Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
There is an art to speaking and an art to keeping silent. A rich, old man had serious hearing problems, so he went to a specialist who was able to fit him with a set of exceptional hearing aids. They allowed him to hear nearly perfectly. A month later the old man returned to his own doctor, who said, “Your hearing is great. Your family must be really pleased that you can hear again.” The old man sighed, “Oh, I haven’t told them yet. I just sit around and listen to their conversations. I’ve already changed my will three times!” Yes, there’s an art to keeping silent.
In this morning’s gospel, we are told that the disciples had mastered the art of keeping silent as well. Oddly, the story appears to be more about seeing than hearing. After all the disciples were falling asleep. Perhaps, they were silent because they were wondering if it was all a dream. It was a mystical moment when Jesus was shown bathed in a radiant heavenly light. It was a moment in which he was revealed as the beloved Son of God, and where two figures from the ancient past suddenly appeared before the stunned, silent disciples. Were they half in slumber and half awake? Surprisingly, the divine voice piercing the majestic cloud didn’t say, “Look at him!” Nor did the heavens thunder, “Set your eyes on him.” Instead, the voice proclaimed, “This is my Son, the chosen one. Listen to him.” And then Jesus’ disciples kept silent. In fact, they kept so silent that they told no one of what they had seen. To this day, good Lutherans are keeping up this practice- telling no one about Jesus and what they have heard- as if it was a command for all time.
My friends, this morning I would like to invite you to meditate on the art of listening. For it is not simply learning to keep silent. More importantly, I would like to meditate on the art of speaking. For we live in a world that is hungering for God’s word of encouragement.
Let us begin with the simple question. What is listening? Listening is different than hearing. Listening is what happens late at night when you hear a strange sound, a sound that you are not supposed to hear at that hour when there should be no sound. Listening is the voice you hear of the one you love lying in their hospital bed. Listening is the cry you hear of an infant in another room. There is an art and attentiveness to listening. Unlike hearing, listening to someone makes a connection and a commitment. I am reminded of two doctors who met at their twentieth college reunion. One looked as though he had just graduated. The other appeared weary, worn and much older than his colleague. The aged one asked. “What’s your secret? Listening has made an old man out of me.” The spry-looking doctor replied, “Who listens?”
And it’s true. Looking and hearing someone doesn’t require much of you except maybe a bit of admiration. I can look at someone and we can keep a safe distance between us. But when I listen, truly listen, then I have to lean into the person speaking. We are suddenly in relationship with one another. We are connected. But it takes time and energy. 25 years ago, when I was a chaplain at the University of Minnesota Hospital, I was assigned to the 6:00 am early morning, pre-surgery visits. It took energy that I didn’t always have. Mind you, it wasn’t too flattering, but on occasion, in my less professional moments, I would stop at the nurses’ station and simply ask, “There isn’t anyone who needs to see a chaplain, is there?”
The same is true of the Christian faith. Living and listening takes time and energy. There are many Christian who can stand at a distance observing the world, but they never really become connected. They recognize Jesus’ image, and know his story from Sunday School lessons, but they haven’t really learned the art of listening to him. They simply don’t have the energy to head Jesus’ invitation to lean into him, and to become connected. In times of discouragement, dismay and depression, the world needs a word of encouragement. There is an art to keeping silent, and an art to speaking. People of faith should be alert to the ways that God is calling us to speak out and to have a healing influence on others in these troubled times.
Let us now turn to a second thought, so why should we listen to Jesus, and perhaps only him? Clearly Christianity is not the only channel on our spiritual screen. In fact, there are more spiritual offerings to listen to these days than there are channels on cable television. Walk through the aisles of Barnes and Noble and listen to the titles calling out to you. Remember Your Spirit. Eastern Meditation- Made Easy. Twelve Steps for Seekers. The potential paths to spiritual enlightenment seem endless and confusing.
And yet, as the Christian Church we claim that it is in this Man from Nazareth, in this vulnerable human being, in this suffering servant, that you and I have seen as much of God as any will ever see. Yes, surely God speaks to us in a number of ways; through nature, through the good works of other people, in all that is good and wonderful about this world. But the story of the transfiguration teaches us that God’s singular self-revelation, the epiphany of all epiphanies, is in Jesus. So listen to him.
Now this may make you feel a bit uncomfortable. After all, you pride yourself on being open-minded and tolerant. We often hear people say things like “There are many pathways to God,” or “We all have different concepts of God,” or even, “All religions are basically the same.” In choosing not to offend, you may have nodded in agreement. Yes, in an apologetic, embarrassed way, you have chosen to keep silent. But there is a more faithful way to express our faith amidst the pluralism in which we live. There is an art to speaking. I believe, it’s possible to be both open-minded and single-minded at the same time. As Christians, we have a gift to share.
This leads to the third thought. So what do we believe we can learn by listening to Jesus, and in turn, speak to others? People are longing for words of encouragement. Over the generations, simple phrases have given hope. “When you feel like giving up, remember why you held on for so long in the first place.” Or another, “Instead of giving myself reasons why I can’t, I give myself reasons why I can.” Great men and women have offered words of encouragement as well. The Scottish inventor, Alexander Graham Bell said, “When one door closes another door opens; but we so often look so long and so regretfully upon the closed door, that we do not see the ones which open for us.” President Franklin D. Roosevelt, “When you come to the end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on” His wife Eleanor declared. “People grow through experience if they meet life honestly and courageously. This is how character is built.” Even British Prime Minister Winston Churchill declared, “”If you’re going through hell, keep going.”
Throughout the season of Epiphany, we have explored this God made flesh in Jesus. We have discovered that God has a face, a name, and a family. By the leading of a star, the child was to become a savior for all nations. You see, our God is not some aloof, abstract principle, nor is he some vague fusion of the good things that we think god ought to be. At the wedding in Cana, Jesus taught that love and mercy are abundant and unlimited. In the calling of his disciples, Jesus reminds us that we all have gifts that are used for the work of his kingdom. Yes, it is in listening to this Jesus that we discover how we are called to care for the poor and needy, the stranger and the foreigner, and that we ourselves may be the ones cast out. It is in listening to Jesus that we learn how to comfort and console. It is in listening to him that we see how we are invited to sacrifice and suffer for the sake of our neighbor. Yes, it is giving that we find life. Ultimately, it is in leaning in and listening to Jesus that we ourselves discover how to face sickness and death, and the disappointments in this world.
But there’s more to the story of the transfiguration. There’s an assurance of God’s presence as well. Jesus himself could have avoided life’s darkest valleys. As he stood atop that lonely mountaintop transfigured before his three disciples, he could have turned his back on the world. He could have gone on alone and ascended into heaven. But instead, he came back down from the mountaintop. He left his seat of glory, to serve at the feet of the weak and lowly. He left it to journey to another hill called Calvary. That is a word of encouragement for the darkest days.
Why would Jesus act so foolishly and selflessly? Why would he so willingly die upon a cross? Why? you may ask. For one reason. Because of his great love for you. This Jesus loves you, and longs for you to live abundantly in his care. He loves you, and longs for you to enjoy his mercy and grace. He loves you and longs to comfort and console you now and in his eternal kingdom. And so Jesus “ordered them to tell no one what they had seen.” But from that time on, Jesus’ identity would be unquestionable and his march to his death unstoppable. He would do so with the affirming words of encouragement of God ringing in his memory.
And that’s why we’re here in church this morning. We gather week after week, to listen to Jesus, to hear his words of encouragement and hope, so that we can follow him as his disciples and share these promises with others. Yes, you can and should listen to people of other faiths, you can learn from your neighbors. But you need not be embarrassed, ashamed or apologetic about your faith. If you listen to Jesus above all others, you will also know how to love others more fully. It’s risky business. To listen and follow Jesus alone is to run the risk of being changed- until one day you share the likeness of Christ. And what a glorious transfiguration that will be. This is what we ultimately learn by listening to him. Jesus alone reveals to us the truth and absolute goodness of God. So listen to him. Cling to him. Lean into him. Follow him.
And it all begins, by practicing the art of keeping silent, and then practicing the art of speaking words of encouragement. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.