So what are the things you’re most afraid of in life? And how do you find the strength to carry on despite those fears?
On one level, today’s Gospel about Jesus on the mountaintop—glowing with light, his face shining like the sun, it says—is a Gospel that’s densely packed with theological references. You could write a seminary paper on this, you could write a seminary thesis on just this passage. It’s about who Jesus is, his identity of the son of God. It points to the past and it also points ahead to his future.
But on another level, it’s really a very human story about fear and reassurance.
So at first, the three disciples up on the mountain, they’re filled with an appropriate degree of awe and reverence. Peter wants to memorialize the moment by building three tents. They seem to accept Jesus shining with blinding light as if that were not so far out of the ordinary. Talking with Moses and Elijah.
But then suddenly, they’re overshadowed by this bright cloud and they hear the voice of God say, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him, I am well pleased; listen to him.” And at this point they’re absolutely overwhelmed by fear. They’re so frightened they’re probably beyond trembling. They fall to the ground and we see that faith doesn’t automatically insulate us from fear. That’s why we hear that phrase, do not be afraid, so often in the Gospels. But faith does give us the strength to go on despite our fears.
I don’t usually think of myself as a timid or fearful person but as I pondered this Gospel this week, I found myself making a list of things I have to admit that I actually am afraid of.
I’m really afraid of where our country is going right now. I’m really afraid of where the whole world is going. I have two little granddaughters, three and just not quite a year old. And I worry about what kind of world they’re going to live in, in 20 or 30 years. I worry about my own health and my independence as I get older. I’m at that stage in life. I retired from my parish about a year ago, although obviously I’m still active. I worry about whether the economy will stay stable enough for the retirement planning I did to actually work out for me.
You know that saying, your mileage may vary. I don’t know what your fears are. We all have our own fears. It’s related to where we are in life in so many ways. But when you get right down to it, I think probably if we’re honest, we’re all afraid of something.
So in this story where Peter and John and James are absolutely overcome by fear and fall to the ground, we don’t know what it was that was running through Jesus’ mind as all this is happening. But we can imagine that it might’ve been just a little bit unsettling for him, too. At this point in the story he knows that every day brings him a little closer to his death in Jerusalem. But his attention isn’t focused on himself in the story, it’s focused on his friends. He goes to them, the Gospel says and he touches them, and he says to them “Get up. Do not be afraid.” He touches them. That to me is such a simple, tender gesture of concern. And they get up and back down the mountain they go.
And at the bottom they find everything that they left behind still there waiting for them. They find the hungry, the sick, all those poor people who have been bringing their needs to Jesus. They’re still there. Jesus is going to be very busy on his way to Jerusalem. Teaching and touching them and healing them. The disciples come down from the mountain and they keep walking with Jesus, going forward despite their fears. Despite his fears, as he moves towards Jerusalem. They walk right through the pain and suffering of the world to the cross, and beyond to the resurrection.
So I think in our own lives we all also have moments of close encounter with God. When Jesus touches us, our experiences are different from what those disciples experienced on that mountain. Our experiences are usually a little more subtle, and maybe that’s a good thing. But we still experience the touch of Jesus if only we learn to feel it. God is still present with us, but we have to learn to notice.
More than anything, I think we experienced that reassuring presence of God through the love that is present in the world. God is still coming into the world through us. We experience God in prayer, but not just in prayer. We experience God through the love of our families, through the support of our friends. Through the beauty that is all around us.
Where I’m standing here this morning, not only do I see your beautiful faces—which are beautiful—but also that sunlight coming in the window, just touching the pews and the wall. It’s so beautiful if only we stop and notice these things. God is with us in those moments of grace also, I think. Which can be like little transfigurations in our own minds.
And we become aware of all of this, first of all, just by noticing. Just by making a point of noticing, just by making a point of looking around and seeing where God is working in the world.
I think it’s not a coincidence that we hear this Gospel at the end of the season of Epiphany, just as we’re about to enter into Lent. I heard plans for your pancake dinner, so I know you’re getting ready. The time is coming. Ash Wednesday is this week.
This particular Gospel is a reminder to us that for Jesus and for every one of his followers, the suffering and the glory go together. They’re inextricably connected. You don’t get one without the other. The way to the empty tomb takes us straight through the cross. So it’s not a coincidence that we hear it today and it’s not a coincidence that Matthew repeats some of these same exact words in this passage again. When Mary Magdalene and the other Mary appear at the tomb on Easter morning, and they meet the angel who’s waiting there.
Once again, the Gospel says these followers of Jesus are terrified. Once again, they’re reassured by the same words” “Do not be afraid.” The angel tells them, “Do not be afraid.” And once again we hear one particular word, the word raised. In today’s Gospel, when Jesus tells Peter, James, and John to get up, the literal translation of the original Greek would be, be raised. When the angel at the tomb speaks to the Marys, saying, “You’re looking for Jesus but he isn’t here. He has been raised,” it’s the same world. And they leave quickly in fear and in great joy to tell the others.
It’s a reminder I think, that we are resurrection people. Unlike those frightened disciples on the mountain top, we know how the story ends, and we don’t give up. We might fall down but we get up again. We are raised. We keep going. We keep walking with Jesus. We keep on loving in his name.