Forced to Listen

By Shalom Agtarap

Confession: It’s been a few years now that I’ve studiously exercised my ordination to preaching and teaching the Word of God. We’ve got high rates of biblical illiteracy (it’s no fun and not kind to talk over peoples heads) and I’m often preoccupied with things not included in my ordination vows (newsletter creation, sitting in coffee shops to get a feel for the community, mind-numbing meetings that don't actually create disciples). All of this makes for a less than rigorous study and teaching routine.

It’s not entirely surprising to me then, that the Spirit of God moves in spite of me and, after a few sentences into my sermon last Sunday, the Word arrived.

“Zechariah, due to his doubt …

On the first Sunday of Advent, we explored the story of Elizabeth and Zechariah and I was supposed to say, “goes mute.” Instead I said, “…was forced to listen.”

In the first chapter of the gospel of Luke, Zechariah is visited by an angel that informs him he and Elizabeth will be expecting a child. He’s incredulous because of their age and it is his doubt - his apprehension, his curiosity - that causes the Angel Gabriel to make him mute. The line I was prepared to say was “Zechariah, due to his doubt, was made mute for Elizabeth’s entire pregnancy.”

But it’s not simply that he couldn’t speak. It’s that God created the conditions for him to listen more deeply. As a priest in the temple, I can only imagine what he heard, what he saw; what God wanted him to hear, what God forced him to see. Without the temptation of speaking, he could perhaps listen with the ears of the heart. I am certain this enabled him to hear beyond the words into the spirit consciousness. (It’s that whole, turning off the flashlight in the woods so that your eyes can adjust to the light of the moon - thing.)

If you were forced to hear the pain, frustration, desperation and maybe even joy of people praying - what might you be hearing today?

It’s in the temple that Hannah prays desperately for a child. She shares her pain and the mistreatment she receives at home and it’s Samuel, the priest, who hears her and sees her.

Can you imagine nine months of listening to this kind of vulnerability? What impact would that leave on you?

After a season of deep listening, Zechariah, filled with the prayers of the people, brings his heartfelt conviction that God has not forgotten them.

“We would be rescued

        from the power of our enemies

    so that we could serve him without fear,

        in holiness and righteousness in God’s eyes,

            for as long as we live.” - Luke 1:74-75

To whom are you deeply listening in this season? Rev. Dr. Jacqui Lewis at Middle Church has been hosting care-frontational conversations and even provides tools so that we can listen with the ears of the heart.

My invitation for us in this post-election/Advent season is forced listening, a refusal to talk over or debate and sincerely listen. Perhaps then, we too might find prophetic things to say when we are asked to speak.

Shalom Agtarap is an ordained United Methodist Elder currently serving a multiethnic congregation south of Seattle. She also facilitates work among four churches working to become more multicultural and multiethnic; better representatives of their neighborhoods. She is a graduate of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC and her formation as a Christ follower was shaped by the Upper Room's Two-Year Academy for Spiritual Formation. She drinks deeply from the well of guided meditation and spiritual reading but is usually found listening to a podcast on race and politics or gospel music. Or both. 

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