Sermon for Sunday, March 2, 2014 || Last Epiphany A || Matthew 17:1-9
In the end this is going to be a sermon about prayer, but first I’d like to start with a quotation from my favorite book:
“They all gazed at him. His hair was white as snow in the sunshine; and gleaming white was his robe; the eyes under his deep brows were bright, piercing as the rays of the sun; power was in his hand. Between wonder, joy, and fear they stood and found no words to say.”
Does anyone know what book that quotation comes from? Let me add the next few lines:
“At last Aragorn stirred. ‘Gandalf!’ he said. ‘Beyond all hope you return to us in our need! What veil was over my sight?”
Yes, my favorite book is and probably always will be The Lord of the Rings. Isn’t it cool that J.R.R. Tolkien seems to be alluding to today’s story of the Transfiguration (not to mention the Resurrection) in this passage from The Two Towers?
The coolness of this allusion aside, I think Tolkien is on to something with his description of Aragorn’s reaction to the bright and gleaming figure before him: “Between wonder, joy, and fear they stood and found no words to say.”
If Peter were a little more laconic, Matthew might have written the same thing about the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ Transfiguration. Words fail James and John, but Peter blurts out the first thing that comes to his mind – something about honoring the moment with shrines for their brilliant Lord and his impossible companions. But before Peter can finish speaking his mind, the weather shifts. Sudden clouds engulf them, and they hear a voice. “This is my Son, the Beloved…”
And like Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli encountering the white wizard in the wilderness, the disciples Peter, James, and John stand on the mountaintop, stand between wonder, joy, and fear – and find no words to say.
And this is where we bring prayer into our discussion. How often have you tried to pray and ended up not really having anything to say? You put your hands together, closed your eyes, took a deep breath. You said, “Dear God, it’s me…” And then your mind unraveled. Random thoughts spilled in and maybe you voiced one or two, but then you felt silly because they didn’t really feel special enough for prayer. So you gave up, put the attempt out of your mind, and went about your day.
The trouble is that when you quit you were just on the cusp of a breakthrough. You were just on the cusp of the least awkward silence imaginable. You were just on the cusp of beginning to listen.
While the Transfiguration is not outwardly a story about prayer, we see this same progression. Peter sees Jesus dazzlingly bright there on the mountaintop, and he addresses him: “Lord.” And then Peter’s mind unravels. Random thoughts spill in. He voices the first one: “It is good for us to be here.” Talking gives him some semblance of control, so he plows ahead: “If you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for…”
But the word “Elijah” dies on his lips. The cloud consumes him. Silence consumes him. And between wonder, joy, and fear, Peter stands and finds no more words to say. In the midst of the cloud, he hears a voice. He hears a voice, but not with his ears. The silence remains even as the depths of his being resonate with the truth of God’s words. He feels their truth as a glow in his chest, like a reflection of Jesus’ transfigured radiance. The words shimmer – an afterimage before Peter’s eyes: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.”
And then, I think mostly for Peter’s benefit (as well as ours), God adds the all-important instruction: “Listen to him.” With this command, God gives Peter and us the permission to lapse into silence when we pray. God invites us to be the respondent in the conversation, not the speaker. God asks only that we listen with the ears of our hearts.
So I invite you to close your eyes now and let us practice for a few minutes this silent prayer, this listening that is so hard for most of us. We’ll end the sermon with a long moment of silence, so please know it is intentional. Close your eyes now and we’ll begin.
You do not need grand words lofty enough for the Almighty. You do not need to pen personal litanies worthy of Shakespeare or John Donne. You do not even need the right words. When you come to God in prayer, you need no words at all. You need only the willingness to be patient, to be still. Let the random thoughts dance through your mind before prodding them toward God as tangential offerings. As you sink into stillness, notice not the absence of noise, but the presence of silence – because true silence is a presence, like the cloud that engulfed the disciples on the mountaintop. Notice that the depth of the silence makes unnecessary any words that might now float through your mind. Brush them aside.
As you listen to the silence, as you tune yourself to God’s movement in your prayer, feel yourself suddenly living between wonder, joy and fear. Wonder rises up as a symptom of consciously inviting yourself into God’s presence. Like the disciples viewing their dazzling Lord, you see with new eyes and hear with new ears. Luminous mystery abounds and the only thing you can do is drink in a deep breath of the Spirit. You wonder where God is calling you, and you lose yourself in the wonder of the silent, indefinite moment. And you listen.
Along with wonder comes joy – not happiness, exactly, because happiness is too fleeting an emotion to describe the solid companionship you feel right now. You feel the presence of Christ. You are not alone. You have never been alone. He touches you on the shoulder as he did the disciples after they fell to the ground upon hearing God’s voice. You realize that joy is a natural byproduct of being aware that you are in God’s presence. And you listen.
Along with wonder and joy comes fear. You have laid yourself bare before God. So used to praying the same words in the same ways, you no longer have their protection. You are vulnerable. You realize that if you listen, you might actually hear something. You’re not sure if you’re ready for God to be that present in your life. But then Jesus’ words from our story today rise up from your gut: “Do not be afraid.” You continue to feel the joy of his touch, and you know in a place deeper than normal knowing that he will never abandon you. The wonder returns – more radiant, more real. The silence remains. The wonder remains. The joy remains. But the fear is gone. And you listen.
I invite you to remember this meditation when you bring yourself to God in prayer. As for now, let us remain silent for a moment. Between wonder, joy, and fear you stand and you find no words to pray. So instead allow the silence to descend like a cloud. And listen.