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3rd May 2020

Learning To Listen

Passage: John 21: 1-14


A Minister in America sent me a paper on doing ministry during a crisis situation. It started, “my brain does not work anymore.”
Was I relieved! I guess, like many of you, my own brain is struggling to function effectively right now, and this message reassured me that it is not a sign of mental incapacity nor of some pathetic inability to pull myself together but just part and parcel of living through a crisis.

When I read about Peter’s fishing trip, I recognised the same symptoms in him. At some point presumably, the excitement of knowing Jesus to be alive had died down and Peter had returned to his old home in Galilee. Some but not all of the disciples were with him. They had become 11 rather than 12, after the death of Judas. Now they were seven. Maybe the company was starting to drift apart?

Peter decides to go fishing. This was his occupation before he met Jesus. He may have felt it was time to go back. Nothing much else seemed to be happening in his life or his faith, so why not return to the fishing business? Peter’s friends say they will go with him – after all, what else is there for them to do? They fish all night, catch precisely nothing and end up still more convinced that life holds little hope for them.

As the sun rises, they are utterly exhausted. Then this stranger calls out to them, suggesting that they try doing their fishing differently.
What would you have said to that stranger? No, don’t tell me…..
When you are weary and discouraged, even kind suggestions come across as reproaches. “You have messed up. You should have done it this way.” And yes, I would have had a strong inclination to throw the net at the stranger’s head and say you do it if you think you are so clever! But Peter does listen.

Listening is a very powerful sign of hope. So long as you are able to listen to what someone is saying, you have hope in them and hope in life that what you hear might just make a difference to the way you are feeling right now.
Peter was exhausted, fed up but, by listening to the stranger’s voice, he showed that he had not quite given up on life. Maybe it was worth giving this stranger’s advice a try?

In the Bible, God is often asking that people listen to Him. You see, God is not some kind of sideshow or celebrity, always needing to put on a show in order to convince us that He is the real thing. God is a being to whom we need to relate; someone we must get to know for ourselves. And the best way of getting to know someone is to listen to them, and to talk with them. Faith is a relationship- how can it be anything else.

So, God asks people to listen to him. And no, he is not always or even often this divine voice booming out of nowhere. But people wrote down in the Bible how they heard the voice of God by looking at the universe and the life force in the earth; how they heard the voice of God in the wisdom of their teachers; in the music and creativity and poetry of their artists; in the justice and compassion of their best leaders; in the cries of the poor and the hurting for help; in the love of their partners and their children; in the worship of the whole community.
They listened for God because they had hope in God and the more they listened, the better they were able to hear and the more they heard, the greater their hope.

I know that many of us are struggling with God right now but ask yourself honestly- are you listening for God? Are you giving God a chance to let his voice be heard?

Back in the story, Peter, having listened to and followed the stranger’s suggestion finds himself blessed with a net bursting with fish.
I wonder if Peter was being offered a way out here? With all these fish he could make enough money to go back to his old life: start the business up again, buy a nice little house for himself and his wife. They could settle down quietly and live happily ever after.
And you don’t need to smile at fish. You don’t have to argue with them or try to convince them of things they don’t want to hear. As a fisherman rather than a preacher you run a much lower risk of getting arrested if your religion does not happen to be the Emperor’s religion.

Nikos Kazantzakis actually wrote a novel (The Last Temptation of Christ) in which this was an alternative ending to the story of Jesus and his disciples. They all settled down happily in quiet homes for the rest of their lives.
And what is wrong with that? Nothing.

Except that it clearly was not what Peter wanted. He turned his back on the bursting net and jumped into the sea to rush to Jesus.
Peter had had just enough hope in life to listen to Jesus and, in listening to Jesus, he had also been able to listen to himself, to hear what it was that he really wanted in life and it was not actually a prosperous fishing business. Let fishing be somebody else’s story. It was not his.

It was as though Peter had woken up again, as though HE had come back to life. He believed in Jesus, in life and in himself again. And, as next week’s story will show us, he was ready for the next stage in his walk with Jesus, even though he did not know what it was or where it would take him.

More than once in the Gospels Jesus asks people, “what is it that you want me to do for you?” “What do YOU want?”
He does not, as some religious teachers do, try to persuade them that what they want is what he thinks they ought to have.
He wants them to listen to themselves

In the film “Risen” Joseph Fiennes plays the part of Clavius, a strong, vigorous captain in the Roman army, who is brought to Pilate, the Governor of Israel just after Jesus’ death. Pilate is anxious about the rumours that Jesus has risen from death and he orders Clavius to find the body of Jesus, wherever his disciples might have hidden it, so that it can be proved that Jesus had died.

Clavius searches all possible burial places and keeps a careful watch on the disciples but discovers no dead body of Jesus. He does however finally encounter the risen Jesus. And Jesus offers no explanation of his resurrection appearance, no self-justification. He just smiles at Clavius and asks, “What is it that YOU want?” And Clavius realises that no, he does not want to go back to the fighting and conquering and killing. That is not his true story. It is as though he has become a Christian before he even realises what a Christian is.

SO- in listening to God, we find ourselves able to listen to ourselves-properly? And in listening to ourselves, we find ourselves able to listen to God? Actually that makes perfect sense if you believe in a God who is love.

So, take time and space to listen for God this week.
You may hear some voice suggesting that you try this way or that.
You may hear a line of a song or some words on the television that just seem to say what you most need to hear.
You may meet up with Jesus in someone’s act of random kindness.
And even if you think you don’t know how to pray, you can still listen.
Don’t give up hope. Keep listening.