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Am I Listening to God?
Dr. Bruce Lancaster
June 5, 2016
A reading from the gospel of Luke:
Jesus also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: ‘Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax-collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax-collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.” But the tax-collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.’
I concluded the sermon last week with the statement that I had some firm convictions about prayer:
One: When I pray, and it doesn’t seem as if God is listening, I will not surrender to the silence. God is listening. And, second, when I pray, it is most certainly not with a perfect knowledge of God, but it is with a firm desire to seek God’s will and then have the faith and courage to walk in it.
That’s why my next question is, “Am I listening to God?”
Even though we so often begin our prayers asking God to hear us, isn’t you and I who need to listen? Many of us when we pray talk and talk and talk to God, and we never shut up. And I think this is where this parable takes us. I’ve said before, it’s so important to note the ‘why’ of the story in order to understand it, to get what Jesus means. Eugene Peterson, in his translation of the Bible, The Message, introduces the story in this way: Jesus told this next story to some who were complacently pleased with themselves over their moral performance and looked down their noses at the common people. Jesus points out that the Pharisee was ‘exalting himself,’ focusing on his own merits.
This leads to the deeper meaning of this parable – for how can you really listen to God if you are standing on the premises of your own perfection?
The Tax Collector was able to make full disclosure, “God, be merciful to me a sinner.”
The mystery of prayer in this story is that because the Tax Collector knew there was a great distance between himself and God, he paid much more attention to God’s words than his own words; he listened more intently to what God had to say.
We want God to listen to us when we pray, but are we listening to God?
In his classic book, On Listening to Another, Douglas Steere lists four qualities of a good listener: vulnerability, acceptance, expectancy, and constancy.
These marks of a good listener also mark the prayer of the Tax Collector. He was vulnerable. Glenn Hinson notes that ‘vulnerability’ comes form the Latin words meaning ‘capable of being wounded, able to be hurt.’
The Tax Collector was vulnerable – he acknowledged his hurt as a sinner – he confessed – he opened himself to God at the place of his hurt. Prayer is about our willingness to come before God with all of who we are – our strengths and our weaknesses, our warts and our halos.
The second mark is ‘acceptance.’ And this is the difference between the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.
Now, in Steere’s book, it’s a matter of accepting the other person for who that person is – to listen without our biases or prejudices or preconceived notions of the other. So, in listening to God, it is to let God be God – not a cosmic bellhop, not the salesclerk of some divine-line online buying experience.
Gary Habermas, a philosophy professor, is a man of prayer. When his grandmother was ill, he prayed for her, and she was healed. Then his wife of 28 years was diagnosed with cancer, inoperable and terminal. He tells the story of himself – that he prayed God’s will might be done. What he really wanted, he said, was the same as he had prayed for his grandmother – that his wife be healed, that he would have her back well and healthy, just as it always had been.
But before Debbie, his wife, died, she told him one evening, “God spoke to me today and he said just three words, ‘I love you.’”
Gary Habermas was grief-stricken at her death, but he said this, “Debbie had doubted God’s love all the days of her life, yet now, right before she died, she was as sure of God’s love for her as she was of my love for her.”
He went on to say, “I trust God to have a good answer to my prayers. That’s not the same as knowing what that answer will be.”
Acceptance is truly to pray and let God’s will, not my will be done.
The third quality of a good listener is ‘expectancy’: to listen to God in our prayers so that this relationship with God will grow and develop. As we invest more time and more of who we are in prayer, we will begin to develop a relationship with God that makes hearing God – I don’t want to say ‘easier’ – but that we’re more aware of when God speaks. We expect to hear God – not like sitting across the table from someone drinking coffee – but when we hear God, it’s more likely to be a word that has grown in us, and sometimes comes to us in a flash of insight, “I hear you.”
Finally, the mark of a good listener is ‘constancy.’ Steere describes this constancy as ‘infinite patience’– what the psalmist describes as ‘a watchman waiting for the morning’. To be ‘constant’ in our listening is “to stay with the other” until the end of what the other is saying – no interrupting!
I like what Martha Moore-Keish says in her recent book, Christian Prayer for Today: “Prayer requires our attention so that we might have our eyes opened to the way things really are.”
Or, for the purposes of this sermon, ‘so that we might have our ears open…”
We need to be constant, attentive for God’s voice to lead us, sustain us. As Clarence Bauman said, The purpose of prayer is not to inform God of our needs, but to invite God in to rule our lives.
That’s the question – are we listening to God – vulnerable, accepting, expecting, constant?
So I come to the close of this sermon with the same thought as last Sunday – prayer, in its most fundamental sense is about our relationship with God.
God is listening to you and me – and we enter into that relationship of faith as we listen to God. And as this relationship grows, we begin to grow into God’s will for our lives, not because we learn some magic formula about prayer, but simply because, through prayer, we are able to live more and more in Christ and have Christ live in us.
It’s what I call the adventure of living prayer.
TO GOD BE THE GLORY.