February 12, 2012
Pastor Joe Wittwer
Part 1: God listens
Such is the world we live in! Not long ago, Laina and I were sitting side by side on the couch one evening, both working on our laptops. I sent her an email. I’m not kidding! Well, I was kidding her.
We live in a plugged in world, and the plugs are often in our ears. In Europe, many of the people on the subways had earbuds in—no eye contact, no talking, no listening. We can be with others without being with them at all. We’ve lost the art of conversation; we don’t listen to each other: we tweet, text, email, instagram, and facebook.
Listening is a lost art. So we’re going to look at what the Bible says about it, and then we’re going to practice and see if we can’t get better at listening.
ILL: On Friday, when I was writing this message, Jenna (4) asked me what I was doing. I told her that I was going to talk with all of you about listening, and she said, “It’s always good to listen.” From the mouth of babes…it’s always good to listen.
Each year around this time, I like to do a series of talks on relationships. Jesus said the most important thing is loving God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength—all you’ve got—and loving your neighbor like yourself. The most important thing is relationships. So each year we spend some time getting better at relationships, at loving God and loving people.
I think I was drawn to the idea of listening because I am so bad at it. Two things about my personality keep me from being a great listener: I’m a selfish pig. One, I’m an activist, a doer, I’m always busy—this makes it hard for me to be still and listen, especially with God. ADD! Two, I’m very future oriented; I’m always thinking about what’s next—this makes it hard for me to focus on the person in front of me, since I’m already thinking about the next thing I have to do or the next person I have to see. I’m a sick man!
So if this series is good for no one else, it will be good for me! I want to become a better listener with God and people. In this talk and the last, I’m going to focus on our relationship with God. In the two middle talks, we’ll focus on listening to people. God, people, people, God. So, today:
The Big Idea: God has called us into relationship: we speak and He listens; He speaks and we listen.
I know this seems obvious, but this is the difference between Christianity and religion. Christianity is a relationship; God calls us into a love relationship; we talk and we listen. Religion is about following the rules rather than cultivating a relationship. God wants to have a conversational relationship with you! You speak and He listens. He speaks and you listen.
I have chosen a verse to be our theme for the whole series. We’re going to say it aloud each week, and I hope you’ll memorize it.
James 1:19–20 My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, 20 for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires.
Are you quick to listen? Too often, I’m just the opposite: slow to listen and quick to speak. It’s been pointed out that God gave us two ears and one mouth and we should use them in that proportion! Be quick to listen.
So what does the Bible say about listening.
1. Listen! An overview of what the Bible says.
The word “listen” and its derivatives are used 338 times in the NIV Bible. The word “hear” and its derivatives are used 982 times. I read all those verses, and didn’t have time to read the thousands of other verses that are related to this subject. There is a lot of talking and listening in the Bible! Over the next 4 weeks, we’re going to unpack a lot of these verses and see what the Bible says about listening.
Do you know what struck me about the listen verses? The most common use of the word “listen” in the Bible is God telling us to listen. Over and over, God calls us to listen. Jesus said:
Mark 4:23 “If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear.”
Jesus said this often: if you have ears, then listen! How many of you have ears? He’s talking to you! You can never say, “God doesn’t speak to me.” If you have ears, He’s talking to you right here. If you have ears, listen! Jesus said this often, and it shows up repeatedly in the book of Revelation.
Revelation 13:9 He who has an ear, let him hear.
If you have ears, listen!
Mark 4:24 “Consider carefully what you hear,” he continued. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more.”
Luke 8:18 “Therefore consider carefully how you listen. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what he thinks he has will be taken from him.”
Listen carefully. In this context, Jesus was encouraging people to listen to Him carefully, to hear what He was saying and thoughtfully consider it. When listening to Jesus, the stakes are high. If you listen carefully, you learn even more; if you don’t listen, you lose even the little you think you have. So listen and listen carefully!
God wants us to listen. That’s the big idea about listening in the Bible and why we’re doing this series.
If you read all the verses about listening, you’ll see that we’re told to whom we should listen.
2. To whom should we listen?
The most important person to listen to is…your wife. She’s a close second—God is first. We need to listen to God. How many of you feel like you could use some help in learning to listen to God? Me too! We are going to talk about that in the final message in this series—I saved the most important for last: how to listen to God.
We also need to listen to people. In the next two weeks, we’re going to talk about listening to those we know and love—we often take them for granted and don’t really pay attention. And we’re going to talk about listening to our critics. Our natural reaction is to get defensive and not really listen.
So we need to listen to God and to people. But there are some voices we need to ignore. There are some times when God says, “Don’t listen!” Here’s a couple.
Proverbs 17:4 A wicked man listens to evil lips; a liar pays attention to a malicious tongue.
Evil lips and malicious tongues. Or gossip and slander. Those are good things not to listen to. As soon as someone starts talking badly about another person, an alarm should go off in our heads: Danger! Don’t listen to gossip and slander.
Jeremiah 23:16 This is what the Lord Almighty says: “Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord.
This is one of many places where God says, “don’t listen!” And usually He is saying, “Don’t listen to false prophets, false teachers, people who are trying to deceive you and lead you away from God.” Don’t listen to falsehood. Obviously, we have to listen to discern truth from error, but once we detect falsehood, it’s time to stop listening. It’s like eliminating verbal junk food from your mental diet.
2 Timothy 2:14 Keep reminding them of these things. Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen.
Paul tells Timothy that some people just want to split hairs and turn everything into an argument; this “only ruins those who listen.” Quarrels and arguments are something to avoid.
We’re to listen to God and to people, but we’re to be discerning and know when it’s time not to listen.
But in all these verses about listening, there was one other insight that jumped out at me: God listens. The God who wants us to listen is a God who listens to us. And that’s what I want to focus on today.
3. God listens.
There were hundreds of verses about this; I’ve chosen a few and divided them up into some basic ideas.
A. God hears us!
Do you ever say, “I hear you,” to someone? What do you mean? “I hear you and I understand. I get you.” God hears us. When we speak—even when we don’t speak, when we just think or feel—God hears us. He is always listening, always paying attention. He hears you.
Psalm 65:2 O you who hear prayer, to you all men will come.
Psalm 65 is a song of praise; the psalmist is praising God that He hears our prayers, and says that because of this, all men will come to Him. It’s a simple thought: where do you go when you need someone to listen, to hear you? God. God listens, so come and talk.
Do you think that God wants to listen to you, that He really wants to hear what you have to say? Listen to this.
Psalm 116:1-2 I love the Lord, for he heard my voice; he heard my cry for mercy. 2 Because he turned his ear to me, I will call on him as long as I live.
This is one of my favorite psalms. I love the Lord; why? Because He heard me; He heard my cry for mercy. Don’t you love someone who hears you? This is one of the reasons everyone who knows Laina loves her: she is a great listener. I love Laina and the Lord because they listen to me. I really love verse 2: “He turned his ear to me.” Older translations say, “He inclined His ear to me.”
ILL: This is my grandson Stejer and my granddaughter Savanna. They are both 2 years old. Most of the time, they’re pretty loud, but occasionally they get shy and speak softly. When they do, I incline my ear. I bend down and lean in close and turn my ear toward their mouth and whisper, “What?” They whisper in my ear with a shy smile. I bend down and incline my ear because I want to hear what they are saying.
This is the image the psalmist has in mind. God inclines His ear to me. He leans in to hear what I have to say. He wants to hear me! The NLT says, “He bends down to listen.” Fix that image in your mind: when you speak, God bends down and leans in to listen. I love the Lord, because He leans in to listen to me! God wants to hear you! (Song?) Here’s another favorite:
Jeremiah 29:11-13 For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. 12 Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. 13 You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.
These famous verses are God’s promise to the Jewish exiles in Babylon in the sixth century BC. God promises to restore them to their homeland in Israel, but even more important, He promises them a personal relationship. “You will call and pray…and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me.” I love that phrase, “I will listen to you.” God is describing the relationship He wanted all along with His people, and that He still wants with you. God wants you to come, to pray, to call on Him, and He will listen to you. God is listening. He is leaning in to hear you.
Micah 7:7 But as for me, I watch in hope for the Lord, I wait for God my Savior; my God will hear me.
There is that confidence again: my God will hear me. Do you have the confidence that God is always listening to you? God hears you.
ILL: Dan Lynch is a pastor at Real Life Ministries in Post Falls. I heard him tell a story from his days as a beat cop in San Francisco. In those days, a beat cop was the best job: you got to walk a neighborhood, get to know everybody, and get lots of free food! Then one day they gave him a radio and that changed everything. He didn’t like the radio, and one day decided he wanted to go back to the old ways. So he dropped his radio on purpose; sure enough, it rattled and no more calls came in.
A couple hours later, a guy took a couple shots at him and then ran into an alley. He knew the alley was a dead end, so he pursued him thinking that he would make an arrest. Instead, as soon as he entered the alley, a car pulled in behind him and several guys jumped out and started shooting. It was an ambush! He ducked down in a gutter and tried to make himself small, and returned fire, but he thought he was going to die. He pulled out his radio—the radio he had dropped—and began screaming for help.
A few second later he heard sirens—music to his ears—and then the place was swarming with cops. He was saved. When he asked how they knew he was in trouble, one of his buddies said, “We heard you screaming in your radio like a girl!” It turns out that the receiver was broken, but not the transmitter—it was still sending well. Even though he couldn’t hear them, they could hear him.
Even if you feel far from God and can’t hear His voice, He still hears yours!
God hears you!
B. God hears our prayers.
As we’ll see, God hears everything. But God specifically hears our prayers. Have you ever felt like you were just talking to yourself when you were praying—that God wasn’t paying attention? He is. When you pray, God listens. God hears our prayers. Prayer is talking with God; it’s a conversation. When you talk, God listens. When God talks, we listen. This is how conversations work, and it is what prayer was meant to be: talking and listening by both parties, you and God. You need to know that when you pray, God listens. God hears our prayers.
Many of the verses I have listed are God telling people, “I heard your prayer”.
Rachel desperately wanted to get pregnant. Genesis 30:22 says that God listened to her and opened her womb. God heard her prayer.
In 1 Kings 8-9, Solomon prayed for God to come to the Temple. God heard his prayer and His glory filled the Temple.
In 2 Kings 19, King Hezekiah prayed for deliverance from the king of Assyria whose army was beating down the doors. God heard his prayer and delivered him.
In the New Testament, Zechariah and Elizabeth prayed for a child in their old age, and God heard their prayer. Their son was John the Baptist.
In Acts 10, an angel visited the Gentile soldier Cornelius and told him, “God has heard your prayer.” Cornelius became the first Gentile (non-Jewish person) to become a Christian.
Over and over it says, “God has heard your prayer.”
Does God hear every prayer? Yes, I think so. But there are a few passages that suggest otherwise.
2 Chronicles 7:12-14 The Lord appeared to him at night and said: “I have heard your prayer and have chosen this place for myself as a temple for sacrifices. 13 When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, 14 if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then will I hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.
This is God speaking to Solomon at the dedication of the Temple. If the people abandoned God, He promised to send trouble (drought, locusts, plagues), but if they humbled themselves and turned from their sin and prayed, He promised to hear. This suggests that in their rebellious state, they either weren’t praying or God wasn’t listening, or both. But as soon as they repented, God heard—that’s the promise. “You may not be praying now, but as soon as you do, I will listen.”
Psalm 66:18-19 If I had cherished sin in my heart, the Lord would not have listened; 19 but God has surely listened and heard my voice in prayer.
The song-writer who wrote this believed that God wouldn’t listen if he was cherishing sin. In other words, if he was clinging to something he knew was wrong and refused to confess and repent, then God wouldn’t listen. But if he repented, God was ready to listen, and in fact, did.
ILL: When I was in junior high, I got in an argument on the school bus with a friend who said that God won’t listen to sinners. I said, “Then he won’t listen to any of us, because we’re all sinners. Of course He listens to us.” He was arguing that God wouldn’t hear and answer the prayer of a friend of ours because he was a naughty boy.
Many people feel like that. “God won’t answer my prayer because I’m sinful.” But these last two passages, while they indicate that God won’t answer prayer if you continue to ignore Him, also clearly indicate that if we repent, God is ready to listen. Could sin block your communication with God? Yes. Can you fix it? Yes! Repent! That’s the good news! God wants to listen to you!
1 John 5:14-15 This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 15 And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.
This says that God hears us when we ask according to His will—we ask for something He wants. The problem is: what if I don’t know what God wants? This paralyzes some people. They aren’t sure what God’s will is, so they don’t pray.
ILL: Think of it this way. My grandkids ask me for M&M’s all the time. They don’t wring their hands and worry, “Is it Grandpa’s will for me to have an M&M? Should I ask?” They just ask! And I give them M&M’s…because it’s always my will to give them M&M’s! I ask their parents first, and sometimes I have to say no. But they just ask, and let me sort it out.
So why don’t you tell God what you want and let Him sort it out. Instead of you trying to sort it out for Him, why don’t you let Him sort it out? You may not know what He wants, but He does! He’s listening.
God hears our prayers.
C. God hears our cries.
This is similar to hearing our prayers; in fact, the most primal prayer is the cry of the heart. It is that moment when in trouble, or grief, or pain, or despair, we turn to God and simply cry out, “Help me. Save me.” So it’s a form of prayer, but there are so many verses about this, that I thought it deserved it’s own point. And I think that it’s especially important to remember that in the moment of our greatest need, our deepest pain, our most profound grief, God is there. He is listening. He hears our cry. God will always hear the cry of your heart.
2 Samuel 22:7 In my distress I called to the Lord; I called out to my God. From his temple he heard my voice; my cry came to his ears.
Psalm 6:9 The Lord has heard my cry for mercy; the Lord accepts my prayer.
Psalm 10:17 You hear, O Lord, the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry,
Psalm 22:24 For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help.
Psalm 145:19 He fulfills the desires of those who fear him; he hears their cry and saves them.
God hears our cries.
ILL: This week, my cat died. I loved my cat, and I shed a lot of tears. I held her in my lap as she was dying, and I was crying and praying and honestly feeling kind of stupid. “It’s a cat, Lord. Why am I so broken up?” And God heard me. He reminded me that not a single sparrow falls to the ground without Him knowing it. Then I felt like God said, “It’s not stupid; I know how you feel.”
God hears our cries.
D. God hears our complaints.
I said that God hears everything; He’s always listening to you. I guess this is both good news and bad news. We’ve been talking about the good news, but the bad news is that all of us say some things we really hope God doesn’t hear! But He does. He is always listening.
And one of the things the Bible says He hears is our complaints. The references in Exodus and Numbers tell the story of the Israelites, just delivered from slavery in Egypt, complaining about the food and water during their trek to the Promised Land. Think about it: God has just done miracles to set them free from 4 centuries of slavery! They are free! And God is providing food and water for all of them during their journey—for free! Granted, the diet is a little limited: manna pancakes for breakfast, manna sandwiches for lunch, manna casserole for dinner, and bamanna bread for dessert. But it’s tasty and nutritious—and did I say it’s free! Yet they grumbled…over and over. They drove Moses, and God, crazy with their grumbling. And each time, God would say, “I have heard your complaints,” and it wasn’t good.
So I tossed this point in here as a brief reminder: the next time you grumble about your food (you’ve got some), your job (you’ve got one), or my sermon—remember, God is listening! Maybe remembering that would help us praise more and grumble less.
God hears our complaints. Last point: is there ever a time when God won’t listen to us?
E. God won’t listen when we refuse to listen to Him.
All these verses say basically the same thing, so let’s look at the last one:
Zechariah 7:12-13 They made their hearts as hard as flint and would not listen to the law or to the words that the Lord Almighty had sent by his Spirit through the earlier prophets. So the Lord Almighty was very angry. 13 “ ‘When I called, they did not listen; so when they called, I would not listen,’ says the Lord Almighty.
The Israelites had turned their back on God. They had broken the covenant with God and abandoned their relationship with God. Their hearts were hard; their ears were stopped. They refused to listen to God, to His word, or to His spokesmen, the prophets. Time and again, God sent prophets to woo them back, and their response was either to ignore them or kill them. They stubbornly refused to listen. Finally, broken-hearted, God gave up.
“When I called, they did not listen; so when they called, I would not listen.” You might think that sounds childish, like a kid saying, “if you won’t play, neither will I; I’ll take my ball and go home.” But this is not God being petulant or throwing a hissy fit. This is God broken hearted. This is a God who has tried over and over and over to reach them and they refused to listen. The relationship is broken—and God is all about the relationship.
Could this ever happen to us? Yes. It’s possible to become so hard-hearted that you simply refuse to listen to God, that you abandon the relationship and resist any attempts God makes to reach you. You could break God’s heart.
But I pray that you won’t. I pray that every one of you will have soft hearts, and open ears. I pray that you will want to listen to the God who listens to you.