It was only a month ago that we commemorated the Transfiguration of the Lord Jesus, and here we are –
back on the mountaintop with Him and with Peter, James, and John. But this is not because I have so few sermon ideas that I have to recycle themes eleven months ahead of schedule. Rather, it’s because we’re looking at freedom from fear during Lent, and the Transfiguration created a lot of fear in these three disciples.
As Matthew tells the story, once they got to the top of the mountain, Jesus’ face and clothing started to shine as brightly as the sun. (That explains why we often sing “Shine, Jesus, Shine” on Transfiguration Sunday.)
I’m not sure that the clothing was actually radiating light; I think Jesus was radiant and the rays of His light were shining through the fibers of His clothes. There’s some justification for thinking that: in the story of the Tent of Meeting – where the Israelites worshipped during their 40 years in the wilderness – the light of God’s presence radiated out through the fabric of the Tent. We refer to this as the “Shekinah.”
But the Shekinah of Jesus’ glory was not all the disciples experienced. Next, Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus, talking with Him. Luke gives the most detail about that, writing that they discussed His death which would soon take place in Jerusalem – and which the Law and the Prophets had foretold. Peter interrupts to suggest that he build shelters for everyone so they can stay together on the mountaintop.
Peter had already made it clear that he did not want Jesus to go to Jerusalem to die. Certainly, he did not want to lose his good friend and teacher, but he probably also feared what would happen to the disciples once Jesus died. His faith in Jesus’ resurrection was not that developed. So perhaps he thought he could postpone the inevitable by camping out on the mountain.
And then came the Voice. Seems pretty presumptuous, doesn’t it, for NBC to call a singing and coaching contest featuring mere mortals like Alicia, Kelly, Blake, and Adam, “The Voice”? That title was already
taken – by the voice of God the Father, coming out of the cloud that surrounded them.
The Voice confirmed that Jesus was His much-loved Son, and affirmed His obedience as pleasing to His Father. And then God the Father ordered the disciples to listen to Jesus. That included Peter – who had so vehemently rejected what Jesus had said about going to Jerusalem to die. “Listen to Him!” What God was saying to them was, “Stop resisting what I have decreed from eternity – that Jesus is ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.’”
That voice and those words sent Peter, James, and John to the ground, falling flat on their faces. Much as Isaiah was when he experienced God in the Temple:
In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.” At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke. “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”
But as Isaiah experienced with the seraph who touched his lips with a hot coal from the altar and told him that he was forgiven – so Jesus touched the disciples and told them, “Get up. Don’t be afraid.” When they opened their eyes – which had been squeezed shut in fright – all they saw was Jesus. Elijah and Moses were gone.
The cloud was gone. The bright lights were gone. It was just them and Jesus.
It’s perfectly normal to be afraid of things we don’t understand. We are products of the Enlightenment:
there must be a rational explanation for everything. If that were not the case, then the History Channel would go out of business: it alternates between scaring us with visions of the coming Apocalypse and giving scientific reasons not to believe anything miraculous in the Bible.
If we cannot come up with a good explanation, that unsettles us. And how were these three former fishermen going to explain a radiant Jesus and a voice from a cloud – which could not possibly have been thunder?
The ability to explain and understand gives us a sense of control, a sense that we are directing the events of our days. As Christians, we should know that we are not in control. But often when we are confronted with things that we cannot explain, we make something up. We don’t want to live with the mystery.
That happened recently at the visitation before a funeral I was officiating. An elderly woman had died, and her daughter told me that she and the rest of the family had gone to the woman’s house a few hours after her death. At one point, everyone in the house heard the clock radio in the woman’s bedroom playing a local radio station. And did I tell you that the clock radio was not plugged in? That’s what she told me. I didn’t have the heart to tell her that my clock radio has a battery backup, so the radio will turn off to wake me if the power is out.
Of course, she was convinced that her mother was reassuring them that she was all right in the hereafter. Now I don’t believe that people who are in the presence of Jesus are going to take time away from their Savior to force their family members to listen to their favorite radio stations. At the same time, I didn’t have the nerve to ask whether her mother’s clock radio had battery backup. I didn’t want to be unsettled by the unexplainable.
Jesus frees us from having to explain and understand everything we experience. He invites us to do what our Orthodox and Catholic sisters and brothers are so much better at: living with mystery. They even celebrate the mysteries of our faith.
While some of us struggle at least once every year to explain the Trinity to the congregation and especially the kids – Catholics and Orthodox Christians just celebrate knowing that there is a Trinity without trying to figure out how it works. Only in God can 1+1+1=1. What would Common Core do with that? Or at Christmas, when we try to wrap our heads around Jesus being both fully God and fully human. Why don’t we just accept that truth and stop struggling to understand it?
None of the Gospels tells us that Jesus even attempted to explain to Peter, James, and John what happened that day on the mountain. He simply told them not to be afraid – to trust Him.
And we do not have to explain everything that happens in our lives. Every blessing is not compensation for something good we have done. Every accident does not have to be someone’s fault. We cannot pinpoint the source of every sickness. Stuff happens. But Jesus is with us and tells us not to fear.
A dear colleague just spent a month in Ruby Memorial Hospital in Morgantown, as doctors struggled to get his health and his strength back. There were times they thought they might lose him. When I saw him this past week, he was very discouraged and even a bit angry. I did not dare try to give him a reason for his journey through the valley of the shadow of death – that would have him angrier. All I could do was remind him that he did not take that journey alone – Jesus was with him all the way.
We cannot explain everything that happens in the world. We cannot understand everything that is going on. Sometimes, Jesus wants us to do no more than experience it – without fear – knowing that He is with us. Amen.