"Listen to Him"
As we come to the last Sunday of Epiphany, we encounter, as we do on this Sunday each year, the story of the Transfiguration. One of the great mountaintop moments in scripture. And as I have said before, whenever Jesus goes up a mountain in scripture, we do well to pay attention, something special and maybe altogether unexpected is about to happen, and surely this mountaintop moment doesn’t disappoint. Just to reset the scene a bit…Jesus along with Peter, James and John have gone up a mountain, really a large hill, for perhaps a brief respite in midst of their very busy itinerant ministry of traveling by foot, of course, around the Galilean countryside…offering words of hope filled love, teaching about meaningful living and doing deeds of power…healing those they encounter along the way who are hurting in body, mind and spirit…truly a Good News spreading ministry. And again like all of us from time to time, the moment has come to recharge the old batteries…so Jesus heads up the mountain, with disciples in tow, for some quiet time spent in prayer…listening for God’s voice and thus being refilled. Not unlike our own retreats, heading up the mountain perhaps allows them to discern God’s voice and presence in their lives and creates some space from the demands all around.
Now what they discover on the mountaintop is indeed not disappointing. After beginning to pray, they discover with them two greats of the Old Testament...Moses and Elijah. Two people whose lives and ministries represent the two primary pillars of their Jewish faith, the Law and the prophets. I am sure this moment must have been a wonderful, perhaps unexpected, revelation even for Jesus…but for Peter, James and John it must have been utterly transformative…a mouth dropping…awe-inspiring…voice losing…life changing…pinch me to be sure I am awake…sort of moment. Luke tells us even before Moses and Elijah make their grand entrance that, as they were praying, Jesus was transfigured before their eyes…his face changed and his cloths became dazzling white…Jesus burning with celestial brightness…shining with divine glory…nothing less than a foreshadowing of the resurrected Jesus sitting at God’s right hand in the heavenly kingdom. And then again Moses and Elijah appear and the three begin a conversation that Peter, James and John get to overhear…a conversation about Jesus’ exodus…his departure…which presumably concerns the great foundational events that are at the very center of our own faith…Jesus’ passion and resurrection. I mean talking about a conversation I would like to overhear…it doesn’t get any bigger than this.
And at this point, I imagine the disciples thought they probably just couldn’t take anymore or their heads might explode or maybe just pass out…Luke literally suggests this…he says they were weighed down with sleep. CS Lewis in a beloved sermon talked about the weight of glory…and indeed Peter, James and John were feeling in the most real terms possible the weight of glory. I Imagine standing in the presence of God’s glory is not just something one experiences through his or her senses…but instead is actually felt. Like gravity pressing down on them…the disciples experience glory with every part of their selves, souls and bodies…it suffuses the laws of physics…it’s expressed in all dimensions…time and space…all consumed with the glory of God…and we are not even at the end of the story yet. Luke continues that a cloud overshadowed them…and then most blessed of all they hear a voice…was it still and soft or grand like thunder…we don’t know…but they were certain that is was nothing less and nothing more than the voice of God Almighty, creator of heaven and earth…speaking to them…to simple humans just like us. They hear the words…or just as likely I would guess they felt the words, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Listen to him…God says and then…it is all over…in the twinkling of an eye. Jesus, their friend, standing there alone…the man, the person, they have come to know and to love…as fully human, touchable, and real…as any one of us. With heads swimming and probably too many questions to know which to ask first, the disciples are left with really only one option…to walk with Jesus down the mountain…and back into their real life…lives.
Now I feel quite certain, and the story suggests just as much, that Peter, James and John would have liked to have stay on that mountaintop…indeed, as they say, it is good to be here. But they must come down…they still have more life to live…a journey to complete that has not yet ended…and this is true for us as well. We all live most or much of lives between mountaintop moments…and just as the disciples have to trudge down the mountain and back to their real lives full of fear and joy, suffering and peace, life and death, we too must negotiate our own lives lived that are indeed full of their own fears and joys, suffering and peace, living and dying. And yet…even here…in the midst of lives lived between the mountaintops…that often feel quite ordinary…God’s glory does invade and inhabit the world we live in and the lives we lead…and I believe there is much insight and wisdom we can glean from this particular mountaintop moment for experiencing ourselves the weight and substance of God’s glory.
And in particular, I want us to pay attention to how the disciples first reacted to their own experience of glory and then juxtapose that to the advice, for that is what it was, with which God concluded his heavenly, if very brief, homily. And this all has to do with: listening verses doing. I left one part of the story out of my retelling and that was how the disciples responded to the transfigured Jesus and his conversation with Moses and Elijah…and that response was to do something. Like an instinct level, gut response to the experience unfolding before the disciples they want to do something. They begin by saying that it is good to be there…and indeed it is…but they follow up this statement by saying, “Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” They are standing in the midst of the divine…life for a moment suffused with God’s glory, and so, of course, there instinct is to role up their sleeves like good red-blooded folk and do something in response. And that’s what we all do…we do things…we do ministry…we do work…we do play…we keep ourselves busy. We seem to instinctually believe at a DNA level the old Puritan adage that the idle mind is the devil’s playground. The old slogan…Jesus is coming…look busy…are indeed words we live by. We so often derive our understandings of success and security by what we can do and accomplish and all the busyness that entails. And much of what we do and accomplish is indeed good…but not when we build altars to it and cast idols that represent it…that we then find ourselves worshipping at…worshipping the unsatisfying god of success in the worlds terms. From cathedrals to high rise banks to inspiring capital buildings and courthouses…the world is full of monuments to that which we can do and accomplish. And, of course, I am speaking in extremes…but the point is in our doing we might find ourselves distracted from the one thing that matters most, which is the very moment we find ourselves in…this moment that we share…God’s very presence in the other…the person sitting with us…God’s glorious presence here right now, even now. If the disciples on the mountaintop had indeed set to doing…to building their three dwellings…before the cloud appeared and stopped them in their tracks…they might have missed the very voice of God and the advice he shares…which I think is the helpful complement to and gentle correction of our instinct to always do…for God says, “This is my Son, my Chosen”…and here’s the part that I want us all to pay particular attention to…“Listen to him.” It is like God is saying, don’t do anything, at least not yet, instead, just listen…listen to Jesus.
I read in a blog post recently that we were studying in the Community of Hope, “Listening is first step in acting out the scripture, not speaking.” So what does this mean…what does this look like…to first and foremost listen…to listen to him…to listen to Jesus. Well I am afraid it doesn’t mean to go on a permanent vacation…to retire from ever having to do anything again. It is not a call to lethargy or apathy…to never do anything…particularly good, joyful, life-giving things…even when difficult…maybe especially when difficult. Instead, I think God calls us to make the conscious choice to listen before doing. Perhaps you remember what was the stated reason for the trip up the mountain with Jesus for Peter, James and John in the first place…it was to pray…and it was indeed when they were praying that God’s glory was revealed. So listening means and looks like creating space in our busy lives for prayer…here in church…in our homes…in our work places…at the beginning of day…at the end of the day…alone…and together. And in doing so hopefully we are listening as much as we are speaking. But having said that I think even as we speak in prayer…so is God…to us…to our hearts and minds…even in and through our own words…and we indeed experience God’s glory…he speaks to us…and then, and only then, our doing indeed reflects something of the glory of God. I also think we listen…we listen to him…to Jesus’ living Spirit…when we chose to study the bible together, when we read good literature, when we listen in church, when we are inspired by a piece of art, a sunset or sunrise, a majestic landscape…listening with our eyes, hearts and ears to both things that inspire and disrupt us…that encourage and challenge us…to fall both more and more in love with God…and with each other.
And there is, at least, one more way we listen to him that is also very important, and that is taking the time to really, really listen to each other. For all the ways I have heard God speak in my own life, the clearest, the most moving, the most important, is in listening to you…and all those whose lives intersect with my own. The Spirit of God indeed resides in the life of his people…and there is nothing more glorious than the people we are…you are a glory…a sight to behold…beautiful beyond measure…each and every one of you…and every blessed person whose life has graced my own. The 2nd century Bishop Irenaeus is oft quoted as saying, “The Glory of God is a human being fully alive.” And there is no quote that I hold more dear in my own life. When we take the time to really listen to each other…we encounter wisdom, we encounter ourselves authentically in the other, we encounter glory, and we learn how to serve each other meaningfully when the time to do something has rightfully arrived. I cannot fix you…you cannot fix me…but we can live in solidarity with one another, we can support one another, we can encourage one another, we can console one another, we can discern God’s faithful presence in one another…we can rest in and experience God’s glory in one another…if we but first listen. In her commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict, Joan Chittister writes, “Imagine a world run by holy listeners.” Well…I imagine that world full of holy listeners to be so suffused with divine glory that we all find ourselves transfigured forever…our holy listening directing our holy doing…filling our real world with the weight and substance of God’s glory.
A final thought, the next time you will likely be in church it will be Lent…we stand on its precipice once again. Now there was a well beloved professor of preaching who once said that there is at least one person in the room who needs to hear the sermon…and that’s the preacher. Holy listening, even for those who have natural gifts in this area, is a craft that needs intention and improves with discipline. I need to work in this area, as my wife has want to remind me from time time…and justifiably so…the whole…we have two ears and one month so we should listen twice as much as speak…and so forth. So this shall be my Lenten practice…to cultivate holy listening more and more in my own life…and thus to be an expression, or at least a small part, of the substance and weight of God’s glory…which transfigures our world. Amen.