Saturday, February 13, 2016

Pre-occupied listeners

It is early Lent, that season of the church year that invites us to journey with Jesus into the wilderness, to enter the solitary, dark place, the refining place, the place where Satan was loosed to throw his worst in Jesus’ path. Three famous temptations, and the first was to satisfy his body’s 40-day hunger with bread from stone, to break into His divinity to satisfy a legitimate personal need, to step outside His human nature and voluntary dependence on the Father’s direction and the Spirit’s power to do this one small thing. The Bread of Life taunted to make His own bread.

“But he answered, ‘It is written, Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God’” Matthew 4:4 (ESV).

Jesus: the Listener. Fully human, fully God, attending, focused, He waits to hear what His Father had to say about bread. He refuses to step out of that dependent relationship even for an instant, even in the direst of circumstances.

Recently I was caught up in an interaction between Jesus and his disciples that concerned bread, arrested again by an image of listening. Fast forward a year or two. Jesus is now famous for his teaching and his miracles, and crowds gather wherever he goes. The religious authorities hate him. His disciples love him and hang on his every word.

This little interplay is recorded in Matthew 16 and Mark 8. Just the day before Jesus had, for the second time, fed thousands by thanking His Father for a tiny offering of bread and then passing it around. Everyone ate until they were satisfied, and then gathered seven baskets of leftovers. As the crowd headed home, Jesus and his band set off in a boat to another shore. We’re not sure where the disciples went, but it looks like Jesus was alone when a group of Pharisees and Sadducees approached. It was not a happy encounter: they demand a miraculous sign, and he calls them an “evil and adulterous generation.” They go their separate ways.

Sometime later, after another crossing by boat, Jesus is still mulling over that conversation. “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees,” he says to the disciples.

Jesus’ remark was cryptic, and their minds were somewhere else, focused on that place a little lower than their hearts. Despite the miraculous feast the day before, their stomachs were growling. It seems they forgot to load the leftovers into the boat. “Leaven?” Their ears prick. They free-associate and settle into the mundane matter of current concern to them. “Oh, Jesus is talking about bread.”

For, you know, Jesus knows our need, and that is always what is uppermost in His mind. … Huh?

As a tender of guests, my mind is often pre-occupied with bread!
They were there, with Jesus. They were listening, thinking some. And yet they totally missed the point. Their attention was elsewhere, on the felt need of the moment. Assuming that Jesus had nothing but them and what was on their minds to talk about. So that when He spoke they heard him in that self-focused context. Or should I say they mis-heard Him. They took in the words, lined them up with what was on their minds, and heard something He did not say.

The words were cryptic, but no one asked Jesus what He was on about. They took no notice of the entourage disappearing in the distance, or of the weary sadness in Jesus’ eyes. Nothing about the miraculous provision of the day before penetrated to shape their awareness of Kingdom methods and priorities. They show themselves as small-minded, inattentive, focused on their bellies. They worry about bread even as they converse with the Bread of Life.

Jesus: the perfect Listener. He made no move without first listening to His Father. He kept the Father’s priorities, the Father’s heart in the center of His attention. The disciples, we, you and me, we are broken listeners. Whether listening to other people, or to the Lord, we can be so pre-occupied with all those things Jesus tells us not to worry about, like food; so pre-occupied with what we would like to hear that we fail to enter into the heart of the speaker. Which means that whatever we do hear we import immediately into our own framework of desire and need. In that, we miss what we need to hear. We miss His compassion for the world, His concern for the neighbor right out our window. We miss the point.

So, Lord Jesus, as I ponder this Word of Yours today, can I ask You: “What is it that You are saying, that You want me to notice? About what am I deaf to You because my heart is tied up with myself, even as I sit in prayer and attend to You? Where are You, where is Your heart caught up, as we are together here in this quiet space?

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