My kids often ask me this question: “Daddy, what are you afraid of?”
I know the reasons why they ask this question, and especially of me, their dad.
Kids — especially little ones — are cognizant of the good and the bad things in the world; however, their world is very small still.
Things to be afraid of are things like thunderstorms, loud noises, big, angry dogs and monsters under their beds.
Unfortunately, that’s not the reality of so many children, who face such bigger and more tragic fears than anything we’ve ever faced.
But for most of us, anyway, most our kids have lesser fears, thank God.
So when my kids ask me what I’m afraid of, I can’t tell them the kind of evil that I know of in the world; the kind that keeps me praying long into the night.
They just don’t understand these concepts yet.
“I’m afraid of Great White Sharks and Kodiak Grizzly Bears,” I say, hoping that with this statement they won’t be scared of swimming at the lake or hiking in the woods.
We simply don’t have those kinds of things where we live.
I think it’s a safe answer.
But then I add: “Fear is sometimes a good thing. When you’re afraid, your brain is telling your body to move away from that thing. Without fear, we probably would try to take selfies with Great White Sharks and pet Grizzly Bears…
We need to know that this is NOT OK, and that’s what fear signals.
And so I wonder what the Apostles James, John and Peter thought when Jesus took them along on his hike up a mountain near north of Galilee — most likely in Caesarea Philippi and on Mount Hermon.
In the previous chapter, that’s the place where Jesus foretells of his death and resurrection (Beginning in Matthew 16).
The four men are out for a hike, and Jesus, six days before, as Matthew tells us, had asked the disciples who they thought Jesus was.
Peter calls Jesus the Messiah — the Anointed One.
Jesus then says that not only will he carry the cross, but we all must do the same.
And this is all a little foggy for the disciples at this point.
I would think that makes them a little uneasy, but at the very least, confused.
Walk a mile in my sandals
I think to understand what’s about to happen, we have to try to imagine ourselves in the disciples’ shoes — or sandals…
It’s impossible, I know: We know that Jesus came as God incarnate, that he taught The Way, that he was despised and rejected, then sent to a horrific death nailed to a cross.
But we also know that Jesus had risen from the dead, just as he said he would in Matthew 16.21.
See, this is not a foreign concept to most of us today — most of us know the story of Christ.
It’s hard to take yourself out of your own knowledge for even a moment.
But imagine if you didn’t know any of this.
That you were just going about your life, hard at work one day, and this guy shows up and tells you to follow him.
There’s nothing particularly special about him.
But there’s just something about him that you trust. And let’s face it, your life isn’t all that great anyway, so what do you have to lose, really?
And you hear this guy talking and teaching of a new way, which is really based on what you already know. And it makes sense.
And then you see him perform some miracles, and you’re hooked.
He walks on water. He brings people back from the dead. He heals those who have been crippled or blind all their lives.
He insults the elite and the powerful, and they are immediately disarmed.
And he’s so genuine, so wonderful to be with.
And his teaching attracts thousands and thousands of people.
And you’re caught up in it all. How can you NOT be?
But maybe one day, you’re walking with him, and you look over and you think, “He’s just a man. He’s a human, just like me.”
He gets hungry, like me. He laughs and cries like me. He has blisters on his feet, like me.
But he’s not some angel, or superhero. He’s not a king and isn’t a god, floating above us and reigning down fire on his enemies…
He’s just this guy from a small town.
But you say to yourself, “Even though he’s just a human like me, when I am with him, I feel better about who I am and what I want to be.”
And more, “I am not afraid of anything when I am with him.”
At this point, there still is no death and resurrection.
This faith that you have is only from what you have witnessed so far.
What change has been made in your heart, you might ask yourself?
What’s to be afraid of?
You might tell yourself: “If it gets uncomfortable, I can just turn around and go back home, pretend none of this stuff ever happened.”
But something will change. And we don’t even have to get to the Passion, to the story of death and resurrection — the Easter story — to experience this transformation.
We will, worry not.
But for now, here we are hiking up that mountain, no real fear, we can turn around at any point if we want, we’re the same people we always were.
Then it happens…
Matthew tells us in Chapter 17, Verses 1-13, which we just read this morning, that Jesus led James, John and Peter up this mountain, “and he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.” Verse 2.
And suddenly Moses and Elijah — prophets from thousands of years ago — show up and begin speaking with Jesus.
And if you’re Peter — or James or John — you have no idea what to do.
You are afraid. Nothing like this has ever happened, and you can’t even begin to imagine it.
Is it a dream?
And as if to pinch himself, Peter asks if he should make some food or pitch some tents.
Then a bright cloud comes up and surrounds them.
And a voice comes down and says basically the same thing that all those gathered at Jesus’s baptism heard:
“This is my Son, the Beloved with him I am well pleased; Listen to Him!” (verse 5).
And the disciples are terrified. They fall to the ground and bury their faces in the dirt.
And the next thing they know is that Jesus is gently touching them, and says “Get up, and do not be afraid.”
And no one was there with them except Jesus again.
It’s at that point they realize that now, there is no going back, even if they wanted to.
Now they begin to understand what it means.
That Jesus is the Messiah, the anointed one. Anointed by God.
“Listen to him!” God commands.
There’s no turning back now.
It’s funny, that Jesus was the one who was physically transfigured — transformed right before their eyes…
Yet the disciples are truly the ones who have been transformed, see that?
What does it all mean?
So, what’s it all mean, all this imagery that we see here on this mountain?
Well, it conjures up a lot of memories — surely for the disciples, but for us too.
We go all the way back to Exodus, when God calls his people out of Egypt to the Promised Land.
The main human character in Exodus is Moses.
And one day, Moses is up on a mountaintop, getting away from it all, when who does he meet but God.
Moses’s face changes, as do his clothing. And in both of these passages, there is a cloud that surrounds them.
A transfiguration, of sorts. And Moses is changed.
So here with the disciples and Jesus, why bring Moses back into the scene?
Why doesn’t God just have a conversation with Jesus? The apostles are there, they can just hear God’s voice and see the bright light around Jesus…
See, Moses represents the Law — the commandments. This is the way of life under which God’s people lived.
And Elijah,too? Why Elijah?
Well, Elijah was a great prophet. And another prophet, Malachi (4.5-6), says Elijah will return to herald the Messiah.
And Jesus tells the disciples in Matthew 17.10-13 that John the Baptist was Elijah.
The elites just missed it. In fact, they killed John.
So if John the Baptist was Elijah who would herald the coming of the Messiah, then who is the Messiah? Right. Jesus.
Moses and Elijah represent the past; Jesus now represents the present — and future.
The Transfiguration is, then, the end of the Law and the prophecy, and the beginning of the New Covenant and the prophecy fulfilled.
In Jesus Christ.
The world is changing
That’s what happened.
That’s why there’s no turning back.
The apostles got a peek behind the curtain, and they now truly begin to understand what is happening right in front of them.
The world is changing. Not just their world, THE world.
How is the world changing?
If you were here during any of the last four weeks, when we talked about the Blessings God gives us, and how they sometimes aren’t at all what we imagined them to be, well you can draw a big equals sign here.
Because Jesus’s changed form — his transfiguration — signals expectations and vindication in resurrection.
What do I mean by that?
Simply this: God has a plan, and it’s unfolding in the form of this human being Jesus.
Jesus of Nazareth, who is now revealed by God as having an exalted destiny in God’s future.
And that will come via the cross — but we’re just not there yet.
So if you never knew Jesus up to this point, and you didn’t know the story of what would happen with his death and resurrection, you now — during the story of the Transfiguration — understand exactly what that means.
God gave his one and only son to reunite us with his great love.
And it will cost us nothing, but it will cost him everything.
Well, we do know the rest of the story.
This Wednesday, the beginning of the season of Lent, we will delve back into a season of repentance, but a season of hope, as well.
But let’s not wait, because the Transfiguration teaches us something truly amazing.
And maybe this is the best part…
Jesus came as a lowly baby.
He grew up unspectacularly as just a man, a regular guy.
Poor, really. Completely unprivileged.
He just said “Follow me.” He didn’t wave any huge wand or divide the sea as proof of his divinity.
Yet he transformed people’s hearts — as just a man.
And he loved people so much that he would listen to and carry out his Father’s plan.
Even after being transfigured on that mountain top.
He walks down the mountain, and begins heading straight toward Jerusalem where two large planks and three dull nails await his hands and feet.
What is it truly but the “coexistence of divine glory and human suffering within a single body,” as Elizabeth Palmer writes?
It tells us something amazing about our very own lives.
It tells us that there is amazing potential for transformation within all of us — the most ordinary of creatures.
Those of us who are so imperfect.
Those of us who fall to temptation.
Those of us who have such little faith.
Those of us who still remain in fear of whatever might be around the next corner or under our beds.
It means that as mundane as we are, we are able to be transformed.
As ordinary as we are in our own humanity, we are able to transform others.
Plain as we are, like bread and wine, we are able to be completely transformed into something divine.
We are heading into the Holy Season of Lent.
In order to fully embrace its profound meaning, we must understand this:
We are able to be changed.
We are able to grow, to reach, to stretch…
The very word “Lent” means to lengthen, like how the days are lengthening now.
There is nothing in our lives today, tomorrow or yesterday that holds us back from being transformed, that stops us from reaching toward God.
That we are capable of being agents of change for the world — no matter how ordinary, ugly, sinful and broken it may be.
Because of God’s glory, we can be changed — IF we allow ourselves to be transformed.
I want to end here today with a quote from Pulitzer Prize-winning author and humanitarian Marilynne Robinson:
“It has seemed to me sometimes as if the Lord breathes on this poor gray ember of Creation and turns it into radiance — for a moment or a year or the span of a life.Wherever you turn your eyes, the world can shine like transfiguration.”
I love that image of the ember… It sits alone at the bottom of the fireplace — a black coal with little more than a spark emitting from it.
Then one breath, and that whole ember is lit up bright red. One breath and it glows, and it ignites everything around it.
That’s what the transfiguration is.
We are those embers, and God is the breath.
When God breathes on us, we are completely radiant, we are completely transformed, and we ignite everyone around us.
Jesus was that ember — what appeared to be an ordinary human being. God breathed upon him, and his brilliance shone.
And that ember was able to ignite those around him.
And from those embers, others were lit, more and more, until they came to us today, right here, right now.
And now it’s your turn to shine.