Today we come to the end of the season of Epiphany, what is known as the season of light.
Epiphany always begins and ends the same way.
The first Sunday of the season 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 this 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 startling 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. 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 Hebrew 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 that 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?
Our culture is designed to prevent us from listening. External noise surrounds us all the time – TVs, cell phones, computers.
One has to work hard to create the space for silence.
But to listen to God that is what we must do.
Jesuit writer Jake Braithwaite suggests that for Lent we do nothing.
“Rather than optimize your Lent with a waistline conscious fast or a bold test of your willpower, simply take time each day to do nothing,” he says. “Sit before the Lord, let God marvel at you as you marvel at God.”
Braitwaite remembers a time in his life when he intentionally did this. He spent long days wandering around a foreign city, with no demands on his time or expectations of things to accomplish.
“With long days to walk and think, I was able to sort out the parts of my life where God was most active and parts where it was hard to find God.
“I noticed the parts of my life – even the challenging ones – that left me feeling energized and alive. On the other hand, I noticed the parts of my life – even the surface-level happy ones – that left me feeling empty and dry and used up.
“I didn’t solve anything in my strolling, but I started to notice some patterns,” he said.
“I was finally able to hear God’s voice because the noise was turned down. I couldn’t block it out with the distractions – parties and drinking and social media and to-do lists and podcasts and music and movies and idle fretting about work – that were my preferred methods.
“Instead, I just had to be present to exactly what I was feeling at each moment. If I was sad, I just had to be sad for a bit. If I was excited, I just got to experience it rather than post it on social media. If I was worried, I lived through the worry instead of numbing it.”
What Braithwaite did was create the space in his life where God’s voice was not drowned out by a million other things.
We don’t have to optimize every moment of our lives. We don’t need to listen to a podcast on the way to work, answer emails in the checkout line, multitask at every opportunity.
This Lent, we are invited to listen to Jesus, 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.
God is calling all of us with that still, small voice. We just need to turn down the noise in our lives to hear it.