Listening in the silence
A sermon on Nehemiah 8: 1-3,5-6,8-10, Psalm 19, Luke 4: 14-21
by Jill Friebel 25 January 2004

The Psalmist declares:
Your glory is written in the sky, God;
Your artistry is carved on the face of the earth.
The word of God comes to us every day through the Created order. Stand under the starry sky, sit on the edge of the ocean, climb a mountain, smell a flower, hold a new baby, listen to the orchestra, feel the stirrings of love within you. What seems pressing and important can lose its significance, your perspective can alter and the irritating and fearful can shrink into the wonder and awe of life. Something somewhere is much bigger than our philosophies and grand opinions and achievements. Who is this God to whom we owe our lives, our breath, our gratitude? His love is woven into the fabric of life teeming all around us and within us.

The Psalmist goes on:
The revelation of God is whole and pulls our lives together.
The signposts of God are clear and point out the right road.
The life-maps of God are right, showing the way to joy.
The directions of God are plain and easy on the eyes.

He knows that God comes to him through Creation and through his written words and he seeks God through his revelation. He takes time to be quiet and allow the words to remain. He says, “These are the words in my mouth; these are what I chew on and pray.” (The Message) He uses the metaphor of chewing or mulling over these things. It is the same meaning as the cow chewing the cud. Have you ever stood in front of a cow standing contently in a green pasture and looked into its face and watched it chew. It goes on and on just chewing. I asked my good doctor husband about the importance of chewing for us as human beings. He told me that

“You need to chew your food to allow the salivary juices to break the food down into smaller particles or molecules for use in human body. This breakdown makes it possible for the smaller digested particles to pass through the intestinal wall into the blood stream. The particles are then distributed to nourish all parts of the body…
Digestion begins in the mouth, chewing is very important for good digestion.”

The psalmist meditated and ruminated on the beautiful words of God. As he did this they began to affect him. He was nourished and restored in his soul and spirit. The words were sweeter by far than any mouth-watering delicacy, even chocolate dipped strawberries with cream. They make the simple wise, and anyone who follows God’s instructions will be glad they did. They are true, pure and enlightening. He knows he cannot discern his own errors and he needs to listen to God and mull over the words to be absorbed into his innermost being and then God reveals the secret hidden faults, only when he feels safe and secure in God. To be confronted with your faults when you don’t feel safe will cause you to retreat and be defensive.

In our O.T. reading the Israelites request to hear God’s word. These people had recently returned from exile in Babylon and have rebuilt the city walls and are resettling among the ruins of their beloved city. It was now over 70 years since the calamity struck the Israelites and the unthinkable had happened. Their mighty city had been ransacked and the temple destroyed. The Assyrians had murdered, plundered and raped, before carting the humiliated people off to be dispersed in Babylon. This disaster did not come as a surprise as they had been warned over and over by God’s prophets. They had turned a deaf ear to the words and hardened their hearts. The words were uncomfortable and confronting and consequently the prophets were ridiculed and tortured. The people’s worship had become an external ritual while their hearts were drawn to idols made of wood and stone. The powerful were oppressing the poor, and there was no justice in the land for the weak and vulnerable. God had had enough and unless they turned back to him they were headed for disaster.

They had 70 years to contemplate and reflect on their foolishness and were filled with regret and sorrow. They sat by the rivers of Babylon and wept about what had been. Now feeling deserted by God, they could no longer worship in the Temple for it was far away and in ruins. Then coming through the gloom and darkness the voice of Isaiah the prophet came, “Comfort, O comfort My people,” says the Lord, speak kindly to Jerusalem.” A word of hope in what seemed like hopeless desperate circumstances. God’s love perseveres again and endures even though they had spurned and trampled on it. Though forsaken, destitute and captive in a foreign land, God comes to them with a promise of a future. Isaiah speaks of a Saviour who will come. The Spirit of the Lord will anoint his chosen one and he will preach good news to the poor, a message of freedom for the captives, the brokenhearted, the used and abused will be healed and a new God era will begin.

With these words sustaining them the remnant made it back to Jerusalem to rebuild the walls. Always looking and longing for this anointed suffering servant. It is here our reading picks up the story of their request to hear the long forgotten word of the Lord. This was the same law that could have kept them close to God’s love in the first place and now they were more than prepared to listen. As they listened they began to chew on the words and to ruminate and absorb them. God’s Spirit moved deeply within them with power and conviction and they realised just how far from God they had strayed. They were filled with sorrow over their sinfulness and foolishness that they began to weep and sob, their hardened hearts were softened by the oil of God’s grace and love. Instead of the judgment they deserved they received forgiveness. They turn towards God to be nourished and to allow the words in the law and the prophets to guide and keep them, all the time hoping and longing for the fulfilment of the Anointed One. They may be back in Jerusalem but they still considered themselves in exile. God’s presence had not returned to dwell among them in the same way they had experienced before.

The hardest part for them and us is to stay in this place of trust. Unless we continue to meditate and chew on these words we will move away from God once again and try to work things out in our own way. The Anointed One did come but not for 600 years after Isaiah shouted the promise, and it was on the day in our Gospel reading that Jesus stood in the Nazareth Synagogue and read from Isaiah, finally it was fulfilled. The long awaited One, The Holy One of God, Jesus bearer of our sins, had come into their presence to replace the temple and open the way back to God, but they didn’t have ears to hear, he wasn’t what they were expecting. God often comes to us in unexpected ways.

God comes to all people through his word. We hear this often and we know it is true and give lip service to it but it becomes familiar and commonplace, even dry and boring. Everyday we are on a journey and at the end of the day we are either closer to or further away from God. We are never stationary. We are made up of a true self and a false self. One is the God made self, the person we are meant to be, the one who hears his voice and longs for his love. It is shy and gentle and sensitive and thrives only on words from God, words of love and forgiveness. To be human is to be designed for intimate relationship with the Divine and this is why the yearning for connection is spiritual.

But we also have a false self which has developed since infancy. The circumstances of our life combined with our vulnerability cause us to retreat into creating ways of protecting and surviving life in our own way. As we become disconnected from our true self, God and from others it awakens a deep terror and insecurity and panic. We hear messages around us that we are not beautiful, that we are not precious, that we will get what deserve. How can we survive this except to defend ourselves in our own way? All the time God’s voice speaks through the emptiness and longing, it is through the sadness and mistakes and messing up, repeating the errors of the Israelites, that he comes with his words of comfort. “Comfort, O Comfort my people.” Jesus, the Word made flesh stood in the synagogue that day and declared, “This day these words are fulfilled in your presence.” All of us are in exile, lost and disconnected from God and from our true self. We are prisoners to our false and sinful selves. It is the promise of a new Exodus, a new journey to freedom to live as our God-made selves and as the new community of faith into which we are baptised in Christ.

But first we must listen. God speaks through creation and his word and we can listen or ignore the Words. But this is only the first step.

Let us return to the metaphor the psalmist used. The words need to be chewed, so they can be absorbed to nourish the body. It is the true self that will be nourished - the God-made-real-self. The false self can thrive on just listening to God’s words. Listening in itself can become an intellectual endeavour and idealism. There are countless theologians and Christians who spend all their life listening, studying and even preaching the words of God and fail to partake of them in silence. We can listen week after week and remain unmoved. If we do not meditate, chew and absorb, God’s powerful love will not be able to undo us. We can remain in control and not feel his warming spirit convict us of our coldness. Our eyes will remain dry when we should be weeping and receiving his comfort. If you find it hard to forgive, even yourself, it is because you don’t receive His forgiveness. If you find it hard to be compassionate, even to yourself, it is because you don’t receive His compassion. If you are not gentle with others, even yourself, it is because you don’t receive His gentleness. Receiving today will not last for tomorrow. The words need to nourish every day. Jesus the word made Flesh wants to love you every day. Run for cover from the noise and voices around you and retreat into the silence of your being. Sit with Jesus and let him hold you and nourish your true-God-made-self with his words of comfort.

“Unless a person says in their heart “I alone and God are in this world” they shall not find quiet.” – Abba Allois.