There’s no greater gift than to be listened to. I remember a primary school teacher always differentiating between “hearing” and “listening.” Hearing is a biological experience; our ears hear sounds that are processed in our brains that foster and further our understanding. Even when our biological hearing fails us, different aids and apparatuses can assist us in hearing. But “listening” takes on a deeper process where we bring our lived experienced into what we hear to find sympathy, empathy, or common threads that connect what is said to a larger story.
This week, in Psalm 116, the writer says that the Lord “hears [his] requests for mercy” and “listens closely” to his cries. The psalmist has a confidence in God’s listening capabilities; there are many things the psalmist could name as the first of many actions God has taken on his behalf, but it is the act of listening that he names first. Knowing that God is not simply hearing, but listening to us, matters so much in a time when the voices of the marginalized are often heard as inconvenient interruptions, like a mosquito buzzing around one’s ear. But the cries of the righteous pierce a part of our being that calls for us to listen, to give attention to for the sake of both correction and action.
What resolve we are able to have knowing that God listens to us.
The story of faith such as we find in Genesis 18 constantly messes with our modern sensitivities. The idea of opening our doors to complete strangers and trusting them to have a message from our God seems naïve, irresponsible, and misplaced. In today’s world, we tend to think of ourselves as self-sufficient; all we need is our own take on things, our opinions, our perspective, our own hearing of God. Strangers are met with suspicion, lack of trust, and at times fear. If they tell us that they have a “word from God,” most of us would think they are delusional or just arrogant.
In our scriptures as Christians we find that again, and again God sends people. Unexpected people, empowered people, strange people to bring good news. Often the outsiders have a much better take on what God is up to than we do. Coming from the outside seems to bring clarity if we are willing to hear, to provide hospitality, and to respond.
I wonder what the people around us would tell us of what God is doing now as we move through our experience of the Covid-19 pandemic. What would God be saying about our dealing with issue of race and violence particularly against those of our first nations within the justice system let alone generally. What would they say to Christians about our life together, our worship, service, and our witness? Christians sadly, tend to think of ourselves as the ones who are sent, and we are at times. But I think Genesis invites us to open ourselves up to the possibility that there are people sent to us and that those who might seem like strangers, might just be messengers from our God. Those who demonstrate are a giving a message we need to hear and a voice we need to listen to.
Let’s pay attention, for the coming of those messengers we usually seem to avoid might just be the continued fulfillment of God’s promise to us. Let us listen with the ear of God in care and love and with compassion. We can listen and bring joy by making those changes our God is calling us to and challenging us with. Look and listen and seek God’s joy for all, seek healing for the past and the present. Listen in our time to those voices of the lost, the lonely, the abused and those not treated as equal and make the changes needed to bring joy.
Listen. Laugh. Joy. This sequence of events we see Sarah experiencing in Genesis 18:1-15 and again in Genesis 21:1-7 as she listened (more like eavesdropped) on Abraham’s conversation with three visitors to their tent. One of the visitors prophesied that Sarah would have a son within a year’s time—and like we often do when we hear the unbelievable, Sarah chuckled to herself. Beyond her childbearing years, she listened and laughed at what seemed impossible—and would find herself listening, laughing, and joyous again in chapter 21 as the promises of God manifested themselves in a baby boy named Isaac, whose name, in fact, means “laughter.” “Everyone who hears about it will laugh with me,” Sarah proclaims.
There are times in our lives when we listen to the promises of God, whether through our own internal dialogue with the creator or through the mouths of those trusted pastoral advisors or a community of reliable others, and find ourselves laughing at the impossible. Both Psalm 116 and the Genesis text point toward the impact and reward of listening to God and hearing God’s promises—even the ones that are impossible to believe. One thing is certain, as both Sarah and the psalmist learn, that God’s promises are yes, amen, and full of joy.