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.
I approached counseling that way. At JMU where I received a master’s degree in counseling, I went into mock counseling sessions telling people what they felt instead of listening to what they felt. It’s funny now, especially to say it out loud. I was being ridiculous. But it’s true more often than we might care to admit in our interactions: we’d rather be heard than hear; we’d rather talk than listen.
Much like our scripture this morning: the story of the Tower of Babel.
Let’s hear that scripture from Genesis, chapter 11, as we continue our sermon series on beginnings.
Genesis is full of etiologies. That’s a new word, I’m sure and it simply means stories of beginnings, stories of origins. This story is the etiology of where we get different nations and cultures. The flood had happened, Noah had landed in safety, and his sons had 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 stop being nomads and settle, building a city. 6000 years ago, this was typical. Many nomadic tribes decided to settle down. When Genesis moves to Abraham in the next chapter, we find that he and his family are nomads.
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.
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.
But okay, we might say, we all want to do that. Many of us in this church have grown up here in Dodge County or somewhere nearby. Our families are here. This is where we’re planted. We don’t want to be scattered around.
And there, too, most of us live in some sort of city. Even those of us who live in Dodge County itself, we wouldn’t function without having a city nearby. Cities are the lifeblood of our existence because cities provide necessary services. This story sounds anti-urban, anti-city. Must the commandment mean that all people are to live a nomadic existence?
Regardless of ignoring this first commandment to fill the earth, within this story it’s God who sounds like the problem. The people just want to build a city, have a reputation for themselves, and settle down, which is all any of us want. We actually encourage folks as they first get married and have children to settle down and make a name for themselves locally.
Or, in my role as chair of the board for the chamber of commerce, I’m concerned with the name of Eastman and Dodge County. How can I lead our chamber and local businesses in creating renown for Eastman and Dodge County? Certainly that was a concern I heard upon coming to this church: how do we improve the reputation of this church in the community? I think we’ve made great strides there and we’ve all felt very good about that. We’ve made a name for ourselves, one that’s largely positive and well-received.
So what’s the problem with wanting to make a name for yourself? For your city? It’s not like one person in this story has decided to become a dictator and tell his community what they are going to do and what name they’re going to get. We’re not dealing with a Kim Jong Un. We’re dealing 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?
That’s what’s tough about this story. God clearly has a problem with it. But God also tells us in scripture that we have a witness, that we are to make a name for ourselves so that others will see our example. Paul spills much ink saying as much.
But God won’t let them have it here in this city, later named Babel. God decides that he will confuse them, make it where they cannot understand each other. They will now speak many languages, which not only leads to their inability to complete construction of the city but also scatters them, exactly what they didn’t want. God appears to be the antagonist in this story, based on our lived experience and comparison against other scriptures.
So what’s the problem here?
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. In Deuteronomy 6, the Israelite version of our “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union…” is stated. It’s called the Shema, and 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.
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.
If you can’t listen to those around you, it becomes easier to listen to God.
The authors who wrote and put together Genesis share this story in the middle of genealogies to explain where different languages and cultures come from. At a basic level, that’s what this story is doing. But all scripture is useful for teaching and all of it has something to share with us about who God is. And 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.
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: what does it mean to listen to God?
It’s not the same, it would seem, as listening to each other, because we don’t hear God talk back.
But back at JMU, when I was being taught how to counsel, I found 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 in counseling, they teach active listening, which 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. And, my counseling professors were fast to say and I have found to be true: the last thing someone says before they stop talking is usually the most important and most revealing.
We listen actively, to all that’s being said, giving 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. 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 the key.
Time and again, this has proven true in my pastoral care but it’s also proven true as I lead. 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 in other ways. That listening taught me much about this church and I started to see a path forward.
For what I find in doing this kind of active listening is that, somehow, in the middle of it all, I hear the voice of God, too.
I hear God’s voice in the voices that share with me desires of the heart that I know are of God because they conform to scripture. When I first arrived, for example, there was much desire to make a positive difference in this community, especially among those disadvantaged in life. We have found ways to do that and continue to labor in that way. That conforms to scripture and I knew not only was that you speaking but it was God speaking.
When we listen actively to each other, whether in conversation or in leadership, we hear the voice of God if what we hear conforms to scripture. So one of the chief things to know is what scripture says.
The people at Babel missed that. The very first commandment ever given to humans is what they violated. Had they known scripture, they could have listened to God by hearing the voice of God through their conversations.
So this is not a sermon that would quote that oft-used phrase, “if you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans.” That’s definitely not it because God wants us to make plans.
But God wants us to listen while making those plans. 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? Through our conversations with each other? Especially through our conversations with those who are planning with us?
If we’re making plans as a family, are we listening for the voice of God in the midst of those conversations?
If we’re making plans for our business, are we listening for the voice of God in those conversations with our business partners?
If we’re making plans for our future, are we listening for the voice of God in those conversations with our mentors and trusted advisors?
If we’re making plans at all, are we listening for the voice of God?
Are we paying attention at all?
Listening is powerful. Active listening is particularly powerful. And we must apply it to our relationships with God.
So, with Babel in mind, as you make plans, the question before us is this:
Are you listening?
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.