Terrified!

Matthew 17:1-9 – February 26, 2017

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“Terrified!”

When my children were young, I would always read them a bedtime story, every night. That was part of our process of going to bed. Sometimes I’d read chapters from books like Winnie the Pooh or the Wizard of Oz, and sometimes storybooks or fairy tales from the library. Some of the stories would have some really scary things in them! A little like the Gospel reading from Matthew, today, where the three disciples were terrified on top of the mountain! There are certain things that scare us almost to death. But, I am getting ahead of myself.

In many of the stories we know, some people often like to find a character they can relate to. A sympathetic character, or one who displays some qualities each of us might have. Who hasn’t been frightened, like Piglet, or puzzled, like Pooh Bear, or excited, like Tigger? In today’s Gospel reading, we have several characters. Is it possible to find some similarity in one of these characters, some characteristic that each of us might share, or be able to relate to?

In today’s Gospel reading, we have Jesus, and we have Peter, James, and his brother John. Jesus takes them up a trail on a mountain, up to the top. There, they have a stunning, supernatural encounter.

That day does not start that way. That day was probably like many other days among Jesus and His group of followers. Hectic, a bit crowded, perhaps even some people already waiting in line to see the Rabbi, have some prayer, even hoping for a healing. Unknown to everyone else, Jesus slips away with the three disciples.

Remember how we often choose a character from a story and try to relate to them, or find some similarity with a characteristic of theirs? I thought one of the commentators on this Gospel passage had some excellent points. Alyce McKenzie said: “If you know what it is like to be tired, to have people seeking you out for what you can do for them, and other people criticizing you and working against you, if you have ever been filled with dread at what lies ahead, you have a little something in common with Jesus. If you know what it’s like to feel those things as a direct result of serving God, then you have even more in common with Jesus.” [1]

While this little group is climbing the mountain, I suspect these three disciples are a bit proud that their Rabbi Jesus has singled them out, amidst all of the other disciples and followers. Wouldn’t you be proud? Perhaps, even congratulating yourself that you are a confidant of Jesus?

After the four people reach the mountaintop, something happens. Now, remember, Peter, James and John are not used to watching television or movies. They do not know anything about fancy costumes that look like they come from outer space, or special effects with light and fireworks, or super sound systems like we have in the United States, today.

Just imagine people like Peter, James and John, having no concept of any of these modern things. Next, I invite you to close your eyes. Try to put yourself in the company of the three disciples, on top of the mountain, in your mind. Are you there? “There was Jesus, transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.”

I can think of at least a dozen supernatural encounters—right off the top of my head—in both the Old and the New Testaments. You know, where people come face to face with angels, or hear the voice of God, or see the burning bush. Here on top of the mountain, these three disciples already knew that Jesus was a man from God. Only a few days before, Peter had even testified to that fact that Jesus was the Messiah, the promised One of God.

In all of these supernatural encounters throughout the Bible, angels always say “Don’t be afraid!” to whomever they meet. I bet when the angels break in to the everyday, ordinary world, that must be the scariest thing those people have ever seen! Even though Peter, James and John had walked with Jesus, learned from Jesus, and lived with Jesus for many months, by this time, I suspect they are scared at the events that are happening!

We have Jesus—transfigured, or literally translated from Greek, metamorphoomai, the verb “to undergo a metamorphosis.” We are not quite sure exactly how Jesus looked, except that we are told He glowed with a glory reserved for angels, for things from heaven. It’s as if a switch were flipped, and Jesus was lit from the inside with bright, white super-sunshine.

Is it any wonder that Peter started babbling, and said the first thing that came into his head? “Um, Lord, it is good that we are here. Look, look, I’ll put up three booths, or tents, so we can worship You and Moses and Elijah right here!” Good old foot-in-mouth Peter. Sure to speak before he thinks, letting his mouth run away with him. (Does that sound like anyone you know? Is that a situation in this story that you especially relate to?)

The bright and shining Jesus was talking to Elijah and Moses. Remember Moses, and how he had led the people of Israel for forty years around the wilderness? Yes, “Moses, who had seen God face to face on Mt. Sinai, the Mount of Revelation, and whose face had shone.” Dr. Alyce McKenzie tells us “that Moses hadn’t wanted to be a prophet in the first place and had made excuses to God to get out of it. (If you know what it’s like to make excuses to God, you have a little something in common with Moses.)“ [2]

But, wait! There’s even more! “While Peter was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him!” If you thought the appearance of Jesus in radiant form wasn’t enough, imagine the stentorian voice of God booming all around! This is it. Right here.

Can you imagine Peter, James and John even more afraid than they were before? Absolutely terrified? They fall on their faces at this heavenly voice. It isn’t even a sound system, with squawking speakers all around, but instead the resounding voice of God from heaven.

And then—everything supernatural goes away. It’s all over. Only Jesus remains, in His normal, everyday clothes.

I can tell you how Peter remembered this awesome, terrifying experience, several decades later. He writes to his fellow believers in a letter, “18 We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.” But then, Peter couldn’t stay on the mountaintop forever, worshiping the Lord. Peter—and James, and John—needed to come down into the real world, into the mundane, every day. And, do the real, sometimes difficult, work of God’s kingdom.

Remember what I said about characters in a story, and about us finding some similarity in one of these characters, some characteristic that each of us might share, or be able to relate to?

Whether we are up on the mountain today, with the bright shining, heavenly Jesus, or down on the earth in a sad or difficult place, the love of Jesus shines in our hearts. Jesus remains.

He is with us, just as He promised. Not “maybe,” not “I wish so, or “I hope so.” But, Jesus promises to be right by our sides, always, through thick and thin, through good times and bad. “In Him we behold what we want to become. In us Jesus lives as a presence that empowers us to become what God would have us become.” [3]

And for that, we can surely say “alleluia, amen!”

[1] http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Finding-Ourselves-in-the-Story-Alyce-McKenzie-02-25-2011

[2] http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Finding-Ourselves-in-the-Story-Alyce-McKenzie-02-25-2011

[3] http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Finding-Ourselves-in-the-Story-Alyce-McKenzie-02-25-2011

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

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