A sermon delivered by Dr. Randy K. Hammer, February 26, 2017
Matthew 17:1-9 GNT
Note before the scripture reading: As a point of interest, this story is the traditional story for the last Sunday just before Lent, which begins this coming Wednesday. This story, with only slight variations, is included in Matthew, Mark and Luke.
How well are you listening? Such is a question that Jesus could have very easily asked Peter, James and John as they stood there on the Mount of Transfiguration. “This is my own dear Son, with whom I am well pleased – listen to him!” Matthew has God say to them. At least, such is the way the story goes.
Now, there is a lot going on behind the scenes in this elusive transfiguration story. It is one of those stories where the truth or meaning behind the story is much more important and much more powerful than the literal story itself.
In looking at this story, on the one hand it helps to understand Matthew’s approach and frame of reference. One of Matthew’s aims in his gospel from beginning to end is to portray Jesus as the new and better Moses. Matthew, we need to remember, was writing to and for a Jewish audience. Numerous times throughout the gospel he draws parallels between the life of Moses and the life of Jesus: the life of the infant Jesus was threatened by an evil king, just as the life of Moses was threatened by an evil king; as Moses’ family found themselves in the land of Egypt, Jesus’ family escaped to Egypt for a time to avoid King Herod; as Moses went upon the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments, Jesus went upon the mount to deliver the Beatitudes and Sermon on the Mount; as God through Moses fed the Israelites with manna in the wilderness, Jesus fed the multitudes in the wilderness with the loaves and fishes; a number of times Jesus interprets and re-interprets the teachings of Moses; and as Moses’ face shone with the glory of God after coming down from the mountain with the Ten Commandments, Jesus was transfigured (or shone) on the Mount of Transfiguration. This story is a pinnacle, of sorts, in drawing a parallel between Moses and Jesus.
And then another thing going on in this elusive transfiguration story is the fact that it is one of the so-called “post-Easter” or “post-resurrection” stories. What I mean by that is, it is one of those stories (and there are several in the gospels) that are colored by post-Easter memories. The writer of Matthew’s gospel was not an eye witness to the transfiguration event in question. The story says Jesus only took Peter, James and John with him upon the mountain where it is said that some type of extraordinary, mystical event transpired.
But the real key to the fact that this is a story that was colored by post-Easter influences is the verse where “Jesus ordered them, ‘Don’t tell anyone about this vision you have seen until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead’” (17:9). And that conversation comes to a blunt end. Doesn’t it seem odd that one of the three disciples didn’t say something like, “Say what? Raised from the dead? What on earth do you mean by that, Jesus?” Rather, the way the conversation ends (in Matthew’s version at least), it leaves the impression that the resurrection from the dead was a done deal and there was no need for the disciples to question. Mark does go a bit further by saying the disciples started discussing among themselves, “What does this ‘rising from the dead mean?’” (9:10). But the issue reflects a looking back rather than a looking ahead – a post, rather than pre-resurrection, perspective.
Nevertheless, with all that background information on the story aside, we are still left with the injunction to “listen to him!” And herein is the real point of today’s sermon. Several times in the gospels we hear Jesus emphasize the importance of listening – really listening – and not just being casual hearers. Repeatedly Jesus is quoted as saying, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Or as the Good News Translation renders it, “Listen, then, if you have ears!” (Matthew 11:15).
I went to my bookshelf last week to pull a few resources that emphasize the importance of listening as a religious or spiritual practice. And I found that I had many more resources emphasizing the importance of listening as a Christian practice and pastoral ministry practice than I had realized.
Two of my resources that emphasize listening as a central act of faith were written by Henri Nouwen – The Way of the Heart and Spiritual Direction: Wisdom for the Long Walk of Faith. Nouwen notes, “prayer is a silent listening that leads to contemplation in the presence of God . . . . To pray . . . means to be quiet and listen, whether or not we feel God is speaking to us. More than anything, prayer is primarily listening and waiting.”1
We could also learn a lot from the Quakers or Friends’ tradition about the importance of listening, from several different angles. Listening to the “still small voice of God” is paramount in traditional Quaker thought. That is why from early on many Quaker meetings have been held in silence so that all could be open to the voice or light of truth that comes from within. But Quakers also have a wonderful practice called the “Clearness Committee,” where one who is struggling with an important life decision calls for a number of other Friends to sit in a circle and listen and ask questions so as to help the seeker of direction arrive at a clear understanding of which direction should be taken in life.
Careful listening is also the central ingredient in the practice of spiritual direction. Spiritual Direction is a specialized form of ministry that requires specialized training and certification for one to be officially recognized as a Spiritual Director. I had a dear Spiritual Director friend – Sister Kitty, a Catholic nun – in New York from whom I learned so much. Resources on Spiritual Direction are at the heart concerned with the Spiritual Director learning to really listen to directees and mirroring back what is heard and helping the directees also listen to the voice of God as they feel God is leading them.
And such leads me to the paramount point of today’s sermon, that careful listening is both a joy and an opportunity for each one of us to be a service and help to others. One of the first resources I acquired is a book titled Listening: A Christian’s Guide to Loving Relationships by Norman Wakefield. It was an assigned textbook for my seminary Pastoral Care and Counseling class. But as Wakefield points out, listening as a Christian practice is important to everyone, not just pastors or religious leaders. Some of the points noted by Wakefield are that “All of us cry out to be listened to.. . . Listening says, ‘You are important,’ or ‘Your ideas, problems, and feelings are important to me. I care about you.’” True listening does not involve giving advice, criticizing, or passing judgment. True listening involves both being sensitive to words that are spoken as well as body language and feelings that are shared. The true listener doesn’t assume he already knows what the other person is going to say, and he refrains from running ahead in his mind what he is going to say in reply. The true listener doesn’t interrupt before the other person is finished sharing. Rather, the true listener is careful to hear, assimilate, and then mirror back to the other what is heard, validating the thoughts, feelings, and expressions that are shared.2
When it comes to various aspects of Christian ministry, pastoral care and church life, most people don’t feel they are qualified or have what it takes to address the needs, such as saying or doing the right thing in a nursing home visit, by a hospital bedside, at the funeral home, when someone is facing a real life crisis, and so on. But with patience and practice, most of us can learn to be a good listener, and often that is the most important service we can provide – to be a good, trustworthy, confidential, affirming listener who really hears and validates what the other person is saying and feeling, and supports them as they sort through options and find the grace and strength they are needing.
Yes, from the early pages of scripture to the end, there is an emphasis upon the importance of listening as a spiritual practice and vital aspect of faith – listening for the “voice of God” via that still, small, inner voice; listening through the pages of scripture; listening by way of others who listen to us and help us discern the right way; listening even in the world of nature.
But through Christian tradition, there is also the emphasis upon careful, compassionate listening within the pastoral ministry, counseling, chaplaincy, and spiritual direction.
But in a much broader sense, every one of us can become a means of grace to others as we learn how to be a careful, compassionate listener. So as Jesus often said, “Listen, then, if you have ears to hear!” May it be so for each of us. Amen.
1Henry Nouwen, Spiritual Direction. New York: HarperOne, 2006. Pp. 62, 63.
2Norman Wakefield, Listening: A Christian Guide to Loving Relationships. Waco: Word Books, 1981. Various pages.