Do you hear what I hear? Did you sing that this Christmas season? You should have; you still have time. And here on the threshold of a new year, it might be the best time to be a listener. To tune into the music that is playing around us all the time, the music of the spheres, the music of heaven or of creation itself. Do you hear it?
I was given the gift of appreciation of musical ability. Yeah, that means I can’t play any instrument. But I can listen. But I can appreciate those who can. One I used to listen to was my little brother. He could play piano, like it was a part of him. 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. 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. Yet it is essential for the life or the Spirit. This Sunday after Christmas, or Watchnight service, 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 learned by ear.
Long story, but read it all the way though. Don’t skimp on Simeon’s story. And don’t leave out Anna. We need them. We needed to listen for a while. We need to catch the tune, 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 loud, happy, celebratory prayers that seemed so brash but goodhearted anyway. He heard the ritual prayers, 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 Simeon 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 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. 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. Might as well, our inner thoughts are revealed anyway. Simeon says so. And he ought to know. He’s 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, we might know rest like Jesus promised. But we can also learn to sing, to play by ear.
Paul learned that song, and he sang it every chance he got. He sang it in the fourth chapter of Galatians. He sang about God sending the Son, about redemption and adoption. He sang to us as children, with the Spirit in our hearts crying “Abba.” He sang to us as those set free, as heirs of the promise. It was one his favorites, a greatest hit he sang again and again.
Isaiah sang the song, too. His song is a fashion song, garments of salvation and robes of righteousness. We look as if we’re going to a wedding. We look like a garden in full bloom. We look like a chorus of praise singing in the heavenly choir, serenading the whole world. When Isaiah says “sing,” we can’t keep silent. Sing until everyone notices, sing until everyone hears. And what they need to hear is not us, not our song, but the composer, the conductor, the source of our music. The beauty of the proclamation of our lives is a pointer to the ongoing presence of the God for whom we sing.
Will we sing into a new year? Will we commit to being the sign of God’s presence at work in our world? “I am no longer my own, but yours,” we pray with Wesley’s Covenant prayer. We ask God to assign our parts, to rehearse us, to direct us so that we can be the choir that is needed in the cacophonous time. And, maybe, some of us will be assigned as listeners, like Simeon. Our proclamation will be the tear of joy that rolls down our face when we hear the music of the One who comes. Praise be to God, now and forever. Amen.