“Jesus Says Don’t Be Afraid!”
Matthew 17:1-9 (17:7) – February 23, 2020
Have you ever been really scared? I know I have. Most of us can relate when we hear about people being terrified. I mean, shocked, totally frightened out of your shoes!
What is it that terrifies you? Is it gunfire? Perhaps a gang shootout, on the street? Thankfully, most of us are fortunate to live in safer neighborhoods. What else could scare you to death? A huge fire in your house or work building? Or, what about a natural disaster here in Illinois, like a tornado, or in the Philippines, like a volcanic eruption?
Any of those events could terrify people. We heard about an event today that terrified the onlookers, too: the Transfiguration of Jesus. Peter, James and John were scared out of their sandals! Our Gospel reading from Matthew 17 tells us so.
Let us step back from this reading, and take a long view on the situation in Matthew 17. Jesus is not too far from the end of His ministry, His final trip to Judea and to Jerusalem. It’s only a matter of months before the culmination of Jesus’s time on earth. For the past three years, the itinerant Rabbi Jesus has been preaching, healing, performing miracles, telling parables, and generally doing the things we are used to Jesus doing.
I know Jesus’s typical daily schedule might seem different to us, today, but Jesus had been doing the same thing for quite a number of months.
Yes, He might be an itinerant Rabbi, traveling from place to place, but Jesus had a number of back-up people, ready to take care of His itinerary and check out possible places to stay and eat, not to mention travel. Did you ever think about that? There must have been at least a few people in Jesus’s traveling group of disciples who must have had some expertise in travel arrangements, and setting up food and lodgings.
And, that isn’t all. We understand from references in the Gospels that Jesus regularly took time out for prayer and meditation. At the beginning of our Scripture reading this morning, we see Jesus taking His inner circle of disciples away with Him to the top of a mountain. Did the three disciples have any idea of what would happen later that day? Do we? Do we really know what happened, there on that mountain?
Whatever the event in Matthew 17 was, it was absolutely amazing to see. Our other reading this morning from Exodus 24 also took place on a mountain. Try to see this scene in your imagination. If you will, picture it on the video screen in your head.
In Exodus, the Lord invited Moses up to the mountaintop, to get the tablets of stone with the Ten Commandments inscribed on them. Also, Moses was supposed to be on the Mountain with God for some time. Both events took place on top of a mountain, in the presence of the glory of God. As the face of Moses shone with that glorious light, so also shone the face of Jesus. Matthew tells us so!
But, it isn’t only the face of Jesus that gets all lit up. No, His clothing becomes brighter than bright, too! A Transfiguration is how the Gospel writer translates the word. In Greek, this word is actually “metamorphed.” We might recognize that word from metamorphosis, the changing of a caterpillar into a butterfly, from an earth-bound creature into something totally and radically different. That is how much Jesus transformed.
For us, today, this sort of transforming effect is not too uncommon. With modern stage lighting, and special effects in the movies, and fancy costuming, we here in the United States in the 21st century might be surprised, but not scared. Certainly not terrified. But, Peter, James and John knew nothing of elaborate lighting or fancy costumes, or even electricity. Imagine, if you can, what an absolutely unbelievable – preposterous – sight Jesus showed to His three disciples. Plus, Moses and Elijah showed up next to the transfigured Jesus, on top of that mountain. Far, far beyond the disciples’ experience. No wonder they were terrified!
If you remember, we had a wonderful Summer Sermon Series in 2018 where we focused on many times in the Bible where people were told, “Be not afraid!” Here is another instance of those powerful words. Powerful, because they almost always come as a result of people seeing the glory of God or the presence of an angel. Memorable, because our Lord Jesus said them to His friends, to Peter, James and John.
We might wonder: how could the disciples possibly relate to Jesus again with any sort of naturalness? Any kind of normalcy, after this clearly supernatural experience?
The answer? Jesus transformed back into regular, human form, and touched His friends. He encourages them with the words “Don’t be afraid!” By touching them and reassuring them that it was really and truly Him, just as He was before? It wasn’t the glorified, “glowing” Jesus who touched them, but the all-too-human, relatable Jesus.
The Rev. Janet Hunt tells us that, as she understands it, “when Jesus tells them to ‘get up’ he is using the same words he also used in raising the dead. No, Jesus does not leave them there ‘dead’ in their terror and their confusion. For while they may find themselves in the midst of something unlike anything they have ever seen before. They may be so afraid that they are as paralyzed as though they were in fact, dead. And yet, Jesus does not leave them there. He tells them to get up and to leave their fear behind.” 
Fear of what, I wonder?
- Fear of the unknown?
- Fear of the incomprehensible power of God?
- Fear of their own inadequacy in the glare of that overpowering bright light?
How many of us are frightened or anxious, and need to hear those words today? How many of our friends or family members find themselves in difficult places, or walking through scary situations, and could be encouraged by those words today? Listen to Jesus! Hear His words to the disciples. Hear His words to us, too.
Sure, we, today, can be dazzled and awestruck as we see the marvelous, miraculous event unfold on the Mountain of the Transfiguration.
How much more do we need this healing, life-giving, transforming touch from our Lord Jesus? The words of Jesus—“Be not afraid!” are surely for each of us, too.