“Left Speechless”     Luke 9:28-37 February 14, 2010

There are times when saying nothing is the wisest insight we can offer _ both individually and as the church. Sometimes, the most significant and spiritual thing we can do is to say nothing. Nowhere is it written that, after we become Christians, we suddenly have all the answers.
 
No one really knows what happened during the time Jesus shared with the three disciples on the Mount of Transfiguration. Nobody even knows where the Mount of Transfiguration is. All we really know is that Jesus and his three closest friends climbed a mountain of prayer and entered the presence of God.
Last week, during worship, Isaiah saw God “fill the temple” and was overcome by God’s awesome majesty. (Isaiah text) When Moses came down off the mountain with the 10 Commandments, his face shone because he had been in the presence of God.
 
In today’s text, something wondrous and miraculous also happened, something so radiant and mystical that the afterglow never left Peter. The disciples were given front row seats to witness God’s eternal dimension. Years later, Peter remembered this day, different from all other days, and wrote, in a kind of holy hush: "We had been eyewitnesses of his majesty" (2 Peter 1:16).

"They saw his glory" (Luke 9:32). High mountains stand in Scripture as places of revelation, glimpses of glory, experiences of revitalization, times of transfiguration. The Transfiguration took place during an experience of private meditation and prayer _ not during a public speech or one of Jesus' tutorials to his disciples. It was an intensely personal experience.
(God wants special moments with us.) While words may fail us after such a profound event, a genuine, spiritual experience can easily withstand our own inability to understand it. We need not "talk an experience out" in order to make it real.

Ever notice that in large libraries there are whole floors devoted to "reference books"? We like to be able to put our fingers on the answers as quickly and as easily as possible. As more and more of our knowledge is recorded on easily accessible computer systems, "I don't know" is increasingly taken simply as a sign of laziness, not an admission of truth. However, admitting "I don't know" can be good theology.

Take, for instance, this nugget from Dr. John M. Buchanan, Senior Minister of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago. He tells of receiving “an interesting and important note” from the sixth and seventh grade church school class. It read as follows:

Dear Dr. Buchanan:
We have some questions about Christmas.
1. Did the star stand still?
2. Were the shepherds and wise men real?
3. How was Jesus born if his parents didn't have sexual intercourse?
Please meet us next Sunday and tell us the answers to our questions.
Merry Christmas,
The Sixth and Seventh Grade Church School Class


Dr. Buchanan writes: "Well, my first response was that back in the dark ages when I was in sixth grade, the phrase 'sexual intercourse' had not yet been uttered aloud in my hearing. In fact, one didn't encounter that particular phrase until ninth grade health class, if I remember correctly, and for certain, it was not a phrase one would use in a note to one's minister.

"My second response is that no one ever tells you, nor do seminaries and divinity schools provide training in one of the unwritten lines in a clergy job description, namely, serving as a court of final appeal for questions no one else wants to answer. Parents can always say, 'Why don't you ask your Sunday school teacher about that?' The teachers apparently say, 'Let's ask the minister.'. . .
 
I met the class the following week at a doughnut shop and learned, once again, a fundamental lesson of theological discourse, and that is that 'I don't know' is a legitimate and respectable answer to some questions.
 
And I also discovered a wonderful thing about sixth-graders, and that is they are quite capable of handling the fact that there are some things we do not, and probably will not, understand; and that there just may be more important questions about those things, such as 'What do they mean? What are they saying to us?' The sixth-graders understood that when we talk about the virgin birth, we are not as concerned about Mary of Nazareth's sexual behavior as we are about the nature and identity of her Son."
                                  --John M. Buchanan, Chicago, Illinois, 12 December 1993.
 
The church needs to recognize that sometimes it takes more integrity and conviction to say nothing than to spout off. Choosing to "say nothing" isn't just an easy way out--sometimes it is the

Peter, James, and John got much more than a brief taste. They had one of those intense, ecstatic experiences that might have transformed their lives then and there, except that they didn't know what to do with it when it happened. Sleepy-headed Peter, the text says, practically babbled, "not knowing what he said" (9:33), offering to put up tents and preserve the experience. (Sermon Seeds) 
 
We are sure that he was, of course trying to be helpful. Those of us who think that every situation requires us to DO something, however well-intentioned our efforts, are called back to faithfulness (and perhaps simplicity) by the voice of God in the story: "This is my Son, my chosen, listen to him!"
 
As usual, however, Peter is very much like many of us. We often try to talk our way into understanding, try to process an experience so that we can absorb its meaning and make that meaning part of who we are. That's to be expected, because we humans, after all, are meaning-seekers. But this story is, first, about Jesus and who Jesus is, and the disciples are invited into an incredibly intimate moment with him, when God speaks of God's own Child.
 
Svennungsen points out the difference between Moses' encounter with God on Mt. Sinai and this one, with Peter, James, and John on hand: "On Mt. Sinai, Moses received the Ten Commandments – on the Mount of the Transfiguration, the disciples received only one commandment – listen to Jesus" (New Proclamation Year C 2007).
 
The whole experience up on the mountain may have been "so amazing, so terrifying, that Peter does not know what to say," Ann Svennungsen writes: "Still, he likes it enough to try to hold on to it" (New Proclamation 2007). However, as R. Alan Culpepper observes, Peter's attempt to enshrine his mountaintop experience wasn't what Jesus had in mind:  "Faithfulness is not achieved by freezing a moment but by following on in confidence that God is leading and that what lies ahead is even greater than what we have already experienced" (Luke, New Interpreter's Bible).
 
The Transfiguration echoes the epiphany at Jesus' baptism. It also shares a similarity with the epiphany Moses experienced on Sinai. As Jesus prays, Luke records, "the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white" (v.29). When Moses descended from Sinai after his long exposure to the divine, he, too, is significantly altered in his physical features. Moses' face is transformed; "the skin of his face shone" (Exodus 34:29-35), causing Moses to veil his features from all but a few. Luke successfully draws a powerful connection between an established Jewish tradition and this startling event in Jesus' own life.

Historical connections continue to unfold as now Moses and Elijah -- the representatives for the great Jewish traditions of the Law and the Prophets -- appear "in glory" with the now dazzling Jesus. Only Luke's gospel reveals the content of the discussion held between Jesus, Moses and Elijah on the mountaintop. The three are discussing the impending "departure," or literal "exodus," that Jesus had just predicted to his disciples. The forecast of suffering and death in Jerusalem, followed by a glorious resurrection, are thus integrated into the traditions of the Law and the Prophets. Jesus' choice of the passion route to salvation is validated by two of the most powerful figures in Jewish history.
 
Scholars provide helpful information about some of the details in this story, one that's unusual even for the Gospels, with their many accounts of miracles. Most commentators explain the presence of Moses and Elijah as confirmation that Jesus is in continuity with the faith, the story, of his people, that he is the fulfillment of what has come before. Or, as Richard Swanson puts it so evocatively: "Moses and Elijah…are characters from some of the oldest stories told among Jews. They are more real than Peter, James, and John….more real than Caesar…Quirinius…Pontius Pilate…" 
 
Moses and Elijah aren't just figures from history, "figures not only from a millennium earlier, but…figures who are the stories that are older than old" (Provoking the Gospel of Luke). And N.T. Wright illuminates that connection to what has come before: "The word for 'departure' is exodus," he writes. "In the new Exodus, Jesus will lead all God's people out of the slavery of sin and death, and home to their promised inheritance – the new creation in which the whole world will be redeemed" (Luke for Everyone).
 
But even as Peter makes his offer, the situation changes. Again recalling the familiar events on Mt. Sinai (see Exodus 24:15-18), a cloud now comes to rest on this mountaintop. The disciples are well aware of their tradition and realize that this cloud signifies the approach of the divine. Little wonder that they are "terrified" at the prospect of this sudden encounter. The text is a bit difficult to decipher at this point. The pronouns do not make it clear whether the "they" who enter into this cloud includes just Moses, Elijah and Jesus or if the disciples are also caught up in the mist.

Whatever the case, it is clear that, unlike the divine voice that spoke when the heavens opened at Jesus' baptism, this voice is heard by all present. The words are uttered in the third person as a proclamation to the disciples there with Jesus. The confession and command issued by this voice is straightforward. Jesus' identity is revealed: "This is my Son, my Chosen" (or "Beloved"). The disciples' correct response to that identity is also delineated: "Listen to him" (v.35)!

As suddenly as this cloud had descended, it is gone, and "Jesus was found alone" (v.36). If anything could testify to the power and majesty of the epiphany just experienced, it is the absolute silence that now descends on the usually bantering, chatting, arguing disciples.
 
The text confesses "they kept silent" and "told no one any of the things they had seen." Utterly dazed and dazzled by the images they have witnessed, totally confused about the relationship between Jesus' words about suffering and death and the heavenly voice's assertion that "this is my Son," the disciples could not even begin to discuss rationally their experience. They had finally wised up. They kept silent.

There are times to speak and times to keep silent; not everything needs to be verbalized, questioned, or answered in this life. Finding meaning most often occurs in the presence of God, during times of prayer, and in worship.
Sometimes, especially when in the Presence of the holy, we honor God best by saying nothing.
 
Today is Valentine’s Day—a day for warm expressions of human affection. But not everyone has a loving spouse or supportive family. Percentage-wise, if I remember correctly, more people live alone than people who live with others. Valentine’s Day is fine if you have someone to share it with—we all want to be loved and affirmed. For those of us who are alone, let us remember that God wants special moments with us. Let us pray:
 
Rev. Rosemary Stelz
First Presbyterian Church
Bastrop, Louisiana
 
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