Listen to Him

St Mark’s Episcopal Church, Washington, DC

Lent 1B / 1 Peter 3:18-22 / Mark 1:9-15 

How do you hear the voice of Jesus? And what does he say to you?

Two Sundays in a row, we encounter in Mark’s Gospel a voice from heaven. This week speaking to Jesus: “You are my beloved Son.” Last week, speaking to the disciples (and to us): “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.”

Listen to him. Words not just for Peter and James and John on the mountain of Christ’s transfiguration, but words for us, as well.

From heaven, we can almost hear that same voice say

Listen to him, who proclaims good news.

Listen to him, who declares God’s justice.

Listen to him, when he says feed the hungry.

Listen to him, when he says heal the sick.

Listen to him, when he says love your enemy.

Listen to him, when he says do not judge.

Listen to him, when he says “take and eat”

Listen to him, and take up your cross

Listen to him, and do not be afraid

Listen to him, beloved of God. Listen to the voice of Jesus.

So simple, it seems – but not so simple. Because we hear other voices. Voices not from God.

Voices that draw us off the path of life. Voices that distract us from our focus on Jesus.

In Lent, this 40-day season of simplicity and focus, we are invited, over and over again, to return to God. To return to the One who created us, who loves us, saves us, heals us, strengthens us, challenges us to be Christ’s hands and feet in this world, to be a people of love and justice.

In Lent, we learn to listen, again. To listen to the voice of God, to hear the voice of Jesus more strongly than all the other voices. To listen with the ear of the heart, as the Rule of St. Benedict says – the deepest listening, from the deepest place inside us, to the deepest longing in the heart of God.

But how? How can we learn to listen?

It may not surprise you that the church has no shortage of “helpful” tips. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are the traditional Lenten shorthand. Fish on Fridays, give up chocolate, and all the rest.

Maybe it was always this way, but it feels like Lent has become a kind of spiritual “bootcamp,” a chance for normally laid-back Christians to go hardcore in a disciplined spiritual life, to undertake a massive program of repentance and self-improvement – a second chance at those pesky New Year’s Resolutions, a moment to confront our destructive desires, to undo the habits that keep us stuck in a festering dissatisfaction, to set aside the built-up resentments and fears that divide us from one another.

It may also not surprise you to learn that – in my younger days – I was a bit of a spiritual overachiever.

At Pilgrim Congregational Church in Plymouth, Pennsylvania, I sang in the choir, starred in the Christmas pageant, took up the offering as a junior usher, and made sure to have perfect attendance at Sunday School. At home, I prayed before meals, even when my parents didn’t, and I would listen to hours of evangelical radio preachers at night before bed.

But I was so jealous … of the Catholics. Not only did they get to leave school early for Catechism class, but they came with ashes on their foreheads once a year, made the sign of the cross when they prayed, got to be altar servers, and gave things up for lent.

So, it also may not surprise you to learn that when I found the Episcopal Church in college, I embraced Lent with gusto.

I was into every spiritual discipline – no meat on Fridays, formal prayer four or five times a day, no shopping, giving away most of my discretionary income, silent retreats, centering prayer, Wednesday soup suppers at church and the plan to make my way through every Lenten devotional booklet on offer at church – Henri Nouwen, Frederick Buechner, Episcopal Relief and Development, Forward Day by Day.

I did it all. Or at least I tried to do it all. Because if there is one thing that is true of every Lenten discipline, every spiritual practice I have ever attempted, it is this:

At some point, it was a failure.

A failure, at least, in the fact that it didn’t go exactly as planned.  And this, I think, is the point.

Because the disciplines (in and of themselves) are at best irrelevant and at worst foolishly-offensive to God.

On Ash Wednesday, the prophet Isaiah reminded us that God has absolutely no interest in the particular, visible signs of piety like fasting from food, or putting ash on our forehead – unless they also lead to the fast of God’s choosing, which Isaiah tells us is this –

to loose the bonds of injustice, to let the oppressed go free, to break every yoke, to share your bread with the hungry, to bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin.

Lent is not a second chance at New Year’s Resolutions. Not a 40 day wilderness self-improvement program. Not a chance to emerge holy and proud of ourselves when Easter comes. Not about being the spiritual overachiever of my childhood dreams.

No, Lent, at its best, undoes us, pierces us, unravels us, exposes us.  It is precisely our Lenten failures which bring us closer to the voice of God.

When we try, and fail, to fast –
we feel the competing hungers in our bodies and souls.

When we try, and fail, to pray –
we notice our distracted, hurried days; our weakness even in the simplest things.

When we try, and fail, to give alms –
try and fail, to share our bread,
try and fail to break the yokes of injustice
we confront the power of evil, the weight of the sin that ensnares us all.

When we try, and fail, we begin to come out of hiding. When we try and fail, we begin to notice the many voices calling our name. We begin recognize the voice of Jesus.

Give up chocolate; take on prayer; stop and talk to a person living on the street, ask them their name; turn off Facebook for a week, a day, an hour; open the Bible and actually read it.  Whatever else you do or don’t do for these next forty days, bring yourself to the place where you hear Jesus.

And that place can be anywhere. Because as distracted as we are, as tempted by other voices, as prone to wander as we may be, we are never outside of God’s saving power, never that far from the voice of Jesus.

Nestled in our New Testament reading today is one of the Bible’s hidden gems. Jesus, it tells us, “went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah.”

This is the scriptural source for an old Christian teaching called the harrowing of hell; that during the three days between Christ’s death and resurrection, Jesus went down into the farthest reaches of death’s grap, to proclaim Good News to everyone – even to those who were most unwilling to hear God’s voice in their own time.

Christ’s descent to the dead, which we proclaim in the Apostles Creed, is a symbol of just how far God will go to reach us, a proclamation that no one, and nothing, is beyond God’s salvation. Because, we remember, the rainbow covenant made after the flood, was not just with all humanity, but with every living creature – past, present and yet to come.

With that confidence in God’s presence, let yourselves be broken. Let your failures be a blessing. Take on some practice, for sure, but learn from your struggles and failings, and focus on the fast of God’s choosing …

And listen, listen hard, listen deep for the voice of Jesus – a voice calling out to you, even to the depths of hell, even to the depths of your heart.

How do you hear the voice of Jesus? And what does he say to you?


For more about listening from the heart, I recommend this reflection by former Presiding Bishop Frank Griswold: