But only they who listen

More than a hundred years ago, Elizabeth Barrett Browning wrote four short lines I love, and she hid them in her impossibly long poem, Aurora Leigh. [1]

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries.

I love the majestic elegance of that third line, But only he who sees, takes off his shoes – and I love how the rhythm and elegance then simply collapse into the rest sit round it, and pluck blackberries. Plucking blackberries – something so sweet and familiar, and suddenly it sounds so banal.

Browning tells us that the divine is not a far-away reality in terms of space and time, but rather one that crams the everyday: every common bush is afire with God. The thing to consider, this Victorian writer insists, is not the presence or absence or distance of the divine, but whether or not we see what is there and respond to what is there.

We have built microscopes that allow us to look deep into things, we have come up with powerful telescopes that give us glimpses of cosmic events that happened millions of years ago, but we also sense that even the most advanced technology will not necessarily open our eyes to see what is there: a universe crammed with heaven.

Every year, between the seasons of Epiphany and Lent, we hear this story of Jesus leading Peter, James, and John up a high mountain. Every year, we climb this mountain with them in order to see with greater clarity. This mountain is the vantage point from where we look back on Jesus’ birth and his ministry in Galilee, and forward to his journey to Jerusalem and the conflicts that lead to his death. We look back and we look forward and we ask ourselves, “Where is God in all this?”

It doesn’t matter where we locate the mountain on a map; it’s not a matter of geography, and this mountain is not for tourists. You can fly to Israel, take a bus to Galilee, and local guides will gladly take you to the place where Jesus was transfigured. But chances are you’ll find yourself on top of a hill that doesn’t look any more glorious than the rest. The mountain of the transfiguration belongs in the landscape of our spiritual imagination, not on a topographical map.

According to the story we heard, strange and wonderful things happened on the top of that mountain. Peter, James and John saw Jesus like they had not seen him before. His face shining like the sun. His hands that had touched the sick and broken bread with thousands by the lake – his hands were afire. His feet, dusty from walking the streets and fields of Galilee – his feet had light pouring out of them. His whole body was aglow with the glory of heaven. Moses and Elijah appeared, the friends of God, and they were talking with him.

Peter, James and John were on the mountain with Jesus, and in one glorious moment their insight into who he was, was changed profoundly. Their perception of where he belonged in the story of God and God’s people was opened, and they saw a great deal more than they had ever imagined: They saw the body of Jesus crammed with heaven, light pouring out in every direction. “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God,” Peter had declared only days earlier, only half knowing what he was saying – but now he saw it!

“Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” What do we do when by the grace of God we see who God’s Messiah is with greater clarity than we ever thought possible? Peter gives voice to an inclination that is common among us. We want to build something to capture the moment and make it last. We want to stay and behold the glory, floating far above the fray of the world below, at home on the mountain of light and truth. We want to build a tent, a booth, a tabernacle, a church – something to make a home on earth for heaven’s glory.

But there is a voice that dashes our pious phantasies in mid-flight. “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” The same voice was heard when Jesus was baptized down in the river, down in the valley, down in the world below.

No matter how glorious the vision on the top of the mountain, the way of Jesus doesn’t end there. Our journey with him doesn’t take us out of the world and into realms of pure spiritual splendor. Jesus leads the disciples down the mountain to the foothills and the plains below, to the towns where people are hurting and to the camps where people seek refuge from violence, to the streets where people are crying out for justice and dignity, and to the many places where the heavy blanket of despair threatens to smother all hope. Our journey with Jesus doesn’t take us out of the world but deeper into it.

“Get up and do not be afraid,” Jesus said to the disciples. And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. Without heavenly companions, without heavenly splendor, he himself is the tabernacle, the reality of God’s abiding presence in the world. No need for us to make a home on earth for heaven’s glory when heaven’s glory has come down to be with us until the end. And so we follow him down the mountain and then on the long climb up to Jerusalem and to the hill they called Golgotha.

In startling contrast, the mountain of the transfiguration becomes the hill of execution. There it is not a bright cloud overshadowing the scene, but rather a great and dreadful darkness. On the mountain, Jesus’ clothes became dazzling white, but under the cross soldiers divided his clothes among themselves by casting lots. On the mountain, Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah, but on the cross he was taunted by two criminals. On the mountain, a heavenly voice declared, “This is my Son, the Beloved,” but on Golgotha the hostile crowd shouted, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” On the mountain, Peter wanted to stay and build dwellings, but at the crucifixion he was nowhere to be found. The contrast is startling and stark.

On the mountain of the transfiguration, we reflect on our desire to see and be with God, but on Golgotha, we reflect on God’s desire to be with us.

We climb this mountain before the long journey of Lent so we remember in the darkness of Good Friday who this Jesus is: God’s Beloved whom we despised, the judge who bears our verdict, Emmanuel, God with us to the end of the age.

The long journey of Lent is about our transfiguration and the transfiguration of the world. During the season leading up to Holy Week and Easter, we are intentional about centering our lives in God’s will for us, and to that end we pray, we study, or practice another spiritual discipline. We ask for the light of God to shine in our hearts that we might be filled with the knowledge of God’s glory shining in the face of Jesus (2 Corinthians 4:6).

The long journey is about our transfiguration and the transfiguration of the world. We begin to see God’s glory in the face of Jesus, and soon we see the face of Jesus in the faces of every man, woman or child. Love is the light shining in our hearts that opens our eyes to see what is there, in every common bush and every human face.

When Moses came down from the mountain he brought with him ten commandments and some 603 more. When the disciples followed Jesus down the mountain there was just one commandment resounding in their heart: Listen to him. You may think that simplified things considerably, but it didn’t. Listening is just as difficult as seeing what is there. The world resounds with Christ’s presence and call, but only they who listen, hear — the rest sit around or go about their business. To listen to Jesus is not just a matter of paying attention to what he says or reading very carefully the words printed in red. To listen to him is to let his whole life speak to us down here in the foothills and plains of everyday. To listen to him is to let his whole life speak to our fragmented lives until they shine like the sun.

[1] Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh (New York: C. S. Francis & Co, 1857)  p. 275-276