Seeing By Ear

Why does God more often speak than show?

Easter 3c • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

I’m sure that all of us have heard someone say, “I can’t read music but I can play by ear.” What that means is that a person can hear the notes that they need to play in their head and follow the melody along themselves as they go along. Although I have to admit that whenever I hear someone say that they can play the piano by ear I get the unfortunate image in my head of someone bashing their head against the piano keyboard. I don’t think even Victor Borge did that one!

But I saw an even more astonishing example of someone doing something by ear a few weeks ago on a science program on TV. It’s a young man who has been blind since infancy — he lost one of his eyes when he was about six months old and the other before he was two — and he is able to ride a bicycle through paths in the forest. And the way he is able to do this isn’t some kind of high-tech marvel like the electro-mechanical visor that chief engineer Geordie Laforge wore on “Star Trek Next Generation.” No, this young man makes use of something that isn’t high-tech, or even “tech” at all — as he rides along — slowly to be sure — he makes clicking sounds with his tongue and he has been doing this for so long, that the echoes that bounce off of the shrubbery and the trees are enough to tell him which way to head. He has been doing this for so long that his brain actually “sees” by sound, and it keeps him from running into trees, shrubs, or other bicyclists and joggers. He is a real, live “bat man.”

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I raise this example because of that odd turn of phrase at the beginning of the passage from the Revelation to John, that we heard this morning. It comes and goes so quickly that you might not even notice the oddity; but it says, “I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels.” “I looked and I heard” — not “I looked and I saw.” God speaks: think about this — how often in Scripture it is God speaking, God’s voice that is heard rather than something that is seen. God speaks — or in the case of the tablets of Moses, or the handwriting on the wall, writes — and the word of the Lord is just that: word, not vision.

Oh, there are visions to be sure, there are images but they are very few and far between compared to the words — there’s the burning bush of Moses, the plumb line of Amos, or the descent of the dove upon Jesus at his Baptism — but as you will recall these visions are accompanied by a voice that speaks — and a voice that is heard. When God warns Belshazzar that his time is running short, it is the sight of a hand writing upon a wall that startles the Babylonians — but it is words that it writes, even if the Babylonians can not understand them, until Daniel explains that their days are literally numbered. And let us not forget, that one of the very first commandments, one of those written on those tablets, is not to create graven images of divinity, not to bow down and worship them — but instead to remain faithful to the “immortal, invisible, God only wise, in light inaccessible hid from our eyes.”

Similarly, when God knocks Saul off of his high horse on the road to Damascus, although there is a display of light flashing, the primary message comes in the voice that speaks, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” The others with Saul also hear the voice, but see no one. And as if to bring the point home, that the message is to the ear and not the eye, Saul is blinded — and though his eyes are open, he can see nothing.

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So why is it that God so often seems to rely on the ear rather than the eye? Why on words instead of images? Another part of that TV show about the real live “bat man” who can cycle by sound, was about how easily our eyes are fooled by optical illusions. I’m sure that many of you have seen them, even from school days — we were brought up on those optical illusions: those lines that look like one is longer than the other, but when you get out a ruler and measure them, you discover they’re the same — and yet, without the ruler you can look at them and look at them, and your brain will keep telling you one is longer than the other. What you see, takes over, and tells you thing that aren’t there.

Sometimes, what you see can even deceive you as to what you hear. There was another thing in that TV show, that science show, called the McGurk illusion, after the man who discovered it. In it, scientists record the sounds of a man saying, “bah, bah, bah” with a “b” but they take that soundtrack put it with a different and silent film of the man saying, “fah, fah, fah” with an “f.” And the amazing thing is that most people, when they are shown that spliced-together video, “hear” the man saying “fah” with an “f” — even though what is actually on the soundtrack is “bah” with a “b” — they are actually hearing “bah” but because they are seeing the man saying “fah” that’s what they hear. What they see takes over, and dominates even what they are hearing.

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In short, our vision is less trustworthy than our hearing — it can easily mislead us — and if this is true in common things, how much more so when it comes to trying to understand the will and word of God. For God has spoken, through the prophets, and through his son Jesus Christ our Lord. He has not presented us with just some fleeting vision, some pretty picture, but words to live by.

I gave that example of Amos and the plumb-line, and of course, God showed Amos the plumb-line, and asked, “Amos, what do you see?” And Amos said, “A plumb-line.” But then God went on to explain what that plumb-line meant; he didn’t just rely on the vision, he explained, as you’ve heard me preach before, about how the “wall” that was the people of Israel had gotten out of kilter, and was no longer plumb, no longer vertical. And so God spoke to explain the vision, as God so often does. God speaks to us, my friends.

And we hear an example of how insistent God can be when he speaks to us in that passage today, in which our Lord speaks to Simon Peter, son of John. To make sure the big fisherman gets the message, Jesus repeats his question, and emphasizes his answer, three times. It is a question and a commandment for Simon Peter, but it applies to all of us.

For Jesus asks each of us, “Do you love me?” He asks three times, speaking clearly and enunciating each of those four syllables like the four beats of a kettledrum. “Do you love me?”

Like Peter, we immediately respond, yes, of course, we do love the Lord Jesus. But are we deeply committed to that love? Do we know the tune by heart, or are we just playing by ear? Are we concerned by the third time he asks, that Jesus has seen through us? — for his vision, unlike ours, never fails him, and he suffers from no optical illusions — he knows us through and through. Are we, like Simon Peter, hurt that Jesus asks us a third time if we love him, perhaps as we realize that we do not love him as we should, and we suffer the shame we rightly deserve for having failed to follow where he leads?

Jesus questions us three times, and commands us three times: and the command is as important as the question. Like Peter, we are called to feed his lambs, to tend his sheep, and to feed his sheep. Jesus says it three times to give us no excuse for having misheard or misunderstood. Each and every one of us is called and commanded to this work of care for the flock of which we are also members, the great gathering of sheep and lambs that is the church that Jesus purchased with his own blood. We are called, called and challenged and commanded to care for each other — and none of us can say, “We never heard that” or “You never told me that” — for he has said it three times!

So let us, sisters and brothers, trust, trust to the word that God has delivered to us. Our opening prayer this morning asked God to open our eyes; but let us also pray that God will open our ears. And then, let us respond with appropriate actions to the words once spoken through the prophets, and the words spoken through the Son, the very Word of God made flesh, even Jesus Christ our Lord.+