Sometimes we have lost our keenness of hearing. It is a common enough condition of health that hearing is sometimes impaired. Sometimes it is because of circulation. Sometimes it is nerve damage. Sometimes the ear drum itself is injured. Do people find their spiritual hearing sometimes impaired? Certainly! If it were not so, then every church would have standing room only every Sunday! Some no longer hear, "Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden."
What is it that impairs our spiritual hearing? It is sin! The Bible speaks of spiritual blindness. To the church at Laodicea Jesus said, "Thou . . . knowest not that thou are wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked." Commenting on that, someone gave us the well-known quotation, "Sin cuts the optic nerve of the soul." We may describe the same condition in different terms by saying that sin impairs our hearing.
We cannot hear God calling to us. We cannot hear angels announcing the good news. We cannot hear the cry of our need. Yes, sin will impair our spiritual hearing.
That's the use Isaiah makes of this text. And Jesus. And Paul. Another reason that people do not always hear what others hear is indifference. That which we have heard often we now no longer hear at all.
On their tenth wedding anniversary,
a man bought his wife a her clock. It chimed every fifteen minutes,
night they had it, they didn't sleep a wink. But after a they began to sleep the whole night through and never the clock chime. In fact, unless they listened for it, they heard it at all. But the morning after they had overnight guests, the guests would come out red-eyed and bleary, and the man remembered that the clock struck every quarter hour.
The same thing is illustrated in the person who buys a hearing aid. When he had normal hearing, he simply tuned out the noises he didn't want to hear. He tuned out the wind, the hum of machinery, the cries of birds. Then he became hard of hearing and never heard them at all. Finally he gets a hearing aid, and all those extra sounds come in again! He turns his hearing aid down--so low it does him very little good, to shut out the noises we all hear every day, and yet do not hear. We tune them out. (Some men have even been known to tune out their own wives! Imagine that!)
Does it grow old to you, this gospel story? This so familiar business of shepherds and Wise-men and a baby in a manger? These songs we sing? These sermons I preach? Have you heard it all so often that now you really do not hear it at all? That would be a shame. The clock makes a lovely sound, though its owner never enjoys it! The birds songs are sweet, even though we never hear them!
There is something about this Christmas business that never grows old. If anything grows dull, it is us! We grow indifferent to the whole thing! Try to imagine today that you are hearing it all for the first time! Hear it with the wonder of childhood! Hear it with the amazement of heathen savages. Hear it as a man from another planet would hear it. Never, never let it lose its wonder!
A third reason we do not all hear the same thing is that we are not trained to listen. I may go to the symphony with a trained musician. Afterward I say, "Wasn't that great?" He says, "Yes, but the second violin was flat." He was trained to hear things that I could not. I take my mechanic for a ride in my car. "Hear that?" I ask. "I hear a lot of things," he said. "I hear some things you dont even hear!" And the acuteness of his trained ear costs me plenty!
It is a fact that to appreciate fully what we are hearing at Christmas, we have to have some training, some preparation. Doubtless, Christmas meant a great deal to the shepherds, but certainly it meant much more to Simeon, that devout man in the temple who had saturated himself with the Word of God.
If we know something about the circumstances of a song, it means more to us. I have enjoyed "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing" far more since I learned how Charles Wesley wrote it, and that it was almost lost forever. I appreciate all the more "While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night" when I know that it was one of the earliest Christian hymns. For a long time it was considered sacrilegious to sing hymns of human composition. Only psalms from the Bible were sung in church. It took a brave Nahum Tate to include this song with fifteen others in a supplement to the hymnal with only words of Scripture for songs. At first rejected, the hymn has become a favorite to many. Knowing the background enhances my appreciation for the song.
So he who knows the Old Testament appreciates all the more the New. So he who has read the prophets is better prepared to receive the Prince of Peace.
Any book is more appreciated when the reader knows the author. That may explain why some people get so much from reading the Bible. That may explain why others get so little!
There is a fourth reason why one does not hear what others hear. Sometimes we tend to hear what we want to hear. A lady used to come out of church each Sunday and say, "You did it again!" The preacher didn't know whether to say, "Thank you," or, "I'm sorry." If it was a day he felt good, he took it as a compliment. If it was a day he felt inferior and incompetent, he took it as a complaint. We do tend to hear what we expect.
One minister's column a while back reported that he had heard a lot of impatient customers snarling at short-tempered clerks at Christmas. And the clerks snarled back at the customers. I really hadn't noticed that, until he called my attention to it. I had just been thinking how extra polite and friendly people seemed to be at Christmas. Strangers say, "Merry Christmas!" Merchants smile, and well they should at todays prices! Sometimes drivers even let me in when I am waiting to get into the stream of traffic. It had seemed to me that people were extra nice at Christmas. Now I am noticing instead all the discourteous things people do!
The fifth factor in hearing is competition. Sometimes noise drowns out what we want to hear. You could not tune a piano in an automobile factory. The First Christian Church at Largo, Florida, erected its building with its back to the street, so to speak. Some thought that didn't look too friendly. They said it looked much more inviting for the great open doors to face the highway. They were right, of course. But the church was thinking about the noise. They thought it would be distracting every time someone opened the doors to come in--all that noise of autos rushing by, carrying thoughtless people to insignificant destinations as they roared past the place of worship!
Does Christmas get drowned out in all the noise of "Seasons Greetings" and "Holiday Cheer"? By the way, save all those cards you get that say "Seasons Greetings." You can send them any time! They say absolutely nothing. When hunting season opens, send one to someone: "Seasons Greetings." When baseball season opens, send one to a sports fan: "Seasons Greetings." Such cards, intended to say nothing offensive, end up saying nothing at all.
I know of a man who worked at an electric generating plant. It was a very noisy place. He got in the habit of speaking a certain way in the plant, and it carried over into the rest of his life. You might imagine that he got into the habit of shouting, but you would be wrong. He got into the habit of whispering. He knew it was useless to try to shout over the noise of the generators. When he wanted to talk to a co-worker, he would get very near to the man and whisper.
That became such a habit that he spoke softly even at church. He would come out after the service, lean over close to the preachers ear, and whisper very confidentially, "That was a good sermon." At first the preacher thought he didn't want anybody else to know he thought it was good!
God recognized that you can't outshout the world. So in the Old Testament, God speaks not in wind, earthquake, or fire, but in a still, small voice.
And it is so with Christmas. No trumpets in Bethlehem. No heralds for the king except the herald angels, and they appear only to shepherds. No pomp. No parade. Phillips Brooks describes it: "How silently, how silently."
Now with that lengthy background, let us again ask, "Do you hear what I hear?" If our ears are sharp from good spiritual health, if our hearing is not made less acute by indifference, if the best sounds are not drowned out by noise, if we are trained to listen, and if we really want to hear, what can we hear this Christmas--or any Christmas?
I hear a sigh, a sob, and a song!
The sigh comes up from the world itself. It is as if all the earth were in the position of Israel in Egypt long ago. God said, "I have surely seen the affliction of my people which are in Egypt, and have heard their cry." And again He said, "The cry of the children of Israel is come unto me."
So I doubt not that God hears the sighing of a weary world. Can you hear it, too? It is a world tired of tyrants and weary of war! It is a world fatigued by the threats that surround it. It is a world surfeited with the blood that has stained its soil again and again.
Can you hear the sigh, too? Don't tune it out! Painful as it is to hear it, we must not tune it out. The one thing the church dare not do is turn off its hearing aid and refuse to listen to the sighing of a weary, weary world.
To the sighing, God has something to say, something to say to the world through the church. Listen to the sigh.
For some, the sigh becomes a sob. Some will live out this Christmas the awful story of Matthew chapter 2. It will not be a mad king Herod who brings them sorrow. I t will be a drunken driver on the highway! It will be a thieving intruder in the night. It will be some thoughtless, careless person. But the pain will be the same.
So often, our only response is, "Dont cry!" Theres precious little comfort in that! This Christmas, as at every Christmas, there will be those who have every reason to cry. For some, it will not be quite so sad as death--but almost. For some, this Christmas will mark the death of a marriage; for some, the death of a friendship; for some, the loss of a job with no prospect for a new one; for some, a feared diagnosis made positive.
Yes, for some, the sounds of Christmas will be a sob, and the holiday will be wrapped in black.
We have to hear that! To ignore it would be heartless! To pass it off without notice would be cruel.
But above the sigh and above the sob is a song! And when I ask, "Do you hear what I hear?" I am thinking most of all of the song. The song reassures the sighing and comforts the sobbing. It comes just when we needed a song the most. It comes just when we thought we could never sing again! It comes with its age-old message of comfort and hope. The song comes when it is needed most, as it first came when it was needed most. When it seemed God had forgotten both His people and His promises, the Savior came--and with Him, a song!
"It came to pass in the days of Caesar Augustus,. . ." in days when an emperor in Rome could push people about in the far-flung provinces like pawns on a chess board. He came "in the days of Herod the King," in days when success after success seemed to crown the head of a sinning, cruel, heartless, murdering king.
Jesus came into the world just when the world needed Him most! "In the fulness of time," says the Bible, He came.
He began His ministry just when it was needed most. The Bible says that after John was arrested, Jesus came preaching. The timing was not accidental. Evil had done its worst. God's one fearless spokesman was silenced, and it looked as if right was forever on the scaffold, and wrong was forever on the throne. Then, then Jesus came preaching.
During His ministry, He kept saying, "My time is not yet come; my time is not yet come." Then one night in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus said to His disciples, "Behold the hour is coming," and He went to the cross.
So Christmas comes round
to us each year just when we were about ready to give up. We were
about ready to give up on man, and we were about ready to give up on God.
Then there comes again that immeasurably reassuring song.
Still thro' the cloven skies they come,
With peaceful wings unfurled,
And still their heavenly music floats
O'er all the weary world:
Above its sad and lowly plains
They bend on hov'ring wing:
And ever o'er its Babel sounds
The blessed angels sing.
And ye, beneath life's crushing load,
Whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way
With painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours
Come swiftly on the wing;
O rest beside the weary road,
And hear the angels sing!
--Edmund H. Sears