Last week we thought a little about God’s communicative nature. God who spoke the world into being, who speaks to us in the Bible and who, ultimately speaks to us in Jesus, the word made flesh.
This week we are going to develop that a bit further, because communication isn't just about speaking; it’s also about listening. In fact, perhaps I have done these sessions a bit backwards, because for speaking to be effective, listening really has to come first. In the Bible, there is just as much emphasis on God being a God who listens as there is on his speech.
Take that first reading we heard, from the book of Exodus. It is a crucial moment in the story of Moses. In fact it is THE crucial moment. If it hadn't been for this moment, when Moses turned aside to see what was happening when he came across a bush on fire, yet not being burnt up, then he would have been unknown, and the Hebrew people would have remained slaves in Egypt, never returning to their Promised Land. It all turns on this moment.
Moses is on the run, out in the desert. He had had high hopes of making a real difference to his people, the Israelites, but it had all gone wrong and in a surge of rage he had killed an Egyptian and hidden his body. He had to scarper fast, and when he got out into the wilderness beyond Egypt he soon figured it was safer to stay there and make his home there.
In any case, what was the point of going back? His attempt to help had backfired. There was no hope of liberation for the Israelites, and it seemed their God - his God – had forgotten them or just didn't care.
That’s why it matters so much not only that he encountered God in this burning bush, but what God said to him from it. The first thing, the main thing, God wants him to know is that he, God, has heard the cries of the Israelites. He hasn't been deaf to them, as Moses thought, or forgotten them. And having heard, he is going to answer their cries , through Moses as it happens. God has heard. God is listening.
In the Gospel reading, Zechariah makes the same, startling discovery. He was a priest, one of many who served in the Temple, taking their turn to do the most sacred jobs. Burning incense in the sanctuary was one of those, a real privilege. As a priest, Zechariah took the prayers of the people into the presence of God for them. But there was a prayer of his own which he had long since given up on, a prayer that he and his wife, Elizabeth, might have a child. They had waited and waited, but now it was too late. There’s something very poignant about Zechariah’s faithfulness in offering the prayers of others while apparently having put to one side the thing he most wanted in the world, evidently thinking that it would never be granted.
But when the angel appears to him, the first thing he tells him is “Zechariah, your prayer has been heard”. Impossible though it seems, Elizabeth is pregnant. What is more, not only will there be a child, but that child will be the forerunner of the Messiah. When he is born, Zechariah sings that in him “by the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high shall break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death and to guide our feet in to the way of peace.” (Luke 1.78)
Listening is often the most precious gift we can give to another, hearing them truly, giving our full attention. If you've ever experienced being listened to like that you’ll know how precious it is. Listening is a big part of my work, and one of its greatest privileges, but it saddens me how often I find that people are unused to being listened to and don’t expect to be heard. Why should their stories matter? Why should anyone be interested in them? It can be utterly revolutionary for someone to be listened to, something that changes their life completely.
For Christians that listening is rooted in the listening of God. “We love, because God first loved us”, says the first letter of John. The same is true for listening, “we listen” – or at least we should do – “because God first listened to us.” It is only when we take in the awesome truth that God hears us, that God cares, that God believes that what we have to say – the deepest and most secret cries of our heart – are important and worth his attention, that we can learn to pay attention to others. Real attention doesn't just want to fix them, or humour them, or impress them with our own goodness or cleverness. Real attention – simply hearing – opens the gateway of grace for them, enabling them to know that God hears and loves them too.
Tonight we meet the God who listens. In our silence, we might like to ponder whether we believe that, and ask what God might be hearing in our lives at the moment, the cries that we hide from others, and maybe even from ourselves, the fears and hopes that we have buried because we think no one is listening to them.