Hearing about God: Second Week of Advent (2021)

Duccio di Buoninsegna’s “The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel” (c. 1308–1311)

“You know, news of you has come down the line

Even before ya came in the door

They say in your father’s house, there’s many a mansions

Each one of them got a fireproof floor”

-Bob Dylan, “Sweetheart Like You” (1983)

“…and at the proper time [He] manifested in his word through the preaching with which I have been entrusted by the command of God our Savior…”

-Titus 1:3

*For this year’s Advent writings, I will be reflecting on 1 John 1:1–2 by going slowly, line-by-line, through each clause, in order to contemplate the beauty of Christ’s once and future coming.

hoever tells us about God first is a very important person. It is likely we do not remember just one individual who told us about Him, that is, unless that individual had a distinct nose or a terrible smell or some off-putting physical tick we found unbearable. Instead, most of us received word about God from a number of people. The families and cultures within which we are raised determine much of our conception of the Almighty. Some community (or communities) shaped our way of thinking about divine things far more than one single individual.

As a pastor, I am constantly on the receiving end of all kinds of conceptions about God. When listening to someone’s question or concern about theology, it is a common practice for me to stop them as they say, “I don’t feel like God…” or “Why would God…” with a simple but important question: which God are we talking about here? The answer to this question tells me a lot. Who we think God to be is the result of something we have heard.

Scripture consistently shows God as one who reveals himself through various kinds of announcements. God speaks — do his people hear? The first couple “heard” the sound of the Lord as he “called to the man” in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:8–9). God “called out” to Moses from the burning bush and he heard the voice of God (Exodus 3:4). The book of Deuteronomy (literally “the second law”) is a book all about re-hearing. Note how many times the word “hear/heard” is used just in Deuteronomy 4–6, and then look through the whole book for it — it’s everywhere. The Psalmists often speaking of hearing about God’s ways and character: “O God, we have heard with our ears, our fathers have told us, what deeds you performed in their days, in the days of old…” (Psalm 44:1). The Prophets entire role was to speak that the people might “hear the word of the Lord” (Isaiah 28:14, Jeremiah 2:4, Ezekiel 6:3, Hosea 4:1, Amos 7:16). Jesus declared that his mission was not only to die and rise (Mark 9:30–32), but to preach, so that those who are captive to sin might hear the good news and repent (Mark 1:38, cf. Isaiah 61:1). The God of the Bible is the God who speaks — do we hear?

The text I have been meditating upon this Advent (1 John 1:1–2) begins, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard” (1 John 1:1). What does it mean to hear about Jesus? Can’t we see God in the trees? Or have an idea about him that is dropped into our minds from the Spirit? Or what about seeing God in sacraments like baptism, communion, or even a wedding? I have know people who have converted to Christianity for all kinds of reasons. What’s so important about hearing?

In Romans 10, the Apostle Paul underscores what I briefly laid out two paragraphs before: that the whole of Scripture teaches the essential nature of a peculiar announcement. The gospel — or, “good news” — is something we hear: it is a message, an announcement, a declaration that something has happened. Things are no longer as they were because of the event of Jesus Christ’s arrival. According to Paul, “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” There is no salvation apart from hearing the news that something happened. The way God has chose to act in history is through various announcements that culminate in the news about Jesus Christ’s life, death, resurrection, and ascension.

You might be thinking: this seems unfair to those who are deaf or mentally disabled. Or what about people who never hear a sermon or even a Bible passage in their life? But what is strange about the arrival (or “advent”) or Jesus in the first century, is that many people with perfect hearing and access had no idea who Jesus was or he was doing. In fact, scholars of the ancient Jewish texts that forecasted his coming (called scribes, teachers of the law, lawyers, Pharisees, and Sadducees, in your New Testament) never really “heard” Jesus’ gospel message. Ironically, it was those with various diseases and disabilities (including deafness!) that actually heard the word of the Lord and placed their faith in Christ. This is why Jesus told parables, and even why he practiced ministry the way he did. In his own words, Jesus told parables so that some “may indeed hear but not understand” (Mark 4:12). One of Jesus’ favorite things to say after a teaching was, “He who has ears, let him hear” (Matthew 11:15, 13:9, 43, Mark 4:9, Luke 8:18, 14:35). It’s one thing to have ears, it’s another thing to hear.

Nevertheless, the prophet Isaiah promised that on the day of the Messiah’s arrival, “the deaf shall hear the words of a book” (Isaiah 29:18, cf. Isaiah 35:5). This was the theological significance of Jesus’ healing of a deaf man (Mark 7:31–37): those who hear do not necessarily truly hear the word of the Lord, and those that cannot hear may be most ready for the good news. For all of the biblical authors, being able to hear sounds does not mean you’ll be able to hear the word of the Lord.

The Christmas story told in both Luke and Matthew show all kinds of responses of those that heard the good news of Christ’s coming. Some heard but did not truly hear, others barely caught wind of Christ’s coming and placed complete faith in the Living God. Zechariah famously did not believe the word of the Lord — and he was a priest (Luke 1:5–24) — but Mary did (Luke 1:26–38). Joseph, upon hearing the announcement, “considered these things” (probably for a few days, Matthew 1:20). Herod, “heard this [the birth of Jesus],” and “was troubled” (Matthew 2:3). But the old prophetess Anna, barely heard anything (she would have been on the outside of the temple courts at Jesus’ consecration), but responded to Christ’s birth with worship, prayer, and fasting (Luke 2:36–38). She truly heard.

Hearing the word of God — the good news of Jesus Christ — solicits all kinds of responses. Jesus himself likened this to a seed (the word of God) falling on various kinds of soils (our ears/hearts), all of which will produce drastically different results (Mark 4:1–20).

Advent is the time to hear the word of the Lord anew, to re-hear that which we were once told. We place ourselves inside the familiar narratives of wise men, kings, prophets, and a virgin, in order to turn our ear towards the voice of God. What is he saying? What has he said? When we listen well, we are placed inherently in a humble posture. What is the Lord speaking to us?

A wonderful Advent prayer, that can be said in the morning, evening, or (maybe best) as you read or hear Scripture, is this: “Father in heaven, give me ears to hear your word, a heart to understand it, and the will to enact that which you have said.” Amen.

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Chris Nye

Living in Portland, Oregon with my wife and son. Doctoral candidate at Duke University. Author of a few books: chrisnye.co/books