By Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Matthew 17:1-9
Without looking at your phone, I wonder if any of you know what time the sun will set this evening. I do; it’ll set at 6:36. Although it hasn’t been very sunny this winter, the lengthening of days is a process I follow quite closely. I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. As the days lengthen, the happier and more energetic I become. Although this hasn’t been a harsh winter, I am eager for the season of winter to come to an end.
On the Church’s calendar, the Christian calendar, this morning marks the end of a season: the season of Epiphany. Epiphany is the season that follows Christmas. It is a season when we celebrate that Jesus came to bring light to our world. John’s gospel begins by proclaiming that in Jesus was “life, and the life was the light of all people.” Matthew’s gospel tells us that the dawn of Jesus’ ministry brought light to those who sat in darkness and in the shadow of death.
This morning’s bible story is a story about a particular kind of light. It is the story of Jesus being transfigured on a mountain so that his face shone as bright as the sun; a brightness that even lit up his clothing. Now transfiguration is a big, churchy word and a somewhat peculiar thing. Even religious experts can’t provide you with a clear, concise definition. The Greek word for transfiguration is metamorphoo; which sounds a lot like our English word, metamorphosis, meaning “a marked change in appearance, character, condition or function.” And so, up there on the mountain with Peter, James and John, Jesus changes in an obvious and discernible way. Each of our gospel writers describes it a little differently but, perhaps the easiest way of understanding it is this: up there on that mountain something happened to Jesus that caused his “Godness” to come through in a way so bold and unmistakable that even those thick-headed disciples couldn’t miss it. And that change, accompanied by the voice of God, was so dramatic and overwhelming that the disciples were seized with fear. When the voice of God Almighty spoke to them, directly to them, it was more than they could handle. And we really shouldn’t blame them, should we? I mean, we all talk about wanting to hear God’s voice? We say how much we wish God would speak to us – right out loud, plain and direct so we wouldn’t have to work so hard at figuring out what God wants to tell us. But, let’s be honest. If it really happened, it would freak us out. It would terrify us. And it certainly terrified Peter, James and John.
But there on that mountain, as they are seized with fear and confusion, Matthew’s gospel tells us that Jesus responds to their fear. He ministers to their fear by reaching out and touching them. He tells them not to be afraid; that intimate touch, those reassuring words, is details that only Matthew provides. Jesus does not leave those disciples to silently stew in their anxiety. He is there for them… as he always is. That is a reality this gospel writer does not want us to miss. At the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, we are told that this baby to be born to Mary will be named Emmanuel; which translates “God is with us.”[i] Matthew’s gospel ends with what we call The Great Commission. Before Jesus returns to heaven, he gives the disciples their mission; the same mission the United Methodist Church has: To make disciples… It’s a daunting task, then and now. So Jesus’ final words to them – the very last words of Matthew’s gospel – are this: “remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”[ii]
So that day on the mountain when Jesus’ disciples see him transfigured and hear a voice from heaven, Jesus, the embodiment of the awesome glory of God, is also the gentle hand that touches them and reassures them not to be afraid.
As human creatures we struggle quite a lot with fear and anxiety, don’t we? But we’re never in it alone. Jesus is with us in a very intimate way. Maybe we shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus touched these disciples. When we read the gospel stories about Jesus healing people, it’s pretty hard to miss how often it involves touch. In fact, sometimes Jesus’ touch heals people without him even saying a word. Sometimes others initiate that touch. They reach out and grab the hem of Jesus’ robe and even touching his clothing, they are healed. When people bring children (who were, frankly, not highly valued in the ancient world) to Jesus, Jesus touches them; he lays hands on them; a gesture of blessing. The healing, restorative power of Jesus was experienced through his touch. We even have a hymn in our hymnal: “Jesus’ hands were kind hands, doing good to all, healing pain and sickness, blessing children small... ”[iii]
So there on that mountaintop that day, Jesus reached out his hand and touched those disciples. He responded to their fear by speaking words of comfort: “Do not be afraid,” he says. And they will need that comfort and that encouragement in the days to come because they are about to undergo some pretty scary stuff. They are inching ever closer to Jerusalem where Jesus will be put to death.[iv]
This Wednesday, my friends, Lent begins. I don’t think Lent is a very popular season. I can assure you there won’t be nearly as many folks in the sanctuary this Wednesday as there will be come Easter morning. We like lilies and hallelujahs; we delight in hearing the good news that “Christ is risen; he is risen indeed!” But we don’t much care to hear the proclamation of Ash Wednesday: “Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return.” That’s an unpleasant reminder of our human vulnerability that most of us would just as soon avoid.
But we really can’t avoid it. Even if you don’t come back to church – and let me say I hope you do – Lent will still be happening on the other side of those doors. In fact, a bit of Lent can catch us by surprise at any time of the year: that call from a friend or family member that they’ve been diagnosed with cancer; that notice from the plant or company that they’ll be downsizing; that empty stare across the dinner table from a spouse it seems you hardly know anymore. There’s no escaping the reality of Lent.
And yet, even in the seasons of Lent, there are still signs of God’s glory breaking through the clouds. In the seasons of our lives that seem dry and empty, cold and barren, hopeless and frightening, the signs of God’s glory persist. Sometimes God’s glory catches us by surprise just as it did those disciples so long ago. Regardless of what we hear or see or feel or endure, we need to remember that God is with us and will be with us always, even to the bitter end.
Maybe you’re in that dark place this morning; longing desperately for a little light; longing to hear the voice of Jesus say “Do not be afraid… I am with you always.” Friends, even during Lent we are still an Easter people, a people who believe in light and life even when all we can see are the clouds that overshadow us. The healing hand of Jesus is still touching us, reminding us of his presence, reminding us that there is nothing to fear.
And you know there is another place in the New Testament where this word for transfiguration – this metamorphoo – is used. It is used by Paul in his letter to the Corinthians and it is used of US. Paul says that we see God’s glory like a reflection in a mirror because we are being transfigured into the same image as Jesus, although by degrees, Paul points out.[v] Even so, how awesome is that: that people could see God’s presence in us; that people could see God’s glory through us.
Among chaplains and spiritual directors, there is this thing we call “the ministry of presence” and it is a way of revealing the glory of God and it is much easier than you might imagine. It is about simply being with someone in their time of need; perhaps offering nothing more than a hand on the shoulder and an assurance of God’s presence.
Joseph Bayly authored a book entitled, The Last Thing We Talk About: Help and Hope for Those Who Grieve. He and his wife Mary Lou lost three of their children. They lost one son following surgery when he was only 18 days old. Their second son died at age five from leukemia. They lost a third son at age 18 after a sledding accident. Bayly wrote,
I was sitting, torn by grief. Someone came and talked to me of God’s dealings, of why it happened, of hope beyond the grave. He talked constantly; he said things I [already] knew were true. I was unmoved, except I wished he’d go away. He finally did. Another came and sat beside me for an hour and more; listened when I said something, answered briefly, prayed simply and left. I was moved. I was comforted. I hated to see him go.
Some of you are aware that I am completing training in spiritual direction. One of the most difficult things to learn is to shut my mouth; that’s a tough task for a preacher. To be a spiritual director is to listen and receive the gift of another person’s presence and experiences; to subtly guide with questions, not advice… but most of all to listen fully… a practice that is in short supply in our world today. Notice how many times, as another is speaking to us, we listen half-heartedly, already formulating our response before they have even finished speaking; and our responses are often about what we think they should do or know or be or believe. It is hard to shut our mouths and to simply listen; to practice the ministry of presence and to reflect the light of Christ.
But friends, the light of Christ is still shining. And sometimes we can see it most clearly through one another. God’s glory enters the world not only through clouds or thundering voices from the heavens. God’s glory enters the world through us; through our ministry of being present with another in their time of grief or fear. You might recall that Matthew’s gospel is also the gospel in which Jesus proclaims that WE are called to be light in the world; light for those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death… and rest assured there are many.
You know the Christian Church has long had a custom of giving something up for Lent. But I want, this morning, to encourage you to take up a new practice in this holy season. I want to encourage you to shut your mouth; and to listen more closely, more patiently, more fully to those around you. And when you find someone whose life is filled with darkness and discouragement, suffering and sorrow; practice the ministry of presence; reflect to them the light and glory of Jesus. Don’t preach at them. As a matter of fact, say very little. Mostly be with them. Reach out and touch them; reassure them that they have nothing to be afraid of. Shine a light in their darkness: the glory of Jesus revealed through you.
 Matthew 4:16
 The American Heritage Dictionary.
[i] Matthew 1:22-23
[ii] Matthew 28:20b
[iii] Jesus’ Hands Were Kind Hands from The United Methodist Hymnal; United Methodist Publishing House; 1989; #273
[iv] See Matthew 16:21 and Matthew 17:22-23
[v] See 2 Corinthians 3:18
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