Sermon: Do not be afraid

Sermon for Western Heights Uniting Church
Transfiguration, 23rd of February 2020

Exodus 24:12-18
Matthew 17:1-9

‘And [Jesus] was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him.’ It’s so strange, the transfiguration. Some commentators suggest that what we have here is a post-resurrection Easter vision, or a vision of the end times, when Moses and Elijah were expected to appear, being read back into the ministry of Jesus. But I don’t think the Transfiguration is a vision. I think it is a ‘story’.

Stories aren’t seen as particularly important in our fact-based, scientific, world. The word can even mean ‘lie’; when we tell children ‘don’t tell stories’. And yet stories are essential. We understand ourselves and our world by listening to stories; we create our identity through them; we explain our experiences to others by telling them our story. This is particularly true in the church. We explain who we are and, more importantly, who God is, with story.

The Christian story is the story of God’s actions in the world and the story of believers’ experiences of God. It includes the over-arching story that began at creation and will be completed at the end-time; the gospel stories of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus; the myths that use imagination to reach a deeper truth (like the stories of Adam and Eve); the experience of Christians throughout history; our experience of God here and now. We exist as Christians within the Christian story, and we understand our faith through it. The story that we hear today, the story of the Transfiguration, is one story within the broader Christian story, and it is a story that tells us important things about Jesus’ relationship with God and about our own faith.

Some people are scared of the idea that the Transfiguration is a story. The author Madeleine L’Engle, whose most famous book is the children’s fantasy A Wrinkle in Time, has said:

… we should be less restricted than we are. We are not supposed to be limited and trapped. As a child it did not seem strange to me that Jesus was able to talk face to face with Moses and Elijah, the centuries between them making no difference … As I read and reread the Gospels, the startling event of the Transfiguration is one of the highlights. You’d think that in the church year we would celebrate it with as much excitement and joy as we do Christmas and Easter. We give it lip service when we talk about ‘mountain-top experiences,’ but mostly we ignore it, and my guess is that this is because we are afraid … We are afraid of the Transfiguration for much the same reason that [some] people are afraid that theatre is a ‘lie,’ [or] that a story isn’t ‘true’ – that art is somehow immoral, carnal and not spiritual.[1]

Here, today, let’s not be afraid of the Transfiguration. Instead, let’s look at the truths it has to tell us.

The lectionary has paired the Transfiguration story with part of the story of God’s revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai, reminding us again that in Matthew’s gospel Jesus is the new Moses, the one who provides the authoritative interpretation of the Law. The Transfiguration, with the cloud, the six days, and the three companions, is reiterating an event in the life of Moses. Just as the Law given to Moses on Mount Sinai nourished the people of Israel during their forty years’ journey to the Promised Land, so remembering the glory of the Transfiguration is intended to nourish Jesus’ closest disciples as they accompany Jesus through his Passion, and it’s intended to nourish us during the forty days of Lent.

The story of the Transfiguration begins by saying ‘six days later’. Six days ago Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, and Jesus then made the first prediction of his suffering and death (Matt 16:16, 21-22). That ‘six days later’ reminds us that we need to read the Transfiguration story in the light of Jesus’ approaching death. The next time that these three disciples will be alone together with Jesus will be on the night when he’s betrayed, when Jesus prays alone on the Mount of Olives while the disciples sleep. The revelation of the glory of God in Jesus on the mountain can only be understood by looking at the cross, seeing him as the suffering Messiah. This is why Jesus orders the three disciples to tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man is raised from the dead. It’s only after both the crucifixion and the resurrection that the glory of God can truly be understood.

As at Jesus’ baptism, the voice of God claims Jesus as Beloved Son and praises him. But something new is added: ‘listen to him!’ Jesus is still God’s Son, the Beloved, and with him God is still well pleased, but now God’s message to those listening is not just about Jesus’ identity. It is also about what they should do in response. The Sermon on the Mount showed us Jesus the Teacher. On that mountain Jesus gave his disciples the beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer and told them to be salt and light in the world. Now on another mountain God confirms Jesus’ teachings.

The story of the Transfiguration reveals Jesus, but it also reveals to the disciples something about themselves. At first Peter, James and John seem to cope well with Jesus’ transformation and the appearance of Moses and Elijah. Yes, Peter does suggest making three dwellings, but Matthew, unlike Mark, doesn’t tell us that this is because the three were terrified and Peter didn’t know what to say (Mark 9:6). It seems to have simply been an understandable, if misguided, attempt to hold on to the moment. The fear comes, instead, when God’s voice comes from the bright cloud. The people of Israel said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.’ (Exodus 20:19) When God does speak at the Transfiguration the disciples fall to the ground and are overcome by fear. It’s a natural response; I don’t think any of us would be braver. Then Jesus comes to the three and touches them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ When they look up, they see no one but Jesus.

‘Do not be afraid’ is one of Jesus’ key messages. It’s what he says to the disciples when he walks on the water and they think that he’s a ghost: ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’ (Matt 14:27) It’s what Jesus says to the women after his resurrection: ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me’ (Matt 28:10). Here Jesus doesn’t just tell the terrified disciples not to be afraid, he touches them. The unmediated voice of God, the presence of God in the light and the cloud, is overwhelming, but the presence, the touch, of Jesus is comforting. God, Creator of the entire cosmos, so vastly beyond our comprehension, comes in Jesus to comfort the fearful. The story of the Transfiguration is a revelation of God’s glory but it’s also, paradoxically, a revelation of the warmth, kindness, and gentleness of Emmanuel – God with us.

All good stories tell us something about ourselves and about God. Madeleine L’Engle puts it this way: ‘when we are at a play, or looking at a painting or a statue or reading a story, the imaginary work must have such an effect on us that it enlarges our own sense of reality.’[2] When reading the story of the Transfiguration we may recognise that we are just as afraid of a direct encounter with God as were the people of Israel who trembled at the sound of thunder and the sight of lightening on one mountain (Exodus 20:18) and as Peter, James and John were when a voice spoke to them from the cloud on another mountain. It would be utterly terrifying to have an unmediated encounter with the Creator of the cosmos, as the people of Israel knew. But in this story we also encounter a God who is the gentle hand laid comfortingly on the shoulders of the terrified. Our sense of reality is enlarged to include a God who says to the disciples who will desert and betray him: ‘do not be afraid’. Whenever we are scared, this is something to hold on to. This is a message from this story, an expansion of our sense of reality. The Creator of the cosmos does not want us to be afraid. God is always with us, touching us gently on the shoulder and encouraging us to rise. Thanks be to God. Amen.

[1] Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art, New York: North Point Press, 1995, p. 80.

[2] Walking on Water, p. 79.

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