“Ever Hearing”

Have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone who just pretended to listen? They nod or make a sympathetic face, but clearly they have no idea what you are saying. Maybe they nodded at the wrong time, or even interrupted you with some comment that was completely off-topic.

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God not only hears what we say to Him, He understands better than WE do!

That is not the case with us. We can be “Ever Hearing” but “Never Understanding,” just like the people of Israel during the ministry of the prophet Isaiah. (see Isaiah 6: 9-13) Isaiah brought warnings and prophetic judgments from God–calls for repentance and warnings of impending punishments. He spent years delivering the same message to hundreds of people. They heard his message, but they did not listen, understand, or repent. Jesus, in Mark 4:12 alludes to this passage in Isaiah– clearly, the people of his day were equally “deaf” to the truth, even though thousands came to hear Jesus speak

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Jesus’ brother James, in his epistle, rephrases the same idea– “But be¬†doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves.” (James 1:22 ESV) Just because we have believed the Good News does not make us immune to hearing without listening, understanding, and obeying.

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We have thousands of Bible study books, websites, videos, broadcasts and webcasts, blogs, and live meetings–and, for many of us, they are free and easy to access. There are billboards, memes, t-shirts, Christian radio stations, and more, sharing scripture, testimonies, cartoons, songs, prayers, and more, 24 hours a day in almost every corner of the world and in most of the world’s languages.

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But sometimes, the very prevalence of such material causes us to take it for granted; and our hearts and minds become numb to the glory of God’s wisdom and the urgency of His warnings. We hear that God is sovereign– and we say that we believe–but we act as though we know better than God how the world “should” be. We hear that God is gracious and merciful– and we sing praises for His mercy toward us– but we have no mercy for others who fall short of our expectations. We hear that God is close to the broken-hearted (Psalm 34:18), but we act as though God favors the proud and self-sufficient.

Why would God command Isaiah to continue preaching to those who refuse to listen and obey? And why would Jesus follow in Isaiah’s footsteps– relying on parables and teaching the masses who misunderstood His Gospel?

Scholars have different theories, but I think there are two main reasons:

  • We know from examples and from experience that the same message that falls on “deaf”ears over many years can suddenly “click.” God know this better than anyone. He is patient and humble. God’s message doesn’t change, but sometimes, it takes a while to “seep in” to the heart and mind. Someone who is “ever hearing” may be processing more of the message than we know. God’s spirit whispers, and His truth can be drowned out, but it cannot be silenced. It is important for us to continue to speak, to write, and to LIVE the truth– not just for others, but to make sure we are still listening, understanding, and obeying the truth.
  • God IS truth. And God may whisper, but He will not be silent. God is mysterious, but not absent, or cold, or withdrawn. In Romans 1: 18-32, Paul says that God has revealed all of His invisible qualities in all of nature throughout all of time. We cannot say that we NEVER saw the glory of a sunset, or heard the power of thunder, or felt the warm kiss of the sun, or in some other way experienced the loving and majestic reality of God. We CHOOSE to ignore or rebel against God’s ever-present, all-gracious love.
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What glories will we see, hear, and experience today? Will we be “ever hearing” but “never understanding” “how wide, and long and high and deep” (Ephesians 3:17-19) is the Love of Christ? I hope we will take every opportunity to listen, understand, and obey His call today!

With the Poor, and Mean, and Lowly..

During this season, many of us spend time decorating–we add lights, candles, sparkling ornaments, and fragrant trees–we make our houses and yards festive and bright. And it is appropriate to do so, as we are preparing to celebrate the Light of the World, and the joy of Immanuel– God With Us.

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But it is also good to remember that God did not enter a world cleaned up, decorated, adorned, and prepared for Him. Jesus was born in a stable. Angels sang; prophets dreamed; the faithful waited and watched; but the rest of the world was distracted by a census, crowded streets, rude and grumpy neighbors, taxes, cold nights and endless bad news.

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Some of us put up elaborate mangers with beautiful figurines–robed Wise Men, earnest Shepherds, and the Holy Family; a few animals, and an angel or two– all clean and shiny and serene. In reality, it was likely crowded, noisy, dirty, smelly, and cold. The Shepherd and Wise Men were not there at the same time, and the angels were not present at the stable.

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It seems obvious to say, but it’s important to remind ourselves that Jesus himself never celebrated Christmas. He never sang carols about His own birth; He never counted down the days on an Advent Calendar; He never decorated a Christmas Tree, or enjoyed a plate of Christmas cookies. Instead, He spent His life among the poor, the mean, and the lowly. He entered the lives of beggars and lepers and outcasts–and He brought light into their world. The Lord of all creation, who created galaxies of glittering stars, who commanded armies of angelic hosts–walked on dusty roads and had no home to decorate. He fed the hungry, healed the sick, and showed compassion to those who were possessed by demons.

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This Advent season, as we decorate and prepare our homes for a warm and merry Christmas, may we remember to live among the poor, the mean, and the lowly. This year, it may seem more difficult, but it is not impossible to share hope and joy with those who need it so desperately. May we prepare our hearts as well as our hearths to accept the Light of the World. And may we reflect it into the world around us– more than ever!

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Holy God, you came in humility and compassion. You lived to serve, and you died to save. Show me how to love and serve in this season of darkness and fear, just as You did so long ago, that those living in darkness may more than just holiday tinsel and glitter. Amen.

Hannah and the Priests

The story of Hannah in 1 Samuel is filled with priests. Her husband, Elkanah, is of the priestly class, and regularly goes to Shiloh to offer sacrifices. Chapter one quickly mentions Hophni and Phinehas who were the resident priests there. And of course, there is Eli, their father, the High Priest at that time. Hannah has access to counselors, spiritual guidance, and men whose ancestral calling is to bring people closer to God. Yet none of them can bring Hannah out of her anguish and offer comfort.

Hophni and Phinehas are noticeably absent in this story. The mention of their names calls attention to this absence. They were supposed to be the acting priests, but they don’t interact in any way with the grieving Hannah, or her husband, Elkanah. Further reading reveals that they were very wicked and due to be judged for abusing their priestly role. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=1+Samuel+2%3A12-36&version=NIV

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Eli himself is an indifferent priest. The first mention of him is as the father of the wicked Hophni and Phinehas. Next, we find him sitting in a chair at the doorstep of the tabernacle. He is not serving; he is not overseeing; he is not doing anything. When he first observes Hannah, he jumps to a wrong and judgmental conclusion– that she is drunk and raving. He doesn’t go over to see if he’s right in his assumption. In fact, there is no mention in the passage that he ever rises from his chair.
We might gloss over this passage, without grasping the importance of this detail. Nowhere in the long lists of a priest’s duties was there an option of sitting at the door and just watching people go in and out. The priests all had duties– some were in charge of the sacrifice (as Elkanah sometimes was). Others were in charge of the lamps, the incense, the care of the utensils and tools, offering prayers, singing, playing instruments, reading from the books of the law, and keeping the tabernacle clean and in good repair. None of them required sitting. Eli isn’t busy doing the work of the Lord; he is literally sitting down on the job.
In short, Eli is not a spiritual giant– he offers a standard blessing after Hannah pleads her case for not being a drunken disturber of the peace, but he doesn’t offer much in the way of true comfort or counseling. His first words to her are to “Go in peace.” The blessing seems to be almost an afterthought. Still, Hannah goes away encouraged, and comes back the next day to worship before returning home.

What can we learn from this encounter and these details in Hannah’s story?

One possible reaction is to become critical and dismissive of the clergy. I think this is the wrong reaction, but I want to address it in this context, because it can keep us from finding help and blessing if we let it. I know countless people who have walked away from the church because of one disappointing encounter with a minister, pastor’s wife, deacon, or fellow parishioner. Eli was not a stellar example of Israel’s priesthood; he was a flawed human. He had rebellious sons, and was likely depressed or anguished over his own troubles. Yet, he was still faithful to turn Hannah’s attention to the One who is always able to bring comfort and strength. Hannah could have chosen to focus on his rude and judgmental assumption about her, but she chose to focus on the hope he was able to offer.
I have gotten dismissive, even bad, advice from people in the church. I have been hurt, judged, and ignored by those who are supposed to be serving God. But just as God provides grace to cover our own failures and mis-steps, He asks us to extend forgiveness and grace to those–even those who serve Him.*

Having said that, I think there is a warning here for those who serve the Lord. Eli ends his days in tragic fashion, his family legacy in ruins, because of some of the details we glimpse even in this short passage about Hannah. Eventually, her son, Samuel, will be tasked with the job of delivering the fullness of God’s judgment against Eli and his sons. Eli’s priesthood was not a cushy position of sitting at the door of God’s tabernacle enjoying an afternoon breeze. He was in charge of setting the tone of reverence and worship for the nation. His sons were corrupt; everyone knew it, including Eli, but nothing was done about it. He sat there, and let evil happen around him.
Church workers, pastors, and priests who do evil and abuse their positions may get away with it for awhile, but God will not hold them guiltless. Nor will he hold those guiltless who cover up or deny the guilt of those around them. No matter how high the position, no matter how much “good” they have done, unless they repent of their actions, they will face God’s wrath over their evil acts.

Finally, we need to see Hannah’s response. Regardless of how evil the sons of Eli were, or how spineless Eli was as a parent and a High Priest, Hannah found faith– not in the priests– but in the God they served. She had seen the dedication of her husband, Elkanah. He served God with reverence, and he served his family with love and honor. She saw that Eli, even sitting down on the job, was still aware that hope and healing come from the Almighty.

Hannah’s response to Eli, and the God he served so imperfectly, deserves another look– one we will take in the next post.

I pray that today, we will be grateful to God for the faithful servants he sends into our lives, and for his grace when we or others “sit down” on the job of serving others and showing Him the reverence He deserves.

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