The past couple of weeks, we’ve been talking about “focus.”

With so many distractions in the world, sometimes God gets pushed out of our lives.  And when God gets pushed out of our lives, we suffer for it.  We struggle.  We have anxiety.  We worry.  We become so filled with negative feelings and emotions we can’t think clearly anymore and instead our lives become focused on the distractions instead of on God and it also stops us from living the life we are supposed to live.  Distractions can come from all different places in our lives.  Sometimes distractions come from our environment – noise from the television, the sound of your alarm clock going off, two dogs running around while you’re trying to write a sermon.  (I do love my dogs).  And sometimes, distractions come from hidden places.  We become distracted because of a coming doctor’s appointment or needing to make an important meeting at work.  Both cause us stress for different reasons – one because we’re worried about our health and the other because we’re worried about our reputation.  But we can be distracted by our own thoughts and ideas, too.  Low self-esteem, needing to be validated by the people around us, defining success by secular standards – all of these can distract us as well and take us away from that peace we all look for in life.  So a couple of weeks ago, we began talking about some of these distractions and we started by realizing we need to focus our lives on God’s standards of living instead of our own.  We need to live lives of intention and not convention, to concentrate not on the outward, but on the inward and upward. Last week we talked about the need to create space for God in our lives – that too often God gets pushed aside and our lives become so BUSY that we get pulled away from what’s truly important.  To create that necessary space, we need to focus on prayer on Sabbath and to take those things seriously in our lives.  Today we’re going to close our series on “Focus” by talking about listening to the still small voice in our lives, to truly discern where God is calling us to be.

A great image for "active listening."
A great image for “active listening.”

My mom often said I had the best hearing in the world.

I should rephrase that.  My mom often said I had the best “selective” hearing in the world.  If she were talking about something that interested me –movies, going out to dinner, Disneyland – I could hear my parents talking even if I were behind a closed door and they were on the other side of the house.  Somehow, I’d come bounding out of my room all ready to go.  But when my mom asked me to come and help clean the table, amazingly, even though the discussion was much louder, I couldn’t hear that AT ALL.  She would even say it two or three times and I would be totally oblivious to it somehow.  I bet none of you ever had that experience right?  Maybe as a child or with your own children?  It’s pretty astounding what we can and can’t pick up with our ears.  I was reading an article by Seth Horowitz from the New York Times about the difference between hearing and listening and it was pretty fascinating.[1]  Did you know that we can “hear” at least 10 times faster than we can “see?”  Our ears pick up and respond to things much faster than even our eyes.  And it’s because our hearing is one of the alarm systems for the body.  It’s designed to pick up a vast volume of surrounding sounds and over the years, our brains become trained which sounds are important to pick up on and which ones are not.  So we can actually “hear” much more than we realize.  Horowitz pointed out there is a vast difference between “hearing” and “listening.”  We “hear” a LOT, but we pay attention to comparatively very little and that again has to do with the training that we give to ourselves about what’s important and what is not.  He said, “listening, really listening, is hard when potential distractions are leaping into your ears every fifty-thousandth of a second.”[2]  It’s up to us to train our ears to listen to the things that are important.

Too often in our lives we “listen” to the wrong things.

Like we talked about a couple of weeks ago, we don’t prioritize as well as we should.  We stress things we think are important but really are not.  This is reflected in what we choose to hear from the world around us.  When we become too used to that way of thinking, we become closed off from the things that should be highest on our list.  Like God and family.  Jesus had the same thing happen to him in his day.  He even talks about it in the passage we are going to share this morning.  So if you have a Bible or a Bible app on your phone, go ahead and go to the Gospel of Matthew chapter 13, beginning with verse 10.  Matthew 13:10.  Now right before this passage, Jesus shares with the crowds a number of parables.  The Bible tells us that such a large crowd gathered while Jesus was by the lake that he actually had to go out in a boat so that people could hear from him.  Then in verse 3, it says, “Then he told them many things in parables…” but we only hear about one of them, the parable of the sower where Jesus talks about spreading seeds and how the seeds fall onto different patches of earth.  And he ends this parable with the sentence, “Whoever has ears, let them hear.”  Which must have been confusing to them since they all had ears, but as we will see in this passage, Jesus means something much deeper than the literal meaning of this phrase.  Our passage this morning comes from Matthew 13:10-17.  Here now is the Word of God.

The disciples came to him and asked, “Why do you speak to the people in parables?”

11 He replied, “Because the knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them. 12 Whoever has will be given more, and they will have an abundance. Whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them. 13 This is why I speak to them in parables:

“Though seeing, they do not see;
though hearing, they do not hear or understand.

14 In them is fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah:

“‘You will be ever hearing but never understanding;
you will be ever seeing but never perceiving.
15 For this people’s heart has become calloused;
they hardly hear with their ears,
and they have closed their eyes.
Otherwise they might see with their eyes,
hear with their ears,
understand with their hearts
and turn, and I would heal them.’

16 But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. 17 For truly I tell you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see but did not see it, and to hear what you hear but did not hear it.

Reading this passage, we might be tempted to think that once we believe, we will always hear.

Jesus tells the disciples that they have been given knowledge of the Kingdom of God, but it’s not simply their “belief” that give them that knowledge.  The people of Israel were called God’s chosen people, and yet most of THEM did not have ears to hear or eyes to see when Jesus came.  Even when the Son of God was standing right before them, they still did not recognize him because they were closed off to his teaching.  Jesus said that the crowds who had gathered before him, the thousands of people who followed him just to listen to his teaching, even these people did not have eyes to see or ears to hear.  And he told the disciples in verse 17 that even prophets and righteous people, people we would normally associate with people who “get it,” that even THESE people could not understand what Jesus was saying. So it wasn’t simply a matter of following Jesus that opened up your mind to God’s Word.  It had to be more than that.  It takes active engagement on our part to fully understand God’s work in our lives.

I think if Jesus spoke to us today or if we translated his words again, we would say it differently.

Instead of “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear,” we would probably interpret it as “Whoever has ears to listen, let them listen.”  Because as we’ve been talking about there is a big difference between hearing and listening.  Hearing is simply an auditory ability.  Listening is active engagement.  Hearing is simply an auditory ability.  Listening is active engagement.  You can hear without ever listening.  Isn’t that true?  At least that’s what Cassie tells me at times and I have to admit sometimes it’s true.  She can be sharing something with me and I’ll have HEARD it, but then I’ll ask her about that very same thing a week later.  It can be very frustrating when you are not listened to.  And that’s what Jesus is referring to in this passage.  Even among all the people gathered, many of them heard Jesus’ words but lacked understanding.  Not that Jesus was trying to trick them, but that he was trying to convey deep truths to them only those with an open heart for God could understand.  When Christ says, “Whoever has will be given more…” he isn’t referring to material possessions but instead to understanding, truth, and peace.  It might be better to read it as “Whoever has ears to hear” or “Whoever has an open heart for God will be given more wisdom, peace, and understanding. Whoever does not have an open heart, even what peace and knowledge they do have will be taken from them.”

The art of listening is truly a gift from God. 

But this is one gift that isn’t exclusive to any one person or group of people.  It’s a gift that is available to us all.  What it takes though is a still mind, an active presence, and a willingness to just absorb what someone else is saying.  Stephen Covey, the famous author, once said, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”  Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. This is true not just with one another but with God.  How often is it that our prayers are filled with requests or pleas to God about what WE want and what WE need?  And how much of our prayer time is filled with us listening instead?  We spend so much time talking AT God and so little time actually listening TO God.  We spend so much time talking AT God and so little time actually listening TO God.  You might be saying to yourself, “Yeah, but God never talks back to me anyway.”  But I wonder if that’s really true or if we haven’t developed ears to hear or maybe we haven’t given God a chance to speak.  Now, I’m not saying that God will respond the way you and I respond to each other, but haven’t you at times heard that still small voice that the Bible refers to in your head?  Haven’t you ever felt nudged to do something or say something and wonder where that came from?  When that still small voice gives us instruction that is aligned with God’s will how can we say that isn’t God?  And God can speak to us through his Word.  Have you ever been reading the Bible and found that even though you read that same passage three times, each time you’ve come away with a different understanding?  Couldn’t that be God?  And when you needed a word of encouragement or comfort and suddenly a friend calls up out of nowhere couldn’t that be God?  Perhaps it’s just that we haven’t developed ears to hear.  This week, spend time in quiet prayer.  In addition to your prayers for family, friends, and the church, take time for quiet reflection and in that silence and solitude focus particularly on discernment for God’s call on your life.  Revel each day in simply existing and to be in contemplation about who you are as a child of God, and to be particularly mindful to where God is leading you next.  Because God has a lot in store for you if you only listen.  In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

[1]  Seth S Horowitz, “The Science and Art of Listening,” Nov 9, 2012, The New York Times.

[2] Ibid.

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