Shhh. Listen. What can you hear? Ticking of a watch perhaps? Rustle of a piece of paper? Someone starting to snore, nod off? It’s amazing. It’s amazing what you can hear when conditions are right and you actually take the time to listen, to be still, to be calm, to be quiet.
1:00 In the Orfield Laboratories in Minneapolis, Minnesota, there is a room that they call and an Anechoic Chamber, and the Guinness Book of World Records calls it the quietest place on earth. It’s a strange-looking space. The walls are covered with these odd, wedge-shaped fittings. The floor is made of mesh, like a trampoline. And there are very few light fixtures in the room. Certainly there are no windows. And, typically, after only a few minutes, this room makes visitors to it feel as strange as it looks.
2:00 In fact, to date, no one has been able to stay in the Anechoic Chamber for longer than 45 consecutive minutes. Most people don’t last more than 15 or 20. It turns out that this quietest of all quiet places is actually quite disconcerting, and because it is disconcerting it is discomforting. Visitors think they’re going to discover what absolute silence sounds like, but they discover—to their surprise—that in an environment of absolute, total silence, you can still hear things.
3:00 And what you hear is you. You hear your own pulse. You hear the blood coursing through your veins. You hear your stomach and your intestines and your liver oozing all the things that they secrete each and every day to keep you alive. Some people have even reported that they hear the air in their lungs. It’s amazing what we can hear when conditions are right and we take the time to listen. However, that doesn’t mean that we like it, does it?
4:00 When we listen, we discover. And, truth being told, most of us don’t care for discovering the messy truth of our lives or our world or ourselves. We don’t want to think about all that gurgles and pulses and secrets in us and around us—all those things that we can hear when we truly listen. But listen we must, my brothers and sister, listen we must if we are people of faith, especially if we’re the people of Jesus. We must listen. “Be still and know that I’m God. Let all those with ears to hear, hear, listen.”
5:00 This is the clarion call of God to His people, especially in this holy season of Advent. Listen, the Angels are bringing good news. Listen, the Prophets have something to say that God wants and needs us to hear. Listen. The Word, the eternal word, the Divine Word, the word that was from the beginning and was with God and was God, this Word is coming to us. This Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Listen.
6:00 If we aren’t listening, there is a very real chance that we could miss Christmas. That’s right. We might miss Christmas, because Christmas is something we have to hear. We have to hear before we can truly see. And if you don’t think that is so, consider how scripture narrates the story. The shepherds are told where Jesus was and how they could find him. Even the Maggi were told. We don’t think about the Maggi hearing, we think about them seeing, because they saw his start and they followed it from the East, but seeing the star was not enough. When they arrived in Jerusalem, they had to ask, they had to be told where the newborn king would be found.
7:00 Gabriel tells Mary that she will bear a son and that he will be great, he will be son of the Most High, and he will save his people. An angel, likewise, tells Joseph in a dream that he should not dismiss Mary, his fiancé, for the child in her womb is of the Holy Spirit. They had to be told, and we have to be told, because what God is doing at Christmas is so wonderful, so marvelous, so revolutionary, so completely subversive, that at bottom it is wholly confounding.
8:00 We won’t understand what we’re seeing if we haven’t heard where to look and what to look for. After all, the Gospel is foolishness to the eyes of this world. It doesn’t make sense—it is not supposed to. “My thoughts are not your thoughts,” says the Lord, “My ways are not your ways.” You mean to tell me that this baby, this little helpless baby who was born in a stable out in the boondocks of the Roman Empire, in the gurgling, oozing mass of a socially stratified, militarily occupied territory? This little baby whose parents couldn’t get a room at the inn?
9:00 This little baby whose mom was found to be pregnant before her wedding day? This little baby whose dad was compelled to travel some 70 miles with her so that he could be regressively taxed by his foreign overlords? This baby, this baby, is the savior of the world? Really? Really. Let those with ears to hear, hear. We must listen, my brothers and sisters, carefully, deeply, humbly, if we are to truly receive the good news that the angels bring this Christmas.
10:00 And this kind of deep listening is perhaps especially important if we are well-acquainted with the story of Jesus’ birth. Famed commentator and preacher Fred Craddock has warned that we in the church, we who have grown up in the church, who are regularly a part of the church, we need to be careful of our familiarity with the Gospel, or at least what we think is the Gospel. He cautions us to remember what happens to the seed that is sown on the path in Jesus’ parable of The Sower. For, what is a path but a well-worm track, a place that is familiar to those who walk it regularly. It is there, on that ground of familiarity,
11:00 that the birds gobble up the seed of the Gospel before it can sprout, much less take root. And that is precisely what can happen to us we stop listening—if we stop listening because we think we’ve heard all there is to hear about this Jesus who is coming to manger in Bethlehem. We might think that won’t happen to us. That might happen to other churches, that might happen to some other Christians, that won’t happen here. That can’t happen at First Baptist, because we’re First Baptists, we’re exceptional. But, you know, King David was pretty exceptional too. The Prophet Nathan was pretty exceptional too.
12:00 But it happened to both of them. In our Old Testament lesson today David and Nathan both assume that because David wants to honor God by building a temple, that he should just go ahead and do it. And God is with David, right? David’s the king. Why shouldn’t he build God a temple? “I’m living in a really nice house,” David reasons, “And God’s over here in a tent. God ought to have something nicer than a tent. He really out to have something nice, much nicer than my house, He’s God after all.” And when you look at it that way, I think most of us would agree. That’s not right, God ought to have a temple.
13:00 Something grand and elegant, something befitting His majesty as the Lord of heaven and earth. Right? But God isn’t looking at it that way. God speaks to Nathan and says, “No, David should not build me a temple.” God reminds David and Nathan about the significance of that tent, that tabernacle, that He has been living in. He hasn’t lived in a house, God says, of any kind since He led Israel out of Egypt. He is a God who is with and among His people, who goes with His people wherever they go, and who bids them to come with Him wherever He goes. What use would a God a like that have for a temple,
14:00 at least at that point in time? Furthermore, God has not directed anybody to build Him a temple. God tells Nathan, “I am a working to establish a place for you, my people, not for Me.” And what God is doing is always at the center, it has to be. Not what we want to do for God, what God is doing. Plus, let’s not forget that lots of victorious kings from lots of different kingdoms down to the centuries built temples to their gods. It’s not unreasonable to ask, did all those kings really build all those temples primarily because how great they thought their God was, or how great they thought they were?
15:00 In other words, might it be that David thinks this way because he reasons, “I need my God to have a grand, elegant house. What does it say about me if my God lives in a tent like a nomad?” As strange as it sounds, one of the ways that we can most easily get off track is by doing things for God, generally speaking. It happened then, still happens today. A year or so ago a blog entitled ‘Little White Girls, White Boys, and the Problem with Voluntourism’ went viral. Some of you might have seen it on your Facebook page or in your email. It was written by a young and affluent woman named Pippa Biddle as she was reflecting upon her experiences doing good deeds overseas as a teenager and a college student.
16:00 Basically, in hindsight, she’s wondering how much good she actually did. For instance, she recounts how she and other girls from her boarding school travelled to Tanzania one year, ostensibly to build a library for an orphanage. Sounds good, right? Why wouldn’t any of us who had an opportunity to go and do that, why wouldn’t we do it? The problem was she and her privileged classmates didn’t know anything about building a library. So what happened was they would work for six or more hours a day, mixing concrete, and laying bricks, and building these walls that didn’t have a chance to pass even the most rudimentary building codes. So at night the locals, who knew what they were doing, would come and tear down what they had worked all day to build and build it back up the way it was supposed to be built.
17:00 And then everybody would get up the next morning as if nothing happened. Some commentators, including at least one Peace Corps [17:16] have criticized Biddle for her conclusions, some of them quite severely. But regardless of whether you agree or disagree with her position, what is doing is faithful and healthy. By writing this blog, Biddle is showing herself and showing us how to listen actively. She is listening by asking pertinent, if painful, questions, rather than, like King David, simply seeking validation for what he has done and what he wants to do.
18:00 Were we really there helping the orphans, or were we there helping ourselves feel better? Were we truly, honestly there to help save the world, or to justify that safari that we were going to take at the end of the trip? Deep listening is active, it is ongoing, and in that way it very much resembles love. In fact, theologian Paul Tillich has written that listening is the first duty of love. If we are going to love, we have to listen, otherwise we won’t know what our beloved needs and wants. And it won’t really be love, it won’t be about us serving them,
19:00 it will be about us serving ourselves by serving them. This is why the Magnificat still stands as perhaps the most important hymn of this holy season. Mary is not just the mother of Jesus, she is a Prophet, she is [inaudible 19:25] helping us at this very festive time of the year, help us stay in check as we do all the things that we do to try and celebrate Jesus. And her song, this Magnificat, can be for us like an anechoic chamber where we can go and really listen deeply for the foundational rhythms of our life with God,
20:00 and what God is up to in our world as we look toward Bethlehem. It’s worth noting that Mary herself is able to sing this song because she listened. She listened to Gabriel. She heard what he said, strange, confounding as it was. And she took it in, and she acted on it. And Elizabeth listens to her when she arrives to [20:41] her visit. Elizabeth says, “For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb,”—who was John the Baptist—“leaped for joy at the sound of your voice.” And Elizabeth says,
21:00 “Blessed is she who believed there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord. That doesn’t mean that we want to hear what Mary has to say, but we need to listen. The Magnificat exposes the messy truth of the world and reveals what God is doing to help clean up the mess. Juana Adams, in a commentary on the Magnificat, has played with the meaning of the word Magnificat, to magnify the Lord, the glorify the Lord. She says that the Magnificent can, and should, function for us like a magnifying glass,
22:00 helping us to see the details of what Christ’s coming really are and what they mean. God is not telling us what we want to hear, He is telling us what we need to hear. That He is scattering the thoughts of the proud, He is raising up the lowly, He is filling the hungry with good things, He is sending the rich away empty, He is rocking the boats, and turning things inside out. And this God and His mission, this is our hope. This is our hope. In this dark, stratified, militarized world in which we live, there is hope.
23:00 In this messy, gurgling, secreting world, there is hope. This world in which cops and civilians are shooting each other, this in world in which little children are being massacred simply for going to school, this world in which people are going up and stealing Christmas presents from other people’s front porches, in this world, this messy world, there is hope. Because when the proud are humbled, when the poor are filled, when shepherds and kings and Maggi, friends and strangers, foreigners, friends and enemies, when we all come together, as they do in the story of Christmas, when we all come together, the world is transformed. Not might be, not will be, it is.
24:00 It can happen, it has happened, and we can still see it and experience it if we, like Mary, will listen. Listen for the good news of this holy season. So let’s make sure in the days ahead, in the midst of all our business and our festivities and our parties and our get- togethers, let’s make sure that, as the people of Jesus, we take the time to be still and know that he is God. Because God is still speaking, we need to keep listening. Let all with ears to hear, hear. Thanks be to God. Amen.