Mark 8:31-9:1

In the series “Again & Again: a Lenten Refrain”

A church member greeted Pastor Smith after a worship service and enthusiastically stated, “Great sermon, Pastor. You ought to submit that one for publishing.”

“Thank you,” replied the Pastor who then quietly noted, “I hope to have all my sermons published one day, perhaps posthumously.”

Nodding in approval, the church member added, “I’m glad to hear that – the sooner, the better!”

Admonishing her husband, a wife sighed, “You never listen to me anymore.”

The husband dismissively walked away and exclaimed, “I don’t want to hear about it!”[1]

One of the most common problems people have in their relationships with others is communication, and more specifically, listening. Instead of listening, sometimes we try to fill in the blanks and mind-read. Assumptions are made, misunderstandings occur, and hurt feelings result. In his book The Lost Art of Listening, family therapist Michael Nichols writes, “Listening is so basic that we take it for granted. Unfortunately, most of us think of ourselves as better listeners than we are.”[2] In our relationships with other people, we might need to ask ourselves, “When did I last try hard to really listen and understand the other person?”[3]

We are continuing our series for this season of Lent called “Again & Again: a Lenten Refrain.” Lent reminds us that, again and again, suffering and brokenness find us. We doubt again, we lament again, we mess up again. Time and again, we cry out, “Again? How long, O Lord?” And yet, in the chaos of our lives, God offers us a sacred refrain, words of grace that we need to hear, “I choose you and love you, and I will restore you.” Again and again, God breaks the cycle and offers us a new way forward.

Thus far in our series, we’ve been reminded that God invites us into relationship and God meets us in life again and again. If you missed any of our previous worship services, check them out on our Facebook page or the live streaming page of our website, saumcfindlay.org.

Listening to one another in our relationships is vital for us to grow more connect with each other. Psychiatrist Paul Tournier wrote, “It is impossible to overemphasize the immense need humans have to be really listened to, to be taken seriously, to be understood. … Listen to the conversations of our world, between nations as well as those between couples. They are for the most part dialogues of the deaf.”

Prayer is our means of communication with God. We often describe prayer as a conversation with God. However, the way some practice it is a dialogue where we pour out our thoughts and hearts to God but are deaf to God’s voice. Why do we have trouble listening to God?

I’d love to hear your thoughts about this question: Why do people have trouble listening to or hearing from God? Comment on our Facebook feed, text us at 419.617.4646, or send me an email at jmotter@saumcfindlay.org. Please post or send your responses soon, and we’ll share your feedback a little later during this message.

Scripture tells us that God is revealed to us in two major ways known as general revelation and special revelation. General revelation refers to truths that can be known about God through creation and conscience. Psalm 19:1-4 declares, “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their  voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” Humans take in the beauty and majesty in the intricacies of nature and recognize that these things testify to the existence of God. According to Romans 1:20, God’s eternal power and divine nature are seen and understood from what has been made. It reads: “Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse…”

If you have ever marveled at a sunrise or gazed in wonder at a starry night sky, studied the intricate design of a flower or were awed by the thunderous roar of a waterfall, and felt connected to God, then you have experienced general revelation in nature.

The Bible also says that God is revealed to humans in their consciences as God’s law is impressed on their hearts even before they hear the good news of Jesus Christ. Again, in Romans 2:14-15, it reads, “Even Gentiles, who do not have God’s written law, show that they know his law when they instinctively obey it, even without having heard it. They demonstrate that God’s law is written on their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right.”

God speaks to all people through general revelation, by which nature and conscience speak profoundly of God and draw us toward the reality of God.

Special revelation is the second major way God becomes known to us. Special revelation is directed from God for human understanding and is specific.

Think about it this way: Before the pandemic, suppose you attend a concert of your favorite band with thousands of other people. Everyone in the audience gets to see the performers on stage at a distance and hear the music they create, but the general audience doesn’t get to interact with the performers.

Now, suppose that in addition to your ticket, you also had a backstage pass that allows you to go behind the scenes and meet the musicians. You get to talk to them and find out about their families, hear how the songs came to be, and their plans for future concerts.

That backstage pass versus the general admission ticket illustrates the difference between general and special revelation. Special revelation takes us from being in the audience at God’s creation to intimate, personal fellowship and interaction with God through Christ.

Special revelation includes miracles, visions, dreams, prayer, and other supernatural means beyond human reason. Scripture is also special revelation in that it gives witness to the activity of God and to the person of Jesus Christ. Special revelation is critical to our understanding of and relationship with God. It may come to us through scripture and be immediate because the Spirit who moved the writers also opens our spiritual senses to perceive the truth they expressed.

Perhaps in a season of searching and seeking, striving to make a good decision, you might have had a dream in which you felt God spoke to you. Or you might have been reading or studying scripture and felt led by God to a decision based on what you read. Maybe you have been praying for an answer – for direction, comfort, strength, or peace – and you experienced a sense of God’s presence or found an answer.

Back when I was trying to choose where to go for seminary, I read catalogs and thought about finances. I talked to pastors to learn about where they had gone to school. As the deadline to decide and apply came near, I literally worried myself sick. No matter how I prayed, I couldn’t figure out the “one perfect place” God wanted me to go. Then one night I had a very vivid dream – something I don’t usually experience. During the dream, a reassuring voice kept saying to me in various ways, “Wherever you go, I am already there.” God comforted me and corrected me – there was no “one perfect place,” because God was with me wherever I would choose to go. That eased the pressure and enabled me to choose. That was one way I have experienced a special revelation from God.

So, if God reveals God’s self to us through general revelation and through special revelation, if God is speaking to us, why don’t we hear? Why don’t we listen? I asked you to respond to that question earlier. There might be many reasons we don’t hear or listen to God. Thank you for your responses. Let’s hear some of your thoughts.

One reason is that we don’t expect to hear from God. Maybe we are expecting a big booming voice, a light from heaven, a sign in our path, and because we’ve never experienced any of those, we no longer think God will speak. Maybe we’ve been looking or listening for the wrong thing.

The Old Testament prophet Elijah had just won a major victory over false prophets through God’s miraculous action. But then his enemies pledged to hunt down Elijah and kill him. He fled into the desert to seek safety and comfort from God. Eventually, he found himself on a mountain, seeking reassurance from God. He saw a fire, felt the wind, experienced an earthquake – all ways he expected God to show up – but the story in 1 Kings 19 says that God wasn’t in any of those. Instead, God spoke to Elijah through a still, small voice or “the sound of sheer silence,” as some translators put it. If Elijah had not expected God to speak, he might have given up; instead, he kept listening, even when God’s revelation didn’t fit his expectation.

Sometimes we are just to busy to slow down and pay attention long enough to connect with God. We think it might take too long or be too difficult, that we have lots of important things to do. But what could be more valuable and beneficial than investing our time with God our Creator and Jesus Christ our Lord, Savior, and Friend? Lent is a great time to let go of something to set aside time with God. In our Lenten kit is a set of daily devotional cards. Each card lists a scripture, a couple of questions to think about, and a brief prayer. Doing this each day could help you incorporate time to listen for God in scripture.

Another model is known as “7 Minutes with God.” It goes like this: Take 30 seconds to prepare your heart and mind to listen to God. Then spend 4 minutes listening to God through scripture. Then spend 2½ minutes talking to God in prayer, praising God, confessing, giving thanks, and sharing requests. If you’re busy, could you find 7 minutes a day for this brief pattern? It could help you listen to God.

A third major obstacle to listening to God happens because we don’t like what we are hearing. Mark Twain is quoted as worrying, “It ain’t those parts of the Bible that I can’t understand that bother me. It is the parts that I do understand.”

That is the situation in Mark 8. Just prior to our scripture today, Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was. Simon Peter answered that he is the Messiah, the Christ, the One sent by God. Then, Jesus went on and said that he would suffer greatly and be rejected by the Jewish leaders and would be killed and rise again after three days. But Peter pulled Jesus aside and told him to stop talking like that, because it didn’t fit his understanding of what Messiah should be or do. Jesus sternly corrected Peter, saying, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things” (Mark 8:27-33).

If that weren’t enough, Jesus turned to the crowd with them and said, “If you want to be my followers, you must deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me. If you want to keep your life, you will lose it; but if you lose it for my sake, you will save it” (Mark 8:34-35). No one wanted to hear that. We’d rather pick and choose the words we want to hear and ignore others.

We’d rather hear, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt 11:28). Or where he told his disciples, “I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly” (John 10:10). These are the words we long to hear.

But “deny yourself and take up your cross and follow me?” That was (and still is) scandalous; it’s too much. Self-denial is not popular among 21st-century people. A cross is an instrument of a torturous death. Taking up a cross means making an intentional decision to pursue a difficult path to follow Jesus.

Another obstacle is that we aren’t sure if what we heard was really from God and not last night’s pizza. How can we know? Three filters can help us test what we’ve heard. First, check what you think you’ve heard against scripture. God is not going to say something to you that contradicts what God has already said in scripture.

Second, ask trusted Christian friends and mentors. The Quakers have a practice that helps. When someone thinks they’ve heard from God, they share it with a “cleanness committee,” a group of friends who listen, then sits in silence and prays with the individual, and then gives careful feedback. If you aren’t sure what you’ve heard is from God, submit it to others you trust. We simply listen better together. There is safety and wisdom in community.

Third, take time and reflect. Give it some time and thought. Let what you’ve heard settle in your soul, When you are clear, then go; when you’re not, then slow down.

This week, we want to help grow in our ability to listen to God. In our Lenten kit is one tool that can help us. Take out the envelope labeled, “Second Sunday of Lent, February 28,” and open it. You’ll find two sheets of paper. The first is a finger labyrinth. A labyrinth is not a maze, but a single path that leads to the center. Since at least the fourth century, Christians have used labyrinths as a tool to help with praying and listening to God. The second page gives some brief background and some models for using the labyrinth. Essentially, as you trace the labyrinth with your finger, you pray and reflect on your life, considering where God has been. As you reach the center, you spend time quietly listening for God and God’s presence. Then, as you trace the path back out, you consider how bear that Divine presence back into the world. You may want to end by giving thanks to God.

For this week only, we are also offering a prayer labyrinth you can walk in Fellowship Hall. You may have seen the article in The Courier on Saturday, Feb. 27. Come by the church, during business hours, 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Monday through Friday or 6-8 pm on Monday and Thursday. Please wear your mask and practice social distancing please. Enter Fellowship Hall with a prayerful and respectful quiet. There will be materials to help guide you. Spend as much time as you wish, experiencing the labyrinth and listening for God. I want to emphasize there is nothing magical about the labyrinth; it is simply one way that some Christians find helpful in praying and listening to God.

There is a wonderful story in 1 Samuel 3:1-10. Samuel is a young boy, living in the sanctuary and serving the priest, Eli. One night as he’s falling asleep, young Samuel here’s a voice calling his name: “Samuel. Samuel.” He assumes it’s Eli and runs and asks, “Did you call me?” Eli says no and sends him back to bed. This happens a second time and a third, but by the third time, Eli has figured it out. “Go lie down Samuel, and if you hear the voice again, say: ‘Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.’”  

Samuel heard the voice, and said, “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” And God spoke.

Let’s make this our prayer this week. Start your day with this prayer. Pray it during the day and the last thing at night. Pray this prayer and simply make space for God to speak. And see what happens. 

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[1] Gary Bruland, “Listen … Just Listen,” Preaching, https://www.preaching.com/sermons/listen-just-listen/. Accessed 02/25/2021.

[2] Michael P. Nichols, The Lost Art of Listening (New York: Guilford Press, 1995), 11, quoted in Bruland.

[3] “The 10 most common problems people have in relationships – and how to solve them,” I News, https://inews.co.uk/inews-lifestyle/wellbeing/10-common-problems-people-relationships-solve-125001, 02/09/2018. Accessed 02/26/2021.

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