We read of an event which Matthew, Mark and Luke all include in their gospels. It is called the Transfiguration of Jesus. It was an unusual event, but truthful and factual. Peter writes in his 2nd letter, “For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but had been eyewitness of his majesty. For he received honour and glory from God the Father, ‘This is my Son, with whom I am well pleased.’ We ourselves heard this voice come from heaven, while we were with him on the holy mountain.”
Jesus took Peter, James and John with him up a high mountain. This was six days after Jesus told his followers that he must suffer and be rejected and killed, and raised on the third day. The disciples were still struggling with all this. They could hardly believe it. So Jesus wanted to give them a glimpse of the glory that would come after his suffering. Up there on the mountain he was transfigured or transformed before them. His face shone like the sun and his clothes became whiter than white. Suddenly Moses the law-giver and Elijah, the great prophet, appeared and spoke to him, encouraging him go to Jerusalem and fulfill all that had been promised by the law and the prophets.
Peter proposed building three booths, in order to prolong this mountain-top conference. But suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them. In the Bible a cloud indicates the very presence of God. And from the cloud came a voice, “This is my Son, the beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. We all would be, if the Almighty ever drew so close to us and spoke so directly. Next comes my favourite part of the passage. And only Matthew records this. If we were preaching on the Transfiguration from Mark or Luke we would focus on another aspect of the story. But we’ll focus today on this unique line from Matthew. ‘But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”’ This was so typical of Jesus’ ministry. When people were overcome by fear Jesus came and touched them and took away their fear. When it happened to the disciples on the mountain, they looked up and saw no one except Jesus alone. For only the Beloved Son of God could perform such a wonderful work.
The ministry of the Crucified and Risen One continues among us today. So often in life we are overcome by fear. But Jesus comes and touches us, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
Have you ever been overcome by fear? Have ever been nearly paralyzed by fear? It’s likely happened to most of us one way or another. I remember driving on a highway many years ago on a sunny winter’s day. But suddenly a vicious snow squall blew in. And I mean really blew in. The snow swept across the road for only a few minutes but it seemed like an hour. I was driving completely blind on the snow-covered highway. I didn’t know where the shoulder was, didn’t know whether I was still on the road or driving towards the ditch, didn’t know whether or not another car had stopped ahead of me. But I didn’t dare stop, because someone might hit me from the rear. It was very frightening indeed. I still remember it.
Cast your mind back to Remembrance Day 2019. It was a snowy and cold day. I was privileged to be the participating clergy at the Cenotaph that day. I really paid attention to veterans as they told their stories. That evening on TV, I heard two Canadian veterans say basically the same thing. One had been in World War Two and the other in Korea. They both said, “Going to war was the most frightening thing I’ve ever experienced.”
And here is something which has not happened to me but has happened to many people, some of us here. With chart in hand, the doctor says, “I have to share some bad news with you.” And your stomach churns and your knees shake as she speaks of the life-threatening illness that has been diagnosed.
Furthermore, the powerful of this world often control the humble through fear. In Jesus’ time, the Romans controlled the people, especially of conquered countries through fear. Yes, there was the Pax Romana, the Roman peace, but it was imposed at a high cost. Still today, the rich and powerful control others through fear. Years ago, I worked for a company which at one point got a new President. He had come from another corporation where he been known for slashing and burning. Everyone shuddered because they knew what was coming. For a year or so employees lived in fear of their jobs. 25% of the employees did lose their jobs. Some of them said it was a relief when it finally happened, because they didn’t have to live with the constant fear anymore. I tell you, it is a sin to control people and make their lives miserable through imposing fear, no matter how necessary changes may be. It is simply wrong to make others afraid, no matter how you do it, through economic means or by brandishing a knife or handgun.
There are other causes of fear, as well. Hebrews speaks of those who all their lives were held in slavery by fear of death. There is no one, despite our brave words, who doesn’t sometimes consider death with a sense of foreboding. In fact, our Lord himself was driven to his knees in the Garden by fear of death, praying as blood mingled with tears. “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Yet not my will but thy will be done.” And Jesus feared more than the physical suffering of death. He was also thinking of bearing in his own sinless body the sins of the world. What a terrifying prospect.
People may be fearful of meeting God, and honestly, that is not an unreasonable fear, if we grasp the holiness of God and the brokenness in ourselves and in the world. Who could stand on their own before Holy God? Well God’s only Son could because he was without sin. But, Peter, James and John couldn’t. They were driven to their knees, overcome by fear, as Holy God drew near to them in that bright cloud. When Adam and Eve hid themselves among the trees after the fall, God called to Adam and said, “Where are you?” Adam answered, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked, and I hid myself.” Fear, right at the beginning, overcoming Adam and Eve, knocking them to the ground. That fear is in us, too.
The truth is that fear can overcome us. Now not all fear is bad if it keeps us from foolish actions and danger. But fear often plays a negative role in our lives. It can spoil relationships, ruin our peace of mind, take away our joy, even affect our faith and our physical health. It can turn us inward on ourselves, and make us self-focussed rather than outward focussed. We humans often have an irrational but very real fear of other people, especially those who are different. As I was writing this sermon an email came from Rick Warren. It was for ministers but it can apply to anyone. “Fears hold us back from God’s best for our lives. When you overcome your fear, your deeper dependence on God advances your personal growth and leadership.”
Now the only quibble I have with Rick Warren’s words is that you and I can’t overcome our fear, not without divine help. But thankfully there is divine help. And that help comes from Jesus.
To a large degree we can say that Jesus came into the world to overcome human fear. On the very night he was born, the angel said to the terrified shepherds, “Fear not…for unto you this day is born a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.” So often Jesus said to fearful people he encountered, “Do not be afraid…only believe.” The Bible tells us that “Perfect love casts out fear”, and where is perfect love found? Why, in none other than Jesus Christ. And what happened on the Mount of Transfiguration when the disciples fell to the ground overcome with fear? Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
And the one who died and rose again, carries out his ministry among us and in the world now. When we are overcome by fear, Jesus comes and touches us saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” When we are overcome by fear, Jesus draws near and takes away our fear.
In so many ways Jesus takes away our fear. He takes away our fear of meeting Holy God. He died for our sins and now through our faith in the Saviour, God accepts us as blameless, reconciled, righteous. Trusting in the one who intercedes for us before the throne of grace, we have nothing to fear because we will stand before God, ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven. Jesus Christ is the One who takes away our fear of death, because he is the Resurrection and the Life who has prepared a place for us in the Father’s house. He takes away our fear in life because he walks with us, giving us courage and strength, saying, “I will never fail you or forsake you.” And reminding us that “God works in all things for good for those who love him…” He takes away our fear of the future for he is the Lord of all, who will come again openly and make all things new. Christ takes away our fear of others, because through him we are children of God, who can welcome others with kindness and humility. We accept others on equal terms as those who have been created in God’s image, people who need God’s grace, just as we do.
In so many, often unpredictable ways Jesus Christ comes to us and touches us, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” On that day I encountered the snowstorm, the wind finally died down, the sun broke through and the way was clear again. I was safe. The sense of relief I felt was very real indeed. It almost as if the Lord himself had come and touched me and taken away my fear. Certainly he had helped me to keep going in spite of my fear. When fear comes, and threatens to overwhelm you, listen for his word, “Get up and do not be afraid.” It even happened to our Lord as he was almost overcome with fear in Gethsemane. The Scripture says, “Then an angel from heaven appeared to him and gave him strength.” And Jesus got up and went forth to the cross for our sake.
Presbyterian pastor and writer Frederick Buechner wrote about hearing the voice of Jesus in an unusual way. “I was sitting parked by the roadside,” Buechner writes, “terribly depressed and afraid about my daughter’s illness and what was going on in our family.” As he was sitting there he noticed a car that seemed to come from nowhere. The license plate “bore on it the one word that I most needed to see,” Buechner wrote. “The word was TRUST. Was the experience something to laugh off as the kind of joke life plays on us every once in a while? Or was it the word of God? believe that maybe it was both,” Buechner wrote, “but for me it was an epiphany.” The owner of the car was a trust officer at a local bank. After reading of the incident, the trust officer visited Buechner and gave him the license plate which bore the word he desperately needed to see that day, TRUST. Buechner placed that license plate on a bookshelf where it daily reminds him to trust God. “It is rusty around the edges and a little battered,” he wrote, “but it is a holy relic…”
When we are overcome by fear, this is what happens, often mysteriously. The Risen Christ comes and touches us, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And we are changed, transformed, filled with courage. Perhaps it’s happening for someone here today, right now.
And isn’t that the ministry of the church today? This world is so fearful, and so many people are almost overcome by their fears. But Christ sends his church out to the world to say, “There is one is greater than what makes you afraid, one who takes your fear away. Listen to his word. Trust in him. His Name is Jesus.”