What We Listen For

“A man and a woman were walking along a crowded sidewalk in New York City.  Suddenly, the woman, who was a zoologist, said, ‘Listen to the lovely sound of that cricket,’ but the man could not hear the sound.  He asked: “How can you possibly hear a cricket, in the middle of all of this noise, and traffic, and all the people?”  Well, as a zoologist, the woman had been trained to hear the sounds of nature.  She didn’t answer him, but instead smiled, and then reached into her purse, pulled out a half-dollar coin, dropped it onto the sidewalk, and they watched intently as the dozen people closest to them on that busy sidewalk began to look for the coin as they heard it clanking around amid the sounds of the traffic and the sounds of the crowded city living.

She turned to her friend, and said, ‘We hear what we listen for.’”

We hear, what we listen for.  There is truth in this, isn’t there?

We call it “selective listening.”  I may have been known for this when I was growing up.  My mother would tell you that I would hear only the words, or the instructions that I wanted to hear.  Mom would say “I love you!  Have fun!  Be home by 10!”  I’d hear the first two parts…I love you…Have fun…but the curfew reminder?  It would just sort of fly right by me.  Anybody else?  Anyone?  

Have you ever wondered how we hear God’s voice?  How do we understand what God wants us to do?  I think for us to understand what God is trying to say to us, we need to understand “spiritual selective listening.”

“Spiritual selective listening” is at the root of what Jesus was talking about in our Gospel story today.  It is the “Festival of the Dedication,” which in modern times, we know as Hanukkah.  So, there were crowds at the temple.  And Jesus was at Solomon’s Portico…which is a space…kind of a porch, outside one of the entrances.  People had gathered around him, as often would happen, and they asked him a question: “Jesus, how long will you keep us in suspense?  If you are really the Messiah, then tell us.”  The words “how long will you keep us in suspense?” is actually not a great translation of Jesus’ actual words.  A better translation of the Greek would be “Jesus, how long are you going to annoy us?  If you’re the Messiah, then tell us!”  They were frustrated…and they wanted to know.

Jesus’ response is classic: “I have told you,” he said, “and you do not believe. The works that I do in my father’s name testify to me;but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”

In other words, “I’m telling you who I am…in my words, and in my actions…it is clear.  But you are not hearing me.  Your listening is selective.”  

We hear what we listen for.

Bob Crabtree, a pastor in Ohio, tells a story about when he was traveling in Europe.  He was driving and the road he was on was blocked by not one, but two flocks of sheep.  Two shepherds had come together in the middle of the road to talk.  Their two flocks together were probably 300 sheep.  There was a long lineup of cars waiting for the sheep to clear the road so they could continue. Bob wondered how they would ever separate all those sheep back into their two distinct herds.  When one shepherd turned to leave, in a low voice, he called his sheep to follow.  The two groups separated instantly and went their separate ways.  The sheep knew the voice of their shepherd!

We hear what we listen for.

We aren’t that different than those people who sat around Jesus on Solomon’s Portico that day, are we?  We have questions.  We wonder.  We doubt.  And we want answers. And we’d like them now. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.  That is, in fact, how we grow deeper in our relationship with God.  We ask.  We wonder.

But Jesus reminds us today that maybe…just maybe…the answers are out there.  Maybe, God has given them to us.  Maybe, we just need to listen.  We need to hear.

We believe that the resurrection is an event that brings new life, and hope, and a promise of the future.  With all our heart, we believe this.  But our Gospel story today also reminds us that the resurrection has implications for how you and I choose to live our lives.  It means that the choices we make every day have consequences…good and bad…for us and for the people around us.  

One of the fundamental implications of the resurrection is that we, as people who follow Jesus, who are the sheep to the Good Shepherd, we need to hear Jesus’ voice, and follow it. To stay on the path, we need to hear our shepherd.  

But that is hard.  There are so many other things that draw our attention away…things that are “shiny new.”  Things that demand our time.  Things that distract us.  Things that draw us away from the holy…things that provide instant gratification.  And when that happens, when we are distracted, we miss what Jesus is trying to say to us.

Because we hear what we listen for.

I talk with people all the time who are searching.  They are looking for meaning and purpose in their lives.  They feel alone: they have found no one to help them with the burdens they carry.  They speak of wandering in life, without a sense of direction.  They long to hear God’s voice.  They long for guidance.

And so we talk about what it is to listen for, and to hear God.  And these people…they inevitably ask a question…a hard question.  They ask: “How do I know?  How do I know what is real?  How do I know Jesus’ voice?”

It’s a great question.  How do we tell the difference between the authentic voice of the Lord and all the other imitators out there?  How do we hear it amidst the clutter?  To hear the voice of God takes practice…and time.  It is a faith practice, and just like any other faith practice, we simply must do it.

Sometimes I think we expect too much.  We want it to be crystal clear.  We want to hear God’s voice, speaking to us, like Morgan Freeman in the movie “Bruce Almighty.”  But it doesn’t work that way, does it?  Yes, throughout history, God has spoken to God’s people, but it happens rarely.  Rather, what I’ve seen…what I’ve experienced is God nudging us…God guiding us…God answering us through our intuition…or our through our conscience…through thoughts that persist within us…through a sense of peace when we consider one option over others.  That is how it has worked in my life.

Father Michael Renninger, a catholic priest and author in Richmond, Virginia, has written that there are a few patterns, that can help us discern whether something we are hearing is the voice of the Lord.  He says:

  • If what you hear encourages you to trust.  Then it’s probably comes from God.  If it encourages cynicism, then it is likely an imposter.  
  • If what you hear calls you to be generous, then it is from God.  If it calls you to selfishness or self-centeredness, then it is likely an imposter.
  • If what you hear calls you to be faithful, to be true to your word, to keep your promises, then it is from the Lord.  If it invites you to break your promises and to lie, then it’s probably an imposter.
  • If you hear an invitation to spend more of your life focused on others, to measure your success by the difference you make in someone else’s life, it’s probably from the Lord.
  • If the voice you hear calls you to be a peacemaker, a justice-doer, a hope-giver, then it is from the Lord.
  • If you hear an encouragement to treasure life…yours and others, to set aside angers, to forgive, and forgive some more, then it’s from the Lord.
  • If the voice you hear tells you that you are deeply loved by the eternal God, if the voice you hear tells you that you have a dignity that no one can take away from you, if you hear a reminder that Jesus loved you so much that he was willing to die for you, then the voice is from the Lord.  But if the voice you hear tells you that you’re not worth it…that there is no hope for you…it’s a lie…

People of God, listen for the words of Jesus.  They may come to you as a voice.  But more likely they will come as a nudge, or a reminder, or a thought, or maybe a word from a friend.  You may find them deep in prayer, or in the scriptures, or here, in worship.  

But know this: The shepherd does call his sheep.  Listen for his voice.  Set aside the distractions.  And listen!  Because the more you listen, the more you focus, the more you get to know that voice, the easier it becomes to hear and to follow.  

In John, chapter 10, Jesus said “I am the good shepherd.  My sheep hear my voice.  I lay down my life for them.”  Jesus laid down his life for you.  That’s how much he loves you.  And in our daily struggle to to know what’s right, and to do what’s right, the best thing we can do is to listen for God.  Because we know that we hear, what we listen for.  

Thanks be to God


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