Sometimes God Wants Us to Shut Up
I know that we’re not supposed to tinker around with Bible verses, but there’s one in particular I wish I could edit. Instead of Solomon saying, “There’s a time to be silent and a time to speak,” my altered version would read “there are more times to be silent than there are to speak,” (Ecclesiastes 3:7). The Lord did indeed give us vocal cords, but, for better or worse, we do not come equipped with a mute button. Of course, many times this is a good thing. The tongue is a blessed instrument of encouragement and instruction and admonition. But there are other times, many other times, when the most loving, eloquent, humble speech is silence. At those times there’s no need to comment, preach, advise, but there is a dire need to shrink the mouth and expand the ears. Especially when God is at work, oftentimes the best activity is non-activity, the best speech is non-speech. Sometimes God just wants us to shut up.
I think of Peter, for instance, atop the mount of transfiguration. He and James and John are witness not only to a once-in-a-lifetime event, but a once-in-human-history event. Jesus’s clothes became radiant, as white as light, as no launderer on earth can whiten them. His face shown like he’d opened his mouth and swallowed the sun. And out of nowhere who should appear but Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus about his upcoming exodus in Jerusalem. If there was ever a time to be silent, this was it. Peter, James, and John: soak this all in, absorb every detail, memorize every word. Become nothing but eyes to see and ears to hear.
But in the middle of this breathtaking scene, what does Peter do? He starts jabbering, “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three tents, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah,” (Mark 9:5). Mark says, “Peter didn’t know what to answer” because they were terrified. In his version of the account, Luke gently adds that Peter “didn’t realize what he was saying,” (9:33). No kidding. Really, Peter, you want to build tents? You want to do something besides sit there and drink in every word? You want to turn your back on this phenomenal epiphany of Jesus’ glory to hunt down sticks and branches? You want to interrupt the conversation with Jesus and Moses and Elijah to tell them what you’d like to do for them? I have a better idea: hurry up and do nothing. That’s the most important thing you can do right now. It is indeed good for you to be here. So just be there, simply shut up and be there.
I’m really preaching to myself more than to Peter or anyone else. And, if the shoe fits, you can take these words and apply them to yourself. I would have probably out-Petered Peter, walked up and interrupted the conversation to interrogate Moses about why he wrote parts of Genesis the way he did, or to ask Elijah what it was like to hitch a ride on a fiery chariot, and to seek permission from Jesus to write a blog post or hymn about this really awesome experience we’re having on the mountain.
We feel this need to speak. We sense this urgency to act. We are talkers and doers. It gives us a sense of involvement, of importance, probably even of control. To just sit there, watch, listen, receive—these easiest things are the hardest things. Yet in that sitting and watching and listening and receiving, we are in the perfect position for God to do His acting and seeking and speaking and giving.
Back on the mount of transfiguration, a cloud formed and enveloped them all. And from that cloud came the Father’s voice, “This is my beloved Son, listen to Him!” He said it to Peter. And to James and John and all of us. Listen to Jesus.
Jesus didn’t need a tent atop that mountain. He didn’t need for Peter and his buddies to build him anything, to say anything, to do anything. Then and there, all they needed to do was nothing. Jesus was doing all the doing, speaking all the speaking.
There is, of course, a time and a place for responding to the words of God. We say our Amens and Hallelujahs. We sing our songs and preach our sermons. We recite our prayers and creeds. But the most important times when we are in the presence of God is when we are all ears, all eyes, all mouth. And when we, like baby birds with mouths open wide, receive from our giving Lord the food and drink of grace. When we have our ears stuffed with the forgiving, peace-bestowing grace of Jesus. When we stare open-eyed at the perfect picture of love in the extended arms of Christ as he hangs from the cross of mercy.
In those times, when we sit there and shut up, God does his work. He goes his giving. He speaks his words. And we, sponge-like, absorb the liquid of his love. These are beautiful moments, for they reveal what kind of God we have: the one whose glory is revealed in giving, whose power is shown in mercy, whose greatness is demonstrated in great charity toward us.
God is never more God than when he gives. We are never more human than when we receive.