Sermon Briefs: Luke 9:28-43
David Albert Farmer, editor of Pulpit Digest, once offered a sermon on the Lukan Transfiguration passage.1 He opened with a story that made the rounds in his college days. A student was called on to give a demonstration speech, one of the three or four basic types of speeches everyone had to offer during the term. She took her place at the lectern and stood there, wordless, for almost the whole time allotted for her speech—three to five minutes. There was much nervous shifting and fidgeting in the room. Most thought she had forgotten what she wanted to say and was paralyzed. Finally, to everyone's surprise, she uttered only three words: "Silence is golden," and returned to her seat. She received an A.
The audience was able to experience the precious nature of silence. Many of us would do well with a similar lesson. The narrator in The Prince of Tides said, "If I turn on the television because I cannot stand an evening alone with myself or my family, I am admitting my citizenship with the living dead."2 A visit to any college dormitory will reveal the large number of people addicted to day and night noise.
A week or so after Jesus taught his disciples about the consequences of following him, Farmer says, he took Peter, James, and John up on the mountain for a prayer retreat. When Moses and Elijah appeared and Jesus' face began to shine, the disciples awoke from sleep. They were dumbfounded, which is not a bad thing, considering the circumstances! But Peter, not knowing the value of silence, leapt up and began rattling on about making dwellings. As he babbled, a cloud overshadowed them, and the voice from the cloud said, "This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!"
It is sometimes good to listen in holy silence, waiting for the things God wants to say to us.
Patrick Willson's sermon on this passage3 considers the uniqueness of this story, set alongside other scripture stories. This is not a wonder or miracle story, but something else altogether. While the disciples didn't know what to say, though Peter tried, twenty centuries of Christian faith have not improved the situation. We still don't know what to say. Scholars, preachers, all fall back on telling the story as best we can.
We wonder what really happened, but here is the story, and it is all we get. We wonder what it means, and again the story is all we get. Do such things happen? We can speak from our own experience, either a yes or no, but from the Bible we get the story only.
Luke understands our desire to ask "how." How do these things happen? They happen in prayer, in worship. These are major concerns for Luke, whose gospel begins in the temple with the elderly priest Zechariah, and ends with the disciples continually in the temple blessing God. Luke tells the story of the Transfiguration as a story about prayer.
Sometimes, silence is the best response to God's self-revelations. After this episode, Luke says, "they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen." We can understand.
Harlan Shoop is associate pastor of University Place Presbyterian Church in Tacoma, Washington. In his sermon, Discovering Prayer: The Lord of Prayer, he says that Peter's words—however we take them—came from a desire to worship God. C.S. Lewis says it's natural to praise and pray. All enjoyment overflows to praise. "In praising, God shows up on the wings of our praise...we cannot control what God is going to do when we begin to praise. We can only be there in anticipation," we have to be ready to hear.
There is a story about a man who came home from work every day, asking his wife if anything new had happened. Then he would grab the newspaper, sit down while she talked, and periodically mumble, "Mmmmm, hmmmm." One day she decided to put a horse in the bathtub. When he came home and started reading the paper she began talking and said, "Oh, yes, there's a horse in the bathtub." "Mmmm, hmmm," he said. Then a while later he went into the bathroom and said, "Mary! There's a horse in the bathtub!" She said, "I know, I told you so, but you didn't listen."
We need to be ready to listen.
George Chorba, pastor of First Presbyterian Church of New Vernon, New Jersey, connected Luke's Transfiguration account to memories of learning to draw in a communion meditation. He remembers a childhood drawing of an island with a palm tree and a sun dropping below the horizon. He remembers thinking, "This is good! This must be what an island really looks like."
Of course, he had never seen an island or a palm tree. And soon his teacher was by his desk saying, "That's not how you draw palm trees," and with a few strokes of her pen, she made his trees look proper. And, says Chorba, "I've never drawn again."
"The power to imagine is the foundation of all art and religion," said Dr. Chorba. Imagining God may be a lot like that childhood experience. Lots of people are only too willing to tell us what God looks like, so we stop imagining.
When we are in worship, we are before the very God who spoke to the disciples about Jesus. We come to worship not to be told what God is like, but to be in the presence of God. "I have seen your faces when that happens," says Chorba, "more fully yourselves than at any other time."
1. "The Need for Silence," Pulpit Digest, January/February, 1993, pp. 27-31.
2. Pat Conroy, The Prince of Tides, Bantam, 1986, p. 551.