Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35)
Listening is more active than merely hearing.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve found yourself midway through someone else telling you something only to realize that you’ve not been paying attention and you’ve missed some crucial bit of the message.
It’s not that you couldn’t hear what she said. Instead, your mind was elsewhere. Your body was present, and your ears were working just fine, but in your heart you were somewhere else.
If you’re really going to listen, your heart has to be in it. And your heart will be in it only when you believe that the speaker has something to say to you that matters to you. Personally. This is especially true when it comes to listening to Jesus.
God himself tells Peter, James, and John–and he tells us–to listen to Jesus. Let’s get our heads around what God is saying to us by thinking together about these three questions:
- What does it mean to listen to Jesus?
- Why should we listen to Jesus?
- What happens when we listen to Jesus?
Playing by Ear
Listening to Jesus is a little bit like learning to play guitar by ear.
Many guitarists learn to play this way. They don’t sit alone with a sheet of music. Instead, guitarists sit with more accomplished guitarists to get the hang of basic techniques, then to pick up various tunes, and eventually to develop a style of their own.
Beginners listen and watch and gradually memorize basic chords. They place one finger on a string at a time, all the while staring at their hand. Switching between chords is so slow and awkward that they cannot play a recognizable tune for a while.
Eventually their hands develop the motor memory for an increasing number of chords, a feel for the neck of the guitar, and the smooth transition between chords in a progression. Only then can aspiring guitarists pick up melodies from more experienced musicians. To do so, guitar disciples have to listen attentively, often asking the master to show them again how this or that part of a song is played.
Even though guitarists develop a style of their own over time, their playing bears the imprint of their teacher. You can recognize the teacher’s influence on the student’s playing.
Listening to Jesus is much more than following rules or memorizing Bible verses. Sitting with Jesus as our rabbi, our teacher, involves time and patience and attentiveness. Jesus teaches us more than simple rules for conduct or brute facts to regurgitate on a test. Jesus teaches us how to live, how to make life a song.
Guitarists’ hands acquire motor memory and their hearts become a kind of internal metronome. By analogy, we acquire habits of thinking, feeling, and willing by spending intentional time with Jesus and trying to follow the example he sets.
Jesus can see breathtaking beauty in what we might take for something plain. The things that irritate us roll off Jesus’ back. He gives people second, third, and fourth chances when we were ready to vote them off the island.
These and a thousand other ways of being on the planet might strike us as just a little loopy. And yet, we see that Jesus has something that we don’t have. And we want it. So we follow. We watch and listen and, after a while, we start to get the hang of how he does things.
It’s slow, uneven, and sometimes frustrating business. We keep saying we’ll be patient only to snap at someone. We’re sure we’ve forgiven the one who hurt us only to find ourselves thinking what a creep he is. But then again we find ourselves giving a hand to an ungrateful nag without the slightest bit of regret and with no expectation that he’ll return the favor.
To put it simply, Jesus teaches us how to live. Listening to Jesus means spending so much time with him that he starts to rub off on us.
Learning Eternal Life
Jesus teaches us how to live. But why should we listen to Jesus?
Some people assume that God’s command to listen to Jesus comes with a veiled threat. Do what he says, or else! In other words, you have to do what Jesus says or you’ll go to hell. You listen to Jesus to get into heaven.
This is not what God is getting at. Jesus has not come to deliver a set of rules that we can follow so that we will get everlasting bliss as a reward and avoid perpetual torment as a punishment.
Instead, Jesus came to teach us eternal life, to impart his kind of life to us. By listening to Jesus, we begin to get the hang of eternal life even while we dwell in a world that is passing away.
That is what the story of Jesus’ transfiguration tells us. Peter, James, and John catch a glimpse of the crucified and risen Jesus.
They see the crucified Jesus. In other words, they see the one who understands our lives from the inside. Jesus endured hunger, loneliness, need, adversity, betrayal, suffering, and even death. Jesus has credibility with us precisely because he has walked in our shoes.
They see the risen Jesus. They see life that has undergone and conquered death, joy that has endured and forever extinguished sorrow, and pleasure that has has emerged from and eradicated suffering. Jesus has come through what we endure and he has arrived at precisely where we want to be. Jesus is worth listening to because he knows how to get us from here to there.
The disciples see eternal life in the flesh. And they discover that eternal life is contagious. By being with Jesus, by listening to him, they can begin to participate in a kind of life that only Jesus has to give and that we yearn for with every fiber of our being.
We read the Scriptures and receive Communion to be near Jesus. We serve the poor and care for the sick to be near Jesus. To listen to him we have to stay near him. He influences us bit by bit. How we think, how we respond to things emotionally, and the kinds of choices we make undergo a gradual training process when we keep close to Jesus as our teacher.
Jesus does not give us seven steps for successful living or outline for us principles for a happy life. Neither does he tell us how to live this life so that we will have Paradise in the next life.
Instead, he gives us his presence, and when we give him our presence in response, who he is changes who we are. He gives us a new kind of life. A life whose trajectory extends beyond the horizons of sorrow, suffering, and death. Eternal life.
When we listen to Jesus, something remarkable happens. God changes the world through the change he works in us.
We tend to think about how we live in the world in one of two ways. Either you can be a victim of your circumstances or you can be a hero who rises above your circumstances. We will either be mere products of our environment or we will draw upon powers hidden deep within us to overcome the forces that confront us.
So, we might have compassion for the abused or neglected child who grows up to be cynical, self-absorbed, and mistrustful. His or her background, we say, explains a lot.
By the same sort of logic, we might admire a person with a similar personal history who became emotionally generous, good-natured, and devoted to community service. We credit his or her inner reserves of optimism or perseverance.
The world shapes us or we shape ourselves.
Now that we’ve thought about what it means to listen to Jesus, we see that there is another alternative. The risen Christ shapes us in ways that defy social scientific explanation and that exceed even the highest estimations of human freedom.
Let me give you an example. You may have heard of Joni Eareckson Tada. Just in case you haven’t, let me introduce her to you by reading an excerpt from a Facebook page:
Tada was born in 1949 in Baltimore, Maryland, the youngest of four daughters.
As a teenager, Tada enjoyed riding horses, hiking, tennis, and swimming. On July 30, 1967, she dove into Chesapeake Bay after misjudging the shallowness of the water. She suffered a fracture between the fourth and fifth cervical levels and became a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the shoulders down.
During her two years of rehabilitation, according to her autobiography, she experienced anger, depression, suicidal thoughts, and religious doubts. However, Tada learned to paint with a brush between her teeth, and began selling her artwork. To date, she has written over forty books, recorded several musical albums, starred in an autobiographical movie of her life, and is an advocate for disabled people.
What this blurb omits is that Joni’s life was transformed by her encounter with the risen Christ. She did not draw on a her own grit and determination to overcome adversity. She received life, a new kind of life, by accepting the resurrection as Christ’s gift of new life for her.
Jesus changed Joni into a force to be reckoned with. From a wheelchair she has become the hands, the feet, and the voice of joy from sorrow, healing from injury, and life from death. Eternal life overflows from Joni, and the world around her resonates with it.
Our impact on the world may not be quite so broadly recognized, but it is no less dramatic and far-reaching. When we invite the lonely kid to sit with us at lunch, give the scoundrel a second chance, or refuse to take extra when others do not have enough, the eternal life welling up in us begins to get a foothold in our ruined world.
Listening to Jesus is much more than the passive act of hearing. When we listen to Jesus, he changes who we are. And who we are through him changes the world.
This sermon was preached at Christ Church, Bastrop, Louisiana.