So often when we’re in deep trouble, we stop listening. We can’t hear anything but the sound of our own voice or anxieties or whatever it is and we stop listening for the very thing, the very word, that might actually help… and sometimes of course we just can’t help it and we need someone to come and help us to listen.
We live in times when the world is full of noise; twitter, TV, Facebook, opinions here there and everywhere, the buzzing in our heads… The phone’s ringing, the microwave is peeping, the road works are thrumming, the traffic is whizzing… we can’t hear ourselves think. And sometimes the noise is coming from within us too; those ideas that just won’t stop going round and round, the awful conversation we keep replaying that we wish we hadn’t had, the thing we regret saying, the anxiety that just won’t let go enough to let us sleep. And all this noise makes it hard to listen – to listen to any voice that might be able to help. It’s hard to listen and hard to hear.
People said that Jesus taught with a note of authority. Which means, I think, among other things, and perhaps most of all, that the people actually listened to him… and that there was something about him that meant that he could cut through the noise so that they could hear something truly helpful…. It means that while on other Sabbaths they sometimes dozed during the sermon or counted the numbers on the psalm board or planned the menu for lunch or supper – that day they really listened. It means that whatever huge or tiny worries they had going round and round their heads, whatever was troubling them or churning them up, whatever anxieties had got hold of them, that something in the way he spoke, in his demeanour, in the way he looked at them as though he knew all about them, in the words he chose or the tone of his voice – something made the noise in their heads stop so that they could listen. And it means he wasn’t just talking about something that was merely interesting or amusing, but something that was life changing, that really cut through and spoke to the heart.
Perhaps some of them had not really listened to the Bible readings or the sermon for years. Perhaps it was all so familiar, a welcome space at the end of the week, a peaceful hour out of the sun. Perhaps it was easy somehow not to listen most sabbaths – and to hope that the voice of whichever rabbi or preacher it was would fill the time and say the familiar things in a pleasant tone. But when Jesus spoke, they listened. And it helped, it really helped. And the good news is that it can help us too.
If Jesus really had authority, true authority, then what he was doing was helping those people to listen to what God was saying to them. He was helping them hear that ‘still small voice’ that can actually calm us and mend us and heal us – and cut through the noise of our suffering and agony and anxiety and say, ‘You are going to be all right’. Because there is a terrible price to pay, as people will tell us, if we stop listening to that voice or if we stop being able to hear it. I think that’s what true authority means – to have the gift of helping people to listen, not to you, but to the voice of God or at least the one voice you need to hear. And I believe that’s what Jesus did. It was his gift. He helped people to listen to God. And it’s the things he said and the life he led, the death he died and the new life to which he rose – it’s those things which have opened my ears so that I can sometimes hear God – in the midst of my own frailties and anxieties and worries and all the competing voices that might drown out the sound of such a beautiful, wondrous and healing God. And I hope that I will never stop listening, and straining my ears to hear…. what God is saying.
I know a story that I want to tell you today but it’s a story that’s quite personal to some people here so I’ll keep it a bit anonymised – though I know it’s a story that one of you at least is happy for me to tell. I know that one of you here was once very ill, perhaps as ill as the man in this story in the Gospel. The story is about someone who is described as possessed of an unclean spirit, one who cries out and cries inside, one out of his mind. And here among us are those who know what that’s like; to go through what we would now describe as mental illness, to be out of your mind, to be suffering. All of us have surely been ill at some time in our bodies, but just as much all of us can surely say too that we have known what it is to be ill in our minds – to be overcome and beside ourselves with anxiety or fatigue or puzzlement or stress or whatever it is. The man in the story is severely ill, and some of us here have been ill in this kind of way, and we know how serious and how terrifying this can be. But another one of you listening right now, at the height of your powers, was able to visit someone here who at the time was suffering like this – and to say, ‘You are going to be all right’, with such authority that they believed you and held on to the thread of that hope until it was true. You said it with such authority that someone listened and heard. And this is the kind of authority that Jesus had.
So now we are here today – and we are all often very ready to talk about the things that are wrong with our bodies or the bodies of those we love. We all know how to talk about hearts and bones and eyes…But we know too that we all come with wounds in our minds and souls too, with things that range from mild stress to profound and debilitating anxieties, from things we just need a good weep about to those we take to a counsellor, from the things that just leave us a bit down to those things that haunt our nights.
Jesus, so the Gospel tells us, has authority to heal and mend. And of course there is no special solution for Christians or a medicine only we can know. But being a follower of Jesus really can help with the noise in our heads – it really can, sometimes… I believe this. Every week we hear Jesus tell us the liturgical equivalent of ‘You are going to be alright’. Whatever you’ve done or think you’ve done, however deep your regrets or hurts, there is a way back – you are forgiven and you can forgive and it will be alright. And every week we hear the preacher say that we are blessed, that God looks on us with favour and we are held, today and always. And, then there’s the way that the chaos of our everydays can be made more rhythmic, more gentle, more survivable with the rhythm of prayer and regular pauses to reflect and think. And, in the community of the church you can find a place where, whoever you are and almost however you behave, you can be welcomed and accepted. And how about the practice of meditation and prayer, how about the ancient and reliable ways that people have always known to still the heart and mind and find the healing of silence and peace? Come, says Jesus, all those who are heavy laden and I will give you rest. Mental suffering can go deep and can disfigure and hurt our lives as much as any physical wound. And there are many who cry out every day – ‘How long?’ – whether in this time of pandemic or just in ordinary days. But this story of Jesus in the synagogue tells us that once, on an ordinary sabbath, in a service that might have been even rather like this one, a man out of his mind heard at last an authoritative voice and then whatever was hurting him stopped. I know that there are those for whom we would want that now and for whom we cry out.
There is little point in trying to quantify or scale physical or mental suffering, and each human life is different. Mental illness, as so much physical illness too, remains as much a mystery to us as it was in Jesus’ time. There is much that we cannot cure and those whose pain we cannot end. But it is wonderful to know that sometimes, in some places, in Jesus’ ministry and sometimes in some of yours, people do find a way to hear the voice that will save them, or perhaps the voice finds a way at last to be heard. My prayer today is that more of us will have the grace of hearing that strong voice cut through the noise – and that more of all humankind will find the peace that Jesus brought to so many. It’s no surprise that he was famous for it and that people followed him in search of it. I think that’s what I’m following him for too on many of my days. And I’m listening still for the voice of God, the one that has authority over all those troubles and that speaks to me of infinite and unconditional love. May it be so for all of us, Amen.