“Get Up and Do Not Be Afraid”
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK
February 26, 2017: The Transfiguration of Jesus
1 Peter 1:3-11 & Matthew 17:1-9
Dr Lloyd Ogilvie is a Presbyterian minister who served as chaplain to the US Senate from 1995-2003. As chaplain to the US Senate, Dr. Ogilvie prayed at the start of each session and was available to the Senators as a councilor and pastoral friend. Fear was a constant companion for Dr. Ogilvie and the Senators he counseled, particularly in the years prior to September 11, 2001. This sent Dr. Ogilvie deep into the pages of the Old and New Testaments in search of wisdom and comfort. The result was a book published in 1999 titled, “Facing The Future Without Fear,” wherein Dr. Ogilvie points out that the phrase, “Do not be afraid,” appears 365 times in the Bible—one for each day of the calendar year. Some scholars dispute this number, though, based on differing translations of the original text. Some say that the number could be as high as 365 or as low as 94—this is, as most things in the church tend to be, a matter of great debate. But regardless of how many times it is spoken in the Scriptures, or which translation you read, there is one thing everyone agrees on: “Do not be afraid,” is the most common phrase in the Bible.
These words first appear in the Bible in Genesis 15. After the whole messy situation with Sodom and Gomorrah, God says to Abram, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.” Abram, who would later be renamed Abraham, was beginning to doubt God’s promise. God promised Abram and his wife Sarai, later to be renamed Sarah, that they would have many children and be the parents of many nations. Sarah and Abraham were old; they had just packed up and moved to a new place; there were enemy nations breathing down their necks. God says to them, “Do not be afraid.”
The last time these words appear in the Bible is in the book of Revelation. God is speaking again, but this time God is speaking through John of Patmos to the church in Smyrna. God says, “Do not be afraid of what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested…”. Smyrna was one of seven church suffering great persecution by the Roman government. Their homes had been taken; their children and wives murdered; their livestock and possessions burned and confiscated. God says, “Do not be afraid.”
In between the first book of the Bible and last, “Do not be afraid,” is spoken many more times. God says it to Moses before Moses marches into the courts of Pharaoh and demand the release of the Israelite slaves. God says it to Joshua as Joshua takes leadership of the Israelite army before the battle at Jericho. The prophet Elijah says it to the widow of Zarephath as she gathers a meager, final meal for herself and her son. When Jeremiah tries to wiggle out of his call, he says, “Ah, Lord God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy,” and God says, “Do not be afraid.” God says the same thing to Daniel who had an equally difficult task of speaking truth to power. An angel said it to Jospeh after delivering the news that his finance was pregnant and that the baby would be named Jesus. Another angel said it to Zechariah when he finds out that he and his aging wife will have a son named John. Gabriel said it to Mary when he appeared to her in the night, and Gabriel said it again when he appeared with a whole group of angels to some shepherds outside of Bethlehem. Paul told the Philippians, “Do not be afraid, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God.” In the first letter of John, the writer says, “Do not be afraid. There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear…” And from the gospel of Matthew today, Jesus looks to Peter and James and John and you and me and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
Six days after Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Messiah, and Jesus’ rebuke of Peter’s understanding, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain and is transfigured. Christ’s appearance is totally changed right before their eyes. Even though they can still recognize that it is Jesus, his face shines like the sun and his clothes become dazzling white. More shocking than this, Jesus is joined by Moses and Elijah, symbols of the law and the prophets. This whole experience—climbing a mountain, seeing Jesus changed, the appearance of Moses and Elijah—is, to say the very least, an emotionally-charged time. In just a weeks time, Peter alone has taken a ride on the emotional rollercoaster: thrilled to understand that Jesus is the Messiah, dejected when Jesus tells him to keep it to himself, exhausted from climbing the mountain, dazzled by seeing Moses and Elijah, and uncertain, maybe even fearful, about what happens next.
Peter’s response is interesting. It is a confusing time, a heady time, and an exciting time all wrapped up together. I’m not sure Peter knew what to do, so he leaned back on an important part of his Jewish heritage: hospitality. Peter knows that he is standing in the presence of greatness, so he offers to set up camp. Peter wants to bottle-up and protect this precious moment. He does not want it to end. Wouldn’t we want to do the same if we were face-to-face with with the heres of our faith?
Like, Peter, we’ve often done the emotional roller coaster thing with Jesus. We have walked with him, some for an entire lifetime, watching as he heals the sick, feeds the hungry, and shows God’s love. We’ve heard him speak about how we are blessed when we mourn, when we suffer for our faith, and when we hunger and thirst for righteousness. We were there when he offered water to a woman at the well, and we scratched our heads about his compassion until we realized that we are benefactors of the same compassion. We’ve laughed when Jesus put the religious elites to shame, and we wept with him when he wept over the state of the world. We know who he is and what he is all about. We hear, and mostly obey, when he says, “Take up your cross and follow me.” We sang and we still sing: when the angels appeared in Bethlehem, when his mother cradled him in her arms, when Simeon blessed him before the Lord in the temple, and when he rose up out of the water of the Jordan and a dove danced on his head.
So just like Peter, more times than not, we want to bottle up these precious moments. We don't want it to end; we want to stay. We want to stay with the things that are familiar. We want to stay on the mountain where there is joy and bright shining light. We want to stay where people are being healed and fed and where there is abundant water for everyone who is thirsty. We want to stay in the place where we can judge those who get it wrong, and where we can look out over the landscape and shake our heads, thankful that what we have over here is better than whats going on over there. We want to stay in a place where we can sing. We want to stay in the water, and we want to stay in a place where the dove will always dance on our heads. We set up tents, homes, even churches, because like Peter we say, “Lord, it is good for us to be here.” It is safe. It is secure. It is comfortable.
But Jesus says to Peter, “Get up and do not be afraid.” No tents. No dwellings. No place to remain safe and secure and comfortable. "Get up and do not be afraid."
In Matthew’s narrative, the Transfiguration is a turning point: for the message of the Gospel, for Christ, and for his followers. When the transfiguration event is over, Jesus and his friends climb back down the mountain and the journey to the cross begins. But What lie ahead is far less enjoyable than what lies behind. In front of them are jeering crowds, a corrupt and criminal court, and the pain and shame of the crucifixion. At the bottom of the mountain, Peter and James and John will have their world turned upside down. Their hopes and dreams will be put to death, especially their hopes and dreams that Jesus will ride into Jerusalem and conquer with a sword. Instead, they will watch Jesus ride into town on a donkey and be arrested, tried, and put to death. Their understanding of power and glory will be defined not by how many enemies lay dead on a battlefield, but by how one man willingly gives up his life for the life of the world. Peter is afraid. Given the choice of staying on the mountain or coming face-to-face with the powers of evil and darkness, the decision is easy. Jesus knows Peters is afraid, me may even be afraid himself. But Jesus tells Peter to get up and leave his fear behind, because no matter what lies ahead—crowds, corrupt courts, suffering, and even death—the story will not end with these, but rather with something peculiar and wonderful.
I can’t think of a more timely, more comforting message than this for all of us today. Fear, as it was for Dr. Ogilvie and the Senators he counseled, is a constant companion every day of our lives. It comes in many forms: the threat of terrorism, the prospect of job loss, the potential in us all to abandon our identity and values, the fading possibility of a better future for our children. We fear terminal illness, unexpected death, loneliness, and the possibility that everything we have worked for and done will mean nothing in the end. Fear is a part of the common fabric of our lives even though it manifests itself differently for each one of us. Fear makes us want to stay: where we are comfortable, where we are protected, where we are isolated, where we are free to lash out and hurt ourselves and others. To all of these different fears, the Gospel reply is the same: God is the same yesterday, today, and forever, so we can get up and we need not be afraid.
This is not to say that there won’t be problems, or that we will avoid harm and hardship because we have faith. Rather, it is a recognition that when we trust God for our individual and communal good and believe God is with us always, fear does not have room to dominate who and what we are. Fear is not the marker of a lack of faith; we all grow afraid at times. Even when we put our trust in God, there will be fear. The difference will be that when we put our trust in God, even when there is fear, God’s life in us will always be victorious. God does not want us to be afraid, but God also does not want us to stay on the mountains of life or in the tents we set up to protect ourselves. God wants us to move forward, even and especially in times of uncertainty, with courage and confidence. And we can, we must, do this because no matter how loud the crowds may shout, no matter how corrupt or unjust the world may be, no matter how much suffering may be inflicted upon us, and no matter the very realness of death that stares us all down, the gospel doesn’t end on Good Friday…it ends on Easter. The peculiar and wonderful ending waiting when Peter and James and John go back down the mountain with Jesus is not suffering and death, but resurrection and life. The same is true for you and me.
Listen, my friends. Get up. Do not be afraid. Our Lord spoke these words on the mountain and he refused to stay there. He refused to stay there because he knew that the realities of life were not up there, but down here, where we are. He points us to where we are, because it is here where the work is to be done. It is here where the hungry are to be fed and the thirsty are to be satisfied. It is here where the oppressed are to be set free and the oppressors called to repentance. It is here where we must stand up for those who don’t have strength on their own and speak for those who are voiceless. It is here where the prisoners are to be visited, the naked clothed, and the sick shown compassion and mercy. It is here where the struggle between life and death is waged, and it is here where life will always win. And it is here, with God in us and through us and among us, where fear will once and for all be defeated and the kingdom of God will reign forever and ever. This is the message of the Scriptures each time we hear, "Do not be afraid". Get up, brothers and sisters in Christ, and do not be afraid...the Lord is with us. Amen.