March 3, 2019
Donna G. Joy
Exodus 34:29-35; Luke 9:28-43a
The disciples in this morning’s Gospel exhibit fear when they experience the transfiguration; an emotion we can all relate to. Edwin Friedman was an ordained Jewish Rabbi; his primary areas of work were in family therapy and congregational leadership (both Christian and Jewish). In his book ‘Failure of Nerve: Leadership in an Age of the Quick Fix’ he makes the point that we live in a time when leadership is driven by fear and this is at the heart of so many disintegrating institutions: synagogues, churches, governments, businesses. It is common to allow our fears to dictate our decisions, and there are just so many things to be afraid of: Fear of addressing racist or sexist comments; fear of speaking truth to power; fear of entering into difficult conversations; fear of taking that big bold step into the unknown.
Of course the flip side to this is finding courage in the midst of fear, and when this happens something beautiful is experienced, something resembling the radiance identified in our transfiguration story may be seen. People like Nelson Mandala, who allowed his fears to become transformed into extreme courage, enduring 27 years of imprisonment for speaking the truth to power; and when set free from that imprisonment, he became a radiant beacon of light through his transformative work in truth and reconciliation. When fears are transformed into courage and self sacrifice, the radiant light of God is made visible in extraordinary ways.
This morning’s transfiguration story speaks of Jesus travelling up a high mountain with some of his disciples: on their way to what is to be a mountain-top experience. And suddenly they catch a glimpse of a radiance that Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection will ultimately unleash. His face shines like the sun and his garments become glowing – with the brightness of a great and shining light. And then Moses and Elijah appear, and they begin talking with him. (Clearly, the presence of Jesus is a continuation of a story begun with two important figures.)
In our first reading this morning we heard the story of the climax of the Book of Exodus, where Moses’ face is radiant because of his encounter with God; radiant because he now holds the new tablets of the law; radiant because he now knows that God will dwell among His people in the beauty of holiness. Jesus is now the fulfillment of this law; this radiant promise.
Typical of Peter, his initial response is to miss the point as he acts on his impulse to preserve the moment; to build three dwelling places (temples) to make this experience permanent; to make it last for the rest of time. (If technology had only been more advanced they could have, at the very least, managed a selfie.) But while Peter is making this preposterous suggestion, they are covered by a cloud and they are overcome with fear; they are terrified. Then the enormity of the experience escalates when a voice in the midst of a bright cloud, reminiscent of Jesus’ baptism, says, “This is my Son, whom I have chosen; listen to him.” You might say this voice was suggesting that to be attentive to Jesus, is the remedy for fear. To be attentive; to model our lives after Jesus; to follow his example, is the remedy for fear.
Fear is a frequent biblical emotion. In Luke’s story of the annunciation we are told that when the angel approaches Mary with the news that she is to play a significant and surprising role in the unfolding of salvation the angel tells her, “Do not be afraid.” Clearly, she appears afraid and the angel is attempting to relieve her fear: the first reaction to the news of Jesus’ coming is fear. As we were reminded a few weeks ago, when Jesus assists his disciples after a night of fishing failure, and they bring in a miraculous catch of fish, we are told that fear is their primary response. When Jesus calms the wind and the waves and saves the disciples in the boat, their response is fear. When the women come out to the tomb, on that first Easter morning, and they find the tomb is empty, how do the Gospels identify their response? Yup. Fear. Repeatedly, Jesus tells his disciples to not be afraid.
My five year old self is tempted to call them a bunch of ‘fraidypants.’ But that would be unkind, and somewhat misguided, as I’m sure each of us has our own collection of personal stories which involve times when we have been afraid; maybe even times when we’ve allowed our fears to drive the decisions we have made. I am reminded here, once again, of Edwin Friedman’s book ‘A Failure of Nerve…’ which emphasizes the reality that most organizations today are failing to thrive because their leaders are held hostage by their fears.
So, where was Jesus in the midst of the fears of those first disciples, and where is Jesus in the midst of ours? I believe the story of the transfiguration offers some insights. The very place in which this story is placed in Luke’s Gospel offers a significant clue. Firstly, the whole of chapter nine is often referred to as ‘The Mission of the Twelve,’ the point being that their mission will be filled with sacrifice, challenges, and hardship. In other words: lots to be afraid of.
Just prior to this story, Jesus talks to the disciples about the cross, as he says, “The Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” He follows this with, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” In other words, answering Jesus’ call to follow him requires self-sacrifice and courage; it requires overcoming the fears that will otherwise prevent them from doing what they are called to do.
So, as his followers, we are called to overcome our fears and embrace the challenges along the way, but where do we find Jesus on the journey? The story of the transfiguration offers those disciples, and us, a glimpse.
Those disciples were given a transformative moment – an image – of radiant light and hope that they could hold on to and gain strength from as they begin the long and arduous journey to the cross… as they prepare to pick up their cross to live lives of courageous, sacrificial love. To follow this path is to put our own selfish needs and wants aside in order to place our role as followers of Jesus first – it is to forgive and to allow ourselves to be forgiven (it can be terrifying to make that first step toward forgiveness) – it is to put aside out ever present human need for power and control in order to allow God’s power to fill us and work through us (it can be terrifying to let go of the need to be in control) – it is to be deeply troubled by the injustices in our world and in our church, and motivated to become the very hands/heart/ears/voice of Christ – that is, to be so deeply troubled by the injustices in our world that we become the agents of Christ’s healing and wholeness. This is terrifying, and daunting, to say the least.
But here’s the thing. If Nelson Mandela had remained bitter and resentful from his 27 years of imprisonment, what is the story we would be telling today? What would be his legacy? I believe we see a glimpse of God’s radiance through him. While there is still much work to be done, South Africa is a far better place today than it was before his example of love, sacrifice, and forgiveness.
We choose to follow Jesus, his journey to and death on the cross, and to carry our cross as we live out our faith because this is what offers light, and life, and hope. As we think about our own fears – the personal and global fears we know only too well – these fears surface when we’re faced with our own sense of powerlessness, vulnerability, and weakness. And the only way through these fearful times, is to embrace the weakness of Christ on the cross. The only way through these fearful times is to recognize that our strength is found in the weakness and vulnerability of Christ, because this is what leads to the resurrection. This is what leads to new life – new possibilities – new hope. To follow this path is indeed, terrifying, but it is the path that offers life in its fullness.
In Matthew’s telling of the story of the transfiguration, when those disciples fell on their faces and became overcome with fear, Jesus left his place with Elijah and Moses, went over and touched them, and said, “Rise, and have no fear. Be not afraid.” And when they lifted up their eyes, they saw only Jesus.
This coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the Lenten season. I encourage you to come and worship at 7:00 in the evening, to launch this season with an opportunity to confront the fears that Jesus is calling us to overcome. I pray that this coming season of Lent may be a time of focusing exclusively on Jesus who both calls us to overcome our fear of following his way to the cross and at the same time walks with us – even carries us – empowers us – so that our fears may be transformed into courage, hope and joy.