Thursday, July 7, 2011

Told to Listen

In this morning’s New Testament reading (Acts 10:17-33), we read about two individuals who receive strong commands from God. Peter, who had just finished seeing the vision of the sheet full of unclean animals being let down from heaven, hears God’s voice tell him, “Behold, three men are looking for you. Rise and go down and accompany them without hesitation.” Likewise, Cornelius recalls that he had seen a vision, in which he was told, “Send therefore to Joppa and ask for Simon who is called Peter.” In the beautiful way in which the story ties itself together, both men received complimentary instructions from God, bringing the unlikely companions together under one roof.

What strikes me about their divine instructions is that both of them are told to listen. God tells Peter to stop what he’s doing and go with the three men without hesitation—wherever they might lead you. Cornelius is told to bring Peter into his house in order “to hear all that [he has] been commanded by the Lord.” These are such strong imperatives, but both are told to listen. Usually, when I think about God commanding me to do something, I expect him to give me something to do. And, although listening is certainly important and can be quite active, it’s not exactly the bold work that I anticipate will accompany a divine instruction.

God appears to Peter in a vision and says, “Listen.” God appears to Cornelius in a vision and says, “Listen.” The result is a double-conversion. Cornelius is won over to the Christian faith because he takes the time to listen to what Peter has to tell him. Peter is won (at least in part) to the acceptance of Gentiles because he takes the time to listen to what the three visitors (and Cornelius) tell him. Both men are changed by the experience in ways that could not have been accomplished had they not heard so clearly from God the command to listen.

I want God to give me exciting things to do—problems to solve, ministries to initiate, and sermons to preach. I want to be active. I want to be busy. Basically, I want God to give me words to say so that others might listen to me. But that’s only a small part of serving God. A much greater part is the command to listen. More often, I’m praying for the right things to say and not for the right spirit to listen. Yes, Peter had important words to share, but he couldn’t have shared the gospel story had he not first listened to three men he otherwise never would have paid any attention to.

Gentiles and Jews didn’t mix. Nothing but listening could have bridged that gap. In my own life, whether I’m aware of it or not, there are gaps that can only be bridged by listening. Grief, anger, resentment, broken-heartedness, despair—none of those can be addressed except by listening. And that list is what I am supposed to be dealing with most often. And I think that’s probably true for most of us. How might God be commanding us to listen—to boldly, courageously, and patiently listen?

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