Wonder, Joy, and Fear

Sermon for Sunday, March 2, 2014Ÿ || Last Epiphany A ||Ÿ 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:

whitewizard“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.

Wake Up, Jerusalem

An interview with Peter, James, and John about the Transfiguration, performed March 6, 2011 as the homily.

The morning news show in Jerusalem is interviewing the disciples Peter, James, and John about Jesus’ Transfiguration. Since the news show didn’t pay much attention to Jesus until his trial and death (they never reported his Resurrection, considering it hearsay from biased sources), this interview is happening after Jesus rose from the dead. The disciples could not have talked about it beforehand without breaking Jesus’ command, after all. The interviewer is Benjamin Bar-Reuben of Bethlehem.

Benjamin: (talking to the camera) Welcome back to Wake Up, Jerusalem. I’m your host Benjamin Bar-Reuben of Bethlehem. It’s three weeks after a very eventful Passover here in Jerusalem, and today I’m joined by three special guests who you’ve met before on the show, (gestures to the others) Simon Peter and James and John, the sons of Zebedee. These three fishermen from Galilee were all followers of the late Jesus of Nazareth. (turning to the trio, and voice full of concern) Before I go any further, let me express my condolences for the loss of your teacher. He was by all accounts a great man.

James: Thank you for your kind words, Benjamin. But while we grieved his loss for a few days, something miraculous happened…(Benjamin cuts in)

Benjamin: Now, now…let’s not get into that again. The last time you were on the show, we had to cut the interview short because you three started talking about impossible things. People can’t come back from the dead. Everyone knows that.

James: Don’t be so sure.

Benjamin: I want to talk about something else today. I’ve brought you back on the show to clear up some confusing reports of something that happened several weeks ago before the story got buried by the events of Passover. There were some strange localized weather distortions on the top of the mountain – thunder and strange lights, like lightning – but there was no storm that night. Our viewers want to know what happened on that mountain, and you three seem to be the only ones alive that know the real story.

Peter: If we tell you the real story, you’re likely to cut this interview short as well, Benjamin.

John: That’s true.

Benjamin: Just stick with the facts and we should be all right. (grimaces towards the camera) Okay, so why were you on the mountain in the first place?

James: Jesus asked us to accompany him when he went off to pray. He often did that, but usually he would go off a little ways by himself and we would wait for him.

John: But not on that mountaintop!

Peter: It all happened less than a week from the time I told him that I thought he was the Messiah, the Son of the Living God.

Benjamin: But surely that can’t be true now. The Messiah doesn’t die on a cross. He drives out the Romans with great armies at his back.

Peter: That’s what I thought, too, when Jesus told us he was going to die. I know better now.

John: We all know better now.

Benjamin: Leaving that for the time being, tell me what made the mountaintop different. Why the changes in weather? Our viewers want to know!

James: It may have seemed like strange weather from below. But I assure you, what we saw was stranger still. When I close my eyes, I still see the brightness of the light that your viewers thought was lightning.

Benjamin: What was it then?

Peter: It was Jesus. (Benjamin tries to cut in, but Peter continues) You wanted to know and we’re telling you. This is the truth, no matter how strange it sounds. Jesus looked like I had never seen him before. He was dazzling. He was as bright as a signal fire used to keep ships from running aground.

John: It was like the sun had fallen out of the sky and lodged inside him.

Benjamin: Wait a minute. How can that be? How can a man be filled with light?

James: If Jesus taught me one thing, Benjamin, it’s that we’re all filled with light. We just hide it most of the time.

John: That night, we saw Jesus shining with all the light that God blesses each of us with. He didn’t hide any of it. Never has anyone been able to shine like that. But Jesus did!

Peter: That’s why he’s the Messiah, the Son of God, because he shines with God’s light – unbounded, undiminished, like the lights of a city on a hill. He has no thought to cover up the light.

John: And for years, he’s been teaching us to uncover ours.

Benjamin: You mean, I might have this light inside of me, too?

John: Of course you do. Everyone does. From the smallest child in the street to the Emperor of Rome!

Peter: People have always had God’s light in. Some have let it shine brighter than others. We saw two of them with Jesus when his light was shining!

James: Moses and Elijah were there, standing with him.

Benjamin: You could see Moses and Elijah?

Peter: I know it sounds out of this world, but they were there. You know what? I think they have always been there, near us, surrounding us…

John: …But it has always been too dark to see them…

James: …Until Jesus was shining on the mountain.

Peter: Moses and Elijah – and everyone who God loves – their lights never went out. The light just changed. It spread out, filling the space between things, filling the world!

Benjamin: Fascinating! But tell me, what about the thunder!?

John: That wasn’t thunder. We heard – well, it was so loud that we didn’t really hear it – we felt it in our bones. It was the voice of God.

James: God confirmed that Jesus is God’s son.

Peter: And God told us to listen to Jesus.

Benjamin: This all sounds so strange…strange and amazing…amazing and true…I don’t know why, but I believe you.

John: Maybe you are seeing us shine with some of Jesus’ light.

James: When we listen to what Jesus teaches us, we can begin to uncover the light that we spent so much time hiding.

Peter: And we can shine it all over the world.

Benjamin: How can I find the light in me?

Peter: Start be being quiet…

James: …being still…

John: …and listening.