|Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov, Transfiguration (1824)|
Transfiguration of the Lord
7th February 2016
The cloud—the cloud brought them to silence. Peter, James, and John have just seen the transfiguration of their Lord. Jesus was in deep in prayer. “And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white” (Luke 9:29). In Matthew and Mark’s Gospel we’re told he was “transfigured” before them. The Greek reads that he was “metamorphosized.” Moses and Elijah then appear to confer with Jesus, representing the Law and the Prophets. They stand in glory; they stand in light.
Peter, James, and John were so tired they could barely keep their eyes open. However, the text says, “…since they stayed awake, they saw Jesus’ glory.” That’s a sermon in itself! We need to stay awake to see the glory.
Sleep deprived, confused by what’s happening all around them, they begin to utter something about building dwellings for Jesus and his guests. But it was all gibberish, because Peter didn’t know what he was talking about. Would you? And that’s when the cloud brought him to silence. It overshadowed them and surrounded them and terrified them. And then from the cloud, the cloud now surrounding them, came a voice, seemingly from every direction which said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” (Luke 9:35).
After hearing the voice there was silence and all they could see was Jesus. “Jesus was found alone.” Listen to him!
Jesus’ transfiguration was a pivotal, life-changing experience for Peter, James, and John. And something of the same happens whenever a disciple risks listening to him. For that’s what a disciple does, as Peter, James, and John came to know, a disciple of Jesus—listens.
But what does it take to listen—not half-listen—really listen, listen to God?
The essential condition for listening is silence. Alfred Brendel, the Austrian pianist (one of the greatest pianists of all time) observed, “The word LISTEN contains the same letters as the word SILENT.” Silence is required.
Becoming silent, finding silence isn’t easy. There’s so much noise pollution in our lives. There’s the constant static that surrounds us. Television, radio, conversation fills our lives and fills our ears. And there’s the constant, internal chatter of our lives. It never seems to stop. Buddhists calls it “monkey mind.” Sometimes it takes entering into silence to discover just how noisy it is in “here.”
On my last sabbatical back in 2008, I spent five days at Christ in the Desert, a Benedictine monastery located in the Chama River canyon in New Mexico, situated in a desert an hour west from Ghost Ranch. It’s in the middle of nowhere. No internet. No cellphone reception. No electricity. My retreat time was full of silence, all of which was new for me—and a little unsettling. All that silence generated some anxiety in me. The silence showed me just how loud my inner life had become. One of the brothers at the monastery told me that it takes about three days for the internal chatter to stop. It’s not uncommon he said for people from New York or Philadelphia or other cities back East to reserve two weeks, prepaid in advance, hoping to have a detox experience at the monastery. Many can’t handle it and leave soon after they arrive. But once you get beyond the anxiety and quiet the chatter the silence appears as gift. He was right. I became more present and attentive, I was able to listen to my heart, and listen to the whispers of God. I cherish, even crave silence now.
“Be still and know that I am God,” scripture says (Psalm 46:10). Be still. Without words. Without music. Without distractions. We can learn to embrace and welcome the silence.
Silence allows us to be receptive. Silence allows us to listen, to really be present. It allows us to hear what someone is really saying to us in conversation. What’s true for conversation is also true for prayer, which is also a kind of conversation. When we’re silent we can really listen to the other, not what we think is being said or what we want to hear, not thinking what we’re going to say after the other person stops talking. Sometimes we have difficulty listening because we’re thinking ahead to what we’re going to say next, which means we’re not really present to the conversation, not really there, not really listening.
Silence is holy. Increasingly, I believe these days that God dwells in the depths of silence, even hides in the silence, and whatever we hear from God emerges from there. Perhaps, then, silence allows us to really hear what the Spirit is whispering to us.
And, so, sometimes we just need to shut up. Sometimes God shuts us up. Sometimes God silences our pious mumbo-jumbo and false piety and hollow words with a cloud that overshadows and, maybe, even terrifies us. Something happens to silence our tongues.
It’s only then are we ready to listen and hear what God is saying to us. Listen to him! It’s a command, not a suggestion. How can we listen if we’re not silent and receptive? How else can we hear the word that God is speaking to us from out of the silence?
I once heard the wise theologian, T. F. Torrance (1913-2007), say, “The way to the human heart is through the ear.” For the Greeks, wisdom was found through the eye, in seeing the truth. For the Jew and Christian, we hear the truth; it enters through the ear. Don’t we say “Listen for the Word of God” before the reading of Scripture? God’s truth emerges through the hearing of a word: a word that we cannot tell ourselves, a word that forms and transforms us, a word of grace and love, a word of judgment and challenge, a prophetic, life-changing word, a word—God’s Word—speaks to the heart. That’s because God wants to touch your heart, to speak to your heart, to the center of your being. Not your brain, not your head—your heart. Why is this so important? Because it’s the heart that needs to hear God’s voice, a heart that is by nature closed, shut-off from God. We have hearts that have been bruised and broken by the world, hearts that have become cold. Martin Luther’s (1483-1546) marvelous definition of sin speaks to this condition. He said sin is the heart curved in on itself (incurvatus in se). Whenever we’re turned or curved in on ourselves, sin is usually not far away. Our hearts need to hear a healing word.
And when we listen to Christ, hear what he whispers or thunders in our ears, his word goes straight to the heart. When the Word of God, when the voice of the Savior strikes our hearts and warms our hearts we’re turned inside out, and instead of curving inward we find that we begin to turn outward; we open up towards others, toward the world, filled with new life and energy. And then we begin to move. Ear to heart to feet, we move and follow him down the road he summons us to share with him.
This is how one becomes a student in the school of Jesus of Nazareth!
This is what it means to be a disciple.
This is what discipleship looks like and feels like.
As we come down from the mountain and enter in the valley of Lent, I invite you, encourage, even challenge you to make space for more silence in your lives. Ask God to open your ears. Take in the silence. And then listen for what the silence is saying. Listen with your ears—or, better, listen with the ear of your heart, with an open heart. And then pay attention to what you hear. What’s emerging from the silence? Pay attention to what you’re hearing, where it’s calling, the difference it’s trying to make in your life. Try to sense where the Spirit is guiding your feet. Where is the Spirit trying to move you? Consider this as you walk down the aisle to the Lord’s Table this morning. Where does the Spirit want to take you? May we then have the grace and courage to move.