Sermon: Are You Listening?

Written by Glen Dawursk, Jr. 12/27/03 –


Noel Regney, a Frenchman who lived most of his life in the US, passed away last year. If you don't recognize the name, you would certainly recognize the song he wrote in 1962. Walking home to his Manhattan apartment Regney saw two mothers with their babies in strollers. "The babies were looking at each other and smiling," he said, "and all of a sudden, my mood was extraordinary." He hurried home and wrote the lyrics, based on his vision of a newborn lamb. His wife, Gloria Shayne, wrote the music, the Harry Simeon Chorale recorded it, and the song sold more than 250,000 copies in a week! Bing Crosby's 1963 version sold more than a million copies.

The song was "Do You Hear What I Hear?" Regney wrote the song as plea for peace at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. His favorite version was Robert Goulet's because when Goulet came to the line, "Pray for peace, people, everywhere," he almost shouted the words. Regney commented some years later, "I am amazed that people can think they know the song--and not know it is a prayer for peace. But we are so bombarded by sound and our attention spans are so short that we now listen only to catchy beginnings."

("Noel Regney, a Songwriter of ‘Do You Hear What I Hear,' Dies at 80," The New York Times, December 1, 2002)


It is hard to really hear things this time of year.  The day after Thanksgiving I stood in line at Best Buy for over almost 45 minutes waiting to be checked out and one thing kept entering my mind – wow, is it so noisy.  My kids know that I am a weird dad.  I actually hum or sing to the muzac in stores.  But that day at Best Buy, the muzac and the stereos in the audio department were deafened by the chatter of hundreds of voices.  In stores and malls in our area, that chatter made it difficult at times to hear when someone would say something to you.  It became difficult to communicate. 


Some of you may know that I have a teaching degree with majors in Speech, theatre and English.  One of the required courses in these majors is “Communication.”  One of the first things we learn is the Communication model.  The model shows a box representing the sender with arrows leading to the right where another box is labeled “the message.” From here, arrows continue to a box labeled “Receiver.”   Our model shows that communication is the sender sending a message to a receiver.  But what is interesting about the model is that there is another box which goes completely around the diagram.  This box is labeled: “noise.”  In communication, “noise” is anything which disrupts the message from getting to the sender.  It could be external things like the chatter at a Best Buy or the darkness of a room which disrupts you from being able to read written communication.  There can also be internal noises which block communication like a head ache or other issues on your mind which distract you.  Noise is all around us and it even disrupts you from listening intently to my sermon. 


The noise of our world has caused us to miss the wonder of Christmas.  In our sermon text today, we hear about how the “Word became flesh and dwelt among us” -- the word meaning Jesus.  You see in the Old Testament, the Children of Israel practically worshiped the Pentatude or the first five books of the Bible.  They considered the Word of God to be “living.”  They made sure that they held the word of God as sacred and even the replication of the scripture was done meticulously.  One tribe of Judah was designated with the responsibility to copy the Word of God.  It was there sole purpose in life.  Each letter was written individually then checked numerous times.  Then they could move to the next Hebrew letter.  When they were complete with a book, they had to count the letters to a designated point and if the letter was incorrect, the entire manuscript was disposed of.  To them, the Word of God was more than simply words. 


This became especially apparent when in 1946 a boy herding goats around the Dead Sea area in Palestine threw a rock into a small cavern.  He heard a crash like glass or pottery and reached in to find the first of hundreds of scrolls made from leather or copper.  These scrolls where hidden by the conservative Jewish Ensenes a 1000 years before Jesus’ birth and they included every book of the Old Testament except Esther.  They even included two additional Psalms not currently a part of our Holy Bible.  What was amazing was the accuracy of our translations today.  The Hebrew text was protected by God through out our translations today.  It is again a credit to how the Children of Israel revered the Word’s of God as more than simple words—but rather as God alive.  No wonder then that John would announce the Gospel of Jesus to the Jews by saying that the “Word was God and dwelt among us full of Grace and Truth.”  It is this living “word” made flesh that came as a baby at Christmas time.


Unfortunately, with all the “other” words of the world vying for our attention especially at this time of year, we often don’t hear the “the Word.”  With all the multi-media and internet capabilities, you would think communication would become better.  But instead, we miss the wonder of the manger amidst the hustle and bustle of our techno gadget lives. We actually have to work harder now to communicate with others -- especially at this time of year when our lives take on added stress and anxiety.  We become short with each other and selfishly only consider our own needs.  We want to be giving but we find the pressures of our jobs, the year-end quotas, property taxes, budgets become the noise that blocks out the Word.  We find the dysfunctions of our families, the expectations of our relationships, and the curiosity of our sinfulness deafening us to the call of God in Jesus.  For many, this season was a time of rejection not joy.  It was a time of pestilence not peace.  It was a time of losing not loving.  For many the holidays became filled with noise.  I have to admit that that happened to me this year. My birthday is on Christmas and the noise of my own personal life made chaos out of the Word of the manger for me.


During interviews in a San Francisco study, a group of teenage prostitutes were asked: "Is there anything you needed most and couldn't get?" Their response, invariably preceded by sadness and tears was unanimous: "What I needed most was someone to listen to me; someone who cared enough to listen to me." 


That would be the response too many people.  I too felt that people weren’t really listening to me.  But in reality, I have felt very alone this year because I wasn’t listening.  I wasn’t listening to the needs of others. I especially wasn’t listening to the Word of the manger.  I was too busy listening to myself -- dwelling on my own issues. 


General George Marshal once said the formula for handling people is:
1. Listen to the other person's story.
2. Listen to the other person's full story.
3. Listen to the other person's full story first. 


My self-indulgence upon my own issues and lack of time for others became noise which deafened me to the Word and wonder of the manger; the noise deafened me to the joy the angels sang about.  I didn’t listen to the God’s story first.

It is this “noise” that John is talking about in today’s’ scripture reading.  “He was in the world and though the world was made through Him, the world did not recognize Him.  He came to that which was His own, but His own did not receive Him.”  You see, “noise” caused the people of Jesus’ time and for many of us today - to not hear Him.  We miss the love, joy and peace offered in the manger because we have chosen to listen to the clutter of our life. 


A cartoon I read many years ago showed a woman going from mall to mall.  All the frames showed the woman surrounded with decorated trees, wreaths, and lights. Finally the last frame showed a number of empty church pews and the lady sitting by herself apparently resting after all her frantic shopping.  She looks to the passing minister and says, “I just needed a place to get away from Christmas for a while.”


For many of us, Christmas has been a chore and we are happy it is over.  We are happy to get away from it.  We look forward to the “silence.”  The problem is that even the silence of our world is polluted.  For many, no noise is still noise.  Simon and Garfunkel sang a song many years ago where they talked about the “silence” or emptiness that has filled many of our lives.  Listen to their words for a moment:


Hello darkness, my old friend. I've come to talk with you again.
Because a vision softly creeping left its seeds while I was sleeping
and the vision that was planted in my brain still remains within the sound of silence.

In restless dreams I walked alone, narrow streets of cobblestone
neath the halo of a street lamp, I turned my collar to the cold and damp
when my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
that split the night and touched the sound of silence.

And in the naked light I saw ten thousand people, maybe more.
People talking without speaking, people hearing without listening.
People writing songs that voices never shared,
no one dared disturb the sound of silence.

"Fools," said I, "you do not know, silence like a cancer grows.
Hear my words that I might teach you, take my arms that I might reach you."
But my words like silent raindrops fell and echoed in the wells of silence.

And the people bowed and prayed to the neon god they made
and the sign flashed out its warning in the words that it was forming.
And the sign said "The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
and tenement halls and whispered in the sound of silence."


For many, the sounds of silence are the emptiness of there lives.  They follow the words or the gods of the world and miss the Word or the living God of the manger.  But praise God that the manger also speaks of Grace.  For God loves us where we are at, and accepts us unconditionally – baggage and all.  Think about it, who were the first people told of the birth of Jesus?  It was shepherds.  Shepherds, who were despised by the community and the religious leaders.   Shepherds, whose jobs were dirty and outdoors.  Shepherds who were away for days tending their flocks and in turn often missed their required religious cleansings, sacred baths and rituals.  While they also took care of the “temple sheep,” the religious leaders shunned the shepherds and declared them “unclean” and often banished them from the community.  Yet, God broke through the silence of the lives and gave them the words of “great joy” first.  And they listened.  And they came to the Word.


Into their world of loneliness and despair the Word became flesh and dwelt among them.  Jesus came to live among us.  Not simply as scripture, but as a living, breathing human who witnessed suffering and death, who embraced the rejected, the lost and the unclaimed – and said “I want you. You are mine.”  He healed the sick; He helped the poor; and He forgave sin.  This living Word came amidst the clutter of the world so that man would finally listen.  God just wanted us to listen.


There is a story told of Franklin Roosevelt, who often endured long receiving lines at the White House. He complained that no one really paid any attention to what was said. One day, during a reception, he decided to try an experiment. To each person who passed down the line and shook his hand, he murmured, "I murdered my grandmother this morning." The guests responded with phrases like, "Marvelous! Keep up the good work. We are proud of you. God bless you, sir." It was not till the end of the line, while greeting the ambassador from Bolivia, that his words were actually heard. Unfazed, the ambassador leaned over and whispered, "I'm sure she had it coming."


Another story is told about two psychiatrists meet at their 20th college reunion. One is vibrant, while the other looks withered and worried. "So what's your secret?" the older looking psychiatrist asks. "Listening to other people's problems every day, all day long, for years on end, has made an old man of me." "So," replies the younger looking one, "who listens?" 


Are you listening to the “noise” of the world -- or the Word of God?  Are you focused on the world’s image of success, happiness and personal pleasure – or on the image of Jesus’ plan for you?  Are you sitting in the deafening “silence” of your own despair and hopelessness – or are you sitting in the peace and joy and love offered in the blessed silence and awe of that Holy Night.  These questions need answering.  And they require a response from us. 


According to historians, in 12th century Paris the poor were only allowed into the churches on one single day of the year – Christmas Sunday.  On that day they would read Mary’s response to the Angel Gabriel’s announcement to her pending birth. It is called the “Magnificat.”  When the audience of poor, lost and undesirable people heard the words, “God hath put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of low degree,” these desolate and hurting people began to yell and holler like crazy.  Their yearly response irritated the church authorities and in 1198, the Bishop of Paris decreed that the poor would only be allowed 7 yells and “propriety would be resumed.” 


Isn’t it sad that today, we respond to the manger so “matter-of-factly?”  But why?  God became flesh and dwelt among us. He came with grace and truth.  He has taken the burdens and noise of our life and given us peace. Shouldn’t our response be one of exaltation, of yelling and cheering, of a loud “Amen” or “Hallelujah”   We need to be like the angels who broke the silence and doldrums of the shepherd’s lives and pronounced boldly the birth of a savior.  We need to be louder than the noise that is cluttering our lives. 


In the favorite Christmas carol, “Oh Little Town of Bethlehem” we hear the words, “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!  So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of the heavens.  No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin, where meek would receive Him, the dear Christ enters in.” 


He is calling you right now, are you listening?

(Play the “Do You Hear What I Hear” CD)


PLEASE NOTE: I collect stories for future use, but I failed to keep the authors and sources for the ones included in this sermon.  The stories and concepts for this sermon were taken from a variety of sources including some readily available on the internet.