Hebrews 2:1-4 – Learning to Pay Attention

We must give our full attention to what we were told, so that we won’t drift away. The message spoken by angels proved to be true, and all who disobeyed or rejected it were punished as they deserved. So, if we refuse this great way of being saved, how can we hope to escape? The Lord himself was the first to tell about it, and people who heard the message proved to us that it was true. God himself showed that his message was true by working all kinds of powerful miracles and wonders. He also gave his Holy Spirit to anyone he chose to. (CEV)

My three girls all have attention deficit disorder (A.D.D.). You might think this is a disadvantage. Rather, since the biology of their brains do not have good filters for sifting out all the stimuli which they hear each day, each of them are much more intentional about picking out the voice they want to hear and engaging with it. Whereas you and I might take this for granted, my girls know the value of creating the skills to pay attention.

We stand at the cusp of Lent, just two days from now. A healthy way of looking at this important season in the Christian Year is that it is a time to listen. It is the opportunity and privilege of giving our complete attention to Jesus as we plod along the 40-day path to Easter. And we need to develop some solid skills in paying attention, whether we have A.D.D. or not.

The cost of not developing such skills is that we will drift away. Taking for granted that we are Christians, that we know something about salvation, and are basically good people, might only be setting us up for spiritual failure. That is, we think we already know about Christ’s person and work of salvation, so we fail to really pay attention. Bad idea.

Assuming we are paying attention is not the same thing as actually doing it. Assumptions lead to drifting away from truth. We are meant to have continual and constant reminders of Christ and his redemptive events. This is what Lent intends for us. To ignore the wisdom of two-thousand years of church practice puts us in a precarious position of being lost at sea.

For the next six weeks, make the choice that you will pay attention to Christ each day through the following:

  • Reading Scripture every day with a combination of standing and sitting, reading silently and out loud.
  • Holding a cross or other Christian reminder in your hand and feeling free to fidget with it.
  • Journaling your thoughts in a notebook.
  • Imposing time limits on yourself each day for the next 40 days.
  • Using different versions of the Bible to read throughout Lent.
  • Going outside occasionally and praying while walking.
  • Focusing on your breathing. Breathe out: “Speak Lord.” Breathe in: “I am listening.”
  • Drinking some coffee, tea, or something soothing.
  • Being mindful of distractions and acknowledging them without judging yourself.

The point is to have an intentional plan for paying attention. Do not assume you will be focused. May your journey with Jesus this season be a fresh experience in knowing him better.

Lord God, the world is rushing by. The days are sometimes a blur. But in those moments when I stop, time almost stands still. Keep my heart open to the simplicity of the day – to virtual interactions and connections with others without being distracted – and paying attention. Help me, Lord. Open my eyes. Open my ears. Open my heart to know you are with me, if I just pay attention. Amen.  

The Transfiguration of Christ

Transfiguration of Jesus by Macedonian artist Armando Alemdar

After six days Jesus took Peter, James, and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus.

Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” (He did not know what to say, they were so frightened.)

Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”

Suddenly, when they looked around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus gave them orders not to tell anyone what they had seen until the Son of Man had risen from the dead. (Mark 9:2-9, NIV)

It is quite possible that in reading this account of Christ’s transfiguration (or metamorphosis) that this all seems very strange, even confusing.  Maybe you just have no categories of thought to explain such an encounter.

In a Peanuts cartoon Charlie Brown, Lucy, and Linus were lying on their backs looking at the sky. Lucy says, “If you use your imagination you can see lots of things in the cloud formations. What do you think you see, Linus?”  Linus replies, “Well, those clouds up there look to me like the map of the British Honduras on the Caribbean… That cloud up there looks a little like the profile of Thomas Eakins, the famous painter and sculptor… And that group of clouds over there gives me the impression of the stoning of Stephen… I can see the Apostle Paul standing there to one side…”  Lucy responds, “Uh huh… that’s very good… what do you see in the clouds, Charlie Brown?” Charlie Brown sheepishly says, “Well, I was going to say a ducky and a horsie, but I changed my mind.”

Perhaps your spiritual life seems more like Charlie Brown than Linus. Compared to the experiences of others, you may not have had any defining moments of ecstasy, no shining Jesus right in front of you, or no spectacular vision of Christ. Maybe your life seems rather mundane and ordinary considering the many stories we have in the Gospels of Jesus doing the miraculous. 

Most of life is lived in the daily grind. In the week in and week out monotony of life, especially when one is sheltering in place, we need a bit of hope, maybe even a lot of hope. In fact, we need an occasional mountain top experience because those are glimpses into the future of what it will be like someday when the kingdom of God comes in all its fullness.

The account of Christ’s transfiguration comes after a hard frank discussion Jesus had with the disciples about his impending death. Jesus clearly taught them that he must suffer, be rejected, and killed. But in three days he would rise again. The disciples did not want to hear that, and Peter even rebuked Jesus for saying it. In response, Jesus said to them all:

“Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. (Mark 8:34-35, NIV)

Jesus identified himself as the Suffering Servant, as the One who must suffer and die. However, he is also the One to be glorified. For Jesus, there had to be suffering before glory. And it is the same for us: There must be suffering before glory. The Christian life is filled with the difficulty of walking through the valley of the shadow of death but is also punctuated with mountain top experiences that give us hope to keep doing what Jesus did. In other words, we must listen to Jesus and follow him. The nature of our Christian walk is up and down. Both the mountain and the valley are spiritual realities of great importance.

We may have a lot of questions about Christ’s transfiguration. Jesus had a metamorphosis in front of the disciples’ eyes. Why?  What is the significance of this?  Was it just a demonstration to get the disciples’ attention?  Why are Moses and Elijah there?  What is really going on here?

Jesus intentionally took Peter, James, and John up the mountain to have this experience. Up to this point, a lot of rumors had been circulating about Jesus – that maybe Jesus was really Elijah come back, or some other prophet, perhaps even Moses himself, since no one knows where his body was when he died. Moses and Elijah showing up next to Jesus meant that Jesus is not them. 

In the Old Testament, Moses was the person used by God to deliver the Israelites out of their slavery in Egypt and brought them to the Promised Land.  Centuries later, when the Israelites had been in the land for quite a while, Elijah was the person used by God to bring about a great repentance of the people from the false god Baal, and a mighty revival to the exclusive worship of the Lord. 

As good as Moses and Elijah were back then, having them with Jesus on the mountain meant that it gets even better with Christ. Jesus is the Messiah, the True Deliverer, who saves the people from their sins. What is more, Jesus is the Ultimate Revivalist, bringing the true grace and love of God to people and calling them from legalistic religion back to the true worship of God.

Deliverance and revival were what Jesus was all about in his ministry. And he expects those who follow him to do the same. In the ministry of every believer, there will be suffering because we must take up our crosses; and there will also be glory, experiencing and seeing the deliverance of sin that comes from genuine revival. 

When I was a college student, a group of us Christian brothers met each week for encouragement and prayer. For a solid two-year period, at least one person a week was added to our group, having had a dramatic conversion to Christ. That was an incredible time of being on the mountain with Jesus and seeing him manifest himself in all his glory through changing people’s lives.

Yet, inevitably, the valley must come. What goes up must come down. And what we do when we are in the valley is crucial and important. It seems effortless to be a Christian on the mountain. It is a different thing altogether in the valley. Coming off the mountain can lead to all kinds of temptations, like wishing you were back on the mountain – looking back to some Golden Age where everything seemed to go great and people were enthused and excited about God. But the revival fires may have waned, and the glory departed. Then what?…

“This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!”

mark 9:7, ceb

Here is what Jesus said…

“The right time is now here. God’s kingdom is very near. Change your hearts and lives, and believe the Good News!” (Mark 1:15, ERV)

“Come, follow me! I will teach you how to catch people instead of fish.” (Mark 1:17, GW).

 “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Mark 2:17, NRSV)

“The seed that fell on the footpath represents those who hear the message, only to have Satan come at once and take it away. The seed on the rocky soil represents those who hear the message and immediately receive it with joy. But since they do not have deep roots, they do not last long. They fall away as soon as they have problems or are persecuted for believing God’s word. The seed that fell among the thorns represents others who hear God’s word, but all too quickly the message is crowded out by the worries of this life, the lure of wealth, and the desire for other things, so no fruit is produced. And the seed that fell on good soil represents those who hear and accept God’s word and produce a harvest of thirty, sixty, or even a hundred times as much as had been planted!” (Mark 4:15-20, NLT)

“Why are you such cowards? Don’t you have any faith at all?” (Mark 4:40, MSG)

“Don’t you know that nothing from the outside that enters a person has the power to contaminate?… It’s from the inside, from the human heart, that evil thoughts come: sexual sins, thefts, murders, adultery, greed, evil actions, deceit, unrestrained immorality, envy, insults, arrogance, and foolishness. All these evil things come from the inside and contaminate a person in God’s sight.” (Mark 7:18, 21-23, CEB)

“All things are possible for the one who believes.” (Mark 9:23, ERV)

“So, you want first place? Then take the last place. Be the servant of all.” (Mark 9:35, MSG)

“I tell you the truth, you must accept the kingdom of God as if you were a little child, or you will never enter it.” (Mark 10:15, NCV)

“The Son of Man will be betrayed to the religious leaders and scholars. They will sentence him to death. Then they will hand him over to the Romans, who will mock and spit on him, give him the third degree, and kill him. After three days he will rise alive.” (Mark 10:33-34, MSG)

“The Son of Man did not come to be a slave master, but a slave who will give his life to rescue many people.” (Mark 10:45, CEV)

So, I tell you to ask for what you want in prayer. And if you believe that you have received those things, then they will be yours. When you are praying and you remember that you are angry with another person about something, forgive that person. Forgive them so that your Father in heaven will also forgive your sins.” (Mark 11:24-25, ERV)

“Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation.” (Mark 16:15, NRSV)

“This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”  If you have had a mountain top experience with Jesus, let that encounter with him give you the drive and the hope to keep carrying the bucket through the valley, without living in the past. If you have never been on the mountain, today is the day to listen to Jesus and follow what he says. For us all, the answer to what is vexing us is found in Jesus Christ. 

May we all go to Jesus, listen to him, and obey what he says. May we know the Word of Christ, and bank on it. May we understand that our light and momentary sufferings will result in praise, honor, and glory when Jesus Christ is revealed.

1 Samuel 3:1-21 – Speak, Lord, for I Am Listening

The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.

One night, Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was. Then the Lord called Samuel.

Samuel answered, “Here I am.” And he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am. You called me.”

But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So, he went and lay down.

Again, the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am. You called me.”

“My son,” Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.”

Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord: The word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him.

A third time the Lord called, “Samuel!” And Samuel got up and went to Eli and said, “Here I am. You called me.”

Then Eli realized that the Lord was calling the boy. So, Eli told Samuel, “Go and lie down, and if he calls you, say, ‘Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.’” So, Samuel went and lay down in his place.

The Lord came and stood there, calling as at the other times, “Samuel! Samuel!”

Then Samuel said, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

And the Lord said to Samuel: “See, I am about to do something in Israel that will make the ears of everyone who hears about it tingle. At that time, I will carry out against Eli everything I spoke against his family—from beginning to end. For I told him that I would judge his family forever because of the sin he knew about; his sons blasphemed God, and he failed to restrain them. Therefore, I swore to the house of Eli, ‘The guilt of Eli’s house will never be atoned for by sacrifice or offering.’”

Samuel lay down until morning and then opened the doors of the house of the Lord. He was afraid to tell Eli the vision, but Eli called him and said, “Samuel, my son.”

Samuel answered, “Here I am.”

“What was it he said to you?” Eli asked. “Do not hide it from me. May God deal with you, be it ever so severely, if you hide from me anything that he told you.” So, Samuel told him everything, hiding nothing from him. Then Eli said, “He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes.”

The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord. The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word. (NIV)

Old Testament stories are typically arranged in such a way that we can perceive clear contrasts between the good guy and the bad guy. In our lesson today, Samuel is the good guy and Eli the bad guy. The contrast between them are two different ways of being quiet.

On the one hand we have the boy Samuel, who took a posture of listening. Samuel was quiet and heard the voice of the Lord. He responded with few words, with a spirit of listening. Eli the old priest, on the other hand, was also quiet, but for all the wrong reasons. Eli’s sons were also priests. They received sacrifices from God’s people and deliberately mishandled their responsibility. The sons cared not a whit for what the Lord really wanted. Eli knew what his sons were doing, and he was eerily quiet about their gross negligence as priests.

There is a time for everything – a time to speak and a time to be quiet. And when being quiet is required, it is for the purpose of listening. Listening seems a lost art and a forgotten ability in our day and age. People can be so concerned to express their opinions and say what they want to say that the virtue of listening is neither valued nor cherished.  However, God puts a premium on listening.

“A person who talks too much gets into trouble. A wise person learns to be quiet.”

Proverbs 10:19, ERV

One of the reasons the art of listening is not well-practiced is that we esteem busyness over taking the time for silence. We cannot seem to slow down enough to listen. Yet, if we are to hear the voice of God, we must be still and silent long enough to listen to what the Spirit is trying to say to us.

We might be uncomfortable with silence and seek to fill any quiet space with noise to not have to deal with what is really going on inside of us. I once attended a ministerial retreat. One of the pastors I got to know was a church planter in an urban ministry. He grew up in a large family in the inner city. And he talked – a lot! He was a beehive of words and constant locomotion. During our lunch together, the retreat host made a pronouncement: Beginning after the meal, there was to be absolutely no talking until lunch the next day. There was to be a full twenty-four hours of total silence.

Some might think this was some sort of punishment. But that line of thinking exposes how much words and noise mean to us. The sole purpose of the silence was to put us in a position for listening to God. As you might imagine, my church planter friend had a difficult time. When we broke the silence the next day, he confessed he had never in his entire life been quiet for more than fifteen minutes. However, here is what he said about his time of silence: 

“Those twenty-four hours of silence were the loudest hours I have ever experienced. My mind was so noisy and so filled with stuff that when night came it nearly drove me nuts. But in the morning, as the noise started to fade away, I could begin to hear the still small voice of God.” 

This wonderful brother went back to his church a different pastor, determined to sit still long enough and be quiet long enough to hear what God wanted for his life and work.

If we want to hear God speak to us, we must take the same approach as the boy Samuel and say, “Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening.” Then, be quiet and listen. Any fool can babble on about their gripes and opinions. But the wise person discerns that talking is overrated. Silence, solitude, listening, and learning were the virtues practiced by Jesus. The kingdom of God comes to earth when those ideals are cherished.

Another reason we might not value listening is that we do not want to hear what God is saying. After all, it might not be something we would like to hear. Old Eli did not get good news from Samuel’s listening to the Lord. Yet here is where words are to follow listening. When we take the time to listen to God, we must do and say what God tells us to do and speak. And that can be scary. 

I would like you to do something: Take ten minutes every day for the next week to do nothing but sit in silence for the purpose of listening. Begin your time with Samuel’s phrase: “Speak, Lord, for I am listening.”  Then, be quiet, and listen. Pay attention to what is going on inside of you. Meditate on that phrase, or another Bible passage. Afterwards, take a few moments to write down how you felt during the time, and any insights you discovered.

Loving God, we admit to being uncomfortable with silence. Listening is such hard work! We confess to you our propensity of filling every nook and cranny of our lives with being busy and productive, achieving and doing. We admit that we keep looking for you to act without first listening to what you are saying to us. We choose today to take the posture of listening to your Holy Spirit speak to us through your Holy Word. Give us the courage to act on what you tell us. We lean into the faith we have in the Lord Jesus so that our lives may be shaped and formed in ways that please you. Be gracious to answer us and lead us to the green pastures and quiet waters of your sacred space. Amen.