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March 5, 2017
When I was in middle school, I caught myself daydreaming in class. I realized that I could take down some notes from my teacher’s lesson while dreaming of my future life as the lead singer of a punk band. I was so proud of my ruse that I went home and told my mother I had discovered a new skill. “Mom,” I said with self-satisfaction, “I can sit through a class, take notes and not actually listen to anything the teacher is saying.” With a concerned look on her face, my mother replied, “Jonathan that is neither a skill nor something to be proud of. You don’t learn anything by doing that. You need to pay attention in class.” She was right. I was hearing without listening at all. My mother was pointing out a problem that New Testament scholar Klyne Snodgrass calls “superficial hearing.”
In the parable of the sower, Jesus talks to beach shore crowds about the kind of listening that doesn’t lead to learning, growth, or change. When a message isn’t received, when it meets a closed mind or hard heart, when it does not take root, or when it goes in one ear and out the other—that is superficial hearing. It is the kind of hearing that isn’t productive. I learned back then in middle school that a person can hear without ever listening. But what I did not know then and what I need to remind myself each day is that good listening is not a given—it is a discipline. As Marilyn McEntyre, the author of our Lenten devotional puts it, “Listening consistently takes practice.” The kind of listening that leads to new awareness, understanding, empathy, and transformation requires focus and intention. Listening is a learned skill, an acquired ability. Most of us, however, are proficient in superficial hearing.
We have to be, to some extent, because we are bombarded with messages from ads, apps, news feeds, snapchat, Facebook or whatever lights up the screens we have and hold. Information from all over the world comes to us in an instant. To navigate this world requires some quick judgment about these many messages. Now that we have a world of information at our fingertips we want it all and fast. And we have become accustomed to communication that is brief and to the point. For example, online college courses are now offered in lieu of lectures. No judgment, but one of my friends listens to audiobooks in his car at nearly double speed. Many of us prefer a text over a call. And just for a little comparison, some of the first Protestant churches on this soil held 3-hour worship services—twice on a Sunday. Back then, you might have been told to stand for an hour long prayer. (You can thank me later.) As a culture, we only require a short span of attention. One of the things we don’t consider enough is how all of this impacts the way we listen. As we navigate this distracted and distracting world, we can often be impatient, apathetic, and superficial listeners.
We are beginning this 40-day Lenten season with Jesus’ command, “Listen!” Lent is a time of self-examination and prayer that prepares us to receive the message of the resurrection on Easter. Lent allows us the opportunity to declutter our heads and soften our hearts so that we can listen for and receive God’s grace. Some of us, during Lent, refrain from eating or drinking this or that. Others commit themselves to devotional readings. Some of us practice daily prayer and contemplation. And others make it a habit to daily do something for someone in need. All of these disciplines help us to practice listening. They help us pay attention to ourselves, one another, and God. The most basic and important Lenten discipline is to listen. It was the first discipline Jesus relied on in his wilderness temptation. After Jesus fasted 40 days and 40 nights, his first temptation was his most basic bodily need: food. But Jesus responded to this temptation by telling the tempter that what really sustained him over those long days and nights was listening to every word that came from the mouth of God.
Lent, if anything, is about attuning our hearts and minds to the voice of God that resounds everywhere and in everyone. Marilyn McEntyre challenges us to listen “widely and willingly” because God speaks in many ways. We are too often too busy-bodied and absent-minded to hear what God is saying. But Lent offers us a needed pause so that we can attend to God’s voice. Now is the time to listen widely and willingly to that still, small voice: Listen to the consolation of God in a friend. Hear God’s promise of peace in a moment of silence. Pay attention to God challenging you with a hard truth or a difficult person. Eavesdrop on the chatter of children and discover God’s wisdom. Listen to the lament of a sufferer and hear hope. Hear the good news of the gospel behind the daily news. Heed the helpless cry of the distressed and hear Christ calling. Pay attention to the patter of rain or the stir of the wind and take note of God’s grace. Listen with affection and intention and you will hear. Jesus says, “Let anyone with ears listen!”
Through his own 40-day fast, Jesus knew that listening to God requires discipline and practice. And when Jesus went about telling people to listen for the word of God he had to account for the fact that his audience would not listen well. That is why Jesus often spoke in parables—to get people to hear messages they didn’t want to hear. The parable of the sower is the perfect example of this. Jesus knew that people were often too stubborn and hard-hearted to understand what he had to say. But instead of indicting his crowds for their poor listening, he tried a different tactic. He told a story about seed and soil—the seed being the good news of God’s love and the soil being the hearts and minds of listeners. The moral of the story is that listeners who have open, receptive, and focused hearts and minds will truly hear the good news of God and live accordingly. But this news will have little to no effect on the close-minded, hard-hearted, and easily distracted.
Sometimes the parable of the sower is interpreted as a cautionary tale about salvation and damnation. According to this interpretation, those who hear and receive the word of God are saved and those who don’t listen and let it sink in are damned. This is to miss the point of the parable entirely. Jesus tells this parable so that his hearers will consider the conditions of their hearts and minds to hear what God is saying. This parable invites self-examination, not fear and despair. Through this story of soil and seed Jesus wants us to examine our capacity to hear and receive what God is saying. Jesus is asking his audience: are you really hearing this good word for you? And so, as we hear the parable of the sower we are invited to ask ourselves: am I like the beaten path, where any good news about me is snatched away by negative thoughts? Am I like the rocky ground, in that God’s voice is just another voice that bounces off my hard head and calloused heart? Am I like the soil from which thorns grow, where God’s word to me is choked by the many distractions and burdens of life? Or, am I now that good soil ready to receive whatever God has to say to me this day? Am I ready to let that word sink in so that it will bear a joyful, productive life? God wants to be heard. So what is the condition of your head and heart? Are you willing and ready to listen?
This is our invitation on this first week of Lent—to listen well and widely for God’s voice. In these 40 days, like Jesus, we will be tempted by the superficial pleasures of life that prevent us from listening to our hearts, our neighbors, and God. And there will be birds and brambles that threaten our capacity to listen well. But I invite you to personal prayer and reflection, to regular worship on Sundays and at our Wednesday night Taize services, to small group study, and to compassionate care for the poor, the stranger, and the grieving in this Lenten season. Together, let us practice radical attentiveness. Let’s no longer pretend at hearing—but practice true presence of mind and heart wherever we are and in whatever we do. Let us take stock of our lives and see what God is saying to us. Let us open our hearts and minds to every person we meet to discern what Christ is telling us. And let us seek some silence and solitude to understand what the Holy Spirit is teaching us. With every new morning, may we be so open to recognize and receive what God is telling us. May we be so ready to receive and respond to the good news of resurrection on Easter morning. God has a good word for us today and forevermore. Let anyone, let everyone, listen!
~ Pastor Jon