March 9. 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
As you probably have discovered by now, our Lenten theme for this year is “Sensing the Glory of God.” Rather than deny our senses, as so often the season of fasting might imply, we are celebrating this Lent how our five senses draw us closer to God, in moments of daylight and darkness. To that end, we’ll be focusing our attention, through our five senses, on stories from the gospel of Matthew. We are starting with the sense of hearing, and we’ve chosen this episode that is full of sounds, sounds of all sorts. Normally, we have the scripture reading up on the screen, and many of us read and follow along as the scripture is read. This week, I invite you to close your eyes and simply listen carefully. Listen especially for what sounds you hear—voices, noises, all types of sounds. Listen! for God’s word to us today in Matthew 8: 18-34:
Now when Jesus saw great crowds around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. A scribe then approached and said, "Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go." And Jesus said to him, "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." Another of his disciples said to him, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." But Jesus said to him, "Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead."
And when he got into the boat, his disciples followed him. A windstorm arose on the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves; but he was asleep. And they went and woke him up, saying, "Lord, save us! We are perishing!"
And he said to them, "Why are you afraid, you of little faith?" Then he got up and rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm.
They were amazed, saying, "What sort of man is this, that even the winds and the sea obey him?"
When he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demoniacs coming out of the tombs met him. They were so fierce that no one could pass that way. Suddenly they shouted, "What have you to do with us, Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?" Now a large herd of swine was feeding at some distance from them. The demons begged him, "If you cast us out, send us into the herd of swine." And he said to them, "Go!" So they came out and entered the swine; and suddenly, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and perished in the water. The swineherds ran off, and on going into the town, they told the whole story about what had happened to the demoniacs.
Then the whole town came out to meet Jesus; and when they saw him, they begged him to leave their neighborhood.
What did you hear, in these two stories?
Did you hear the yearning in the voices of those who spoke to Jesus? the authority with which he answered them?
Did you hear the waves slapping against the boat? the wind shrieking in their ears, the dull thud of feet on the wooden boat as they scrambled to secure the sails?
Did you hear the desperation in the voice of the disciples, crying “Lord, save us!”? and the eerie calm that followed Jesus’ command?
Did you hear the wonder in their voices as they asked, “What sort of man is this?” and could you make out what they were saying as they murmured, when they got off the boat in that place of tombs, where demonic forces possessed two men?
Could you hear the faint hope in the malevolent voices of the possessed men? Was there a hint of irony or humor when Jesus granted their request, and sent them into a herd of swine?
Do you know what it would sound like, a herd of swine tearing down a hillside, and splashing into the sea, squealing and grunting in porcine terror? And lastly, could you hear the footsteps as the swineherders ran to town, perhaps in fear for what the owner of the pigs would say, and certainly in awe of what they had just seen.
Did you make out the uncertainty in the voices of the spokespersons who led the townspeople, the firm yet fearful request that he get out of town?
We are trained, from earliest childhood, to listen. From our first days, loving parents lean into our cribs, eager to hear us babble, to laugh, to form the first words, which they dutifully record in our baby books. At least that’s the case for most firstborns among us – the farther along the line we get, the less likely anyone is to jot that down! Younger sibling issues aside, in most families, baby’s first words are a milestone.
Then the words come faster – who is that? what does the doggy say? what sound does a duck make? can you say bye-bye?
Somewhere down the line, after we have demonstrated that we are acquiring language, the emphasis shifts for most children from talking to listening: Put that down. Don’t touch. Get in the car. I’ve already told you. Listen to your teacher. Soon enough, we are encouraged to filter out certain sounds. Why don’t you listen? Turn off that music and pay attention to what I am saying. Don’t listen to that kid – he will only get you in trouble. Ignore that child – she is just trying to get a rise out of you. Don’t mind the thunder, just go to sleep.
Eventually, it becomes difficult to know whether to listen or ignore, whether we are hearing sound, or merely noise, whether we should tune in or turn away. We even stop listening to ourselves. We begin to think that saying a thing is as good as doing it. We stop listening for the voice of God. We approach Jesus with our half-intended promises: “I’ll follow you anywhere. “But first, let me take care of some personal matters.”
We get into the boat with him, all of us, ready to venture out, his people, but when the storms hit, when the noise is deafening around us, when the rain dribbles and then trickles and then gushes through the leaky roof, and the church seems to be gasping its last, splashing uselessly, drowning in its own history, we scream in helpless anxiety:
“Lord! Save us! We are perishing!”
We barely hear him rebuke the storm, and in the silence that follows, we are uncomfortable. Still, we are with him, crossing over to the other side, where we meet the unfamiliar, the unusual, the unlike us sort of people. In uneasy quiet we plod after him into the cemetery. We hear the screams of these fierce people, the inhuman sounds they make, and we see how very different, how frightening they are. We step back, stumbling over each other to make a retreat.
Who among us does not want to go back to the boat, back to the other side, back to the familiar past? Jesus speaks again, calming yet another storm, a storm that rages in human hearts. He casts it away with a word of authority, only one word: GO! And then, because we are so frail, so hard of hearing, we do not hear God’s glory in that sound. We only hear the squealing of swine splashing in the sea. Our thoughts turn to property – pigs, not people – and we hear our hearts pounding in our ears as the townspeople gather to send Jesus away.
How deaf we are! Not because we cannot hear, not because we need hearing aids, but because our ears have tuned out the words of Jesus. We choose not to listen when his call places demands on us – on our time, on our loyalty, on the limits of our love. Our fear drowns out his calming voice when our frail boat is rocked by raging winds. Not only the wind and waves obey his voice, but the forces of evil, that drive men mad, are stilled at one word from him. He speaks, and the sound of his voice is NOT like that of an angel. It is a voice of power and authority, that commands chaos and destroys the worst demons of our imaginings.
Perhaps we resist hearing his voice because we know that to hear him would mean to decide, to follow, to turn away from self and toward that boat that awaits us, to take away from these safe and satisfied shores, away from these familiar places and people and toward the strange and unknown. We are frightened. We want him to save us. We know we are perishing. But we are not sure that we want to go where he is leading. But listen!
This voice of authority is the same voice that spoke the world into being, the voice that echoed across the face of the deep and said, “Let there be light.”
This voice of power that calls us is the same voice that spoke to Moses, saying “I am who I am. I shall be who I shall be. It is the voice that called to Abraham and Sarah, promising the impossible, the laughable, the covenant.
You can hear the voice that called the prophets, that promised redemption, even from slavery, even in the face of faithlessness, the voice that called the people back, saying “Come home. I love you.”
Do you hear him? a baby crying in the night, a child reading in the temple, a son speaking to his mother?
You can hear him telling stories, hear his healing voice, hear him teaching love, hear him saying “Today, you will be with me in paradise.” His glory is everywhere to be heard for those who have ears, ringing through death’s dark valleys, echoing from the mountaintops, speaking gently in the darkness, and in the cooing of the turtledove, the giggling of children, the singing of his church, the soothing murmur of voices in prayer and work and worship.
All around us, Jesus Christ is at work in the world, and the sound of glory can be heard by all who have ears, by all who will listen.