Following His Footsteps: “Learning to Listen” – John 11

Julian TreasureAuthor of the book “Sound Business” Julian Treasure knows something about listening. He wrote a book that wasn’t the story of an audio recording studio, nor was it a “how to” book on business practices – it was a book about the need for people to learn to listen in our modern world. Recently, he presented a TED talk in which he observed: “In a world that is filled with noise, we spend 60% of our time in communication listening – but we aren’t very good at it. We retain, on average, about 25% of what we take in. We subconsciously use “tricks” to get meaning from the sounds we hear. For instance:

• We use “pattern recognition”. In a crowded room, we may hear someone mention our name and we look – because we recognize that pattern above the ambient noise of the room.

• We learn to “block out” constant sounds, like the noise of a subway when listening to our friend talk as we walk sit in the metro on our way to work.

• We use “filters” that are encoded by language, culture, values, beliefs, attitudes, expectations and intentions – most of them without any conscious thought. They shape how we receive visual and auditory information.

• We can even close our eyes and use sound to “place ourselves” in the size and space of a room. We are intuitively aware of our location and the number of people around us.

Julian offered a warning that “we are not learning to listen as well as we should”.

There are reasons, he posited. First, as man developed abilities to “record” what was being said – first in writing, now in audio and video – the “premium” on accurate listening diminished. Second, as the cacophony of voices, signs, visual and auditory information was increasingly streamed at us – we became too tired to listen well. As a result, we can easily become impatient in this loud climate, listening for “sound bites” over longer oratory. In addition, the “art of conversation” can quickly be replaced by “personal broadcasting”. The net effect is that we are becoming desensitized. Advertisers know this. Our media companies have become a stream of “sensations, shocks, revelations, furies, scandals and exposes” – simply because media has to scream to get our attention.

I found it interesting that Julian noted that “Listening is our access to understanding,” because that was exactly what I discovered in the text for our lesson in John 11. Let me suggest that without conscious listening we don’t truly communicate at all. What is true in the physical world is also true in the spiritual world – we need to learn to listen. As we study a familiar story from God’s Word today, we will see this clearly…

Key Principle: Mature believers learn to listen to God’s Word and pick out the truth from the noise around them.

In our last lesson, we saw five temptations from Luke 18, the last of which was “Becoming Befuddled” – addressed by Jesus in Luke 18:31-34 with the words:

Luke 18:31 Jesus took the Twelve aside and told them, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and everything that is written by the prophets about the Son of Man will be fulfilled. 32 He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock him, insult him and spit on him; 33 they will flog him and kill him. On the third day he will rise again.” 34 The disciples did not understand any of this. Its meaning was hidden from them, and they did not know what he was talking about.

We noted that there is a temptation for followers of God is to be selective in their hearing and assumptive in their conclusions – but God wants us to know what He said and let the truths sink deeply inside us. If we cut up His Word into “fortune cookie sized sayings” and string them together without context – we may be believed by those who hear us, but we become unreliable witnesses of the King. Truly we must recognize that speaking from the Bible is not the same as teaching what the Bible says. Lifting quotes and stringing things together without a grasp of context won’t teach people how to LISTEN to God and pick out what He is saying.

Selective hearing seemed to be a problem as Jesus faced His last winter of earth ministry. By Spring, He would be crucified and raised. For now, He was the Teacher – and He was trying to get His followers to become good listeners. It helps that the end of John 10, just before the account we are about to study, shares that some people DID her Jesus and recognize Him as the One promised – because they knew John the Baptizer’s ministry before Him.

People Turning toward Jesus

John’s account recalled: John 10:40 Then Jesus went back across the Jordan to the place where John had been baptizing in the early days. There he stayed, 41 and many people came to him. They said, “Though John never performed a sign, all that John said about this man was true.” 42 And in that place many believed in Jesus.

This little reference reminds us that people were following Jesus, in part, because of what they HEARD about Him from John before the Baptizer was beheaded. John’s testimony, when matched with Jesus’ consistency of life and message, led men and women to see Him as the Lamb of God that was promised – but they weren’t sure what that meant in practical terms. They didn’t recognize the serious implications of the Lamb – that He would be killed and His blood would become payment for sin. Still, it shows some were listening…

Followers that Didn’t Listen

At the same time, some of those who were closest to Jesus didn’t seem to be able to really hear Him.

Word came that one of Jesus’ dear friends from Bethany of Judea was taken ill. His disciples heard Jesus’ words, but didn’t recognize His knowledge of the situation. John recorded: John 11: 1 Now a man named Lazarus was sick. He was from Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 2 (This Mary, whose brother Lazarus now lay sick, was the same one who poured perfume on the Lord and wiped his feet with her hair.) 3 So the sisters sent word to Jesus, “Lord, the one you love is sick.” 4 When he heard this, Jesus said, “This sickness will not end in death. No, it is for God’s glory so that God’s Son may be glorified through it.” 5 Now Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus.

When Jesus heard the news, it appears He understood what the Father had planned. Lazarus was sick, but the end of the story was going to point to Jesus and exalt Him. His certainty is clear in verse four. The disciples heard the same news, but had no idea what was in store for them. Jesus delayed going to Bethany – but the disciples likely interpreted that as mere prudence. John recorded in John 11:6: “So when he heard that Lazarus was sick, he stayed where he was two more days, 7 and then he said to his disciples, “Let us go back to Judea.”

His followers heard Jesus’ words, but didn’t grasp His explanation of the situation. When He made the plan to go near to Jerusalem again, they objected:

John 11:8 “But Rabbi,” they said, “a short while ago the Jews there tried to stone you, and yet you are going back?” 9 Jesus answered, “Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Anyone who walks in the daytime will not stumble, for they see by this world’s light. 10 It is when a person walks at night that they stumble, for they have no light.”

Their question was reasonable, don’t you think? “Master, are you sure that is wise?” There are a number of problems with the question – the first of which is the One to WHOM the question is addressed! If Jesus makes a plan, who are His followers to question Him? Isn’t that JUST LIKE US though? Jesus said: “Love your enemies.” We reply, “Really, Lord? Do you have any idea what He did to me? Do you know how WRONG he has been? Jesus quietly smiles and nods: “Yes, Randy. It may surprise you to know that I knew all about it even before you did.” I look down – I am doing it again!

Look at Jesus’ reply. It may take a minute to catch what He said. He replied: “There are a set number of daylight hours. If you stick to walking in them, you won’t stumble in the dark.” In other words, “I have the time. They won’t get me yet.”

Some people can’t hear very well – and that is their chief problem with following God. Years ago, I read about a man who had a terrible hearing problem. One day he and his wife were driving through southern US states. They were pulled over by a state trooper who asked the woman if she knew how fast she was driving. The husband barked at her, “What did he say?” The wife replied, “HE ASKED IF I KNEW THAT I WAS SPEEDING.” Looking at the driver’s license the trooper said, “I see you’re not from around here.” The wife said, “No we are from Jacksonville.” The husband, annoyed that he couldn’t hear shouted, “What did you say?” The wife told him, “I SAID WE ARE FROM JACKSONVILLE.” The state trooper then commented, “You know, the meanest man I ever met was from Jacksonville.” The husband again interrupted, “What did he say?” The wife replied, “HE SAYS HE THINKS HE KNOWS YOU AND YOUR FAMILY!”

The disciples were suffering from physical hearing loss – but they were still wondering why Jesus wanted to put Himself in danger (not trusting that He knew exactly what time it was), they heard Jesus’ words, but they didn’t understand His diagnosis for the situation.

John 11:11 After he had said this, he went on to tell them, “Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep; but I am going there to wake him up.” 12 His disciples replied, “Lord, if he sleeps, he will get better.” 13 Jesus had been speaking of his death, but his disciples thought he meant natural sleep. 14 So then he told them plainly, “Lazarus is dead, 15 and for your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.”

The problem is, when we start off believing God doesn’t have the whole situation well under control, we find ourselves unable to really listen closely to all His other words! Jesus tried to make clear that there was a purpose to going to Bethany that outweighed their thoughts of danger – and the disciples naively informed Jesus that His visit would be counter-productive. After all, if Lazarus was asleep – that was GOOD FOR HIM. Jesus had to make it even clearer… “HE IS DEAD. Now, let’s go!”

That made even LESS SENSE to disciples that were already worried about the outcome of such a visit. If their friend was dead, that was sad – but there was no point to walking into a trap to see the outside of a tomb and hug friends that lost their brother. It isn’t that such a thing wouldn’t be good – but really, should they risk their lives for it? It is clear that even though they heard Jesus’ words, but didn’t trust His control of the situation. You can hear it in their muttering…

John 11:16 Then Thomas (also known as Didymus) said to the rest of the disciples, “Let us also go, that we may die with him.”

There is an upbeat response to the Master’s plan. “Fine! If you insist on this fool-hearty errand, I guess we will go and all die together!” Have you ever followed Jesus like that? You DID what He told you – but not with a heart that flowed with confidence in what He was doing!

I want to take a moment, while we are thinking about Thomas’ gloom, to pay closer attention to something. Often in Bible teaching, I find myself making a point about the way we, as followers of Jesus, really don’t measure up. It isn’t because I don’t feel there are many who DO know how to follow the Savior. I have, in my life, met a number of incredible believers – men and women who have inspired me and really shined as an example. I make the points concerning our failures because we live in an “out of balance” world. We live in a culture that insists on telling us that we are really good at things we really aren’t – we are victims of things that we really aren’t.

I love that the Bible is filled with characters that are shown, warts and all. Thomas can’t be herein mistaken for a man of great faith, can he? He decided to DO what Jesus said, but not without a heart so full of doubt that a bit of it spilled out his mouth. I find these moments a bit encouraging – as if we aren’t the first generation of people who wanted to follow Jesus, but may not have it all together. It was like that from the beginning. What Thomas lacked, what we all so often lack, is simple “faith”. We have made the point repeatedly in our study of the Bible that “faith” is “God glasses” – it is seeing things THROUGH the Word of God and not as my eye would see without the “world view” of His Word. Faith, truly comes from HEARING. More accurately, faith comes through LISTENING.

• When we don’t recognize God’s knowledge of the situation – we think we have to get worked up, come to Him and “make Him pay attention” to the troubles we see (as in Habakkuk’s case).

• When we don’t listen to His Word closely enough to grasp His explanation of the situation – we fill in His absolute truth with our flawed and fluffy interpretive filling, much of which is derived from flawed thinking.

• When we don’t carefully listen to His Word, we conclude that we know better what would help in the situation – and we question God’s direction.

• When we don’t trust the control God has of over our lives and our world, we easily become cynical and negative, like Thomas did.

Followers that Learned to Listen

We have seen crowds that believed because they listened to John the Baptizer, and we have seen close-up disciples who acted like they were obedient, but weren’t really listening. Now, look closely at the story that is at the heart of the account – and pay close attention to some followers that learned how to listen to Jesus…

John 11:17 On his arrival, Jesus found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 18 Now Bethany was less than two miles from Jerusalem, 19 and many Jews had come to Martha and Mary to comfort them in the loss of their brother. 20 When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went out to meet him, but Mary stayed at home. 21 “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22 But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.” 23 Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.” 24 Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” 25 Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” 27 “Yes, Lord,” she replied, “I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, who is to come into the world.”

Jesus arrived, probably at Ein Shemesh, the spring in the valley east of the village. Most caravans stopped there to get water before coming in to greater Jerusalem – the villages of Bethany, Bethpage and the leper colonies on top of the Mount of Olives. Martha came out to meet Jesus, while Mary received guests on behalf of the family in mourning. Martha’s words were telling: “Jesus, you are too late. If you had gotten here sooner, Lazarus would have been healed.” Jesus told Martha that her brother was not GONE, he would be raised. The problem is, the “Last Day” was a long way away – and Martha loved Lazarus. Jesus asked her a pointed question: “Do you believe that I hold the power of life and death?” Martha made clear that she believed Jesus was Messiah, as well as the Eternal Son of God who put on skin to become man. John remembered:

John 11:28 After she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary aside. “The Teacher is here,” she said, “and is asking for you.” 29 When Mary heard this, she got up quickly and went to him. 30 Now Jesus had not yet entered the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. 31 When the Jews who had been with Mary in the house, comforting her, noticed how quickly she got up and went out, they followed her, supposing she was going to the tomb to mourn there. 32 When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled. 34 “Where have you laid him?” he asked. “Come and see, Lord,” they replied. 35 Jesus wept.

It is interesting to follow the story and see that Mary had the identical set of feelings about Jesus’ arrival – disappointment and brokenness. Mary sobbed. She missed her brother. She wished Jesus had come before. Even though Mary was the one who sat at Jesus’ feet while Martha tended to the work of the house, it was to Martha Jesus shared the deep truth concerning Himself. With Mary, He just cried.

There are times when theology and the words of the learned are not what is called for – rather the shedding of tears. Jesus saw her heartbreak. Jesus saw her doubt. Jesus didn’t cry for Lazarus – He was about to see him again. He cried because the sorrow of His followers touches Him. Don’t forget that. You never cry alone – you have a Savior Who knows what hurts you and cares about every bit of it.

As strange as it is to admit, even the people who were standing by Him really didn’t understand what Jesus was really doing. The text says:

John 11:36 Then the Jews said, “See how he loved him!” 37 But some of them said, “Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?”

Stop that think about that. Apparently, because of Jesus’ many healings, it was clear to people that the Master had power over disease and could break a fever. The issue now was that Lazarus wasn’t SICK, he was dead. As the munchkin said in the Wizard of Oz: “He wasn’t merely dead, but really most sincerely dead.” Four days was long enough to get even those caught up in the theology of “soul sleep” to see no hope. Where ever the “spirit of Laz” was, they all thought it was a place Jesus couldn’t touch.

It is difficult to tell if the Hebrew tradition of the “Shemira” existed already in the time of Jesus, but clearly it was accepted within a few hundred years after Jesus, and may be in view here. The tradition refers “guarding the body of a deceased person from the time of death until burial. In Israel “shemira” refers to all forms of guard duty, but outside of Israel the word is used almost exclusively in regards to the religious ritual of guarding the body of the deceased. It was mentioned in the Talmud (Genesis Kabbah 100:7), that the soul hovers over the body for three days after death, so the “shomrim” sit and read aloud comforting Psalms or the book of Job. They are also encouraged to meditate and pray, but are prohibited from eating, drinking, or smoking in the shemira room out of respect for the dead, who can no longer do these things. Other Jewish writings explain that while shemira is good deed but not a commandment, it was a “minhag” or custom.

If the practice was accepted in an earlier form, as some have suggested, the fourth day was beyond the time that anyone believed the soul to still be available for comment – Laz was gone. Personally, I see little evidence that the tradition extended back that far, but that teaching continues to float around, so it is worth addressing the possibility.

Go back to the scene with John’s record, and this time pay close attention to the “hearing and the “listening” that is recorded. What we are watching for is BELIEF, listening with ears that are changed by what they hear:

John 11:38 Jesus, once more deeply moved, came to the tomb. It was a cave with a stone laid across the entrance. 39 “Take away the stone,” he said. “But, Lord,” said Martha, the sister of the dead man, “by this time there is a bad odor, for he has been there four days.”

Right there is the momentary hesitation, the doubt that Jesus knew what He was doing. To doubt, God adds more revelation…

John 11:40 Then Jesus said, “Did I not tell you that if you believe, you will see the glory of God?”

Martha could hear in Jesus’ voice the confidence that everything would be alright. There could be only two paths – obedience or mistrust and disbelief.

John 11:41 So they took away the stone. Then Jesus looked up and said, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me. 42 I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.” 43 When he had said this, Jesus called in a loud voice, “Lazarus, come out!” 44 The dead man came out, his hands and feet wrapped with strips of linen, and a cloth around his face. Jesus said to them, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go.

Jesus thanked the Father that He always heard Him, and that He was about to hear Him that day. Lazarus heard Jesus and responded. The onlookers heard Jesus and obeyed – unwrapping Lazarus. Now look at the last part of the story…

John 11:45 Therefore many of the Jews who had come to visit Mary, and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

Some who saw it now believed that Jesus was Messiah. They now heard the voice of Jesus with a different ear – ready to follow and obey it. One Who was a mere curiosity now became a Master and Commander. When Jesus is truly believed – He demands to be followed, to be obeyed.

Hearers with Cold Hearts

Not everyone who heard about the events of Bethany were open to changing their position concerning Who Jesus was. John finished the tale with some clear words about others who HEARD about Jesus’ work, but had no intention of LISTENING to Jesus’ voice.

John 11:46 But some of them went to the Pharisees and told them what Jesus had done. 47 Then the chief priests and the Pharisees called a meeting of the Sanhedrin. “What are we accomplishing?” they asked. “Here is this man performing many signs. 48 If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and then the Romans will come and take away both our temple and our nation.” 49 Then one of them, named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, “You know nothing at all! 50 You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” 51 He did not say this on his own, but as high priest that year he prophesied that Jesus would die for the Jewish nation, 52 and not only for that nation but also for the scattered children of God, to bring them together and make them one. 53 So from that day on they plotted to take his life. 54 Therefore Jesus no longer moved about publicly among the people of Judea. Instead he withdrew to a region near the wilderness, to a village called Ephraim, where he stayed with his disciples. 55 When it was almost time for the Jewish Passover, many went up from the country to Jerusalem for their ceremonial cleansing before the Passover. 56 They kept looking for Jesus, and as they stood in the temple courts they asked one another, “What do you think? Isn’t he coming to the festival at all?” 57 But the chief priests and the Pharisees had given orders that anyone who found out where Jesus was should report it so that they might arrest him.

Step back and consider what we have seen in the passage.

• First, we saw the crowds at John’s old preaching ground. We saw people who heard ABOUT Jesus from John, watched what He did, and began to follow Him. We can call them the CONVICTED and following.

• Second, we saw some disciples who were CLOSE to Jesus in proximity – hearing His voice daily, but not truly trusting that Jesus knew what He was doing. They were negative and cynical, like Thomas, but they were there. We will call them the CONFLICTED and following.

• Third, we saw close friends who loved Jesus, but who hadn’t learned that He was not just a great friend and wonderful Teacher, but Master over life and death – powerful Sovereign Prince Who could call on His Father the King. We will call them the CONFUSED and following.

We saw people who heard an accurate report about the power of Jesus to request from the Father a new life for Lazarus and receive it – yet all they could see is WHAT THEY WOULD LOSE if Jesus took over their hearts. They were not wrestling with WHO Jesus was as He made that plain in front of them – they were wrestling with the place THEY held in their own heart as master and commander. We will call them COLD and fighting.

What kind of listener are you?

Pastor Jerry Flury wrote: “Husbands are notorious for being poor listeners. We are all familiar with the scene of a husband reading the newspaper while his wife is trying to talk. His response is “Yes, dear. U-huh. Mmmm. Is that so?” But we all know he’s not really listening. Suddenly she pulls down the paper and says, “Have you heard a word I’ve said?” He went on to write…Two men were talking one day. One of them said, “My wife talks to herself a lot.” His friend answered, “Mine does, too, but she doesn’t know it. She thinks I’m listening.” Too often, we feel that we are listening to what God is saying to us but we really hear only what we want to hear.”

It isn’t the AMOUNT of revealed truth we hear that makes the real difference, it is the amount we learn to LISTEN TO that make a difference. Some are following, but aren’t convinced that Jesus knows what He is doing. Mature believers learn to listen to God’s Word and pick out the truth from the noise around them. It is also true that we haven’t heard if we haven’t listened.

Some are fighting. You don’t want God to tell you how to live. Remember, God knows our hearts. I call on you to stop and consider Jesus today, so that you will truly be prepared to HEAR HIS VOICE. The Scriptures call Him:

• The Chief Cornerstone: (Ephesians 2:20) – the One who holds together His people.

• The Firstborn over all creation: (Colossians 1:15) – He occupies the rank and pre-eminence of a first-born son over all things, the most exalted rank in the universe, above all others.

• He is called the “Holy One”: (Acts 3:14; Psalm 16:10) – Christ is distinct in His nature, and by His death, we are made holy and pure before God.

• His is called the Judge: (Acts 10:42; 2 Timothy 4:8) –He was appointed by God to judge the world offering the rewards of eternity.

• He is called King of kings and Lord of lords: (1 Timothy 6:15; Revelation 19:16) – He is Supreme over all authority, over all kings and rulers, and none can prevent Him from accomplishing His purposes.

• He called Himself the “Light of the World”: (John 8:12) – Jesus said those who trust in Him have their eyes opened by Him and walk in the light.

There are more than one hundred other titles, but He is also called:

• The Alpha and Omega: (Revelation 1:8; 22:13) – He declared Himself the beginning and end of all things.

My question is simple. Will you hear Him? Will you LISTEN to what He has said?