Jeremiah 29: 1-10 & Luke 1: 26-38
“A Good Lenten Journey: On Heart-Full Listening”

“A Good Lenten Journey: On Heart-Full Listening”

Jeremiah 29: 1-10 & Luke 1: 26-38 ~ Rev. G. Scott Turnbrook ~ Northwood United ~ March 3, 2024


Good, deep listening is an art; it is a rarity; it is a profound gift we give to others. And, as we will consider from a spiritual perspective, listening is a gift we give to ourselves when we deeply listen to God. And deep, heart-full listening is the topic of this morning’s Lenten discipline. As you will recall, we have been wandering in the Lenten desert through these 40 days. We have considered faith practices: as we pondered testing and temptation, forgiveness, and this morning as we shift to heart-full listening.


At the outset, we should name that listening is a profoundly difficult thing to do. It is difficult because it is often mistakenly confused as being passive. And, as we will be reminded, it is not a passive thing at all. Listening is an active practice. Much like last week’s conversation about actively standing in prayer, we engage in another active Lenten discipline: heart-full listening.


Shifting to the texts that Ian read for us, we find two challenging examples of heart-full listening to God. And we quickly discover, heart-full listening has never been easy…then or now! The Jeremiah text takes us back about 2 ½ millennia to the time of Babylonian captivity. The question in the hearts of the people was how to live in exile: away from their homeland, away from the Promised Land, away from their covenant and connection with God. In their minds they knew the wrongs of the previous generation that led to this separation. Perhaps they were even some of the ones who went astray. Yet, the remembered Israel. They knew the deep connection they had when they lived in the Promised Land. Yet, as captives in Babylon, that connection had become a distant memory. The text refers to the period of 70 years. No one is entirely clear what this number refers to. Was it the exact period of time that they would spend in Babylon? Or the prescribed period of punishment that others, like the Assyrians, would reference? Or was it the period of one’s natural life as some of the Psalms reference (see Psalm 90 and others). Suffice it to say that the hearers of this prophecy would not expect to ever see their homeland again!


The text speaks about how judgement and hope can be held together in tension with heart-full listening. How can one listen, deeply, after the wrongs of the past, and also find hope that will hold together the future? Is that possible: listening to the wrongs, experiencing the natural course of judgement, and yet…all the while finding hope for the tomorrow that God promises.


What Jeremiah teaches the exiles is a form of heart-full listening that surpasses the understanding and despair of the people. Amidst the pain, there is also a promise that they listen to. God says: “After the 70 years, I will fulfill my promise and bring you back to this place. I have plans for you, for your welfare, for your future. I will hear you. If you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, restore your fortunes and bring you home.” That is the heart-full listening that Jeremiah is calling the people into. To listen amidst the suffering and pain and know that, even then, in God’s time, all will be restored. It all begins with listening!


I wonder what that might look like for you? Have you ever been in a time of spiritual captivity? Have you felt distant from God? Have you felt cast aside, rejected in life? Wondering where life will take you…wondering where God is in all of this? Perhaps you might feel this right now? Perhaps your loved ones do? Jeremiah taught God’s people to engage in a heart-full listening that allowed them to hear God’s hope amidst the struggles they encountered. A hope that promised the future on the other side of pain; a restoration on the other side of exile; a promise that home, in the heart of God, would be their destiny.


Did it take away the pain and the suffering of the moment? No, not really…but it somehow gave a container to hold it. That container was hope for the future. I think when we hear God’s promise, we are strengthened and enabled to walk through such challenging times. I think when we listen…heart-filled listening, that we are able to navigate the struggles along the way.


Shifting over to the Luke reading, we consider another text where deep heart-filled listening is occurring. You might notice that this is an odd time to hear the Magnificat. The angel Gabriel’s birth announcement to Mary is customarily read as we lead up to Christmas, or when we gather for Christmas Eve. Yet it is fundamentally a text about heart-filled listening…about faithful listening. Mary was not ready or excited to hear the news that the angel offered. The angel calls her “favoured one”, but Mary didn’t feel very favoured…she felt afraid! Certainly, Mary loved Joseph deeply; she was planning a wedding; a life together, a future. She was not, however, planning for the disruption a child brings. However, when the faithful practice heart-full listening occurs, sometimes we hear that God has bigger plans than we first realize. God has a way of surprising and amazing. “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and he will be called the Son of the Most High. He will reign over the house of Jacob, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” We hear Mary’s debating with the angel…”how can this be”. The angel’s assurance “nothing is impossible with God”. And Mary, offers that timeless response after her heart-filled listening. A response that all who would listen to God’s call offer: “Here am I a servant of the Lord”.


Have you ever practiced deep heart-filled listening to God when seeking direction? Have you ever had God speak to you? Had God guide you? Shape your direction? Call you forth? Have you ever listened for God’s call? Sadly, this is something that our tradition often professionalizes. People want to hear the call of their minister into ministry. I could tell you the story of my call. But God’s call is not unique to me as an ordained minister. The story of Mary reveals that all people in all places are called by God. Mary protests to the angel’s call “how can this be, since I am a virgin?” Long before this text became overly concerned with Mary’s sexuality, its primary function was to identify that she was a young, peasant girl of no status: a virgin. That God’s call came to this peasant girl that no one knew of. It serves to highlight God’s nature of calling us all….if…we practice heart-filled listening.


I think that this Lenten practice is a good one for us to consider during these 40 days. Listening is hard at the best of times. We lead busy, distracting lives. We, during these 40 days have carved out time…intentional time to pray and ponder and grow in our faith. One expression of that discipline is to listen with heart-filled ears. I recall a silent retreat that I attended in the fall months at Westminster Abbey in Mission. When you slow down to the speed of prayer…when your whole focus is to eat, sleep, pray and repeat, you hear things differently. The sound of the rain; the sound of your steps on the gravel; the sound of nature; the sounds of God calling to you in the chapel…gently…if you listen. I wonder what our lives might be like if we more fully practiced heart-full listening?


I heard a presentation from the pastor serving a Unitarian Congregation in Albuquerque, New Mexico several few years ago. Presenting about her “Soul to Soul” groups, she explained that they were a covenant group whose promise was to listen, breathe, and hold the other in their heart as they practice deep listening. Deep listening, she described, is marked with silence as the other speaks. The listener’s silence tells the speaker that we have given them all their attention as they hold their story in their heart. The listener’s silence conveys that the speaker is heard, held and not judged as they share the intimate details of their soul. What they have experienced in these groups is what they call “thick listening” where “thick stories” ~ stories that are risky, that are real, that are vulnerable ~ are told. When “thick listening” is practiced, “thick stories” are shared and God somehow is present. Soul to soul listening.


One of the hardest teachings that young ministers and therapists learn is the importance of this kind of listening. (though I would say it is a lesson that we all bless the world with when we learn it). When we attend seminary and are sent to hospital wards and care centres, we all think that we are there to magically “do something” in order to be helpful to the person we are speaking with. Eventually, we are surprised to learn that we were the most helpful when we couldn’t think of a thing to say! We were the most helpful when all we did was practice heart-full listening…offered heart-filled listening allows God’s grace and presence to intercede.


I found myself imagining what might the world look like if this kind of listening occurred. I find myself pondering what life might look like when we find ourselves in times and places of captivity and we practice deep heart-filled listening? I find myself wondering what life might look like if we listened to the sacred voices calling us in the right path? I think that the world would be a better place where people practice heart-filled listening and demonstrate this level of care for another. A place that is a little closer to ‘thy kingdom come’ that we pray for.


May we live lives of heart-filled listening, all the while, buoyed by the promise that God will speak.