Turning Deaf Ears to Prophet
Sunday, October 28, 2012
A man scheduled a visit to see his doctor. He wasn’t so much worried about himself as he was about his wife. “Doc,” he said. “I think my wife is losing her hearing. Is there any way to do a simple test in order to see how bad things are?” “Sure,” the doctor replied. “Start 25 feet away from her and ask her a question. If she doesn’t hear you move 5 feet closer and try again. Keep repeating this same procedure until you are close enough that she hears your question and responds. This process will give us a good sense of how diminished her capacities are.” The man immediately went home and began the experiment. Standing 25 feet away he said, “Honey, what are we having for dinner tonight.” Just as he feared there was no reply. With each 5 feet, he would ask the question again until he was almost touching his wife. “Sweetheart,” he said one last time with great concern and now almost close enough to touch his bride, “what are we having for dinner?” “For the fifth time Earl,” she said, “we are having Chicken!”
There is a lot of truth is this cute little story. Sometimes, we want to pin a problem or an issue squarely on someone else when in reality the problem really rests on our shoulders. It is not uncommon for this to be true of our relationship with God either. Without a doubt, it is very normal practice for us to blame God for issues that are more about our failures as humans than they are about a lack of initiative or care on the part of God. One example is our regular practice of suggesting that God doesn’t speak to us. “If God would only speak to us, we would be more than ready to take God’s advice, direction and wisdom for our lives,” we quickly affirm. But, just as with the man who thought his wife was the one with the hearing problem, the struggle to hear God may be more about us than God.
This fall on Sunday nights, we have had a group of about 30 to 40 adults in our church who have been studying a book by Dallas Willard called Hearing God. This past Sunday night when we were together, we all admitted to each other that this is a tough book to read and comprehend. In fact, there is a lot that Willard has had to say, that we are all still scratching our heads over and trying to figure out. Having said that, we also admitted that there are some things that we have learned from Willard in this process that we do understand. One of those truths is the idea that it is not that God doesn’t speak but rather it is that often times, we simply don’t like what it is that God has to say to us when God does speak.
I think the Prophet Amos understood this perspective fully because it was a real part of his life experience. According to the scriptures, Amos appears to have been a common shepherd from the Judean town of Tekoa. Yet, called by God, Amos found himself in the Northern Kingdom of Israel, delivering a message to the leaders of the people there that they needed to change their ways. God was not pleased with their behavior. In a nutshell, Amos shares with them, as is exemplified by the section of Amos 4 that we read a few moments ago, that God was disturbed that they seemed to simply be going through the religious motions. They were going to worship, they were making the required sacrifices and they were saying the right words. But, the actions of their lives could not have been further from the words they uttered in worship. Nothing about the way they were living in relationship with their fellow citizens suggested that they were paying any attention to the empty words they were reciting to God. They were playing the religious game but it had no bearing on their lives.
Having diagnosed their problem, Dr. Amos prescribed the needed solution. They needed to change their ways. The response to Amos was the response that many if not most of the Old Testament prophets received. The people simply ignored what he had to say. As we would say in 2012, Amos might as well have been talking to a stop sign. Amos was God’s mouthpiece. Through Amos, God was speaking to the people of God, but no one wanted to hear what God had to say.
Rather than being critical of the people of Amos’ day is it important that we see our story as very similar to theirs. Like them, we often encounter God’s voice. God really does speak to us through scripture, through each other, through life’s experiences on a daily bases. The reality of life is not that we serve a silent God. Rather the reality is that we just don’t like what it is that God often calls us to do or to be about.
It reminds me a lot of the story of the town of Centralia, Pennsylvania. Centralia was once a bustling coal mining community in Central Pennsylvania. But, back in 1962 a fire started at the city landfill. But, the fire wasn’t fully extinguished and it made its way underground and ultimately to the vein of the coal. Believe or not, the fire never went out though it was virtually ignored by residents for the next 19 years.
On Valentine’s Day, 1981, though, things began to change. Two boys in Centralia were working on a motorcycle in a family garage. One of the boys noticed smoke coming from the yard and assumed that a passing car had tossed a cigarette into the grass. When he went to investigate, the ground collapsed and the young man came within an inch of being swallowed by a 350 foot deep, 400 degree sink hole that opened up around him. Within days, a major section of Highway 61 also collapsed due to the raging fire.
Ultimately, The Office of Surface Mining came to Centralia and determined that the cost to put out the fire would eventually total $663 million dollars. The government decided to buy out the 1,100 homeowners of Centralia and move them to other communities instead. They calculated that this move would cost $42 million thus saving over $600 million dollars.
Most folks took the government’s offer, but not everyone. To this day fires of Centralia continue to rage. To this day, the temperature of the ground in Centralia is 400 degrees. To this day, Centralia is filled with constant smoke and the smell of sulfur. As recently as 2003, however 46 residents remained, having become convinced that the whole affair was and is simply a governmental trick to steal their coal.
Quite possibly the saddest aspect of the story is the fact that in 1982, the citizens of Centralia were given 15 years to exercise the governmental offer to buy out their homes and property and pay for their relocation. In short, they had 15 years to prepare. On New Year’s Eve, 1997 the offer expired, with 46 people not prepared and failing to budge. (One Hundred Pounds of Ice and Other Gospel Stories, Lawrence Wood, WJK, 2003, “Getting the Hell Out”, pg. 131-136.)
While the story of Centralia may be somewhat of an extreme case of people not listening, it does drive home the point of where we started worship today with several of our members, articulating advice that they give on a regular basis in their given professions that often go unheeded. We are good at ignoring what we don’t want to hear.
And, our relationship with God is no different. The Old Testament people ignored the prophets, the people of the gospels ignored Jesus and we ignore the voice of God today. Oh, we may hide behind our belief that God simply doesn’t speak. But, the real question is our willingness to listen.
Let me end this morning however with the good news of the Gospel. For it is important for us to always realize the scripture is more a word of hope than a word of judgment. And there is certainly is hope even when it comes to our tendency to ignore God’s voice.
For one, our hope is in being reminded that God continues to speak. In spite our struggle to hear, God continues to use a variety of means in an ongoing attempt to communicate with us. The bottom line is that God loves us all deeply and passionately and God never tires of trying to connect with us even when we fail to hear. In fact, even today, God desires to speak to us.
At the same time, our hope is also in knowing that while difficult to hear, God’s words to us are always what is best for us. Think again to our professionals this morning. While we may not like their advice, there is no denying that what they suggest is good and valuable. So it is with God.
Finally, our hope is in affirming that the struggle to hear God speak is not your struggle, my struggle or the worlds struggle. No, it is our collective human struggle. None of us, quite frankly, are very good at this and it is important to know that we are not alone, unique or the one with a problem. We are all in this together as we all wrestle with being who God desires.
I am in a small group of seven pastors from various denominations from around the upstate who meet once a month in Spartanburg for learning and support. We were together this past Thursday and as we talked, one of our members looked at the rest of us and said, “you know, the most valuable aspect of my being here today is the reminder that the rest of you are struggling with same things I am struggling with. I am just glad to be reminded that I am not alone.”
Today, none of us are alone. We are all in this together. And, so, let us, together, help one another as we struggle to attune our ears that we might hear the voice of God and upon hearing actually do what it is that God calls us to be about. Amen.