Sunday, February 11, 2024
The Last Sunday after the Epiphany

Listen to him!

The Rev. Mark Wilkinson, Rector
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church

Click here to watch sermon

We have fast forwarded to the mid-point of the Gospel of Mark. As I said before, this is the challenge of the lectionary. We will not get back to the earlier verses, that follow last weeks readings until the season after Pentecost in mid May when the readings from Epiphany that did not get read are picked up in Pentecost. So we don’t miss any, but they are out of sequence.

This is the point in Mark, which is the beginning of the end. Jesus sets his sights on Jerusalem and even though the disciples do not seem to like what he has told them will happen, he will not turn aside. That would be the get behind me Satan line to Peter when he tries to talk him out of going to Jerusalem.

So what is happening here? Why a mountain; why a blinding light that transfigures him; why Moses and Elijah? These are all references to Hebrew Scriptures, symbols, metaphors and prophesies.

Let’s start with Moses. Moses encounters God many times, but the most important may be on Mt. Sinai when he is given the 10 commandments. It is also on this mountain where when he comes down off the mountain his face radiates a bright light. So bright that he has to cover his face with a veil when speaking to the people of Israel. He only takes the veil off when he goes to speak with God. By the way this shining countenance is what is meant when the bible says he was seen in his glory. It’s from this that the idea of the nimbus that appears around the heads of saints originally comes from.

Elijah is the other character, whose ascension into heaven we read about in 2 Kings which is our Hebrew Scripture for the day. Elijah who does not die, is taken straight up to heaven and his return was believed to be the harbinger of the coming of the Messiah. Remember that at Passover every Jewish family leaves an empty chair and the outside door cracked open so that he can enter. His reappearance is believed to be required before the Messiah will return and the Jewish world is still waiting for him.

Mountains are a favorite place in the Bible to encounter God. Elijah and Moses of course both encounter God on a mountain. Jesus often goes off to a mountain to pray. We often refer to mountain top experiences as those things that are really significant and meaningful. Peter says, let’s build a dwelling place. Well that’s not as absurd as it sounds since this was often done in the Old Testament world. Something was built to mark the encounter with God.

All of this makes sense in a nice neat theological box, which I suspect Mark is careful to construct, but I’m with Peter, James and John. I would have been terrified. Not just frightened, not fearful, but this would have been full blown fall on your face and cover your head terror. I sat and meditated on this passage Wednesday afternoon sitting with the Icon of the Transfiguration. I was with Peter covering and averting my eyes because of the blinding light. I could almost feel the fear.

Make no mistake; this is a theophany, an in-breaking of God into time and space. I think it is mistake to treat this as just Mark mushing together a bunch of Old Testament references to make the point that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God. This is one of the few instances where all three synoptic gospels tell the exact same story in almost the exact same words. This rarely happens in the gospels and it is worth noting. This tells me there is a lot of agreement over the years about what happened.

Yet as I meditated on this something unexpected happened. This was the voice I heard and how I read it this morning, “This is my son the beloved. Listen to him.” The tone of the voice was unexpected. This time it was a gentle voice, one that invited me to listen and respond. The voice carried an urgent sense of this is God and I really mean this. However there was also a sense of the angel saying do not be afraid.

Now when you meditate on scripture you can do the type that I did on Wednesday where you put yourself in the passage and I found myself there with the disciples watching. There is also another technique where you let a word of phrase bubble up that is important. This is often what pushes me towards a sermon.

Three years ago my focus was on the word beloved, but this time I found myself drawn to the words “listen to him.” What does it mean to listen to Jesus, how do we listen to Jesus and why do we need to listen to Jesus.

As often happens nothing much was happening on the sermon front until midday Wednesday. It was while watching a video on Creative transformation with the theology lunch class that a I heard a teacher of mine speaking about how we read and listen. Megan McKenna is one of the best storytellers I know. I’ve been to several workshops of hers at the Network of Biblical Storytellers. What she said really caught me up short. Now this video is about 14 years old, but some things don’t change.

She said we read for confirmation of what we think and believe. We read for comfort in supporting what we think and believe. It is story however that is not for information but for transformation. I got to thinking about the difference about listening as well are reading for transformation instead of confirmation.

Peter James and John were looking for confirmation on the mountaintop. I think that is partially what Peter’s instinct to build the three booths was about. Enshrining what they believed, finding comfort in what would have been a very bizarre and frightening event. The scripture does say, “He didn’t know what he was saying for they were terrified.” So he sought comfort certainty, control.

Pastor Steve said it this way:

The first is the booth of Seeing:
knowing what’s going on,
understanding, placing everything
where it belongs on our Map of Things.
Instead there is light
too bright to see in.

The second is the house of Certainty:
knowing there is a law about this,
knowing we are right,
and that we know all there is to know.
Instead there is a cloud of unknowing,
thick as ignorance and even doubt.

The third is the temple of Control:
in which our powers are enhanced
and in the end we will have deserved this.
Instead there is not congratulation
but instruction: “Listen to him.”

There are no booths,
only a clearing
where the Beloved enters
a barely discernible path,
the path of mystery,
the path of wonder,
the path of trust.[1]

Listening to Jesus is about leaving behind the three booths, the need to hear his words for confirmation of whatever position we have on an issue. Listening to Jesus is about being willing to step out of our comfort zone and into a zone of uncertainty and sometimes discomfort. Stretching ourselves to see what might be out that there Jesus can use to transform us into the disciples he is seeking.

In my 25 years of serious theological study and reading I find the less certain I have become about many things. If we walk the paths of mystery, wonder and trust we will find ourselves on the path to being transformed. There are many beliefs that have been challenged over those years and I find myself asking hard questions. Ones that make me examine what I believe. Sometimes these challenges confirm what I believe, but the important ones cause me to grow to change and hopefully grow into being a better disciple.

Faith is never about certainty. Faith is more often about risk and growth towards living a life that looks more like the Way of Love that our Presiding Bishop has spoken about. I remember years ago when the leader of a group of megachurches wrote his pastors and told them that they were failing. Yes our buildings are full every Sunday. Our budgets are wonderful, we help lots of people but he challenged them that they were not truly changing people’s lives. That their members came every week, were entertained and inspired, but when they left nothing changed in their day to day lives. There was no deepening of their relationship with Christ, few signs of the Holy Spirit in their regular lives.

Listening to Jesus is hard, challenging and yes a little dangerous. Listening to Jesus means holding up a lens to our lives and wondering, is this really how a disciple is called to live?

As we move into Lent I always want to challenge people. What can you give up or take on that will help you listen to Jesus in a deeper way? What might Jesus be calling you to consider this Lent? What are you called to do that will help you grow into a better disciple of Jesus. I will pick up on some of these thoughts on Ash Wednesday and I do hope you will join me for one of our services.