Listen to Him. Be Raised Up. Do Not Be Afraid.
Feb 19, 2023
Transfiguration of our Lord
Text: Matthew 17:1-9
Pastor Jean M. Hansen
I’ve often thought that of all the natural disasters – tornadoes, hurricanes, floods or earthquakes – the earthquake would be the worst. (Although that is easy to say from my safe home; the worst would the one you are enduring.) In any case, I thought of that again in recent weeks as news of the earthquake and after-shocks in Turkey and Syria has been broadcast.
More than 40,000 people have died, the number so large because the disaster struck at night and people’s homes fell down around and on them as they slept. The descriptions of suffering and loss have been horrific. Yet, earlies this week people were still being pulled out of the rubble alive, including two brothers ages 17 and 21 who were trapped for 200 hours and survived by eating body building supplement. So, there have been a few glimmers of hope in even the most challenging of situations.
I bring this up on this Transfiguration Sunday because it is on my mind, and such suffering should be stirring compassion in the hearts of us all. Also, as I read again the story of Jesus’ transfiguration, I noticed that sentence about the disciples’ response when they heard the voice of God. It’s in verse 6, “When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.” It sounds rather mild to us, especially when compared to the fear of being in a natural disaster, but scholars say that what is being described here is not just any fear. It is the fright of one’s life kind of fear. It is the highest extent of fear any of them had ever experienced; this is as afraid as they could possibly be. It is the middle-of-an-earthquake type of fear.
With that in mind, let’s do a quick walk through of what happened before they were cowering on the ground. Just before this event, Peter confessed that Jesus is the Messiah and was commended by Jesus for doing so; it was, no doubt, a high point in his life. But almost immediately he is rebuked by Jesus for his misunderstanding of what it means for Jesus to be the Messiah, which was a quick reversal to a low point for him. Among these high and low points, the turning point in Jesus’ ministry is about to be reached; having been confessed as Messiah and revealed in glory, our Lord will turn toward Jerusalem and the cross.
But, first, he takes Peter, James and John to the mountaintop; there, Jesus was transfigured. One way to describe what happened, according to commentator Scott Hoezee, is that the divine nature of Jesus (remember, he has two natures, fully human and fully divine which co-exist without altering the other), the divine nature rose to prominence in a way that had not been the case though Jesus’ earthly existence up to this point. (1)
His divinity was on display in a new way, his face shinning like the sun and his clothes becoming a dazzling white. If that wasn’t enough, Moses and Elijah, heroes of the Jewish faith, showed up and talked with Jesus. Peter, no doubt still stinging from Jesus’ earlier rebuke, wanted to do the right thing and thought that capturing the moment would accomplish just that. So, he offers to build dwellings to keep them comfortable for an extended visit. (He probably wanted to build one for himself, James and John too, and stay away from life’s frustration a while longer. Who could blame him?)
Instead, he had the fright of his life when, while he spoke, a bright cloud overshadowed them and the very voice of God said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (Put a sock in it, Peter.) As we already noted, this brought the disciples to the ground, overwhelmed by never-before-experienced fear.
It’s what happened next that truly caught my attention. Jesus went to Peter, James and John, his beloved ones, touched them, and gently (or so I imagine) said, “Get up”, or more accurately, be raised up, since the word used is the same one as when the angels declare to the women at the empty tomb, “He has been raised.” On that mountain Jesus said, “Be raised up and do not be afraid.” And as they looked up they saw only Jesus, himself alone, the one they needed most in a time of overwhelming fear. The cloud of God’s presence is gone, but Jesus, as God, is still with them.
There are three phrases at the close of this transfiguration account that are important in our confusing, divisive and certainly frightening world. “Listen to him. Be raised up. Do not be afraid.”
First, “Listen to Him.” It really is not such an odd thing, is it, to believe that our lives would be calmer if we tried to hear what God is saying to us? And, a good place to do that is in the community of believers, whether that is in worship or a small group gathering, like watching the Chosen series or being part of a Bible study, or participating in mid-week gatherings.
Dr. David Lose says this about that: “The best way to understand God is to look to Jesus and listen to him. To pay attention to what Jesus says and does, to whom he reaches out, to those he gives attention and help. …If we all try to listen to Jesus together – and trust that is what others are doing – then we will get closer to what God intends for us.” (2)
The second phrase is, “Be raised up.” You could even translate it as, “be resurrected,” which implies it is possible to recover from the most overwhelming experience, including being scared to death. This is something that happens by Divine intervention, especially when we feel we cannot stand on our own.
Third, Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” Fear is a reality of our lives in a world of mass shootings and natural disasters, financial challenges and job instability, unexpected illness and injury, broken relationships and the grief that comes with loss. To all this Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” I’ll quote Dr. Lose again, “Fear is a part of the common fabric of our lives even though it manifests itself differently. And to all these different fears, the Gospel reply is the same: because God is God of the past, present and future, we need not fear. This is not the same as saying that we will have no problems, or that we will avoid harm or hardship. Rather, it is recognizing that when we trust God for our individual and communal good and believe God is with us always, we need not fear.” (3)
It’s important to remember, though, that being afraid does not mean that one lacks faith – because even faith is a gift of God – but that we have momentarily forgotten that our God is a God of resurrection, and in resurrection there is always hope.
As Jesus and his followers prepare to come down from the mountain, the message is: “Listen to Him. Be raised up. Do not be afraid.” There are painful, even frightening days ahead for them, but as Peter, James and John listen to their Lord, and remember him touching, lifting them up and comforting them when they were most afraid, they will endure the days to come.
Or, we can think of it this way; if in a devastating earthquake there are glimmers of hope, then we can be assured, have hope and offer both, even in the most challenging of days. AMEN
“Sermon Commentary for Matthew 17:1-9” by Scott Hoezee, February 23, 2020, www.cepreaching.org
“Transfiguration A: Timely Words” by Dr. David Lose, February 22, 2017, www.davidlose.net
Same as #2