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  • Writer's pictureNorthminster Church

"A Time to Be Quiet" by Rev. Jillian Hankamer

February 19, 2023

Matthew 17:1-13

There are times when the best thing you can be is quiet. In fact, science proves that silence relieves stress and tension and replenishes our mental resources. When we’re quiet, our brains can switch to default mode which allows for daydreaming and meditating. Perhaps most importantly, being quiet can regenerate brain cells.[1]

Good teachers know not to answer their own questions but allow time for their students to respond. The best pastors and chaplains understand silence as a valuable part of pastoral care, and monastic communities have embraced silence as a way of being closer and hearing God speak since the third century.

Moreover, being quiet is just good sense when it comes to keeping yourself out of trouble – a lesson I never learned as a teenager – or when you’re less than an expert on a given topic. How fewer arguments would there be in the world if we all took the adage of thinking before we speak to heart? How much healthier would our marriages be if we were as thoughtful with the words we speak to our spouses as we are when picking out a birthday card that’s “just right”? The Bible is full of verses about the value of being quiet. Here’s a handful:

Psalm 141: 3 – Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!

Proverbs 29: 11 – A fool gives full vent to his spirit, but a wise man quietly holds it back.

Proverbs 11: 12 – Whoever belittles his neighbor lacks sense, but a man of understanding remains silent.

Lamentations 3: 26 – It is good that one should wait quietly for the Lord.

Ecclesiastes 9:17 – The words of the wise heard in quiet are better than the shouting of a ruler among fools.

Not only do we live in a noisy world – have you noticed how many things in your daily life make noise? – we’re uncomfortable with silence and our impulse is to fill the void even when silence would be more useful. Even when we would learn more by being quiet. Even when, as with Peter in this morning’s story, the voice that really matters is God’s.

Today is Transfiguration – meaning a complete change of form or appearance – Sunday, so called because of this story from Matthew. This is the last Sunday of the season of Epiphany and the last Sunday before Lent begins, and today is an important bridge within the church calendar, “lean[ing] unmistakably into Lent”[2] while at the same time foreshadowing Easter all from a single mountaintop.

Today is absolutely a day on which Peter should have been quiet.

Six days after foretelling his death, Jesus leads Peter, James, and John up a high mountain echoing Exodus and the story of Moses. At the top Jesus is “transfigured before them” his face shining “like the sun” and his clothes becoming “white as light.” At this moment Moses and Elijah appear and talk with Jesus, ensuring the “echoes from long ago resound in the ears of the disciples (and readers.)”[3] In his recognition of this otherworldly moment, Peter says to Jesus, “Lord it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.”

Perhaps this suggestion seems odd, but as commentator David Lose helpfully notes,

“Some New Testament scholars suggest that it is the appropriate cultic response to what is, quite literally, an epiphany, a manifestation of divine presence. Peter wishes to make a booth, a tent, a tabernacle – perhaps referencing the Jewish festival of Tabernacles – by which to offer lodging for these historic and significant religious figures. Others see in Peter’s suggestion…more a desire to preserve the event…[and] still others…have been struck by this as characteristic of Peter and many of us: when encountered by something beyond our reckoning, our first inclination is to do something, anything!”[4]

You can just visualize impulsive, passionate Peter “jumping up and down with his hand in the air, like an elementary student who is desperate to give the right answer.”[5] He’s sincere as a heart attack, clearly, a verbal processor, and “in his attempt to make sense of the magnificent transformation taking place before his eyes, [he] tries to talk it out, to speak words for the unspeakable,”[6] only to be interrupted by a voice from heaven.

Can you imagine what that must have felt like? To be interrupted by the voice of God? To be shoved into silence by the Creator of the Universe? For the second week in a row Peter speaks before he thinks, filling a silence that doesn’t need to be filled. Then God speaks, not only blessing Jesus for a second time but leaning into Lent by commanding the disciples to listen to Jesus. Considered in the light of the coming weeks in which the disciples will fail to listen to Jesus – or at least to understand what he’s trying to tell them about his approaching arrest, trial, death, and resurrection - this command is poignant and heartbreaking. It’s a command the disciples will absolutely fail at. It’s a command we often fail at.

But did you notice what happens next? What happens after God silences Peter and then stops speaking? From their crouched position – Matthew tells us the disciples fall on their faces in terror –Peter, James, and John feel the touch of their teacher. “Rise,” says Jesus, “and have no fear.” In these words, the promise of Easter is foreshadowed. But Jesus then Jesus instructs the disciples not to tell anyone what they’ve seen until after his resurrection. Why?

Perhaps because the vision is simply too powerful, too rich in meaning. Perhaps “the resurrection is meaningless without the stone, cold reality of death.”[7] Perhaps “there is something about this day, this event, that can’t be understood until after the resurrection.”[8]

But so what? What does this transfiguration story mean for us who aren’t there to be silenced by God or see Jesus transformed? What does it mean for us so far from the joy of Easter with the repentance and self-denial of Lent spreading out endlessly before us?

It means that “all that is left is Jesus.”[9]

In the silence, after the dust has settled and even though we’re scared, the Good News this morning is Jesus hasn’t left us. Jesus, “whose clothes and face [shine] like the sun, the one equal to Moses and Elijah, the one whom the very heavens proclaim as God’s own beloved Son,”[10] is reaching out to us just as he reaches out to Peter, James, and John. He’s saying to use just as he said to them, “Rise, and have no fear.”

When our mountaintop experience with the glory of God is at an end and we have walked down the mountain to our normal lives, all that’s left is Jesus. When the light that shone so brightly fades and the world becomes dark, all that’s left is Jesus. It might be, as it is for these disciples, that the meaning of the mountaintop isn’t completely clear until we’ve returned to the valley. It might be, as it is for these disciples, that we fall asleep only to wake and see Jesus being led away.

But never forget that Jesus’ story contains another mountain, and as his followers so does ours. Gathering in that high place, we’re blessed with a promise that intertwines us with Christ forever. A promise which ensures that no matter where we are, be it mountain top or deepest valley “and all those places in between, Jesus is there, reaching out to raise us to life again.”[11]

If you’re quiet, you can hear Christ speaking even now…“And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

[1] Carolyn Gregoire, “Why Silence Is So Good For Your Brain,” January 9, 2017.

[2] David Lose, “Commentary on Matthew 17: 1-9”

[3] Audrey West, “Commentary on Matthew 17: 1-9”

[4] Lose, ibid.

[5] West, ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Lose, ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.


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