Awesome forces of nature usually ends up putting me in a place where I was scared out of my wits on more than one occasion. I remember being about 16 when one of those incidences happened. I grew up in California and did a lot of body surfing. There was this place I went to called “The Wedge” in Newport Beach. It’s where the jetty that protects the opening to Newport Harbor juts out at the end of the Balboa Peninsula. That structure creates really serious waves – like 10-20 foot waves. The problem is when a set comes in, these big waves suck all the water out from where you are standing, so you really can’t duck or dive under the incoming wave. It’s a fine art to not be in the wrong place at the wrong time … an art which I had not mastered when I found myself standing in about 12 inches of water with a 15 foot wave about to crash on my head. All I could do was take a deep breath and tuck down. When that wave hit, it knocked me face down flat into the sand and pinned me there. I could not move and the sound of the water was deafening. That’s scary … can’t move, tons of water holding you down and hoping you didn’t run out of breath. I heard a voice say, “Hold on. The wave will let you go.” And eventually it did and I was sucked up into the swirling waters and made my way back to the surface. But for that time when I could not move, I was terrified.
We live in a culture that is deeply fearful but in total denial about it, don’t we? Somewhere, usually in our teen years, we get the message that to be “grown up” means we can’t be afraid – or at least we can’t admit we are afraid. But there are many fears that try to claim us, aren’t there? Most of what we fear is loss – loss of job, loss of our faculties, loss of security, loss of loved ones, alienation from friends and family, loss of control, loss of life. Most of us try to mask our fears – and the most common way we do it is through anger. Somehow it’s ok to be angry and lash out in our culture but it isn’t ok to deal with the underlying fear that brings us to that angry place. How screwed up is that??
Today is the Last Sunday after Epiphany and we hear the story of the Transfiguration of Jesus – a story which is about fear and transformation. Admittedly, it is a rather weird and unsettling story with a whole lot of “woo woo” factor about it. Shining Jesus (and no, we aren’t going to sing “Shine Jesus Shine” today) with Moses and Elijah showing up out of nowhere. I always wondered how the disciples knew it was Moses and Elijah … not like they had Facebook pages with selfies on them to check their id. It just is a weird story! No matter what happened and what was seen by Peter, James and John, the fact that it was weird didn’t cause them to be afraid. There is no mention of fear at all at the sight of Jesus, Moses and Elijah at all. But I suppose the weirdness of it all was what prompted Peter to blurt out, “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.” But Matthew goes on to say that while Peter was still speaking, the bright cloud came down and the voice came out of the cloud and said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with whom I am well pleased; listen to him!” If these words sound vaguely familiar, you heard them just a few weeks ago. “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased” was what the voice said at Jesus’ baptism – word for word! Peter, James and John were not at Jesus’ baptism to hear that voice and that voice now interrupts Peter as if to say, “You’ve said enough Peter! Shut up and listen! This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased … Listen to him!”
It is at this point, the disciples fall face down in fear. This was something big … and WAY beyond their control. The writer of Hebrews said, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” Our finitude is no match for the Eternal One. Awesome forces beyond their understanding or control scaring the daylights out of these disciples. But Jesus doesn’t leave them there. He came to them and touched them and he said, “Get up and do not be afraid.” This is where I wish our English language could better capture the nuance of what Jesus says. His command to “get up” is also translated “arise” … and it means “resurrection.” Its mood and voice in Greek tell us that God is the power behind their rising – as if to say “Let God resurrect you!” I’ve said it before and will say it again: resurrection isn’t the revivification of a corpse. Resurrection is rising to become something new and transformed! Jesus follows this with another command “do not be afraid” whose mood and voice in Greek tell us that letting go of our fear is not something we can do in and of ourselves; it is an act in which Christ is also participating. So it’s more like, “Let God resurrect you and I will walk with you so you can let go of your fear.”
Jesus was not the only one transfigured on the mountain. Peter, James and John were also changed. Their experience that day confronted them with awesome powers that were far beyond their puny human abilities to handle. But the touch of Jesus invited Peter, James and John into a transformed, resurrected understanding of Jesus in that moment and to let Jesus walk with them into and through their fear so they could be released and no longer hold power over them.
Each of us faces powers in our life that are far beyond our control. There will always be things which will make us fearful. Even the disciples who witnessed the transfiguration would not be immune to fears in the future – the events of Jesus’ crucifixion and the disciples abandoning him would prove that. But the message Christ gives us this day is to trust his touch, which still comes to us through this community, our loved ones and friends: a touch which bids us to let God raise us up and let Christ walk with us and not be afraid.