead of time to act in line with what He tells us.
William Farley very much wanted to improve as a Christian. As he prayed, God led him to some scriptures that gave him a sense that something was holding up his spiritual growth; but he couldn’t get a handle on the issue. He kept asking God to speak to him about it.
One day, he was driving down Highway 101 along the Oregon coast with his wife. The two of them had lapsed into silence, and Farley started meditating again about his progress in the faith and asking God to speak to him about it. In the midst of his meditation, Farley’s wife began chatting about a movie. Irritated by the interruption, Farley snapped at his wife, belittled her for trivial interests, and deeply hurt her feelings.
Let me now quote Farley’s own words: “Instantly, three life-changing words knifed into my consciousness. They weren’t audible, but they came so suddenly and were so completely non-volitional that I lurched behind the steering wheel. [The words were] THERE IT IS!”
“What was that?” Farley wondered. Then he realized that God had spoken to him. So he asked God what He was talking about. What came to Farley next was an overwhelming awareness of his own stupidly arrogant, devastatingly hurtful “ugliness”. He says he then saw for the first time this shameful and appalling capacity in him to demean the woman he loved. Yet, while remaining horrified at himself, there also welled up in him an overwhelming gratitude that the God, who had for decades seen and been sickened by this sin, loved him still and had blessed him anyway. As dismayed and guilty as he felt, Farley’s heart filled with a new appreciation of God’s steadfast, generous grace. Farley wept with joy that he had heard from God, and that God had told him both how greatly he needed to change and how greatly he was loved despite his character defect and inexcusable behavior. Farley gave thanks that God was speaking to him, and that he was able to take in the messages, both the tough ones and the comforting ones.
Let us this Lent listen for the voice of God to hear whatever God wants to say to us, that at least in our life He won’t be the unheard talking God and we won’t be anything less than those who rejoice in a treasure more to be desired than much fine gold. Let us pray.