I think we all know instinctively that there’s a big difference between ‘hearing’ and ‘listening’.
I’m sitting on my couch at home with my laptop open. I’m checking emails, surfing some blog sites, reading some Facebook posts—the usual computer stuff. Marci comes in and starts talking to me. I can hear what she’s saying, but she doesn’t really have my attention. I’m hearing her, but I’m not listening to her. I know the difference—and so does she!
Or think of a parent complaining about their child’s behaviour. “She never listens to me!” she says. She’s not describing a hearing problem; this is about action, or the lack of it. The child isn’t doing what she’s told; that’s what it means to say ‘she’s not listening to me’. ‘Listening’ in this sense includes not just attention, but also obedience.
Our Gospel reading for today includes a command about listening: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Matthew 17.5). This command is given on top of the mountain of the Transfiguration, where Jesus has gone with Peter, James, and John. If you’ve read the book of Acts, you’ll know that in the early chapters these three are going to be the leaders of the Jerusalem church. They’re the ones who will set the tone of its life as a community of faith. And surely the defining characteristic of its life is that this will be a community that listens to Jesus, in the fullest sense of that word ‘listen’! So let’s think about this for a few minutes.
First, why should the disciples ‘listen to him’? And what difference would it make for them to do so?
To answer that question let’s read today’s story in context. When Matthew wrote his gospel he didn’t divide it into chapters; those divisions were added later. And it’s clear that chapter 16.13 to 17.13 were originally written as a connected whole. There are three distinct units, but they lead logically from one to the other.
First, in 16.13-20, the subject is Jesus’ question to the disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (16.13). The disciples reply, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.” But then Jesus presses the issue. “What about you?” he asks; “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter replies, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (16.16). Jesus affirms this: “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven.” (16.17).
But what does it mean for Jesus to be the Messiah? The common idea was that the Messiah would be a king like David, setting Israel free from foreign invaders by military force, and then establishing a just and holy government. In other words, he would lead a sort of ‘Make Israel Great Again’ movement! This Messianic hope was dear to many people in Israel; it was something they were really longing for.
But Jesus refuses to go along with this. In the second unit, we read that he ‘began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised’ (16.21). Peter can’t accept this and he rebukes Jesus: “Never, Lord! This will never happen to you!” But Jesus turns and rebukes Peter; he accuses him of listening to human ideas, not the thoughts of God. Jesus is walking a different path altogether, the path of love, forgiveness, and reconciliation. People will reject him and nail him to a cross, but he will embody the love of the God who loves his enemies and prays for their forgiveness. In other words, Jesus’ version of the Messianic hope is to change the world, not through force, but through indestructible love. And he calls his followers to do the same: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (16.24).
Now we come to the third unit, today’s passage. ‘Six days later’, Jesus leads Peter, James and John up a high mountain, where he is transfigured before them: his face and clothing begin to shine with a brilliant light. Two dead guys appear with him, Moses and Elijah. These are very significant people! Moses was the first great leader of Israel, the one who led them out of Egypt and gave them the Law of God that has guided their lives ever since. Elijah was the first of the great prophets, messengers sent by God to call the people to turn back from idolatry to the true and living God, and to lives of justice and goodness.
If the words ‘Listen to him!’ could ever be applied to anyone in Israel’s history, it would be to these two! “Listen to Moses! Listen to Elijah!” It’s unlikely that Peter, James and John could imagine anyone being greater than them. Peter no doubt thought he was being generous to Jesus when he put the three of them on the same level: “Lord, it is good for us to be here! If you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah!” (17.4). Few people could imagine Jesus being on the same level as those two! And they were also a sort of living embodiment of the Old Testament scriptures. In the time of Jesus, when people were talking about what we now call ‘the Old Testament’, they often called it ‘The Law and the Prophets’. Well, the Law came through Moses, and Elijah represented the prophets! So these are the heroes of Israel’s faith, and they represent the books that shaped Israel’s life.
But how does God respond to Peter’s suggestion that he put Jesus on the same level as Moses and Elijah? Verse 5 says, ‘While Peter was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”’ Moses and Elijah were both excellent servants from ancient times, but Jesus is on a whole different level: he’s God’s beloved Son.
I read a story a while back by a preacher who had attended the funeral of the great English runner Roger Bannister. Many tributes were given by friends and colleagues who had known Roger over the years, but the last to speak was his son. The preacher’s comment was, “There are some things about a father that only a son or daughter can know.” And it’s the same with Jesus and his heavenly Father. In the Gospels, Jesus is always listening to the Father and doing his will, and he passes on to his disciples the things he sees and hears from God.
Nowadays when we think of a father-son relationship, we think of love and support and encouragement. But in the ancient world most sons followed their fathers into the family business, and they would work together. The father might have other employees, but none of them could speak on his behalf with the same authority as his son; the son was the uniquely authorized representative of the father. Jesus is the Son of God; there is no one who can speak on God’s behalf with the same authority as him. What is the Church? The community that does its best to ‘listen to Jesus’. What is a disciple? Someone who ‘listens to him.’
So what does it mean for us today to ‘listen to Jesus’?
First, it means that we’re part of the community that listens to him. Nowadays we tend to see a church as a loose collection of individuals who listen. Since printing was invented, Bibles have been available for private reading, and prayer has become mainly something we do alone. Coming to church? Well, we do that when our busy schedules permit it, but we don’t see it as really vital for us. But in the gospels, listening to Jesus was something done in community, gathered around him. Later on as the Christian faith spread, the listening happened in small house churches. Printed books weren’t available, but people might have some hand-written copies of Old Testament stories, letters of the apostles, stories of Jesus. These were read out loud, and then questions could be asked and discussion take place.
This listening community is the church we’re baptized into. This is what baptism means. Listen to Jesus again, speaking to his disciples after the Resurrection:
“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28.18-20).
“Teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.” For Matthew, this is the heart of Christian faith. Discipleship means watching Jesus, listening to him, doing what he says and imitating what he does, so that we become ‘Christlike’. That’s why we’re baptizing Myles today: we’re bringing him into this community of disciples. His mom and dad Erica and Ty, his godparents Katrina and Dusan, his wider family, and the whole Christian community—we’re all called to gather round him, show him what following Jesus looks like, and teach him how to work it out in his own life.
In a few minutes I’m going to ask you this question: “Will you do all in your power to support these persons in their life in Christ?” and you will reply, “We will, with God’s help”. There’s a twofold responsibility here. There’s a responsibility on Ty and Erica’s part, to keep bringing Myles to join us for worship and take part in the life of our faith community. But there’s also a responsibility on the part of all of us, to keep praying for him, loving him, witnessing to him about the love of Christ, and helping him to grow as a Christian. Are you up for that?
But then, of course, we as individuals are also called to ‘Listen to Jesus’. How do we do this?
The central way, of course, is in our day by day opening of the Bible, especially the gospels, reading the stories of Jesus and the things he said, thinking them through, working out what they mean, and praying about them. “Lord, how do I live this out in my life today? What difference would it make if I put this into practice? What would it look like? What specifically would I need to change?”
What kind of listening are we talking about? Well, we need to listen carefully—not assuming we already know what Jesus is going to say before he says it, and not assuming that we’re understanding it correctly. Often, we’re not! The Bible is a collection of ancient books; words, ideas, and customs were very different when they were written. One thing I try to do for you folks in sermons is to bring some knowledge of the background of each passage, and maybe help us all to a deeper understanding of what it might have meant in its original setting. But I’m still discovering new things! Over and over again, when I hear a passage read out loud, I’ll notice a little detail and think, “How come I didn’t pick up on that before?”
So we listen carefully, and we also listen prayerfully. The old monks had a way of doing this; they called it in Latin ‘lectio divina’, which means ‘holy reading’. It had four steps: reading, thinking, praying, and being quiet. In ‘reading’ they’d look for a word or phrase in the passage that really spoke to them, and they’d repeat it over and over again in their minds, holding it there, really trying to enter into it. In ‘thinking’, they’d meditate on it and what it was saying to them, trying to hear it as a word from God, thinking about how to apply it to their lives. In ‘praying’ they’d actually pray about the passage, asking God about it, asking God’s help for any situations the passage brought to mind. And in ‘being quiet’ they’d end by simply sitting in the presence of God, enjoying the silence, as sometimes happens when two old friends get together—they might have a long conversation, but they know each other so well that they’re not afraid of being silent together too.
It’s a good method, isn’t it? Reading, thinking, praying, and being quiet. Are you up for it?
So we listen carefully, we listen prayerfully, and we also listen obediently. We understand that in the words of Jesus God is speaking to us, and we need to take what he says seriously.
Sometimes we think we need to be sure we really understand a saying of Jesus before we put it into practice. I get that, but there’s another way of looking at it too. You learn how to be married by being married. No amount of studying ahead of time can really do that for you! And it’s also true that often we learn to understand the teaching of Jesus by obeying it.
Rebecca Manley Pippert suggests a way of doing this in her book ‘Out of the Saltshaker’. She suggests we start reading one of the Gospels in the careful, prayerful way I’ve been talking about. As we do so, sooner or later a command of Jesus is going to really hit home for us. We’re going to feel it as a word from God to us, and we won’t have any difficulty guessing how we would go about obeying it. Well, she says, at that point we need to put the book down, pray for God’s help, and then actually go out and try to do what we’ve been told. Practical Bible study means putting the Bible into practice. It’s not just about brains, but hands and feet as well.
So we listen carefully, we listen prayerfully, we listen obediently. Are you up for it?
This week we start the season of Lent. What a great time to practice listening to Jesus! Can I make a suggestion of something you might like to do?
Why not pick one of the Gospels and read it through in Lent. It doesn’t matter if you finish it early or late; reading and listening is the thing. Mark is the shortest gospel, but Matthew has lots of practical teaching about discipleship, and Luke pays lots of attention to how Jesus reaches out to outsiders. John is more theological and mystical, and some people really respond to that.
So pick a gospel, pick a time each day, and start to read. Don’t be in a hurry. Read slowly, going over a passage two or three times. Don’t be afraid to use a pencil to mark your Bible if there’s a word of phrase that stands out for you. Think about that word or phrase; what is it saying to you? What difference could it make to your life?
You might find it helpful to keep a little notebook with you. Each day, maybe jot down one or two things—not just things you’ve learned, but practical things you want to do as a result of what you’ve read. You might even jot down questions: “I don’t understand this, so I need to ask someone about it!” And then turn your reading into prayer. Ask God some questions. Ask for his help and guidance as you think about putting what you’ve read into practice. Ask the Holy Spirit to fill you and strengthen you to do God’s will.
“This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” May God bless our listening and following as we go into this Lenten season.