26 February 2017

Get Up! Fear Not!

Transfiguration of the Lord -

There are moments when everything comes into focus, when everything becomes perfectly clear.  There are moments of searing insight and brilliance, moments that change everything. I once was blind, but now I see—and see, and see, and see and nothing, no one will ever again look the same.

We thought we knew who Jesus was.  We thought we had him figured out.  However, here on this holy mountain we come to see who he really is. The sight of his transfiguration transfigures our figurations of him, transfigures our assumptions, transfigures our eyes and thoughts, our ears and our hearts. Matthew tells us that the core of his being shone through the radiance of his face, “his face shone like the sun,” and he became dazzling, like a flame, with the intensity of pure, white, blinding light.  Peter, James, and John watch in disbelief.  Soon they see Moses (representing the Law or Torah) and then Elijah (representing the prophets) appearing and the three of them begin to talk.  Peter tells Jesus that he’s grateful to witness such a sight and, in a spirit of hospitality, offers to provide a dwelling for them, booths or tents or something.  He doesn’t make much sense.  Even Peter probably didn’t understand what he was saying.  It doesn’t matter, because while Peter was still speaking, Mathew tells us—while Peter was still speaking—a “bright cloud overshadowed them,” and a voice was heard, “This is my Son, my Beloved; with him I am well pleased: listen to him!”

It’s the force of the voice and the weight of its revelation that threw them down to the ground, overcome by terror and fear. But Jesus approached them—was he still shining?—leaned down and touched them, touched them—in their fear!—and said, “Get up!  Get up and do not be afraid.”

I love this story! And I love to preach it! I never get tired of it.  It is so intense and mystical and numinous and experiential and holy and wondrous.  The entire story shines and in the light of its telling we discover layer upon layer of meaning.  Twenty-seven years ago, it was James Loder (1931-2001) professor at Princeton Seminary, my mentor and friend, who first drew my attention to the importance of this text.[1]  I asked Jim to give the charge at my ordination, back in 1990.  Matthew’s account of the Transfiguration was his text.  It was a personal, powerful, intense challenge—a charge—to me at the start of my ministry, which is never far from my awareness.  Two weeks after my ordination, I left for Scotland to serve as assistant minister at St. Leonard’s Parish Church, in St. Andrews, Scotland.  I remember walking into that old sanctuary, with its soft light and beautiful stained-glass windows.  I remember looking up at the great west window and, to my complete astonishment, discovering that it was a depiction of the Transfiguration. Again and again, I return to this text and love to discover artists who through paintings and icons and sketches try to “capture” this scene, artists both ancient and modern.

We have three imperatives here. One from God: “Listen to him,” meaning Jesus. And, then, from Jesus, these two encouraging, compassionate commands: “Get up.” Followed by: “Do not be afraid.”  Most of the times that I read, taught, or preach on this text, I’m drawn to God’s command, “Listen to him.”  Primarily because that was Jim Loder’s charge to me at my ordination, “Listen to him!”  I can still hear Jim saying to me, “Listen to him!”  “Listen to him!”   Reading the text this week, however, something else hit me.  On Thursday Mornings at Bible study, after we read the text for the morning, I usually ask the class, “So, what struck you in the text?”  As Presbyterians, we believe that scripture is alive and active (see Isaiah 55:10-11).  God animates the words and transforms them into Word and this God’s Word, being active and purposeful, moves, touches, strikes—us.  So I ask, how did the Word strike your heart, move your spirit, speak to you? It’s always fascinating to discover how the Spirit moves through a text and speaks to us. This week, what struck me were these words: “Get up and do not be afraid.”

So, why were they afraid? Wouldn’t you be? I would be full of fear, holy fear—awe. Time and again, the natural human response to an encounter with the glory of God, to be overcome or overshadowed by God’s presence, is fear. Yes, we can call it holy fear or awe, if it makes us feel better, but there’s still an element of fear about it, a feeling of trepidation.  Such an experience is, perhaps, more like ego-shock, an encounter, 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, fall down under this “weight of glory,” as C. S. Lewis (1889-1963) beautifully described it. We fall down on our knees and cover our faces before the Holy of Holies.[2]

So, yes, there’s a rational reason for us to be afraid.  When God moves in our lives, it can be an awe-full, fearful thing.  This is probably why we often resist God or prayer or worship or being silent or listening to our hearts.  We can run.  We can remain busy, be distracted, but there’s really no place to hide.  As the psalmist acknowledged, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7). 

All of this is fearful because facing God inevitably costs us something; that is, it requires something of us, namely control over our lives. When Christ is the center our lives, our egos, preferring the center, are knocked off dead center; they are displaced.  And, we have to admit, that when you get mixed up with this God you discover there’s more going around you and in you, even beyond you in the world, more than you can begin to possibly imagine, more than what meets the eye—which is why our sight always requires transfiguring in order to really see.  And, all of this is fearful because this God might actually show up in our lives, make an appearance; ask you to do something that’s simply too big for you to do; or summon you to become someone you know you can’t be on your own; call you to change your ways; or ask you to go somewhere you would rather not go, which doesn’t appear safe; to embark on a journey that you probably prefer not to take. To encounter God means that our lives will be changed; they will be different—and not only different, better! 

Again, all of this requires change.  Transformation.  The Greek word, which we translated, “transfiguration,” is a form of the verb metamorphoo, as in metamorphosis.  So we can say that Jesus was metamorphosized.  If we’re not changed by the encounter or the experience—if we’re not being changed by the encounter or the experience—then it’s probably safe to say we’re not encountering the Holy.  My friend Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) said, “Once you wise up, you can’t dummy down.” Change is inevitable. And after encountering the presence of God in the face of Jesus Christ, how can you ever go back to normalcy? What is normal after that?

If we’re honest, being normal, along with being safe or secure have little, if anything, to do with being a disciple of Jesus Christ.  Jesus never said, “Follow me and I will make you normal.”  We all know this, right?  The account of the Transfiguration, the lectionary reading for the last Sunday before the start of Lent, is offered here intentionally to remind us what it means to be a disciple, a student in the school of Jesus, a follower of Jesus Christ.  In Matthew, the Transfiguration is situated at the center of his gospel, echoing the words that Jesus heard at his baptism (Matthew 3:17), and foreshadowing what Jesus will experience in his resurrection as the beloved Son of God.  The story comes on the heels of Jesus’ words to his disciples, “If any want to be my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:24-25).  Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matthew 16:28)—as Peter, James, and John came to see six days later.  So, yes, there’s good reason to be fearful about all of this talk about discipleship and crosses and tasting death.

Get Up!  Do not fear!  Fear, holy fear, awe is part of the experience, but fear is never the ultimate reality for the disciple.  Time and again throughout scripture, God calls us to live beyond fear—and here’s the tricky part. Being a disciple is difficult; it isn’t easy.  It requires courage.  In Marilynne Robinson’s brilliant, poignant, profound novel, Gilead, the main character, the Reverend John Ames, at the end of his ministry and his life, reflects on the nature of God and what’s required of us in the life of faith.  John Ames says, “…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 willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?”[3]  Courage is required—courage to see, to look at, to acknowledge the radiance of God in the face of Jesus Christ—and not deny it—and then live from all of its life-changing ramifications.

How do we get the courage to step out and live as if God is really God, that Christ is Lord of our lives?  How do we find the courage to listen to him?  How do we have the courage to see the world and our lives within it as belonging not to ourselves, but to him, so that our lives might be used by Christ for the glory of God—which is what our souls desire and long for more than anything else?  How?  In a speech given in 1922 at St. Andrews University, J. M. Barrie (1860-1937), of Peter Pan fame, said to a generation of youth disillusioned after the Great War, “Courage is the thing. All goes if courage goes.”[4] 

Do we have the courage to listen, to really be disciples, to go where he leads?  
Probably not.  Actually, no, we don’t.  Courage to be a disciple?  Not really. Not all the time.  And certainly not on our own we don’t.  If we have to rely on our own inner resources to try to dredge up courage to follow, wouldn’t this, then, be just a kind of “works righteousness,” of trying to earn our salvation through our own merits, of following God and trying to be God’s people, but really acting as if God has nothing to do with any of it?  If we think it’s all about us and not God, what we have to do, wouldn’t this be a kind of atheism, of acting as if God isn’t even there?  To rely only on our selves—that’s a terrifying way to live a life.

In the midst of their fear, Jesus went over to his disciples, his friends, and in their fear and trepidation, he reached out, reached down to them and said, “Get up!” Literally, in Greek, “Be raised!”  “Be raised!”  “Get up and do not be afraid.”  Fear not.  Get up and follow, free from paralyzing fear, because the Beloved One, Love Incarnate, has touched you and assures you that you can. Get up and follow, beyond the tight confines of fear because his grace summons you to do so. And the one who commands also equips us with the courage to follow. Get up and do not be afraid because it’s the Lord who tells us so—and he can be trusted.

We can’t afford to remain stuck in our fears.  Why?  Because there’s work to be done.  You can’t live up on that mountaintop.  You can’t get lost in lofty spiritual experiences.  You’ve got to get back to work.  The dazzling vision will subside. You have to go down the mountain, get back to work, back to family, back to your children, back to your neighbors, back to responsibility, back to being a disciple, get back to “normal”—the new normal.  Once you have seen you cannot unsee.  And what you now see is God’s ongoing work of saving and redeeming, transfiguring and transforming human lives.  There’s an entire world that needs saving and loving!  You know what God desires of you, you already know what God desires for you—you really do.  You know God’s will.  You’ve known God’s plan from the start.  It’s about God’s justice, it’s about naming evil and fighting against it, it’s the Kingdom-vision of God, of love and compassion and mercy and healing and welcome, the very things that Jesus came to embody and realize in you and me. 

God said, “Listen to him.”  And Jesus says to us, “Get up!  Don’t be afraid!” And he says to us, “Now, let’s go.  You and me.  There’s work to be done!”

Transfiguration Icon (12th century), Monastery of St. Catherine, Sinai.

West Window, St. Leonard's Parish Church, St. Leonard's, St. Andrews, Scotland

[1] On the theology of James E. Loder, see Kenneth E. Kovacs, The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter and Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2011).
[2] C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” a sermon preached at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford, 8 June 1942, published in The Weight of Glory (HarperOne, 2001).
[3] Marilynne Robinson, Gilead: A Novel (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2004), 245.
[4] J. M. Barrie, Courage.  The Rectorial Address delivered at St. Andrew’s University, May 3, 1922. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922), 40.

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