June 21, 2020
WORDS OF WORSHIP Deuteronomy 6:4, NRSV
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
Lord God, may we truly draw close to you today and worship you alone. May we worship and serve you with all our heart and soul and might. May we listen deeply and understand and obey all that you want us to hear this day. Thank you for your Word, for still speaking your message to us. We are your people, and you alone are our God.
CONFESSION AND PARDON Taken from Jeremiah 17
“5 “This is what the Lord says:
Cursed is the person who trusts humans,
who makes flesh and blood his strength,
and whose heart turns away from the Lord.
6 He will be like a bush in the wilderness.
He will not see when something good comes.
He will live in the dry places in the desert,
in a salty land where no one can live.
7 Blessed is the person who trusts the Lord.
The Lord will be his confidence.
8 He will be like a tree that is planted by water.
It will send its roots down to a stream.
It will not be afraid in the heat of summer.
Its leaves will turn green.
It will not be anxious during droughts.
It will not stop producing fruit.”
Therefore, let us confess the times we have turned away from God with this classic prayer of confession.
Eternal God, in whom we live and move and have our being, whose face is hidden from us by our sins, and whose mercy we forget in the blindness of our hearts: cleanse us from all our offenses, and deliver us from proud thoughts and vain desires, that with reverent and humble hearts we may draw near to you, confessing our faults, confiding in your grace, and finding in you our refuge and strength; through Jesus Christ your Son.
“14 Heal me, O Lord, and I will be healed.
Rescue me, and I will be rescued.
You are the one I praise.”
The Lord hears our prayers, and through the grace offered by Jesus the Christ our sins are forgiven. Thanks be to God!
PASSING THE PEACE
May the peace of Christ be with you.
PRAYER FOR ILLUMINATION
God whose Word brings light, illumine your Word as we listen and read, that we might hear your message clearly and take it to heart.
SCRIPTURE LESSONS Jeremiah 25:1-14, NLT
25:1 This message for all the people of Judah came to Jeremiah from the Lord during the fourth year of Jehoiakim’s reign over Judah. This was the year when King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon began his reign.
2 Jeremiah the prophet said to all the people in Judah and Jerusalem, 3 “For the past twenty-three years—from the thirteenth year of the reign of Josiah son of Amon, king of Judah, until now—the Lord has been giving me his messages. I have faithfully passed them on to you, but you have not listened.
4 “Again and again the Lord has sent you his servants, the prophets, but you have not listened or even paid attention. 5 Each time the message was this: ‘Turn from the evil road you are traveling and from the evil things you are doing. Only then will I let you live in this land that the Lord gave to you and your ancestors forever. 6 Do not provoke my anger by worshiping idols you made with your own hands. Then I will not harm you.’
7 “But you would not listen to me,” says the Lord. “You made me furious by worshiping idols you made with your own hands, bringing on yourselves all the disasters you now suffer. 8 And now the Lord of Heaven’s Armies says: Because you have not listened to me, 9 I will gather together all the armies of the north under King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon, whom I have appointed as my deputy. I will bring them all against this land and its people and against the surrounding nations. I will completely destroy you and make you an object of horror and contempt and a ruin forever. 10 I will take away your happy singing and laughter. The joyful voices of bridegrooms and brides will no longer be heard. Your millstones will fall silent, and the lights in your homes will go out. 11 This entire land will become a desolate wasteland. Israel and her neighboring lands will serve the king of Babylon for seventy years.
12 “Then, after the seventy years of captivity are over, I will punish the king of Babylon and his people for their sins,” says the Lord. “I will make the country of the Babylonians a wasteland forever. 13 I will bring upon them all the terrors I have promised in this book—all the penalties announced by Jeremiah against the nations. 14 Many nations and great kings will enslave the Babylonians, just as they enslaved my people. I will punish them in proportion to the suffering they cause my people.”
Mark 4:24-25, CEB
24 He said to them, “Listen carefully! God will evaluate you with the same standard you use to evaluate others. Indeed, you will receive even more. 25 Those who have will receive more, but as for those who don’t have, even what they don’t have will be taken away from them.”
Hebrews 12:25-27, NCV
25 So be careful and do not refuse to listen when God speaks. Others refused to listen to him when he warned them on earth, and they did not escape. So it will be worse for us if we refuse to listen to God who warns us from heaven. 26 When he spoke before, his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once again I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27 The words “once again” clearly show us that everything that was made—things that can be shaken—will be destroyed. Only the things that cannot be shaken will remain
Jeremiah 33:3, GW
3 Call to me, and I will answer you. I will tell you great and mysterious things that you do not know.
It’s common in our house these days for both my daughter and I to have our headphones on as we listen to music or lectures or TV shows. When we aren’t listening to the same thing, we wear the headphones, so we don’t disturb each other. Well, except for when one of us laughs out loud or exclaims “What?!” We are not quiet listeners. Given all of this you can understand that sometimes it’s hard to get each other’s attention when we have a question or want to share some news or announce that the meal is ready. Some of these conversations are with the headphone, half on and half off, and we hit the pause button on whatever we are listening to. But other times we have set everything else aside and had deep conversations or we have taken turns catching each other up on what we have been doing or studying or watching. The important thing is taking time to listen without distraction when the conversation is important to one or both of us.
It absolutely amazes me that God can listen to all of us at the same time and fully participate and track every single conversation, not only what we say out loud but what we whisper to God in our heads. God’s capacity for listening is unique, but the real question for today is how well we listen to God. Listening is critical to any relationship. When it comes to understanding what God wants for us or asking God to guide us, this discernment process requires listening skills.
I think of what Jesus said in the midst of his teachings, what the NCV translates this way, “Let those with ears use them and listen.” (Matthew 13:9) Jesus often told those around him to listen. Jeremiah also shared many times that God’s people should listen. Jeremiah 5:21 states the concern, “Hear this message, you foolish people who have no sense. They have eyes, but they don’t really see. They have ears, but they don’t really listen.” The word listen appears in Jeremiah 76 times in the translation I reviewed. Melissa Spoelstra writes, “God wants His people to open their ears and listen to Him. God’s repetition of this theme tells us He doesn’t want us to miss this point.”[i]
The Hebrew word “shama… means ‘to hear with attention or interest.’ Shama occurs over one thousand times in the Old Testament.” Listening is important to God, and notice this is not letting things go in one ear and out the other. Shama is attentive, serious listening, no headphones half on, half off. You might have heard this Hebrew word mentioned with regard to the Shema. It’s the verse with which we started worship today. It’s the command to listen in Deuteronomy 6:4, one that is to be recited often, one posted at entryways or worn. The Shema is what is written on the scroll inside the little box mounted by my office door. I learned it as, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one God:” though I like this translation better, “Listen, Israel! The Lord our God is the only true God!” (CEV) Spoelstra quotes another source as saying “‘the Shema is the central prayer in the Jewish prayerbook (Siddur) and is often the first section of Scripture that a Jewish child learns.’” [ii] What completes the Shema is what Jesus called the greatest commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.” (Deuteronomy 6:5, NKJV)
As well as the Judeans should have known these verses, they did not listen to God’s message through the prophet Jeremiah. God allowed the drastic consequences we call the Babylonian exile to get their attention begging them to return to God. Their failure to listen comes up several times in Jeremiah. Spoelstra notes the following:
- They didn’t want to listen. (Jeremiah 6:10)
- They refused to answer God. (7:13)
- They were stubborn. (7:26)
- They were distracted by the world. (35:15)
- They were disobedient. (44:25) [iii]
When we speak to a friend, a colleague, a family member, or even the person we are doing business with over the counter or on the phone, we want them to listen to us. We want to be taken seriously without distraction. We want to be heard and understood accurately. We expect some kind of response even to email or text messages. We hope that the one hearing us will take action if we have made a request. Why would God want any less when God speaks to us? God speaks to us not demanding tribute or servitude as a feudal lord or harsh taskmaster, though God is our sovereign king. But God’s primary motivation in speaking to us is great love. It’s the love of a creator who wants to stay in relationship with his creation, his children. God speaks to us to guide us, to teach us, to protect us, and just to enjoy our company. God still looks for us to listen intently and hopes for results.
So, how do we listen to God? Spoelstra suggests one way is through our curiosity and seeking answers. She writes, “God wants us to use the brain He has given us to question, discuss, and work through things we don’t understand.”[v] This may mean exploring creation and learning more about our Creator in the process. We do this through science.
As you expect it will definitely mean reading God’s Word, but beyond just reading, it includes bringing our questions to the text and digging for answers through study. Spoelstra suggests excellent questions she uses as she reads scripture:
- “What will I learn about God – who [God] is, how [God] interacts with people, what the verses say about [God’s] character?
- “What will I learn about myself – how I approach or not approach [God], what [God] calls me to do or not to do, how [God] expresses His love to me, what keeps me from experiencing [God] more fully?
- “Is there anything that God is specifically saying about my current thoughts, attitudes, or actions?”[vi]
Spoelstra reminds us to talk to God not just about God. I’ve done a lot of teaching on prayer over my years of ministry, even long before I became clergy. Prayer is simply to talk with God. One of the important things I wanted to emphasize is two-way communication, both talking to God and listening to God. We can start with talking to God about our day, about our family and friends, about our concerns, etc. As I said earlier communication is vital to our relationship. So Spoelstra asks, “How close is your relationship with [God]? Do you tell [God] exciting news” When the world is falling apart around you, is [God] the one you run to for help and support? Do your calendar and bank account reveal that [God] is your closest friend?”[viii] That last question may have taken you by surprise, but it goes back to the priorities we talked about last week.
Spoelstra sees the intention of that close relationship in God’s words through Jeremiah 13:11, “As a loincloth clings to a man’s waist, so I created Judah and Israel to cling to me, says the Lord. They were to be my people, my pride, my glory—an honor to my name. But they would not listen to me.” (NLT) That loincloth was a linen undergarment wrapped around the hips from waist to mid-thigh. So it represents an intimate relationship with God, a daily necessity. The word translated as cling you may know better from Genesis 2:24 often said in a wedding service, “That is why a man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, and the two of them become one body.” (NABRE) Again, this is an intimate relationship. The word is variously translated here as joined, united, cleave, hold fast and in Jeremiah as cleaves, clings, and holds tight. The point to be driven home here, is that we are not to let go of God, but hold tight with all our might.
But in Jeremiah’s day the people let go of God. They stopped listening to God’s love messages and ignored God’s warnings. They forgot their history of God’s care for their ancestors. They lost the intimacy God wanted with them. As with the many eras and cultures that have gone before us, we always stand in danger of doing the same.
Let me give you a couple illustrations from my own life. I had a friend who I got together with monthly for nearly 10 years. We would meet at a restaurant, enjoy a meal and catch up on each other’s lives, work, children, etc. But somehow, a couple years ago we stopped. I was busy and didn’t catch on that she was very ill. We had a brief exchange months later, but haven’t contacted each other for over a year now. As I write this, I know I need to do something about that! I used to get together with another friend, a colleague, but when he moved away, and I stopped going to conference, that communication also ended. In terms of human friendships, there is a saying that some are for a season, but I also know I am not good at keeping up with friends.
What if I treated God the same way? Is this perhaps how people slip away from our relationship with God? Not intentionally, but little by little, less attention over time until the gap is so big, we don’t know how to cross it? This is why daily communication with God is so necessary, not only to express to God what’s going on with our lives, but also to hear what God wants to tell us. Listening is the second part of our two-way communication in prayer.
There are so many voices in this world vying for our attention. They come at us by radio, television, email, Facebook, phone, print, and more. It can be dizzying! How do we hear God’s voice in the midst of that cacophony? Jesus promised, “My sheep listen to my voice. I know them and they follow me.” (John 10:27) We want to recognize and respond to that voice.
Spoelstra invites us to “consider three insights God has for us in the Book of Jeremiah related to discerning which voices we should heed.”[ix] First, “Consider the moral character of the messenger.”[x] Jeremiah 23:9-16 gives a list of the morally lacking characteristics of false prophets to avoid. The list includes adultery, evil, abuse of power, ungodly behavior, despicable acts, leading people to sin, dishonesty, encouraging others to do evil, and making up everything they say.[xi] Her point is that a person’s message and life should match, or as my grandma used to say, “Pretty is as pretty does.” Spoelstra writes, “When we are listening to the voices of politicians, preachers, or individuals on TV, we need to evaluate their lives and see if they are in line with what we know about God and [God’s] character.”[xii] Knowing God’s character from what we read in scripture will also help us identify God’s voice amid the noise of the world.
The second point for discernment of the voices around us is to “evaluate the message to see if it lines up with God’s Word.”[xiii] Here is yet another reason to make it a habit to study and know God’s Word in scripture. Just as experts learn how to identify a counterfeit bill by studying genuine bills, so we can learn to distinguish between God’s message and that of a false prophet by studying the original. Spoelstra proclaims, “God’s Word is alive and active. It may deal out severe truth at times, but wouldn’t we rather hear painful truth than comforting lies?”[xiv] Paul wrote to Timothy that people would have itchy ears and listen to what they want to hear rather than to truth.[xv] But Spoelstra insists that “God cares more about our character than our comfort.”[xvi] Sometimes God uses uncomfortable situations to get our attention. That is how God used the Babylonian invasion in Jeremiah’s day and may be how God is using the pandemic and Black Lives Matter along with other tense situations in our world today. Uncomfortable situations challenge us to grow.
To measure someone’s words by biblical standards when seeking God’s authentic message, means that we need to know God’s Word well, reading and studying it for ourselves, not just accepting twisted variations. A few us of us read “Half Truths” by Adam Hamilton. He takes common sayings people accept as biblical and shows where society has mixed up the wording and the meaning. Taking the time for our own study may seem overwhelming, but reading God’s Word a little each day, looking up some scholarly interpretation on a regular basis, joining a Bible study group or reading a well written study book is worth the effort.
The third point for discerning God’s message is to “ask the right questions.”[xvii] As we read and study with active rather than passive listening, we bring appropriate questions to the task. It’s like when a scientist poses a hypothesis and then asks questions and performs various tests to see whether or not it is accurate and true. A scientist does this to better understand the things of our world, find truths and laws that can be relied on in other scenarios. Scholars come to scripture with questions and tests to better understand and reveal the truths and laws God has set for us. If we only take a surface reading in one translation from our own cultural context, we may totally misinterpret what was originally intended.
Spoelstra suggests bringing the following questions to our study of scripture:
- “What is being presented?
- Does it line up with the whole of Scriptures?
- What is the historical and cultural context?
- What interpretations do biblical scholars/commentaries offer?
- What does it tell me about God’s heart and character?
- Where does this message need specific or general application in my life?”[xviii]
In a way the process of discernment is a dialog with God. We bring our concerns, our doubts, our questions all to God who patiently listens to us knowing the sincerity of our hearts. As a child, Melissa was taught Jeremiah 33:3 by a Sunday School teacher who said 3-3-3 was God’s phone number.[xix] I read it to you right before the sermon. Let me read it to you again. “3 Call to me, and I will answer you. I will tell you great and mysterious things that you do not know.” God is waiting for us to ask; then God will reveal answers to us. Jeremiah asked God his questions. Spoelstra writes, “Jeremiah approaches God with confidence, rehearsing characteristics about who God is and how [God] behaves. He asks specific questions. He expresses his frustrations over things that don’t make sense to him. He admits his own faults and asks God to correct him when he is wrong.”[xx]
I don’t know about you, but as I look at situations in the world and in my own surroundings, I have a lot of questions. It’s not so much that I want God to explain everything to me; I don’t need to know everything. But I do want to know the right thing to do in various circumstances. I want to say the right thing when I preach, when I teach, when I’m working with wedding couples, when I’m talking with family or friends. I want God’s advice on my spending, my health, and even simple day to day tasks. I want my life to be guided by God, so I need to have good listening habits to discern God’s answers.
As I write this, I pray that God will guide us, and that we will listen attentively, with regard to the ongoing concerns related to COVID-19 and all that we struggle with globally because of it. I pray we will listen to God’s Word in scripture and from modern day prophets with regard to justice issues here in the United States and around the world. I pray that where injustice exists, we will be willing to change. I pray that as the Church globally, and as a congregation locally, we will bring our questions to God and sincerely, intently listen for God’s answers, not to save an institution, but to continue God’s work in the world and enhance the relationship between God and all people. I encourage you daily, to seek God’s Word, and listen intently for God’s answer.
AFFIRMATION Apostle’s Creed, Ecumenical Version p. 14
I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died, and was buried;
he descended to the dead.
On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and the life everlasting. Amen.
PRAYERS 1 John 5:14-15
God of power and might, we trust in you.
As you stood with your people in crisis in the past,
As you fought to bring your captives home
When they turned back to you,
As you have watched over your people for millennia,
We pray for your grace to heal the wounds of our day.
We pray for areas of tension around the world:
Tension between North and South Korea,
Tension between India and China, and
Tension within the US.
We pray for police departments as they revise policies and training.
We pray for legislation toward a better future for all.
We pray for those still being diagnosed with COVID-19,
For families who have lost loved ones to this disease,
For those still seeking a cure and those still caring for the ill.
We pray for those making decisions about reopening including our Session.
We pray for those doing all the behind the scenes work of cleaning and sanitizing
To make our world safer for us all.
Keep us mindful in the midst of uncomfortable protocols
That it is a way to show love for one another as well as caring for ourselves.
For all these concerns and other needs we name in our hearts,
We seek your healing and grace, your wisdom and strength.
PRAYER OF THANKSGIVING
Faithful God who blesses us,
In the midst of these difficulties, we pause to remember your mercy.
We give you thanks and praise for each new day,
And the fresh start it represents in our lives.
We thank you for keeping your promise to always be with us.
We thank you for the simple joys of living,
For the things that make us smile and the things that make us laugh out loud.
We thank you for our friends, our families, our neighbors, our colleagues.
We thank you for delicious foods, for clean water, for any good night’s sleep.
Lord, may we continue to praise your name
And count our blessings every day we draw breath.
And now with your church through the centuries in every nation, let us pray:
THE LORD'S PRAYER
Our Father, who art in heaven,
Hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come, thy will be done
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.
Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom and the power
And the glory forever. Amen.
CHARGE & BLESSING Jeremiah 29:11, NRSV
For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.
May you truly listen to all the Lord has to say to you this week, reading God’s Word daily as God’s message of love to you.
[i] Melissa Spoelstra, Jeremiah: Daring to Hope in an Unstable World, p. 1481 (using a Kindle copy, page # actually refer to Kindle location #)
[ii] p. 1512
[iii] p. 1538
[iv] p. 1543
[v] p. 1572
[vi] p. 1582, 1588
[viii] p. 1663
[ix] p. 1757
[x] p. 1760
[xi] p. 1768
[xiii] p. 1806
[xiv] p. 1822
[xv] 2 Timothy 4:3
[xvi] Spoelstra, p. 1867
[xvii] p. 1912
[xviii] p. 1930
[xix] p. 1966
[xx] p. 1984
Jeremiah lived 2600 years ago, but has as much to say to our world today as he did to Judah then. The Bible Study from which I am taking much of this series is Jeremiah: Daring to Hope in an Unstable World by Melissa Spoelstra. A Bible Study to accompany the sermons can be found at Faith Adventures.