Matthew 17:1-8, "But Jesus touched them and said, 'Stand up. Do not be afraid.'"
Sometimes I wish the events in our lives were a bit more clear. I think many of us seek that kind of clarity, a yes or no answer, a clear plan of action. But that isn't usually true to my experience. And what we have for our gospel reading is not exactly clear either. What we do have is a journey up a mountain, an apparently important event, and then cloudiness as to what it all means. And then we are left with our fear.
If you listen to the folks who write on this passage one solution (as if there is some problem here that must be solved), one answer is that this passage is about Jesus standing with Moses, the lawgiver, and with Elijah, the prophet, to show that Jesus had come to fulfill both. Sounds pretty good. Another writer imposed clarity to this text by seeing the transfiguration as a “mountaintop experience”; and that from that mountaintop we then go back out into the world to serve God, to do justice, to win others for the beloved community of God. That sounds pretty good to me too. I have to admit that both sound like good answers; they sound clear. But perhaps . . . just maybe . . . clarity isn't the only point . . . or maybe not in the way that we think of such clarity.
Peter could be pretty good at getting the “point”. Just six days before according to Matthew, it is Peter who comes up with the right answer, who has some real clarity. Six days prior, Jesus and the disciples retreat from the crowds. They get together by themselves—this ragtag bunch we call the disciples. And Jesus asks them, “Who are people saying I am?” “Elijah,” one answered. “A prophet,” says another. “Who do you think that I am,” asks Jesus. Peter responds, “You are the Christ.” Good answer Peter, we think to ourselves.
And we are glad for Peter, right? We are glad in the way that we too feel glad when we get it right. Sometimes we do say the right thing. Sometimes it is our action in a situation that is the right thing at the right time. We can see Peter, like any one of us, sitting there with his back a little straighter, with an extra-wide grin on his face after he said it. He walked a little taller, stood a little higher, confident in the knowledge that he had gotten it right. Then six days after Peter’s right answer, up the mountain we go.
It had probably been a long day of traveling, of preaching, of teaching, of just being around people. Then on top of that, Jesus taps some of his disciples and says, “Hey, let’s go for a hike up this mountain here.” It was just six days ago, in the same conversation where Peter identifies Jesus as the Christ, that Jesus talks about what it means to follow him. Jesus says that being with him will be difficult. Maybe that’s what John, James, and Peter are thinking about as they begin to hike up the mountain. Maybe they are replaying in their minds what Jesus had said, “If anyone wants to come with me, you have to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me.” Jesus had said that he was going be rejected, that he was going to be killed, that on the third day he would be raised. Maybe as they wound their way up that mountain, the disciples turned over and over Jesus's words. And maybe these three are rethinking whether they want to climb this mountain or not. But on they go, step by step.
Have you ever been hiking? Sure a lot of it is uphill, but some of it is downhill too. My wife and I used to visit the Appalachian Trail with some our friends when we lived in Virginia. We would get out there with our trail maps. We’d have some idea of where we were going; we’d have our supplies of food and water; we’d have our backpacks on tight. We were prepared. All that effort was put into preparation before the hike even began. You get to the trailhead, and off you go. And you walk and you walk and you walk. Sometimes up hills and sometimes down. And every once in a while, you get to a place where the trees have parted and you can see the other mountains from your perch. We would stop and just stand there for a while taking in the breeze, the view of the other mountain next to us, the clouds hovering near enough that it seemed we could touch them. Then it was back to hiking. It was back to going up hills and down hills. Those views of the neighboring mountains through the trees were sporadic and wonderful.
But there was one trip where the weather did not want to cooperate with us. It was not long after we began our hike that it began to rain. It was chilly; it was wet; it was miserable, and we were stubborn. So on we went towards our campsite where we planned to spend the night. But sometimes it was hard to see each other, walking up and down hills, or turning around corners in the trail. Sometimes you lose sight of the one in the lead. We had to learn to call out to each other to make sure we were still together. There were a few times the only thing we could do was listen to the sound of our voices to make sure we were still together as the sky dimmed. And I couldn't wait for the shelter of the tent.
Yet most of us want to see where we are going. We want a plan. We want a clear course of action. And we want a safe destination! And in a way that's what Peter wants too . . . especially in the face of something so striking! Peter was in awe of what he was seeing before him. There was Moses! There was Elijah! There was Jesus standing with them, shining like the sun! Peter had been the one to get it right before, so of course he is the one to make a suggestion this time around. “Hey,” Peter said, “Let’s build booths here for Moses, Elijah, and for you Jesus!” It's a clear plan of action.
But then the cloud descends; it overshadows them. The response to Peter's clear plan brings an overwhelming cloud and a voice.
You see, it is our agenda at times that we are building. It is our desire for structure, for a plan . . . for clarity, for some explanation of where we are and where we're going. It is scary to trust, to follow . . . to listen as the voice then asked them to do. But that is what happens here in this reading. When Peter tries to build the booths, to capture the event, the cloud descends on all of them. And the gospel writer tells us that they were terrified as they entered the cloud. “Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Beloved; listen to him!’”
But then we too may have the impulse to hide our faces. Because to follow Jesus may be dangerous. Because to follow Jesus sometimes means that we may have to choose to follow instead of staying home with family and friends. And sometimes events happen that we have trouble understanding or experiencing and our human impulse is to work to understand, to control through our understanding and our explanations, to do something about the event rather than just to let the experience be.
And in the midst of our cloudiness, our striving for answers, our confusion and fear, Jesus reaches out to us, saying, “Stand up; do not be afraid.” You may not understand. You do not even have to. You are acting out of your fear. Jesus says, “Stand up and do not be afraid.”
Sometimes in the midst of the change and upheaval in our lives and the lives of our congregations we must continue to call out to each other as we follow this trail, as it winds here and there, ascending and descending; we should continue to listen, even when we believe we have a great idea (after all we can all have our fair share of booths that we wish to build). And even when we find ourselves terrified, especially when we feel overwhelmed by our fears, we know that Jesus will reach out to us, to touch us, saying “Stand up; do not be afraid.”