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Listening for God

Rev. Daniel A Smith
Sun, Mar 10

Reading: Luke 4:1-13

Here we stand at the beginning of another season of Lent. Our theme for this season, as you’ve heard, is Listening for God. Kalo, thank you for that beautiful opening testimony, very much on point. I’d like to continue to reflect on this listening theme, but first I need to draw your attention back to a word that Kalo read a few minutes ago in our Invitation to Confession. This word gave pause to our staff this week as we were fine-tuning today’s service. Kalo read: “In our lives and our world, the din of distraction and noise can sometimes be overwhelming.” The word that stood out was “din.” It’s not something we hear everyday. Though it was my choice when I drafted our liturgy, when asked what it meant, I had to look it up just to be sure. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “din” as “loud, unpleasant and prolonged noise.” It’s more or less what I thought but seeing the full definition proved helpful! Turns out it’s from an old English word of Germanic and Norse origin and traces back to an Old Norse word dynja - which means ‘come rumbling down’.

What was the din of distraction I had in mind? Just consider the noise of our 24 hour news cycle, of cell phone alerts, of often important and ongoing text and email exchanges, of beeping machines and endless reminders of our often endless task lists, let alone lists of what to read, watch, eat and do. And there are those steady sounds of anxiety about our health, our kids, our parents, our work responsibilities, all those things we said we would do or wish we had more time for. The hyper-connected system in which we live has created for many of us a haunting, droning sort of hum that can sometimes come rumbling right down into the core of our being. It can be next to impossible to tune it out and turn it off— I’m not just talking about the electronic stuff, but that wider pressure and web of informational and relational upkeep that comes with it.

I was first struck by the word “din” in a prayer written by the renowned Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann. I’ve quoted excerpts of it before in a Sunday morning prayer but never in a sermon. The prayer begins like this:

Our lives are occupied territory...
Occupied by a cacophony of voices,
And the din undoes us.
In the daytime we have no time to listen,
Beset as we are by anxiety and goals and assignments and work.
And in the night the voices are so confusing
we can hardly sort out what could possibly be your voice
from the voice of our mothers and fathers
And our best friends and our pet projects,
because they all sound so much like you.

Amen? Does anyone else here ever feel undone by the din? Show of hands?! And how many of that vast array of voices we hear carry the weight of utmost importance, of “ultimate concern,” rightly or wrongly, such that we might sometimes think it was actually God calling!? And maybe in some cases it is. One sec...let me check my phone again just in case!

Brueggemann’s prayer continues with an important reminder:

We are people over whom that word shema has been written.
We are listeners, but we do not listen well.

Do you know this word shema? It’s Hebrew for the Listen. As in Sh'ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Ecḥad - "Hear” or “Listen, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is One."

The prayer concludes with a petition to God:

So we bid you, by the time the sun goes down today
Or by the time the sun comes up tomorrow, by night or by day,
that you will speak in ways that we can hear out beyond ourselves.
It is your speech to us that carries us to where we have never been,
and it is your speech to us that is our only hope.
So give us ears. Amen

This prayer pairs well with our gospel story, especially in light of our Lenten theme - Listening for God. Our real and sometimes very pressing concerns, all those voices that demand a piece of us, can begin to sound cacophonous! We can sometimes have so much grasping for our attention that we can end up having no time to listen, and when we do, Brueggemann is right that most of us don’t listen especially well. I mean to intentionally listen, really listen, deeply listen, to our souls or that of another, listening to where it hurts, listening for the truth of the matter, especially when it comes to the ways the droning systems in which we live leave us making daily choices that are complicit. We have little to no time to sit still, to be fully present in the here and now, little or no time to listen for that still small voice of God that can speak to us, if we let it, everything we need to hear. Patience for our urgency, solace for our pain, forgiveness for our perfectionism, space to fall apart, love to pick us up, courage for our fear and hope, compassion and understanding in those despairing places where we are just plain overwhelmed and undone by the din of it all. If we are lucky, some of us have a daily or weekly practice of meditation or of having soulful, deep listening check-ins with ourselves, our friends or colleagues. Even still, the din is a powerful force!

In our scripture for today, we are told that Jesus is led by the spirit to the wilderness. Though he surely had ‘times in nature’ or ‘time in desert’ before, I’m guessing this was one of the places, to use Brueggemann’s language, that God’s speech ‘carried him to where he had never been.’ We are told the Spirit led him. Other versions say the Spirit drove or even plunged him into the wilderness. What’s more, it becomes clear in our reading, that God’s speech - God’s word - to Jesus was his main source of hope! Fasting from and famished by his lack food, he says “Man does not live by bread alone” and he uses his knowledge of scripture as nourishment— if not as armor— against the temptations of the voice he meets there.

Jesus’ time in the desert in Palestine was in all likelihood spent in what is today considered “Israeli-occupied territory.” But there are other occupying forces he encounters. For there he begins his 40 day wilderness experience wherein some of those cacophonous demands and distractions on his being were diabolically consolidated. Luke personifies them and gives them one powerful voice that hammers on Jesus’ soul and tries, in essence, to undo him. Contrast the word origins of the diabolic and symbolic here. The Greek ‘diabellien’ means literally to separate, to tear apart, whereas the Greek symballein, means to unify, make whole, bring together.

‘To have integrity, to achieve wholeness, and to end compartmentalization is the call of the spiritual life.’ When the din undoes us, it wins at compartmentalizing us from being wholly present to our truest selves, to our relationships and to God. It at once overflows and tears apart the silences that would otherwise let God speak. It is that experience of being tugged into too many directions because we are we listening to too many voices, too many talking heads. In Jesus’ encounter in the desert, I imagine that these diabolical forces are concentrated into one. Granted, the devil uses more direct tactics than Apple, Amazon or Google, but the false promises the devil makes for a new identity, for security, for power are not too far off! By the way, I’m preaching to myself here! I got two boxes from Amazon this week, one with books about Jesus and the parables! God help us all!

But Jesus holds fast, literally. He is holding a fast for himself, not eating but choosing the deeper nourishment and fulfillment he can have from feasting on God’s word. But he holds fast, too. As in, he remains tethered and fastened to his call to worship and serve only God, that is, to listen, only to God!

I imagine him praying the Sh'ma. Sh’ma Yisrael. “Listen, O Israel: the LORD is our God, the LORD is One." Deuteronomy 6. Verse 4. It’s one of the most famous passages in all of our scripture, one that even Jesus himself recites when asked to summarize the law! Jews have prayed these words daily for centuries. Many still follow biblical instruction and hang just these words inside of doorpost Mezuzahs. Rabbis in Jesus’ day (and some even now) have worn these words literally fastened to their bodies in tefillin, wherein the passage is inscribed on tiny scrolls, tucked into a small box and then wrapped in leather lacing onto the arm and forehead. Some scholars argue that these serve not only a devotional function, but are also amulets to ward off trouble, demons and evil itself. Whether we literally fasten and tether these words to our bodies, all of us who stand in line with this powerful tradition, as Jesus surely did, are called to be listeners. But still the din undoes us!

Brueggemann reminds us that when we listen to God —shema style— we can hear beneath the din, and that we can even hear out beyond ourselves. Jesus does this, yes? He hears God’s word coming to him from the depth of that holy silence. He sits still for long enough to wait for it, faithfully. Can we imagine what this kind of listening is like? Can we imagine listening so deeply so that we find ourselves carried to a place where we have never been, or carried to a sense of utterly unbreakable hope that is rooted in the reality of God and God’s unshakeable presence in our lives?

By now I’ve read this passage literally hundreds of times, but never before have I noticed the spaciousness in it. The desert landscape, yes, barren to be sure, but can we imagine the spaciousness of time also? If we assume this was the only “conversation” that Jesus had for 40 days, those must have been some long interludes of silence and quiet. What else might Jesus be doing in all of this time, if not listening for God and waiting for God’s word to attend to him? It’s remarkable!

As my spiritual director likes to say, “The spiritual life is "the practice of the presence of God." Our spirituality is our whole life before God--our connection to a much larger reality than ourselves. The season of Lent is a time set aside to honor this. A big step on this journey is learning how to discern the difference between hearing that often diabolical din, and listening to just one thing. “Shema, O Israel: the Lord is our God, the Lord is One!”

So how do we do it? How do we make time, make space? There’s no app for this! I suggest following Jesus’s lead here. We might begin by acknowledging the ways that the Spirit is already driving or carrying us there, perhaps without our even knowing it. Helpful as they surely are for this kind of deeper listening, I’m convinced we don’t need barren landscapes, nor coastal retreat centers in order to let the Spirit take control. We can enter into an internal wilderness by merely closing our eyes, and listening. We can name the din and ask for God’s help in turning down its volume. We can connect with one another this Lent—in small groups, in prayer partners, in shared learning in which we can ask of ourselves and each other how are we listening for God! We can try tuning into those parables of Jesus, about which we will be hearing in future Lenten sermons. We just might find that even attending to the question creates shifts in us and opens space, without even having to schedule it in!

David Whyte has written a powerful poem called the “Winter of Listening.” In it, he shares...

Inside everyone
is a great shout of joy
waiting to be born.
Even with the summer
so far off
I feel it grown in me
now and ready
to arrive in the world.
All those years
listening to those
who had
nothing to say.
All those years
how everything
has its own voice
to make
itself heard.
All those years
how easily
you can belong
to everything
simply by listening.
And the slow
of remembering
how everything
is born from
an opposite
and miraculous
Silence and winter
has led me to that
So let this winter
of listening
be enough
for the new life
I must call my own.

Silence. Winter. And most especially our watch word for this Lent: Listening. Listening until we remember we belong to everything because God is one, and God is with us. Imagine that cosmic shout of Easter joy and new life waiting to be born in Jesus, waiting to be born in each of us! It begins in its opposite, in silence, in listening, in a barren winter wilderness. It begins in Lent. May God give us all ears in these 40 days to listen beneath the din, to listen beyond ourselves, to be carried someplace we have never been and to be sustained by God’s word and God’s hope. Amen.

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