Questions while you wait: Part 2 – Who are you listening to?

© 2014 daliscar1, Flickr|CC-BY |via Wylio

Who are you listening to?
Isaiah 55:6-12
A sermon offered to the people of God
at Greenbelt Community Church, United Church of Christ.

This is part two of a series of sermons from the book of Isaiah. A book that, as I mentioned last week, was written to a people who were scattered and not in their usual place of worship. A people who were under stress, under occupation, and longing to understand what their God was doing. Everything they knew was upended. They must have had questions. I would have! And the question we are considering this week is one that needs our full reflection.

Who are we listening to?

What voices grab our attention first? What do we seem to focus on as we cut through the cacophony of our daily lives? We live in a culture that thrives on noise. In a part of the world that has the almost constant din of traffic, sirens and the constant drone of the TV or radio… what do we absorb?  When someone speaks to us, are we really listening?

You may have read Steven Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Covey notes that “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.”

Ouch. Too true. Listening, really listening involves intention and focus and… not talking. Oh dear. I could call myself out on this one. It’s like your mom would say: “You have two ears and one mouth so that you listen twice as much as you talk.”

This portion of Isaiah invites us to refocus on God’s promises to us. Like the people of Isaiah’s time, we face new and bewildering challenges. What would God say to us?

Hear the word of the Lord:

Isaiah 55:6-12
Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts
nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven,
and do not return there until they have watered the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and succeed in the thing for which I sent it.

For you shall go out in joy,
and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
shall burst into song,
and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.

This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God!

Listening. A dying art.

We are listening all the time… but what do we hear?  In our text this morning, Isaiah brings a challenge to God’s people. It begins with a call to repentance, to seek God, to return and know again the pardon of God’s abundant love. As we read during the prayer of confession this morning, we get distracted by our own concerns, our own wants. We don’t listen.


It’s not that we don’t WANT to listen… that we don’t WANT to hear… perhaps you, like
me, have sat down to pray, and, well, you mean to… but your mind turns to making a grocery list, or wondering if you locked the car, or how your friend is doing after your surgery.

Henri Nouwen wrote about the challenge of the human mind and how we need to cultivate the habit of truly listening to God. One of my favorite quotes is an apt description of the distractions that plague us when we have every intention of listening to God:

Without prayer we become deaf to the voice of divine love and become confused by the many competing voices asking for our attention. When we try to become very still, we often find ourselves so overwhelmed by our noisy inner voices that we can hardly wait to get busy and distracted again. Our inner life often looks like a banana tree full of jumping monkeys! But when we decide not to run away and stay focused, the monkeys may gradually go away because of lack of attention, and the soft gentle voice calling us may gradually make itself heard. (Henri Nouwen, Here and Now)

It’s a fact! Our brains can only hold so much. Part of this is, quite honestly, because we are living in a time of high stress. The constant need to be on the alert because of COVID-19 wears us down: did I wash my hands? Did I clean the door handles? Did I remember a mask? I feel off today… am I sick? Our brains are on overload… under constant stress. It affects how we listen… to God… to each other.

Generally speaking, we listen to people we trust, or whose opinion we value. They have experience and expertise. We have questions they can answer… and hopefully we absorb what they say.

My husband and I learned the hard way that there are reasons why you put a piece of furniture together in a specific order. I’m sure many of you have put together something with those little Allen wrenches… the directions say, “do not tighten all the way down…”

…and about an hour later, you go back to loosen those screws you tightened… (I know we aren’t the only ones who have done this!)

Someone who knew how to build furniture wrote those directions. It would have helped if we followed them.

It makes sense to find experts to help us with the everyday questions and situations. But what about the impossible “the Lord only knows” moments? Or where we truly thought we were listening… and things are not working out? Common sense, past history, and experts don’t always help.

Whenever I face these struggles, I make the same mistake every time. I lean on my own understanding. (ahem… no that is NOT what scriptures says I should do.) Or – based on my experience and what I know has worked in the past, I struggle along. Doing my best. Being persistent. Soldiering on. Or the better word might be…  stubborn.

There is a time for persisting. And there is a time for stopping and being intentional in listening for God’s direction. Particularly when we have tried and tried, when we have done what we felt is best… it’s time to call a halt… and listen.

Isaiah says it beautifully –

For my thoughts are not your thoughts,nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.

This is not to shame us but to inspire us! To bring hope, to open up the scope of possibilities. What is God’s unimaginable, inconceivable, amazing plans for Greenbelt Community Church, United Church of Christ? What if it has not yet been even a glimmer of a thought in our minds?

Instead of asking, “What NOW, Lord?” in exasperation…  How about we ask, “What if?” or “What’s next?” Words of possibility! Words of listening. Words that cause us to pause.

Both of our scripture passages this morning, Psalm 85 and Isaiah 55, invite God’s people to watch as God shows again and again God’s faithfulness and steadfast love. The movement of the earth through the seasons, the snow and rain, the planting and reaping the harvest… the dependable signs we see in nature are a depiction of the God who hears us.

photo credit: © 2017 Tony AlterFlickr | CC-BY | via Wylio

Isaiah promised God’s people that when they came out of exile, that they would be led back in peace. Back to the homes and cities they were forcibly removed from. Back to the occupations they learned, the neighbors they loved. Back to worship together.

I know you long for that time. To be together. To see faces you miss. For it to be safe to be together again. It is difficult to be a scattered congregation. To not all be in this place. Sitting in your favorite pew, hearing the organ and the choir, getting hugs.

Church, know this: The return is promised. The way is unknown – to us – at the moment. We are in this space of not knowing, wishing we could have clarity. God will make a way! And as you enter into this room, one day, in jubilant song, I think the trees surrounding this building may indeed clap their hands! Will you be listening?

Thanks be to God.

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