"Listening Every Day"

December 7, 1997 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland  USA
based upon Luke 1:39-56

Little by little we are preparing this sanctuary for Christmas, as well as preparing ourselves for the coming of our Lord. Last week, the candles were put in the windows, which drew our attention to the glass, and the hazy view it allows of what’s outside. We recalled the words of the apostle Paul: "for now we see in a mirror dimly." While we are presently in the process of God transforming us so that "one day we will see (him) face to face," our responsibility is to keep in focus the essentials. "Faith, hope, love abide," Paul affirmed in the verse after his mention of dim mirror sight, "but the greatest of these (our focal point) is love."

For this Sunday, as you can see, the wooden candle wheels have been hung, wrapped in greenery for the season. These decorations draw our attention upward. This upward glance is important in two ways. The most obvious involves the movement beyond ourselves toward God. When the early Christians prayed, they did so not with heads bowed, but with faces raised, looking toward the source of their salvation. As should always be the case in worship, this morning we reach beyond ourselves to God, and these wheels help us look up.

There is another aspect to this upward glance, though. In looking toward the ceiling we see areas which are not that easy to clean. Notice any cobwebs? Unless the sermon is really boring, we don’t often see such things. Then again, I have noticed some upward glances as I’ve preached, but I attributed that to the inspiration of the moment. Maybe you are already aware of all the nooks and crannies up there needing a good dusting. Actually, being "inspired" involves becoming aware of all the areas in our lives that need tidying up, some of which are very hard to reach.

This morning I want us to center on one of the ways in which we find such inspiration on a daily basis. I plan on extending a year-long challenge for you in relation to it, so be prepared. In a way, the Bible is like these wooden candle wheels. When we read or listen to it, our attention is drawn beyond ourselves - we look up, so to speak. In so doing, we see the source of our salvation. We also see the ways in which we fall short, the places in our lives which need cleaning up. However, like these hanging wheels, the Bible often feels just a bit out of reach to us, doesn’t it? That’s probably the reason it is the most purchased, least read book in America. It graces many coffee tables or shelves, but gathers dust - just like the person who fails to open it.

You know, I like these candle wheels for another reason. They’re not made out of finely crafted materials. They’re not plated with gold or silver or bronze, or coated with many layers of white paint. They’re simply made out of wood. If I’m not mistaken, this wood came from our old church building... The Bible is a bit like that. We have this image of it as gold-plated or whitewashed, but it is really made of pretty earthy materials. These are real people in these pages, real in the sense of being more like you and me than some superman or woman. That’s one of the fascinating things about this book. It’s filled with stories of people who are far from perfect, who don’t have it all together, who struggle with those essentials we spoke of earlier: faith, hope, and love.

This morning’s readings from Luke’s gospel reveals some very real people, if we allow ourselves to see them as they are and not as we think they should be. One of the dangers of repeating the stories over and over again, as we do with the nativity scriptures every year, is that they take on a holy shine in our minds which blinds us to what is really real. Mary, the mother of Jesus, becomes larger than life. Now, modern folks try to bring her down to size by taking away the doctrine of the virgin birth, which itself is a hard pill to swallow in this day and age. I’m mean, really, we know the birds and the bees. It takes two to tango, and you can’t go blaming your mistakes on God. What young woman would be believed if she told a story like that?

"An angel came, and the next thing I knew I was pregnant. He said "the power of the most high will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called the Son of God." That’s how it happened, Mom and Dad. Really."

Don’t believe that people back then weren’t a bit suspicious of that line. The fact that it makes it into the remembered story is evidence. Things are remembered for a purpose. Luke included those lines for a reason. He could’ve left them out as an embarrassment, but he didn’t. Think about it. There are plenty of embarrassing aspects to our faith. I mean, how do you explain your experience with God. I think many of us are shy about sharing our faith with others because we don’t really have words for it. When Liz Evans and Melissa Smith tried to tell us during worship one Sunday about their experience at camp this summer, they couldn’t get it out. When Liz was baptized the other week, Dave Ricci shared some things she wrote about her relationship with God, words we reprinted in the newsletter, which - if she said them to her classmates - might result in her becoming the laughingstock of Bel Air High School. How do you describe this relationship we have with God?

Let me make a simple case for regular reading of the Bible. It gives us words to speak about the unspeakable. This morning’s scripture lesson is an example. After her experience with the angel Gabriel, Mary went to visit Elizabeth. This was one of those intergeneration moments, for Elizabeth was quite a bit older than Mary. We might expect Mary to be leaning on Elizabeth as an elder who has been there, done that - full of grandmotherly-type advice. However, as it turns out, both were pregnant. Elizabeth had herself experienced something spectacular. Only, in her case, it was Elizabeth’s age and her previous barrenness that was the defining issue for her. When these women met, there was a deep, common bond established between them.

What happened next? Elizabeth had something to say about Mary, and then Mary spoke. What were Mary’s first recorded words after her encounter with Gabriel? Well, when we read it, we find a lot of similarities with the words of another woman in the Bible. When Hannah brought her child to the temple at Shiloh, to give him to the Lord’s service as her response to God’s answer to prayer, she sang out: "My heart exults in the LORD; my strength is exalted in my God. My mouth derides my enemies, because I rejoice in my victory. There is no Holy One like the LORD, no one besides you; there is no Rock like our God." (1 Samuel 2:1-2) Of course, her song is several more verses long. Mary’s song to Elizabeth is very similar, beginning: "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior." (Luke 1:46-47) The words and structure of what she sang is very close to Hannah’s song.

Now, scholars point out that these verses are probably later additions to the story and not the exact words of these women. That may be the case. After all, I wasn’t there. The point is, though, that this is the story as we have received it. And it gives us clues to giving voice to what we can’t explain. Where do we turn for words? Do we pull them out of the sky? No, the Bible provides a language for us. If, indeed, Mary spoke these words, they came from the recesses of her memory as a young person who had been listening to the scriptures over the years in the synangogue. She made them her own, adapting them to her experience, which is something God’s Spirit helps us to do - to both remember and to adapt.

Now, we won’t have those words in mind when we need them if we don’t regularly pay attention to them. Hear me well, I am not making a case for using King James Version language in our daily lives. We have to adapt the words, translate them in our everyday walk. When I picked my mother up at the bus station the other week, we passed a street preacher crying out with a megaphone. While I don’t doubt his sincerity, he didn’t make much sense because he was just babbling biblical quotes. If we ever could do that, we can’t any more, because the Bible is not the known book it once was, if it was. We have to translate what it says into our own experience. That’s not a Bible scholar’s job - it’s everybody’s task.

The only way we can do that, though, is if we live with the texts every day, make them a part of our daily walk. Therein involves my challenge to you. Are you willing to listen to God’s Word throughout the week, not just on Sunday? That’s really the only way it is absorbed and becomes a resource to draw upon. We can’t pull the words we need like a rabbit out of a hat. They have to come from somewhere. Often, when people hear God speak during times of prayer, it comes in the form of something that has already been said in the Bible. They pick it up because it has already touched them. That’s how it is in a relationship. Much of what we say to each other, we’ve said before.

I challenge you to commit yourself to reading through the Bible in 1998. Consider it a birthday present to Jesus. How you do it doesn’t really matter. Whether you’re a morning or a night person, the time for reading needs to be your own choice. What matters is that you do it at some time. What translation you use also is inconsequential. We currently have a glut of them. Just find one that speaks to you and use it! If reading is a problem, there are tapes available to listen to as you work or drive. Ask and you shall receive. We’ve enclosed a daily reading guide from the Maryland Bible Society in the bulletin. Following it won’t get you all the way through the Bible in one year, but it’s a good tool nevertheless. There are others. Some like those daily Bibles which have selections printed out in a day by day fashion. I like to read through the books, getting as far as I can in a given amount of time. How you do it depends upon you. I simply challenge you to do it, realizing that many of you already are.

Granted, there is much that doesn’t make sense to us when we read the Bible. However, you don’t stop paying attention to those you love when they don’t make sense, do you? "Now I know in part," the apostle Paul wrote, "one day I will know fully, even as I have been fully known."

Let me add an additional challenge. We often make promises that fall by the wayside. There are, after all, lots of nooks and crannies full of cobwebs, of which we become aware when we look up. We commit ourselves to read the Bible every day, and then we miss a day, and before we know it we miss another and another. We get behind and then we give up. There is, after all, plenty of other things we could do. What if we had a friend who would periodically check up with our progress, someone who cared about us, who could say those words of grace we need to hear: "okay, you’ve gotten out of the habit, just get back up and keep going - you don’t have to catch up. I’m with you." What if we could be able to share those words with someone else? Friendship.

This morning’s nativity story is really a story of 2 women friends. Yes, they were related to one another, and they were of different ages - but they discovered in one another a friend to walk with as good news was growing within them. There are many other Bible stories about such friends - real people, not gold-plated or whitewashed. Men as well as women. We all need such friends, especially if we’re trying to clean out the cobwebs in the rafters of our daily walk with Christ.

As we sing the next hymn, consider my challenges. If you wish to commit yourself to really listening to God’s Word in 1998 as a gift to Christ, check the line to that effect at the bottom of the white insert. If you would further appreciate being connected up with a friend to help you remain faithful, check that line as well. We’ll see what we can arrange. Then sign it, tear it off and place it in the offering. Let’s now sing a song of expectation, # 178.

1997Peter L. Haynes

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