Transfiguration Sunday C, February 7, 2016

February 8, 2016

“If You Would Just Listen!”
Luke 9:28-36

28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 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. 33 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. 34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36 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.

It’s never easy to describe profound spiritual experiences. I’m guessing we have all had moments in our lives when the veil between the physical world as we know it and the spiritual reality that we trust to exist seems to become thin, and we get a glimpse of eternity here in the temporal world, but those experiences are fleeting and they’re nearly impossible to describe. It’s hard to find language that adequately portrays close encounters with the kingdom of God, but I believe it happens. I believe it happens to us, and I believe it happened to Peter, James, and John.

I have no doubt that these three men who had the good fortune of spending many days actually walking the roads of ancient Palestine with Jesus had more than one extra-ordinary experience with him, but today’s passage of scripture recalls a particularly unusual experience. In some ways I don’t really know what to think of this story. Why did Jesus turn dazzling white? Why did Moses and Elijah appear for a moment? And why did they disappear so quickly? Significant parts of this story are hard for me to immediately comprehend, but I take comfort in knowing that these disciples didn’t know what to think either. Peter went from being groggily inattentive to what was going on springing in to action in an inappropriate way, and this makes me feel better about not really knowing how I should respond to this story.

Peter, James, and John had a remarkably close encounter with the living God, and it left them speechless. They didn’t know what to say or do and that largely leaves us without an explanation of what this was all about. This is a story that requires us to develop our own interpretation of what this all means. The apparent cluelessness of the disciples is really pretty endearing, and it sort of takes the pressure off of us to know what this is all about. What we know is that these disciples had a mysterious encounter with Jesus on the mountaintop, but it did seal in their minds the deep connection Jesus had with Moses and Elijah – the two spiritual giants of the Jewish community.

While it’s hard for me to imagine what they saw, it’s very believable that these disciples experienced something that enabled them to see how connected Jesus was to all that God had been doing for the people of Israel. This story relates the absolute purity of Jesus’ relationship with God and with the history of Israel, and it points to the way in which this story was about to change. The voice from the cloud didn’t tell them to remember what Moses and Elijah had said and done. The voice from the cloud told them to listen to Jesus.

And you would think that they would have known to do that, but listening is always hard. I can’t read this story without being reminded of a conversation I had with my father about six months after my mother died. We were driving back from a trip to a cousin’s wedding in Dallas, and he told me that he was having trouble remembering the sound of my mother’s voice. He then asked me if I could remember it.

This was a remarkable thing to hear from my father because he wasn’t one to share his inner thoughts freely. He loved to ask accounting type questions. How many people were in attendance? What time did you get there? How much rain did we get? How long did it last? My father could ask a lot of questions, but you could usually answer his questions with a number or a yes or no. But on this occasion he asked me a question I had to ponder for a moment.

I guess in a sense that was a yes or no question, but it required some commentary as well, and after thinking about it I said yes, there were two things I could remember. I told him I could remember the sound of her laugh. She had a distinct short chuckle that I frequently heard and I can still conjure it up in my mind, but there was something else I could still hear her say. I told him I could also remember her saying, Buddy, if you would just listen! Buddy was my father’s name, and my mother was often exasperated with his inability to remember something she was pretty sure she had told him. Over the last few years of her life I think I heard her say that one line more than I ever heard her say anything else.

Now my father was deaf in one ear, and there is a good chance that he didn’t hear much of what my mother said to him, but she also felt like there was some willful deafness on his part. My father dearly missed the sound of my mother’s voice after she was gone. He didn’t ignore what she had to say while she was around, but her voice became much more precious to him after she was gone.

This morning’s scripture lesson portrays a situation that would be seemingly unforgettable, but I’m thinking that whatever these disciples experienced with Jesus on the mountain became much more precious to them after he was gone. We don’t really know what happened on that mountain. They don’t even seem to have known exactly what went on up on that mountain, but I have no doubt that their memories of Jesus took on new meaning after his crucifixion and resurrection. Everything they had experienced with Jesus would have become more precious to them, and I have no doubt that they wished they had listened more closely to what he said while he was with them in the flesh.

Now I don’t blame the disciples for not understanding much of what Jesus was saying to them as they journeyed from place to place. They couldn’t imagine that Jesus was going to change the world in the way that he did. As we all can testify, the words of a loved one become so much more valuable when they’re gone. It’s easy to have regret about not listening as carefully as we could have to a dear one when they aren’t around anymore.

The point of this story is not to illustrate what a wonderful occasion Peter, James, and John were invited to experience. The point of this story is to remind us of the very thing the disciples undoubtedly wished they had done with more diligence. We are all to heed the message from the cloud and listen to Jesus.

Had they listened more closely to what Jesus had to say they wouldn’t have been surprised by the direction that Jesus chose to go when they came down from the mountain. The dramatic change that was about to occur within the history of Israel was the radical way in which God had chosen to be revealed. You might say that God was coming off the top of the mountain.

In the story of Moses, you might say that God lived at the top of the mountain. Moses went up the mountain to encounter God, and while he never had a face to face with God, he came closer to God than anyone else, and he was largely unaccompanied on his trips up the mountain to hear what God had to say. God allowed Joshua to go with him on occasion, but anyone else would die if they followed him. You might say God kept some distance from the people in the early days.

And the prophet Elijah was cherished by the people of Israel. He was considered to have been their most spiritually refined leader. He was bold, and pure, and powerful, and as the story goes he didn’t even have to die. He got whooshed away into the clouds when it was time for him to go.

But God was doing a new thing in Jesus, and it wasn’t going to be played out on the mountaintop or in the clouds. God was going to be in Jesus as he came down the mountain and into the mess of life. Peter was ready to commemorate Jesus and Moses and Elijah on top of the mountain by building something, but that isn’t how God wanted to be revered. God wanted to come off the mountain and into the streets. Jesus would enable us to understand that God wasn’t just with us when we were on top of things. Jesus was going to show us that God is with us in the lowest possible places.

God isn’t stuck on the mountain, God is with us in the messiness of life.

I had a brief conversation with Mark Ballard the other day. His ability to speak was very labored, but he was alert, and the one thing he was intent on saying was how much God had taught him during this mysterious ailment that he was enduring. He had a greater sense of gratitude for what had transpired than he was distressed by the situation. I’m not saying he was happy about the way things had gone, but he was testifying to the way in which he seems to have been blessed in the midst of this bad situation.

Hard times are hard, but they are also rich times. Important things don’t just happen on the top of mountains. The voice from the cloud didn’t congratulate Peter, James, and John for being there at such a remarkable moment. The voice told them to listen to Jesus, and what Jesus had to say was that God loves us all at all times and at all places, but this love doesn’t necessarily translate in to an easy life. Jesus didn’t come down the mountain and in to the loving arms of a benevolent society. There is a lot of resistance to the love of God in this world, and while we don’t need to be naïve, we do need to be diligent in our effort to respond with love to all that we encounter.

Because we know of what happened to Jesus when he came down the mountain we shouldn’t expect life to be easy, but we have reason to have hope regardless of what we encounter in life. Things may not go as we wish they would, but we have reason to trust that God is with us when we struggle, and that hard times can be redeemed. We aren’t all going to turn our trials into great victories. But even death isn’t a defeat for those who listen to Jesus.

The words that Peter, James, and John heard from that cloud are much like the words I can still hear my mother saying to my father and they are good words for us all to hear from God who says to each of us: “If you would just listen!”

Thanks be to God for the way in which God speaks to us in those mysterious ways that redeem and remind us of how well we are loved regardless of what’s going on.



2 Responses to “Transfiguration Sunday C, February 7, 2016”

  1. Earl Jones Says:

    Wonderful message, thank you Thompson.

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