Are You Listening?

Listening is powerful. 

I was unaware of that for much of my life. I wanted to talk, I wanted to tell people what was what. 

Years ago, I was walking down a street in Chattanooga. I was busy telling the small group of friends all about something I felt was important. I was pontificating, saying what was what, what I thought, as we walked down the street. I kept talking until I suddenly felt a hand grab me, jerk me back violently, and then felt a rush of wind as a city bus passed right in front of me. I turned around and saw my girlfriend, looking terrified, shouting at me that she and our friends had been telling me to watch out. I had almost walked into the street and right into an oncoming bus. I was so busy talking I hadn’t noticed the street and the bus, nor had I heard the desperate shouts of my friends. 

Listening is indeed powerful! 

And you’d think I learned my lesson. But several years later as I began work on a counseling degree, I was still talking and not listening. As part of my training, I did mock counseling sessions. There, rather than listen and empathize, I would tell people what they felt and what they should do. It’s funny now, especially to say it out loud. I was being ridiculous. But, for how many of us is the following true: we’d rather be heard than hear; we’d rather talk than listen?

That includes listening to God. Sometimes in our prayer lives, it might be more tempting to talk to God than to listen to God. Certainly, we can have a lot to say! Asking God for help, for release from troubles, asking for good things to happen, praising God for who God is, and offering prayers of thanksgiving; we have much to say to God. But prayer also means listening. So what does it mean to listen to God? 

That’s where we turn in this sermon series on patience: how to listen to God in our lives; something that requires patience and attention.

We glean our lessons from the famous story of the Tower of Babel. Let’s hear that scripture from Genesis, chapter 11. 


Genesis is full of etiologies. That’s a fancy word meaning “stories of beginnings” or “stories of origins.” This story is the etiology of where we get different nations, cultures, and languages. The flood has happened, Noah has landed in safety, and his sons have disbursed themselves around the world, repopulating. So at this point, there are different tribes spread out across the known world but Genesis lets us know that everyone spoke the same language. 

So they get to a spot in a valley, a valley whose exact location is a matter of dispute, to build a city. The scripture says they had decided to build the city because they had decided to stop being nomads. Six thousand or so years ago, this was typical. Many nomadic tribes decided to settle down into cities about that time. That’s why historians often date the beginnings of civilization to around 4,000 BC. 

But the problem here isn’t building a city. And the problem isn’t even building a tower. 

That surprised me. I thought this story was about the people trying to build a tower to God so they could reach God. That was how I’d been raised with the story and I hadn’t spent much time with this story since. But when I went back and read it, I discovered that wasn’t the problem at all. 

Look back at verse 4. After saying they’re going to build a city and a tower up to the heavens, which was really just a way of saying they were going to build a really high tower like we might build a skyscraper up to the clouds today, they say, “and let us make a name for ourselves.” Why? So they won’t be scattered across the face of the earth. 

Turns out, they had not listened. 

The very first thing God commands of humans, way back in Genesis 1, is to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth. They decided to go against that commandment, staying put. Their expressed desire is to not fill the earth but to fill that one spot that they like. They are disobeying that first commandment from God.

But okay, we might say, most of us like to be planted, to put down roots, to stay put somewhere and build relationships and a life. That’s what we tell people as they get married: find somewhere you can put down roots.  Several of us did just that here in Macon and have been here quite a while, having established roots. We don’t want to be scattered around. 

And there, too, most of us live in this great city of Macon. Cities are the lifeblood of our existence because cities provide necessary services and then, in our case, good recreational and entertainment opportunities! This story sounds anti-urban, anti-city. Must the commandment to be fruitful and fill the earth mean that all people are to live a nomadic existence? 

The people just want to build a city, have a reputation for themselves, and settle down, which is something most of us want. 

So what’s the problem with wanting to make a name for yourself? For your city? For your church? We’re dealing, here in this story, with leadership of a city that wants the best life possible for their citizens and to model, set an example, for how to build a city. 

What problem is there with that? 

When God says that he will confuse the people so that they cannot understand, the Hebrew word there is shema, a word that means listen or hear. Shema also refers to the basic statement of principles and faith from Torah, found in Deuteronomy 6. There, it says, “Hear,” or Shema, “O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” You might recognize those words from Jesus who, when he’s asked what the greatest commandment is, quotes the Shema from Deuteronomy 6.

The chief duty of Israelites, and indeed of us all, according to this first and greatest commandment, is to listen, to hear. Notice how the Shema opens: Hear. It’s a command. Listen up! Hear me! God is saying through the Shema. 

And at the moment God establishes multiple languages, God says it’s so that the people will be unable to listen to each other. That word in the Hebrew in verse 7, traditionally translated as understand, can be translated as listen; so the people cannot listen to each other. 

It’s like our former elementary school teachers would say: your ears don’t work if your mouth is open. If you can’t listen to those around you, and if you can’t be heard by those around you as you talk, it becomes easier to listen to God. And so, this story’s point comes through loud and clear when we see God confusing the people so that they cannot listen to each other:

God wants us to listen to him first. 

The people of Babel had made many plans, executed those plans; they were a people of action! But they’d failed to listen to God first. We can make all the plans in the world, but if we are not listening to God in the midst of making those plans, they are bound to fail. 

That’s certainly what happened to the folks at Babel. It’s happened to me in my life more than once. It’s easy to get wrapped up in making plans, moving and doing, and forget to listen to God, seeing what God is calling us to do. 

Which begs the question from earlier: what does it mean to listen to God? 

Back at JMU, when I was being taught how to practice counseling, I learned that the practice of listening is very active. It’s easy to think of listening as a passive thing, as if we just sit and do nothing. 

But active listening, which I’m sure many of us have heard of, means paying very close attention to what’s being said. It means listening not only to what’s being said but also what’s not being said, what counseling calls listening around what the person is saying. It means remembering what’s been said while also taking in what’s currently being said. 

When we listen actively, to all that’s being said, we give listening to the other person our full attention. We don’t let our minds wander, we don’t think about what we’re going to say next, we don’t wait our turn, rehearsing how we’ll respond when the other person stops talking. We actively take in the information being given to us and process it. The way to tell if someone has really listened to you is if there’s a pause after you finish talking before the other person responds. If there’s a pause, that’s because the person was really listening and now needs a second to process all that’s been said and form a response.

Active listening is essential to proper conversation and also to our relationship with God.

I first learned to listen to God through learning to listen to the Holy Spirit speak through spiritual discipline and lived experience as I was coming back to faith about fifteen years ago. Paying attention to my life, being actively engaged in where I feel God moving in my soul and in people around me, and regularly engaging with prayer and scripture reading have been essential. If I am regularly praying, I’m better acquainted with the Holy Spirit inside of me, who speaks to me and to all of us. And if I’m patient, not moving too quickly, listening to my soul, my family and close relationships, and most especially my prayer and scripture reading, I learn to hear the voice of God in the midst of the din of life. 

Actively listening to God means patiently, regularly, engaging with spiritual discipline to learn to hear the voice of God through the Holy Spirit who lives inside of us. 

You may recall when I first came here, I held listening sessions. I listened at those sessions and I listened to you in meetings and at onboarding and in other ways. That listening taught me much about this church and I began to sense where God is moving and leading us, encouraging us to take the next faithful step. Through listening to you, coupled with my prayer life and reading of scripture, I hear the voice of God speaking.

Listening to God is different from listening to each other, but it still requires that we are quiet, patient, practicing active listening by reading scripture and praying regularly and listening to each other: listening closely to our children and parents, to our relatives and friends, to our fellow church members and coworkers, hearing how God is speaking through us, through scripture, and through our prayer lives.

At a basic level, listening to God means practicing the Shema: Hear, o people of God, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone; you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength. If we are regularly engaged in spiritual discipline, in prayer especially, we will fall more and more in love with God and learn to better discern God’s voice among all the noises in our lives. But, of course, that requires patience; the patience of waiting for God to speak, the patience of listening during times of silence, the patience of waiting to make decisions until we feel we have heard from God. 

The people at Babel missed that. They were too busy talking to listen. They were too busy being active to listen. They were simply too busy. The very first commandment ever given to humans is what they violated. Had they known scripture, had they been listening, had they practiced Shema, they could have listened to God by hearing the voice of God through their conversations and knowledge of scripture, reminding them to be fruitful and fill the earth when they started to plan to build a city. 

All of this requires patience, significant patience. It requires enduring, just as we’ve been talking about in the past three sermons, until we feel that we’ve heard from God. It requires patience because active listening requires patience. To sit and really listen while someone talks, not impatiently waiting our turn to talk, not forming our response in our head while the other person is still talking, requires tremendous patience. It’s not easy. 

In fact, even after all these years of practicing active listening since earning my counseling degree, sometimes it’s still hard for me. I’m a person of action! I’m decisive! I want to make moves and make things happen. But when I choose to act, or embark on a plan, without feeling that I’ve heard from God; when I make a decision and don’t feel that I’ve heard from God, that I’ve truly listened, it’s impatience driving me, not God, no matter how Godly my plans or decision might be. 

Active listening requires patience. Significant patience. It requires the patience to endure our own impatience while waiting to hear from God. Think back through decisions you’ve made where things didn’t go well. Think back through plans you’ve made that didn’t go as planned. With the benefit of hindsight, ask yourself what role impatience played? Impatience doesn’t always make our plans go awry or cause poor decision-making, but as I did this exercise myself, I discovered it had a far larger role to play than I would have expected. 

Impatience is me saying to God, “I don’t need you. I can do this on my own.” That’s because we decide that we can make plans independently of God. We decide that we know best how to act and when to act. It’s very tempting to believe that we can do it on our own! I suspect many of you are like me: people of action, decisive, ready to make moves and get things done. But it’s not God’s way. God wants us to take a step back, survey the landscape, and above all, listen to God through our prayer life, through our conversations with each other, and through reading and understanding scripture. God doesn’t want us to be ruled by our impatience. 

So, when making plans or working through a decision, actively listening to God, what does that look like? 

First, practice that form of examen as I’ve been describing: what are you most grateful for today? What are you least grateful for today? It causes us to see where God is active and working in our lives. That’s one way we listen: we see where God is moving. 

Second, we listen through regular spiritual discipline and practice. What are we hearing God speak to us through scripture, through our regular quiet times? What are we hearing God saying to us through the church? 

Third, we listen through our lives. What are we hearing through our conversations with each other? Especially those whose faith we respect and whom we respect? 

Fourth and finally, we trust the Holy Spirit within us to help us discern the voice of God through all of the information we take in. Through a peace that will dwell in our souls and through the grace of God that lives within and around us, we will be able to recognize the Holy Spirit pointing out the voice of God, helping us listen to God, if we choose patience, to rest in our decision-making, to not rush things; being willing to wait until we feel that peace that we know is God speaking to us.

The people in Babel didn’t listen to God. They were too busy making their own plans, guided by their impatience. Let us not be like them; let us listen to God, waiting until we feel we hear from God to make our plans.

Listening is powerful. Active listening is particularly powerful. And we must apply it to our relationship with God, practicing patience, not allowing impatience to drive us to poor decisions and bad plans. Hear, Shema, o people of God, the Lord is our God, the Lord alone. Let us love God with all our hearts, with all our souls, and with all our strength, by practicing spiritual discipline, including a robust prayer life.

So, with Babel in mind, as you make plans and move and continue to be busy, the question before us is this:

Are you listening? 

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s