Filling Space with Empty Words, Transfiguration Sunday, Mark 9:2-9

A sermon delivered by Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min., 2/14/2021

Turn in your Bible to Mark 9:2-9. It literally falls in the very center of Mark’s Story and serves as a continental divide of sorts for the gospel. The first half of Mark has laid out who Jesus was and described the works he did: He preached; he taught; and he healed.  He demonstrated authority over the courses of nature and unexplainable demonic influences. The first half of the Story leads us to this point: The revelation of the glory of God in Jesus.  The second half of Mark’s gospel describes how well the world understood and responded to this revelation of Jesus’ true identity. As we approach the season of Lent, we will have forty days to wade into the Story of how the religious, political, and economic systems rejected this revealed identity. We will also have the opportunity to reflect on how each of us has rejected it as well.

In the chapter leading up to today’s reading, some pretty exciting things have happened that point to the fact the disciples were still not really “getting it” when it came to Jesus.  Peter has told Jesus that he is the Christ of God, which is all well and good, but when Jesus began describing what that really entailed, Peter flinched (Mk 8:30-33). Jesus’ understanding of what it means to be the Christ of God did not align with Peter’s triumphalist view. Jesus even sternly told Peter, “You’re acting like the Evil One; get behind me.”

 So this morning, we hear Jesus call three of his disciples to join him on an outing. Peter, James, and John have accompanied Jesus before on these special trips like the time they were invited to the bedside healing of a twelve year old girl in Mark 4.  Later in Mark’s Story, we will see Jesus invite this group again to stay with him while he prays alone in the Garden of Gethsemane. Peter, James and John were the first line of Jesus’ spiritual support system[1]. These were his proverbial soul brothers who knew him better than anyone!  Well, at least thought they did. Listen closely to this compact and rich encounter. Listen to the Word of the Lord!

Mark 9:2-9

Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and John, and led them up a high mountain apart, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his clothes became dazzling white, such as no one on earth could bleach them. And there appeared to them Elijah with Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, for they were terrified. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him!” Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.

As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead.[2]

So, let’s unpack our text. For a person acquainted with the Jewish spiritual stories, you would immediately hear all types of Old Testament allusions in our text.  You have the great prophets mentioned and you have earnest disciples encountering God on a high mountain. There is familiarity to this Story. We should know where it’s headed and be able to call out the punchline before the Story is even finished! Like a simple math equation, Great OT Prophets plus a High Mountain plus a Select Few People equals an epiphany, a revelation! We know that God shows up at these times!  God speaks through burning flames in bushes and clouded and misted mountaintops. God reveals Godself on the top of mountains through wind, earthquakes, with booming voices and sometimes just through gentle whispers like with Elijah.

Friends, this is now the second time God speaks in Mark’s Story.  The first time was at Jesus’ baptism when a voice from heaven said, “You are my son, the beloved.”[3] The second time is today but this time God lets others hear the declaration as well: This is my Son, the beloved. Listen to him!

I don’t know about you, but in my imagination I can hear a tone of annoyance in God’s voice when Peter, James and John are told this. Think about it: They are invited to the mountain whereupon they witness the mystical, spiritual revelation of Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah! Not only was Jesus talking with them, but this is the moment when Peter, James, and John get a glimpse of the heavenly glory of who this Jesus is! This Jesus of Nazareth is the Christ of God!  What an ecstatic spiritual moment and experience for these three disciples!  What a privilege it is to be there, to hear conversations only angels are able to hear! What a magical, luminous moment!

And then Peter starts talking.

He interrupts the Divine board meeting. 

Dear Peter. Once again, he opens his mouth and sticks his foot in it. Once again, he is presented with an opportunity to fully see Jesus for who Jesus is and misses the point. I’m grateful Peter is loved and is close to Jesus because that gives me hope for you and me as well!

We don’t fully get it either if we’re honest.  We like Peter want to turn our encounter with the glorified Christ into a personal moment on the mountaintop. We like Peter fail to see that Jesus is not on the same plane as Moses and Elijah; Jesus is not another prophet but is the very Presence of the Divine I Am! Like Peter, we have an encounter with the Living God and we get uncomfortable and feel we have to do something.

God’s reply, “This is my Son, the Beloved. Can you hush up and just listen to him!” Maybe God is trying to tell us don’t just do something but simply sit there and be still for him! Listen to what Jesus, the Beloved, has to say!

In fairness to Peter, he does what we all typically do. We like to fill space and silence with empty words.  When there is a lull in the conversation, when something spectacular happens, we feel the need to hit the pause button on this awe-filled experience and interrupt it. Like a father to a teenaged son who is trying to instill a life lesson at a poignant time, God is telling Peter, “Won’t you just hush up and pay attention!” Peter’s busyness gets in the way of his ability to see who Jesus really is. Instead of just being consumed in the moment, taking it in, seeing how Jesus is similar but oh-so-very different from Moses and Elijah, Peter disrupts the moment. As soon as Peter opened his mouth, the glorified encounter was over.

We don’t like silence. We get uncomfortable in silence. Silence can feel overwhelming and heavily present. So we open our mouths and say something silly to fill the empty space and void. For example, a friend may say to you and me, “My child just died from cancer” but instead of sitting in that holy moment and experience the pain and loss of your friend, you or I feel uncomfortable and say something that makes us feel better like, “I guess God needed them more than you right now.”  What!?

Beloved, as we begin the change of season from Epiphany to Lent, we are invited into prayerful, thoughtful, silent and contemplative reflection on what happens to Jesus in the second half of Mark’s Story leading to persecution, arrest, and crucifixion.  It’s a time we are invited into the space where we hold our own pain, our own loss, our own disappointment up to the Glory of Christ and just sit with him. We are invited to be still and simply be in his transfigured Presence soaking up what the Spirit is trying to teach each one of us in our own place. But we have to be still.  We have to learn to be comfortable in the silent and sometimes uncomfortable Presence of God.

Over the years, you may have picked up on a tradition I have at the beginning of every worship service. I invite us to be still and listen!  “Shhhh!” I say, “The Spirit of God is in this place.”  Have you wondered why I do that? It’s to call us back to the Mount of Transfiguration where we like Peter, James and John surround ourselves with Prophets and stories from old and can sit in the Presence of God…if only we would be quiet and listen!  Amen.

© 2021 Patrick H. Wrisley, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, FL. 33301.  Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.

[1] See Mark 14:32 ff.

[2] New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

[3] Mark 1:9-11.

About patrick h wrisley

A Mainline Presbyterian Orthodox Evangelical Socially Minded Prophetic Contemplative Preacher sharing the Winsome Story of Christ as I try to muddle through as a father, friend, head of staff, colleague, and disciple.
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