Don’t Be Afraid
Exodus 24: 12-18 & Matthew 17: 1-9
In the magical world of Harry Potter, the students at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry take a class called Transfiguration, with the brilliant and sassy Professor McGonagall. There they learn how to transform their pet rats and pet birds into teacups/ they turn flowers into candles. There is one memorable scene where a student attempted to turn himself into a shark, but he only half succeeds.
When we hear the word “transfiguration,” for the most part, this is what we have in mind- the change of state from one thing into another. And, indeed, the Greek word in Matthew 17 for “transform” is the very same word from which we derive “metamorphosis.” Like, caterpillars into butterflies.
But, today, we need to look past our understanding of Transfiguration. The hard to explain/ supernatural events that unfold in our Gospel reading are not about mere change. Rather they are about seeing/believing/ grabbing hold of what has been there all along. Today we see Jesus. Son of Mary, Son of God. Today we see Jesus as the glorious/exalted Lord of Lords who has been with the disciples day in and day out for years as their teacher, Messiah, and friend.
If there is a metamorphosis/ a transfiguration in this story. I dare say it is not Jesus’, but our own.
Let’s pray to begin our time of message:
Light of Light, as you spoke from the pillar of cloud to Moses and the Israelites, so you spoke from the bright and powerful mountaintop cloud to Jesus and his disciples. May your word live through us today, that we might bear your light and love to the world. We pray this message be redeemed for your glory, Lord. Amen.
The story begins with a long climb up a windy mountain side in the early light of day. Jesus, along with his disciples James, John, and Peter, they all search for a place that will be their church for the day/ a place where they can pray.
There’s a reason, I think, as to why so many of humanity’s most sacred places are high up on mountains. There is something about the climb to get there that is clarifying, like praying with your whole body. The strain of your muscles, the focus of your mind all work together for a singular purpose – to get higher. To tangibly draw closer to the heavens. To climb is to pray.
When Jesus sought to be with His Heavenly Father he often did so atop a mountain. Going some place that was above it all, some place that left the business and the needs of the world far below. He would find a place that was set apart, holy. One that felt closer to God.
And so… with aching calves, and wheezing breath (and with that little buzz that finds it’s way into your ear during a good long climb)… Jesus and his disciples let the distractions of the world fade with elevation. As the morning wanes they finally find what they are looking for- their church. And so they get on with what they came there to do, they sit and they pray.
Now, imagine with me that you are in the shoes of one of these disciples. Through your mind’s eye, I invite you to step into this scene.
You find a comfortable looking place out of the sun. You sit with your back against a tree trunk, and settling in you let your heart catch up with your lungs…
Once you body finds a calm again, you pray what you know to pray and you sit in silence with eyes closed. After a while, you begin to simply listen for God/ for inspiration… and if you are like me… thats when you begin to feel the annoying allure of sleep pull at you. So you let your mind wander and wonder for a bit.
Just six days ago, Jesus had told all of his disciples, that a dark time coming your way…
He had said that, soon, you were all going to Jerusalem, a place everyone knew you were very unwelcome. (As the movement Jesus had begun in his ministry was seen as an assault on the established Jewish way.) Jesus went on to say that in Jerusalem he would suffer and be put to a brutal death. And then, if you weren’t already overwhelmed, he said that after this death, he would rise back to life. Jesus spoke plainly about such things. He spoke plainly of suffering, death, and the impossible.
That night, you remember, Peter was so shocked that he practically shouted at him, “Never, Lord! Never will this happen to you!” And in reply, Jesus shouted back, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns…”. And looking around at all of you he said, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me…”
That news/ that evening’s troubling revelation had been hanging in the air for six days now. And so, as you sit in your mountaintop sanctuary, you lean into the worry you had been holding in check. You let your confusion and your fear flow to God. Perhaps, not knowing the words to pray or what to ask… you offer God the only thing you can- your presence. Prayer enough. Peter, who had dared challenge Jesus on his plain spoken announcement that night, is there at your side, eyes likely closed in prayer. Surely, he too must be thinking of what’s ahead…
But then a strange glow hits your eyelids and draws your attention away from the worry.
You open them just a crack… and past your lashes you see Jesus- You see your friend as you have never seen him before. Standing there radiating light. Face like a flame. Clothes dazzling white. Arms raised in intercession.
Reaching out to the other disciples- you get their attention. Peter’s eyes open and widen, his jaw drops (which seems to mirror your own reaction). They all join you in marveling at this radiant light. Somewhere between terrified and curious, you take it all in… you stand and move just a little bit closer… through the light, the figures of two more men emerge from the glow. Moses and Elijah. Dead men come back to life, standing at the side of your friend. Standing at the side of God’s glory. Somehow, they are here and yet this feel like the old story of Mount Sinai. They are here on earth and yet you know that this is somehow a part of the Kingdom of God.
Peter, at least, has sense enough to recognize the holy ground you now stand on. “Tents!” he says, “We need tent! Remember Mount Sinai? The glory of God came and camped out! We need tents for worship!” Peter was always quick to say something… at least this was an attempt at reverence.
But it would be light capturing a firefly in a jar, you think. It’s not meant to be contained. Something in your heart tells you to just take it in… just receive… the moment. This light wouldn’t last. The Glory of God!
As you marvel, a cloud comes. You can feel it’s cool, wet air wrap around you.
But like a brewing mountain storm… the cold wet air suddenly intensifies. The wind begins to whips the fog around you. It becomes heavy and pressing. This is not the cute little cumulus clouds that you admire high in the sky on a beautiful day… this cloud is active and alive… everywhere! It smells of lightening and waves as it swirls heavily around you!
Peter finally stops yammering about tents, as the hair on the back of your neck stands up.
Through the dense foggy thickness… the light of Jesus/the light of Elijah and Moses pulses brighter than ever. The cloud shades your vision. You strain to see, but then then a rumbling/thunderous voice says, “This is my Son, the Beloved!” The voice come from everywhere. From the very fog that is wrapped around. It sounded close and far away. “Listen to him!” It rattles your bones. “Listen to him!”
Not, listen to me… but listen to him.
Listen to Jesus, the glorious Messiah at the center of it all…. The One who came to save and to serve. The One who was born to die, so that all might have life.
It will be just as He said, you fear. Jesus, your friend, son of Mary, yet also Son of God. He will be brutalized in Jerusalem, he will die… But also, he will defy possibility. He will be resurrected. This man, isn’t only man… he is God. Emmanuel, God with us. And it will all be as he said.
The cloud dissipates as fast as it came, leaving you to exhale so hard that it brings you to your knees. You and the other disciples find yourself facedown in the dirt, overwhelmed and terrified, at what you had just seen and at the prospect of what is to come.
Laying there in the dirt, again letting your heart catch up with your lungs, you wonder if you dare raise you head/ raise your eyes to see… Fear, or awe maybe, makes your movements slow and cautious.
Before long, your hear the unhurried steps of a man in sandals walk across to you. He puts his hand around your upper arm and he lift you to your feet. “Get up. Don’t be afraid.” Calming words spoken close to your ear. Jesus moves on to Peter and on to James and John… each time saying “Get up. Don’t Be afraid.” You dust the dirt off… And with a breath of courage you finally look up… Just Jesus, there. Regular Jesus, alone again. Not glowing. Just the dusty, smiling, bearded, itinerant teacher you thought you knew so well. Your Messiah.
He looks at each of you and says, “How about we don’t tell anyone about this for a while? Not until I do what I came here to do. Don’t be afraid. The Son of Man will be raised from the dead.”
Together, they walk down the mountain. And in doing so, it seems they are transfigured. Having shed the fear and the worry at what lay ahead, they were raised again into a since of restored purpose. With each step of the decent the disciples knew that the work of God was at hand. Work that would bring restoration, would bring renewal and far more to the whole world. They stepped with courage even as their feet were pointed towards Jerusalem.
They were all different men, now. Except for Jesus, of course. The time on the mountain revealed who he was, who he had always been. The holy, powerful, glorious Lord of All had been with them the whole time. When he spoke kindly at the Samaritan woman sitting by the well, when he had reached out a healing hand to lepers, when Jesus wept over the death of his friends Lazarus, when he smiled gently at the misguided Rich Young Ruler… each and every day as they all simply broke bread, swapped stories, and traveled down dusty roads as friends.
The disciples had seen the fullness of God. The Father, the Son and the Spirit – radiant and holy, giving a victory cry of resurrection before the Son would be stripped bare and emptied at the hands of humankind on the cross.
This is a story that we take with us into Lent.
It reminds us that we never journey alone. “It tells us that sometimes things get really scary before they get holy.” (Barbara Brown Taylor, The Bright Cloud of Unknowing). It tells us that God’s glory is evident among us even when we can’t see it or comprehend it. It tells us that when darkness and difficulty come our way, we don’t have to be afraid.
This Lent, I pray that we all have hearts of transcendence. That we lean into the solemnity of Lent, while at the same time we embrace the solemnity of joy. That we might hold Lent and joy in tension with one another. For even as we journey to the cross… journey to the dark place where a crown of thorns will be placed on the Godhead, we go knowing that it is God’s redeeming work. We do not journey unassured.
May our hearts transcend difficult and darkness, having now been filled with holy, transfiguring light.
Let us pray:
Lord Jesus Christ, on the mountaintop, Peter, James and John
looked upon the majesty of your glory,
and from the mystery of a cloud
heard a voice declaring you to be God’s Son.
Though we do not live on mountaintops,
Grant that we too may glimpse your glory.
In the mundane/ ordinary rhythms of our live
may there be for us moments
when sights give way to insight,
And the paths of earth become the road to heaven.
Amen. (An Iona Community Prayer)