(Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24, Psalm 95:1-7a, Ephesians 1:15-23)
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ 41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
What does it take to become a good listener? How does one become a good listener? Does one need to be isolated in a soundproof room before he/she can hear what they need to hear? What about all the noises in our heads? The endless streams of ideas and internal dialogues that are playing in our minds? Can soundproof rooms silence these? Indeed, soundproof rooms can only keep out external noises. The internal noises of our minds keep playing over and over. So how does one become a good listener in spite of all the external and internal noises of our lives?
Becoming a good listener involves discipline and focus. Few of us can retreat to an isolated soundproof room in which only certain noises are filtered in. Few of us can make the external and internal noises completely disappear. The noises of life are constant. Whether internal or external, the noises of life are continuously working to distract or misguide us. Being a good listener doesn’t involve recognizing all the noises in our lives. If we were to consciously acknowledge all the thoughts, all the internal voices, all the words that are spoken, all the noises that are made in the world around us, then we would most certainly go crazy. Our minds can’t process all the noises all the time. Our bodies adapt to the world around us and learn to filter out certain noises. Becoming good listeners involves learning to filter out certain noises and recognizing other noises. Good listeners choose to focus their attention on the most important noises.
Learning which noises are the most important in our lives takes time. Like any learned skill, listening and becoming a good listener is developed through trial and error. We start our lives willing and eager to acknowledge all the noises around us and within us. We take all of this world in. This is important in the development of our minds and bodies. How else would our bodies be able to know what is good and bad, right and wrong, without listening to ourselves and the world around us? No, we must listen to all the noises from within and without. That doesn’t necessarily mean we are good listeners but rather that we’re simply listeners. Over time, we can choose to become better listeners and filter out less important noises. We can choose to stop adding to the noise with our own voices and focus instead on filtering out the important noises from the non-important noises. Becoming good listeners involves discipline and focus.
Good listeners can often recall when they weren’t quite so good at listening. I will always remember an incident I had as a child that helped me realize the importance of being a good listener. I was running around and playing in the backyard with my neighborhood friends. I vaguely recall hearing my grandfather call out to me to come in and take the trash out. Well, my fun wasn’t going to be stopped by a stupid chore like taking out the trash! It could wait! After all, there was only so much daylight left in the day and my friends and I were having so much fun running around and chasing each other. My grandfather must have called out several times and I must have completely tuned him out because he had gotten quite angry with me. The next thing I knew my grandfather was standing beside me in the middle of the yard and he grabbed me by my ear with a firm and painful grip and dragged me all the way back into the house. The trash was taken to the curb mighty fast and I never ignored him again. This was one of the earliest incidences that set me on a path of becoming a good listener.
Our readings assigned for this week help illustrate the importance of good listening. As mentioned in the last couple weeks, we are quickly entering into the Advent season in which we wait upon the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It is a time in which we are called to wait faithfully. We are not to become complacent in our waiting. We mustn’t be unprepared as the five foolish bridesmaids were without extra oil for their lamps. We must stay faithful; praying, serving, and building God’s kingdom here on Earth until our Savior returns. It is also a time in which we are called to wait fearlessly. We are not to become paralyzed by fear of the unknown in our waiting. Jesus is already here with us in the now, walking by our side in whatever we do. We are freed from fear because Jesus died and rose again, conquering death and our fears of it. Christ will come again but Christ is also here with us now! We can wait both faithfully and fearlessly. And how can we wait faithfully and fearlessly? Through good listening! We wait and listen. We listen for Christ among us now and for Christ’s imminent return.
In our reading from Ezekiel, we hear the prophet speaking strong words of encouragement from God. The prophets of the Old Testament typically spoke words of fear and condemnation. These encouraging words from Ezekiel are a pleasant change. Just as He did for the people of Israel, God comes to us as a shepherd, as one who seeks out the lost sheep among us. God feeds us with good pasture and we shall lie down in good grazing land. God will bind up our injured, strengthen our weak, and destroy the sheep among us who bully and oppress the weak. But why use the sheep/shepherd imagery? Why not use goats/goat herders? This question was raised in our Bible study earlier this week. What makes sheep more special than goats? They’re similar animals that perform similar functions in the grand cycle of life. Why do goats get such a bad rap in comparison to sheep? Perhaps because of their different natures. Sheep, though somewhat oblivious to the world around them, will listen when their shepherd calls out to them. Sheep know their master’s voice and will obey it. Goats, on the other hand, are stubborn by nature. They may or may not recognize their master’s voice but they seldom obey it. Whereas sheep will follow their master, goats must be poked and prodded into doing what the master wants of them. Sheep can get distracted but they obey when called upon. Sheep are good listeners. Goats seldom obey when called upon. Goats are bad listeners. Ezekiel’s imagery of sheep and shepherds indirectly encourages good listening.
King David, in many ways, represented the ideal good listener. He never stopped listening for God in his life. There may have been times in his life when he didn’t feel God’s presence. Even in those times, David cried out for God to come to him and help him in his time of struggle. Even then, David kept listening for God. When he finally heard God and felt His abundant grace and mercy, David lifted up songs of praise and thanksgiving like the one we heard today. He proclaims, “for the Lord is a great God, and a great King above all gods…O come, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!” David knew when it was time to lift up a “joyful noise” and when it was a time to be silent and listen for God. David had a deep, respectful relationship with God that enabled him sing when he needed to sing and listen when he needed to listen. We would be wise to follow David’s lead. David wants us to hear and know God in our lives the way he heard God in his life. His psalm ends, “O that today you would listen to his voice!”
Good listeners filter out the important noises from the unimportant noises. When we listen to the parable of the ten bridesmaids and the parable of the talents, we are to hear that faithful and fearless waiting consists of realizing that Christ walks with us here in the now. We are to listen for Christ’s imminent return and for Christ already at work in our lives and the lives of those around us. Christ is alive in you and me! Just listen for him. Filter out the unimportant noises in your life. Filter out the noises of sin that distract you from knowing Christ in your life. Jesus wants us to know him. Jesus wants us to feel his presence in our daily lives. We can know and feel Jesus in two ways: first, by filtering out the noises of sin in our lives and second, by serving and loving our neighbors. This is what we hear in our reading for Matthew. Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Likewise, later on Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” Jesus’ words are just as much about teaching us how we are to know and feel him in our daily lives as it is about authentically serving our neighbors. We are not supposed to serve our neighbors as a vain attempt to earn our way into heaven. We don’t serve to get recognition for our service. We serve because Jesus commands us to serve. Jesus commanded us to love our neighbors as ourselves. He didn’t mean certain neighbors. He didn’t mean certain love. He wants us to love all our neighbors with love, from the greatest to the least. This is how we know and feel Jesus in our lives, by genuinely serving without any need for recognition. We serve for the sake of serving. When we genuinely serve, we know and feel Jesus. Jesus is very much alive in the world today. It’s just a matter of us serving well and of listening well.
Genuine service, like good listening, involves discipline and focus. More often than not, times that require genuine service are loud and inconvenient. There are many noises, both within and without, that tell us there are more important things to do with our time and resources. There are even noises that tell us our acts of service are fruitless and unnecessary. But God wants us to be good listeners. God wants us to filter out all the unimportant noises, all the negative, hurtful noises. God wants us to serve for the sake of serving. God wants us to love for the sake of loving. After all, this is how God loves us…just for the sake of it. We are to filter the unimportant noises in order to genuinely know Christ as the true King of our lives. God wants us to become good listeners and listen between the lines.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.