This summer my family went on the classic tour of national parks in the Southwest - Zion, Bryce, Arches, Grand Canyon. Every day we hiked. Each park held its own unique charm. At Zion we walked through the Lord of the Rings landscape of the Narrows, a ribbon of a river at the bottom of a deep canyon.
The trail at Arches took us up and over rock outcroppings called fins. These were massive rocks, tall and narrow, which looked like the spines on the back of a stegosaurus. I love to hike, but I have a fear of heights. I managed to make it up the rock fin, that narrow, high rock. But the thing is, once you go up, you have to come down.
Going down was much worse. Because of course you have to look down. Down, all that way, one slip away from certain death. It felt to me that the fin of rock couldn’t be wider than ten inches and certainly stood over a thousand feet tall. And of course my two competitive boys raced down as fast as they could while I plodded every terrifying step.
I thought of that hike this week while reflecting on Jesus’ journey up the mountain. I love this story and have preached on it nearly every year of my ministry. But this year my thoughts turned to what happened on the way down - the healing story that comes right after the transfiguration. The most challenging part of a hike isn’t the way up or taking in the views from the top, but the way back down. And, in many ways, I think the disciples trip down the mountain mattered even more than what happened on top.
Luke described a miraculous scene. Jesus and three trusted disciples hiked up a mountain to pray. The three disciples got sleepily, just as these same three disciples will in the Garden of Gethsemane when Jesus prayed before his arrest. In that groggy moment of half-sleep, the disciples saw Jesus speaking with Moses and Elijah. Peter started to speak, offering to build shelter, when a cloud roared up and a voice thundered from heaven, “This is my son, my beloved, listen to him!” As he walked down the mountain, Peter must have wondered, “Was it all a dream?”
We celebrate this story every year as a key to understanding Jesus - a story revealing his God-connection, a story placing him in the pantheon of great prophets, a story of God anointing him as the divine Messiah. But this year I noticed something different about my long familiar passage. (One of the many things I love about the Bible is that I can read it for decades but still discover something new).
God said, “Listen to him.” But Jesus never spoke. I never noticed that before. “Listen,” God said, “listen to the silent messiah.”
The disciples trundled down the mountain with their silent messiah. At the base of it they stumble into a crowd. The other disciples had tried to heal a youth possessed by a demon; no luck. The demon still convulsed the teen.
Now I realize stories of demons and demon possession strike us as some of the most unbelievable passages of the Bible. But people in the time of Jesus believed deeply in demons. An early Christian text written just after the gospels told the story of a mother coming to saint Apollonius for help. Her sixteen year old son has been possessed by a demon. He’s withdrawn, going out to deserted places; his voice is changing, deeper and hollow; and he looks at her with a blank expression whenever she speaks. We’d call that demon adolescence.
Freud realized as much when he said that “demon possession in earlier centuries are equivalent to neuroses today.” I agree: we can best understand this story of demon possession and exorcism as a tale of psychic distress and relief. So instead of saying of this miracle, “how bizarre!” I want to look at the interpersonal relationships.
The distraught father came to Jesus. “Look at my son; he is my only child. A demon possesses him.” I hear the voice of God on the mountain echoing in these words of the father down below. Both speak of their sons, their beloved children; “this is my son.”
But I notice a difference too. The illness of this troubled son was described in greater detail than the glory which surrounded Jesus on the mountain. The father explained, “Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It throws him into convulsions until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him.” In contrast, the glory on the mountain got a brief description. Which should we notice more?
I find that too often I’ve directed my gaze at the glory of Jesus; but in reality the gospel wants to direct our gaze elsewhere, to the illness of the other son. And, as if to underscore that our gaze ought to be on the illness of the son, this is when Jesus finally spoke.
The disciples who hung on his words since God commanded them to listen, finally get to hear him say, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.”
Jesus’ anger startles. Why did the silent messiah become so mad? Was it resentment carried down the mountain? Was it frustration with the disciples who couldn’t cast out a demon? Was it exhaustion with people continually pressing on him? While we could argue for any interpretation, I think Jesus got mad because he identified with the teenager. He knew no one listened to the youth; and he was tired of people not listening to him, too.
Think back to the failure of the disciples. The father said the disciples couldn’t heal his son. Couldn’t fix him. The disciples tried to be fixers. Have you run into fixers when you need someone to listen? A fixer tries to solve your problems when what you really need is to tell your story.
I remember once sitting with a group of parents. I started to share a story about one of my sons, some problem at home. But before I could even share my story, I started getting suggestions. “The same thing happened to me, this is what I did...” “You need to try…” Until suddenly I was getting all the advice I didn’t ask for.
I’m sure I’ve done the same to other people, too. When we listen, our minds can rush ahead to solutions.
But the best listeners I know use conversation to create a container in which I can find my own solution. Instead of trying to fix the problem, they wonder with me about it; offering not their answers but a relational space for me to find my own answer.
One of the other gospels tells this same healing story. In the other version, Jesus told the disciples they couldn’t heal the teen because they didn’t have enough faith. The comment interests me. The disciples didn’t trust enough. To truly listen to someone else requires trusting the other person to say what they need and trusting them to find their own solution.
Now think with me about the youth. The father said he flailed about, threw himself on the floor, hurt himself. I’m not a psychologist and none of us could diagnosis someone across two thousand years. Yet I think of youth I know whose behavior or self-harming seems like a plea: notice me, see me, listen to me.
I wonder: could the distress of the youth come from everyone trying to fix him but no one listening to him?
Luke, in describing the gospel scene, doesn’t actually say what Jesus said to the teen. But other healing stories can help us imagine it. As our Wednesday night study group on the questions of Jesus has been learning, Jesus asked people a lot of questions. Most commonly he asked, “what would you like me to do for you?” Even when we might think the answer self-evident, Jesus paused to ask. Jesus didn’t fix; he asked and listened. When we look at Jesus’ other healing stories, a pattern emerges: Jesus asked questions and intently listened to the other person.
At the same time, Jesus often took people into his hands, blessed them, and gave them back. In this story we only get the echo of it: he gave the son back to the father. But in other stories we hear of Jesus picking up the leper, blessing the children, taking the woman accused, blessing the person cursed by others, taking the bread, blessing the cup. And so in this case I imagine Jesus taking the hand of the youth others saw as disturbed, blessing the teen others called demonic, and so thereby able to give a healed son to his father.
Taking. Blessing. Giving. That’s what listening to someone feels like. Taking them as they are. Blessing them with the gift to wonder and wait in the midst of their story. Giving them the space they need.
No one heard what Jesus said to the youth. And perhaps that’s because Jesus just held him in silence, just listened to him as his demonic fury raged itself out in the grace of being heard. I know for myself that the greatest wisdom comes from friends who listen.
The Transfiguration story celebrates the revelation of Jesus’ glory. But what would change in our spirituality if we found his glory revealed at the base of the mountain instead of the heights? What if we found his glory revealed in the attention he gave to youth who needed to be heard? What if our listening to Jesus lead us to listen like Jesus?
Christians often take on new spiritual disciplines during the season of Lent. This Lent, I hope we can all find ways to listen better and more deeply to each other.
It might mean listening to the youth whose behavior seems strange. It might mean listening to the neighbor who seems so cranky. It might mean listening to someone tell the story of injustice they’ve experienced. Listen, not to jump in with our fix, but listen because someone telling their story can bring healing.
This morning I pray you will leave with eyes open to see God’s beloved children and ears to listen to them because God’s glory is found down in the valley when we listen to each other. Alleluia and Amen.