The fundamental statement of belief from ancient Israel’s history is found in Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear O’ Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is One.” This confession begins with a command to hear, a command that Jesus often reiterated through his well known statement, “Let anyone who has ears to hear, listen.” Indeed, we find many references to the act of hearing throughout scripture, implying that God has something to say to God’s people.
But the act of hearing need not be limited to the physiological act of hearing a sound that enters the ear. Rather, the call to listen is a call to give full attention and adherence to the Word of God. When we are commanded in scripture to listen, it is a call to silence the noise of our self-interests and listen intently to the voice of God.
In the opening of Mark’s Gospel, Mark’s Advent narrative, we hear various voices speak. First, we hear the words of Israel‘s prophets echoed as a way of declaring that the coming of Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s age-old promises. Second, we hear the words of John the Baptist, the voice in the wilderness, who prepares the Way of the Lord.
We also hear the very voice of God, speaking through the rip of heaven to the Beloved Son; an event through which Jesus understands his mission as God’s envoy. And in the verses that close Mark’s prologue, 1:14-15, we hear that same Beloved Son speak with the authority of God, declaring that God’s rule was near. Indeed, in the very act of reading the narrative over and over, we continue to participate in hearing not only this story, but the various voices that proclaim the gospel to us.
Yet, despite the clear commands to listen, we face various obstacles that deafen our ears to God’s voice. One obstacle we face is the noise of life; noise that can drown out the voice of God to us. Another challenge to our hearing God is the fear we have that God will call us to be different than we are. Not knowing what God may say to us if we were to enter a time of intense listening keeps us comfortable in our status quo relationship with God. We are safer if we do not hear.
But another significant problem is that we staunchly maintain assumptions about what we think God says. The catch phrase that captures this sentiment goes something like this; “The Bible says it, so that settles it.” The assumption behind this way of thinking is that our way of reading scripture is always correct, and the interpretations we have maintained can never be challenged or altered.
While we must take scripture seriously in our act of hearing God, and the sacred text of the Bible should form a basis for the church’s faith and life, clinging to our assumptions about what the Bible says can prevent our hearing God and can lead us to continue our cultural and political ideologies that ignore what God may actually be speaking to us.
Jesus himself faced such attitudes and he challenged them by saying, “You have heard it said, but I say to you.” While Jesus was not negating the Word of God, he was offering new meaning and understanding; a new way of understanding and hearing God in the here and the now. This way of listening embraces the past of God’s revelations, but also looks for what God is saying in the present. Thus, we must not treat scripture as a stagnant text that reiterates our culturally transmitted presuppositions about God. Rather, we must reverently approach the text with open hearts and minds, allowing God to challenge our way of thinking; even change our way of understanding scripture itself.
One significant way of allowing God to challenge our way of thinking is to listen to others. Listening to what others say about God and life, particularly those who are of a different faith, can help to test and shape our own way of thinking to the extent that though we may not change many of our ideas, we can at least value how others have heard God speak to them. Allowing the divine in someone else speak to the divine in us can help us hear God more fully.
A personal story may help clarify why I think listening to different people is necessary for our hearing God. A few years ago an African-American gentlemen came to my home asking to do some work around the house. He and I have had many conversations since we first met. He cannot read and he is often in and out of jail. He and I come from completely different worlds, and yet when we talk, I cannot help but hear God speaking to me. Indeed, he represents the voice of God to me more than most sermons I hear.
But this should not surprise me at all. A careful look at the life of Jesus shows us very clearly that he heard God in the voices of those forgotten by the world. While the religious establishment held onto their assumptions about what God had said, Jesus was hearing the new Word of God through the voices of those outside that establishment; those who struggled to live life as God intended. Thus, Jesus was not simply the bearer of God’s truth, he was also the receiver of God’s truth; a truth shaped by his listening to others.
In hearing again the story of Advent and Christmas, may we silence the noise of our lives, turn away from our fear of what God has to say to us, and hear God, not through listening to our own assumptions about what the story says and means, but through the voices of pain and suffering that God continues to hear.