“Are You Listening?
Grace to you and peace from him who is and who was and who is to come, and from the seven spirits who are before his throne, and from Jesus Christ the faithful witness, the firstborn of the dead, and the ruler of kings on earth.
You will have been struck by John’s use of the number seven in reference to spirits. John loved symbolic language, using numerology frequently. He employs the number seven 54 times in Revelation: seven spirits, seven golden lampstands, seven stars, seven churches, seven torches, seven seals, seven eyes, seven thunders, angels, plagues, and bowls. He uses this number because, to the ancients, it meant perfection. So, in his greeting, he does not mean there are seven spirits or even seven churches, but that he greets Christ’s perfect Bride, his Church, from the perfect Holy Spirit of Christ.
John begins his letter to the seven churches, to the Church, with a typical New Testament word. He offers them the gifts of Christ’s Spirit. Those who listen to the Word of God and keep what is written therein, will notice not only the gifts, but also understand how these gifts are apprehended. This is what I want to speak to you about this morning: how we get the gifts of God. After all, we are laid back a bit when we hear the blessing of chapter one, verse three read aloud. It seems there are two parts: hearing and keeping. The first part seems simple enough, if we have ears to hear. The second part seems tougher—keeping or doing what we hear. Are you listening?
At this point, I am always reminded of my parents, especially my mother. Whenever I did not do what was expected of me, or what she had just told me to do, she did not seem so interested in what I had not done as she was with the condition of my ears. To make sure they were working, she would address me with all three of my names. Whenever I heard, “Mark Edwin Ryman,” I knew I had not been using my ears. It always went something like this.
“Mark Edwin Ryman…”
“Did you hear me?”
You’ve been here before, haven’t you? Many of you have experienced this as both child and parent. If you answered, “Yes, I heard you,” then concern for the ears was concluded. Now the concern moved to why you hadn’t done what you were told.
“Did you hear me?”
“Then why didn’t you do what I told you?”
Of course, the time-honored response is:
“I don’t know.”
In our first reading this morning, Isaiah quotes God saying, “Pay attention to me.” How are we to do this, to pay attention to God? We are to give him our ears; we must listen. But to the Hebrew speaker, this meant something more like what my Mom meant. When she asked, “Did you hear me?” she meant, “Then why didn’t you do what I told you?” Isaiah’s audience knew that hearing meant obedience, observance, keeping what had been said. This is very important because when God speaks, he also expects observance of his word. Although his salvation goes out to the coastlands of the world, he judges all people too. So, you’d better be listening—hearing and keeping.
Now, there is no excuse for not hearing God. We in North Carolina have lived through hurricanes and floods lately. The Lord is mightier than the thunder of the waters, the psalmist reminded us today. Another Psalm declares that “God’s voice is above the waters” (Psa 29:3). The only excuse for not hearing him is that we aren’t listening. Are you listening?
When I was a boy, we had a morning radio talk show host named Smiling Bob on WBLY. When I was sick and had to stay home from school, I would hear Smiling Bob on Mom’s radio. Sometimes the conversations would turn religious and someone would always phone in that the end was coming. I recall, Bob saying that when Jesus did come back, a lot of religious people wouldn’t even recognize him. That’s probably true, in a sense.
I would like to put a spin on that idea. When Jesus comes in the clouds and every eye sees him, I wonder if even then every ear will hear. I wonder if, at his return, Jesus might want to say something like, “Did you hear me?”
Are you listening?
You will still have the opportunity to listen, to hear, and to observe, right up to the end, to the last hour. It requires wakefulness. Perhaps alertness is a good word. Paul speaks to this in the sixth chapter of his letter to the Church in Ephesus where he tells them to keep alert in prayer (Eph 6:18). It’s part of the broader sweep of his pen that begins in the fifth chapter where he promises, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you” (Eph 5:14). Sandwiched between these two mentions of wakefulness or alertness, is a passage you will remember well, the one about putting on the full armor of God.
Again, we take pause. So much to do. Put on this, put on another thing. What if I’m not dressed properly to deal with the cosmic powers of darkness? What if I haven’t buckled on truth, or been righteous or peaceful enough? What if I don’t have enough faith? This is how we read so many of the comforting passages of Scripture. We make them about us. They are not about us; they are for us.
The Scriptures are about Christ, a fact to which he himself declares. John quotes Jesus: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life” (John 5:39–40). Therein is the key.
The story is told of WC Fields, who was visited by a friend shortly before his death in 1946. His friend was surprised to find Fields sitting in the garden of a sanitarium, reading the Holy Bible. When his friend asked, “What are you doing?” Fields answered, “I’m looking for loopholes.”
“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life.” They bear witness to Jesus, the resurrection and the life, the Alpha and Omega, the one who is and who was and who is to come, the eternal God. Yet too many refuse to come to him so that they may have life (John 5:39–40).
So, if you are listening, how do you hear the Scripture? Is it about what you must do to be saved, or is it about what has been done for you so that you are saved? Is it about your works for God or your faith in the work of God? When you hear the latter, you are listening and observing. This is what Luther means in his explanation of the First Commandment where he says we should fear, love, and trust God above all things.
We ought to fear God in such a way that we are compelled to keep his commandments. Yet, as long as we are in this body of sin, we will sin. So, when we do sin, do we continue to love God, or do we simply fear him? Do we trust in his love for us, even when we break his commandments?
Again, it depends upon whether we are listening, and if we are hearing rightly. We get caught up in individual commands instead of the greatest commandment. Recall that Jesus was asked by a so-called expert in the law what the greatest commandment is. “‘Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?’ And he said to him, ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets’” (Matthew 22:36–40). All of the commandments hang on this one. Are you listening?
But again, we ask ourselves, Do I love the Lord enough? Luther would tell you that you do not. Not one of us loves him with her whole heart, let alone all her strength and mind. Or do we? Keep listening.
When you find that you have failed to fear God and love God, can you trust him? Can you trust his great love for you, sinners? After all, it is his love for the likes of us that sent the Son into the world to save sinners. Do you trust God to love you despite your sins?
Are you able to hear that his will is being done on earth as it is in heaven, right now, this very morning—that there is grace for you, and peace as well, and that it does not come to you because of the things you do? It is the will of God in Jesus Christ, the King of kings, he who was and is and is to come, that you have the peace that comes from having received his grace. This comes from the perfect knowledge that he has freed you from your sins by his blood, not your sweat. This is to his glory, not yours.
So what are you to do, you still wonder? I must have to do something. Okay. Trust in God. This is the final, if not the greatest command he has given.
“And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us” (1 John 3:23).
That is all a good king ever wants from his subjects: their loving trust in him. This is how we keep the faith and the commandments: by believing in the one who has kept and fulfilled them for us when we could not.
Are you listening? Then believe. As you come to the table this morning, believe. Believe in him. Believe in the righteousness of our King, not the faithfulness of his subjects. And out of this trust, sinners, springs love of one another and the desire to continue trying to keep the rest of his commandments.
“Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear, and who keep what is written in it, for the time is near” (Rev 1:3). That is how you keep what is written in Scripture. Believe in Jesus Christ your King and love his subjects who are sinners just like you, always trusting in your King’s great love.