Exodus 24:12-18 Matthew 17:1-9
How many people here are old enough to remember the vintage E. F. Hutton commercial-- a stock brokerage firm from in the 70s & 80s? For those who don’t, it goes like this; A room full of people all talking at once. Over in the corner, an individual whispers to a friend, “What do you think the market’s going to do?” The friend says, “Well, my broker is E. F. Hutton, and E. F. Hutton says ….” Just like that, frame freeze. Total silence, as everyone leans forward to hear what E. F. Hutton says. Joggers would halt in mid-stride. Commuters on board the train would put down their newspapers. Dinner guests would cease passing the green bean casserole. Everything came to a screeching halt. The voice-over says it all: “When E. F. Hutton talks, people listen.”
Well, the Transfiguration of Jesus isn’t about E. F. Hutton, or stocks and bonds or investment portfolios, but it does make a similar point: When someone credible speaks – someone who knows what he’s talking about – we’d do well to listen. And, if that’s the case, can you think of anyone who commands greater respect, greater credibility, greater authority than Jesus? Listen to him! God says.
I recently saw a statistic suggesting that 85 percent of what we know we have learned through listening. However, we spend less than half our time listening, about 44 percent, and comprehend less than a quarter of what we do listen to. We listen at 25 percent of our capacity.
Maybe that’s because there’s no shortage of voices to listen to. And, in our culture, the loudest of these voices tell us to do exactly the opposite of what Jesus tells his disciples to do. Instead of denying ourselves, we are encouraged to indulge ourselves. Every year, $200 billion is spent on advertising messages that center on one overarching theme: drive the right car, go to the right restaurant, buy the right snacks, and we will be happy. No wonder on Super bowl Sunday, last week, clever ads for Doritos, Mountain Dew Ice, Budweiser, M &Ms, Tide detergent, Pringles, Febreze and many more spent 5 million dollars for 30 seconds to hawk their wares, to stand out, to make us listen. That’s how desperately they wanted to get their message across. Imagine if the church still held such sway. “When the scriptures are proclaimed….people listen.”
In the transfiguration story from Matthew, a voice from heaven told the disciples to listen to, or to hear Jesus. Jesus had taken three of his disciples up a high mountain. And while they were there, Jesus was transfigured before their eyes. His face began to shine and his clothing became dazzling white. Great prophets of the past, Elijah and Moses, appeared and spoke with him. A cloud overshadowed them and a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved, Hear Him – or listen to him!”
Remember we heard a similar message when Jesus was baptized back in chapter three of Matthew. When Jesus came up out of the water, the heavens opened and a voice from heaven said, “This is my son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:16-17). In today’s story the heavenly voice announces the same thing, with that one addition: The voice adds, “Listen to him!” Hear him.
This message came at a crucial time in Jesus’s ministry. Jesus was just starting to tell his disciples a message they really didn’t want to hear. Up until this point in the gospel, Jesus had been healing, casting out demons and teaching that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand. Right there in their midst. Who could resist such a message?
But right before today’s passage, in chapter 16, Jesus asked the disciples who they thought he was. And when Peter said, “You are the Messiah.” On the heels of Peter’s confession of faith, Jesus began to explain to them that he was going to suffer, be rejected and killed, and raised to life on the third day.
That kind of message is hard to hear. No wonder the disciples began to close down and turn away from Jesus’ message. They wanted a powerful messiah, a messiah that would conquer their enemies, not a rejected, persecuted, murdered messiah. Didn’t they have enough of that already? So, this was a turning point in Jesus’ ministry. Now he would begin his journey to Jerusalem where he knew he would die. This was so hard to bear that even Peter rebuked Jesus for sharing such a message – Jesus responds quickly, in kind, calling Peter Satan, “or adversary, one who resists.” Incisive words for someone who cannot hear the word of God Jesus reveals. Jesus finds another way to get his disciples to hear the message. He waits almost a week then takes up on the mountaintop.
Mountains throughout scripture, indeed throughout the ancient world, were places when people encounter the sacred. Moses encountered the burning bush that was not consumed, and later received the Law on Mount Sinai (Ex. 24:15). Elijah the prophet also had a sacred encounter with God on Mount Horeb (1 Ki. 19:8). Fleeing for his life on the top of the mountain, depressed, Elijah encounters God not in the earthquake or fire, but in the silence that followed. In the aftermath of encountering God, Elijah’s mission to speak out on behalf of God in the face of danger is renewed. And now Peter, James and John, on the mountaintop, suddenly they could see on the outside of Jesus what was inside – God’s power and glory shining through, visible to their eyes. His face shone like the sun. His clothes were dazzling white. The disciples witnessed the transforming power of God at work in Jesus.
It took the transfiguration of the person of Jesus, standing with Elijah and Moses, and a heavenly voice, to open the ears of comprehension. The disciples realized that Jesus’s words were true. Listen to him was etched on their hearts. They must go with him. They must practice obedience in the face of oppression. This mountaintop experience and those words would help them believe and trust that the way Jesus chose was indeed God’s way. A way affirmed by the law and the prophets and led to glory. And they did get up and go back down the mountain with Jesus. When God talked in a mighty revelation, it created the space for them to listen.
“This is my son, the beloved. Listen to him.” Hear him. Who do we listen to? A spouse or partner? Your parents, or children? Your friends? Fox News? NPR? Flyers and billboards? It is estimated that Americans process between 4,000 to 10,000 ads throughout the day. It’s not easy for us to hear Jesus with all these voices vying for attention.
The story is told of Franklin Roosevelt, who often endured long receiving lines at the White House. He complained that no one really paid any attention to what was said. One day, during a reception, he decided to try an experiment. To each person who passed down the line and shook his hand, he murmured, "I murdered my grandmother this morning." The guests responded with phrases like, "Marvelous! Keep up the good work. We are proud of you. God bless you, sir." It was not till the end of the line, while greeting the ambassador from Bolivia, that his words were actually heard. Nonplussed, the ambassador leaned over and whispered, "I'm sure she had it coming." We can imagine that on occasion how frustrated Jesus was, and tempted to test his disciples, his followers, to get his message across. That’s what the transfiguration does.
The gospels teach us that one of the greatest gifts we can cultivate is the capacity to listen. This Wednesday, Ash Wednesday, which starts the season of Lent, our preparation for Easter, it also falls this year on Valentines Day. Perhaps we can make a double pledge to listen. To hear, from a place of love, those around us. To hear what God has to say to us. To cut through the hallmark ads that would steer us to buying, instead of being and listening, and affirming those we love.
Lent invites us to hear Jesus. Let us hear Jesus through the scriptures. When we read the Bible, we pray, we ask for the gift to hear. We ask ourselves, what did Jesus do What did he say about life, about faith, about God? We ask, Lord, what does this have to do with me?
In addition to the Bible, we listen through prayer. We unplug ourselves from the world and spent time with the Great Lover of our souls. One of the easiest ways to pray is to imagine that Jesus is there with us, and you talk to him. Tell him about your day. Speak out your questions, your frustrations and joys and fears. Be quiet and pay attention to any thoughts that may come as a response.
Finally, we listen to Jesus is by listening to other people of faith. Let us talk to each other about our faith in Jesus makes in our lives. Go to a bible study and share. When we listen to Jesus and follow in his ways, it changes us. We become more truly ourselves and more able to forgive, more able to care about and love others
So, when Jesus talks…through the word, in your heart, through a friend or even a stranger…stop what you’re doing. You are worth more than advertisement. Step away from the computer. Put down the newspaper. Turn off the radio or TV. Listen. Listen to him – 100%. And be transformed. Glory be to God.