Epiphany Last A
Today we come to the end of the season of Epiphany, one of those seasons that varies in length according to when Easter falls.
Easter is late this year, so we’ve had a long Epiphany. But no matter how long the season of light is, it always begins and ends the same way.
The first Sunday of Epiphany is always the time we celebrate Jesus’ baptism. And the last Sunday of the season is always the gospel reading we heard today, the transfiguration of Jesus on the mountaintop with Moses and Elijah.
In both of those events, we hear the voice of God. At Jesus’ baptism we hear God speak as Jesus rises from the waters, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
This Sunday we hear God repeat those words, and then add this command, “Listen to him!”
It is perhaps no surprise that this divine directive is aimed primarily at Peter, that most impetuous of the disciples. Peter has a tendency to speak before thinking.
Sometimes that serves him well. Just six days before the scene in today’s Gospel takes place, Jesus asks the disciples, “Who do you say that I am?”
Peter immediately blurts out, “You are the Messiah, the son of the living God!” Jesus praises Peter for being the first disciple to recognize who he truly is.
But almost in the next breath, as Jesus tells his friends that being the Messiah means undergoing great suffering and excruciating death, Peter once again jumps in to say that must never happen.
This time, instead of praise, he receives Jesus’ harshest rebuke.
“Get behind me, Satan!” Jesus warns. “You are a stumbling block to me.”
Stumbling block or not, Peter is among the chosen few who Jesus takes with him up the mountain, who witnesses the amazing scene of Jesus being transfigured, face shining like the sun, clothes dazzling white.
Suddenly with them are Moses and Elijah, the giver of the law and the greatest of the prophets.
I can imagine being struck speechless by such a scene, but not Peter. Immediately he jumps in with a plan. “Hey Lord, this looks like a good place to stay. I’ll build us a house….”
But before he can even finish spouting out his idea, a cloud overshadows him and a voice booms out, “LISTEN!!!!”
For once, even Peter is struck dumb.
This Wednesday we begin the season of Lent, those 40 days of penitence and preparation for Easter. And the last words we hear from God as we head into this season are an admonition to listen to Jesus.
Biblical scholar Marcus Borg notes that the Divine Voice actually has a name in the Jewish tradition, bat cole, which translates “the daughter of a sound.”
A strange metaphor for the voice of God, the daughter of a sound.
That voice is heard by the prophet Elijah in a cave when the presence of God passes near him. In English, the translation says that Elijah hears a still, small voice – the literal translation of the Hebrew is “Elijah heard the sound of thinnest silence.”
The daughter of a sound; the sound of thinnest silence; a still, small voice – all ways of trying to express something that lies beyond the boundaries of speech.
Borg writes that his wife, while leading a Sunday morning class, explained the bat cole, then asked if anyone had ever heard it. To her surprise, several people had.
One woman spoke about a time when she was seven years old and heard a voice say very clearly, “You belong to me.”
“I didn’t hear it with my ear,” she said. “But I heard it.”
Another woman reported a time of great distress when she cried out in anguish to Jesus, “Where are you?”
She heard a voice say back to her, “I never left you.”
Again, she said, “I didn’t hear it with my ear. But I heard the voice.”
Martin Luther King Jr. describes a similar experience when he was despairing and afraid late in the night. “Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice,” the voice said, giving him strength to carry on the fight for freedom.
I suspect such experiences may be more common than we think, but they are certainly not the only way to listen to God or Jesus.
The Divine may speak to us in dreams, through scripture or hymns, or gentle nudges that push us in a certain direction.
Perhaps most often we hear the voice of God in the events of our life. But even here we have to listen. Writer Frederick Beuchner puts it this way:
“Listen to your life. Listen to what happens to you, because it is through what happens to you that God speaks. It’s in language that’s not always easy to decipher, but it’s there, powerfully, memorably, unforgettably.”
Easier said than done, perhaps.
I don’t think it is just impetuous disciples who have trouble listening these days. Real listening is a rare occurrence in our culture.
When is the last time that you feel someone has really listened to you? When is the last time that you have really listened – to another person, or to your own life?
In fact, it seems to me that our culture is designed to prevent us from listening. External noise surrounds us almost all the time.
One has to work hard to create the space for silence.
Listening to one another is also difficult. If you are a political junkie, like Joe and I are, you know what passes for debate and discussion on television. A so-called panel discussion is people with polar opposite ideas shouting past each other.
There is no listening, no give and take, no respect for a differing view.
All too often church discussions are the same way, what I once heard a bishop describe as lobbing grenades of scripture at each other from across opposite sides of the divide.
The sheer frenetic pace of life also keeps us from listening. We don’t have time for reflection, we’re off to the next thing on our schedule.
Why is it that we are seemingly so loathe to listen? Perhaps it is because we are afraid of what we might heart. Listening might lead us to confront the things we are running from, might lead us to change, might take us into unknown areas.
I think that is what motivated Peter on the mountaintop. He knew that the road down the mountain leads to Jerusalem, to suffering and death for Jesus, and unknown terrors for him. So why not create a distraction?
But if we are not careful the distractions that surround us will keep us from the life God intends for us.
Beuchner puts it this way:
“Increasingly, we live our lives from the outside in rather than from the inside out, taking our cues from the world, taking our cues from others, taking our cues from culture.”
This Lent, we are invited to listen to Jesus, to live our lives from the inside out.
We are invited to make space for God, to give the daughter of a sound, the thinnest of silence, that still, small voice a chance to be heard.
Maybe it means for 10 or 15 minutes in the morning or evening you turn off all the outside distractions and just sit quietly, until your heart and mind are calm.
Maybe it means setting aside time each day for reading scripture or some other book that nourishes your soul.
Maybe it means engaging in real conversation – allowing the possibility of really hearing and being heard to occur.
Listen to your life. Listen to Jesus on this journey of Lent.