“No Words to Say”
I know that it is a terrible trait to admit to, but I have been known, on certain occasions, when I am halfway through a book or in the midst of an intense movie and the suspense has become too much to bear, to flip to the last page, to figure out what happens in the end, so that all my anxiety can be assuaged. I don’t do this often. I try to be good and let the story unfold in due time. But, when the answers are right there, on the last page or found at the click of the google search engine, it’s sometimes hard to resist.
Today is known by many throughout Christendom as Transfiguration Sunday. It is the last Sunday before Lent begins. It is, in many ways, a glimpse at the last page of the book, at what is to come, at the extent of God’s glory-- Jesus, with his clothes dazzling white, as no one on earth could bleach them, talking with Moses and Elijah, saints of another time and place. Jesus, having ascended to heaven, takes part in that everlasting feast just as it has been promised. In this moment, Peter, James, and John get a sneak peak of the future, not just of Jesus’ future, but of the future for all of them. Yet, it’s almost too good to be true. A glimpse at the rest of the story is too much for them to handle. They are terrified.
Being terrified in divine presence is not original to the high mountain where Jesus, Moses, and Elijah had their little chat and mere earthlings, Peter, James, and John, watched from the sidelines, shaking in their boots. Fear of God is a common theme we find in scripture. Fear of the Lord, after all, is the beginning of wisdom, though we scarcely seem to remember. The Hebrew people feared God so much that they wouldn’t even utter God’s name out loud. They also believed that no human could survive direct, face to face, contact with the divine. When Moses met with God in a burning bush his first reaction was to hide his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
This fear was not because of guilt or shame. This kind of fear stemmed from deep reference. It came from a place of awe. This fear was so intense that it made most people tremble in God’s presence, but not because they were afraid of divine punishment. Instead in the presence of God, they became aware of their human inadequacy. They realized in the face of God’s immensity that they were pretty small. I would call this healthy fear. It is the fear experienced when we realized that we are not as in control as we lead ourselves to believe. It is the fear we face when we encounter our own version of God in a burning bush, and we realize that our lives will never be the same. The old way, our former excuses about what we have done and what we have left undone, will no longer suffice. Not after a glimpse of who God is and what God is doing in our world.
This must have been why Peter was so afraid. Because he knew that there was no going back, not after what he had seen in those few brief moments. Jesus in dazzling white, talking with the sage prophets of all time, this was the moment when they truly realized that because of Jesus, their lives would never be the same. As incredible as it might be to come into a deeper knowledge of God, to have divine mystery unveiled, even for a moment, such an experience also changes the course of one’s life. Sometime change is painful, even when it’s ultimately for our best interest. And, like Moses, who was minding his own business, tending sheep, not at all expecting to have this life-altering encounter with the living God, on this ordinary day, Peter, James, and John were also caught by surprise.
Mark’s brevity leaves much room for imagination. We don’t know if Jesus warned them that something was coming. We don’t know if they had a chance to get in the right mindset or brace themselves. We just know that Jesus led them up a high mountain, apart from the rest, and BAM. Without any warning that we can see, Jesus was transfigured.
This scene was unlike anything they could have imagined. It was otherworldly. It was holy ground, a thin place where heaven and earth met, where the divine and human intermingled. In this most splendid moment of God’s glory, this moment different than any other moment ever experienced by Peter, it’s perplexing how he responds, what he says and does.
Jesus is shining like the sun. Moses and Elijah are there with them. Yet, Moses and Elijah are dead. It’s hard to put this in perspective, but think about what it would be like to be in the presence of people who you know are dead, individuals only known through legend and story. It’s as if Abraham Lincoln or FDR or martin Luther and St. Francis of Assisi appeared, someone you had only ever heard of. And, suddenly these people are standing before you, as if they are alive again. It would be a mind blowing experience.
But, what does Peter do in the presence of this other-worldliness, in the presence of what could only be described as an act of God? He stammers out this statement to Jesus, “Teacher, is it good for us to be here?” I am pretty sure that Peter would have rather been anywhere else, anywhere in the world. In his fear and confusion, Peter is overcome with some version of diarrhea of the mouth. He is reeling. His world has been turned completely upside-down. He is grasping straws. Probably trying to make himself useful, he says, “Let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah. Anything to make order from this chaos. Anything to return to the realm he knows and understands. Anything to get back to his comfort zone.
As the text tells us, Peter did not know what to say. There were no good words, no right words, which could do justice to this scene. There is absolutely nothing that Peter could have said which would have been a fitting response to this glimpse of God’s glory, to this moment of heaven and earth come together as one. He didn’t know what to say because there was really nothing to say.
I think most of us have had a Peter moment or two in our lives when we, too, just don’t know what to say. Maybe it is because what we have witnessed is too unbelievable to respond with our words. Maybe it is because we know, deep down in our hearts, that an encounter with the sacred, whether it be on the battlefield or in a hospital room or holding our child for the first time, in these holy moments, we are not called to speak or to do, but we are called simply to kneel, to take the sandals off our feet for the ground upon which we tread is holy.
When I was in Army chaplain school, we spent much of our time in the classroom dealing with the subject of death and dying. Most pastors, no matter how young or novice, have had some kind of encounter with death. I had just come home from almost two years as a pastor in South Africa where I spent much of my time in the midst of death. The subject was not new to any of us.
One day, one of the chaplains asked us to consider this question: If you knew that someone was dying in a matter of minutes because there was nothing that the doctors could do, and you, as chaplain were brought in to spend those final moments of life with the soldier so he or she would not be alone, what would you say? Many of my colleagues jumped to answer. Some wanted to spend those last few moments witnessing Jesus to the soldier, ensuring that he or she have one last chance to get saved and go to heaven. Others offered a scripture text, a favorite psalm which might bring comfort. For almost an entire year I have mulled this question in my head to come to this conclusion. I might not need to say anything at all. To witness this thin place where heaven and earth meet momentarily, to be on holy ground is to be in the presence of the living God. Sometimes there are simply no words.
Of course, not speaking is a lot harder than it may seem. We all experience a little diarrhea of the mouth. Many of us shy away from an awkward silence or think somehow that even when we don’t know what to say, nonetheless, we have to say something. This was Peter, up on that mountain. He didn’t know what to say, but he said something anyway. And, no sooner did he say it, did God’s voice overshadow him with this reminder, “This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him.” God’s words were nothing new. Peter, James and John already knew these things, but perhaps they just needed help remembering. In such a glorious moment, just God’s simple reminder.
“This is my Son,” God said from the cloud, “Listen to him.” I guess we need help remembering too. While we may not have witnessed the Transfiguration, we have all had moments, when we are least expecting or prepared for them, when we find ourselves upon a thin place, when we meet God, face to face. In many ways there is no going back. Such an encounter changes everything. It is okay to be afraid. You are in good company. When you find yourself in the presence of God, and there are no words to say, simply kneel down and remove the sandals from your feet. That will be enough. Amen.