We welcome Pastor Cristina Adams to the pulpit as both our new Associate Pastor for Children, Youth & Families and as our preacher in observance of Baptist Women in Ministry Month of Preaching (formerly called Martha Stearns Marshall Sunday).
Listen: An Invitation for Lent
Last Sunday we left Jesus and his disciples after two healing stories. People were amazed at Jesus’ power. Luke says that “fear seized” those that saw the healings “and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has risen among us!’ and ‘God has looked favorably on his people!’” (Luke 7:16). Words of Jesus’ greatness and power spread across the land.
Today we skip ahead to chapter 9 and meet Jesus and three of his disciples, Peter, James, and John, on a mountain, where they had gone to pray. Jesus did this quite regularly. He knew he needed time alone to spend with his Father and listen. But this prayer time became a prayer experience like no other. For while Jesus was praying, two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared and began talking to Jesus.
Whether the disciples were asleep when this first occurred or were just very sleepy, it is unclear, but when Peter wipes the sleep from his eyes and realizes what is before him, he feels called to act, so he offers to build three dwellings for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah to stay in. Oftentimes we give Peter a hard time for this and read Peter as a blundering fisherman, who speaks without thinking. But I think more is going on here. Just as Peter had previously declared that Jesus was the Messiah, earlier in chapter 9, Peter now sees that something divine is happening and Peter wants to honor this. When Peter offers to build a dwelling, a tent. This same word is used in scripture for tabernacle, which is more than just an ordinary tent.
To understand this, we need to go back and remember the story of the exodus, of Moses and the Israelites journey in the wilderness. It is a well known story for Peter because the Jews reenact this story every year during the Festival of Booths. He knows the story in Exodus when Moses goes up to the mountain and meets with God and Moses’ face literally shines from being in the presence of the LORD. When Moses came back down from the mountain, Moses told the Israelites that God was commanding them to build a tabernacle, a portable sanctuary so God could dwell among them during their journey. This tent was very elaborate and there were specific instructions for its dimensions and the materials used to build it. Once it was finally complete, scripture says that “a cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40:32). And not even Moses could enter into the tabernacle because God’s presence was too powerful and glorious for even Moses to withstand. This cloud then became the guide for the Israelites during their time in the wilderness. When the cloud filled the tabernacle, they Israelites would stay camped until the cloud lifted, and then they would move. During this wilderness experience, God was still present among God’s people. God dwelled with them and God guided them each step of the way. One Rabbi described the Festival of Booths as “living in temporary shelters for seven days as a reminder that when their ancestors were in the wilderness, God provided them booths to dwell in.”
So, when Peter sees Jesus’ face glowing, radiating the divine, and also sees Moses and Elijah, it makes sense that Peter’s impulse is to build some tents. Peter recognizes that something divine is happening and does not want it to end. So, not fully understanding the implications of what he is saying, Peter wants to build tents to keep this divine presence among them.
As Peter is saying this, though, a cloud overshadows them and then they actually enter into the cloud. If you compare this to the exodus story, something has changed. In the exodus story, when the cloud entered into the tabernacle, no one could enter. God’s glory and power was too great for humans to withstand. But now, Peter, James, and John are in the cloud with Jesus! They are directly in the presence of God! Actually, they have already been living with God for some time at this point since they have been following Jesus. The presence of God is no longer contained to the tabernacle, it is among them.
And then, once they are immersed in this cloud, God speaks. “This is my son, my chosen; listen to him!” This echoes Jesus’ baptism, when God says to Jesus, “You are my son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” But in this moment, God is addressing the disciples, declaring Jesus’ divinity and affirming Peter’s declaration that Jesus is the Messiah. Then a command is added, “Listen to him!”
And as quickly as the cloud had appeared, it was gone. Now the experience was over. There was no need to build the tents. Elijah and Moses had vanished. The mountaintop experience was over and it seems that the disciples did not know what to make of it. So, they stay silent about it. They did have something to take with them, an experience affirming Jesus’ divinity and a command given by God – listen to Jesus, but the next things Jesus says aren’t things you necessarily want to hear. First, Jesus comments on the “faithless and perverse” state of the generation and then he predicts betrayal. These are hard words to hear, and the disciples don’t even know what to do with Jesus predicting his betrayal.
But perhaps, this is fitting. After mountaintop experiences, after spiritual highs, we have to re-enter reality, and reality isn’t always pretty. It’s messy and broken. I appreciated how one commentator described this scene as especially fitting this year–after a moment of hope, when God’s glory shone around, Jesus and the disciples emerged back into a health crisis. Another boy ill, another father pleading for Jesus to heal his son, and the disciples not being able to do anything about it.
This is something I think we can relate to right now. We have moments of hope, moments of joy–news about the vaccine, we find a way to see friends or family for the first time in months–but then we still find ourselves in this pandemic and it feels like nothing has changed. Another person we love testing positive, another day of masks and social distancing. We feel helpless.
The good news is that this is not the final word. Jesus knew humanity was weak and limited, yet Jesus still chose to come and dwell among us, to be a living tabernacle in our midst. So while we feel helpless, we can be comforted by the fact that we are not alone. God is in our midst. The Holy Spirit is present with us to give us what we need to keep going.
While we may falter, Jesus is faithful. The disciples could not heal the boy, but Jesus did. And once again, everyone was amazed. The glory of God, the power of Jesus was evident. But Jesus had another hard word to give. “Let these words sink into your ears,” he says, “The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.” “Let these words sink into your ears.” God just told his disciples to listen to Jesus, and now Jesus is saying really pay attention and listen to what I am about to say. I am going to be betrayed. And while Jesus wants them to listen, they do not understand. Actually it says they cannot understand and they were scared and embarrassed to ask more about what Jesus meant.
“Listen to him!” “Let these words sink into your ears!”
The command to listen has been sinking into my ears and touching my heart this week. As I was thinking about listening, I thought about times when I felt listened to, when I felt heard, and times when I did not. I thought about a time when I was having a bad day and called a friend to talk. I said, “Hey, I was just calling to say hi and I need to talk,” and then my friend started telling me about her day. I listened and then said, “I need to talk,” but she was excited about what was going on in her life and didn’t process it. So I listened some more and then said, “Hey, I’m having a bad day. I need to talk,” and I started crying. Then she quickly realized that I had been trying to tell her I needed to talk and it wasn’t sinking into her ears. She apologized and then listened as I told her about my day. I was thinking about this, and all of a sudden a question came into my mind and pierced my heart. How often does God experience this with me? How often does God reach out to talk to me and keep on with my day? This question shocked me because I consider myself to be a good listener, but I realized that way too often, I am guilty of not listening to God’s nudgings in my spirit to be quiet and listen to what God has to say. Instead, I ignore God and keep playing on my phone, I watch one more episode of Netflix, or keep background noise going so I do not have the space to listen to what God has to say.
Jesus asked his disciples to listen to him, to let his words about his betrayal sink into their ears, to touch their hearts. But the disciples did not know what to do with those words at the time. We have an advantage because we know what Jesus was talking about. We know the journey that he was about to go on. And in our church year, we are about to embark on that journey again. On Wednesday we will remember that we are made of dust and to dust we will return, that we are fragile beings that are in need of a savior. Then, we will journey with Jesus, remembering his last days, during the Lenten season.
Now, when I was younger, I thought that Lent was just something that Catholics and Lutherans did because that was what I saw in my town. In college, though, I started to wonder if maybe there was something to observing Lent, to giving up something or incorporating a new practice. Since then, I have experimented with different things–giving up cookies, Facebook, one year I even gave up sleeping in, another I committed to journaling every day. Lent is an opportunity to reflect and examine ourselves, to remember that we are lacking and that we need God to flourish.
This Lent, I am inviting you to engage in holy listening. Holy listening is more than hearing what someone is saying. It is believing that God is present and speaking in the midst of everyday life and training our ears to be attuned to what the Holy Spirit is saying. It means that we believe that we are all made in the image of God and that we can learn about God from one another. The transfiguration story is filled with good news–God is present among us! God no longer stays inside a tabernacle but lives in our midst. God is calling us to listen, to journey with Jesus this Lenten season, and discover how God is active and speaking to us today.
Practicing listening can take many forms, but to help us start thinking about what practicing holy listening might look like, I have created a worksheet with different ideas and practices for holy listening that Jenny will put in the chat and can also be accessed on our website. There are suggestions for how to make space for listening in your daily life, ideas for spiritual practices to listen to God, and ideas for families about how to engage in listening together. I created this list just as a starting point to help you think about how you might want to engage in holy listening this Lenten season. I created this list with people of all ages in mind, so kids, teens, adults–there could be something for you on this list! Pick one or two things to try. Take what is helpful and leave what is not. I would love to hear about what you choose to do and what you learn through this journey.
Now let’s pray. Dazzling God, Thank you for coming into our midst through Jesus Christ and for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Open our ears, hearts, and eyes to listen to you, Lord Jesus, during this Lenten season. Guide us as we take this journey to Jerusalem. Show us that you are still speaking and active in the world today.