First United Methodist Church
February 19, 2023
Rev. Lauren Hall
On the Mountain with Jesus
Hold up a family portrait and tell the children who’s in it. Say: When you have experiences that you want to remember, a lot of times you will take a picture. This is a picture of my sisters and Rowynn and me. We were celebrating Rowynn’s birthday and had lunch in Boston. Does your family have any special pictures of you? Can you look at the photo and remember what happened?
That’s kind of what happens in our Scripture today. Jesus goes up on a mountain with two of his disciples and when he’s up there the disciples witness a very special moment. They didn’t have cameras back then, but we can draw a picture of what happened from the description in the Bible.
What we remember when we look at this picture is that Jesus is a part of God’s family. In this picture, Jesus is with Moses and Elijah, two other people who are members of God’s family from Old Testament times.
One of the things we learn from this picture is that since Moses stands for the Law and Elijah stands for the Prophets, then Jesus links the two together.
This picture from the Bible helps us to see that God gave Moses the Law so that we could help each other. Elijah taught us to use the law for justice and Jesus showed us who the Law is really for. By bringing all three together on the mountain, we see that all three are important members of God’s Kingdom.
Another thing that the Bible says is that God spoke from a cloud, announcing, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” (v. 5).
When we see this picture we can remember all of that and we can also remember that if we listen to Jesus and follow his guidance, then we will be members of God’s family and God will be well pleased with us too.
Dear God, we thank you for sending Jesus, your Son. Give us the courage to listen to him. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.
Gracious God, the cloud of your splendor and the fire of your love revealed your Son on the mountain heights. As your Son drew apart to be in prayer with you, we offer our prayers for the transformation of the world and the church. When prophets witnessed to him, you proclaimed him your Son, but he returned to die among us. As we come to terms with who we are, and who you would have us be, grant us mercy. We pray that as we gather in worship today that we may be transformed by your grace.
In everything we do, Lord, help us to show the love you have for us and for all creation. Help us face evil with courage, knowing that all things, even death, are subject to your transforming power. We pray that today we may be a living sacrifice for those who need to know the truth of your life-giving Gospel.
As we gather today, Lord, we lift up prayers for those we are concerned about, especially those on our prayer list. Together we pray for [names, those walking in darkness, our country and our leaders, the United Methodist Church]. Surround all of us with your loving presence, and fill us with your Holy Spirit as we continue our journey with you. We ask this through Christ our Lord. Amen.
It is an awful feeling to feel terrified and out of control. Have you ever been paralyzed by fear?
I imagine that the students at Michigan State felt this way as they initially heard the gunshots and realized that someone was shooting at them. People in Russia and Ukraine most likely feel this way every time missiles and bombs are aimed at their homes, and when the Earthquake struck Turkey and Syria, people must have been terrified.
I personally don’t have very much experience with the kind of fear that the disciples experienced on the mountaintop that day – the mouth-drying, heart thumping, knee-buckling fear that paralyzes you momentarily as you try to escape from the situation that you are in.
The closest I think I’ve ever come occurred when I was driving home during a snowstorm and for the first time in my life, I experienced what is described as “zero visibility.” For over an hour I gripped the steering wheel as tightly as I could as I stared into the night and tried to distinguish between what was road and what wasn’t. My legs began to cramp because of the tension I felt and although I only had to drive a total of about 8 miles, I truly worried that I might not make it home.
When I finally reached my exit and safely came off the bypass onto a very well-lit local street, I felt an overwhelming sense of calm and relief.
In Scripture, fear is a common response when people have incredible encounters with God. When the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote a message on a wall in Babylon, King Belshazzar was so terrified that “all the color drained from his face” (Daniel 5:9). When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to announce Jesus’ birth, he had to say, “Don’t be afraid” (Luke 1:30). And the angel who appeared to announce Jesus’ birth to the shepherds used the words, “Fear not!” (Luke 2:10).
At the transfiguration, Jesus’ fearful disciples watch as he is transformed and shines with heavenly glory. After rejoicing at the presence of Elijah and Moses, they were suddenly reduced to bumbling, quaking jelly by the power and splendor of the voice that came blasting out of the heavens. They simply could not comprehend the magnificence of the divine presence, nor the implications of what the voice was saying. The entire experience was a mystery way beyond their ability to understand, and it terrified them.
The glory of the transfiguration event shines as brilliantly and as incomprehensibly today as it did for those disciples 2000 years ago. But even if we don’t completely understand what happened that day, we can at least learn how Jesus would have us act and react to events that challenge our comprehension and threaten to paralyze us with fear.
While Jesus did not explain the meaning behind the Transfiguration mystery, he did give us a strategy for dealing with those debilitating attacks of fear that seem to strike us all at one time or another. His suggestion is pretty simple: Jesus says, “Get up and do not be afraid!”
Personally, I think that these words are pretty good advice. When you are so afraid that you are paralyzed with fear, when you are lost in the woods and the wolves are about to attack, when you are driving and you can’t see the road in front of your car, or when a gunman comes into your building and begins shooting, simply heed Christ’s words and “Get up. Don’t be afraid. Do the things you know how to do and don’t panic.” It’s the kind of thinking most of us have been trained in if we have attended any kind of risk management training. When chaos is happening all around you, you do the things you know how to do and remain calm. That’s why we have fire drills, and tornado drills and other emergency drills.
At the Transfiguration, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up onto a high mountain. Everything is fine until God speaks. At the sound of God’s voice, the disciples collapse in terror.
It is interesting that the disciples can be so close to Jesus and yet be terrified when they find themselves in the presence of God. In some sense fear has defined the relationship between God and humans from the very beginning. In the garden of Eden, after they had disobeyed God, Adam and Eve noticed their nakedness, or vulnerability, and hid. This kind of fear has kept us from enjoying the type of relationship with God that God has always intended and desired.
As the disciples cower in fear, Jesus approaches Peter, James and John, touches them, and tells them not to be afraid. Although they cannot bear to hear God speak from the cloud, they can listen to Jesus. In Jesus the disciples have experienced the mercy and grace of God and they are not afraid. The word of God comes to them now, not as a thunderous voice from heaven or letters written on tablets of stone, but in the words and actions of Jesus. The Son of God speaks to them as one human speaks to another, and they rise and follow him.
On the way down the mountain Jesus tells them once again that the Son of Man must suffer, and he orders them to tell no one about the vision until after he has been raised from the dead. They discuss Elijah’s role in restoring all things, and then Jesus, whose face has shone like the sun, descends into the needy human crowd and immediately heals a demon-possessed child.
The story of the transfiguration directs us away from trying to understand Jesus only as he is revealed in glory. It points us down the mountain and invites us to walk with Jesus into the suffering, hungry crowds. The divine voice commands us to listen to Jesus. But listening is more than hearing. Listening becomes the means by which Jesus becomes the storyteller of our lives. And the way we live our lives reveals our understanding of Christ’s love and sacrifice. Thank goodness we also have the gift of God’s grace, because no one has figured out how to do this perfectly.
In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says that building on the rock means not only hearing his words, but acting on them (Matthew 7:24).
Hearing without obeying places us right where the disciples found themselves – cowering in fear when we realize that we are encountering God face to face. At Gethsemane, when Jesus himself faces the temptation to disobey his Father and abandon the road to the cross, the same three disciples who saw him transfigured wait with him while he grieves and prays.
He passes the test, but they do not. He walks steadfastly on to suffering and death, and they desert him and flee. On the cross Jesus shows the world the obedient Son of God in all his suffering humanity, pouring out his blood for the forgiveness of sins. After the resurrection the Son of God appears to the disciples with all his divine authority, calling them to baptize and to teach people to obey his commands. Then he sends them down the mountain and into the world he loves, promising them that he will be with them always. We too are sent; we too must listen and obey. And the promise of his presence is ours as well.
All of us have had moments of fear and temptation. We’ve all had times when it took everything we had to find the strength and courage to face our worst tragedies and fears: our fear of inadequacy, our fear of saying or doing the wrong thing, our fear of failing our families, or our friends, or ourselves. We fear illness and disease and suffering. We fear terrorism and disaster, both natural and human-made. We fear failing God, facing our Lord in our final hour, and the accounting of our lives and the journey into the life that is to come. We fear all of that, and yet God continues to extend mercy and grace no matter what.
Jesus says, “Get up, don’t be afraid.” When we find the courage and the strength to do God’s bidding – to listen to the words of Jesus and face our fears knowing Christ is with us something amazing happens. The Spirit of God breathes God’s very power and grace into us and we are transformed, or transfigured, to use the words from Scripture. That is, we are CHANGED from being frightened, helpless people into being strong, able disciples who are able to go forth and minister in the name of Jesus Christ. Let us pray…
Almighty God, you are beyond our knowing, yet we see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ, whose compassion illumines the world. Transform us into the likeness of the love of Christ, who renewed our humanity so that we may share in his divinity. Help us to share the risk and challenge of living our faith. By your Spirit, turn our fear to courage and our confusion to confidence. Grant us the strength to turn our face toward Jerusalem to bear our cross, so that your glory and love and mercy may be revealed. We pray this in the name of Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Invitation to Discipleship:
When you out into the world this week, think about the life the God has given you. Remember that when God comes to us in Christ, the Lord appears right before our very eyes and we too may tremble. But at that moment in time, God lifts us back up, up from our fears, up from our trembling, up from our lack of faith and sets us right back on our feet. We are able to “get up and not be afraid” because God lifts us up and makes us able to do what we can’t do on our own. Go in peace. Amen.