Bunny hopped excitedly up to his friend, Squirrel, and said, “I found a new fur coat that I am thinking of getting! But,” he added hesitantly, “I’m not sure if I should spend the money.” Squirrel gave a polite smile, said, “That’s nice,” and went back to looking for acorns. Bunny felt, what, hurt? No, not exactly. Disappointed? No, more than that. Alone? Yes, alone.
He hopped up to Crow and said, “I found a new fur coat that I am thinking of getting! But,” he added hesitantly, “I’m not sure if I should spend the money.” Crow said, “Why would you think of getting a new coat when the one you have is just fine? You’re being wasteful.” Maybe Crow was right, maybe not. But Crow had done a shameful thing—he replied before he had actually listened. He did not know why Bunny wanted a new coat, what the issues were with the old coat, what the cost. As Proverbs 18:13 says, “He who answers before listening—that is his folly and his shame.” And shame is a strong word.
Bunny felt more alone. He came to Monarch Butterfly, and he said, “I found a new fur coat that I am thinking of getting. But,” he added very hesitantly,” I am not sure if I should spend the money.” Monarch Butterfly did what so many people do, and used this as an excuse to talk about herself. She said, “That’s just like me. I’m trying to figure out if I should spend the money to fly south for the winter this year or not.” Sometimes talking about your similar experience is a way to connect to another person. But that’s only sometimes. Often, it is sinful self-preoccupation. And so Monarch Butterfly continued to talk about her experience for the next ten minutes.
Bunny was feeling very alone. Owl noticed him hopping by and said, “What’s up, Bun?” Bunny sighed, “I found a new fur coat that I am thinking of getting, but I’m not sure if I should spend the money.” Now, Owl was wise. So he made a very wise reply; he said, “Tell me more about it.” And Bunny did. After Bunny finished talking, wise Owl said another wise thing, “It sounds like you feel…” Conflicted was the word Owl used. It wasn’t the right word–Bunny was feeling worried, not conflicted. But that got cleared up as they talked because they were really talking. And listening. And Bunny no longer felt alone.
Dr. Michael Nichols, in his recent book, “The Lost Art of Listening,” writes “Yearning to be heard is the yearning to escape our isolation and to bridge the gap that separates us.” Yearning to escape our isolation. To bridge the gap. To not be alone. This is what listening does. This is the gift you give to others when you listen.
And listen you can. Because you who are in Christ are like Owl. You are wise. When James asks, “Who among you is wise and intelligent?”, it’s your hand that should be raised. Every sinner who knows that he is deserving of hell for his sin and also knows that he will have heaven because Christ paid for his sin on the cross and rose from the dead to prove it has a certain amount of wisdom and intelligence. Because the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom and knowledge—it says so in the very first chapter of Proverbs, the Book of Wisdom. (Prov. 1:7) And if you don’t think you are wise enough yet, James says, at the very beginning of his book (1:5), “If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault…” (1:5)
“Who among you is wise and intelligent? Let him (you, me) by his good way of living show that he does things in wise humility.” Especially in how you listen and talk. That’s what this entire third chapter of James is about—the gift of communication. James’ instructions even spill over into the fourth chapter. In fact, James already gets onto the subject of communication in the very first chapter when he writes, “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” (1:19)
James exposes two ugly realities that get in the way of our listening. “But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your heart (and you by nature do, so do I, so did the disciples, as we heard in the gospel lesson), do not boast and lie, contrary to the truth.” Do not lie to yourself and say, “There’s nothing sinful in the way I listen or talk.” You naturally have envy in your heart, same as me. Do you not know that the envy puts dangerous filters on our ears so we don’t really hear what the other person is saying? You naturally have sinful ambition in your heart, same as me. Do you not know that the sinful ambition makes us competitive? But how can you truly listen when you are comparing yourself, your clothes, how busy you are (too busy to listen), how hard you have it compared to the person you’re supposed to be listening to?
And so, as James puts it, “Where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and every bad practice.” Bad practices like arguing, like nagging, like attacking, like getting defensive, like talking past each other and over each other. Bad practices like listening the way Squirrel did or Crow did or Monarch Butterfly did.
There was one part of Dr. Nichols’ book that made me laugh when I read it. It just made me laugh. What made me laugh is when he wrote, “Genuine listening means suspending memory, desire, and judgment and existing for the other person.” Suspend memory, desire and judgment? Exist for the other person? Who in all the world is able to do that?
The only one I know who can do that is Jesus Christ, who did do that. That is the entire reason that he was born into our world in the first place—he wanted to exist in our world for our sakes. He wanted to be human so that he would be obligated to obey the 10 Commandments, for our sakes. He wanted to be human so that he could die, for our sakes. And die he did, a horrible death, on the cross. Which was why it is of all importance that he also be true God—so that he could obey the 10 Commandments perfectly for us, so that his death on the cross would pay for our sin and open the door to heaven.
And then he gives, just gives, that all to you at your baptism. Changes your heart, which also changes your ears, as you are brought to believe this. For by faith, we have something special. That special kind of wisdom. That kind that comes from heaven. “But the wisdom that comes from above is first pure, then also peaceful, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial, and sincere.”
Which is what you need to be in order to be a good listener and communicator. The fact that we are often far from being like this is evidence of how deep the claws of our sinful nature are sunk into us. How desperate our need for Christ’s forgiveness and his righteousness. How we’d be dead, eternally dead in hell, without it. It also shows how much room there is for growth, as this season of the church year (green paraments) emphasizes. Which puts a fresh urgency to being in worship and Bible class/Sunday School and having daily devotions.
And who knows, maybe one day you will be talking to someone and he/she will suddenly say a very uncomfortable thing. He/she will say, “I found out I’m dying.” And instead of reacting like Squirrel and saying something polite and then turning away, or reacting like Crow and telling them what they should do even though you don’t know the whole story, or reacting like Monarch Butterfly and start talking about someone you know who is also dying, maybe you will react like Owl. You will wisely say, “Tell me more about it.” You will enter their story, their pain, their fear. And they will no longer be alone. And when they have finished telling you their story, you will say, “It sounds like you are feeling…” what? Scared maybe? Depressed? Alone? Whatever it may be, you can share the thing that truly makes you wise. You can say, “This is why I find the Bible so comforting. Because it tells me that Jesus paid for our sin on the cross. And that turns death not into the end, but into a doorway that leads to eternal life, his gift to us sinners like you and me. Why don’t you come to church with me next Sunday.”
“Who among you is wise and intelligent?” You who believe in Jesus and his Word. So, “Let him (you, me) by his good way of living show that he does things in wise humility.” Especially in how you listen and talk. Because by the power of the Holy Spirit, you are even wiser now than when you got up this morning. Amen.