Awed to Silence

The Festival of the Transfiguration, Year B
February 22, 2009
Mark 9:2-9

In the name of Jesus, the light and life of the world: Grace, Mercy, and Peace be to you.  Amen.

It is a rite celebrated each December . . .
    the annual bombardment of year-in-review news specials,
    person of the year features in weekly news magazines,
    and countdowns of top songs, movies, and television shows.
I remember how as kids we’d sit, with great anticipation each New Year’s Eve,
    gathered around the stereo system in my dad’s house,
    listening to the countdown of the year’s greatest hits,
    wondering, hoping, crossing our fingers,
        that our favorite song would end up at the top of the chart,
        the last song on the list, the best song of the year, played at midnight.
    Leading up to that final song, we’d hear all the other songs,
    and where they landed on the list:
        some disappointments:
            from 1984, what do you mean “Let’s Go Crazy”
            by Prince and the Revolution came in only at #23?
        and some surprises:
            again, from 1984 – Ray Parker, Jr. singing “Ghostbusters”
            was really the 10th best song of the year?  I don’t think so.
Yes, at the end of the year, we look back.

Today is the end, not of a year, but of a season,
    the season of Epiphany,
    a season, beginning with the Baptism of our Lord
        and ending today with the Transfiguration of our Lord,
    in which the church marks the appearance and manifestation of God in the world,
        the dawning of divine light in our winter darkness.
Following the birth of Christ,
    the season of Epiphany is a kind of introduction to the way God works in the world,
        particularly through Jesus, his message, miracles, and ministry.
So let’s look back, briefly, at some of this season’s highlights:
In the Old Testament we’ve heard wonderfully dramatic stories
    of Samuel and Jonah being called by God:
        Samuel called by a voice in the night,
        Jonah called in spite of his comical reluctance.
We also heard that God’s grace and healing is a gift for outsiders, too,
    as the Syrian general Naaman, an enemy of the people of God,
    was restored to health in the River Jordan.
From 1 Corinthians we’ve listened in on St Paul’s counsel to the early church at Corinth,
    as it struggled with questions of how to live faithfully as God’s people,
        including questions about sexuality and the relationship of culture to church . . .
        questions with which the church continues to struggle today.

In the Gospel texts, we’ve sailed through the first chapter of Mark,
    where we’ve been witnesses to Jesus’ baptism,
    and his proclamation of the good news of God,
        announcing that the kingdom of God has come near;
    we heard, too, his call to follow,
        as Simon, Andrew, James and John dropped their nets
        and began to fish for people.
    finally, we’ve witnessed Jesus’ power to heal the sick and drive out demons,
        demonstrations of divine justice setting people and relationships to rights,
        serving as previews of the kingdom of God.
Epiphany, the first church season following the Incarnation,
    has truly been a time to celebrate and welcome the appearance of God in the world.

What a fitting capstone to this season then is the festival we celebrate today,
    Transfiguration Sunday,
    when we witness Elijah being drawn into heaven on a chariot of fire,
    we hear Paul’s words of assurance about the light of the gospel,
    and stand in awe as Christ is Transfigured on the mountaintop.
After all this – seven weeks of some really awesome stories of God’s work in the world –
    what can we say?
Callings answered, healings performed, demons defeated, and now . . .
    mountain top experiences of the divine.
And so we end this season on the mountain top . . . and what a view it is.

Now, mountain top experiences are often most needed after a period of darkness in the valley,
    after a period of struggle, after suffering.
Yes, a mountain top experience can be a chance to climb up and away for a time of refreshment,
    a time of renewal, a time of rejuvenation.
Throughout the Bible we find mountaintops to be places of divine encounter,
    where guidance and assurance are given to God’s people,
    particularly in the midst of challenging times.

But . . . but it’s kinda funny, actually, that the church in its wisdom
    brings this season of revelation to a close on mountain top,
because if you’ve been here for the past seven weeks
    you know that it’s been quite an exciting ride, quite an amazing journey.
If a mountaintop experience is often a response to times of trial,
    the timing of this mountaintop experience is different.
Today the church climbs the mountain with Jesus, Peter, James, and John,
    at the tail-end of a different sequence;
    not in response to a series of challenges or struggles,
    but as a capstone to a season of light emerging in the darkness,
        a season of visionary hope in anticipation of the Kingdom of God
        at the start of the church’s year.
It’s been a great few weeks!

What can we say, after all of this . . .
    all of this awesomeness of God’s power and love and grace
    that was so dramatically on display for us this season?
What can we possibly say?

Well, after Peter witnessed Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountain top,
    where Elijah and Moses stood side by side with our Lord,
    he blurted out a rather silly suggestion –
        let’s pitch some tents! –
    but the truth is, as verse six tells us, “he did not know what to say.”

Have you ever not known what to say?
Or have you, like Peter, ever uttered ill-conceived words at moments of heightened importance?
I think that there are at least two primary types of situations
    in which we can be struck with the absolute inability to say anything coherent –
    during times of great joy, great love, great awe,
    and, on the flip-side, during times of great pain, great grief, great suffering.

Several years ago my dad somehow got tickets to a dinner event
    at the Phillies Spring Training camp.
It was a chance for fans to mingle with players, coaches and management,
    to ask questi
ons and make a closer connection with their –
    at that time, rather pathetic – team.
And so, I found myself in the buffet line standing next to Bobby Abreu,
    then the rising star right fielder for the Phillies,
    who was, at that time, my favorite ballplayer.
While he and I politely jockeyed for Swedish meatball serving spoons,
    I struggled with what to say to him.
He and I are essentially the same age,
    we both love baseball . . .
But I had a mildly unhealthy obsession with him,
    and he had no clue who I was.
I found myself in awe of this man standing next to me –
    not only of his massive biceps that cast a shadow on my out-of-shape physique,
    but of who he was, or who I imagined him to be . . . I was in awe of his stardom.
Standing there next to this rising superstar, what could I possibly ask him?
Any baseball question would surely sound stupid to this professional,
    and a question about anything else – “Say, have you seen a good movie lately?” –
        would just be ridiculous.
So, I didn’t say anything, except for, “Hey,”
    while offering up a manly head-nod.
The truth is, standing there next to someone I idolized,
    I didn’t know what to say.
I was in awe.

The best I could muster up was silence . . .
    while I soaked up the experience of reaching for Swedish meatballs
    with my favorite baseball player.

When I was a hospital chaplain
    I witnessed too many expressions of grief
    as family members learned that a loved one had unexpectedly died, or
        had suffered a severely debilitating injury.
At the beginning of my chaplaincy I would talk with the other chaplains,
    all of us new at this trade
    and we would struggle with how to act, what to do,
    what to say in response to such gut-wrenching suffering and grief.
We didn’t know what to say.
Many of us tried offering words of comfort, because after all, we’re the chaplains –
    your wife is at rest, your son is with God –
    but these words often had a minimal, or even negative, impact.
We eventually learned to trust that feeling of being at a loss for words,
    especially in the immediate wake of tragedy and grief,
    because there usually aren’t any adequate words to offer in that moment.
Whereas words often distract and lead us away,
    we found that silence draws our attention to the moment,
    turning our hearts and our minds to the grief and pain before us,
    honoring, experiencing, embracing the grief that we share.  Silence.

So here we are this Transfiguration Sunday,
    standing on the mountain top.  What do we see?
If we look back, we see a great season filled with stories of hope and anticipation,
    miracles and grace, stories of being called by God to new life.
And with Peter, our jaws drop and we don’t know what to say
    in response to the magnitude of all that we have just witnessed.
Atop that mountain, the voice of God comes down from heaven,
    calling Peter to listen.
Not to speak.  Not to build tents. 
But to listen, as if telling Peter to take it all in, to simply be rather than do,
    to be still and know that the LORD is God.
And, from this mountain top, if we turn and look ahead,
    we see a tough road before us,
    a Lenten journey calling the church to reflection and repentance,
    a dark season colored purple
        in which we’ll be witnesses to Jesus’ betrayal, suffering, and death,
        when even his closest disciples and friends leave him for dead.
And standing here, on this mountain top, looking at the road of suffering ahead,
    perhaps the best thing for us to do is to keep silent,
    and take it all in.
For surely on that Good Friday, when we’re standing at the foot of the cross,
    gazing up at our suffering Lord, there won’t be much to say.

Dear friends, in a world where constant noise fills the air –
    from 24 hour newscasts to the hum of our always-on computers –
    and in a town where talk is, well, plentiful . . .
    and in a church with dedicated spaces for public speaking . . .
In all this we are reminded this day that, at times, we are called not to speak but to listen,
    not to act, but to take in the holy presence of God.
For whether we are reveling in the first miracles of our Messiah,
    or are walking the Way of the Cross with our crucified Lord,
    the awesome presence of God is with us,
        leading us, guiding us, comforting us, loving us, and, yes, at times
        silencing us . . .
        calling us to listen and look to our Lord
         who is standing before us.

. . . . .

Amen.  And thanks be to God.

About Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. National Guardsman. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.
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