Friday, 1 February 2008

Listen to him

Matthew 17:1-9

Who do we listen to?

Last week several of us went on silent retreat. One of the things that happen when you go on silent retreat is that you become aware of just how many voices there are round about you.

Some of the more obvious voices were silenced: There was no television, radio, newspapers; and we didn't have the daily chatter or the voices of other people (apart from the voice of the vicar!)

We are surrounded by so many voices.

The outer voices: the voices of others, present and past, spoken and unspoken. The voices of parents, teachers, friends, work colleagues, books, advertisements; there are the magazines we read, the programmes we watch, the films we see, the websites we visit. Even the back of my cereal packet tells me what I must eat.

There are also the inner voices: the jumble of memories and thoughts: CS Lewis describes them as 'a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds'. There is the voice of morality (the 'should' and the 'ought'), of memory, of habits, desires and fears, of love or grief, of dreams (I only say that because this week I had one of the most powerfully vivid and emotionally moving dreams that I have ever had).

It is not surprising that at times we crave silence and space - a voice that is not telling me what I should think or do. There is just too much coming in.

One of the reasons why I love choral evensong!

But we cannot and we would not live in a world in which there are no voices. We would not be human. We need other voices, but we also need to hear a voice that puts all the other voices in perspective, that can bring order to restless minds.

Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a mountain 'by themselves'. Like going on retreat, some of the outer voices are silenced.

And Jesus is transfigured:

I think that there is a parallel here. The first Sunday of Epiphany is about the wise men who follow the star of Bethlehem, the light that bears witness to the light. Matthew writes, and I think we are meant to read something into this, (2:10) 'When they (the wise men) saw the star (which was now over Bethlehem), they were overjoyed'. The star and the baby are completely identified.

And here, the last Sunday before Lent, we see Jesus transfigured. He has become light. In Matthew 17, he shines like the sun. His clothes become as white as light.

And it is not only that. At the beginning of the season called Epiphany, we remember Jesus’ baptism, when the voice speaks from heaven and says: “This is my Son whom I love; with him I am well pleased”. Here we have another voice, “This is my Son whom I love; with him I am well pleased”. But this time the voice from heaven adds something else, “Listen to him”

The star says to the wise men, 'Go to Jesus, worship him'
The voice says to Peter, James and John, 'Listen to him

In a world in which there are so many other voices, Peter, James and John are directed to listen to the voice that is above and beneath all other voices; to the voice which can bring order to all other voices.

God the Father has chosen to speak through Jesus Christ, the Son of God. He is the Word of God. God the Father confirms that Jesus is the one who we need to listen to.

Jesus appears with Moses and Elijah.
It is a vision of heaven. It is a picture of intimacy. We will talk face to face with the risen and glorified Jesus.

But there is more than that going on here.

Moses and Elijah were both Old Testament prophets. Prophets predict things, but in fact prediction came quite low on the list of the priorities of the things that they were saying. They are not God-oscopes. Prophets speak what God is saying: sometimes God uses them to call his people back to himself, back to his law and back to living his way; sometimes God uses them to warn people what will happen if they do not put their trust in him; sometimes God uses them to encourage his people when the going is hard; sometimes God uses them to simply tell his people how much he loves them.

So we should listen to them.

Moses and Elijah are not just ordinary Old Testament prophets – if you can have an ordinary Old Testament prophet. Moses is the lawgiver; he is also the first of the Old Testament prophets. And God says to Moses: “I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their people, and I will put my words in his mouth. He will tell them everything I command him. I myself will call to account anyone who does not listen to my words that the prophet speaks in my name.” (Deuteronomy 18:18)

And if Moses is the first, Elijah is the last of the Old Testament prophets. The Old Testament talks about how, before the Messiah comes, Elijah will reappear. Even today, Jews at the Passover meal will leave an empty place with an glass of wine - for Elijah.

But for the Christian, Elijah has already come. That is why, in the next few verses in Matthew 17, (verses 11-13) Jesus talks about John the Baptist being Elijah come back to life. Jesus says, 'John the Baptist is Elijah returned'. Not literally, but symbolically. He is the one who comes before the Messiah.

So the voice from heaven is significant.

It could have said, 'Listen to Moses, Listen to Elijah';
Instead the voice says, 'Listen to Jesus'

I like the story that is told of the two-year-old girl who was ignoring her food. Mummy said, "Keri, why aren't you eating?" Keri replied, "I can't eat; God told me not to." Her mother chided: "God wouldn't tell you not to eat your supper." Keri looked up at the ceiling, then conceded, "Well, maybe it was Moses."

We listen to Jesus because God the Father tells us to listen to Jesus
We listen to Jesus because he is shown to be here the unique Son of God.
We listen to Jesus because Moses and Elijah delight to talk with him

So what does it mean to listen to Jesus?
For Peter, James and John it was obvious how they could listen to Jesus. They had to choose to listen to Jesus, and they had to pay attention to what he said.

But actually for us it is not that different.

1. It is about a choice: choosing to listen to Jesus.

There are many outer voices around us, but actually most of the time we can choose which voice we listen to. We can even at times choose which of the inner voices we listen to.

The devil would tell us that we have no choice; that we are victims of the past, and the hurtful and destructive voices of the past; or that we are victims of society – and that there is no escape.

But actually we do not need to be victims. We have absolute choice in deciding who we listen to.

We can listen to the voice that tells us to take revenge, or to wallow in self-pity, or to cower in fear. We can listen to the voice that tells us that our significance is dependent on what we have or on success and the status we achieve. We can listen to the voice of lust that tells us that we must have the object of desire, whatever the cost.

And I can listen to the television or radio, or I can go over and turn it off. I can listen to someone bad mouthing someone else, or I can walk away. I can listen to the voice of my ambition, or I can turn my attention elsewhere.

There is a very simple spiritual law. What goes in here, comes out here, here or here. When we choose to listen to a voice, we are almost invariably choosing to do what that voice tells us to do.

But we can also choose to listen to another voice: the voice of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The voice of one to whom Moses and Elijah pointed; who lived 2000 years ago; who is alive and who still speaks through his written word and through his Spirit living in those who have received him.

So when the voice from heaven, says to us, ‘Listen to Him’, we are given a choice. We can listen to the other stuff; or we can listen to Jesus


2. It is about attentiveness

I may hear you, but I may not be listening to you.

I’m sure you know the situation. You’re talking to someone, but you overhear a conversation. It is about someone you know. So although you hear the person who is talking to you, you are actually listening to the other conversation. And at the end of the conversation, you somehow need to pretend that you know what was said to you.

Or someone is talking with you. They’re telling you something, but you’ve just thought of a great story to tell them – so you are not actually listening to them. It’s like one of those comedy sketches, where you get two people talking at totally cross purposes.
Or it’s like listening to a sermon. The preacher is preaching, you hear him them – but you are not listening to them. You are listening to an inner train of thought: what’s happening this afternoon; is she going to be OK; why the sun is coming in that window but not that window; and so on.

Half the battle in this whole thing of listening to Jesus is won when we actually choose to not only give Jesus the time of day, but to give attention to Jesus, to listen to him.

I can read the bible – and end up with a load of trivia knowledge. I can read the bible - and come out with a theology degree. I can read the bible – and think this is a fantastic story. But it is not going to make any difference to me. It will only make a difference if I sit down to read the bible or to hear the bible, if at the same time, I have chosen to listen to Jesus and I am attentive to him.

In the same way we can come to church: maybe we are looking for comfort; maybe we are looking for entertainment; maybe we are looking for friendship; maybe we are looking for a bit of peace. Some days it will be good – other days not so good. “The music/choir were very good. Malcolm was not quite on form”. But if we come to church to listen to Jesus, whatever the service, however it goes, we will not be disappointed.

I long to see in myself and others a greater expectation, a greater attentiveness. I wonder how it would be if we turned it round at the end, and instead of people saying, ‘nice sermon vicar’, the preacher stood at the door and asking people, “What did God say to you today?” How would we answer?

And Jesus will speak, and does speak in many ways – if we choose to hear. It might be the small voice inside; or one of the familiar prayers that suddenly comes alive; or something that the person next to you says; or a memory of something that you know has to be dealt with; or a sense of peace – or, and of course this is the place where God speaks most obviously and most clearly, something from the bible or the teaching of the bible, that comes alive and bites you. The word of God, says the writer to the Hebrews, is like a two-edged sword.

We need, when we come to church, to be like Mary, sitting at Jesus feet – longing to hear him, to listen to him. And if you find that at church you always seem to be doing the Martha jobs, please, please, please, make time at other times, to meet with Jesus together with others. We need to spend time listening to Jesus.

‘Listen to me’, we say to a child. ‘Listen to me’ we say when we are trying to say something, but we are not ble to put it into words. We want them to hear what it is that we are saying. And Jesus, when he teaches, when he tells his parables, when he tells his followers what is going to happen to him, says “Listen to me. Be attentive – get what I am saying. And if you don’t get it, think it through, talk it through, wrestle with it. Because I am speaking in order to be understood”


We listen to Jesus because he is shown here to be the unique, the one and only, Son of God. He is shown here in his radiance and his glory. Here is the one who is the radiance of his Father’s glory. Peter writes many years later of this experience in 2 Peter 1, “We were eye witnesses of his majesty”

We listen to Jesus, because the voice from heaven tells us to listen to him. God is not silent. He wants to be heard. He wants us to listen to him. And that reminds us of the prophecy given to Moses 3000 or so years earlier, when God says that he will punish those who refuse to listen to him.

We listen to Jesus, because his voice is good.

Look at what he says to the disciples: “Get up; don’t be afraid”. They did not need to be afraid, because he was with them.

And when Jesus speaks to us, his words are good. They may be painful, but they will bring healing; they may shatter some of our complacency, but they will enable us to build our lives on rock rather than sand. And it is his words which will make sense of all the other words that we hear – because it is his word which created this universe, and it is his word which sustains this universe, and it is his word which will bring this universe, this world of time and space as we know it, to an end.

In a world of many voices, outer voices and inner voices, present voices and past voices, which voice are you going to choose to listen to?

“This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him”.

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