(This is the sermon I preached in response to Mark 9:2-9. You can find the recording as well as the full service on our church website.)
Who do you listen to?
The 1997 movie Wag the Dog is one of my favorite movies. It has a great cast of actors. The movie takes place shortly before a national election, where a political spin doctor and a Hollywood producer join efforts to fabricate a war with Albania to cover up a Presidential sex scandal. Why Albania? As the main character clearly states – because no one knows anything about Albania. Everything they create is based on a lie. Distraction is the name of the game. Get people talking about this thing over here, instead of dealing with this unpleasant thing over here.
While Wag the Dog is fascinating, it is hardly unique. But the question remains – who do you listen to?
Manipulation of information and facts are probably as old as humanity. Remember that Cain tried to manipulate the information about his brother in front of God. That didn’t go so well. Maybe he should have had a Hollywood producer to help him.
Empires and nations have manipulated information for centuries. And the church isn’t innocent in this regard either.
So, who do you listen to?
It’s difficult to know in our own time. With the advent of social media and a plethora of targeted news networks and entertainment mediums that are designed to give you what you want and only what you want, we have become very familiar with echo chambers – something the Oxford Dictionary defines as environments where a person only encounters information or opinions that reflect or reinforce their own.
The challenge being that echo chambers create misinformation or at the very least don’t present the full picture. They shut down consideration of opposing or even alternative viewpoints to the point that it becomes difficult to even have a conversation with someone who disagrees with you. And finally, echo chambers make it too easy for people to ignore inconvenient facts that go against one’s viewpoint.
A common assumption made my all of us is that we aren’t caught in echo chambers – no, other people get caught in them, but surely not us. Yeah, right.
So who do you listen to?
In our readings today we hear some incredible things. It sounds an awful lot like something Hollywood could produce. Chariots and horses of fire and a whirlwind that takes Elijah into heaven. Wow.
In our Gospel, we hear about Jesus being transfigured – his outward appearance changed to reveal his divinity. We’re told that his clothes became dazzling white. And Moses and Elijah appear with him out of nowhere. There’s a massive cloud that encompasses them with a voice that booms out. Incredible.
And the question remains – Who do we listen to?
The beginning of our Gospel for today we hear this – “Six days later.” When you hear something like that, it should always raise a question – what happened right before this?
Jesus is in Caesarea Philippi with his disciples and asks who do people say that he is? Remember that? They offer up some names. And then Jesus asks the more pointed question – who do you say that I am? And it is Peter who says, “You are the Messiah.” The questions Jesus ask are really about this – Who are you listening to? Other people and what they say? Or are you listening to God? In this instance, Peter listens to God who gives him the ability to answer correctly.
And then Jesus foretells his death and resurrection where Peter rebukes him and Jesus responds by rebuking Peter because his mind is not set on divine things – he’s not listening to Jesus. Peter is caught in an echo chamber and Jesus is giving Peter a message that conflicts with what he wants to hear. And then Jesus says this line – “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
It’s at this point that we enter into the Transfiguration story.
Transfiguration is about changing an outward appearance. Transformation, on the other hand, is about being changed at one’s very core. Jesus has no need to be transformed. He is divinity after all – the second person of the Trinity. The Son of God. We declare this every week in our creed.
When Jesus is transfigured, his appearance changes. And that has a dramatic impact on Peter, James and John. They will never again see Jesus or the world the same way.
We’ve had experiences like that in our lives, haven’t we? Experienced something that opened our eyes in ways that we could never go back to seeing that thing the same way ever again. Ever since my eyes were opened to the reality of people living in their vehicles in the parking lots of the truck stops just two miles down the road, I can’t unsee that. I can’t ever go back to just seeing truck stops as a layover on a trip.
I don’t see the motels along the miracle mile the same way either ever since learning that every single one of them in a two-mile stretch has somewhere between 25 and 75% occupancy with people who live there. To put that into perspective, that’s a few hundred people who call a motel room home – paying anywhere from $250-450 a week. That’s more than some people pay for their mortgage for a whole house that includes an actual kitchen, something that motel rooms don’t have. Imagine raising a family in a motel room without a kitchen. I can’t unsee that.
And it’s in the midst of the transfiguration that we hear the voice in the cloud give us the clearest of instructions – Listen to him! It’s an imperative, a command. Not a nice suggestion. Or a recommendation. No, a command. In our English translation it comes with an exclamation point to help emphasize it.
Listen to Him! Listen to Jesus. Now that you have seen his glory, listen to him. Now that your vision of Jesus and the world has changed, listen to him. Now that you can’t unsee Jesus as he really is, listen to him.
If the question is who do we listen to? The answer is simple – Jesus. Are we going to always get this right? Nope. Peter and the disciples, even after seeing the transfiguration, seeing more fully who Jesus really is, will have plenty of times in which they won’t listen to Jesus. Why would we expect to fare any better?
But that’s not an excuse to ignore Jesus. We are called to listen to Jesus. Why? Because Jesus tells us what we need to hear. The rest of the world will either tell us what we want to hear or will manipulate the message. But Jesus tells us what we need to hear. Jesus tells us the hard truths, the realities around us and within us, and shows us the path that we are called to take – to follow him. His path isn’t sunshine and unicorns. It leads through death and Jesus doesn’t hide that.
Beginning in Mark 8 verse 34, just a few verses before our Gospel reading for today, he tells the crowd the hard truth and a message they need to hear – “If anyone would come after me, they must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for my sake and for the gospel will save it.”
There no glossing over this. No spin. No manipulation. No holding back on something we would rather not hear. Nope. Jesus gives us the whole thing.
And we hear this play out even further. Right after the Transfiguration, Jesus, Peter, James, and John join the rest of the disciples and there is a crowd and someone complains that the disciples could not cast out an unclean spirit. And when the disciples finally are able to ask Jesus why they couldn’t cast out the spirit, he doesn’t tell them what they want to hear, but what they need to hear – “This kind can come out only through prayer.” Meaning they could have done it, but didn’t because they didn’t listen.
And then right after that the disciples are arguing about which one of them is the greatest. Again, Jesus doesn’t tell them what they want to hear. What they wanted was greatness as defined by the world – being the fastest, the strongest, the most intelligent, the one with the most stuff. Instead he tells them what they need to hear – “Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all.”
We listen to Jesus because he tells us what we need to hear. Always. You can count on it. It’s what makes following him worthwhile. It’s why every week he hear a Gospel reading, so we can hear what Jesus has to say directly and so we can do what the voice in the cloud said to Peter, James, and John – Listen to him.
Which is more respectful to you, more loving to you, more caring to you – to have someone lie to you, twist and manipulate information, tell you what you want to hear even if it isn’t true or not the whole story? Or to be honest with you and tell you what you need to hear?
Someone lying or manipulating information doesn’t really respect you or think much of you and certainly doesn’t have your best interests at heart. If they are willing to manipulate what information you receive, what else would they be willing to do to you?
But Jesus doesn’t do that. Which is why we are called to listen to him. Jesus doesn’t lie. He doesn’t sugar coat anything. He doesn’t manipulate. He doesn’t tell people what they want to hear. He doesn’t do any of that because he loves you. Because he cares about you. He cares enough to die for you and me and the entire world. And that’s why we are called to listen to him.
In the transfiguration, his appearance is changed, but we are transformed.
Over the last few months, I have been co-teaching a class with an episcopal priest called Living Evangelism. Right off the bat we shattered the old ideas of evangelism as bible-thumbing, guilting people to convert, and talking at people with leading questions that trap them. That’s not evangelism. That’s harassment. And it certainly isn’t what it means to follow Jesus. Jesus doesn’t call us to guilt people or manipulate people. He calls us to love people. To practice holy listening.
What the students learned was that evangelism is paying attention to what Jesus is already up to. It’s about seeing the world differently – seeing where Jesus is showing up and working and transforming lives. It’s about seeing Jesus liberating people from all the ways they are in bondage and sharing joy with people.
Yesterday the students were giving their final presentations. And throughout the presentations they talked about how transformative the class was in opening their eyes to see Jesus – in the ministries they are a part of, in the people they serve and come in contact with, and yes, in the world around them. And in themselves too.
One of the main themes that I heard from the students was that what they learned personally impacted them and their daily lives. They saw Jesus differently. Evangelism wasn’t a program or a project with a check list. It is much deeper. It is a relationship. It’s living – a way of being. It is letting down the barriers that we put up to protect ourselves from others knowing who we truly are – with all our flaws and wounds and pain. You see transfiguration shows us more fully who Jesus is. And it reveals who we are also. It shines a light on who we are behind the façade we create to the outside world. It shows very clearly that we are not the Savior – Jesus is.
Transfiguration is happening. It happens anywhere that Jesus reveals himself. And when we see the transfigured Jesus, we cannot unsee him. We’ll see him everywhere. And in everyone. And it will change us. Our lives will be transformed. Our lives are transformed. And we are able to listen to him. To follow him. To be vulnerable. Because that’s what love is. And that’s what the transfiguration is all about. That’s what we hear when we listen to Jesus. Amen.