Out of the blue one day, my parents bought my brother a piano. We were older, then, college age. Because he could play. Oh, my, could he play. I was given the gift of appreciation of musical ability. Yeah, that means I can’t play anything. But I can listen. And he could play, my little brother. I know he would say he hasn’t kept up with it and isn’t as good as he was, and I wouldn’t argue with him. I know it takes practice to be good. But I never saw him practice before. I just saw him play. I mean, it never seemed like it was hard, like he was straining or struggling or working at it though I know he was. But it never looked like it and rarely sounded like it. He just played. He practiced playing, and I practiced listening.
Listening doesn’t get you many admirers, not like playing does, and yet it is essential for the life of the Spirit. This week of the “Company’s Coming” series, we get to hear the story of a professional listener, a man who dedicated his life to listening. And then when the time came, he played. He sang the song he’d been listening for. He sat down to play the tune he had learned by ear.
It’s a long story, but worth reading all the way through —because we need to listen for a while. We needed to catch the tune; we needed to follow the rhythms. Simeon learned how to listen. His name means “heard,” believe it or not. It was what he was born to do. So, he did. He listened; day and night, he listened. He was listening for the future. He was listening for hope, the consolation of Israel, Luke tells us. He was listening for that which would bring peace, that which would bring light. He listened. Day after day, he went to the temple to listen. He heard the cries of the people. He heard the songs of the prayers, the loud happy celebratory ones that seemed so loud and brash, but good hearted anyway. He heard the ritual ones, spoken sometimes as though they had lost their meaning, and sometimes as though the meaning was so deep it resonated through the souls of those who prayed. He heard the wordless prayers that were wept from swollen and reddened eyes, wrung out of twisted scraps of cloth between hands gnarled with pain and fear. He heard the proud and grateful prayers of people who knew how blessed they were. He heard them and wept and laughed with them. He heard them all.
But he heard more because he listened deeper. He heard the responses. He heard the sighs of the Spirit as it flowed like wisps of comfort into the hearts of the hopeless and broken. He heard the soothing song of blessing as it played on hearts less in tune than his, but aware nonetheless somehow. He heard the invitation of the God he loved, to follow, to obey, to keep close and stay awake, to watch and listen. He heard the commandment not as a hammer on a cymbal, but as a finger plucking a string. He heard; somehow he heard. Then, that day, he heard the music shift into a higher key, a note of anticipation fulfilled, a baton pointed, a new singer taking the stage. And he followed the director’s gaze and welcomed the one who comes.
Then Simeon, who lived a life of listening, became a teacher of the song he knew. He sang into the hearts of those who came carrying more than they knew. His song was a gift to the church. Called the “Nunc Dimittis” from the first words of the song in Latin, “Now let your servant depart in peace.” We’ve always thought that he was saying it was time to die. Because Luke told us that he was promised that he wouldn’t die until he heard what he was listening for. But maybe he is simply saying, “I’m done listening. I’ve heard all I need to hear. I’ve heard the voice of the one who sings a song of salvation, who chants the chorus of redemption. My ears are full.”
He may be done listening, but he isn’t done singing. He has to teach the song to those who will sing it. And his colleague, Anna, teaches it to any and all who are around them, running from one to another to make sure they sing. You can’t stand silent in this worship service; you can’t have closed lips for this hymn. It doesn’t matter whether you think you can sing or not. We need to learn the tune—the falling and the rising, the major and the minor key, that which makes us smile and that which evokes a tear. We need to sing. We might as well; our inner thoughts are revealed anyway, Simeon says so, and he ought to know. He has been listening to those inner thoughts his whole life. And now he sings the song he learned by ear.
It takes time to learn to listen, but it is worth the effort. The Spirit rested on Simeon, Luke says, rested. Not stirred up, not agitated or poked or prodded, but rested. Maybe if we listen more to the Spirit, the voice of God, then we might know rest, as Jesus promised. But we can also learn to sing, to play by ear.
True, singing is problematic these days. Maybe in your church, you’re not singing at all, just listening. Or maybe you are singing through a mask, trying not to share those droplets. That is understandable; and good for you. But the Spirit needs to be shared. The song needs to be sung, if only in our hearts and our heads.
Isaiah doesn’t talk about singing, though he could have. He talks about celebrating; he talks about rejoicing; he talks about shouting. Lots of droplets there, it would seem. “I will not keep silent,” he proclaims, for Zion’s sake. And what brings about all this noise, all this celebrating and shouting? Well, it’s the new growth, Isaiah claims. It is what is happening in the community of faith by God’s action.
When we enjoy the company that God has brought into our midst, we spend part of the time listening. Whether we are talking about the Christ who was born among us, or the guests who came because we put out the welcome mat, we need to listen first. To hear their story, to learn their song, so that we can sing with them. And then we need to teach our songs, Christ’s songs, so that together we can wear the diadem. No wait, so that we can be the diadem, that’s what Isaiah says. So that we can be the sign that God is in our midst, and we are listening and singing and enjoying the company.