THE POWER OF HEARING AND BEING HEARD
My son recently did an internship for a Business Management Consulting firm in Johannesburg. He worked long hours and got very little sleep during the six or so weeks that he worked for them. But, he loved the work, and he loved the company, and if they were to offer him a job, he would take it. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that they listened to him. As a 22 year-old intern, he expected to be a slave, running around after everyone and not making much difference. But, he was given research to do, and when important presentations were done for clients, whole sections of his research, including his analysis and ideas, were included. He felt so proud and excited at having made a real contribution. But most importantly, he felt heard.
There is very little that heals us and inspires us like knowing that someone else has truly heard us. When we know that our thoughts, our opinions, our perspectives, and our ideas matter to someone else, that can be a life-changing thing.
But, what does this mean when it comes to faith? Our theme today is “God Hears” but you may be tempted to respond, “Yeah, right!” It can be tempting to view God as the opposite of a hearing God. Our language betrays us here. We say, “It’s all in God’s hands,” or, “If it’s meant to be…” or “If it’s God’s will..” It feels like God decides what God decides and our voices don’t make any difference.
But, that’s not the Bible’s view of God. For example, in Genesis 18 God tells Abraham that Sodom has become evil and destructive, and so God is going to destroy it (remember this is a very ancient story). But, Abraham responds by arguing with God and bargaining with God. He asks God if God will still destroy the city if there are fifty righteous people, and God concedes that God won’t. Then Abraham asks, “what if there are forty five? Or forty? or thirty? or twenty? or ten?” And God finally concedes that if there are just ten righteous people the city will be saved.
The point is not that God wanted to destroy the city. The point is that Abraham argued with God and was heard. And the same happened with Moses, and some of the prophets. God is a God who hears us.
THE GOD WHO HEARS
The raising of Lazarus is a story of a God who hears. It begins when Jesus hears that his friend Lazarus is sick. Jesus loved Lazarus and his two sisters, Martha and Mary, so it seems strange that Jesus delayed for two days before he went to Lazarus. We’re not completely sure where Jesus was when he heard the news, but Jesus seems to have known that he wouldn’t get there in time. So, he delayed, because he saw an opportunity to give this family – and his disciples – what they really needed, although they didn’t know it yet.
In John’ Gospel, up to this point, Jesus had been speaking about the life he offers – in John 10:10 he says, “I have come that you may have life in all its fullness.” But no one believed him. So, now he had a chance to show them what he meant. But, he had to wait until Lazarus had been dead four days. The Jews believed that for three days after death the spirit hovered over the body waiting for a chance to return. But, on the fourth day the spirit would finally leave and the person was really dead. So Jesus waited until Lazarus was really dead. And then he raised Lazarus to show that he was the source of life. He had heard their cry, but he also heard what they really needed – that they didn’t know they needed.
But, there’s an interesting thing that happens before Jesus raises Lazarus. Twice the Bible tells us that Jesus got angry. Actually the word means he snorted like horse in anger or indignation. The first time is when Mary repeats what Martha had said – that if Jesus had been there, Lazarus wouldn’t have died. The second time is when someone in the crowd notes that Jesus healed a blind man, and so surely could have healed Lazarus. But, it was all so normal, so routine, so accepting. Jesus is angry at the death and brokenness that causes so much grief. But, I think he’s also angry that they all just accept it, that they’re not demanding more. They’re not fighting against the injustice of it all. They’re not following the biblical tradition of arguing with God, of shaking their fists at God. Because they don’t really believe God would hear them.
And so, as he stands at the tomb, he prays: “Father, thank you for hearing me. You always hear me…” And the implication is that God always hears everyone who calls on God. Our voices matter to God, and God is moved to respond. And then Jesus proves it by calling Lazarus out of the tomb. God’s response may not be what we expect or want – because like Martha and Mary, we too often want the simple solution, the “quick fix.” But, God always hears, and always responds by giving us what we need – abundant, eternal life.
LIVING FROM THE CONFIDENCE THAT GOD HEARS
So what do we do with this? I want to suggest that there are two things to take away from this story. The first is never to make the mistake of thinking, when God doesn’t respond as we would hope, that God isn’t hearing us. God may not give us what we want. But, God always hears, always responds, and always gives us what we need. And what we need is not always health, wealth, and happiness. What we really need is the kind of deep, authentic relationship with God that leads us into God’s abundant, sustaining, transforming, life.
A few years ago I came across the story of the Smith family. They live in the USA and their daughter, Ashtyn, was born with a rare, genetic disorder called Alcardi Syndrome. This means that Ashtyn can’t speak, she can’t feed or wash herself or move much. But, in an interview her mom said that she had thought that the hardest thing she would ever have to do was raise Ashtyn – until she almost died. Then she realised that the hardest thing would be losing Ashtyn. Ashtyn’s dad said that even though she has never said a word, Ashtyn has impacted more people’s lives in her six years than they have in their combined sixty years. And her mom finished by saying that even if she was given the choice, she would never wish for Ashtyn to be other than she is, because Ashtyn has taught her to love – to really love unconditionally, and wholeheartedly. I am sure that both Ashtyn’s mom and dad cried out to God. And I know that God heard them because even in this most difficult of situations, they have found that God is the source of eternal, abundant life.
The second take away from this story is to live like we really believe God hears us, to interact with God knowing that our voice matters. Too often our prayer is so polite – closed eyes, folded hands, bowed heads. Always saying thank you, and “if it be your will” and please. And I wonder sometimes if God gets bored – and maybe a little angry, like Jesus, because we accept things we shouldn’t. If we want to change things, we need to change our conversation with God. We need to get passionate and honest. Wrestling with God, arguing with God, debating with God. And truly believing that God is moved to respond when God hears our voice. Let’s be less polite when we pray, and more passionate. Less dutiful and more honest. Less accepting and more demanding.
Perhaps we can learn to be more like the old Jewish grandmother who was walking on the beach with her grandson. Suddenly a massive wave crashed over them, and when she got up off the sand and wiped her eyes, she realised that her grandson was gone – washed into the sea. So she started shaking her fist at God, and crying out to him. “I’ve always been a faithful worshipper of you, God,” she shouted. “I’ve prayed and given to the poor. I’ve served others, and followed your ways, and now you do this to me? How dare you allow my grandson to be swept away like this? I demand you bring him back to me!” And just then, another wave crashed onto the shore and when it had gone there was the grandson lying on the sand a little dazed and wet, but perfectly fine. And a voice from heaven said, “There! Are you satisfied now?” To which the grandmother replied, “But, he was wearing a hat! Where’s his hat?”