On 17 April, the Fourth Sunday of Easter, Helene Milena preached the following sermon in the Anglican Cathedral on Epiphany Island in Second Life. The readings were Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30.
I remember in the early days of learning to counsel, I and my fellow trainees were taught some of the basic skills and practised them on one another. One of the skills was called ‘active listening’. That label seems a bit confusing; surely when you are listening you are generally not very active. We sit still, or maybe stand or move around, and hear some words and gain some meaning from the words. That’s what listening normally consists of.
Active listening involves more than just the ears; it uses all our senses. When a person is telling us something they will do more than just utter words. They will use different tones of voice; speak at different speeds; leave periods of silence; perhaps use a different selection of vocabulary – including or excluding swear words – depending on what they are sharing. They will also show facial expressions which will give some indication of their feelings. They will use their hands to help express themselves. They may move their body around in uncharacteristic ways. If we want to really understand what a person is trying to convey to us about their thoughts, feelings or way of behaving, we need to observe everything that we can about that person.
As you can imagine, such listening requires undivided attention. I remember how difficult it was to do this at first. If I listened to the words, I didn’t seem to notice the body language; if I watched body language I might not be noticing tone of voice. Our tutor told us it was rather like learning to drive a car when you have so many different things to think about at the same time. It takes a lot of practice for it to become automatic. Even when someone has had plenty of time to learn active listening, they still need to give undivided attention to the person and that means silencing personal thoughts so that they don’t cause a distraction.
It’s this factor of distraction that seems to have been the problem for the people Jesus was talking to on a winter’s day in the Temple. Jesus was there during the Festival of the Dedication of the Temple, Hanukkah. It was a time to remember the events we can read about in the apocryphal books of Maccabees. The Temple had been vandalized by Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Judas Maccabaeus led the move to drive out Antiochus’ people and to restore the Temple, a victory which was remembered each year. That was a time when the Jews ruled themselves briefly.
In Jesus’ time the Jews lived in an occupied country. King Herod was something of a puppet king. The Jewish religious leaders had some freedom as long as they cooperated with the Romans. You can imagine that the combination of the celebration of freedom coupled with recognition of how things actually were in first century Israel must have been quite difficult for the people to cope with. There was a huge hope that someone would come along, like Judas Maccabaeus, and free Israel, restoring the kingdom to the greatness it had under King David. John the Baptist turned up and rumours spread that he was the one they were waiting for, but he denied it.
The next person to ask the question of was Jesus. He had been pointed out by John the Baptist. Could he be the Messiah? You can almost hear the frustration in the voices of those asking. They were desperate to know if Jesus really was the Messiah, if freedom really was just around the corner. They were seeking a straight answer but Jesus didn’t give it. He knew he would be wasting his breath. The people couldn’t engage in ‘active listening’ or any kind of listening as their minds were filled with their own thoughts about the Messiah. They thought they knew what he would be like, what he would do. He would be a military leader, a great religious leader and would make the country prosperous once more. This was not what Jesus was like.
Jesus actually said that he had told the people whether or not he was the Messiah but they hadn’t believed him. In fact they couldn’t find a way to believe him because the evidence that Jesus was the Messiah was in his works that he did in the Father’s name. Only those who were of Jesus’ flock, who really listened to his voice and followed his lead, could know the truth. Those frustrated Messiah seekers in the Temple were doomed to disappointment. They were trying to follow a Messiah of their own inventing and that made them deaf and blind when they met the real Messiah.
I think the passage from Acts demonstrates an unlikely candidate for an active listener – Peter. Peter, the one who blurted out his thoughts, who got things wrong, who often seemed a rather large blundering kind of person, more physical than contemplative. I couldn’t help but notice the similarities in the story of the raising of Tabitha and the raising of Jairus’ daughter. The child was already dead when Jesus got to the house just as Tabitha was. Jesus put everyone out, all the wailing mourners, and took just the child’s parents with Peter, James and John into her room. Jesus took the child by the hand and said, ‘Talitha koum’ which means ‘Little girl, get up’.
Now think again about what Peter did when faced with the dead Tabitha in a room upstairs in Joppa. He put out all the widows who were weeping and showing him what Tabitha had made. He said to her, ‘Tabitha, get up’. He gave her his hand and helped her up. This is almost a carbon copy of what Jesus did for Jairus’ daughter. I believe it’s evidence that Peter had watched and listened, hearing Jesus’ words, his tone of voice, and seeing his actions. Somehow the Peter who was so focused on his own ideas that he was accused by Jesus of being Satan, managed to put aside his own thoughts and really listen. As a result Peter was able to do as Jesus had commissioned him to do: feed his sheep, tend his lambs.
As sheep of Jesus’ flock we too need to actively listen to him so that we can fully understand what he is teaching us. We need to put aside our own ideas and thoughts, discard the Jesus we may have created for ourselves as the Jews had done, and be prepared to really get to know him. In that way we can follow him closely and maybe even have a chance to copy him as Peter could.
We are used to doing things our own way. Independence and individualism is much prized, at least in western society. It can be rather daunting to rely on someone else to show us what to do. However, Jesus promises to keep us safe and to bring us at the last to be with the saints in light, where there are no tears, hunger, thirst.
Jesus, the Lamb sacrificed for us, will be our shepherd and guide us to the water of life.
Helene Milena – Lay Pastor