Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Selective Listening

Heb. 12:18-29[1]
Anybody who has spent any time at all around teenagers knows the phenomenon called “selective hearing.” It’s what happens whenever adults open their mouths to convey important information. You know the drill—Teenager: “The teacher gave me a message and she said it’s important.” Parent: “Okay, what is it.” Teenager: “I dunno. I forgot.” Or there’s this one—Parent: “Did you clean up your room.” Teenager: “No—you didn’t tell me to.” Parent: “Yes I asked you to do it this morning.” Teenager: “Oh. I forgot.” As a parent, you know that it’s not a matter of “I forgot.” They didn’t even hear you in the first place. They were exercising their “selective hearing.”
To some extent it’s a skill we all have to develop in order to navigate the (post)modern world. We are bombarded with so much information from so many competing voices that we simply cannot possibly process it all. We have to tune some of it out; that means we have to choose which of it we will pay attention to. We have to develop the skill of “selective listening.” But it seems to me that “selective listening” is not only important for surviving the information explosion. It’s also something we need to keep our faith vital and alive. In the midst of all the competing voices in our world—voices of fear and anger, voices of hatred and violence—God calls us to a different way of life with the voice of joy, and love, and justice, and peace.
But our “selective listening” is even important if we want to make sense out of the Bible! Our lesson from Hebrews for today recounts the story of the people of Israel at Sinai. It was an experience that was terrifying for them; even Moses was afraid! And the voice that came to them was a voice of warning: “Any who touch the mountain shall be put to death.” (Exodus 19:12). The gist of the message was clear—don’t you dare try to get close to God, or you will die. But the apostle to the Hebrews encourages his audience to do just that—to draw near to God—on another mountain, Zion, the place where God’s promises of salvation are realized.[2]
While there is a lot going on behind the scenes here, what I want to point out is that the apostle to the Hebrews encourages some “selective listening” on the part of Christians who need help holding onto their faith. He doesn’t want them to take the warnings at Sinai as the “final word” about God’s demeanor toward them. He doesn’t want them to run away for fear that if they get too close to God, they will die. Rather he wants them to draw near to God through Jesus Christ.[3]
This is the essence of my class on “Reading the Bible in a Decent and Orderly Way”—we all engage in some kind of selective listening when it comes to Scripture. Of course, the question arises whether we just “pick and choose” in this process. While some people definitely do—and it usually seems to be those who insist the loudest that they take the Bible “literally”—that is not going to help us make sense of Scripture. In a very real sense, we must discern the principles within the Bible itself for this process of selective listening. They include:
· The Bible’s message is conveyed through the plain sense of the words.[4] That means we don’t need a supercomputer to find some hidden “Bible Code!”
· The Bible’s message must be sorted out from the setting in which it was spoken.[5] That means not every word of Scripture reflects enduring truth!
· The Bible should be read under the guidance of the Spirit and in the context of the church.[6] This means we have to go beyond just “that’s what it means to me.”
· The Bible teaches us that we are to live with justice, mercy, and love.[7] If our reading of Scripture produces actions or attitudes that are not consistent with that, we need to go back and read it again.
· The Bible’s message is focused on the person of Jesus Christ, who is the Living Word of God.[8] In a sense, I think we can apply a version of “what would Jesus do” here—if what we think is the “truth” of Scripture is something we cannot envision Jesus endorsing, then we have missed something.[9]
These are just the most obvious principles for our selective listening, but if we use them to develop this art and skill, I believe, and it has been my experience, that it can help us keep from “missing the forest for the trees.” It helps us stay on track with our faith and our lives, if for no other reason than it reinforces the conviction that God is a God who is working to bring grace and mercy and peace into all our lives. A good dose of “selective listening” helps us tune out some of the voices of fear and anger in our world, and hear the voice of God speaking words of life to us.

[1] © 2010 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/22/10 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.
[2] See Craig Koester, Hebrews, 550; cf. also Thomas G. Long, Hebrews, 140: from the perspective of the apostle to the Hebrews, “not only is there but one God; astonishingly there is actually only one mountain. Sinai and Zion are the same place: the dwelling of the Holy God. … Mount Sinai is transformed into Mount Zion—if we go there with Jesus.”
[3] Cf. Koester, Hebrews, 549: “The voice at Sinai warned people not to draw near, while the voice of Christ’s blood conveys a sense of grace through the new covenant, encouraging listeners to draw near.”
[4] Cf. Jack Rogers, Reading the Bible & the Confessions the Presbyterian Way, 35: “If we are going to read the Bible, we must read the Bible as it is given to us, not just look for what we wish it said.”
[5] Cf. Rogers, Reading the Bible, 37: because of difficulties of interpretation, we cannot “just pick up the Bible and read it as if it were written today.” Cf. also Karl Barth, Homiletics, 76: “From first to last scripture says the same thing, but it constantly says the one thing in different ways.”
[6] Cf. Herbert W. Farmer, “The Bible: Its Significance and Authority,” The Interpreter’s Bible, I: 26-29, where he elaborates principles to guide “the duty and the right to discriminate” the message of Scripture, though he adds “always … from within the fellowship of the church and under the promised guidance of the Holy Spirit.” Cf. also Rogers, Reading the Bible, 40: “The Scriptures are always to be interpreted by and in the community of the church, the Body of Christ.”
[7] Presbyerian Use and Understanding of Holy Scripture, 20: “No interpretation of Scripture is correct that leads to or supports contempt for any individual or group of persons.”
[8] Cf. The Theological Declaration of Barmen (Book of Confessions 8.11): “Jesus Christ, as he is attested for us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.” Cf. also The Confession of 1967 (Book of Confessions 9.27).
[9] Cf. Rogers, Reading the Bible, 33: since we all tend to read the Bible through the lenses of our own cultural assumptions, the only way to avoid the temptation against using Holy Scripture to justify one’s own prejudices (slavery, subordination of women, etc) is to “look freshly at all of God’s Word through the perspective of the living Word of God, Jesus Christ.”

No comments: