Jesus Says Don’t Be Afraid!

“Jesus Says Don’t Be Afraid!”

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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.” [1]

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.      

Alleluia, amen.

 

[1] http://dancingwiththeword.com/get-up-and-dont-be-afraid-revisited/

(janet@dancingwiththeword.com)

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2020: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

God with Us!

“God with Us!”

Matt 1-23 Emmanuel Greek

Matt 1:18-24; Luke 1:26-38 – December 8, 2019

Have you ever had something unexpected happen? I mean, something huge. Something you never would have expected in a hundred years. Maybe, even a thousand. I know that, with statistics, we can figure out just what are the chances of having something happen. Like, a car accident, or a fall at home, or catching a rare disease. We can even figure out the statistical chances for getting hit by lightning—and a few people have even been hit by lightning twice, and lived to tell about it.

But—what about being visited by an angel? At night, when you are sleeping? Picture this—our Scripture reading from Matthew 1 tells us about Joseph receiving a visit from an angel of the Lord. Statistically, that angel probably would not even factor, because angels are not material, they are not able to be quantified by any earthly scale or system.

Regardless of whatever statistical system is used, I doubt very much whether Joseph would have been considered “the one most likely to see an angel.” And, especially when we consider what the angel had to say to him.

I wanted to focus on the sleeping part. The angel came to Joseph while he was asleep. That reminds me of someone creeping up on Joseph, trying to surprise him. Perhaps, even trying to scare him. I do not think the angel meant that at all, but the first words out of the angel’s mouth are “Don’t be afraid!”

We are considering light and dark this Advent season. Last week, we thought about different aspects about darkness that are warm, friendly, even inviting. We thought about nocturnal animals, gestating animals, and growing seeds underground. All in the warm, nurturing, friendly darkness. These examples give us a whole different view of darkness as opposed to light.

This week, we look at the angel of the Lord coming to Joseph in a dream. But, before we even start with the angel, what was the background to this Scripture reading?

We know Joseph and Mary are engaged—or, pledged to be married. I suspect that it was more than just an engagement thought up by the two young people themselves, with no one else involved. No, at that time, in that part of the world, a marriage was much more. A marriage was an alliance between two families, a merger, a joining of one extended family with another.

When two people got married, it was a long, drawn-out affair. First, both families needed to talk and negotiate. Most times, money or other kinds of valuables changed hands—some kind of dowry or bride price. The man and woman were seen to be engaged, promised to each other. But the actual, official marriage ceremony had not taken place yet. From what I see in the Scripture passage today, this is the point we are at. This is what is going on. Joseph’s family and Mary’s family have arranged the marriage; Joseph and Mary are engaged to be married.

This is where the story starts getting sad, or weird, or surprising—maybe all three. Mary tells Joseph privately, confidentially, that she is pregnant. And, this pregnancy is special. Super extra special! Mary told Joseph that God was the father of her baby.

Now, what did she say? Wait just a minute. What did Mary say? Joseph could not believe this tall tale Mary tried to tell him. And, this certainly seemed to be a whopper, in Joseph’s eyes.

What do you and I do when we have something happen that is statistically unlikely? Even, impossible? What would you or I do if we had someone tell us that they had heard from an angel, and they were pregnant. And, all this had to be kept confidential?

I suspect Joseph had really unsettled sleep for the next few nights. (Wouldn’t you?)

The Gospel reading tells us “Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” Seriously, if Mary were tried under the law of Moses, and found pregnant before she went through with the marriage ceremony with Joseph, she could be stoned for adultery. Serious, indeed.

This Scripture reading focuses on light and darkness, too. Sailors and other travelers used the light of stars at night to find their way. The stars, of course, were made of light, but the night—the darkness—enabled the sailors to see stars clearly enough to navigate their path. Light and dark worked together to illuminate the way.

It was during one of these nights of agitation and discomfort that the angel of the Lord came to him. In both Joseph’s and Mary’s cases, darkness plays a significant role. Night tells our bodies it’s time to sleep, and sometimes, we can even have dreams. Light and dark can work together in surprising ways.

Do you remember how I started this sermon, and talked about figuring out the statistical chances for getting hit by lightning—and a few people have even been hit by lightning twice, and lived to tell about it? What are the statistical chances of two engaged people each getting visited by an angel?   

I want to remind us all about the words of the Gospel of Luke, chapter 1. “The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” 29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. 30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. 31 You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus.”

Mary and Joseph, both received word from the angel of the Lord, both at home, and both were scared out of their wits. In both angelic visits, the angels say not to be afraid.  We begin with two people who both did not understand—both were in darkness, except the angel brought light and understanding to both people.

The angelic message offers peace, even as Mary and Joseph face an unexpected future. Like the night sky for ancient sailors, these holy visits to Mary and Joseph point the way when they don’t know what to do. And we know, of course, their message is very good news.

What about us, then, today? Would we receive this same news in the same way?

Each one of us is encouraged to ponder our selves, our lives. Let me suggest that in this pondering, we have the opportunity to offer our thoughts, feelings and emotions to God. Each of us can think of times of regret and sorrow, the deep feelings, the difficult memories. And, what about those times of anxiety and deep sadness? Of desperate loneliness and fear.

Like Mary, like Joseph, each of us today has the ability to ask God to take away the distress and anxiety from us. Just like in Mary’s situation, where she accepted the angel’s news with joy. Just like Joseph, who was persuaded to continue with the engagement by the words of the angel. The angels spread light and life wherever they went.

The angels delivered important messages to Mary and Joseph. Another word for angel is “messenger,” and we can all be messengers of hope, light and life. How can you or your family deliver a message of good news today? Take a moment to think of someone who could use a message of love and hope. Then write a note, send a photo by Facebook or Instagram, draw a picture, or send a text to that person or family.

God willing, we can all be messengers of God’s light, life and hope to others.

Alleluia, amen.

(I would like to thank illustratedministry.com for their Advent devotional “An Illustrated Advent for Families: In Light & Darkness.” For this sermon, I have borrowed several ideas and quotes from Week 2 of this devotional. Thanks so much!)

For further information, see info@illustratedministries.com

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2019: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!

Risen Indeed!

“Risen Indeed!”

Easter word cloud

Mark 16:1-8 (16:6) – April 1, 2018

            Have you ever had something completely unexpected happen to you? I mean, something so unexpected and unusual it is disorienting? Perhaps it leaves you with your jaw hanging open. I might say that the Cubs winning the 2016 World Series reminds us of that, but, no. I am talking much bigger than that—of cosmic significance! And, much more disorienting. Astounding.

            It wasn’t as if the Rabbi Jesus had kept it a secret. No, He had spoken of it to His followers, a number of times before His crucifixion. But, really, it is a bit farfetched.. Jesus, being raised from the dead? Come on, Jesus. You must be joking. Seriously?

            We know more about what happened on that Easter Sunday from the other Gospel accounts. But, Mark? Not so much. Mark writes in his usual concise, blunt manner. Short on details and description, heavy on action. Let’s take a closer look at our Gospel reading.

            “After the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices to go and anoint the body of Jesus. Very early on Sunday morning, at sunrise, they went to the tomb.”

            We already know the men disciples of Jesus scattered as soon as Jesus was arrested. This was for very good reason! The men were very much afraid that they would be arrested, too! But, this left just the women disciples of Jesus at the foot of the cross, and at the tomb.

            How often is it that women take care of the body of their loved one after death? In many cultures and all around the world, for millenia, washing and dressing the dead body, anointing the body with spices and with perfumes, holding a vigil or mourning or sitting shiva. How often is this the responsibility and privilege of women?

To continue, from Mark 16: “On the way they said to one another, “Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?” (It was a very large stone.) Then they looked up and saw that the stone had already been rolled back.”  The big stone rolled over the entrance to the tomb must have been worrying the women. Mark even mentions it. I suspect they already were discussing how their combined strength was probably not enough to even budge the stone. But—what is this? The stone is already rolled away! It’s the first inkling that things at the tomb are not as these women first thought.

            “So they entered the tomb, where they saw a young man sitting at the right, wearing a white robe—and they were alarmed.“Don’t be alarmed,” he said. “I know you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is not here—he has been raised!”

I can’t help but smile as I read my commentator’s view on this verse: “seems to be on Jesus not being present because he has better things to do than wait around at a tomb. The “young man dressed in a white robe” (angelic messenger) delivers the good tidings of Easter morning like an administrative assistant explaining why you can’t have a quick word with the boss: “You’re looking for Jesus? Sorry, you just missed him.” [1]

Wait a minute—did I hear that right? Jesus just stepped away? These women are left holding the spices, and they only have a vague idea of where their Rabbi Jesus might have gone.

I realize this whole situation is astounding, but can we put ourselves in the shoes of these women? They had absolutely no idea where Jesus was. Plus, they are faced with an angelic messenger. How often the first words out of any angel’s mouth are “Don’t be afraid!” Angels must be frightening, and awe-inspiring, and enough to make these women shake in their sandals.

Is anything clouding the sight of these women as the angel speaks to them? Is anything clouding their hearts from discerning what it is the angel has to say? We all know the grief and cares of this world, some more than others. What else did the angel say? “Look, here is the place where he was placed. Now go and give this message to his disciples, including Peter: ‘He is going to Galilee ahead of you; there you will see him, just as he told you.’”

Again, these women were flabbergasted. Amazed, half in disbelief. As our commentator Dr. Pape tells us, the angel’s instructions to the women “is to tell the disciples, and especially Peter who had denied him, that they had better get on the move (Mark 16:7). Jesus had explained already that after he was raised up, he would go ahead of them to Galilee (Mark 14:28). Now the “young man” reminds them of this scheduled rendezvous. If it’s Jesus they want, they will need to head back to Galilee.” [2]

This is a tall order. The angel orders the women to tell the disciples that they are to go clear across the country, to Galilee, and there they will meet the risen Jesus. I suspect the women already knew how skeptical the men disciples would be of their claim that Jesus was alive. And then, on top of that, the whole group of disciples were told to remove to Galilee to go and meet with the risen Jesus? Kind of far-fetched, if you ask me. Looking at this passage, we read of the women’s response: “So they went out and ran from the tomb, distressed and terrified. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”

I wonder how much of the women’s response was fear and anxiety? How much was unbelief? And, how much was other emotion, and distress, getting in the way of them hearing the message of the angel clearly?

Yet, along with the Rev. Janet Hunt, “I find myself wondering about those women now… those who were looking on from a distance: Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and Salome.  And I wonder then if it was force of will that kept them there at the foot of the cross for as long as they stayed or if time stood still for them and all other responsibilities just faded away.

“And I wonder about the people who will gather in all of our places of worship this Easter morning to hear again a story many of them have heard over and over again.  I wonder what grief, what loss, what worry, what fear will be clouding their hearts as they step into a place bathed in lilies and the sounds of trumpeted Alleluias.  I wonder if for them this hour shared will be a distraction to be gotten through before they get back to other matters pressing on their minds and hearts or if they will hear in the ancient story retold a promise that will then somehow come alive right before their eyes as they return to their lives in a world.  A world which all too often seems to hold a whole lot more despair than hope, more cynicism than trust, more death than life.  I wonder if some among us, like those women on that first Easter morning, I wonder if we will see God’s promises kept in unexpected ways and places on Sunday afternoon or Monday morning or Wednesday night.”  [3]

We know now, from the other Gospel accounts, that this was just the beginning of the story, the beginning of that Good News, that Jesus has risen, indeed! Despite worry, anxiety, despair, loss, and cynicism, we know the tomb is empty. We know that with the risen Jesus, hope, love, mercy and forgiveness have come into the world again. We can say with the angel in the tomb, “Jesus is not here—He is risen!” Jesus Christ is risen, indeed. Amen, alleluia!

[1] http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2406

Commentary, Mark 16:1-8, Lance Pape, Preaching This Week, WorkingPreacher.org, 2015.

[2] Ibid.

[3] http://dancingwiththeword.com/a-gap-in-the-story-easter-thoughts/

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2018: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)

Terrified!

Matthew 17:1-9 – February 26, 2017

imandoa001p4

“Terrified!”

When my children were young, I would always read them a bedtime story, every night. That was part of our process of going to bed. Sometimes I’d read chapters from books like Winnie the Pooh or the Wizard of Oz, and sometimes storybooks or fairy tales from the library. Some of the stories would have some really scary things in them! A little like the Gospel reading from Matthew, today, where the three disciples were terrified on top of the mountain! There are certain things that scare us almost to death. But, I am getting ahead of myself.

In many of the stories we know, some people often like to find a character they can relate to. A sympathetic character, or one who displays some qualities each of us might have. Who hasn’t been frightened, like Piglet, or puzzled, like Pooh Bear, or excited, like Tigger? In today’s Gospel reading, we have several characters. Is it possible to find some similarity in one of these characters, some characteristic that each of us might share, or be able to relate to?

In today’s Gospel reading, we have Jesus, and we have Peter, James, and his brother John. Jesus takes them up a trail on a mountain, up to the top. There, they have a stunning, supernatural encounter.

That day does not start that way. That day was probably like many other days among Jesus and His group of followers. Hectic, a bit crowded, perhaps even some people already waiting in line to see the Rabbi, have some prayer, even hoping for a healing. Unknown to everyone else, Jesus slips away with the three disciples.

Remember how we often choose a character from a story and try to relate to them, or find some similarity with a characteristic of theirs? I thought one of the commentators on this Gospel passage had some excellent points. Alyce McKenzie said: “If you know what it is like to be tired, to have people seeking you out for what you can do for them, and other people criticizing you and working against you, if you have ever been filled with dread at what lies ahead, you have a little something in common with Jesus. If you know what it’s like to feel those things as a direct result of serving God, then you have even more in common with Jesus.” [1]

While this little group is climbing the mountain, I suspect these three disciples are a bit proud that their Rabbi Jesus has singled them out, amidst all of the other disciples and followers. Wouldn’t you be proud? Perhaps, even congratulating yourself that you are a confidant of Jesus?

After the four people reach the mountaintop, something happens. Now, remember, Peter, James and John are not used to watching television or movies. They do not know anything about fancy costumes that look like they come from outer space, or special effects with light and fireworks, or super sound systems like we have in the United States, today.

Just imagine people like Peter, James and John, having no concept of any of these modern things. Next, I invite you to close your eyes. Try to put yourself in the company of the three disciples, on top of the mountain, in your mind. Are you there? “There was Jesus, transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.”

I can think of at least a dozen supernatural encounters—right off the top of my head—in both the Old and the New Testaments. You know, where people come face to face with angels, or hear the voice of God, or see the burning bush. Here on top of the mountain, these three disciples already knew that Jesus was a man from God. Only a few days before, Peter had even testified to that fact that Jesus was the Messiah, the promised One of God.

In all of these supernatural encounters throughout the Bible, angels always say “Don’t be afraid!” to whomever they meet. I bet when the angels break in to the everyday, ordinary world, that must be the scariest thing those people have ever seen! Even though Peter, James and John had walked with Jesus, learned from Jesus, and lived with Jesus for many months, by this time, I suspect they are scared at the events that are happening!

We have Jesus—transfigured, or literally translated from Greek, metamorphoomai, the verb “to undergo a metamorphosis.” We are not quite sure exactly how Jesus looked, except that we are told He glowed with a glory reserved for angels, for things from heaven. It’s as if a switch were flipped, and Jesus was lit from the inside with bright, white super-sunshine.

Is it any wonder that Peter started babbling, and said the first thing that came into his head? “Um, Lord, it is good that we are here. Look, look, I’ll put up three booths, or tents, so we can worship You and Moses and Elijah right here!” Good old foot-in-mouth Peter. Sure to speak before he thinks, letting his mouth run away with him. (Does that sound like anyone you know? Is that a situation in this story that you especially relate to?)

The bright and shining Jesus was talking to Elijah and Moses. Remember Moses, and how he had led the people of Israel for forty years around the wilderness? Yes, “Moses, who had seen God face to face on Mt. Sinai, the Mount of Revelation, and whose face had shone.” Dr. Alyce McKenzie tells us “that Moses hadn’t wanted to be a prophet in the first place and had made excuses to God to get out of it. (If you know what it’s like to make excuses to God, you have a little something in common with Moses.)“ [2]

But, wait! There’s even more! “While Peter was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with Him I am well pleased. Listen to Him!” If you thought the appearance of Jesus in radiant form wasn’t enough, imagine the stentorian voice of God booming all around! This is it. Right here.

Can you imagine Peter, James and John even more afraid than they were before? Absolutely terrified? They fall on their faces at this heavenly voice. It isn’t even a sound system, with squawking speakers all around, but instead the resounding voice of God from heaven.

And then—everything supernatural goes away. It’s all over. Only Jesus remains, in His normal, everyday clothes.

I can tell you how Peter remembered this awesome, terrifying experience, several decades later. He writes to his fellow believers in a letter, “18 We ourselves heard this voice that came from heaven when we were with him on the sacred mountain.” But then, Peter couldn’t stay on the mountaintop forever, worshiping the Lord. Peter—and James, and John—needed to come down into the real world, into the mundane, every day. And, do the real, sometimes difficult, work of God’s kingdom.

Remember what I said about characters in a story, and about us finding some similarity in one of these characters, some characteristic that each of us might share, or be able to relate to?

Whether we are up on the mountain today, with the bright shining, heavenly Jesus, or down on the earth in a sad or difficult place, the love of Jesus shines in our hearts. Jesus remains.

He is with us, just as He promised. Not “maybe,” not “I wish so, or “I hope so.” But, Jesus promises to be right by our sides, always, through thick and thin, through good times and bad. “In Him we behold what we want to become. In us Jesus lives as a presence that empowers us to become what God would have us become.” [3]

And for that, we can surely say “alleluia, amen!”

[1] http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Finding-Ourselves-in-the-Story-Alyce-McKenzie-02-25-2011

[2] http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Finding-Ourselves-in-the-Story-Alyce-McKenzie-02-25-2011

[3] http://www.patheos.com/Resources/Additional-Resources/Finding-Ourselves-in-the-Story-Alyce-McKenzie-02-25-2011

@chaplaineliza

(Suggestion: visit me at my regular blog for 2017: matterofprayer: A Year of Everyday Prayers. #PursuePEACE – and my other blog,  A Year of Being Kind . Thanks!)