Matthew 17:1-9 Rise, and do not be afraid

Moses met the living God in the burning bush and in the devouring fire on top of Mount Sinai, and both times, it changed him. The first time Moses met God, he resisted the changes he was called to undergo. Remember? God asked him to liberate the children of Israel from slavery in Egypt, and Moses said, “Please send someone else.” The second time Moses met God on Mount Sinai, it was the people who resisted. Moses came down from the mountain with his face shining, and the people were afraid to come near him, so he put a veil over his face so that he would not frighten the people.

Elijah met the living God on that same mountain while he was running for his life from Jezebel. Remember that story? Jezebel threatened to kill him because he had killed the prophets of her favorite god Baal. So Elijah ran 40 days and 40 nights to Mount Sinai (also called Mount Horeb) where God promised to meet him:

Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; 12 and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.

And in that silence, Elijah met God and God gave him a new commission and then took him up into heaven.

Encounters with the living God change us, and there’s nothing we can do about it. They changed Moses; they changed Elijah; and they change us. These changes frighten us; they frighten the people around us; and so we want to resist them. The problem is: they are irresistible. So we end up avoiding encounters with the living God.

A few weeks ago I attended a retreat for pastors who want to bring contemplative practices into their congregations. We were Episcopal, Presbyterian, United Church of Christ, Methodist, Baptist, and Catholic pastors who practice contemplative prayer ourselves and wonder what a Contemplative Reformation of the church might look like. One of the pastors who was there introduced himself as “Dog, but,” he continued, “if you are uncomfortable with that, you can call me William.” Dog is an ex-biker, a second-career pastor—if you can call membership in an outlaw motorcycle gang a first career. Like many of the pastors there, he had stories of trying to teach his congregation how to meditate, how to practice centering prayer, how to read scripture in a contemplative, prayerful way: without an agenda, without having to pull a lesson out of it, without pinning it down to some limited, well-defined meaning. One member of Dog’s congregation finally said to him, “Why in the world would I want to learn to pray like you? It changed you completely and set your life on fire!”

Encounters with the living God change us. And in today’s Gospel lesson, Peter, James, and John have an encounter with the living Go:

Jesus took . . . Peter . . . James and . . . John . . . up a high mountain . . . . And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. . . . Suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”

Peter responds to his encounter with God in Christ in two ways that are common for us all. His first response was to try to memorialize it. His second response was fear.

Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”

We build memorials to commemorate events and people from the past, to take ourselves back to what was, but is no more. But the living God is the eternal “I am”: the eternal present and the eternal presence in the world right now. God is not a dead hero, but a living Spirit, the Spirit of love and life that surrounds and infuses and upholds everything and everyone in creation. When God appeared to Moses on Sinai, both in the burning bush and in giving him the Ten Commandments, God introduced Godself by name: JHWH, which means “the one who is.”

5 The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with [Moses] there, and proclaimed the name, “[JHWH].” 6 The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed, “[JHWH, JHWH], a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty. (Exodus 34:5-7)

We need to be careful when we speak of God in the past tense . . . as I just did in relating that story of God and Moses on Mount Sinai. We need to be careful that we do not leave God back there in the past. We divide our time and experience into past, present, and future because it helps us make sense of the world. But God doesn’t. God is eternally present. God is here. God is now. This reality means that we are always at risk of encountering the living God . . . and of being changed by that encounter. Which leads us to fear, Peter’s second response:

While [Peter] he was still speaking [about building a memorial], suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.

Just like Moses and Elijah and the Israelites at the foot of Mount Sinai, the disciples’ encounter with the transfigured Jesus leaves them overcome by fear. The old wisdom surrounding a face-to-face meeting with God is that no one can survive it. In one encounter with God:

18 Moses said, “Show me your glory, I pray.” 19 And [God] said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, . . . But . . . you cannot see my face; for no one shall see me and live.” 21 And the Lord . . . put [Moses] in a cleft of the rock, and . . . cover[ed Moses] with [God’s] hand until [God]. . . passed by. (Exodus 33:18-22)

And so Peter, James, and John crouch in fear as the glory of the Lord overshadowed them. To push God back into the past and to withdraw in fear place God at a distance. And this is why Jesus’ response is so lovely: he touches them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” What must that touch and those words of reassurance have done for them? Think about all the times you were comforted by a touch and a word of reassurance. The times that come to mind for me are the times that Chris has awakened me from a bad dream. I’m a vivid dreamer, and sometimes my dreams are frightening. Many times I’ve been awakened by Chris’s hand on my back or shoulder and words like “I’m here” or “You’re safe” or “It’s a dream.”

A touch and a reassuring word can encourage us when we are frightened, but I think that Jesus’ touch in this story does so much more for his disciples. To explain, let me go back and review a bit of Matthew’s Gospel. Remember some of the context we’re reviewed already:

Chapters 1-4 tell the story of Jesus’ birth, baptism, temptation, and the call of his disciples

Chapters 5-7 are his Sermon on the Mount

Chapters 8-9 tell story after story of Jesus touching and healing people:

  • He stretched out his hand a touched a leper
  • He touched the hand of Peter’s mother-in-law and the fever left her
  • At the touch of his cloak the hemorrhaging woman was healed
  • He took a young girl by the hand and the dead girl was raised
  • He touched the eyes of the blind and their eyes were opened

In chapters 10-11, Jesus sends his disciples out on a preaching and healing mission of their own and warns them about the dangers and risks of their mission and the scandal and division the Gospel can cause. And in the middle of these warnings he says, “Those who lose their life for my sake will find it.” And sure enough, the more Jesus continues teaching, healing, and proclaiming the Kingdom of Heaven in parables, the more opposition he meets from the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the powers that be.

And then, as the story builds to its climax on the top of that mountain, as it becomes clear to the disciples who their teacher is, as they lie on the ground trembling in fear amid the glory of God, Jesus again reaches out his hand touches them and says “Do not be afraid.”

And I wonder if at that point, it all comes back to them: the blind eyes opened, the dead girl raised, the hemorrhaging woman healed, the mother-in-law cured, the leper cleansed. I wonder if at that point Peter, James, and John come to really understand that Jesus’ healing touch is for them too.

Encounters with the living God change us, they set our lives on fire, they leave us completely different from what we were before. We do die in some profound way when we come face-to-face with the living God, with God in Christ. We die to self. We die to old ways of ordering our lives. We die to the injustices of structural racism, systemic poverty, and unequal access to health-care, education, and decent wages. We die to these things because we have come alive to the one who touches us too and  says, “Rise, and do not be afraid.” So let us too go back down the mountain a changed people. Amen.