In the Silence
Galatians 5:1-6, 13-16Mark 9:2-9
How comfortable are we with silence?
Silence can be most awkward. In broadcasting, it’s called “dead air,” and is usually due to technical difficulties, not to programming choice. In conversations, it’s called a “lull,” and the proper host or hostess knows how to keep it from happening.
As we see in our gospel text this morning, Peter certainly wasn’t comfortable with the quiet. Jesus has just renamed Peter for his rock-like proclamation of Jesus as Messiah. And six days after this powerful affirmation by the disciples, Jesus invites the inner circle of the twelve – Peter, James, and John – to join him on Mount Tabor, a hilltop just outside of Nazareth that overlooks the Jezreel Valley. And there, on top of the mountain, the three disciples have a mountain top experience. Jesus changes right before their eyes, is transfigured, undergoes a metamorphosis. And as Jesus’ clothes turn this dazzling unworldly white, Moses and Elijah join him for a little conversation.
There is something magical about the whole scene, almost dream-like, where long-gone prophets suddenly appear, and light seems to be shining forth from this wandering rabbi named Jesus. For those three confused disciples, Peter, James, and John, the whole scene is odd, exhilarating, overwhelming, frightening. And added to the strangeness of the moment is this sense of silence that surrounds them all. And Peter, terrified by the whole event, has to break the silence because, Mark tells us, “he didn’t know what to say.”
It is no surprise that Peter wants to speak. We can’t even question his motivation for what he suggests. It is a wondrous moment, frightening though it may be, and Peter wants to build tents, stay a while, soak it all in, prolong the glory and the celebration. But rather than basking in the glow of it all, taking in the silence and the mystery, Peter speaks his mind, shares his thoughts, breaks the calm of the moment.
We’ve all been there, in the midst of that conversation, where everything suddenly falls quiet. And rather than let the silence linger, we think of something to say. “How about this weather we’ve been having?” or “Did you see the paper this morning?” Something safe, not too controversial, not very political or religious, a topic that will gracefully lead the conversation forward just a little bit longer. Maybe fear is too strong a word for our feelings at such moments; perhaps discomfort describes it better. But we can understand Peter’s need to fill the empty air with words. There is something disconcerting about silence.
We are tempted to drown it out. Turn on the TV, the radio, music, background noise, anything to keep the air filled with sound. Why is that? Is it simply that we are used to it, the non-stop onslaught of our 21st century media-saturated society? Is it that the noise helps us to relax, focusing our minds and centering us? Or is it that we simply don’t want to hear what the silence might say to us? There are those thoughts that distress and disconcert: the tasks that need completing, the expectations that need meeting, the relationships that need repairing, the fears that keep gnawing, the doubts that keep pushing, the loneliness that keeps aching, the anger that keeps seething, the sadness that keeps stirring.
But there is also, in the silence, the possibility of stillness, of healing, of reassurance, of faith, of comfort, of joy. There is, in the silence, the possibility of profound listening.
Friends, we here at Oglethorpe Presbyterian Church are in the midst of a tremendous time. There is an incredible energy and excitement. Today, we mark a particular moment in that celebration, as we formally welcome three new members into our fellowship later in the service.
There is palpable enthusiasm for the ongoing work of this place: the ministries of our Food Pantry and Habitat house; the compassion of our work with the Night Shelter and Bargain Shop; the education of our Preschool and Sunday School; the fellowship and spiritual enrichment of our centering prayer and women’s circles and annual retreat. And there is a renewed passion for the possibilities of new ways to share our love for Christ with this broken and blessed world. And at this time, we are in the midst of ongoing discernment. As we continue our gatherings in homes and gather for weekly Bible Study on Thursdays, we continue to ask the same question: who and what is God calling us to be in this time and in this place?
On Wednesday, as I mentioned earlier, we will have two opportunities to gather here for Ash Wednesday. It is the beginning of Lent, of the forty days that the Church reserves for communal reflection and personal introspection as we face the incredible mysteries of the cross. And so, I want to offer up a challenge. During these forty days, we should spend intentional time each day in that wondrous, frightening prospect known as silence. What would happen if we spent a mere five minutes a day in intentional, reflective, awkward, remarkable silence? What if, during the forty days of Lent, each of our ministries and opportunities for fellowship in this place was deliberately marked with periods of quiet and stillness? I challenge us to try.
Could we listen? Could we hear, as our text from Galatians tells us, of the gracious freedom we have received? Would we be willing to hear the Spirit speaking through Paul’s words, that it is in our love for Christ that we are bound to one another as a family of faith? Could we open our ears, our hearts, and our very selves to embrace the freedom that calls us from our brokenness and into relationship with God’s very self?
Or would we, like Peter, be tempted to break that silence?
Let us, just for a moment, assume our place as disciples, as those called by Christ to follow Christ, on the crest of Mount Tabor. Before us, Jesus stands with Moses and Elijah. They are the two great figures of the Hebrew Bible. There they stand, the great prophets of the promise, with the one who is, himself, the continuation of that promise. Both Moses and Elijah have had their share of mountain top experiences with the divine: Moses on Mt. Sinai and Mt. Nebo, Elijah on Mt. Carmel and Mt. Horeb. And there they stand, on Mount Tabor, meeting the divine yet again. For both Moses and Elijah, their departures from the Hebrew Bible were shrouded in mystery. Moses died on Mt. Nebo overlooking the land of Canaan, but his burial site is unknown. Elijah, the story tells us, did not die, but was whisked away in a whirlwind. There they stand, the living and the dead, with the one who will die in order to bring life.
And there it is again, this elusive silence.
Like the still, small voice that Elijah heard from a cave on Mt. Horeb, there is this moment of quiet that speaks to us. And in the presence of these prophets, as our Lord is enveloped in light, and our knees give way beneath us, there is this voice that reminds us who we are and whose we are.
Friends, my sisters and brothers in Christ, fellow disciples, as we begin our Lenten journey this Wednesday, let us linger on that mountaintop just a little bit longer. Just as Peter wanted to build those tents and stay a while, let us hold to the desire that this strange, magical, mysterious moment would last. And as we sit in awed, fearful silence, let us listen ever so patiently and ever so hopefully. And as the silence speaks to us, let us listen as these incredible mysteries are opened before us. And when they are, we will know even more fully who we are and who we are called to be.
My prayer for us, in this time of discernment, as we fold moments of silence into the forty days of Lent, is that we would have the ears to hear. And when we do, may we have the boldness to follow.