February 7, 2016
by the Rev. Louise Browner Blanchard
I don’t want to be presumptuous, but let’s face it. It’s been a little hard to pay much attention to the Gospel lately. Over the past few weeks, we’ve had a long holiday weekend, a blizzard, an annual meeting, and guests from CARITAS. The gospel lessons themselves have been notably low-key…in one, Jesus turned water into wine at a wedding, which was no small feat–but hardly something that would win a Nobel prize. For two other weeks, we heard about Jesus’s return to his hometown synagogue in Nazareth, where a warm welcome turned hostile when people who’d known him his whole life apparently thought he’d gotten above his raising. It was another interesting story, but in and of itself not something that is likely to make you turn your life around.
But today’s gospel is different. Today’s gospel marks a turning point: a turning point in the church calendar, a turning point in Jesus’s ministry and life…and an invitation to a turning point in our lives, as well. Today is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, the final Sunday before Lent begins this Wednesday, Ash Wednesday. The “after the Epiphany” part is an intermediate time in the church calendar, a time to rest after a season of anticipating and celebrating the birth of Jesus and pondering the amazing people and events surrounding it: angels, to begin with, and John the Baptist, Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah, Anna and Simeon, the shepherds, and the wise men…”After the Epiphany” gives us time to contemplate, and to begin to realize, that Christmas marks the birth of not just any baby, but the incarnation of God who was like us in every way except the sinning part.
By the time of today’s gospel, Peter, James, and John had begun to realize that Jesus wasn’t just any holy man or prophet. They were Jesus’s first disciples, fishermen who had left everything to follow him, without knowing exactly why, but still somehow knowing. They had heard him teach, and witnessed healing miracles and the feeding of the 5,000. Peter had even come to believe that Jesus was the long-anticipated Messiah, but there were almost as many different interpretations of what that actually meant as there were people who were waiting for it to happen.
And then Jesus took them up the mountain to pray, and everything really changed. Jesus was transformed, transfigured: his clothes became dazzling white, and the appearance of his face changed, reminiscent of Moses in today’s reading from Exodus when “…the skin of his face shown because he had been talking with God.” Moses himself appears on the mountaintop in today’s gospel, along with Elijah, both of them long dead and, as far as we know, never having been alive at the same time to begin with. They begin to talk with Jesus about his departure at Jerusalem, which we know–but Peter doesn’t–will be his crucifixion and resurrection. Peter gets so excited that he starts babbling about building houses for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, when suddenly a cloud appears, and an unmistakable voice proclaims, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Listen to him. A single commandment, one that both encompasses the 10 commandments given to Moses, and tells us how to follow them: “Listen to him.”
As they come down the mountain, no one even speaks. Everything has changed. Jesus is now headed for Jerusalem and, whether we are ready or not, our focus shifts from the wonder of his birth to the journey toward his death and resurrection–and the heart of what it means to be a Christian. As we prepare for the season of Lent, the voice of God rings in our ears, “Listen to him.”
It’s a pretty specific commandment. Listen to him. Not listen to this verse or that verse. Not listen to what other people say he said. Not even listen to what I said before, i.e., the Ten Commandments. Listen to him.
So what does it mean for us to listen to Jesus? In this political season, we hear a lot about Christian values. Are those the values that Jesus proclaims and lives? Whether we’re left or right-leaning, chances are we’ll surprise ourselves if we take the time to really listen to what Jesus said about any number of issues. Today’s gospel reminds us that what we’ve always believed or understood isn’t necessarily what’s really going on.
In our personal lives, most of us make a lot of decisions without even considering what Jesus did or said that might be relevant. How we treat our family and friends, our business acquaintances, our teachers, those who are different than we, and especially those we consider our enemies might all change if we take the time to really listen to what Jesus said and pay attention to what he did.
And in our common life as St. Mary’s Church, we have entered into a particular season of listening as a community. As we pray ourselves into the future, what does it mean to listen to Jesus? Who and what is he calling us to be and do?
Lent offers us a particular opportunity to ponder these questions in all the contexts of our lives and, especially, in the context of people who profess to believe that the true meaning of life is revealed in death and resurrection.
Today’s gospel reminds us that we, like Peter, can have moments of dazzling and divine insight, when we indeed see things more clearly. But today’s gospel also reminds us that we are more often tempted, like Peter, to put things in the context of what we’ve always thought, always known, always heard, always believed. Today’s gospel reminds us that truly listening to Jesus invites us to consider and contemplate our lives in new ways, with new ears and eyes, with an open heart and an open mind and without fear.
Listen to him.