Easter 3 May 12, 2019


Tone Deaf

1 John 4:4-11

Scripture Readings

Acts 10:34-43
John 15:9-17


WS 764:1-3, WS 766, 48, WS 764:4

Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted


Rejoice in the grace and mercy of your God, who has given you ears that actually hear. Amen.

Dear Fellow Christians:

You and I were born tone-deaf.

Now, I would imagine that some of you who actually can sing might take exception to that statement. “Speak for yourself, Pastor! Tone-deaf?” Tone-deaf, after all, is typically used to describe monotones—those of us whose singing often sounds more like a braying mule than an angel. Technically it refers to someone who is “physically unable to distinguish between subtle changes in musical pitch”—thus the monotone.

This is obviously not the sort of tone-deaf we are talking about. This morning we are talking about the sort of tone-deaf that makes it impossible for human beings to hear with comprehension and faith the vast majority of truths that you and I take for granted. In fact, this sort of tone-deafness represents an ongoing worldwide tragedy.

This is our study topic thing morning, and the concept will be introduced by this morning’s text, found in the Epistle of First John, the Fourth Chapter:

Little children, you are from God and have overcome the world, for he who is in you is greater than he who is in the world. They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. By this we know the Spirit of truth and the spirit of error.

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. (ESV)

So far the very Word of God. God himself has given these words to you, and herein offers you wisdom, strength, comfort, and—in particular this morning—that Christian love that he values so highly. Since these are all things we need and desire, to that end we pray, Sanctify us by Your truth, O Lord. Your word is truth.Amen.

There’s a big difference between “heard of” and “heard.” You’ve all probably heard of dog whistles, though no one here has actually heard one. The human ear (and/or brain) isn’t capable of hearing such high frequencies. Same thing with those anti-rodent devices that supposedly emit a frequency that drives mice and rats nuts, but again is too high-pitched for man to hear.

There is another “sound” that man can’t or doesn’t hear that has nothing to do with pitch or volume. This sound has everything to do with the message itself, and what man wants and doesn’t want to hear. The message is Jesus Christ and him crucified. Again, almost everyone has “heard of” Jesus Christ. It continues to baffle Christians, however, that so many who have “heard of” Jesus Christ still have not “heard” him. They know about him, but they don’t know him.

Our text put it this way: They are from the world; therefore they speak from the world, and the world listens to them. We are from God. Whoever knows God listens to us; whoever is not from God does not listen to us. The Greek word translated here as listens to means simply “hears.” In other words, what John is saying is that when people of the world talk to each other, they not only hear, they get it. They hear with understanding and comprehension. Yet when a Christian talks to the world a strange, disconcerting phenomenon kicks in: they hear, but they don’t hear. That is, they hear the words we are speaking, they logically or reasonably process the words and their meanings, but they just don’t get it. Hearing, they don’t hear—they don’t comprehend because it isn’t a part of them. Paul once put it this way: The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. (1 Corinthians 2:14) In case you are missing the meaning here, listen again to an even clearer translation: A person who isn’t spiritual doesn’t accept the teachings of God’s Spirit. He thinks they’re nonsense. He can’t understand them because a person must be spiritual to evaluate them. (1 Corinthians 2:14 GWN)

The vitally interesting and relevant fact that we don’t want to miss here is that the problem the world has when it comes to the message and meaning of the gospel is not lack of attention. Nor is the problem a lack of intellect or imagination or good manners. The problem is that they are, quite literally, spiritually tone deaf. They simply cannot make heads or tails out of what we are saying to them.

Again, this doesn’t mean that they cannot process the words and their physical meaning. It isn’t therefore as if they have no concept of what born of a virgin means, or died on a cross or rose from the dead. They get that part, that much, but that’s all that they get. They don’t get the meaning, the import, the life-changing power or consequences of those words of truth.

It’s difficult to find a parallel in the secular world, but we’ll try. How many can recall what happened on “the 18th of April in 75”? Hopefully a few will recognize that as a line from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. The “75” referred to 1775, and April 18th was the date Paul Revere rode to warn the “country folk” of the approaching British army.

Now imagine for just a moment that the colonists heard Revere’s message, but it meant nothing to them. In that scenario they would know that the British army was advancing by boat, that they would be arriving shortly, and maybe even that that represented bad news—but that was it. They remained totally oblivious to the import or the consequences of that coming reality and promptly went back to bed. They just didn’t get that the arrival of British Grenadiers meant something more than just a bit of detached news. It meant that bloodshed, destruction and death were imminent. It meant that many of their husbands, sons, and fathers would soon be lying dead, their lands devastated, their homes burned, and their storehouses emptied. It meant they would be forced to lodge enemy soldiers, feeding and serving them. All of this would become reality—unless they took up arms to defend themselves.

That’s the sort of thing John is talking about in our text, but only on a much more critical, eternal scale. Hearing, our world doesn’t hear. Reminds me of a pastor who was trying to have a devotion with a sweet elderly lady in a nursing home. At one point he pointed out to her that “Jesus was coming soon”—whereupon she replied, “Company! How nice. I’ll have to bake some cookies.” The pastor doggedly tried to carry on, pointing out who Jesus was, what his coming meant, and how important the Savior was for all mankind. Her reply, “Well then maybe I’d better bake a nice pie too.

This illustrates the reality of all who exist in unbelief. Unlike that sweet old lady, who was hopefully just confused, unbelief is far worse than simple confusion. Unbelievers are often at the top of their game—the best and the brightest according to the world’s reckoning. Many of them seem to have it all. God sees it differently. In fact, it’s even worse than that. Not only do they have nothing, they have no desire to get what they need. It’s foolishness in their eyes. It is nonsense that thoroughly repulses them—mythology that they positively despise and utterly reject.

All of this would make for an extremely gloomy and depressing message, but for one fact: you and I were once just as tone-deaf. Every single Christian, before he is brought to faith, holds the same low opinion of all things spiritual.

This is where the second part of our text comes in, introduced by John with these simple words: Beloved, let us love one another. If you were alert and paying attention as those words were read, you may have noticed how abrupt and disconnected they seem at first glance. But we know that God the Holy Spirit doesn’t do “disjointed.” The fact is these two things (the spiritual “tone-deafness” of the Godless and our Savior-God’s will that we love our neighbor) are intimately connected. Think of it in terms of these two bits of Scripture, the first is from Matthew 27:20-26, 39-40:

Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus. The governor again said to them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” Pilate said to them, “Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?” They all said, “Let him be crucified!” And he said, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they shouted all the more, “Let him be crucified!”

So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man’s blood; see to it yourselves.” And all the people answered, “His blood be on us and on our children!” Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified… And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”

The second is from Acts 2:22ff:

“Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know—this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it… This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses… Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”

Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to himself.” And with many other words he bore witness and continued to exhort them, saying, “Save yourselves from this crooked generation.” So those who received his word were baptized, and there were added that day about three thousand souls.

Why are these two texts so important in the context of spiritual tone-deafness? Because the crowds were more or less the same in each reading. These were the residents of Jerusalem. When their religious leaders told them that Jesus was a fraud and deserved to die, they agreed and called for his crucifixion. At that point his claims were utter foolishness in their ears—as evidenced by the fact that they used his own words to mock and ridicule him while he hung on the cross: You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross. Yet to this same crowd Peter demonstrated the “love-in-action” advocated in our text.

And the results were utterly, eternally spectacular. Souls, once impossibly tone-deaf and on the path to hell, were carried into the light of truth and understanding by the power of God’s Word. This same amazing transformation was accomplished in you and me through the power of that same Word. The message of our text then comes into sharp focus: The very fact that unbelievers are hopelessly trapped in their spiritual ignorance, and so despise the Word of truth, offers us the greatest opportunity to reflect the Savior’s love in our lives and actions. Hear again the words of our text: In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

Take a good, hard, honest look into your heart. Your Savior doesn’t want you to despise and abandon the Godless. He loves them as he loves you. When you were spiritual “tone-deaf” to his love, he gave his Son into death for you. That’s how much he loves and values you. He also wants you to love the Godless, value them, and to share with them the live-giving power of the message of life. This gift has already been given to you and me. God grant us hearts that love enough to share the same with our neighbor. Amen.

—Pastor Michael Roehl

St. Paul Lutheran Church
Bismarck, ND

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