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The Transfiguration of Jesus: Shut Up and Listen

Filed under: Pastor Jeff's Sermons — Pastor Jeff at 1:19 am on Monday, February 12, 2018

A sermon preached on February 11th, 2018 – Transfiguration Sunday – based upon Mark 9:2-9.

If you have heard me preach for a time you know of my long standing obsession with the accounts of Near Death Experiences.  If you would like to learn more about them I have a book or eighteen I can lend you.  I’m something of a succor for the newest book about Near Death Experiences.

I am convinced that throughout history  many people  have been given a glimpse of a life beyond this one as they have drawn close to death, perhaps when for a time their heart stops beating.  More and more people are having such experiences because medical technology now has the capacity to bring people back from the edge where in the past they would have proceeded on into death.  They often speak of encountering light brighter than any light from this world, and that the light contained the purest love they had ever known – truly unconditional love.  They say that the words we possess from life in this world are wholly inadequate to express the beauty of what they saw and experienced, and describe a reluctance to come back to this life.  Consistently such people say that what they saw and felt was absolutely real and not some kind of hallucination, regardless of what beliefs they previously held about God and the afterlife.  They say they no longer fear death.

Part of the appeal for me of these testimonies is that to my ear they are a confirmation of the truth of Christianity as I understand it — that the message of Jesus wasn’t just wishful thinking — a sweet but ultimately deluded dream.

What particularly strikes me is that people who have undergone such experiences say it transformed their value system in a manner consistent with what Jesus lived and taught.  They no longer see life as a race to the top, a competition to win, but rather as a gift to be embraced.  They realize that it’s not things that matter — it’s people – all people. The experience humbles them – leading them to embrace a posture of humility that is in tune with the reality they glimpsed.  They realize how little they really know, and an innate curiosity is awakened — an openness to learning that is connected to their deepened desire to share love.

As I said before, I’ve been sort of obsessed with these accounts.  I’ve been guilty of what you might call “Near Death Experience envy.”  Part of what I hear in this story of what we call the “transfiguration of Jesus” is that this obsession if misguided.

Over thirty years ago I noticed that this story has a lot of similarities to the Near Death accounts:  The bright light, the presence with Moses and Elijah of people long since dead, the desire Peter seems to have to stay up on the mountain in the beauteous light – that’s what his offer to build the three shelters suggests – rather than to go back down the valley.  In a similar way to the experiences that fill these books I read, in this story for the three disciples the veil between this world and the next was briefly lifted.

As we took note of last week, the Gospel of Mark starts off as if Jesus’ ministry would be all sunshine and light.  For the first 18 hours or so of his “ministry” he heals every sickness and casts out every evil demon he comes across, and understandably people get pretty excited.  With Jesus around, pain will soon be a thing of the past!

But quickly Jesus makes it clear that although healing is a part of his ministry, it’s not the center.  This week we have jumped forward to the midway point of Mark’s Gospel.  In the passage immediately before the mountaintop story, for the first time Jesus has begun to talk about what is, in fact at the center, and at first hearing, it doesn’t sound appealing to the disciples in the least. After Jesus affirms the truth in Peter’s confession, “you are the messiah,” Jesus proceeds to tell the disciples that as the messiah, he will go to Jerusalem where he will suffer greatly, dying at the hands of the religious authorities, and after three days rise again.

Peter is the disciple who most often stands front and center, and the one we are invited to identify with in the Gospels.  One thing that Peter demonstrates here for the first time is that his brain spews out a lot of words – he is quick to run off at the mouth without necessarily giving much thought to what he is saying. And here he goes off on a rant, trying to convince Jesus that this suffering and death thing need not be his fate.

Even if we are by nature quiet – not a big talker — in all likelihood we still resemble Peter in terms of the number of words that race out of control through our heads. And who likes the idea of seeking out suffering?  Yuck.  If we’d been there we too would have been tempted to try and convince Jesus he’s got this wrong.  He doesn’t have to go get himself nailed to a cross.

In response to Peter running his mouth, Jesus rebukes him as harshly as he ever rebukes anyone. “Get behind me, Satan,” he famously snaps.

It is right after this that Jesus takes the hike up the mountain for a little overnight retreat in the company of Peter, James and John and there that this extraordinary experience happens.  It’s a little glimpse of what’s to come in the reference he had made to “rising in three days” after his death, but it’s all just too much for Peter and the others to comprehend.  They just know that what they are witnessing on this mountaintop is beautiful and it’s far removed from the suffering that awaits them down in the valley.

And once again, Mark tells us, Peter starts babbling.

Instead of simply standing in silent awe before this great mystery, Peter’s brain is doing what brains do, trying to make sense of it all with the pre-existing categories the he’s acquired over the couse of his lifetime. Words starts to pour of his mouth.

Obviously this is a major God revelation, with Moses and Elijah appearing from heaven, and so Peter figures he and the other disciples will do what people did at such times in the past: They’ll build shrines — three of them where this holy trinity of Moses, Elijah and Jesus can hang up here on the mountain permanently if they choose, and if not, well at least the shrines can be a place they can encourage people to make pilgrimage to in order to draw close to God.

And then suddenly this cloud overshadows the mountaintop, and now Peter can’t see a thing, which seems to finally shut his mouth.

Back in the 14th century a writer on the spiritual life coined the expression, “Cloud of Unknowing” with a nod to what Peter goes through in this moment.  In order to experience God directly, sometimes we have to let go of everything we thought we knew about God.

In the darkness of that Cloud of Unknowing, God speaks.  “This is my beloved son.”

There are two echoes here.  The first was another ecstatic moment when heaven and earth touched, the time at the beginning of the Gospel when after John baptized Jesus the spirit descended and the voice of God spoke directly to Jesus:  “You are my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Here, midway through the Gospel, similar words are spoken, but this time the words aren’t for Jesus’ benefit — there for the disciples.  Later in the Gospel similar words will be spoken one more time.  I’ll get to that in a moment.

To the words, “This is my beloved son…” God adds this:  “Listen to him.”

It’s a little like God saying to Peter (and to us) with all the words, spoken and unspoken that race through our heads, “Shut up and listen.”

When the cloud passes, Moses and Elijah and the bright light are gone.  There is only Jesus, the ordinary Jesus who gets hungry and tired and sometimes irritable.  He is the one they are to listen to.

And then Jesus leads Peter and the others down the mountain, back to the valley, where you suspect they weren’t anxious to go.

But as they go, the message of “shut up and listen” is reinforced when Jesus “orders them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man (Jesus) had risen from the dead.”

Don’t talk about what you don’t yet understand.

Think of it:  if they had talked about what they had witnessed, the inevitable reaction would have been:  “Forget Jerusalem and the cross that awaits there. Let’s go back up the mountain!”

But that would have been the wrong direction.  Jesus is leading them towards human suffering, not away from it.   He’s leading them to the cross.

There is one more time that Peter will demonstrate his tendency to run his mouth without thinking. It will be after the last supper when Jesus will tell the dsiciples they will all fall away.

Peter can’t keep his mouth shut.  Once again he assumes he knows more than he does, and in this case what he thinks he knows is himself:  “I’m brave.  I’m loyal.  I’ve got the right stuff.” He compares himself to the others into whom he presumes to have insight, saying that even “if they abandon Jesus, I never will.”

In short order he learns what his pride had resisted knowing:  that he is no better than any one else. There is the same frailty inside him that is inside everybody else.  We’re all in this together.

And then Jesus dies upon the cross.  In Mark’s Gospel he dies experiencing utter abandonment, an experience that sooner or later we all experience as human beings.

It is then that the third naming of Jesus as God’s son occurs, and it comes from the most unlikeliest of people, a Roman centurion tasked with overseeing the crucifixion of Jesus. Who would have guessed that such a man as this would be the mouthpiece of God in this moment? As Jesus cries out in death, the centurion declares, “Truly, this man was God’s son.” He perceives what the disciples have missed.  God is here in this midst of this extreme suffering.

So this is why I think my obsession with Near Death Experiences is misguided.  Mountaintop experiences are wonderful – it’s important to go up on the mountain from time to time – to retreat from the world — but in this life a mountaintop is not the primary place we are intended to encounter God’s presence.

God is down in the valley, in the midst of the suffering.

Like Peter we like to think we know what’s what, that for the most part we are in control of our destinies, but life has a way of humbling us just like it did Peter.  We find ourselves in the thick of the suffering of this world, overwhelmed, our old certainties slipping away.  In the cloud of unknowing, the time comes to shut up and listen.

So the Sunday before we begin our Lenten pilgrimage to the cross, we are invited to climb up the mountaintop to catch a glimpse of the glory of God revealed in the resurrection.  The vision is intended to sustain us on the journey.

The crucifixion and the resurrection go together.  If what was seen on the mountaintop is real – if Easter is true – then when times come to us and those we love when problems are encountered that just can’t be solved and suffering that can’t be avoided, if we can trust the reality of the resurrection we can let go of our need to find a solution, and simply be present to the mystery of God’s presence in the brokenness of this world.  We can forgo the need to compulsively search for a solution and instead devote ourselves to listening deeply:  To the deepest longings of our hearts.  To the whispers of God in the depths of our soul.  To the words spoken and unspoken by the people we encounter in the course of our lives that reveal their souls.

So if you haven’t decided upon something to do for Lent, here is a suggestion that probably all of us could benefit from.  Spend Lent trying to talk less and to listen more.  Strive to be a better listener.

There is this man named John Francis who on his 27th birthday decided to stop talking.  He had no particular plan, but he ended up going without speaking for the next 17 years.  This is how he described his decision to shut his mouth:

I decided, because I argued so much and I talk so much, that I was going to stop speaking for just one day — one day — to give it a rest. And so I did. I got up in the morning and I didn’t say a word. And I have to tell you, it was a very moving experience, because for the first time, in a long time I began listening. And what I heard, it kind of disturbed me. Because what I used to do, when I thought I was listening, was I would listen just enough to hear what people had to say and think that I could — I knew what they were going to say, and so I stopped listening. And in my mind, I just kind of raced ahead and thought of what I was going to say back, while they were still finishing up. And then I would launch in. Well, that just ended communication. So on this first day I actually listened. And it was very sad for me, because I realized that for those many years I had not been learning. I thought I knew everything. I didn’t. And so I decided I’d better do this for another day, and another day, and another day…”

Now we don’t need to copy John Francis, but I would argue there is no mistaking him as a prophet for our age.  We live in a time when talk is cheap, and falsehoods are spoken as often if not more than the truth, and words are used to avoid going into the depths of life – to that space where the soul lives.

I want to finish with these words written by a theologian named John Carmody as he was dying of a terminal illness.  They call to mind the babbling of Peter, and the need to be silent before the mystery of human suffering:

“When you deal with people seriously ill, either yourself or others, try to honor the eloquence of God’s silence.  Babble if you must, as I have babbled here, but accept every invitation to desist.  If the illness is your own, go for a walk, sit in a chapel, or just hold the loved ones you most cherish.  If the illness is another’s, listen for the time to stay silent, as well as the time to speak.  There is a time to speak, but also a time to hold silence — to take it to your bosom like a love… Well or ill, but especially ill, you are part of something much greater.  You did not make yourself, and you cannot raise yourself.  But what you cannot do, God can.  All things are possible with God.”

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