February 27, 2022, Just Listen, Luke 9:28-36 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
Today, and every year on this last Sunday in the Epiphany season, we read about the event we call the Transfiguration of our Lord. This is the quintessential Mountaintop Experience. Many of us have had mountaintop experiences at one time or another in our lives as Christians – times when we’ve felt particularly close to God, when the rush of life goes quiet for a blessed moment and we see or hear or just know him more clearly. It might happen at a retreat or when we’re alone in the woods or in the middle of worship, or just out of the blue one day. It’s exciting. It feels really good. But as much as we would like it to last, we can never stay in that moment – it passes, and life goes back to normal, and oddly enough we find that we are pretty much unchanged as well. And that can feel pretty anti-climactic, pretty disappointing, really.
It was very much like that for Peter and James and John, though probably more dramatic and certainly more alarming than most of our mountaintop experiences. But when it was all said and done, when the strange figures had disappeared, and the cloud of God’s presence had cleared away, and the voice from heaven was no longer ringing in their ears, and the dazzling light had stopped shining from Jesus’s face and his clothes – when it was just the old familiar Jesus standing there, and the four of them were following the rocky path that led back down the mountain, it must have felt very strange to them that they were still just themselves, just Peter and James and John. Their faces weren’t shining like Moses. They weren’t all of a sudden wiser or holier or more powerful. So what was the point of all that stuff that just happened?
What is the point of our mountaintop experiences?
The answer is in what the voice said from heaven. “This is my Son, my Chosen one. Listen to him!” There were a lot of things going on on that mountaintop: clouds and light and the miraculous appearance of Moses and Elijah. But God’s word to the disciples was simple. Listen to him! Pay attention! The purpose for bringing Peter and James and John up onto the mountaintop on that day seems to have been exactly that – to grab their attention – so that when they did go back down into the familiar slog of daily life, they would remember to listen. Because it was that daily habit of listening, that would bring about the real change in them.
What does it mean if I want someone to listen to me? Just as an example, what does it mean that I want Carroll to listen to me – because I do, of course. It doesn’t just mean I want him to hear the words that I say; it means so much more than that. It means I want him to pay attention to what I say to him, to hear what I say and to understand what I mean when I say it.
And more – it means that I want him to pay attention to things I say and do so that he can really know me. Because Carroll does listen to me, he knows that I love Corgis and reading out loud and going barefoot and gardening and mushrooms. And he knows that I hate liver and horror movies and making phone calls and selling things and being teased. After being married 48 years, he knows all these things and lots more because he has listened to me. There was never a time when we sat down and made lists of likes and dislikes for each other; we just live, for the most part, in a posture of listening to one another. We walk through life together, listening to each other.
A mountaintop experience isn’t like being zapped with gamma rays and becoming an instant superhero (much as we would like that sometimes). It’s a call into deeper relationship: this is my Son: pay attention to him; listen to what he says, learn what he cares about. Listen. Notice. Remember. For Peter and James and John, who walked back down the mountain alongside their friend and teacher, it’s not hard to understand what that meant. But the call is for us as well. So, how do we answer the Father’s call into relationship? We don’t have the advantage of Jesus’s physical presence. But he is still speaking to us. And we can still listen.
The most obvious way that we listen to Jesus is reading the Bible. If we want to know God; if we want to listen to him; we should open the Bible and read – we know that. But sometimes the Bible seems a little unapproachable: it’s a lot longer than most of the books we read. And so much of it seems hard to understand. So people come to the Bible and listen in different ways.
Some people use the Bible kind of like a magic 8-ball. They come to the Bible primarily when they need to find an answer to something important in their lives: to help with a decision they need to make, maybe. They let it fall open at random and look for some word or phrase that they hope will be God’s message to them. Have you ever done that? I have to admit that I have. The amazing thing is that God, in his great love and humility, wants so much to communicate with us that he will show up even in our immaturity, even in our superstition. It is our job to listen; and if we are listening, God is always ready to speak, sometimes even on our own foolish terms. But that’s not the best way to listen to Jesus.
On the other extreme, there are people who approach the Bible like a research project, something they need to take apart and categorize, so they can pack it all into neat, tidy theological packages. I think when we come at Scripture like that, God most often answers by throwing us curve balls that shatter the foundations of our carefully constructed notions of who he is, so that we can begin to really know him as he is. If you come to the Bible willing to listen, you soon find yourself surprised out of some of your comfortable assumptions, just the way your husband or wife keeps surprising you even after you’ve been married for years and years – as long as you keep paying attention. If we’re listening, God will speak to us even out of the boxes of our theological analysis. But dissecting the Bible is also not the best way to listen to Jesus.
We should open the Bible as if it were a letter to us from the person who loves us more than anyone in the whole world – because that’s exactly what it is. Most people don’t write or receive letters very often any more, but when I get a letter, hand-written by a good friend, I savor every word. I read it over and over. That is how we should read the Bible – not as a magic formula for guidance, not as a code to be cracked or a set of facts to be organized, but living words written to us. Every word is from our beloved Teacher and Lord; every word is worth listening to.
But we can also listen for the voice of Jesus from inside of us, from the deepest parts of ourselves. It is a very rare thing for a human being to hear the voice of God booming out of the heavens. Even in the Bible it was a pretty extraordinary circumstance. Most of the time, when people hear from God in the gospels, it’s in a dream, or through a prophecy. But that doesn’t mean God doesn’t speak directly to us. We can be in regular conversation with him. Because if you belong to Christ, his Spirit lives in you, and he is in communication with you all the time; he is always speaking to us. We just have to be quiet enough to listen. We have to learn, with daily practice, to recognize his voice over and above all the other voices clamoring for our attention.
Jesus told us that the Father was sending the Spirit to us in his name, and that the Spirit would teach us all things – that’s a lot, ALL things – and that he would bring to our remembrance all that Jesus said to us. It takes practice. But we can know that he is there. And we can hear him when we choose to listen. Again, listening to the Spirit’s voice is not some kind of magic. It’s not a matter of being a super “spiritual” person – it’s much more like being married. It’s a life-long practice of walking with him and getting to know him, and gradually being transformed by our relationship from within.
I think sometimes the last place we expect to hear the voice of our Lord is by listening to each other – not just “the experts,” not just your parish priest or Nigel Mumford or Pope Francis, but the person sitting in the pew with you. But he is present in his people, and he has a lot to say to us through each other. Jesus told us: “if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.” If we are wise, we don’t just discern God’s leading by our own feelings or thoughts about something, or even just by listening to the Spirit within us. We take seriously what our brothers and sisters say to us as well, because God put us in community for our mutual benefit. A lot of times you can recognize my strengths and my weaknesses better than I can myself – and I can recognize yours. Listen for the voice of God in your brother or sister.
That’s not the definitive report on listening to God, of course. We hear the voice of God when we are in the woods or on a mountaintop or at the seashore. We see him in our wonderful, loving animal friends. He speaks to our hearts in a beautiful piece of music, or a handmade quilt or a really good conversation with a friend. He is the Creator; the plain truth is there’s absolutely nothing and no place in this world that we can’t listen to him.
But we spend so much of our time like the three disciples on the mountaintop with Jesus, sleepy and confused. Sometimes we rush around like Peter trying to do stuff – “It’s a good thing we’re here, Lord, because somebody has to micromanage things around here.” Sometimes we are just paralyzed with fear or doubt or confusion or just plain weariness. But if we listen to the Father, there is actually only one thing we really need to do. “Look, here’s my Son. Listen to him.”
We prayed this morning: “O God, who before the passion of your only begotten Son revealed his glory upon the holy mountain: Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross, and be changed into his likeness from glory to glory.” We need to be strengthened to bear our cross. We long to be transformed. But those things don’t happen on the mountaintop. Mountaintop experiences are those brief, golden moments when we can see clearly, so that when we go back down into our lives we remember to listen, we remember to pay attention to the voice that is with us all the time. Because it is in the listening that we are transformed.
We might not end up glowing in the dark like Moses, but we can’t listen to Jesus without being changed by his glory and goodness. If we seek him in his Word; if we learn to recognize the voice of his Spirit within us; if we hear him in our brothers and sisters – if we just listen to him – then like husbands and wives grow to look like one another after years of life together, we will grow to take on the glorious likeness of our Lord. As Paul wrote: “All of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, will be transformed into his image from one degree of glory to another, for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” +
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