(sermon note here: 02-14 sermon note)
Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.
On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, ‘Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It throws him into convulsions until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him. I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.’ Jesus answered, ‘You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.’ While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.
While everyone was amazed at all that he was doing, he said to his disciples, ‘Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.’ But they did not understand this saying; its meaning was concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying.
This week’s reading reminds me of the one about a Navy captain who was approached by his lieutenant. “Captain! There is an enemy ship incoming! They are armed with cannons and a hundred men with muskets and swords!” “Very well,” said the Captain. “Fetch me my red shirt.” “Why your red shirt, sir?” “Because if I am wounded in the fight, the blood will be hidden by the shirt, and it will seem as though I am unhurt, and will strike fear in the enemy, and give confidence to our crew.” The enemy ship approached and the two ships began to fight. The Captain was wounded, but the crew didn’t know it, and they fought confidently and won the fight. A few days later, the lieutenant approached the Captain again. “Captain! A fleet of enemy ships is incoming! There are a hundred vessels, armed with cannons and a hundred men each!” “Very well,” said the Captain. “Fetch me my brown pants.”
We can only pray that the Captain led his crew to victory in spite of the insurmountable odds. He was in quite the jam, understandably afraid of what lay ahead for him and his crew. And fear can make us do some pretty shameful things, either voluntarily or involuntarily. Brown pants and the implication behind them are, for many of us, the most shameful thing we can do in response to our fears. But that Captain used it to his favor to rally his crew to possibly surprising success. Better to use fear to your advantage than to become a victim of it, I suppose…
If only those in our reading for this morning used their fears to their advantage. In the first part of our reading, we heard the familiar encounter between Jesus and three of his disciples atop a mountain one day. Peter, John, and James had been asked to join Jesus on top of the mountain and once there, he revealed his full glory to them as his face changed and his clothes became dazzling white. It was truly a remarkable event to behold, perhaps second only to the appearances of the resurrected Jesus. No one had witnessed Jesus’ full glory before this event and the disciples reaction to it was of sheer terror and fright. The spirits of Moses and Elijah appeared beside Jesus, making it a truly frightening experience for the disciples. Two of the three just stood there dumbfounded while Peter had the wherewithal to try use his fear to his advantage: “…let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Certainly an interesting response to the event, if not shameful. Peter was, in essence, trying to capture the three iconic figures in structures so that others could come and behold them as well, possibly worship them. It’s an interesting response because it assumes that you can somehow capture special moments or people in your life. But that’s not how life in this world works. Special moments and people are fleeting. We try to capture them with words or pictures but they’re never quite the same. Memories are never as accurate as the actual, real-life people or moments. Memories crumble with time, they fade away with time. But for whatever reason, Peter thought he could suspend the laws of this world and capture the three men and preserve them for all time. Of course, it’s a silly response, one driven purely by fear and wishful thinking. James and John may have responded to their fears with silence but at least they didn’t respond as fantastically, perhaps shamefully, as Peter had.
And as if their fears weren’t enough, our reading goes on to present the fears of several others. Jesus and his disciples came down from the mountain only to be confronted by several more fearful people. A man was terrified by a spirit that had possessed his son and made him do frightful things. The other disciples that had been left behind while Jesus and the three had gone up the mountain were also terrified, so much so that they were unable to help the afflicted son. Jesus healed the boy and the people around him were amazed, if not terrified. And then for the first time, Jesus took his disciples aside and told them something truly terrifying: that he was going to be betrayed by someone. “And they were afraid to ask him about this saying.” Why? Because it just didn’t make sense…who would betray the man who had helped so many people? Who would hurt someone who only wanted to help? What a cruel and vicious world we live in that allows for such senseless suffering! Jesus didn’t deserve to suffer and yet he was going to suffer…what a frightening change of reality for the disciples to take in after witnessing nothing but goodness coming from Jesus for so long. Who would want to elicit such fear?
Unfortunately, we live in a broken world that allows for both explicable and inexplicable suffering. We live in a world that really doesn’t care who or what suffers. On the one hand, we can take comfort in knowing that this world is ultimately indifferent to who and what suffers. It’s nothing personal to the world! At the same time, it’s all the more frustrating not knowing who to blame for the suffering of this world. Sometimes we can blame ourselves but a lot of the time we can’t. If not ourselves, then who? God? The devil? Nature and the forces of nature? We can blame it on the devil but God allows for the devil to exist so really, who’s to blame? God created nature and all the forces of nature so really, who’s to blame?
Well, anyone who’s ever played the “blame game” knows there’s little to be gained by it. No one comes out a winner…suffering still persists and with it comes fear. God may not have given us an answer and resolution to suffering but He certainly has given us an answer and resolution to the fear that comes with it–both Jesus and the witness of scripture. God has spoken through many people in scripture to help us cope with our fear. In the Psalms, we hear David boldly sing out, “When I am afraid, I put my trust in you.” (56:3) And elsewhere, David sings, “I sought the Lord, and he answered me, and delivered me from all my fears.” (34:4) Friends, this is the same God you and I know. We can place our trust in the same God who acknowledges our fears and takes them away from us. Our God wants to take away our fears. It’s the most repeated advice from Jesus–do not be afraid! Do not be afraid, friends! Fear is so restricting to the life that God wants each of us to live. God wants us to love and know love and be loved. And in 1 John we hear, “there is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” (4:18) There is no fear in love, friends, simply love and you’ll be freed from fear. Jesus showed us this, he lived according to nothing but love and that made him absolutely fearless.
If only his disciples and those around him knew this they, too, would have been fearless. Peter and John and James would have been fearless, the disciples who confronted the possessed boy would have been fearless, the people themselves would have been fearless. Let us learn from their mistake…love always defeats fear…always has, always will. Let us forever cling to the words that Jesus left us, “peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27) Let us love and forever be without fear. Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.