open book on a table

“Fear or Familiarity”

a sermon drawn from Matthew 17:1-9, with a nod to Exodus 24:1-3, 9-18

The gospel this morning comes a little over half-way through the gospel of Matthew. A lot has already happened in the story of Jesus’ birth, life, ministry – in particular the ministry that includes his relationship with the disciples. Right before this story, Jesus has begun explaining to the disciples that he will have to “go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes and be killed and on the third day be raised” (Matthew 16:21) – and Peter has famously tried to get him to stop talking this way. Jesus’ lessons are becoming more insistent and urgent about the high stakes of his ministry. That’s some important background for the story we hear this morning.

Why are the disciples overcome by fear?

Maybe that seems obvious.

These hand-picked disciples, guys who’ve been with Jesus from day one, when he called them away from their nets on the shore of Galilee, were just going up a mountain to hang out with Jesus. They’ve done this before. More than once.

But this time, they experience something unbelievable, something they’d hardly believe if they hadn’t seen it with their own eyes. A vision – only, more real than what we usually mean by “a vision,” more flesh-and-blood than that – this is more like a change in the condition of the world … or the sudden awareness that the condition of the world is very different from what they’d thought it was.

Jesus looks different. He’s a light source. His face shines like the sun; his clothes are even as white as the light at noon.

He’s carrying on a whole other kind of conversation, in a whole other idiom, with colleagues his disciples recognize as the extremely famous ancestors of Israel, Moses and Elijah, the faces of the Torah and the Prophets, respectively.

I wonder whether the disciples there might have experienced something like what we ourselves have experienced if we’ve ever gone to work with our parents, and gotten a glimpse of our mom or our dad being their work self – much more grown up and professional and authoritative than we’re used to, talking about things we don’t begin to understand – or if our spouse has ever been interrupted by a phone call at home, so that one minute they were cooking dinner and the next they’re rendering a legal opinion or issuing a medical order … and we realize that this person lives and moves and works in a whole other reality that we know nothing about.

And then, as if that weren’t enough, they’re overshadowed by a cloud, a bright cloud, which if we know our Bible stories we know must be the glory of the Holy God. Because that glorious presence has shown up a few times before in the history of Israel – when the Israelites came to Mt. Sinai, for instance, and when Moses dedicated the Tabernacle, and when Solomon dedicated the Temple in Jerusalem. And then, the disciples hear a voice out of that cloud, clearly – from our perspective – a divine voice.

Who wouldn’t fall to the ground in terror, after all that? Obvious.

Especially if we know – again, if we’ve learned our Bible stories, which Peter and James and John probably had – that getting too close to that ultimate holiness is dangerous? Nadab and Abihu and those elders seem to be having a wonderful party in the presence of God there on the side of the mountain, seeing God seated on that sapphire pavement, it sounds delightful. But that harmony won’t last – relations between God and these people are going to deteriorate dramatically just a few chapters on.

The prophet Isaiah’s reaction to suddenly seeing the divine throne room – a story we have probably heard in church more than once – is lot more realistic: Woe is me! I’m doomed! Sinful, unclean people can’t set eyes on the Holy God and live!

And the prophet Isaiah isn’t the only one with that reaction. All through the Bible, from Hagar in Genesis to St. John in the book of Revelation, people are afraid when they come too close to God. Angels repeatedly have to tell them not to be afraid. People are not holy enough for God, they can’t get that close – at least not without making proper preparations and taking proper precautions.

So maybe it’s obvious why the disciples are afraid – except – they’ve been hanging out with Jesus this whole time.

They’ve been this close to God the whole time.

They’ve been with Jesus. And Jesus has been saying since the very beginning that the kingdom of the heavens, life in the presence of God, has come near. He seems to mean – people are already in it, or at least, could be in it at any moment.

The disciples know better than anyone what Jesus can do. They’ve seen him heal people with incurable diseases numerous times; they’ve seen him cast out demons; they’ve even seen him raise a little girl from the dead. They’ve seen him feed thousands of people with practically nothing to start with, and then walk on water, and then even get Peter to walk on water, and then change the weather on the Sea of Galilee. Admittedly, that scared them, too.

They have even said – Peter has said more than once – that Jesus is truly the Son of God. In other words, this closeness to God in the person of Jesus Christ is not new information.

Why are they only afraid now? Why weren’t they afraid … before?

This seems like a real question.

They weren’t any holier before. They were not any better prepared before to be in the presence of God. They were not any better at doing all the things Jesus was asking of them, loving their neighbors as themselves, doing unto others as they would have them do unto them.

[And they aren’t going to get better at that, either, at least not very soon – not before the end of this gospel! James and John are going to ask to hog the seats of honor in the heavenly banquet. Peter is going to deny Jesus. They’re all going to run away and hide, until the women who kept watch at the crucifixion see the risen Christ on Easter morning – where they’ll be afraid, too, but also filled with joy …]

But we don’t get the impression from reading this story that Peter and James and John were afraid around Jesus, most of the time. In fact, at the end of this episode, this almost unbelievable experience, when Jesus tells them “don’t be afraid” and helps them up off the ground, things seem to go back to normal, or just about. Maybe they take Jesus’ predictions about what is in store for them in Jerusalem a little more seriously after the Transfiguration than they did before …

Being with Jesus, most of the time, does not seem to feel like being in the presence of God in the same fearsome way they experience during that long moment of the Transfiguration.

And this seems relevant for us, honestly, because this absence of fear in the objective presence of God is something we have in common with the disciples.

Granted, we may not recognize that, because we don’t get to “hang out” with Jesus in person on the roads of Galilee, or have conversations with him in person around the dinner table.

But. We do have Jesus’ words – including his word of assurance that wherever two or three are gathered in his name, he is there among them. That is, among us. The presence of God.

We have the idea – a familiar one, certainly – that as the church, which Jesus Christ is the head of, we are all the time, everywhere we go, whatever we are doing, members of the body of Christ. In other words, we have the idea that our lives in the church are lives lived in the presence of God.

We live all our lives in the same world that Jesus walked through pointing out that the kingdom of the heavens, the constant, sustaining energy and activity of God, was near. Honestly, according to the theologians, omnipresent – everywhere. And in that Jesus was simply echoing the Psalmist, who had insisted long before that there was no place he could go that was really “away” from God. So we know, if we think about it for just a moment, that we  ourselves must be in the presence of God, too, just as the disciples were, just as all people are …

I’m not trying to scare anyone. But this is what we say we believe.

And when we are reminded of that – and when we pause and remember that yes, we do in fact believe that – and when we notice that we are here, now, and this, whatever it is, whatever is happening here and now, must be happening in the presence of God …

… that recollection does change the quality of the moment, or, can

If we are allowed to borrow an insight from another religious tradition, there is a story in which the prophet Muhammad is asked “what is beautiful” and Muhammad answers “that you behave always as if you see God, because God most assuredly sees you.”

Christians would go along with that. The practice of recollection, of pausing during the day, to notice the presence of God and spend a moment in the awareness of that presence, is an ancient Christian spiritual practice.

But that practice is easy to neglect, and that insight is easy to slip our minds.

Most of us, most of the time, easily become absorbed in our ordinary everyday lives, and those feel different from that moment of Transfiguration described in the gospel. Most of the time, I don’t know whether I speak for everyone here, but that presence of God we talk about and believe does not always feel as insistent and unavoidable as that bright cloud or that divine voice; more often, it can feel more like something theoretical or theological, something abstract. I’ve never experienced anything like the Transfiguration. And much of the time I don’t even stop to recollect and pay attention to the presence of God as much as I could. I get busy driving or shopping at Walmart or making supper or watching television, and hours or even days go by before I stop and think “right, God must be here, now.”

People here undoubtedly do better than that. But I suspect I’m not alone.

And I suspect this ordinary everyday effect is at least part of the answer to that question of why the disciples were not afraid all the time in the presence of God in the person of Jesus, why they needed the wake up call of the Transfiguration to remind them, dramatically, of who Jesus was, and that they really needed to listen to what he was saying to them.

Because Jesus was their friend, a familiar part of their familiar world, their ordinary everyday life – different, now, because they were on this adventure of preaching and teaching and maybe changing the world, but still, by and large the world they’d always known – the same Galilean earth and sky to see, the same bread and fish to eat, the same people they’d known all their lives, doing all the same things …

Full of the presence of God, but in that “everywhere, all the time” form of the presence of God, that is so familiar to people that not only are we not overcome by fear, we don’t even register it as anything special.

As Elizabeth Barrett Browning famously wrote, “earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God – but only he who sees takes off his shoes, the rest sit round it and pluck blackberries, and daub their natural faces unawares.”

And even the ones who see can get so used to seeing, even something as dramatic as the Transfiguration, or the smoke and fire of Mt. Sinai, that they no longer notice it or pay attention to what it means.

The Israelites had God’s glory with them every day, all day long, at Mt. Sinai, and after 40 days and 40 nights of that, before Moses could come down from the bright cloud at the top of the mountain, with the rest of the words of the Torah, they were asking Aaron – who had been at that fabulous party, who had shared that incredible vision of God – to make them a golden calf.

And I fear that if I had been there, I might have had the same reaction.

The presence of God can become so familiar to us that we don’t even notice it.

Of course, we wouldn’t want to be overcome by fear, as the disciples were during the Transfiguration, all the time. But we wouldn’t need to be.

Jesus is the face of the presence of God with us – familiar, not fearsome. We can make a habit of pausing and remembering that – “recollection.”

And by doing that, we can let that dramatic wake-up call issued to the disciples in the Transfiguration remind us, too, that the world – even our familiar world – looks very different whenever we realize that even here, now, we’re in the presence of Christ.

painting - figures of Jesus, Moses, Elijah in light - figures of three disciples kneeling and bowing

Image: “Open book 1,” by Alina Daniker alinadaniker, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Transfiguration,” Alexander Andreyevich Ivanov [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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