Sermon for Transfiguration Sunday
Listen, Get Up, Do Not Be Afraid
By The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer -
Today’s Gospel lesson, the story of what we call Jesus’ “transfiguration,” when Jesus appeared before three of his disciples in a heavenly glow and was joined by Moses and Elijah, this Gospel lesson is an amazing story! And, just to make it more amazing, not only do the disciples see Jesus glowing with Moses and Elijah next to him, they hear God speaking a blessing and a command, “This is my Son – Listen to him!”
Reflecting on this text, I agree with scholar David Lose who suggests that this lesson is about listening, rising up, and not being afraid. Listening, rising up and not being afraid.
Think of the scene, especially from Peter’s point of view: It is just six days after Peter’s confession that Jesus is the Messiah, a confession that was rebuked by Jesus as a misunderstanding of what it means to be the Messiah. Now, just days later, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain and is transfigured. Transfigured, that is, his appearance is literally changed right in front of them, so that, while they recognize their Lord, they also perceive his heavenly glory in a way they had not before. Moreover, Jesus is joined by Moses and Elijah, symbolic of the law and prophets.
It has been, when you think about it, an emotionally-charged time for all of Jesus’ disciples, but especially for Peter. Peter has most likely alternately felt thrilled by the reception of his confession, hurt by Jesus’ rebuke, confused by what Jesus is saying, and uncertain about the future. And now, dazzled, perplexed, probably more than a little overwhelmed, but also, perhaps, excited to be at this place and time and witness this event, Peter, wishing to pay appropriate homage to these guests, Peter offers to make dwelling places for them.
It’s a confusing time, a heady time, an exciting time, an uncertain time. I am not sure Peter knew entirely what to make of it. I am pretty sure that I do not know exactly what to make of this scene either. The whole Transfiguration event can be a little hard to interpret.
The Transfiguration story appears in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke. In today’s telling from St. Matthew, it is a turning point, the time when Jesus – confessed as Messiah, revealed in glory – Jesus now turns steadfastly toward Jerusalem to offer a different picture of Messiah and glory than anyone then – or now – expected.
And, for us, this text comes as we finish the season of light and revelation we call Epiphany, begin following Jesus down the mountain and toward Jerusalem in Lent, and still anticipate the glory of the Easter resurrection.
For all these reasons, we may, like Peter, not know quite what to make of it all and so harken back to various traditions, interpreting the Transfiguration in light of Epiphany, Lent, or Easter in an attempt to at least observe the day appropriately even if we do not understand it fully.
However, now, in 2017, at this particular time and place, I suggest we allow the words spoken on that mountain to speak to us today.
Think about it: right now, the world is filled with a variety of confusing events, divisive rhetoric, increased tension, and an unclear picture of the future. Some dread what is happening; some find it exciting. All sense the importance of this moment.
And amid all this, today’s Gospel text gives us words of instruction, command, and promise, words of instruction, command, and promise.
First the instruction: “Listen to him.” Listen to Jesus.
This is a time, perhaps more than ever, for us to come to church and try to hear what God is saying to us. And while we may disagree on just what we hear, I believe we all agree that the best way to understand God is to look to Jesus and listen to him. To pay attention to what Jesus says and does, to whom Jesus reaches out, to those Jesus gives attention and help. Yes, we may not all agree, but we might all confess that if we all keep trying to listen to Jesus together – and trust that is what even the people who disagree with us are also doing – if we all keep trying to listen to Jesus together, we will get closer to what God intends for us today.
Second, the command: “Get up.”
Except it’s not just “get up,” as the Greek verb Matthew uses here is the same one the angels declare to the women at the empty tomb: “He is not here; he has been raised!” (Matthew 28:6). So really, it is “be raised up.” Or even, “be resurrected.”
Think about that a minute! Jesus is calling us to take action in this world, action for compassion and love, especially for all those marginalized by this world, especially for those vilified by this world. And Jesus is promising that he will give us the energy we need and the will to act, so that we can make a difference in this world, so that we can be about the works of mercy and compassion to which God always calls us.
Third, the promise: “Do not be afraid.”
Do not be afraid is the hallmark of the Gospel, the hallmark of Jesus Christ for us all - words perhaps never more needed than now. It is a fearful time for many: The threat of terrorism, the prospect of job loss, the potential to betray our national identity and values, the fading possibility of a better future for our children, dreaded illness, unexpected death, the list goes on.
Fear is a part of the common fabric of our lives even though it manifests itself differently. And to all these different fears, the Gospel reply is the same: Because God is God of the past, present, and future, we need not fear.
This is not the same as saying that we will have no problems, or that we will avoid all harm and hardship. Rather, it is recognizing that when we trust God for our individual and communal good and believe God is with us always, we need not fear.
And, fear is not the mark of a lack of faith. We all grow afraid at times. However, as Christians, we recognize that God did not create us for death – God created us for resurrection. And because God created us for resurrection and not death, God does not want us to be afraid. Rather, God wants us to move forward – even and especially in uncertain times – with courage and confidence.
Listen. Be raised up. Do not fear.
It is important to remember that these words are said about and by our Lord as he refuses to linger on the mountain top but comes back down again into the realities of the world – and our life – as Jesus makes his way to Jerusalem. There Jesus will be tried, condemned, and crucified, for the world has no place for the encouragement and hope he offers.
And, fortunately for us, the story does not end with only the courage of one man, Jesus, defying the world. It continues with the promise that God raised Jesus from the dead so that all of us might have hope that there is more to this life than we can see, that God will be with us every step of our way, and that love and life are stronger than hate and death.
Listen. Be raised up. Do not fear.
God has promised to be with us every step of our way. Love and life are stronger than death. Today and every day.
(Thanks, once again, to the Rev. Dr. David Lose, whose biblical reflections are used extensively in this sermon).
The Rev. Eric Christopher Shafer
Senior Pastor - Mt. Olive Lutheran Church
Santa Monica, California
February 25 & 26, 2017