Speak, O Lord, your servant is listening
(the lost art of listening)
A sermon preached on 1 Samuel 3:1-10 by Pastor Jonathan Werre at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in Sioux Falls, SD, on January 17, 2021.
“My ideas about listening have been sharpened by 35 years as a psychoanalyist and family therapist, refereeing arguments between intimate partners, coaching parents to communicate with their children, and struggling myself,” writes Michael P. Nichols, Phd in his book, “The Lost Art of Listening.” (“The Lost Art of Listening [second edition]: How learning to listen can improve relationships”, Michael P. Nichols, Phd , 2009, audiobook in arrangement with Gilford Press 2016, Introduction, 0:45ff) And then makes a two-by-four-between-the-eyes kind of observation. He writes, “(This) …has led me to conclude that much of the conflict in our lives can be explained by one simple fact: people don’t really listen to each other.” (Nichols, 1:11) And if poor listening causes so much trouble in our human relationships, can you imagine what effect it has in our relationship with the Triune God?
And then, as I studied this Bible story of God calling Samuel, an ah! moment came streaking from 3rd base and bowelled me over at home plate. It happened when I pulled back the camera from this story, to get a wider angle. And this is what I saw: in I Samuel, God is in the process of telling us how Israel went from the time of the judges to the time of the kings. Now, how would you tell that story of how Israel started to have kings for the first time ever? Wouldn’t it make sense to start with maybe the birth narrative of their very first king, Saul? Or maybe of David, the greatest king of Israel? But that’s not what God does. He spends the first chapters of this book telling us about Samuel. Who would be the pastor for Israel. Why? Why start with the birth and calling of the pastor instead of the future kings? Because all of Israel’s fortunes will always depend not so much on how skilled of a king they might have, as important as that is, but on whether they will be good listeners to the Word of God spoken by the prophet Samuel. And that is true for you and me as well. All of our fortunes will always depend not so much on how skilled we are as much as how good of listeners we are to the Word of our God.
So how good of a listener are you? Would you like to learn how to be even better listener to the Word of God than you are right now? Then let’s focus on two aspects of listening to God speak to us through his Word.
- Listening that is transformational, not just informational
The first is this—when you hear the pastor reading the Scripture lessons in worship or in your own devotions at home (you are having devotions, right?), listen for the purpose of drawing closer to God, not just getting information about God. Listening to God’s Word is meant to be transformational, not just informational.
The way we draw closer to God, or more correctly he draws us closer to himself, is to let him show us through his Word what’s wrong right now with us, with our attitude, with our motives, with our actions and reactions. Which is to say, each time you hear his Word, let him show you your sin. God shows us our sin through the passages in the Bible that are laws or commands. Then, tell him (right out loud if you can) that you are sorry.
Then keep reading or listening and you will hear God say through his Word that he happily has the solution to our problem of sin. And that solution is not information, that solution is a person. A real-blooded human who is also real, true God, Jesus Christ, who so completely paid for our sin by his death and resurrection that God can, every time say, “You are forgiven for everything. You and I are A-OK. My home is your home. And ultimately everything is going to turn out to be just fine.” And hearing that, reading that—it changes you, transforms you, by the power of the Holy Spirit. It makes you both a person who is holy and good and loving in the eyes of God because of Christ AND who WANTS to be holy, good, loving to everyone I am around today.
When you listen this way to God’s Word, letting it show you your multifaceted sin and then show you your multifaceted Savior from sin—what you are doing is taking what God says seriously. And that’s good listening. Good listening means taking what the other person says seriously.
Not just with God, but with human beings, too. One of the most disrespectful things a person can do is to not take you seriously, isn’t. You ever have that happen to you, not being taken seriously? You say, “Don’t hang your heavy winter coats on that hook because it isn’t strong enough,” and no one takes you seriously and they all hang their winter coats on the hook and it comes ripping out of the wall leaving a big hole. And how do you feel…especially if you are the one who has to fix the hole? I’ve seen people get so angry about not being taken seriously they quit jobs, quit churches, quit marriages, threaten violence. How do you suppose God feels when you or I don’t take him and his Word seriously? For this, too, we need to ask for forgiveness.
The first aspect to being a better listener to God is to listen to his Word for the purpose of drawing closer to God, not just getting information from God. For listening to God speak to us through his Word is meant to be transformational, not just informational.
- “Ich und du” (I and You) kind of listening
The other aspect of being an even better listener to God and his Word was one I recently was reminded of on the podcast, “Where Two or Three: Christian Communication at the table of Communication Scholarship.” This “Where Two or Three” podcast is done by one of our MLC professors who has a doctorate in communication and who sometimes jokes that two or three is probably the total number of people who actually listen to this podcast. In an episode recorded over Christmas break, he made reference to Martin Buber. Martin Buber is famous for speaking of “ich und du” listening as opposed to “ich und es” listening. He wrote in German, so he wrote, “ich und du” vs. “ich und es.” In English, “I and You” vs. “I and it.” “I and You” listening vs. “I and it” listening.
He said that when we listen to others, we tend to dehumanize them. Treat them like an “it”, “ich und es,” “I and it.” We see the other person as one-dimensional—my teacher and nothing more, my boss and nothing more, the telemarketer who just interrupted by supper and nothing more. And so we react to our teacher or boss or telemarketer or parents or grocery clerk more like they are useful objects in our social world than human beings. “Ich und es”, “I and it” kind of listening. So that when our boss says that the business will be tightening its belt, we react by dismissing him as caring only about the bottom line instead of listening like your boss is a human being who has his own insecurities and responsibilities and pressures and hopes. Children do this with their parents. American citizens do this with their politicians—if I say Nancy Pelosi or Donald Trump, you likely have some thoughts and feelings, but ask yourself, are you viewing them one-dimensionally, “ich und es”, “I and it”, or as real people, “Ich und du”, “I and You, Speaker Pelosi? I and You, President Trump”?
And how about with God? Perhaps Samuel had a bit of an “ich und es”, “I and it” kind of listening to God’s Word. Because our text says, “Now Samuel did not yet know the LORD (the Hebrew word means to know in a personal way, this is the same word used for the marriage bed, as in “Adam knew his wife Eve and she conceived,” Gen. 4:1); the word of the LORD had not yet been revealed to him.” Which means, first of all, that the Lord had not yet directly spoken to Samuel. But, Samuel was not an unbeliever. He was familiar with the first five books of the Bible, the ones written by Moses, likely had memorized large sections of it. But had he done what we all are bent towards doing—listening to the Bible as if God were a one dimensional object, “Ich and es”, “I and it”? Is that part of why he did “not know (in a personal way) the LORD”?
And how about you and me? To what extent is yours an “ich und es”, “I and it” kind of listening to God’s Word, a less than personal kind of listening? As if God is more like the grocery clerk, useful to me but not really connected to my real life? As if God more like an object to be used when I need him but otherwise I don’t give his Word much thought, just like you don’t give the grocery clerk much thought once you leave the store. “Ich und es”, “I and it” kind of listening. This, too, needs to be forgiven.
What our Lord desires, and this is the amazing thing, is to have an “Ich und du”, “I and you” kind of listening relationship, as your baptism proves when he called you by name. “Ich und du”, “I and you”, where he listens to you, all day, is so totally on your wavelength that he knows the deepest desires of your heart that maybe you don’t even know about yourself yet. And he wants you to listen to him, that is his Word, like you want to get on the same wavelength with him, the wavelength of love and truth and salvation and peace and reconciliation in Christ. To listen to him, that is his Word, as if you really are curious to get to know him, the living, mysterious, humble, powerful being called God, better. And the most amazing thing about this, is that if you want an “ich und du”, “I and you” kind of listening relationship with the Triune God of the Bible, that is evidence you have been touched by the finger of God. For you cannot manufacture that desire. He himself must put it into you, as you listen to his Word.
The book I referenced at the beginning, “The Lost Art of Listening” by Michael P. Nichols, Phd, caught my attention because of its title—“The Lost Art of Listening.” It made me wonder, when did the art of listening get lost? Did it happen when social media took hold of our culture? Or was it before that, when TV’s found their way into every American home? And then I realized, the art of listening was lost way before that. The art of listening was lost in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve willfully chose to not listen to the Word of God. Michael P. Nichols, Phd, unwittingly bears witness to this when he observes in his book, “The heart of listening requires suspending your own needs…suspending the interests of the self (Nichols, chapter 4, 0:12ff). And that’s why we struggle with listening—for ever since the Fall into Sin, ourselves is what we are preoccupied with, and our own needs is too important to us to suspend for the sake of another person.
This is what makes listening to God speak through his Word such a delightful difference than listening to human beings. Because with God, our own needs are exactly what he wants us to bring along as we listen to him. When you come to church, when you sit down for your devotions, bring your need to get to work safely on slippery roads, your need to figure out what to do with your child’s ADHD, your need to have enough saved up to retire on, your need to be able to rid yourself of shame and guilt and regret, your need for forgiveness and peace, your need to be able to face death with confidence and not be afraid because you are certain you’ll wake up in heaven. Bring your needs, don’t suspend them, for as your God speaks to you through his Word and Sacraments he will give answer to your needs. An answer that, each time, begins and ends with the gospel of Jesus Christ.
“Speak, O Lord, for your servant is listening.” What a great thing to say before each worship service, before each devotion at home. Amen.