|The Transfiguration by Cornelius Monsma|
Matthew 17: 1-8
Transfiguration of the Lord/ 2nd March 2014
Sacrament of Holy Communion
There are moments when it all comes into focus, moments when things become perfectly clear, moments of searing insight and brilliance that change everything. “I once was blind,” the old hymn goes, “but now I see.” I see—and nothing, no one will ever again look the same. There was a time when we thought we knew who Jesus was, thought we had him figured out, thought we knew what it meant to believe in him, to follow him, but everything changed, in a moment, in the blink of an eye.
There are times when we are drawn to a holy place, a holy mountain, a holy moment when we’re given a revelation, an apocalypse, meaning an opening, and we’re allowed to see who Jesus really is. Seeing him transfigured transfigures our eyes and thoughts, our ears and our hearts. The core of his being shines through the radiance of his face and he becomes dazzling, like a flame, with the intensity of pure, white, blinding light. In the midst of the cloud overshadowing him a voice is heard: “This is my Son, my Beloved; with him I am well pleased: listen to him!” (Matthew 9:5). It’s a voice that throws every disciple to the ground, overcome by fear. Yet, Jesus approaches, touches us—in our fear—and says to us, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
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Three imperatives. One from God: “Listen to him,” meaning the Son. And then from the Son, these two encouraging, compassionate commands: “Get up,” followed by “Do not be afraid.”
But why were they afraid? Wouldn’t you be? I would. The natural response to the glory of God’s presence is fear. You can call it “holy awe” if it makes you feel better, but that’s merely a veiled attempt to tame and domesticate the experience. It’s probably more like ego-shock, a seismic shock to our sensibilities, an awareness of someone completely Other, an overwhelming Other before whose presence we know we have no right to stand—and so we fall. Down. Down on our knees and we cover our faces before the presence of the Holy.
When the Holy One moves in our lives it can be a fearful thing (which is why it’s so often resisted, because our egos know the truth). But we can’t run forever. Why is it fearful? In part, because our egos thrive on fear. Encountering God, having an experience of the Holy is fearful because it inevitably costs us something, namely the ego’s control over reality and the direction of our lives. Get mixed up with this God and you’ll soon discover that there’s more going on in the world and within you and me than meets the eye. It’s because we can’t see it, won’t see it, that our sight is always in need of transfiguration. And the ego is fearful because God might actually show me things about myself or the world or life or about Godself and God’s vision for our lives that we really don’t want to see, because once we see there’s no way for us to “unsee” it—without betraying ourselves. Once seen, I’m responsible for it.
And it’s fearful because this God might then actually ask something of me, to do something with this new knowledge, this revelation; God might ask me to do something that’s simply too big for me to do, to become someone I know I’m not (or not yet), to go where I would rather not go, that doesn't appear safe, called to embark on a journey that I prefer not to take. To encounter the Living God, to face the Holy One, to stand before God’s light, to have such an experience means fundamentally, ultimately, that you will be changed—you just will. You will be different. You just will. You don’t have any choice in the matter. If we don’t, whether suddenly or gradually, then it’s probably safe to say we haven’t encountered God. My old friend Sören Kierkegaard (1813-1855) said, “Once you wise up, you can’t dummy down.” For after encountering the presence of God in the face of Jesus Christ how can you go back to normal? What is normal after that?
Yet, Normalcy, Safety, Security, these are the gods, the idols worshiped in our age, even in the Church. Normalcy, safety, and security have little to do with being a disciple of Jesus Christ.
On the Sunday before the beginning of Lent, this text speaks to what it does mean to be a disciple, to be a student in the school of Jesus. Fear is never the ultimate reality for the disciple; we are called to live beyond fear—and that’s difficult. To follow inevitably involves a cost. Therefore, it requires courage—courage to see, to look at, to acknowledge the radiance of God in the face of Jesus Christ—to not deny it—and then live from that moment with all its life-changing implications.
In Marilynne Robinson’s brilliant novel, Gilead, we find the story of the Reverend John Ames, who, approaching the end of his life, writes to his young son about what it means to live a life in relation to the Holy, what it means to experience God. John writes, “…the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than it seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?”
Courage. In 1922, J. M. Barrie (1860-1937), of Peter Pan-fame, gave a speech to the students of the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. As Rector of the University he spoke a word of encouragement to a generation of youth shattered and disillusioned by the Great War. “Courage is the thing,” he said. “All goes if courage goes.”
But, where do we find such courage? How do we get the courage to get up, step out, live without fear and see the light of God’s presence shining in the face of Christ and then to live our lives boldly, courageously, from that light, as changed people, with lives given up all for the glory of God? For, this is really what the depth of our souls long for more than anything else. The ego is fearful. It wants normalcy, security, safety. But there’s more to you and me than our egos. The soul, the human spirit wants life and love and adventure and service!
Do we have the courage to listen to him, to be disciples, to go where he leads? If we’re honest, the answer is the same for you and me: no. On our own we don’t. If we have to trust our inner resources to try to dredge up courage, then courage becomes a kind of works righteousness, whereby we seek to earn our salvation, acting as if God had nothing to do with it all, relying only on ourselves—and, relying on only ourselves, that’s a horrifying, terrifying way to live a life.
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In the midst of their fear and terror and inadequacy, Jesus went over to his disciples down on the ground, he touched them and said: Get up. Get up. Get up. Don’t be afraid.
Get up and follow, free from binding fear, because the Lord of love has touched you and assures you that you can. Get up and follow, unconstrained by anxiety because his grace summons us to do so. The one who commands us also equips us with the courage, he encourages us to follow. Get up and do not be afraid because it’s the Lord who tells us so—and he can be trusted.
It’s the same Lord who invites us to come to his table.
|The Last Supper by Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret (1852 – 1929)|
My former professor at Princeton Seminary, mentor and dear friend, James Loder (1931-2001), once said, “Perhaps only those who have once been partially blinded by the Truth—whether suddenly or gradually—come to the breath-taking realization that the One who sits at table and breaks bread and drinks wine with us is the One through whom and for whom all ten billion light years of creation, including our own come-lately, here-and-now existence, have their being.”
So, set your fear aside. Share the bread of grace, drink the cup of his courage, which, together, allow us to listen to him and then frees us to follow and go wherever he wants to send us.
 J. M. Barrie, Courage. The Rectorial Address delivered at St. Andrew’s University, May 3, 1922. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922), 40.
 James E. Loder, The Transforming Moment (Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1990). For further reading on Loder’s theological vision, see Kenneth E. Kovacs, The Relational Theology of JamesE. Loder: Encounter and Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2001).