Avril at Romsey

… and Lancefield and Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

Sermon: Do not be afraid

Sermon for Riddells Creek and Mount Macedon

Transfiguration, 6th of March 2011

Exodus 24:12-18

Matthew 17:1-9

This is the last Sunday that we’ll observe before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.  Easter’s late this year, so we’ve had a long Epiphany, in which we’ve been able to celebrate the revelation of God in Jesus, and listen to his teachings from the mountain. But there’s no way of stopping the trajectory of the church year; inevitably we must prepare for Good Friday and the cross.

Before Lent’s forty days of preparation we have this one final moment of joy, a literal mountaintop experience, as together with the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples, Peter and James and his brother John, we see Jesus transfigured before us. His face shines like the sun, his clothes become dazzling white, and Moses and Elijah appear and talk with him.

There’s a lot happening in this one story, things that resonate both with other parts of Jesus’ life and with other parts of our religious story. The lectionary has paired the transfiguration with part of God’s revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai, so that we can see that in this mountaintop moment Matthew’s Jesus is once again acting as the new Moses, the one who provides the authoritative interpretation of the law. As we’ve already seen, Jesus’ birth, with the king trying and failing to kill a special child, reflected the birth of Moses; and the Sermon on the Mount, with Jesus giving the definitive interpretation of the Law, reflected the revelation of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai.  Now at the transfiguration, with the cloud, the six days, and the three companions, another event in Jesus’ life reiterates an event in the life of Moses. And just as the law given to Moses on Mount Sinai nourished the people of Israel during their forty years’ journey to the Promised Land, so remembering the glory of the transfiguration is intended to nourish us during the forty days of Lent as we journey towards the Cross.

That’s one thing that’s happening in this story – a reiteration of the connection between Jesus and Moses, confirmed when Moses and Elijah appear and talk with him. But we can also to read the transfiguration in the light of what else has happened in Matthew’s gospel. The story begins by saying ‘six days later’ and what happened six days ago was that Peter confessed that Jesus was the Messiah, and Jesus then made the first prediction of his suffering and death. Simon Peter said, ‘You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him.[1] The transfiguration needs to be understood in the light of the approaching Passion. The next time that these three disciples will be alone together with Jesus will be on the night that he’s betrayed, when Jesus prays alone on the Mount of Olives while the disciples sleep. The revelation of the glory of God in Jesus can only be understood by looking at the cross, seeing him as the suffering Messiah. This is why, as they come down the mountain, Jesus orders the three to tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man had been raised from the dead. It’s only after both the crucifixion and the resurrection that the glory of God can truly be understood.

As at Jesus’ baptism, the voice of God claims Jesus as Beloved Son and praises him. But something is added: ‘listen to him!’ Jesus is still God’s Son, the Beloved, and with him God is still well pleased, but now God’s message to those listening is not just about Jesus’ identity. It is also about what they should do in response. In the Gospel of Matthew Jesus is the pre-eminent teacher, and we’ve spent the season of Epiphany learning from him as we’ve read our way through the Sermon on the Mount. At the very end of Matthew’s gospel, in the Great Commission, Jesus tells his disciples: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.’[2] Just as Jesus taught the disciples, so the disciples’ task is to teach others. On that other mountain Jesus gave his disciples the beatitudes and the Lord’s Prayer and told them to be salt and light in the world. He summed it all up with: ‘Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect’[3] and ‘in everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets,[4] and everyone was astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.[5] Now God confirms Jesus’ authority as teacher.

This story tells us a lot about who Jesus is, but there’s one part of it in particular that I love. At first Peter, James and John seem to cope well with Jesus’ transfiguration and the appearance of Moses and Elijah. Yes, Peter does suggest making three dwellings, but Matthew, unlike Mark, doesn’t tell us that this is because the three were terrified and Peter didn’t know what to say.[6] It seems to have simply been an understandable, if misguided, attempt to hold on to the moment. The fear comes, instead, when God’s voice comes from the bright cloud. The people of Israel said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.’[7] When God does speak at the transfiguration the disciples fall to the ground and are overcome by fear. It’s a natural response; if I heard the voice of God speaking to me audibly, whether from a bright cloud or a burning bush, I’d be absolutely terrified too. But then Jesus comes to the three and touches them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’ When they look up, they see no one but Jesus.

‘Do not be afraid’ is one of Jesus’ key messages. It’s what he says to the disciples when he walks on the water and they think that he’s a ghost: ‘Take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.’[8] It’s what Jesus says to the women after his resurrection: ‘Do not be afraid; go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me’.[9] Here Jesus doesn’t just tell the terrified disciples not to be afraid, he touches them. The unmediated voice of God, the presence of God in the light and the cloud, is overwhelming, but the presence, the touch, of Jesus is comforting. God, creator of the entire cosmos, so vastly beyond our comprehension, comes in Jesus to comfort us when we’re afraid. The transfiguration is a revelation of glory but it’s also, paradoxically, a revelation of the warmth, kindness and gentleness of Emmanuel – God with us.

Beginning on Wednesday we’ll spend forty days journeying with Jesus to the cross. We’ll remember his crucifixion and then celebrate his resurrection. In Jesus we’ll see the crucified God, the God who experiences suffering and death for our sake. Today in the transfiguration we see that same apparently impossible contradiction – a God who is both the voice that thunders from heaven and the gentle hand laid comfortingly on the shoulders of the terrified. This is the God we gather to worship today – the God who says to us ‘do not be afraid’. As Jesus says in the very last words of the Gospel of Matthew: ‘And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’[10]


[1] Matthew 16:16, 21-22.

[2] Matthew 28:19-20.

[3] Matthew 5:48.

[4] Matthew 7:12.

[5] Matthew 7:28-9.

[6] Mark 9:6.

[7] Exodus 20:19.

[8] Matthew 14:27.

[9] Matthew 28:10.

[10] Matthew 28:20.

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March 7, 2011 - Posted by | Ministry | , ,

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