Sermon 10.30am, 15th January 2012
1 Samuel 3:1-10; John 1:43-end
Now Listen Carefully……….
It’s a feature of our modern culture in which the consumer is supposedly king and queen that we place a supposedly high value on listening. If, like me, you are a member of your local residents’ association then you will be well used to your local council deluging you with thick consultation documents asking your opinion in detail on all sorts of proposals, many of them apparently rather inconsequential. Similarly, when I was at the BBC working for the Chairman and Board we were all the time launching consultations to show how keen we were to listen to the views of licence fee payers.
The advent of social media has given this emphasis on listening rocket boosters. Now, to the likes of you and me Twitter may seem as daft as it sounds but this is the stuff of which revolutions are made as we learnt last year with the “Arab spring”. The fact is that Twitter and Facebook campaigns are forcing governments and corporations to listen by virtue of the sheer din they create although the loudness of their clamour is no guarantee that anyone is listening in any meaningful way. The terrible BP oil spill last year in Florida was a great example of what happens when an organisation doesn’t listen to what people are telling it and it continues to pay a heavy price for that mistake.
This morning’s reading from 1 Samuel tells us that we are absolutely right to place a high value on listening – real listening that is. It’s the story of the young Samuel who doesn’t yet know the Lord but who hears a voice calling him insistently one night. Finally wise Eli works out what is going on and tells him that it’s God calling him. The next time he hears the call he speaks that beautiful, memorable line “Speak Lord for your servant is listening”.
Listening is, quite simply, essential both spiritually and to any human relationship worth having. This last point was brought home forcefully to me recently at a dinner party. I hasten to add that it was not a dinner party to which I had been invited by anyone in this congregation! There was one particular guest at this party who simply ignored what anyone said to him. His response to being addressed by someone was to simply switch the conversation to whatever he wanted to talk about whereupon he would loudly pronounce and await a reaction. As you can imagine, this had a rather deadening effect on the atmosphere with everyone trying to involve their nearest neighbour in conversation rather than him. My attempts at engaging him left me feeling decidedly frustrated and completely disrespected. But listening is not just a courtesy. It is, as I said, essential to any meaningful relationship.
I have learnt a lot professionally about listening over the last couple of years or so as I have just completed the training to become an Executive Coach. Coaching is an important part of my new business and I use it to help people be more effective in their working lives, to get more out of them and to enhance their career and job prospects. Now for most people coaching is all about telling people what to do – rather like a football or tennis coach. In fact the coaching I do is almost the exact opposite of that. My coaching is all about helping people to achieve their goals by understanding themselves better. And to do this I have to listen very carefully to them. Over the last year, under the guidance of my supervisor, I have learnt that listening is about a lot more than simply hearing what people say. It’s really about a highly developed attentiveness in which you notice not just what people say but the way they say it. For instance, what’s their body language like? What’s their energy level – are they sounding upbeat and excited or down and miserable? And what impact is all this having on me? I must say that it’s been a fascinating insight into human psychology.
This kind of attentiveness has an important spiritual dimension and it is best exemplified in the Holy Trinity. Now I realise from our Advent study groups that many of you find this whole doctrine really rather difficult which isn’t surprising but I think it helps if you begin to see it as a model for human relationships. The three persons of the Trinity are a community of being. It’s a community in which each person, while a distinct individual, is changed and made complete by the influence of the others and their influence on them. Collectively they are more than the sum of their parts and individually they are more than they would have been without each other. The key to this quality of relationship is their acute attentiveness to each other – the early church used the Greek word “perichoresis” to describe this. It is listening of the highest order which amounts to a spiritual state – a loss of the sense of self caused by the total, benign regard for another.
This has big implications for the church as a whole and for us as individual believers. We do an awful lot of talking in church (and the irony of me talking at length to you about the importance of listening is not lost on me!) but how good are we at listening like Samuel? The crucial test here is our ability to hear and accept the unexpected, even the unwanted. In today’s gospel reading we find the character of Nathanial who is a great example of local chauvinism. He came from Cana and such was the rivalry between towns in Jesus’ day that Nathanial, on hearing that Jesus came from Nazareth, expressed profound doubt that Jesus could be the Messiah because of where he came from. But as soon as he sets eyes on Jesus he is convinced – “you are the son of God, the King of Israel” he says. Despite all his preconceptions Nathanial was open to the unexpected, even the unwanted. And in today’s Old Testament reading what Samuel eventually hears from God is very far from welcome. God tells him that he will punish Eli’s house for the blasphemy of his sons. Eli insists that Samuel tell him the truth of what God said to him and when he hears this news his response is immediate: “It is the Lord, let him do what seems good to him.” Eli was so attentive to the Lord, so open to him that he could not only hear but take on board even this unwelcome news.
So how well do we listen? And when we do listen, how well do we take on board what we are hearing and act on it? These are crucial questions because our God is a god of surprises who is constantly rewriting the script. How God is working out salvation is an unfolding story, not a fixed one. Jesus was a devout, traditional Jew but even so his teaching marked a radical departure. This was the man who gave us a new view of God – he was the first prophet to call God “Abba” or “Daddy”. The picture of the loving God he gives us is markedly different from the vengeful, angry God that we meet so often in the Old Testament. Jesus’ resurrection was the least expected event in history. It’s the last thing his disciples thought would happen but when it did it told them something new about God’s purposes in a way that demanded very different responses from what had gone before.
What this God of surprises requires of us above all is courage. Just think of the courage of Peter in Chapter 10 of Acts. He has his extraordinary vision in which he is told to eat food which, for a devout Jew, was unclean. This would have been disgusting to him. His interpretation of that vision, which was that God was requiring him to minister to non-Jews marked a radical re-orientation for him. Good Jews just didn’t mix with gentiles. Doing so and treating them as brothers was directly contrary to everything that he’d been taught, an offence to his very idea of what was respectable, responsible behaviour. And think of Mary, as we do so much at this time of year. There she was a young, unmarried girl told by the angel that she was going to give birth to the messiah. Again, shocking, threatening stuff. How was she going to hold her head high in respectable society? Yet her response was one of great trust, reminiscent as it was of Samuel’s words: “Here am I a servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your word.”
In both these cases God was asking Peter and Mary not just to listen but to respond in faith. He wasn’t going to impose on them. He wanted – needed – their co-operation. All this is deeply challenging to what we so often think of as religion’s proper role in society. So often we hear people talk of religion as the bedrock of society. Only recently the Prime Minister called for a revival of Christian values in the wake of the summer riots. Now, I am not going to disagree with him about that but we must be careful not to confuse the role that faith has in promoting and affirming values with the idea that it’s somehow unchangingly dependable, that what God expects of us always stays the same. A moment’s serious reflection on the bible tells us that this is not the case. Jesus clearly showed us that faith can and should at times be deeply challenging to established wisdom. Ours is indeed a God of surprises.
So what surprises has God got in store for us both individually and collectively and have we got the ears to hear him? It is important to stress in thinking about this that discerning what God is saying to us can take a long time. In the bible things often happen at seemingly breakneck speed and there is tremendous narrative power in that. For instance, no sooner does Peter have his vision than he starts ministering to non-Jews. In reality the discernment of what God was asking of the early church almost certainly took much longer. As the first letter of John puts it we must “test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world”. Testing the spirits means careful, calm reflection, prayer and discussion and it can take time.
There is tremendous challenge here for us. If everything in our lives feels completely safe and sound then the chances are we aren’t listening well enough. To live a life of faith means living courageously – listening hard, hearing what’s being asked of us and facing down the fear when we feel it by trusting, just as Mary did. For this, after all, is how we grow. If we do what we’ve always done and know only what we have always known then things will stay just as they are. It is in listening, trusting and acting that we are called out of our narrow comfort zone to participate in God’s great, creative plans. In so doing we begin to lead the abundant lives that Jesus promised us and the world begins progressively to be remade in the image of the kingdom of God.