Listen to Him!
By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
Do you remember the E. F. Hutton ads on TV a few years back? Here’s one: A room full of people all talking at once. Over in the corner, an individual whispers to a friend, “What do you think the market’s going to do?” The friend says, “Well, my broker is E. F. Hutton, and E. F. Hutton says ….” Just like that, frame freeze. Total silence, as everyone leans forward to hear what E. F. Hutton says. The voice-over says it all: “When E. F. Hutton talks, people listen.”
Well, the Transfiguration of Jesus isn’t about E. F. Hutton, or stocks and bonds or investment portfolios, but it does make a similar point: When someone credible speaks – someone who knows what he’s talking about – we’d do well to listen. And, if that’s the case, can you think of anyone who commands greater respect, greater credibility, greater authority than Jesus?
What I hope you’ll get out of the sermon this morning is a clear and compelling invitation to listen to the voice of Jesus. If you do, you’re in for a blessing.
Let’s start by connecting the dots. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, grew up in Nazareth and, at about the age of thirty, went down to the River Jordan to be baptized, then came back to Galilee and began his ministry.
He set up shop, as it were, in Capernaum. Then he called his disciples and began teaching, healing and proclaiming the Good News of God’s Kingdom.
His credibility was evident from the start. Mark says that when he preached his first sermon in the synagogue of Capernaum, the elders were amazed. “What is this? A new teaching?” The elders were not the only ones. So were the demons. Mark says, “For with authority He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey Him.” (Mark 1:27)
When he went over to the land of the Gentiles, even the Gentiles recognized his power. And, if that weren’t enough, nature itself was subject to his authority. You know the story:
Jesus and the disciples were out on the Sea of Galilee when a storm came up. Jesus was asleep in the stern. The wind began to howl, the waves began to whitecap. Water started coming over the side. The disciples woke Jesus saying, “Master, Master, we are dying!” Luke says, “He awoke, and rebuked the wind and the raging of the water, and they ceased, and it was calm. The disciples looked at each other and said, ‘Who is this then, that he commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him?'” (Luke 8:22-25)
After some three years of preaching and teaching and healing in Galilee, Jesus and his disciples headed north to Caesarea Philippi, at the base of Mount Herman.
After a week, Jesus took Peter, James and John up on the mountain. There he was met by Moses and Elijah, symbolic of the Law and the prophets. As they stood there talking, the voice of God called down from heaven and said, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him!” (Luke 9:35)
So, why don’t we do just that? Why don’t we listen to Jesus? Why don’t we take him at his word? New Testament professor, Louie Donaldson, says, “Everyone likes to argue with the Apostle Paul – he’s so opinionated – but Jesus? Who’s to question what Jesus said?”
Here’s what I think: It’s not as if we don’t listen to Jesus at all; it’s that we practice the art of selective listening. We pick and choose the words we want to hear and gloss over the others.
For example, we just love it when Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28) Or where he told his disciples, “I came that they may have life, and may have it abundantly.” (John 10:10) These are the words we long to hear.
The same goes for John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.” That’s music to our ears.
One of my favorite verses is Matthew 6:33, where Jesus said, “But seek first God’s Kingdom, and his righteousness; and all these things will be given to you as well.”
We listen to Jesus when he says things that are uplifting, but when he says things that are contrary to what we want to hear, we turn a deaf ear.
For example, Jesus said, “Don’t think that I came to send peace on the earth. I didn’t come to send peace, but a sword.” He goes on to say, “He who loves father or mother … (or) son or daughter more than me isn’t worthy of me.” (Matthew 10:34-37) I don’t know many parents who find comfort in that. He told his disciples,
“If anyone desires to come after me,
let him deny himself, take up his cross,‡ and follow me.
For whoever desires to save his life will lose it,
but whoever will lose his life for my sake, the same will save it.”
Self-denial has never been popular among Presbyterians.
One of the hardest sayings of Jesus is near the end of the Sermon on the Mount. It goes like this:
“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’
will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven;
but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.
Many will tell me in that day,
‘Lord, Lord, didn’t we prophesy in your name,
in your name cast out demons,
and in your name do many mighty works?’
Then I will tell them, ‘I never knew you.
Depart from me, you who work iniquity.'”
I doubt you’ll find that in the card section at Lifeway Bookstore.
We fail to hear Jesus because we practice the art of selected listening. We pick and choose which verses to highlight or underline in our Bibles.
As importantly, we’re quick to rationalize and put our own spin on Jesus’ words. While no one wants to come right out and say it, the implication is this: What Jesus really meant to say was.
For example, Jesus said, “Don’t lay up treasures for yourselves on the earth …” (Matthew 6:19). That’s pretty harsh for those of us who’ve been adding to our IRAs over the years. Did Jesus mean we’re not supposed to save money or make investments? If not, what did he mean?
So, we interpret his words to fit our lifestyle, in which case we say it’s O.K. to lay up treasures on earth, just don’t get carried away. Don’t let material possessions rule your life. And while that seems fair enough, is that really what Jesus said?
Here’s another – you heard this last week: Jesus said, “… whoever strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him the other also.” (Matthew 5:39) Did he mean for us to take that literally? I’m guessing most of you would say no. If not, what did he mean?
Again, we interpret his words in a way we can live with. What Jesus really meant to say, according to popular wisdom, is that you should be patient and long-suffering and not try to get even. One of the most difficult teachings of Jesus is this:
“You have heard that it was said,
‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
But I tell you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you,
do good to those who hate you, and pray for those
who mistreat you and persecute you,
that you may be children of your Father who is in heaven.”
Be honest. How many of you can listen to that without adding your own word of explanation, taking into account all of the loan sharks and predators and back-biters you’ve known, not to mention the would-be terrorists of the world?
We take the words of Jesus and apply them in such a way as to fit our own preconceived beliefs and values, and this is the danger:
When you pick and choose which teachings to emphasize; when you interpret Jesus’ teachings in such a way as to support your own presuppositions; what you end up with is a Jesus of your own making; and a Jesus of your own making, however well-intended,
can never transform you into the image of Christ and make you whole.
What’s the answer? What can you do to listen to Jesus more intently and hear him more clearly?
Do this: Read the gospels in their entirety once more. Lent begins this Wednesday. Make that your project over the coming forty days. Start with Matthew and read slowly, paying particular attention to Jesus’ words, not just the ones you’re comfortable with, but all of them. Take them at face value and give them equal weight.
But don’t stop there. Listen to Jesus’ words, then put them into practice, to the best of your ability.
Don’t be surprised if they feel uncomfortable at first. Many sound strange to our way of thinking. They run contrary to the world around us. They don’t fit, at least not right away.
The Good News is as you listen to Jesus’ teachings and apply them to your everyday life they’ll begin to feel more comfortable and, as they do, they’ll begin to shape the way you think and act.
Paul called this “putting on Christ.” He told the Colossians:
“Put on therefore, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved,
a heart of compassion, kindness, lowliness, humility, and perseverance;
bearing with one another, and forgiving each other,
if any man has a complaint against any;
even as Christ forgave you, so you also do.
Above all these things, walk in love,
which is the bond of perfection.”
Putting on Christ – cultivating Christ-like virtues such as compassion, kindness, meekness and patience – doesn’t come naturally. You have to work at it.
For example, when someone hurts you, your basic instinct will be to get even. You have to learn to be forgiving. In relationship to others, your basic tendency will be to look out for number one. You have to learn to love others as God loves you.
Think of it as wearing a uniform or putting on a costume: You put on the mantle of Christ and wear it, day by day. It may feel awkward at first. Wear it anyway. Trust that, in time, it’ll feel more and more comfortable until finally, it’ll fit like a glove. Jesus’ words and your words will complement each other; Jesus’ nature and your nature will be one and the same.
It’s like the parable of the young prince. Listen.
Once upon a time in a land far away there lived a young prince who was enamored with a young princess in a neighboring kingdom. He wanted to meet her, but he was afraid if she saw him up close she would be frightened. That’s because his face was badly disfigured.
One day he went to the king’s tailor to be fitted for a new suit of clothes, and the tailor asked him, “Why are you so sad?” The prince told him that he wanted to meet the princess and win her affection, but he knew she would never find him attractive, as hideous as he was.
The tailor smiled and said, “No problem. I’ll make a mask for you. Then she will see you as the most handsome prince who has ever lived.” And he did. Sure enough, when the prince put on the mask, he was, indeed, the most handsome prince you can imagine.
The prince then journeyed to the neighboring kingdom to meet the fair young princess. And wouldn’t you know it? It was love at first sight. He was, without a doubt, the charming young prince of her dreams. They courted day in and day out. He brought her gifts, wrote her poetry and sang songs to her. In return, she gave him her heart. But with one condition: That he take off the mask.
The prince thought surely her love for him would die when she saw how ugly he was, but then, what else could he do? Slowly, he peeled back the mask. She smiled all the more and kissed him on the cheek and said, “Oh, you are even more handsome than I imagined.”
Astonished, he reached for a mirror, and when he looked at the reflection of his face, he saw the image of the mask he’d been wearing. His muscles and skin had so conformed to its shape that he had become the very person he had so hoped to be. They were married shortly thereafter and soon had children of their own, every bit as beautiful and handsome as they. And they lived happily ever after.
Well, it’s only a fairy tale. This is the gospel you can take home with you today: When Jesus speaks, listen to him. Take his teachings to heart. Apply them in such a way as to put on Christ. As you do, you’ll become more like him. You’ll be transformed into his likeness to the end that, when others see you, they’ll see a reflection of him and be drawn closer to his grace and love. Let us pray:
Have Thine own way, Lord! Have Thine own way!
Thou art the Potter, I am the clay.
Mold me and make me after Thy will,
While I am waiting, yielded and still.
Have Thine own way, Lord! Have Thine own way!
Hold o’er my being absolute sway!
Fill with Thy Spirit ’till all shall see
Christ only, always, living in me.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible.
Copyright 2014 Philip W. McLarty