Listening For God And Each Other

Genesis 32:22-21
The same night he got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had. Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the day is breaking.’ But Jacob said, ‘I will not let you go, unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ Then the man said, ‘You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And there he blessed him. So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, ‘For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.’ The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.

Ash Wednesday / John Stiles / Holy Cross Lutheran Church / 2-22-12

Children’s Time: This year’s theme for Lent is “Listening” so I had these cut-out ears made for each one of you to take home. It says: “Listen 4 God.” That’s hard to do sometimes – to stop and listen to just what God might be telling us. In the church, we call that prayer, but it’s also important to listen to one another. I brought this stethoscope as a reminder that when we’re listening we really have to pay attention – to stop everything else we’re doing. The only way a doctor can listen to your heart or your lungs is if they stick these things in their ear and place the stethoscope on your heart. So that’s why “4God” is in the middle of your ear! To keep God at the heart of all we do. Tonight’s lesson is about Jacob getting a new name from God: Israel (which means wrestling with God). Jacob had to listen to God and prayed for a blessing and God gave him a new name. So the first letter “N” is for “New Name.” Let’s put this on your ear and say a prayer to thank God for knowing our name and helping us to listen in our prayers…

Dear friends in Christ: grace to you and peace, from the One who is and who was and who is to come: our living Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.

When I think of listening, a wrestling match is not the first image that comes to mind. I imagine a young couple sitting in my office as we work on pre-marriage preparation. There’s so much to plan for with a wedding: dresses, suits, flowers, choosing a photographer, the cake and the dance hall, and on and on and on.

So, I tell couples, “You plan the wedding, we’ll work on the marriage.” Oh, we do a little housekeeping on the actual wedding ceremony toward the end, but it’s that preparation for marriage that I think makes a huge difference. We don’t skip over that and just tie the knot and hope for the best. We work on communication and conflict resolution. We help draw up a map of strengths and growth areas. And when those sessions are over we have the map, the compass, there are the woods. Good luck!

But one thing we usually do is work on listening exercises. There’s what we call “active listening” where the person listening is not allowed to speak – and must focus their attention on the person speaking. Nodding of the head helps, but what really matters is when their partner is done speaking giving the information back to them in your own words. “So, I hear you say…” Then it’s the other person’s turn to listen and to let them know if they got it right the first time.

Now, this doesn’t work unless the person doing the talking really speaks from the heart and is assertive, not aggressive and in-your-face, but assertive. “This is what I need. This is what is important to me. I wish you would __________ (whatever… spend more time with me on your day off, etc.).” Most poor communication happens because 1) we’re not assertive enough to really ask for what we need and 2) we’re really not actively listening. A lot of miscommunication happens between us because of assumptions that are made or because we simply didn’t say what was really on our mind.

So, I suppose there is a kind of wrestling involved with listening. It means paying attention and caring enough to say it back to the other person in your own words so they know… you know… before you let them go.

Jacob wrestled with God (or, an angel, as some traditions interpret this) all night long. There’s this wrestling – this struggling with God – this begging for blessing – this hanging-on-for-dear-life encounter between Jacob and the mysterious man who wrestles him until dawn.

“Let me go!” “I will not let you go!” (Yes, Bohemian Rhapsody is right there in the Bible!) He desires a blessing. Interesting, isn’t it? The reason Jacob is on the run from his brother, Esau, is because he has stolen his brother’s blessing – he tricked the old man (Isaac) into giving him the inheritance, when the firstborn, Esau, was the rightful heir.

So, there’s some wrestling Jacob needed to do with God and with his brother to come away blessed. Limping, yes. That angel was a tricky old bugger – put his hip right out of joint. But Jacob hangs on and becomes Israel. There’s a new name for those who listen to God – who hang in there and will not let go.

This Ash Wednesday we are called to repent – to turn back to God – to listen for God.

I read a story recently about a man who was walking along the railroad tracks as a young boy. His father was still back by the car, getting the baby out of the back seat. He heard the train and saw it coming but knew he could never get to his son in time. Shouting as loud as he could to his son, “Get out of the way!” did no good. The boy couldn’t hear his father over the noise.

Fortunately, the child simply looked up and stepped off the tracks with plenty of time to spare, apparently unfazed and unaware of how frantic his father had been, trying to get his attention.

In Joel, we hear this father sounding the alarm: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! …The day of the Lord is coming near!” We don’t really know what Joel’s listeners had done wrong – what they had to repent of – or why he was warning them to fast and weep and rend their hearts. But we do know it was urgent. The prophet cared for his people and delivered God’s message to turn back their hearts.  Jesus, too, warns his followers against showing off their faith in the synagogue and strutting their spiritual stuff on the street corner, as the hypocrites do.

There is this clear sense that when it all comes down, it’s between you and God. Sure, when it comes to saving the whole world, God is the “leading lady” – the “main actor” on the stage of salvation. We are the audience. But there is a private show where you alone are on stage and God is the audience. This is where listening meets wrestling. Where we are onstage, naked before our maker, with only ashes on our heads to speak of.

And God listens.

What does God hear in those moments from you? How does that conversation go? What sins do you dare name before the One who knows them better than you do?

My prayer these coming forty days is that we might slow down long enough to tend to this ‘marriage,’ if you will. To listen for God. To pray what’s on our hearts and minds. To take to that stage and say our lines with assertiveness and humility, begging for a blessing, though we do not deserve it. And then, that we might listen to one another. To actively listen and assertively share what we hope for and need from one another.

God knows your name and gives you a new one: my child, my daughter, my son. Return to the Lord this day and may the peace of God, which passes all understanding keep our hearts and minds together as one, in Christ Jesus, our Lord. Amen.

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