Along with being Valentines Day, according to the Narrative Lectionary, today is Transfiguration Sunday. It’s the day when we commemorate Jesus inviting three of his disciples to go away with him for a time of prayer. When I was approached about being with you today, it was near the end of the four week long season of Advent. In recent decades Friends have paid little attention to the historic and quite intentional Quaker disdain for the keeping of the seasons. Most of us have found it convenient to allow the lectionary to move us through the Christian year. And like most Christians, as we decorate for Christmas, we include lighting colored candles during Advent. Like the majority of the church the season of Advent has become the season of pre-Christmas. We put up Christmas lights, do our Christmas shopping and decorate our Christmas trees. We act like Christmas starts at midnight on Christmas Eve and by sundown Christmas day we are ready to take down the tree. But according to the perspective of orthodox liturgy, the season of Chistmastide has just begun and and it continues until February 2nd, Ground Hog Day, not a universally acknowledged religious holiday.. By the time Punxsutwney Phil is pulled from his lair, we’ve long since taken down all the Christmas decorations we put up during the season of Advent.
Traditionally Advent is not about the birth of a child in a manger. Its purpose is to reinforce the belief that it is Jesus’ intention when he returns to slam the door on the current period of human history. The time when Jesus will return has been given many names: the Second Coming of Christ; the Day of the Lord, the end time and the Parousia. Friends embrace a scriptural understanding of Christ’s return that is quite distinct from the orthodox perspective embedded in the Advent focus. That accounts for why Quakers, early on, refused to follow the liturgical calendar.
In the first chapter of Acts: starting with the fourth verse the text reads: And being assembled together with them, He commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father. “which” He said “you have heard from Me; for John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”And He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, in the all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.
After two-thousand-plus years since the writing of the Book of Acts, the majority of the Christian community continue to live in anticipation of a future return of Christ. Friends have held to a simpler understanding. When Jesus told his disciples that they should stay in Jerusalem because he would return soon, that is exactly what he did. For Friends Christ’s spirit returned at Pentecost, as promised, and that Spirit continues to inspire today.
This was the heart of the Gospel for George Fox and early Friends. Underlying Fox’s message of good news was the firm understanding that ‘Christ has come to teach his people himself.’ No intermediator, like a priest or teacher, nor the institutional church was needed to communicate what Christ had to share with his people. Of course in the 17th century this got early Friends in trouble with churchmen of all stripes. This is the core of Quaker faith, that Christ can and does speak directly to us. Quakers have held that we need not live fearing some other shoe to fall on creation. The second coming occurred two thousand years ago and we can live in that life and power today.
I can’t stress this enough. When the Holy Spirit was given it was given to the community of faith not to individuals. With the communitarian nature of the community of the faithful it is essential that we share our leadings with one another and feel the responsibility of giving each other feed back to clarify or challenge the leading one may have.
As I said before, according to the Narrative Lectionary this Sunday is the commemoration of Jesus’ Transfiguration. We find it reported in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-9; Luke 8:28-36; and referred to in II Peter 1:16-18. The simplest report is that in the Gospel of Mark.
After six days Jesus took Peter, James and John with him and led them up a high mountain, where they were all alone. There he was transfigured before them. His clothes became dazzling white, whiter than anyone in the world could bleach them. And there appeared before them Elijah and Moses, who were talking with Jesus. Peter said to Jesus. “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” He did not know what to say, they were so frightened. Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”
According to the record provided to us by the evangelists Jesus had been extraordinarily busy, doing one healing after another, the last, the raising of a young woman thought dead brought back to service. Despite the miraculous, there was also his human need for rest and restoration. We have stories of Jesus going off, alone, to pray. But not this time. This time he conscripts Peter, James and John to go apart with him.
Jesus’ intent was clear, this was to be a prayer meeting. A meeting for worship.
Evidently in that meeting their heads weren’t bowed and their eyes weren’t closed because they reported what took place. It most certainly would have been awe-inspiring to be in Jesus’ presence while he was praying. But beyond that these disciples saw Jesus in the company of two extraordinary spiritual leaders, a visitation by the two most celebrated persons of their faith, Moses and Elijah.
Hebrews 12 speaks of our being “surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses…” I have to wonder when we gather for worship whether we have that sense of being in the company of extraordinary spiritual guides? That small Meeting for worship became enveloped in a cloud. Is that anything you’ve experienced before? The sense of having a cloud descend and settle on the group; closing in around you, shortening your horizons like a dense fog. Some Quakers have described meetings for worship that feel like that as having been ‘gathered’.
Words failed the disciples. In both the Gospels of Mark and Luke the evangelists admit they didn’t know what to say, and when they did speak they suggested that three shelters be built; one for Jesus and one for each for the two spiritual visitors. The idea was turned down. What happened next in that gathered meeting is important “A voice came from the cloud, saying, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” This is the essence of worship. Not a sermon or a liturgy, not an anthem or a praise chorus. “This is my Son, listen to him”.
Christopher Robin speaks with Pooh Bear. He says “Say, Pooh. Why aren’t you busy?” Pooh replies “Because it’s a nice day” Christropher started to say, “Yes but…” and Pooh interrupts him saying, “Why ruin it? “But” Christopher Robin says “you could be doing something important”. “I am” said Pooh. “Oh? Doing what? To which Pooh replied “Listening.”
I once heard Howard Thurman say that “it is out of silence that all sounds come”. Soren Kierkegaard wrote: “If I were a doctor and were asked for my advice, I would reply: “Create silence! The Word of God cannot be heard in the noisy world of today.”
That’s a lesson Jesus’ disciples learned on their trip up the mountain. When we come to worship, it’s tempting to build structures and follow patterns that memorialize the past, and unfortunately it is as real a problem for Quakers as it is for others. The challenge is to follow the words of the Gospels, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen, listen to him”
David Steindl-Rast wrote what for me is a blessing and a benediction:
May you grow still enough to hear the small noises earth makes in preparing for the long sleep of winter, so that you yourself may grow calm and grounded deep within.
May you grow still enough to hear the trickling of water seeping into the ground, so that your soul may be softened and healed and guided in its flow.
May you grow still enough to hear the splintering of starlight in the winter sky and the roar of the earth’s firey core.
May you grow still enough to hear the stir of a single snowflake in the air, so that your inner silence may turn into hushed expectation.
This message was given to Spokane Friends Meeting via Zoom by Nick Block on 14 February 2021. During that service we also sang the song below:
Teach Me to Stop and Listen
Teach me to stop and listen, teach me to center down,
Teach me the use of silence, teach me where peace is found.
Teach me to hear your calling, teach me to search your word,
Teach me to hear in silence things I have never heard.
Teach me to be collected, teach me to be in tune.
Teach me to be directed, Silence will end so soon.
Then when it’s time for moving. grant that I may bring,
To every day and moment, Peace from a silent spring.