“Listen to Him!”
Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
February 11, 2018
2 Kings 2:1, 7-11
Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal. Fifty men of the company of prophets also went, and stood at some distance from them, as they both were standing by the Jordan. Then Elijah took his mantle and rolled it up, and struck the water; the water was parted to the one side and to the other, until the two of them crossed on dry ground.
When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, ‘Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.’ Elisha said, ‘Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.’ He responded, ‘You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.’ As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.
Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!’ Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.
This morning’s Gospel reading made me think of that scene at the very end of the original Star Wards trilogy – after the Empire has been defeated, and while the Ewoks and the Rebels are partying in the treetops, the luminous ghosts of Obi Wan Kenobi, Anakin Skywalker, and Yoda suddenly appear, smiling broadly as they watch over the celebrations. They glow, semi-transparent, in an otherworldly way, yet their faces and their emotions are so clear you know they’re real, not simply figments of our cinematic imagination.
If you are not a Star Wars fan and have no idea what I’m talking about, then you probably are feeling just as confused as many Christians are by the Transfiguration, which we celebrate today.
Basically, Jesus is up on a mountain top with some of his disciples when Moses and Elijah, both long since gone from this earth, show up. Jesus starts to glow, which makes Peter want to pitch tents for the three of them. Then a voice – presumably God’s – calls Jesus “the Beloved Son” and tells the disciples to listen to him.
Let’s peel back a few of the layers of meaning here. First up is the fact that Jesus is suddenly magically hanging out with Moses, the giver of the Law, and Elijah, the Prophet of prophets whose bodily ascension to heaven we heard about in our Hebrew Bible reading. Placing Jesus alongside Moses & Elijah ranks Jesus’ mission and ministry up there with the two heaviest hitters of Judaism. For Mark’s purposes, it also symbolizes that Jesus isn’t starting some renegade religion of his own; rather he’s the fulfillment of both the Torah and of ancient prophecy. In other words, Mark is saying, “This guy is legit.”
And if that weren’t enough, God does a voiceover for a little added authority: “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Like God’s declaration at Jesus’ baptism that Jesus is God’s Son, with whom God is well pleased, this supernatural PA announcement is meant to convince everyone present that Jesus isn’t just some prophet – or even a great prophet, like Moses or Elijah – but that he is God’s own Son, divinity in the flesh.
That’s also what the day-glow effect is about: this is not your ordinary mountaintop retreat. Christians have traditionally understood Jesus’ transfiguration – meaning “a change of appearance into a more beautiful or spiritual state” – as a preview of Jesus’ resurrected appearance. It is a foretaste of the glory to come.
So why does all this holiness make Peter want to pitch tents, also known as booths or tabernacles? Booths were what the Israelites lived in during their 40 years of wandering in the desert wilderness, when they had to rely on God’s provision for shelter, food, and water. Tabernacle is also the word for the tent-like structure the Israelites created during that time to be a dwelling place for God’s presence. Peter, though utterly bewildered by this strange, awe-inspiring sight, reacts just as the ancient Israelites did: when you realize God is here on earth, right next to you, you make a special place for God to dwell. It’s also, as has been often noted, Peter’s genuine but wrong-headed attempt to stay up on the mountain, where the magic happens.
You’ve probably been there before: basking in the glow of a “mountaintop experience” – maybe this where we get that term – and you are reluctant to return to ordinary life and the not-so-shining routine and drudgery that goes with it. Moments like your wedding day, the birth of a child, a spiritual retreat or extraordinary vacation, a powerful experience of God, the peaceful, good death of a loved one, or even a sports victory or work achievement can all be mountaintop experiences; they are defined by the rarefied air we breathe while we are in them and by the very fact that they are fleeting. You can’t live every moment of your marriage as fully attentive and deeply, happily in love as you were on your wedding day – it’s not sustainable, or realistic.
Yet we treasure those sacred moments in our hearts and come back to them again and again, because they set the tone for, and fuel us through, the relatively unglamorous days and weeks and months and years in between mountaintops.
I imagine that Peter, James, and John, after they had reluctantly followed Jesus back down the mountain, fed off of that sacred experience through the ups and downs of itinerant ministry with their beloved teacher, particularly through his arrest, crucifixion, and death. Interestingly enough, they were given not just a holy feeling to help them make it through, but instructions: “This is the Beloved, my Son; listen to him.” It’s as if God is saying, here is the high; and here is how to get through the not-so-high parts.
Many of us have words of wisdom imparted to us by a wise friend or a caring loved one that we have carried with us through moments of discernment or rough spots in our lives. I never met my great grandmother, but I do have a copy of a note she wrote in her careful cursive hand advising my grandmother on the qualities to look for in a good mate – which she assumed would be a man. In it she doles out sage, if now outdated, advice like “make sure you can leave him with the kiddies while you go away for the weekend” – I sincerely hope that’s now just called “being a dad.”
But my favorite observation of hers is timeless: “Find someone you want to sit across the kitchen table from for three meals a day, 365 days a year, through all the years.” That little nugget guided me in finding my husband Chris, and it reminds me when we disagree or annoy each other that in him I really have found a treasure. It also reminds me that although honeymoons and anniversary dates and cheering on each other’s achievements are surely the mountaintop experiences of a married relationship, it’s the day to day that makes up the vast majority of our life together, and the day to day that should be truly savored.
So what, we might ask alongside the disciples, are Jesus’ words of wisdom that carry us from peak to peak, through the ordinary or even the abysmal? Well, Jesus said a lot of things worth listening to. Things like love your neighbor; love your enemy; forgive way past when things feel unforgiveable. Share your wealth so that others have what they need and you don’t have more than you need. Come to me, everyone who is worn out, at the end of your rope, unable to go on; and I’ll give you rest. Look for God’s work in the places you least expect; and be part of God’s work in the places you’re least expected. Be healed; your faith has made you whole.
And you know something Jesus said on repeat? “Fear not.” Don’t be afraid. I don’t know about you, but that phrase can get me through pretty much any unglamorous moment – if I really listen to it – because so much of the stress of daily life is based in fear. Fear that we’ll be late, miss a deadline, forget something important; fear that we will fail or be rejected or get hurt; fear that our children will always be like this (throwing a tantrum, unable to clean their rooms, allergic to good sense); fear that something bad will happen to someone we love; fear that we aren’t doing something meaningful with our lives; fear of the unknown and of aging and loss and death.
To all of that, Jesus simply says – don’t be afraid. And God says, “This is the Beloved, my Son; listen to him.”
You know, God’s instruction to listen to Jesus wasn’t intended solely for that specific moment in the lives of Peter, James, and John. Surely it extended past listening to Jesus say “time to go down the mountain”; and surely it extends to us here today. I want to ask you to take a moment to listen for what Jesus is saying in YOUR life today. Let’s get comfortable – you may want to close your eyes – and imagine you are in your favorite, most peaceful, place on earth. It may be the kitchen in your grandparents’ house, or a beautiful field; maybe you’re on the beach or at the camp you went to growing up. Picture it clearly in your mind’s eye – the sights, the sounds, the feel on your skin.
Then picture Jesus walking up and sitting down next to you. You turn towards him; you look him in the eye and see all the love he has for you just radiating from his face. You might see deep compassion; or the beginnings of a smile; picture his face in every detail. Jesus is about to open his mouth and say something you need to hear – what is it?
Friends, the Transfiguration is about a lot of things – but in a way, the whole mountaintop experience can be boiled down to one thing: the Jesus who journeys besides us to the mountaintops and through the valleys – the Jesus who loves us infinitely – is the real deal, and if you pay attention to what he is speaking into your heart, you will find peace.