Do Not Be Afraid
Year A, Transfiguration of Our Lord, Matthew 17:1-9
The Rev. Mark A. G. Huffman, Good Shepherd, 2017
There are certain bible stories that are hard to read without imagining yourself in them and to me this is one of them. In spite of all the supernatural sorts of aspects – glowing Jesus, time traveling visitors from the past, talking clouds – this is a story that I think we are meant to see ourselves in and so experience in a first- hand way.
Shortly after telling his disciples that he is going to Jerusalem to suffer and die and that they too must take up their cross and follow in the verses just before this morning’s gospel reading, Jesus takes just three of his closest followers, Peter, James and John up a “high mountain.” The last time a “high mountain” was mentioned in Matthew’s gospel was in the story of Jesus temptation in the wilderness when the devil took Jesus up a high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and told Jesus they could be his if he would just fall down and worship him. This time it’s not the devil but Jesus taking someone up a high mountain but as we will see it is also a place of temptation for Peter, James and John to worship and follow something or someone other than the path of the God we know in Jesus.
It’s also worth noting I think that these three, Peter, James and John who witness the glory of Jesus transfiguration are the same three at the end of story that Jesus takes with him to the Garden of Gethsemane on the eve of his crucifixion where they witness Jesus agony as he prays to God,”Let this cup pass from me, but not my will but thine be done.”
Jesus needs them – and us as well to witness both, because the truth is you can’t understand the one without the other. The Mount of Transfiguration and the Garden of Gethsemane belong together – like Good Friday and Easter. The suffering and death of Jesus on the cross at Good Friday doesn’t make sense unless there is also Jesus Easter resurrection. But also you don’t really understand the meaning of Easter unless you have also experienced the meaning of Good Friday.
When they get to the mountaintop the text tells us Jesus is “transfigured” before them. The word in the Greek in which the New Testament was first written is metamorphomai –related to our English word metamorphosis. Interestingly it’s the same word Paul uses in the letter to the Romans when he tells us, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be metamorphomai, which could be translated transfigured but in that case, in Romans, is rendered as “transformed.” Do not be conformed to this world but be metamorphomai – transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect.” This supernatural vision Jesus transfiguration has overtones of a much more down to earth transformation – a transformation that as Paul tells us can and even should and will happen to us.
It’s important to notice that the transfiguration of Jesus, like the transformation of us is not something Jesus or we do but is something done to us. Jesus doesn’t flip a switch, or do a special yoga move, or even just close his eyes and concentrate like a Marvel comics superhero to cause his transfiguration to happen. This is something that happens to him, that is done to him. He doesn’t “transfigure” himself. He is transfigured. We don’t’ transform ourselves – we are transformed by God’s grace and love at work in our lives. We don’t raise ourselves from the dead. We are raised by a love stronger than death.
His face shining like the sun and with fresh cleaned clothes Jesus is joined for a little chat by Moses and Elijah. Moses and Elijah the two towering figures of the Old Testament. Moses the lawgiver through whom God delivers the people from slavery in Egypt and gives them the 10 Commandments. Elijah the great prophet of God’s demand for justice and righteousness.
Now how Peter, James and John know that it’s Moses and Elijah we don’t know. After all there were no photographs of Moses and Elijah Peter, James and John would have seen and Moses and Elijah don’t introduce themselves. Maybe it was name tag Sunday or they had on football jerseys with their names on the back.
Regardless, Peter and no doubt the others are pretty excited to meet these superstars of the Old Testament and when Peter gets excited he immediately likes to stick his foot in his mouth – which he promptly does. “Lord it’s good for us to be here” Peter says without actually giving any reason as to why it’s good. And then goes on to show that it’s actually not so good, by offering to mess things up by making “three dwellings, one for (Jesus), one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
There have been high mountains of commentaries and explanations written as to why Peter wants to build these “dwellings” or tabernacles or booths, as the Greek word “skaynai” could also be translated. The ones that make the most sense to me are that Peter wants to capture and hold on to this place, this moment of glory. He didn’t much like Jesus telling him that suffering and a cross were ahead not just for Jesus but for him too. He wants to freeze time and build some dwellings so that they don’t have leave this mountain of glory, so that they don’t have to descend to the valley of suffering and the shadow of death that lies below.
But right in the middle of Peter’s babbling a bright cloud – always a symbol or sign of the divine, of God’s presence – “overshadows” them and the voice interrupts Peter in mid-babble saying essentially “Shut up Peter! Jesus knows what he’s doing. He’s doing exactly what I want him to do. Listen to him.”
“Listen to him.” What exactly is it that God wants us to listen to him, to Jesus say?
On the one hand of course I’m sure it means everything Jesus says. From the Sermon on the Mount we’ve read from the last four Sundays where Jesus tells us that “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and “Love your enemies” to Jesus words to his followers just before his crucifixion when he tells us that whenever you give food to the hungry or welcome the stranger you are doing it for him, to him; to Jesus final words in Matthew’s gospel which are literally the last words of the gospel when he tells them and us to “Go and make disciples of all nations and lo I am with you always to the end of the age.”
Certainly it also means listen to what Jesus has just said, that the way to the cross is the only way. That is the only way to Easter is through Good Friday. That it is the path of self-giving service and self-sacrificing love that is the path to life and joy in all its fullness.
But I think most obviously and especially it means listen to the very next thing Jesus is about to say. The very next thing that Jesus says to the disciples and also to us.
“Listen to him.” Thunders the voice from the cloud.
And the disciples are so terrified they fall to the ground, “overcome by (their) fear” the text tells us.
And this is where we, where you come in. What is it that threatens to overcome you in this moment in your life? What burden are you carrying that if it hasn’t already may soon knock you to the ground? Perhaps it’s grief at the death of someone you love. Perhaps it’s lonliness or a dream to long deferred. Perhaps it’s responsibilities and obligations that are becoming too much for you to handle. Perhaps it’s a diagnosis from the doctor or a betrayal by a friend; Perhaps it’s the guilt that won’t let you go, the hurt that won’t heal, the despair you can’t seem to shake.
Only you know what it is that most burdens your life, threatens your happiness, challenges your hope and dreams.
Whatever it is the text tells us that Jesus comes near to his disciples. The same word is used of the resurrected Jesus “coming” to the worshiping and doubting disciples on the mountain at the end of the gospel. He touches them, touches all three of them – an act that always denotes healing in all its other uses in Matthew and so I think we can assume is a healing touch here as well.
And then – here it is the very next thing Jesus says after the voice thunders down upon them and us as well across the ages tells us to “Listen to him.” He says to them, he says to us, “Get up and do not be afraid.” The verb for “get us” in Greek is egeiro, which is the word in Matthew’s gospel that is used for Jesus resurrection. “Be raised” Jesus says. Be resurrected. It’s a command but it’s also a promise, because you can’t raise yourself from the dead right? But God can. And in and through Jesus we believe the promise indeed is that God does and God will.
As Brian Stoffregen says, “These cowering, scared stiff disciples, who are hiding their heads, are healed and raised by Jesus to a new life on the other side of their fear and their failure. And ironically, it is not the “glowing, glorified Jesus who does it, but the down to earth, human Jesus who comes and touches and speaks to the disciples – who I believe also is speaking today to us.
“Do not be afraid” Jesus then tells his first followers and us. As David Lohse writes, This is the hallmark of the Gospel, words perhaps never more needed than now. The fears (we) experience may be different. The threat of terrorism, the prospect of job loss, the potential to betray our national identity and values, the fading possibility of a better future for our children, dread illness, unexpected death, the list goes on. Fear is a part of the common fabric of our lives even though it manifests itself differently. And to all these different fears, the Gospel reply is the same: (“Be raised. Do not be afraid”) Because God is God of the past, present, and future, we need not fear.
This is not the same as saying that we will have no problems, or that we will avoid all harm and hardship. Rather, it is recognizing that when we trust God for our individual and communal good and believe God is with us always, we need not fear. Nor is this to make fear the mark of a lack of faith. We all grow afraid at times. Rather, it is to recognize that God did not create us for death but for resurrection, and so also God does not want us to be afraid but to move forward – even and especially in uncertain times – with courage and confidence.
Listen to him. Be raised up and Do not fear. It’s important to remember that these words are said about and by Jesus as he refuses to linger on the mountain top but comes back down again into the realities of the world – and our life – as he makes his way to Jerusalem. There he will be tried, condemned, and crucified, for the world has no place for the encouragement and hope he offers. But the story does not end with only the courage of one man defying the world. It continues with the promise that God raised this One from the dead so that all of us might have hope that there is more to this life than we can see, that God will be with us every step of our way, and that love and life are (ultimately) stronger than hate and death.
“Listen to him”
Get up, be raised and do not be afraid