Look and Listen
The transfiguration can teach us that the world is sacramental. It is alive with the presence and the gifts of God. And for that we can learn to live a life of gratitude, knowing that we live in such a world. This is what faith practices are about: learning to listen, and to look for, the God who is among us in Christ.
I was just in Colorado last weekend on a ski trip with three of my friends – yes, there are actually people who will admit to being my friends. Quite apart from skiing, my friend Mark and I feel the same way when we’re in the mountains: while those around us stay busy with various things, we often stop and just gaze at them. The mountains make me reframe my life and take note of the transcendent, the vertical, that which is awesome and filled with wonder. The second day we were there, when the snow cleared, we woke up to a mountain transfigured by wind and light!
Later, we got to ski on transfigured mountains. In the Rockies, when you are 11,000 feet up on a bright, clear day, with fresh snow all around you, it’s a bit easier to relate to Peter and the disciples on the mountaintop with Jesus. It feels like a transfiguration it’s so white and bright.
Our lesson today is about a strange, mysterious experience the disciples had on a mountaintop. It was terrifying because it was a blinding revelation from God. Standing in the presence of something so transcendent that it utterly humbles you. As Peter watched Jesus turn radiant white, and as he watched Moses and Elijah appear and thereby validate Jesus as a key part of God’s unfolding story, Peter was moved to act: “Lord, let me make a booth for you, and I’ll make one for Moses and one for Elijah.” And as Peter was mobilizing to spring into action and seize the moment, God’s voice cut him off: “This is my son, listen to him!” In other words, “forget about the booth. shut up and listen.” Take it all in. Let the moment seize you, Peter.
This is reminiscent of a lovely scene at the end of the movie, “Boyhood,” where the boy we’ve watched grow up over 12 years is now off to college. He’s just getting to know some of his new classmates, including a young woman with whom he seems to have some chemistry. While on a little hike off campus, when they sit down and grow a bit philosophical.
Carpe Diem suggests “seize the moment.” There is much truth to this. Be proactive, don’t just sit there.” After all, God calls us to be co-creators with God of a better, more trustworthy, hopeful and loving world. Yes!
But the young woman in the movie is right: the moment seizes you. We are a part of something much bigger that comes to us. A very theological statement. Like the Transfiguration. With God, in the life of faith, sometimes you need to just sit there and watch and listen. And receive. In fact, this is where faith and religion begin. It is the most fundamental aspect of our faith. When God says to us in the Psalms, “Be still and know that I am God,” the implication is: if you are not still, you may not know this. You may run around thinking everything depends on you.
Be still and know that I am God. This is what God was saying to Peter here. He was also saying, “This is my son. Shut up, stop trying to build things, and listen.” In fact, Philip Toynbee argues that the basic command of religion is not “do this!” or “don’t do that!” but simply “look!” Linguistic scholars believe the root word “lig” in the word “religion” means “to pay attention” or “to give care.” So, the Transfiguration story is more about being than doing.
But what is it that we are paying attention to? What is it that we are looking and listening for? Let’s dive deeper into the appearance of Moses, Elijah, the cloud, and dwellings and all. Moses and Elijah were of course great prophets and leaders from the past. Their presence now is testimony that Jesus is a part of their story and on par with them. In some traditions, it was believed that these figures would only make an appearance when the Messiah was revealed. So – we are learning – Jesus is the one they’ve been waiting for. Indeed, if it appeared that these three figures were equal in importance, that was only temporary, when Moses and Elijah vanished and there was only Jesus remaining. Jesus alone. And God’s voice, “Listen to him. He is my beloved Son.”
Jesus’ importance is also reinforced when Peter proposes to build three dwelling places, or “tabernacles” one for each of the three luminary figures. The tabernacles proposed by Peter is a direct allusion to the tabernacle in the wilderness where the Shekinah dwelt over the ark of the covenant. The Shekinah was the fiery cloud symbolizing the continuing presence of God among the people while they were in the wilderness after the Exodus.
But all God says is “listen to him,” while the other two disappear. Did God ignore Peter and step on his question about building the tabernacles? No, God was saying, “Jesus, not the tabernacle, will now house my presence on earth. Jesus himself alone. He is the tabernacle, God’s abiding presence with us.
As Luther said, there are three solas that matter. Sola means one, only. Sola fide, sola gratia, sola Christus. Christ alone is our savior and we do well to learn to listen to him.
But what does that mean? Let’s be real, we’re probably never going to see Jesus mystically appear in dazzling white like our gospel story today. Mark Twain gives us a clue, though. He once said: “You can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.” A text like today’s encourages us to use our imaginations to see the God who has come to us and is in our midst, the God in Christ who is the new tabernacle on earth, the God who shows up in our world in people around us, in our neighbor, in our friends, in our children. Are you still enough to see it?
Or perhaps it means learning to look and listen for other ways that the transcendent God appears to us, like in the majesty of nature. In the comic strip “Peanuts,” Snoopy’s brother, Spike, who lives in the desert, writes a letter with his back against a cactus, and writes, “At night the sun goes down, and the stars come out; and then in the morning the sun comes up again. It’s so exciting to live in the desert.”
The transfiguration can teach us that the world is sacramental. It is alive with the presence and the gifts of God. And for that we can learn to live a life of gratitude, knowing that we live in such a world.
This is what faith practices are about: learning to listen, and to look for, the God who is among us in Christ. But what does God’s presence for us mean? Finally, what does God want to say to us through it all?
This is what we will end with this morning. Here is what God is saying to us in the transfiguration and in the cross and in the life Jesus lived: are you ready? That God is love. That we are loved. The enormous distances and lengths this God has gone to be with us and bear our pain with us is done out of love. Therefore, this story is not just about Jesus’ transfiguration, it’s about yours!
Sam Keen has written the following: “I suspect we are all recipients of cosmic love notes. Messages, omens, voices, revelations, and appeals are all part of each day’s events. If only we know how to listen, to read the signs.”
That’s why we must learn to talk about this stuff more. To read the love notes from God, just like Peter was learning to read God’s love note in the transfiguration. So, yes, we’re not far removed from Valentine’s Day, and it’s true: the cross and the transfiguration are love stories. There is no better illustration of this than Beauty and the Beast, where Belle’s love for the Beast saves and transforms him. And he is transfigured.
So too with us. God’s love through Jesus is God’s Shekinah, his tabernacle, his presence on earth. God came here to be with us, heal us, love us, give us hope; to even die on the cross for us. To believe this is to be transfigured, transformed. Faith is our transfiguration, a faith that causes us to look and to listen. Let us help one to look and listen, to nurture and grow and our faith. Always. Amen.