“Six Days Later”

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Rev. Jocelyn B. Gardner Spencer

February 26, 2017

Matthew 17:1-9


It’s a dramatic story, full of special effects—dazzling light and confused shadow, loud voices and echoing silence, people appearing and disappearing, faces and clothing changing color, all kinds of wild and inexplicable things.  If it were a movie, the next thing to happen might be a computer-generated Tyrannosaurus Rex stomping out of the mist or an alien spaceship humming down from above…

It’s a dramatic story, full of special effects—but did you notice how it began?  The first verse of this morning’s reading said this:  “Six days later.”

Whenever a story starts with a time frame like this, it’s as though the author is inviting us to get curious about what came before.  In the case of today’s reading, the preceding story in Matthew’s gospel narrates another interaction between Jesus and his disciples.  Jesus has begun to teach them what it means that he is the Messiah—that his path will lead to suffering, and death, and ultimately, resurrection.  The disciples have a hard time grasping that.  They don’t like the idea that their beloved teacher, leader, and friend will suffer and die.  They are looking for triumph in a form they can recognize, and suffering is definitely not what they have in mind.  And then Jesus says this:  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”  It’s a challenging teaching, one that flies in the face of our basic human instinct for self-preservation.  Deny ourselves?  Take up our cross?  Lose our lives for Jesus’ sake?  Put the needs of others ahead of our own?  Sacrifice our own comfort, our own security, our own desires, for the good of the world?  Is that really what we’ve signed up for?

It’s a hard thing, the sort of thing that takes most of us a lifetime, or more, to learn, to grasp, to internalize.  But Jesus gave them six days.

And then, six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.  And he was transfigured before them.  Jesus shone like the sun on a clear day.  And Peter and James and John thought, This is more like it!  This was how the Messiah was supposed to be—shining and radiant, glowing with God’s glory.  No more of that talk of suffering and death, self-denial and crosses and losing one’s life.  This right here, this mountaintop experience—this was the way it ought to be.

So Peter said, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.”  Let’s stay here, Jesus.  I will do anything you ask, anything to protect you (and me) from the fate you spoke of.  Let’s stay here, Jesus, here where it is beautiful and sunny and safe.  This is the life for us.

And then, while Peter was still speaking, the voice of God rang out from the bright cloud that overshadowed them.  “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”  And Peter and James and John fell to the ground, overcome by fear.  It wasn’t just the special effects, the bright lights and loud voices and wild, inexplicable things.  It was the message of that voice, the confirmation that they really did have to listen to Jesus.  They really did have to believe him and obey him, even when he spoke of suffering and death, of self-denial and crosses and losing one’s life.

It’s a hard thing, the sort of thing that takes most of us a lifetime, or more, to learn, to grasp, to internalize.  But Jesus gave them six days.  So you can hardly blame them for being knocked to the ground, thrown flat on their faces, immobilized and silenced by the overwhelming weight of this revelation.

But then, while they were lying there trembling, with their eyes shut tight and their nostrils full of the smell of earth, the story tells us that Jesus came and touched them.  He laid a reassuring hand on their shoulders and said the thing that God says to God’s people over and over and over again, all throughout scripture, all throughout time:  “Do not be afraid.”

And Jesus does it still.  He comes to us when fear has brought us to our knees, when pain has knocked us flat, when the magnitude of the world’s suffering has paralyzed us, when the hard work to which we are called has left us overwhelmed and empty.  Jesus comes, God’s love wrapped in flesh, with a gentle touch and a reassuring word.

To the spouse sitting at a hospital beside, praying for a miracle…  To the refugee family living in a tent in a sprawling camp, waiting and waiting for the news that there is someone, somewhere, who will take them in…  To the person looking for work, knocking at doors that never seem to open…  To the American children whose undocumented mother was picked up in an immigration raid and is about to be deported…  To the person whose spouse just walked out the door, leaving nothing but the resounding echo of angry words…  To the transgender high school student who has no refuge from the bullying, not even the bathroom…  To the person about to walk into their first AA meeting…  To every disciple who has ever lain there trembling, eyes shut tight and nostrils full of the smell of earth—which is to say, to each and every one of us—Jesus comes, and with a gentle touch, says, “My friend, do not be afraid.”

But that’s not all he says.  When he reassured Peter and James and John, there on the mountaintop, after all the special effects were gone, he also said this:  “Get up,” which could also be translated, “Be raised,” for it is the same word in the original Greek that is used of Jesus himself at the very end of Matthew’s gospel, when the women went to the tomb and found the stone rolled away:  “He is not here, for he has been raised.”  In this moment of terror, Jesus offers his friends nothing less than resurrection.  Be raised up, he says, and do not be afraid.

Because Jesus knew that there was work for them to do down below.  Jesus knew that the world needed the new life that his disciples had received.  Jesus knew that staying up on the mountaintop, up where it was beautiful and sunny and safe, would not be true to his calling, or to ours.  For his path, and ours, bend resolutely earthward, always toward the places where people are fearful or suffering or oppressed, no matter what the cost.

Even when the path is uncertain and difficult, even when it means coming down from that mountaintop to the hardships of everyday life, even when it means denying ourselves and taking up the cross, even when it means losing the only lives we’ve ever known in order to find new, true life in the way of Jesus—my friends, we can move forward with courage and confidence, for we know this truth:  God did not create us for death, but for resurrection.  And even though the path to new life leads, as it must, through the cross, we need not fear, for we walk every step of the journey in the strong company of our brother, savior, and friend, our Jesus, who comes to us always with a gentle touch and those healing words:  “Get up; be raised; do not be afraid.”


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