A sermon preached on February 3, 2008 based upon the transfiguration story, recorded in Matthew 17:1 – 9, entitled, “Afraid of Fear.”
Scott Peck tells a story in one of his books of a time he was flying in a plane, seated next to a young eighteen year old man — a boy really — who had never really been away from home before, much less flown on a plane. He was on his way to an army base where early the next morning he would begin basic training.
“Are you afraid?” Peck asked. The young man, afraid of his fears, refused to acknowledge them. “Not in the least.”
Peck said that shortly before the plane landed, the young man barely made it by him on his way to the bathroom where he proceeded to puke his guts out. Peck wished that he could have been able to tell the boy that if he had been willing to acknowledge his fears, he might not have needed to go through the whole puking business.
I thought of Peck’s story when I read the account Matthew handed down to us of the trip Jesus made up the mountain with Peter, James and John, where he was transfigured before them with a brilliant light. The story was first recorded by the Gospel writer Mark. Written twenty years later, Matthew’s version of the story has some interesting minor alterations from what he inherited from Mark.
First of all, it isn’t until the bright cloud overshadows the mountain, and God’s voice is heard, that the disciples are described as overcome with fear. In Matthew’s version it is the moment when the disciples are most unmistakably in the holy presence of God that they fall to their knees filled with fear. And then Matthew adds this lovely little line:
“But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up and do not be afraid.’”
It’s a beautiful little line, worthy of our lingering with it for a while. It calls to mind the beloved song, Amazing Grace, particularly the second verse:
“Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.”
It is the same grace, the same loving kindness of God, that, on the one hand, pushes us to acknowledge and face the fears hidden within us, arising from the basic facts of our existence: that we are mortal, indeed weak and fragile, and one day we will die, and what then will we have to show for our lives?
Although we would try to avoid this confrontation; it is a reckoning that our souls require. Only then can we discover the extraordinary comfort of God who would relieve us from the torment of those very same fears.
When I noticed Matthew’s unique twist to the transfiguration story, I was led to look for other places within the Gospel where the theme of fear arises. Again, a couple of places are unique to Matthew’s Gospel. It is only here that the wise men come from the east when Jesus is born, their inquiry leading Herod to be frightened, and all of Jerusalem with him. Herod becomes an example of how not to deal with our fears: he lashes out with violence in an attempt to get away from his terror. Which leads me to wonder how much of the violence of this broken world is ultimately rooted in fear. How often do people afraid of their own fear end up committing violence?
Another story unique to Matthew’ Gospel is a parable that Jesus tells late in his ministry of a king who goes away for a time, leaving three servants with talents to care for. Upon his return, the servants who had been given ten and five talents both present to their master increased wealth from their creative investing. The one talent man, however, tells the master that he had buried his solitary talent, because of his fear of the master. He declares that he knew the king to be a harsh man, and in a strange case of self-fulfilling prophecy, the king throws the servant into jail.
Again I wonder, how often does our undressed fear of failure end up sabotaging our lives, leading to the very failure we so feared?
As in the other Gospels, the disciple Peter is presented as something of an example for us in our spiritual journeys. But Matthew adds the plot twist that when Jesus comes walking on the water when the disciples are out in a boat at night, Peter says to him, “Master, if it is you, bid me to come to you on the water.” Jesus says, “Come,” and to his credit, Peter steps out on the water, doing something altogether new in terms of his experience of life up to that moment. The wind picks up, however, and Peter’s fears take over. He takes his eyes off Jesus, and begins to sink into the deep water. He calls out to Jesus in his fear, and Jesus delivers him to the safety of the boat.
The story drives home again the importance of confronting our fears in the faith journey. At the Last Supper, when Jesus declares to his disciples that that very night their fear will overcome them all, Peter is adamant saying it isn’t so for himself. The others may be afraid, but not me, he says. Like the young man in Peck’s story, Peter insists he has no fear. In short order, however, the deep terror of Peter’s life washes over him, and three times he denies that he even knew Jesus, terrified that he, too, would be arrested, beaten and sentenced to die.
But in the journey of faith, the amazing grace of Jesus’ healing touch did, in fact, gradually deliver Peter from his fears.
Matthew’s Gospel ends strikingly. On Easter morning, the guards at the tomb who had seemed so fearless are shaken to their core with fear and become like dead men when an angel of the Lord, whose “appearance was like lightning, and his clothing white as snow,” rolls back the stone of the tomb, declaring God’s victory over the death grip, and again, Jesus tells comes to his disciples, telling them not to be afraid.
Those of you who have heard me preach over time have heard me tell the story of how as a nine year old child I almost drowned. Afterwards, in the weeks and months to come, terror would often come upon me in my solitary times lying in bed at night as I considered the fact that I had almost died. The fear was pretty horrible, but lying in bed alone there was no way to avoid it. Finally, one night, I called out to Jesus for help, and mysteriously the fear simply evaporated, never to return in relation to the fact that I had almost drowned.
Now I do not wish to give the impression that I have lived a life free of fear. Hardly. In many ways I have often lived a life imprisoned by fears. The experience, however, did seem to free me from the fear of death per se, and gave me tangible evidence of the capacity of God’s grace to bring deliverance from the fears that plague us. That when God leads us into experiences that reveal to us the depth of fear that is yet within us, Jesus is there to come and touch us with his comfort and reassurance.
These days I often find myself living without consciousness of any great fear. When I think about this, however, I realize that this hardly means I’m fearless. I realize that there are countless things that could happen that would threaten my loved ones and my future that would quickly swamp me with fear, bringing me to my knees.
I am on a journey. One day I hope to sing for joy in heaven, and “when we’ve been there tend thousand years bright shining as the sun (bright shining as the face of Jesus on that mountaintop); we’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we first begun.”
But I’m not there yet. An image came to me as I thought about all this. Our lives are like big, beautiful houses, with many wonderful rooms, but we confine ourselves to the kitchen, which happens to have a little bathroom off of it, so we manage okay in our confinement. In this one room we feel fearless, perhaps priding ourselves in how free of fear our lives seem, but we can’t admit to ourselves the choice we’ve made not to explore the other rooms. They seem dark, and who knows what we’ll find there? We’re afraid of our own fear. And so we live confined lives, often bored with the monotony of our one little room. We do not yet know the “glorious liberty” that is our birthright as God’s beloved children.
“Don’t be afraid,“ says Jesus. And he takes us by the hand, and together we begin to explore the great expanse that is our eternal home.