What do you fear?
There’s an awful lot to be afraid of in this world.
Does anyone remember my fist sermon here? I entitled it, “Making Peace with Ghosts”; and it was all about dealing with a fear I had as a boy of an imagined visitor that lived under my spiral staircase, the Seven-foot Man. As a boy, I, along with my older brother Andy and especially my neighbor Donny, possessed a great fear of the Seven-foot Man. We had to learn, as boys, to deal with it.
As I grew from boyhood into manhood, the clothes fear wore became increasingly less fantastic and more realistic. Questions went from, “What if there’s a zombie living in my basement?” to, “Will I get into the right college?” “What if she doesn’t like me?” and, “How are we going to pay for diapers and baby food?”
More into adulthood now, the fears have increased in scope, becoming more outward in focus: “Why is there such hatred in the world?” “How much more abuse and mismanagement of resources can the earth take?” and, “What if there’s a global nuclear holocaust?”
What are your fears?
Is “Big Brother” watching you? Are you in jeopardy of financial ruin, or feeling forever enslaved to that harsh taskmaster otherwise known as credit card debt? Are—or (depending on how you look at it) were—your fundamental human rights of dignity and democracy in danger of being compromised?
What is it you fear?
Today’s Gospel rounds out Jesus’ epiphany. Here, along with Peter, James, and John, we see Jesus in his full glory; that though he is fully human he is somehow, gloriously, also fully God.
Now, that would be something to fear, don’t you think?
Imagine. You’re walking up a mountain path, following your leader and trail guide, who suddenly is transfigured. His face is shining like the sun. His clothes become dazzlingly white. Two ghost-like figures appear next to him. And to top it all off a booming voice sounds from the clouds overhead!
These words that tell the story of Jesus’ transfiguration are familiar to most of us. But a danger here is that their power can get lost in their familiarity.
So, let’s change the scenario up a bit.
Let’s say we meet in the church parking lot one Saturday morning. Our plan is to hike up Telegraph Pass. So, since I know the way, it is agreed that I will lead you.
An overcast day, sometime later we pass that last bend in the road near the top, and find ourselves entering and soon enveloped by a cloud. Then, at the top now—we know we’re there because through the fog we can see the registry box and the bench next to it—all at once you see me with shining white clothes, so bright they even seem to shine through the mist. And you think, “Man, I’m sure he wasn’t wearing that when we set out!”
And then my face lights up too, illuminating the registry box, the bench next to it, an ocotillo plant, the road, the two other people there with us, even your very arms and legs. And—whoa!—now there are two more people—Where did they come from?—who by all accounts look just like Thomas Cranmer and Queen Elizabeth—the first!
And then—ah, music to my ears—that voice from above, booming through the clouds, declares to you all, “This is your pastor; listen to him!”
And you think, “Wow, my heart’s beating fast and I’m sweating like crazy and I’m out of breath. Surely, I must be hallucinating. This is it! I’m done for! Call out the SAR bird!”
Anyway, point being, wouldn’t you be afraid? At least a little? For your own health and sanity if for no other reason?
The disciples are so afraid, the Bible says, that they fall down, “overcome by fear” (“sore afraid” in the KJV), with their faces to the ground.
Yet Jesus reaches out and—don’t fail to notice this detail—touches them; and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
There’s an awful lot to be afraid of in this world. Yet Jesus touches his disciples and tells them, Do not be afraid.
Jesus could have been like Moses.
Along with the Transfiguration narrative in Matthew today, we also heard a passage from Exodus. In it, Moses went up on a mountain; the mountain was covered by a cloud; the people from below could see illumination on the top of the mountain, where Moses was; and we all know that when Moses came down from Mount Sinai, his face shone with such radiance that he kept it covered with a veil.
This Exodus passage is a clear parallel to Jesus’ Transfiguration. Which led me, in my preparation for this sermon, to read up on Moses, the larger context; and to compare and contrast this story of Moses with Jesus.
There are numerous similarities:
- Both Moses and Jesus go up on mountains.
- Both have companions with them.
- Both are enshrouded by a cloud.
- Both hear God’s voice.
- Both are described as radiant in one form or another.
- And, in both accounts, other people hear God’s voice and are afraid.
But there is a key difference between the two accounts.
And here, in this key difference, Jesus could have been like Moses.
But he wasn’t.
And I’m glad he wasn’t.
And because he wasn’t, this key difference is what stands out above all for me from today’s passages, our take-home lesson.
So then, what is it? What is this key difference between Moses and Jesus?
When Moses came down from Mount Sinai and saw that the people were afraid—well, let me just read the account:
When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.” Moses said to the people, “Do not be afraid; for God has come only to test you and to put the fear of him upon you so that you do not sin” (Exodus 20:18-20).
Moses comes down from Mount Sinai and sees all the Israelites cowering in fear before the might and glory of God and he says, “Do not be afraid.”
Fine and well.
But he doesn’t stop there. No, Moses has to seize the moment, to capitalize on the opportunity; and thus goes on to say, in effect:
But, well, yes, since you are afraid, it’s for good reason! God is testing you. In fact, this is the reason God has come: to put fear in you “so that you do not sin.”
Now, Jesus could have been like Moses. Jesus could have done this too.
But he isn’t. And he doesn’t.
And I’m glad for that.
Instead, when his disciples see fearsome, wonderful, and awesome visions and hear the very voice of God, Jesus reaches out and touches them; and says, simply, “Do not be afraid.”
No lecture. No admonition. No teaching moment. Just words of comfort and human touch.
What, then, is the key difference between Moses’ transfiguration and Jesus’? One offers chastisement; the other, positive reinforcement through human touch.
Which approach do you respond to better?
There’s an awful lot to be afraid of in this world: “Big Brother”; financial ruin; the collapse of democracy; ISIS; terrorism; our own sin. Why would I ever want to add to all of this an irrational fear of God?
In Jesus, God touches us gently, reassuringly, and humanly.
So, from our starting point of Jesus’ Transfiguration, we looked back to Moses and have learned a valuable lesson. Now I want to look forward, to us, the church, today.
What is it we are doing here?
In ancient times—both in the time of Moses and in the time of Jesus—mountaintops were considered a kind of liminal space, a threshold of sorts, between earth and heaven. They were seen this way topographically—a mountain peak is physically higher than any other place around it—as well as figuratively—places to encounter God.
Moses encountered God on top of Mount Sinai. Jesus was transfigured on top of a mountain.
We see this concept in other traditions too: the Greek and Roman pantheon dwelled on high, above the peaks of Mount Olympus; and the Delphic Oracle was delivered high on the slopes of Mount Parnassus.
In fact, even in our own day we refer to personal divine encounters as “mountaintop experiences.”
Mountain peaks were understood to be liminal spaces.
Today, here is our liminal space: church. Here we come, setting aside for a time our cares, concerns, and preoccupations in the world; to meet God.
Now, take it a step further. In a few minutes we’ll have opportunity to commune together. Well, what happens when I stand up at the altar and lead us through the Eucharistic Prayer? Somehow, mysteriously, the bread and wine become Jesus’ own body and blood.
And then, best of all, when we partake here at this liminal space, just like on that Day of Transfiguration when Jesus reached out and touched Peter, James, and John; so Jesus touches us.
God touches humanity in Jesus; God touches us in the bread and wine.
He picks us up from our knees, puts his arm around us, leads us back to our pews, prays with us, and, last of all, best of all, he blesses us and says, “Alleluia, alleluia. Go in peace, without fear, back into the world, to love and serve the Lord.”