“The disciples fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’” In the midst of a passage that is filled with awe and wonder, I almost missed it. I almost missed the part when Jesus places his hand on the disciples’ shoulders. I almost missed the part when Jesus says to the disciples, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
If we are not careful, we are sure to miss the essential turn in this passage; we are sure to miss the part that helps us really understand the purpose of the transfiguration. If we are not careful, we are sure to get caught up in the supernatural elements of this passage. But how could we not get caught up in the awe and wonder of this passage?
Jesus’ face shines like the sun. Jesus clothes become a dazzling white. Moses and Elijah, two dead men who represent the Law and the Prophets, show up and start talking to Jesus – no wonder Peter wants to set up camp! A cloud hovers over the scene and the voice of God drives the disciples to their knees.
But when the shock and awe is over, Jesus comes over to the disciples, touches them, and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And by this time, the cloud has vanished and so have Moses and Elijah. It’s just Jesus and his disciples alone on the mountain.
The moment is over. The rush is gone. And they make the journey down the mountain back to the real world where they aren’t to speak a word about what happened until after the resurrection of Jesus.
Like the disciples, it is easy for us to get stuck on top of this mountain. Like Peter, it is easy for us to come to believe that the mountain top is the final destination. It is easy for us mere mortals to get caught up in the sights and sounds of this passage and lose sight of the bigger picture here. Maybe that is why Jesus tells him to tell no one about what they saw until after the resurrection.
It is easy for us to forget that Jesus’ ministry is not about pointing to heaven for heaven’s sake. Instead, Jesus is pointing to heaven in order to shed light on the kingdom he is establishing on earth. Jesus is not an escape hatch that is rescuing us from a world of death.
Instead, Jesus is the instrument of God’s salvation that comes to renew and restore this world with a love that is stronger than death. The story of Jesus is not a beam me up Scottie story like the disciples first suspect but a resurrection story, a story of the transformation of this world.
But in order for this restoration project to start to take effect, in order for the kingdom of heaven to grow on earth, a major re-ordering of things must take place. And as we have just learned in the Sermon on the Mount the kingdom of heaven looks nothing like the kingdoms of this world. In essence, Jesus reveals that the kingdoms of this world are run by fear and anxiety while the kingdom of heaven is run by courage and hope and love.
And this major re-ordering of things will upset the people who like the current world order. Jesus’ re-ordering will turn the world as we know it upside-down. In the end, God completely turns the world upside down when the glory of God is revealed in his fullest through Christ crucified.
The kingship of Jesus is fully revealed not because he takes an earthly throne by force but because he refuses to bow down to the powers of this world and willingly accepts the sentence of death on the cross. On the cross, Jesus reveals the ultimate power of our faith and that is the conviction that the way of love and inclusion puts to shame the way of fear and exclusion.
Jesus predicts that the powers of this world will not take kindly to this new world order, a world order where the mighty are cast down from their thrones and the lowly are filled with good things. Jesus predicts that he will undergo suffering and death because the powers of this world will reject the new world order that the kingdom of heaven brings.
And this is why the disciples fall on their faces in fear. They didn’t know that they signed up for a project that would result in their leader’s suffering and death. And if their leader undergoes suffering and death, then what is in store for the followers? Surely suffering and death, too. But Jesus knows that his followers are scared to death and so he offers encouragement. He touches them and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
Quite literally, this passage shows us that ours is a God who enters the human experience, enters human flesh so he can touch us and say, “Get up and do not be afraid.” In Jesus, God is showing us that the story of love and forgiveness and hope will endure even fear and hate and death.
Even if the story of love is temporarily put to death on the cross, Jesus shows us that the story of love continues when he is raised again on the third day. And because Jesus shows us that the story of love defeats the story of hate we can move from a place of fear to a place of hope. Instead of being paralyzed by fear, we can be inspired by hope because of the way Jesus overcomes suffering and death by enduring the cross and the grave.
Beloved, I know I don’t have to tell you that we live in a world that seems to be thriving off of fear and anxiety. We are paralyzed by fear and stuck on top of the mountain. We are like cats pacing back and forth on top of a ledge trying to muster up the courage to jump. We are like babies who are learning to take our first steps. After one step, we plop down on our bottoms and start crying.
We want to live in this new kingdom that Jesus is bringing to earth but living in this new kingdom requires quite a jump, living in this new kingdom requires us accept that getting hurt is a part of what it means to walk in the way of Jesus. And thanks be to God we have Jesus who comes to our aid, who touches us and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
There are certainly a lot of amazing sights and sounds that accompany following the way of Jesus. There are moments of pure amazement and astonishment, moments in our Christian faith and life that words cannot adequately describe. There are times when we don’t want to leave this place of worship.
We find ourselves in foyer groups that we wish we could keep forever. We go on retreats that we wish would never end. We will encounter times in the life of St. Paul’s that we might describe as perfect and we will do everything we can to keep things that way. But again, the Christian story is one of renewal, not preservation.
Most of our Christian life and witness happens when we have the courage to venture outside of these safe places so that we who have been touched and healed by the power of God’s love can go out into the world and touch others with the healing power of God’s love through acts of mercy and service.
We are called down from the mountain to tell of a new story that is born out of a place of hope and love. Instead of complaining about the problem, instead of perpetuating fear and anxiety, Jesus’ story of love calls us to be a part of the solution. And Jesus solution shows us that the power forgiveness and the hope of resurrection fundamentally changes the story. Instead of saying things will never change, we get to be a part of Jesus’ story of love that changes everything.
As followers of Jesus, we will inevitably become frightened by the prospect of living in God’s new kingdom – not because we don’t like the idea of God’s new kingdom but because of the changes that must take place in order to be a part of that new kingdom. Of course we will want to stay atop the mountain because the view is better.
But through Jesus, God shows us that the way of life and peace is not an escape to the mountaintop. Rather, the way of life and peace is through the cross, through suffering and death. This is a way that we would not choose for ourselves, this is a way that scares us to death.
But the way of the cross is how God turns the world upside down in order to show us that Jesus’ way is actually right-side up. The way of cross is meant to change our perspective. The way of the cross opens our eyes to the way the world God intends.
Beloved, it is time again to come down the mountain and walk in the way of the cross as we begin the Lenten Season. But fear not and don’t miss our transfigured Lord Jesus Christ who desires to meet you, touch you, and give you courage this day to face the season of Lent, face the way of the cross with a posture of hope and not fear. Amen.