Words for the Sunday before Lent – 14 February 2021 – A cyber sermon from the Vicarage
Text: 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. (Mark 9v9)
God give you peace my Sisters and Brothers.
How good are you at keeping secrets?
When was the last time you were asked to keep a confidence?
Were you successful?
My friend the late Father Timothy Stanton CR (a member of the Community of the Resurrection) was so good at keeping secrets during Apartheid era South Africa that he spent six months in jail for refusing to reveal his conversations with Carl Niehaus (at the time South Africa’s Most Wanted White Man). On his release he said that it wasn’t that bad really as prison food was better than that cooked by his brothers in the Priory and being sent to Solitary Confinement was a godsend to a Priest-monk who was already used to living in a cell.
Some secrets are never to be revealed, some out of principle (as with Fr Timothy), and others out of covenant, such as those whisperings of the heart made between a penitent and their confessor in the Sacrament of Confession.
Other secrets are kept for a season, and as time marches on, they are revealed even by Act of Parliament, (such as the ‘Thirty Year Rule,’) so that we may better understand our history.
But the worst secrets to try to keep are the ones with a ‘Best Before Date’ on them. Those secrets that are to be cherished quietly until the arrival of a big occasion or a special announcement. Those sort of secrets burn inside me. When pushed by those who want to be ‘in the know’ I try very hard to look as if butter would not melt in my mouth, keep a plain face, and refrain from ‘knowing’ looks. It’s not easy is it? Even saying nothing at all can reveal everything!
How do you ‘Keep Schtum’ when you have good news bubbling up inside you? Sometimes I even wish my friends hadn’t told me their good news to begin with!
Which comes to today’s reading and Jesus being a spoilsport. The disciples have struck gold. They get to realise they’ve backed the winning horse. Leaving their nets and their families on the shores of Lake Galilee was paying off. And what can they do about it? Nothing! Having seen the Glory of God revealed in the Son they are given a great big divine Ssssh!
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. (Mark 9v9)
Biblical Scholars tell us that is all part of the Messianic Secret used as a literary device by Mark to keep his listeners on the edge of their seats but that doesn’t make it fair on Peter, James, and John. After all didn’t Mark let the cat out of the bag with the very first verse of his Gospel when he wrote ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God?’ But when the voice from heaven says the same thing everyone has to keep quiet until Easter Day.
Why do this? Surely if people knew Jesus was God early on in his ministry then things would have turned out better? Surely irrefutable evidence that Moses and Elijah were on the side of Jesus of Nazareth would win over the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the Herodians and the Zealots? They may well have been won over, but won over to what? Welcoming all people into the Realm of God’s glorious love or building yet another failed attempt at righteousness through their own efforts?
The sad truth is that the voice from the clouds has been speaking since the very first days of creation but humankind’s ability to listen was seasonal and often only for as long as it took for them to desecrate the message of God’s love by turning it into the lust for personal power.
The disciples are asked to ‘keep schtum’ for fear that they too may fall into the trap of their forebears and so make a shipwreck of their nascent faith and empty the cross of its power. After all in the end (or was Easter the beginning?) all but one of them failed at that hurdle on a Hill Far Away.
But what does this secret have to say to us today? The cat is out of the bag. We know how the story ends. We know that it ends with everyone living ‘Happy forever after.’ Surely this ‘keeping schtum’ is a pointless exercise?
But then the original listeners to Mark’s Gospel also knew about the happy ending. They knew the secret but where still cautioned to keep it. What then, was the lesson being taught?
We know that the first listeners of Mark’s Gospel were being persecuted and often met in catacombs (a place of fear for others but not for them) to avoid capture.
For them to go around shouting ‘Jesus is King’ would very likely see them being the principal guest at their own coronation on a cross. So there was a very good reason for spreading the Gospel sotto voce. But ‘Keeping Schtum’ is about more than not mouthing off about the Messiah it’s about doing what we were told.
The voice from the clouds didn’t say, ‘Go down and tell everyone that you’ve got the best seats in heaven.’ It said, ‘Listen to Him’.
If we are noisy with words about God it’s not easy to hear those words ourselves.
If we are busy telling other people how to be righteous it’s not easy to be righteous.
If we are determined to put ourselves first (read a little further in Chapter 10) it becomes very easy to forget, ignore, neglect, and even abuse the Little Ones whom God proclaims to be the greatest.
Francis of Assisi, known as a great imitator of Christ said, according to legend, ‘Preach the Gospel at all times and when necessary use words’. This is not a counsel of deeds over words, or actions over silence. After all Scripture reminds us that, when asked, we must be ‘ready to give account for the hope that is within us’ (1 Peter 3v15).
We Keep Schtum because we have listening to do.
We Keep Schtum because we have a Redeemer to imitate.
We Keep Schtum because we have deeds to perform.
We Keep Schtum so that when we are asked why we do what we do and live how we live it is not because of our words that those asking become listeners but because of the call the Holy Spirit lays on their hearts. Then they become fellow pilgrims with us as together we climb the Mountain of our own Transfiguration.
[This blog ‘Keeping Schtum’ is copyright © Andrew Dotchin 2021 and may be reproduced without charge on condition that the source is acknowledged]
 An appreciation of Fr Timothy’s life is found in Issue 441 of CR Review