"Listening for Lent"
Last Sunday After the Epiphany C (March 3, 2019)
Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, "Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah"--not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!" When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, "Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not." Jesus answered, "You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here." While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.
This is a story all about talking and listening.
Jesus, Moses, and Elijah start with a conversation. We don’t get to overhear any of the dialogue, but Luke tells us that they were discussing Jesus’ “departure” (Gk. exodus). Jesus had just taught the followers that they must “deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (9:23). Jesus is talking about his own journey to the cross and the path of suffering that his disciples will follow if they hope to liberate this sinful and broken world with him.
But Peter isn’t focused on that when he is on top of the mountain. All he can think about is resting and dwelling in that moment. He wants to build homes for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah so that they can all stay. He is going off on his own tangent instead of listening to what Jesus and the others are talking about. He spoke to them “not knowing what he said” (9:33).
I used to understand this to mean that Peter was talking out of his mind. He was just talking to talk without thinking about what he was saying and not even meaning it. But now I’m convinced that Peter was fully aware of what Peter thought and what Peter wanted to say. But Peter didn’t know what Jesus was saying. Jesus is the “he” in verse 33.
Peter wasn’t listening to Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. He was too busy in his own mind, in his own feelings. He was talking and so he couldn’t listen. He didn’t get the message that Jesus must journey to Jerusalem toward the cross, toward suffering and death, because that was the only way to lead God’s beloved people (that’s everyone and everything) out of the world’s mess.
He wants the disciples to join him on that journey, but not because pain is good. Pain and suffering are the results of sin. But Jesus is brave enough and holy enough to confront our sinful actions and structures and challenge them to be better, kinder, and more loving. And Jesus and his followers must even be willing to suffer the wrath of powerful people who cannot and will not love as they love, as God loves them and us.
Lent begins in a couple of days. On this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, our whole church begins another 40-day journey, following Jesus as we carry our crosses toward his death and resurrection. Lent is a season for taking a good, honest look at ourselves and re-dedicating ourselves to the Lord Jesus. Lent is an invitation to repent, to turn around, to set things right in our lives and in our relationship to God.
Traditionally, that takes the form of three major spiritual disciplines: prayer, fasting, and giving. Fasting gets the most time in the spotlight. People tend to associate Lent with fasting above all else. The common question is “What are you going to give up for Lent?” I am happy to talk about that in other forums, but this Gospel story -- where Jesus transfigures in front of his disciples -- is really about talking and listening. It’s about conversations with people and with God. That means that it’s about prayer above all else.
Jesus, Moses, and Elijah talk to one another about Jesus’ road to the cross. Peter is so busy being sleepy and talking himself, that he fails to listen to what Jesus has said. And then God the Father’s voice appears from the clouds telling them all to listen to Jesus, God’s Chosen One. And prayer is just a conversation between people and God. This strange and mysterious story is here to point us back to prayer. Because how we talk with other people affects how we talk with God.
We often this of prayer as a bunch of words that we say to God. When we’re together, Episcopalians use pre-written words found in prayer books. Many other Christians prefer to use their own words in prayer. Many of us do both at different times. But either way, the key component missing in those types of prayer is listening. We need to create silent spaces in our lives if we hope to hear from God in any deep and meaningful way. It may or may not be as dramatic and cinematic as the Transfiguration, but without some listening, we’ll be like Peter — speaking over Jesus asking a foolish question.
I personally love noise and distractions. I grew up in and around New York City. The hustle and bustle of people give me energy. When I’m alone in the car or doing chores or walking the dog, I almost always have my headphones in, listening to music or a podcast or a video commentary about something. I care a little too much about movies and videos games and sports and fill my quiet moments with noise about those things. So one of my personal disciplines this Lent will be to put my phone down a little more often and create more moments of silence in my everyday life. I’m not talking about hours of silent prayer. I just mean a little less noise when I can control it. I need to practice obeying God’s command to listen.
Your needs might be different. Your temptations might be different. Your ability to control what you can change might be different. That’s all okay. Lent is not one-size-fits-all. There is deep, ancient wisdom in the traditional disciplines of prayer, fasting, and giving, but there is also much to be gained through honest reflection on how we’re doing. I know I benefit from more silence in my life. I listen to God better and I listen to those around me better. Because how we treat ourselves affects how we treat other people affects how we treat God.
Look closely at yourself and ask God to show you what small step forward you can take toward holiness. Think about how to grow in your prayer, fasting, and giving. Add a short prayer or two to your morning routine. Turn off the radio on your commute to work. Avoid eating meat on Fridays. Give change to the next person you see on the side of the road with a sign. Or plan to make a larger donation to a ministry of your choosing. These are just suggestions, and there are many more where those came from. There are many paths forward, but if we set our eyes on Jesus, in due time he will lead us all toward the glory of his Cross and Resurrection. Amen