Lent begins this coming Wednesday. And I invite you to receive all that Ash Wednesday and the days following offer for your life, for the life of this congregation, and, indeed, for the life of the world.
Now, we don’t start a journey—especially like the one through the days of Lent—without knowing where we are going. If we let them, the days of Lent will take us into a desert wilderness, lead through a land of soul-searching, and bring us to a place of betrayal and death. All the while, however, we do not lose sight of our real destination: resurrection, new life, vitality.
So, before we enter that season of repentance and renewal, before we enter a time of looking at our own fallible, finite, and frail lives close up, we are given a chance to lift our eyes and see the distant horizon.
The story from Matthew’s gospel that we heard this morning is all about resurrection. So, we’ll want to look closely and listen carefully to get our bearings for the days ahead.
While the account of the Transfiguration is strange and radically disconnected from all that we might call “real life,” it is also a deep and rich story. When we hear this story in its larger context, we discover that it is filled with both challenge and comfort for us as we live our real lives.
Consider, then, how it begins: “Six days later…”
And we ask: What happened six days earlier?”
Well, six days before Jesus went up that mountain with Peter, James, and John, he gathered his disciples and asked them: “Who do people say that I am?
The answers started to come:
Some say that you are John the Baptist, who had recently been executed.
Or maybe you’re Elijah the prophet, returned from the dead.
Maybe you are the fiery Jeremiah or one of the other prophets.
These were his friends, his followers, and so they avoided using some of the less kind names people were giving to Jesus: blasphemer, false prophet, religious nut.
Then he tightened the circle of the discussion. “But,” Jesus asked, “Who do you say that I am?”
Jesus addresses not individuals but his followers as a group. Jesus uses the second person plural. “What about all of you? This question is not for individuals alone. It is a question that still comes to us as a congregation.
Our individual answers are important because they inform our common answer.
Peter’s response is not his alone. He speaks for the group when he asserts: “You are the Christ, the very Child of the living God.”
In our time and out of our Congregational UCC tradition, we speak together in our actions. We speak together in our common life. By what we do and say we tell the world who Jesus is—the One who welcomes the stranger and the outcast, the One who stands with the tortured, the One who is with us so that even in deep despair we find a deeper joy.
It was then, Matthew tells us, that Jesus “began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering, . . . and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
Hearing these hard words, we affirm that in Jesus we encounter the God who suffers as we suffer, the God who knows the human experience of being wounded and hurting deeply;
in Jesus we discover the God who knows what it means to be rejected, to have the very best one has to offer be judged as insufficient;
in Jesus we confront the God who is to be stretched to the limits of life, finding the courage for life even in the face of death.
This Jesus doesn’t always match up with what we are seeking—even if it fits very well with what we desire.
Six days earlier Jesus tells those closest to him: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
The Greek word for deny suggests saying “no” to something: saying ‘No’” to whatever it is within you that keeps holding out for terms other than God's complete and unconditional acceptance; saying “No” to self-righteousness and self-justification.
And when we look at the cross in the light of God’s acceptance, we might see something other than what we usually see.
A cross involves us with suffering; and a cross makes us who we are—most fully ourselves. In Jesus taking up his cross we see him as he really is: the revelation of God’s complete self-giving love, entering our suffering, a love that means forgiveness and life.
My cross and your cross are different from that. But our crosses will show us to be people accepted and forgiven by the love of God and therefore able—by God's grace—to take up the cross when we find it.
Denying the self that would deny God’s forgiving love.
Taking up the cross that is unique to each one of us.
These actions give specific content to the invitation of Jesus “Follow me.” The Christian life is a life a learning how to live by following, by watching the one who lived completely towards God.
As challenging and disturbing as the call of Jesus is, there is a refreshing honesty in it as well. The terms of following—the cost of discipleship—are stated up front. We know what we’re getting into from the start.
Jesus speaks these words to those who are already with him, people—like you and me—who understand themselves as accepted simply because it is God's nature to love and accept us.
And now here we are, six days later, high on a mountain, squinting in the dazzling light.
We can’t get much further from our own experience than this.
The stories in scripture jar us out of our familiar world, and carry us—however briefly—someplace we’ve never been:
with shepherds we gather at a manger,
with Jesus we go out into the desert,
with Peter we walk on water.
And this morning we encounter:
The fiery presence of God on Mt. Sinai,
the light coming from Jesus,
the light of God in the darkness of our own lives.
They all shine so that out of wonder and awe we might live lives of love and mercy and kindness.
The voice of God comes out of a cloud. In a sense it is not strange that God should speak from a cloud. The holy is always hidden from us.
Amid all the change, that voice tells us to “listen” to Jesus.
We listen to Jesus—not just to what he says but to how he lives and how he dies. We listen also to “resurrection.”
We proclaim the resurrection: God’s ability to bring life from death, and to hold all creation—the living and the dead—in God’s great eternal love.
Now, what happens next is something that I’ve missed every time I’ve read this story, every time I’ve preach about this story.
After the voice of God speaks, after the disciples fall to the ground in fear,
and before Jesus tells his followers, “Get up,” before he tells them “Do not be afraid,”
he comes to them and touches them. I have skipped over that simple action, missing its importance. Most biblical commentaries don’t comment on that at all.
But Presbyterian minister, Patrick Willson, stopped and looked at this moment and reflected: “God's glory and magnificence and power and majesty are unsurpassable, we say; but we must also declare that God's glory and magnificence and power and majesty are surpassed by God's willingness to shed them all in order that we might finally recognize God's love and gentleness. The measureless power that made the heavens and the earth concentrates in a hand reaching out to us….
“This is the way that God comes into the world: not simply the brilliant cloud of mystery, not only a voice thundering from heaven, but also a human hand laid upon a shoulder and the words, “Do not be afraid.” God comes to us quietly, gently, that we may draw near and not be afraid.”[i]
“Get up and do not be afraid”—this is the one thing that Jesus actually says in all of this.
“Get up.” In Matthew’s gospel, when Jesus raises the dead, those are the words he uses. “Get up.” This is a call to new life in this life. It is a call to resurrection in this world. As we listen, we are being called to something new.
“Get up.” Resurrection is not something that happens to Jesus alone. Resurrection is more than what some theologians refer to as “the Easter event.”
Resurrection is the new life that embraces us in our still wintry cold, calling us even in these days to set aside a frozen rigidity, calling us toward what Flannery O’Connor called the “spring and summer of God’s will.”
Resurrection comes toward us and we hear the invitation: “Get up.”
“And do not be afraid.” I’ve said this often enough that you know this is the message of Matthew’s Gospel from the angel who speaks to Joseph before Jesus is born to the angel who rolls away the stone at the empty tomb after the crucifixion. And here is Jesus with the same message: Do not be afraid.”
In these days, that seems even more difficult to hear than “Take up your cross.”
Just yesterday, William H. McRaven, a retired Navy admiral, was commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command from 2011 to 2014, wrote about Joe Maguire, who until last week was the acting director of national intelligence. Maguier told House lawmakers last week that Russia wants to see President Trump reelected, viewing his administration as more favorable to the Kremlin’s interests. And for that he lost his position.
McRaven says: “As Americans, we should be frightened — deeply afraid for the future of the nation. When good men and women can’t speak the truth, when facts are inconvenient, when integrity and character no longer matter, when presidential ego and self-preservation are more important than national security — then there is nothing left to stop the triumph of evil.”
The road ahead is not smooth.
The road ahead is not easy.
Like the journey ahead through Lent, it seems as though we are embarking on a national sojourn that will take us into a desert wilderness, lead through a land of soul-searching, and bring us to difficult destinations.
But let us, as people of faith, keep our sight on our real destination: resurrection, new life, vitality.
We are not the first to have more fear than faith.
The message still comes when you would least expect it—in the dark night of the soul, in the day of trial. That message is spoken by surprising voices in astonishing places. The message is still the same: At the center of all existence is a love that will not fail, a goodness that will stand.
This is the love of a God who comes to us in Jesus Christ, shares our life and suffering, knows our fears and sorrows. This is the love of a God who desires our good, who will be our strength.
“Do not be afraid.”
Matthew's account of the transfiguration speaks gently to us: “Be still and listen.” Look once more at the Christ whom we would follow. Listen to him as he speaks in scripture, through prayer, as we meet together. Listen as he speaks beyond these walls in new and unexpected ways. Be still. Be open to receive the gifts God offers.
This is why we usually hear this story on this Sunday before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday—and why we need to hear it today. As we move toward a time of thinking about our own mortality—and even more about the life-giving death of Jesus—the curtain of reality is pulled back so that we can see where we are heading.
We get a glimpse of the glory of God. As we continue to move through these winter weary days, look around: the light of God shines, calling us to new life, new challenges.
Calling us to resurrection.
[i] Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary - Feasting on the Word – Year A, Volume 1: Advent through Transfiguration.