"Listen to Him!" (Last Epiphany, A)
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone.
As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Jesus leads Peter, James, and John up to a high mountain with him, by themselves. When they arrive, Jesus changes. The word “transfigure” comes from the Greek word metamorphosis. So if normal human Jesus is a caterpillar, then transfigured Jesus is a butterfly. The change is that drastic. The disciples would not have recognized him if they didn’t see the transformation themselves. He either looked like a different person or like something beyond human.
The image you see at the top of this page is a traditional Christian icon of the Transfiguration. Jesus is there with Moses and Elijah and the disciples. Almost every depiction you can find of the Transfiguration looks something like this. But icons sell the story short a little bit. Yes, Jesus is wear bright white clothes and there is some kind of artistic star behind him. But he still looks like the Jesus we see in traditional Orthodox icons. He isn’t radically different. He has not gone through a metamorphosis. He’s not in butterfly form.
After this dramatic transformation, an even stranger thing occurs. Moses and Elijah appear alongside Jesus and speak with him. Mind you, Moses and Elijah have both been dead for hundreds of years at this point. And Peter, James, and John shouldn’t even really know what they look like. But by God’s grace, they witness Moses the Lawgiver and Elijah the Prophetic Miracle Worker speaking with Jesus the Messiah.
This is a lot all at once. Peter, James, and John must feel overwhelmed by all the fantastical things they see. And remember that this is a time before movies and CGI, so they were not used to seeing otherworldly things like we are. Everything about this would have been new.
But then Peter does yet another strange thing. Verse 3 says that Moses and Elijah were speaking with Jesus. Then in verse 4, Peter pipes up. For today, I’m going to said aside what Peter said and focus more on his decision to say anything at all.
Our translation glosses over an oddity here in the Greek. Matthew 17:4 doesn’t just say “Then Peter said to Jesus...” It says, “And answering, Peter said to Jesus…”
Answering? Who is Peter answering? Did someone ask him a question? Who is he responding to? Did anybody speak to him? No, nobody has said anything to Peter so far. Jesus, Moses, and Elijah are talking, and as far as we can tell, Peter, James, and John were not part of that conversation.
But Peter didn’t seem to understand this. He acted like it was his turn to speak when it was really his turn to listen. They were supposed to hear the words of the Law, the Prophets, and the Christ, but they started talking.
Does anyone know what this is like? Have you ever been in a situation where the answers were in front of you but you couldn’t sit still long enough or quiet down long enough to find it? Something good was happening, but you missed it because you were too busy or distracted? This is Peter’s dilemma. He is missing out on the goodness of God’s grace because he will not or cannot listen.
Thankfully, God understands our love of noise. God knows how hard it is for us to be quiet. And God knows how easy it is for each of us to think that what I have to say is more important than what other people are saying.
So God interrupts Peter’s interruption. “While [Peter] was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
The key phrase here is, “Listen to him.” Jesus offers you life and wholeness. Jesus fulfills the Law and the Prophets. Jesus builds the bridge from Jews to Gentiles. Jesus will defeat death and gloriously rise from the grave. Jesus is the cornerstone. Listen to him.
It is as true today as it was then. Christ is our life and our salvation. Jesus shows us the way of love, peace, and righteousness. Jesus sets us free from the spiritual bondage of our sin and the physical bonds that human beings impose on one another. Jesus offers us wholeness to broken people in a broken world. Listen to him.
Yet so often we can’t or won’t. So often we are just like Peter.
We get caught up with the flashy things, whether from God or not, and we forget to settle down. We speak when we ought to listen.
Likewise, we can become self-absorbed or self-important, and forget the wisdom of other people. We speak when we ought to listen.
Listening is key to good relationship with God just as it is key to good relationships with other people. We listen to those we respect. We listen to those whom we wish to honor. We listen to those we love.
When it comes to people, the tricky things is that people can say some crazy things. If we get in the habit of listening closely to one another, we’ll find out pretty quickly that we don’t like everything other people say. Whether it’s a political opinion or a religious point of view or just rooting for the wrong sports team, listening exposes us to another person’s inner life. Listening helps us to see the world as they see it. Listening is a window into their soul.
And so listening is the first step toward peace. When we find ourselves at odds with someone else, our great temptation is to shut down the conversation. It’s easier to speak over them, or speak behind their back, or otherwise write them off. Well they’re just like that. We’re different. We couldn’t get along.
Our culture is full of that attitude. We are so fractured and fragmented. We now get to choose which set of “facts” to believe about the world. We can choose to stay within our own silos, only hearing from people who think and speak like me. Psychologists call this confirmation bias. I spin everything new that I learn so that it really just confirms what I already think.
But in the Transfiguration, God calls us to more than this lazy, self-centered social stance. God calls us to be genuine listeners. And through listening, we challenge the status quo. Through listening we become peacemakers.
When we listen, especially to people we disagree with, we honor that person’s dignity. We recognize the Image of God even in them. In deep listening, we open ourselves up to learning something new. I might actually be wrong about such and such. What do they think? So whether you’re dealing with an abstract disagreement or a painful interpersonal betrayal, listening to one another is the first step toward reconciliation.
As we have already said, listening to one another is hard. It’s not that natural. It’s much easier for us to speak over each other than to really listen. So the key to this story is that God tells the disciples, “Listen to him.” Listen to Jesus. We start with listening to God, and that gives us the patience and the will to listen to God’s creatures.
Thankfully, the Church has many spiritual practices that can help us learn to listen. And since Lent starts this Wednesday, we should all be preparing for some renewed spiritual practices.
Contemplative prayer is the ancient practice of quieting oneself before God. In this style of prayer, the point is not to say all the right words to God, or really to say any words at all. Contemplative prayer is about taking extended moments of silence to “Listen to Jesus,” to listen to God’s Spirit at work in our hearts and in our lives.
It comes in many forms. Some just sit down and turn the brain off for a few minutes. I can’t really do that. My mind keeps racing if I try to go from 60 to a full stop. So many Christians look at an icon, hold prayer beads, and/or repeat a short prayer while they enter the silence. This can be the Lord’s Prayer, or the Hail Mary, or a full Rosary. But it can also be shorter prayers from the BCP like
“Lord, have mercy “Christ, have mercy “Lord, have mercy” (BCP, 356); or
“Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy, Immortal One, have mercy upon us” (BCP, 356).
The Jesus Prayer, famous in the Orthodox Church, is simply, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Some folks even just repeat the name,“Jesus.” If you are not using an icon, you can do contemplative prayer sitting down, standing up, walking, running, driving, or whatever. See the links below for resources on building a contemplative prayer practice for the first time.
But even if you’re a seasoned veteran at this type of prayer, it remains a challenge. Listening is hard, period. And God does not always send Butterfly Jesus, Moses, and Elijah to entertain us during our prayer. But as we remain steadfast in our listening to God, I pray that we will grow as gracious listeners to people. And with the power of the Holy Spirit, God may use us to build the peaceful kingdom of Jesus. Amen.
Learn to use Anglican Prayer Beads in a variety of styles: http://www.kingofpeace.org/prayerbeads.htm
Learn to pray the Jesus Prayer: http://www.orthodoxprayer.org/Jesus%20Prayer.html
Learn to pray the Rosary: http://www.usccb.org/prayer-and-worship/prayers-and-devotions/rosaries/how-to-pray-the-rosary.cfm
Thomas Keating, “The Method of Centering Prayer,” http://www.cpt.org/files/WS%20-%20Centering%20Prayer.pdf.