It pays to pay attention to words.
Good writers make sure that the words they use illuminate the story or the idea they intend to communicate. Placement matters. Words and phrases are carefully chosen and given their order for a reason.
Saint Matthew is a good writer. We can visualize the scene he’s describing for us; Jesus, Peter, James and John head up a mountain by themselves, slowly hiking up the trail. Once they reach the top, Jesus changes before them. His clothes become dazzling white. His face shines brightly. And then two others instantly appear and begin speaking with him. Matthew tells us it’s Moses and Elijah—they represent the Law and the Prophets, the foundation of Holy Scripture.
[callout]A sermon for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany based on Matthew 17:1-9.[/callout]
Peter gets all gushy and proclaims that it would be spectacular if he and the Zebedee boys could build a few shelters for Jesus and his friends. And while he’s still exuberantly speaking, the fog rolls in. However, rather than dimming things down, it shines brightly too. Suddenly a voice from the cloud declares, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
It’s all too much to comprehend and so the three disciples panic and buckle to the ground in fear. Jesus gently comes over to them and says, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And with that the miraculous scene is over; Moses, Elijah, the array of dazzlingly light, all of it just disappears. Only Jesus, Peter, James and John remain.
Matthew describes something the other gospel writers—that is Mark, Luke and John—leave out. When the voice comes from the brilliant cloud, it’s only in Matthew’s gospel that Peter, James and John collapse in extreme fear. And he’s the only one to write about Jesus’ words to them: Get up and do not be afraid.
Those are the very first words Jesus utters to them after they are commanded to listen to Jesus. The voice from the cloud—God—declares that Jesus is his beloved Son and that the disciples should listen to him. Matthew then tells us what Jesus next said to them. Those words they should listen to.
Get up and do not be afraid.
Holy Scripture seems concerned with our potential and real fears. “Do not be afraid” or some variation of that phrase appears well over one hundred times in the Bible. When God shows up to make a covenant with Abram way back in Genesis, God proclaims, “Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield.” At the end of the Bible, in the book of Revelation, Jesus appears to St. John the Divine, places his hand on him and declares, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last.” In between those books, the phrase “fear not” keeps coming up again and again: when Joshua leads the people of Israel, when the Angel Gabriel appears before Mary, when Paul writes to Timothy. And this time, to ensure we’re paying attention, we get the instruction beforehand to notice the words of Jesus. “Listen to him,” God instructs from the cloud.
Get up and do not be afraid.
In his extraordinary book Deep Survival, Laurence Gonzales explores situations where our amygdala — that reptilian brain of ours — kicks in and takes over the rational qualities of our brain. Think fight or flight. Think deer caught in the headlights. Think landing a fighter jet on an aircraft carrier in the middle of pitch black night and coming in too low. One of the scenarios he explores that piqued my interest given my upcoming sabbatical is hikers lost in the woods.
Sometimes when hikers get off course, that is when the place they think they should be on the map doesn’t match their physical local, they panic. There’s a phrase for it, “woods shock.” Gonzales learns about it from an expert in neuroscience. “‘Woods shock’ is a term for the fear associated with complete loss of spatial orientation…. None of the rational abilities that the victim had before being lost are useful to him anymore.’ In severe cases, the actions of even the most experienced outdoorsmen can seem inexplicable. Hikers have abandoned full backpacks; hunters have left their guns behind.” (Pg.165) Mistakes snowball due to the paralysis of fear.
Which sounds a bit like what happens when a difficult diagnosis comes from the doctor. Or we get hit with an unexpected financial crisis. Or divorce papers are served. Or the countless other times life gets so overwhelming the we end up falling to the ground.
“This is my beloved Son, listen to him.” “Get up and do not be afraid.”
A funny thing happened this week. I’ve been hankering for a while to paint the hallway leading up to the second floor of the rectory. The walls were a whitish color when we arrived and the kids were little then. I don’t particularly care for flat white, and it really showed the marks from the kids when they would come racing down the stairs with their hands trailing on the wall behind. We tried cleaning it a few times, but to no real avail. However to paint the wall, I had to get on an extension ladder set on the landings and possibly the stairs because it’s close to 20 feet high in spots. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to extend my middle-aged body enough to cut in the ceiling; I was concerned about balancing on the ladder.
I finally mustered up the courage this week to pull out a ladder from the shed, and paint the wall. I was nervous of course, and I gave specific instructions to Noah on how to properly brace a ladder—the same instructions I received from my own Dad years ago. But everything turned out exceptionally well save for one spot I had to really reach for, and I wondered why it had taken me so long to do it.
Certainly climbing on to a ladder for a 30 minute paint job doesn’t compare to the fears that grip us over the course of our lives, but perhaps the response can. Perhaps if we truly listen to Jesus’ words, we’ll follow them—and him—by getting up and pushing the fear to the back of our minds and move forward trusting that he’s with us. That we are not alone.
If I’m honest, there’s one thing about Matthew’s depiction of the disciples falling to the ground and being overcome by fear that seems odd. What are they afraid of? I mean, here they are on the very top of the mountain, Jesus literally transforms before them and two of the most revered forebears of Judaism appear. Peter’s so overcome by the moment that he begins babbling about building shelters. With the shining cloud and God’s voice declaring that Jesus is a beloved child. They see his true glory alight in his face. It’s all so amazing and wonderful and every moment after would pale in comparison.
But that’s when they’re overcome with exceeding fear, as Matthew penned it in the Greek. Not just fear, but amped up fear. They’re terrified. They got the living daylights scared out of them. The amygdala kicks in. They see Jesus as he ultimately will be in the kingdom of God, face and clothes radiating light like the sun, completely enveloped in awe-inspiring glory, and they tremble like never before. It’s all too much to take in. All too wonderful. All too unbelievably glorious and sublime. All too holy.
So they drop like dead weights to the ground, overcome by fright. And Jesus comes alongside them, telling them not to be afraid. Jesus himself alone, Matthew writes. Nobody else. Just him. As they knew him before, not him as his transfigured self. Just the carpenter’s son from Nazareth.
I sometimes wonder in life if what’s so overcoming is the beauty of it all. We don’t get up because the opportunity for us that would shine brighter than the sun—be it a new career path, an opportunity to alter someone’s journey, a life-giving relationship—seems too good to be true. We’re afraid the other shoe will drop, or that it’ll all come tumbling down, and so we stay where we are because at least we know what that’s like. Get up, do not be afraid, Jesus says to us.
I also wonder about those dark times when light breaks through the cracks. When I think about my dad’s bout with cancer five years ago—while heart wrenchingly painful—it allowed us the chance to truly connect one last time, something we hadn’t done for quite a few years because of the way life goes sometimes. The last time I saw him alive he told me how proud he was of me and who I had become.
At times we catch glimpses of the glory and beauty. Of Jesus. Redeeming aspects of our lives that have been filled with pain. In a moment something changes and the light comes streaming in and overwhelms the darkness. And we’re overcome by it all. Shocked. Afraid. Because we cannot fathom it being this new way. So we fall to ground, quaking.
He comes up beside us, softly placing a hand on our shoulder. We want to listen to him, but sometimes we’re afraid. “Get up,” he says gently, helping us to our feet. “Don’t be afraid.” And then he leads us on the way.
The glimpses we get of the transcendent glory of God—those epiphanies—can both overwhelm us and scare the living pants off of us. They become too much to fully comprehend. But they sustain is. They soothe our souls that have been battered by the changes and chances of this life. They give us hope. They allow us to trust, to listen, and to respond.
“Get up and do not be afraid.”
Listen to him. Listen to this beloved Son of God. Get up and do not be afraid. Amen.