“Listening for God Today”
February 3, 2013
Describing a sparse church building in the South a character in the Civil War novel Cold Mountain, says “This is how God speaks in this vernacular.”
If God were to speak in the Midwestern dialect—and that, of course would be without any kind of accent whatsoever— what would that be? A small white church in the country? A red brick building with gothic arches and a steeple soaring above the rest of the city that surrounds it?
If God is still speaking, how might we listen today?
I ask out of the scripture lessons that we heard this morning. And I ask after over a year of meeting and talking with the scientists in our congregation, reflecting on faith and modern science.
What are we to make of our lives—this short span of—if we are fortunate, 70, 80, 90 years—and if we are very fortunate most of these in good health and knowing some part of the great prosperity and wide opportunities of the Western world and North America in the 20th and 21st centuries? The universe, scientists tell us, has existed for some 13.7 billion years, the earth for about four and a half billion years, and human beings such as us have come very late to the party, showing up a mere two hundred thousand years ago, less than the blink of an eye in the face of this vast eternity.
And now, at the end of all of this time, we show up—you and me! Of all people!
On the face of it, the insignificance of our lives is staggering against the cosmic history.
This realization leads some to nihilism. Some despair to realize just how small they are.
And yet others know what I think can only be called “salvation”—a sense that for however briefly, they—we—participate fully in all of this grandeur and glory. They grasp the “word of God” that comes to each of us.
Some twenty-five to twenty-six hundred years ago, Jeremiah, the son of a priest in Anathoth in the land of Benjamin, sensed the weight of the majesty of God upon him in a way that can only be described as a “call”—as if the very voice of the mystery in which we live and move and have our being spoke directly to him saying: “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you we born, I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.”
Before I formed you…
Before you were born…
Jeremiah’s sense of the call of God was so deep, so strong, that it felt as though it developed, not in his lifetime, but sometime earlier, sometime in those 13 billion years that preceded him. The mystery that is God’s call seems to be such a part of us—this deep longing, this communion—that some would even speak of it as pre-natal, as with us from before birth.
The words of Jeremiah are in no way part of an argument about when life begins. They are an expression of a faith that all of life—indeed, all of creation—is of value to the Creator, that God does speak to us and is still speaking.
In spite of an awareness of the deep nature of this call—we might even say, in spite of a sense that he was “predestined” to be a prophet to the nations, Jeremiah resists. He is only boy, after all. Who was he to speak for God?
Read through the rest of the book the bears Jeremiah’s name. His resistance continues through all fifty-two chapters. In this prophet we see fear, anxiety, anger, along with a sense of inadequacy—all understandable reactions to the call of God, and none of which disqualify Jeremiah—or us—from that call. As we cultivate our own interests and abilities, as we seek and follow the desires of our hearts, that call sounds more clearly and our ability to answer it grows.
A half-century after Jeremiah, someone writing under the name of the prophet Isaiah—a common practice at the time, someone unknown to us but known to God—expressed the same sense of call that we heard from Jeremiah, saying: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Why was this person so certain? “Because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. God has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” The guarantee of the call was found in the message: good news, release, recovery, freedom. These are the words God speaks. These are the words we all called to speak as well.
Isaiah’s call was as different from Jeremiah’s as Isaiah was different from Jeremiah. The call came in a different way for a different purpose.
The call of God is as unique as each one of us.
Some five hundred years later, after being baptized by John in the Jordan River, after a time of testing in the wilderness, Jesus of Nazareth returned to Galilee and came back to his home town. Those of us who follow him try in all sorts of ways to describe him. We say that in this Jesus the God who is beyond all time entered time. We say that the God who is infinite took on finite human flesh. We say such things with conviction and also with the awareness that our words are just not capable of expressing who this Jesus was and is.
When our words fail, we turn again to the Gospel stories and watch.
Jesus comes to the synagogue in Nazareth. Here we see the Jewish Jesus, faithful to the tradition in which he was raised, honoring the Sabbath day, worshipping God along with the rest of the community. When we hear about Jesus and his confrontations with the religious authorities, we must always remember that both Jesus and his earliest followers were Jewish and sought to be faithful to the God of the covenant. His arguments with the leaders and the people were not condemnations of Judaism. They were more like disagreements within a family.
Jesus goes to the synagogue. He reads the words of God’s call from the scroll of Isaiah: “God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.”
This is Joseph and Mary’s son, the kid who was once a familiar member of the community. Now he is becoming known as teacher who is being talked about by everyone, praised by everyone. He sits down and begins to speak.
What will he say? What wisdom will come from those lips?
Luke tells us that Jesus first word in his public ministry is “Today.” With that word we are thrust once more into the living present.
Out of timeless eternity, after 13.7 billion years, this is the word of God that we hear.
Today. Here we are.
All too often we find ourselves looking backward or forward, remembering times of God’s presence in the past, hoping that God might be real for us in the future. Jesus says “Today,” which is really all that we have anyway. Today is the gift that we have to cherish. We are the stewards of these hours to use them wisely and fully.
The word of God comes to us as we are, but does not leave us that way. It informs our choices. It transforms our lives.
We listen for the Word of God when our spirits are open to the Spirit of God.
It comes to us through scripture, but the words in the Bible are just that—simply words. They are words that sometimes were repeated in different contexts to create new meaning for new times—as when Jesus appropriates the words of Isaiah for himself. And that still happens today. Until the Spirit breathes life into those words as we listen, however, the Bible itself is dead. The Bible isn't a guidebook filled with directions. It isn’t some holy “To Do” list. It is only a map in the great way that maps are described by William Least Heat Moon in the book PrairyEarth: “Maps are a way of organizing wonder.”
Out of all the wonder that we discover in the Bible—including that most wondrous story of the human and the divine meeting in Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and risen from death—out of all the wonder a map of sorts appears.
Don't look for it in the past.
Listen for it today.
How we live today is of great importance. This is the day that we have to choose to live according to our principles, to love, to give.
Today is the time when we will encounter God, when the good news will come to us.
Let the Spirit of God speak to you. For it is the Spirit—not those words alone—that gives life. That requires something of each one of us, doesn’t it? Not just a passive hearing, but active listening. So what should we do? Sell what we have and give to the poor? Feed the hungry, clothe the naked? Love our neighbors as ourselves? Announce good news?
But first, just listen.
The Word of God locates us in the world and sends us out in mission. When we listen, we begin to hear God's claim on our lives. For God is the one who releases, sets free, gives sight, and sends people to bring good news.
After all these years, that is the call that comes to us, of all people.
That is that call that comes to us, today.