The Sound of Silence

March 3, 2019 (Transfiguration Sunday)

Service for the Lord’s Day

Indian Hill Church

Cincinnati, OH

Exodus 34:29-35

Psalm 99

Luke 9:28-36

Reverend Dr. Stephen Caine

34:29“Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God. 30 When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses, the skin of his face was shining, and they were afraid to come near him. 31 But Moses called to them; and Aaron and all the leaders of the congregation returned to him, and Moses spoke with them. 32 Afterward all the Israelites came near, and he gave them in commandment all that the LORD had spoken with him on Mount Sinai. 33 When Moses had finished speaking with them, he put a veil on his face; 34 but whenever Moses went in before the LORD to speak with him, he would take the veil off, until he came out; and when he came out, and told the Israelites what he had been commanded, 35 the Israelites would see the face of Moses, that the skin of his face was shining; and Moses would put the veil on his face again, until he went in to speak with him.” (Exodus 34:29-35, NRSV)

9:28“Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not knowing what he said. 34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” 36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.(Luke 9:28-36, NRSV)

Let us pray: Holy God, mighty and immortal, you are beyond our knowing,

yet we see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ, whose compassion illumines the world. Transform us into the likeness of the love of Christ, who renewed our humanity so that we may share in his divinity, the same Jesus Christ, our Lord, who live and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

There are some things in life that the only appropriate response is silence.  There is no commentary that needs to be added.

I heard a description of this silence from John Buchanan, the former pastor of Fourth Church in Chicago and he is a season ticket holder to the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.  He writes, that moment at the end of the performance when the audience sits in silence, waiting just a moment before the clapping begins.  It is a moment, just a moment to savor the beauty.  Instead of all the explanations of how the violinist created those sounds or how the pianist’ particular technique created such beauty, the only response the audience can come up with is a moment of silence.

Musicians and Poets seem to get that silence, perhaps more than us regular people.  Mary Oliver, who died in Janaury, is one such poet who gets this since of silence. Her poem entitled “Mockingbirds”.  It goes like this:

This morning

two mockingbirds

in the green field

were spinning and tossing

the white ribbons

of their songs

into the air.

I had nothing

better to do

than listen.

I mean this

seriously.

Wherever it was

I was supposed to be

this morning

Whatever it was I said

I would be doing

I was standing

at the edge of the field

through my own soul

opening its dark doors

I was leaning out

I was listening.[1]

Silence, listening, quiet, sometimes it all that is necessary.

But oh, how often we mess it up.  We think we need words to explain, commentary to make sense of it.  Or maybe it is just plain fear.  Whatever it is, so often we mess up the silence with trying to talk.  I do it all the time.  When I am in a conversation with someone and there is too much silence, somehow, I think it is my duty to fill in the silence, to help bring comfort and ease.  Instead of just being, just sitting in the silence.  I did it just this week.  For the devotional at our weekly staff meeting we spent the first five minutes silently reflecting on our blessings, struggles and inviting God into them. It was so difficult to sit still and be quiet. I couldn’t wait to start talking.

If you are like me in this way, then we are in good company.  Jesus took Peter, James and John with him up on the mountain to pray.  While they were up there, something awesome, miraculous, bizarre happened.  Jesus was transfigured right before their very eyes and Moses and Elijah who had been dead a long, long time were standing there next to Jesus.  When I envision that moment, I think it must have been like that moment of silence right after the symphony plays.  Just silence to take it all in.  Or that moment in Mary Oliver’s poem where nothing else mattered at the moment but to sit and listen and watch and be silent.

But Peter just can’t do it.  It has to be Peter.  Peter strikes me as the one who couldn’t quiet stand the silence.  Whenever there was a moment of silence, he was the one to impetuously say something, anything, to fill the void.  He did it up there on that mountain.  He breaks the moment of awe, the moment of silence with “Master let’s build three tents and just stay here.”  It didn’t make any sense, it wasn’t what Jesus was about.  It was like he was nervous and just chattering away.  The text even tells us that Peter didn’t know what he said.  He was just talking, just filling the void.

So, God comes and makes it clear what all this transfiguration was supposed to mean.  What Peter and the others were supposed to get from it.  A cloud comes and God speaks from the cloud saying, “This is my son, my Chosen, listen to him!”  Don’t talk too much.  Don’t make sense of every little thing, just be, just sit in the silence and listen for Jesus.  Listen to him.

The text tells us that after God spoke, they went down the mountain and they kept silent.  They didn’t speak of it to anyone.  They simply let the experience be.  They learned to stop talking and explaining and chattering so that they might just listen to Jesus.

So much of our religion has forgotten the importance of silence, the importance of not explaining everything, of not even understanding everything.  I read this week of a minister who got a letter from a woman who was struggling with church.  She wrote: “They take all the mystery and awesomeness out of God.  They know all the answers and can tell you what God felt and thought.”[2]

Part of what I take from this transfiguration story is that we don’t have to explain away everything. Sometimes it is okay just to be, well, silent. 

We can’t stay there all the time.  We are not monks or nuns called to a silent existence of prayer.  We have to come down the mountain.  We all to come back to life, to business as usual, to reality.  Jesus came down the mountain and the very next day a father comes to Jesus begging for help for his son.  Jesus didn’t build three tents to stay on the mountain, he came back down to reality, a desperate plea for help from a frantic father. 

Isn’t that the rhythm of our Christian life.  To go from the mystery of the mountain, the awesomeness of God’s holiness to a frantic father who is crying out for help.  “The mysterious holiness of the mountain and the blunt reality of human life and human need and human suffering.”[3]

It is kind of like the picture of the church, or what the church should be.  We come to worship and glorify God.  We are relatively quiet for an hour or so and we sit in the holiness of worship.  Then we leave and life hits us, out there in the world where there are lots of fathers crying out for lots of sons, where there is hunger and fear and need.  The church is worship and service.  You can’t have one without the other.

This coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, when we begin the journey of Lent.  We walk with Jesus for 40 days and 40 nights as he begins his journey to the cross.  We begin it too.  We will have lots of time to talk about Lent and think about what it means, but I want to challenge us before it starts to think of this Lenten season as being up there on the mountain with Jesus.  Not to talk too much and try to put words to it so much, but to have time for silence, for quiet, for listening.  We’ll come down the mountain with Jesus.  We will come down to busy lives and frantic cries for help, but we need that mountain.  So, figure out where and how and when you are going to be silent and listen and simple be this Lenten season. 

I close with part of another poem, In Silence by Thomas Merton, American Trappist monk, writer, theologian, mystic, poet, social activist.

Be still

Listen to the stones of the wall

Be silent, they try

to speak

your name.

Listen

to the living walls.

Who are you?

Who are you?

Whose silence are you?[4]

          And from Psalm 46 “Be still and know that I am God.” 

So, let’s try it, just for a moment.  Let’s sit in silence.  Let’s just be for a moment.

Let us pray: In the silence of this hour, O God, speak to us of eternal things.  Prepare us for the walk down the mountain, down to your children, the ones in need.  Give us hearts and spirits and faith to care.  Speak to us of your will for our lives and for your world.  Amen.


[1] The Atlantic Monthly Company, Feb. 1994, Volume 273, No 2, page 80 Copyright © 1994 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved. https://www.theatlantic.com/past/docs/unbound/poetry/atlpoets/oliv9402.htm

[2] Reverend Dr. John Buchanan, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, 2-18-10

[3] Ibid.

[4] In Silence by Thomas Merton, http://www.poetry-chaikhana.com/blog/2013-09-27/thomas-merton-in-silence-2/

The Strange Islands: Poems Hardcover – 1957