February 26, 2017
View a video of this sermon here.
We are skipping ahead in today’s gospel reading. For the past few weeks we have been listening to the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus has finished his teaching on the slopes above the Sea of Galilee. He has gone on from there to heal and teach, to spread the good news that the Kingdom of heaven is near. He has fed the 5000, and another 4000. Peter has confessed that Jesus is indeed, the Christ, the Son of the Living God. Jesus has told his dearest friends that he will soon be betrayed and killed, but will rise again on the third day. They have a hard time accepting this news. But Jesus knows his mission. He won’t be stopped.
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, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “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.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. – Matthew 17:1-8
Three disciples follow Jesus up a mountain. Peter, James, and John are the same ones who will go with him to the garden of Gethsemane on the night he is betrayed. Luke’s account (Luke 9) of this story says that they went up to pray, and that the disciples became sleepy, and this gives us another parallel to the Gethsemane story, where these same three disciples fall asleep while Jesus goes a little further into the garden to pray.
But in this story, the disciples do not fall asleep. What they see cannot be brushed off as a dream. This is real. Jesus is transformed right before their eyes.
And what a transformation! His clothes are dazzling. His face shines like the Sun. Light leaks out of every pore. Moses (often thought to represent the Law) and Elijah (thought to represent the prophets) are there with him, talking. The glory of the Lord is shining all around. But this time, it isn’t an angel. It is Jesus himself, changed into glory, along with Moses and Elijah.
Peter recognizes the presence of God, and immediately determines that where God is, a tabernacle should also be. Peter wants to raise a Tent of Meeting, just as his ancestors did when they first encountered God in the desert. Peter’s offer may sound out of place, but it comes from a desire to honor the holiness of this moment in the only way he knows how – to set up a tabernacle.
The voice from heaven speaks the same words we heard at the baptism of Jesus, back at the beginning of his ministry. “This is my Son, the Beloved. With him I am well pleased.” Only this time, the voice adds an important command to the statement. This time, God says, “Listen to him!”
Listen to Jesus. And what is the first thing Jesus says after the disciples hear this command?
“Get up. Stop being afraid.”
Fear is the natural human response to things we can’t understand. We are afraid of what we can’t see, what doesn’t make sense to us. We fall down like those overwhelmed disciples, and hide from the things that confuse us.
It is in that very moment that Jesus reaches out to touch us, to remind us of his presence, and he says, “Get up. Stop being afraid.” Every parent who has comforted a frightened child knows there is nothing more reassuring than the physical presence of someone who says, “Stop being afraid. I am here with you.”
Patrick Willson writes, “This is the way that God comes into the world: not simply the brilliant cloud of mystery, not only a voice thundering from heaven, but also a human hand laid upon a shoulder and the words, “Do not be afraid.” God comes to us quietly, gently, that we may draw near and not be afraid.” (Patrick J.Wilson, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 1, 457.)
So, how do we respond when we realize we are in the fearful presence of God Almighty, while at the same time, Jesus reaches out, touches us, and says, “Get up. Stop being afraid”? How will we deal with this paradox, this contradiction between holy fear and Christ’s gentle voice, telling us to get up?
Will we try to set up tents to contain the uncontainable? Or will we get up, climb back down the mountain, and find a way to share our experience of the holy with others who have not yet seen what we have seen?
Notice that Jesus warned his three friends not to tell anyone about what they had seen until after the resurrection. It wouldn’t have made sense to anyone else until then. But once they had made the connection, once the world had been changed by the context of an empty tomb, the other disciples would be able to hear this story with new ears. And once they had heard the story, they would want to share it.
Have you ever thought of yourself as an evangelist?*
You know, an evangelist: Someone who shares the gospel with people. Have you thought of yourself as someone who tells others about Jesus?
A large study was recently done on evangelism in mainline churches like ours. Researchers learned that the vast majority of people would rather go get a root canal than talk about, much less DO, evangelism.
For the last forty years, most churches have been in decline. In fact, here in the Minnesota Conference of the United Methodist Church, there was a 27% decline in church attendance from 2015 to 2016. That kind of decline in a single year is just one indicator we have a life-threatening aversion to the E word.
There are all kinds of reasons why most mainline congregations shy away from doing evangelism. We don’t like the flashy style of some television evangelists. We don’t want to be associated with organizations that bilk people out of their money. We don’t want to offend people by pressuring them about where they will be spending eternity. We don’t like to talk about sin. It isn’t polite.
Besides all that, I wonder sometimes what business I have telling people what they ought to be doing or believing. I have enough trouble in my own life doing and believing what I should. Who am I to tell another person how to live or what to believe?
I’d rather just do the best I can, be the best Christian I can be, and hope that is a good enough witness to others.
But what happens when we meet someone who obviously needs to hear some words about God’s love? Someone like the Ethiopian eunuch Phillip encountered in the 8th chapter of Acts. He was an African man with an important job that came at a high price. He had been castrated at some point in his life so that he could serve the queen of Ethiopia. That why he’s called a “eunuch.” He was unable to be married or have children. Religious law kept him from participating in worship services. Yet, somehow, he had heard of God and wanted to know more about God. What do you do when you don’t think of yourself as an evangelist but you come across someone like this?
Someone who bears deep wounds inflicted by the world . . .
Someone who is not welcomed by traditional religion . . .
Someone who looks successful but feels empty . . .
Someone who is searching for something he doesn’t have . . .
Someone who needs to hear about God’s love.
Someone like Rick. Rick was a successful businessman. He visited a church down in the “Bible belt,” because he saw an ad they had placed on TV. The pastor of the church had been opposed to putting ads for a church on television. “Only fundamentalist mega-churches do that,” he’d said. “It costs too much anyway. We should be using that money to care for the poor.” (Sounds a little like Judas, when he complained about expensive perfume being dumped on Jesus, head, doesn’t he?) “Besides,” he said, “What kind of people pick their church from ads on television?”
But the church did it anyway. And dozens of visitors, who had never before been to any church in their lives, started coming to church. One of them was Rick. Rick brought his 8-year-old son, Andy, to church one Sunday. In Sunday school that day, the class Andy attended happened to be studying Esther.
Monday morning, the pastor got a call from Rick. “My son is so excited about this story he heard at church,” he said. “He said the story is from the ‘book of Esther.’ Can you tell me where I can get a copy of that book? I want to read it to him at home. I can’t find it on Amazon. Can you tell me where I can get a copy?” Rick, a college graduate and successful businessman, had never owned a Bible. He had no idea that Esther is a book in the Bible.
Does it shock you that you can grow up in this day and age and not know that Esther is a book in the Bible? This is increasingly true. In 1910 only 3% of Americans were growing up with no faith training, but by the 1980s, that number had grown to 14.5%. And the number of people coming to adulthood in the U.S. with no faith training at all continues to increase.
In our own community of New Ulm, 20.3% of our neighbors have no religious identity. They are not Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, or Christian. They are not connected religiously at all.
“What is to prevent me from being baptized?” the Ethiopian man asked. That’s a good question. For people like Rick, the obstacle to believing in Christ and being baptized, is simply that no one has ever told them about God. Let me say that again. No one has ever told them about God.
According to MissionInsite, 19% of the people who said they were not involved in a faith community here in New Ulm noted the reason for their non-participation as “no one has ever invited me.” These aren’t people who are mad at the church. They aren’t the ones who listed hypocrisy or other issues as obstacles. The primary reason they don’t come to church is that no one has ever invited them.
Friends, are we keeping people from hearing about God’s love? Are we constructing barriers between the gospel and the people who desperately need to hear it?
Is our fear of being like a stereotype a barrier?
Is our lack of confidence a barrier?
Is our desire to give people their “space” about religion a barrier?
Could it be that for many people like Rick, we are actually preventing them from knowing more about God? Are we keeping people from becoming followers of Jesus Christ?
Maybe you think that Philip had it easier than we do. After all, the Spirit of God transported him to the Ethiopian man’s side and compelled him to share the gospel! It seems like all Philip did was show up and God did the rest.
Maybe you think Peter, James, and John had it easier than we do. They actually saw Jesus become light. They had a dramatic story to tell anyone who would listen.
What if God is just waiting for us to show up, like Phillip, so he can do the rest? What if Jesus is waiting for us to tell our own stories of how we have encountered him in our lives? What if we decided to be evangelists?
How could we partner with God? How would the Spirit work with us? Where would the Spirit of God send us? Who would be on our pathway?
Friends, I invite you to come on a spiritual adventure with me. What would it look like for us to be evangelists? This is what we’ll be exploring together as a church for the six weeks of Lent.
Instead of giving something up for Lent, you are invited to pray, to study, to question, and to think about how God might be sending us out to share the gospel of Jesus Christ. As a church, we will be reading the book, Unbinding Your Heart. It came out of the study on evangelism I mentioned earlier. Today in the gathering space there are sign-up sheets for the small groups that are forming now. These groups will be a safe place for prayer and discussion. You will be spiritually encouraged and intellectually stimulated in these groups.
There are options for every day of the week. For some of you, the meeting time isn’t as important as the people you will be sharing with in your group. So, get together with a few people you trust, and all sign up for the same time! If you can’t find a time that works for you, feel free to convene a group at a different time.
No one has to be the “leader.” You just need a time and place to gather every week for the next six weeks. It could be someone’s home. It could be here at church. It could be at a coffee shop. Together, we will be inviting God to show us what it would look like for us to become evangelists. What would it be like for us to share God’s love in our own unique way?
Today is Transfiguration Sunday, the final Sunday in our Epiphany journey. We have heard Jesus offer us the Great Invitation to follow him, to learn from him, to be like him, to shine.
Paul writes, “And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18a, ESV). We are being transformed from one degree of glory to another! It doesn’t happen overnight, but the change is already at work in us.
A family gathered to celebrate the last Christmas they would spend at their grandparents’ house. The grandfather had Parkinson’s disease. Soon, they would move him to an assisted living center. It had been their family’s tradition to gather around the Christmas tree and listen to the granddad read the Christmas story from Luke.
This year, when Granddad tried to read, he could barely move his Parkinson’s-locked jaws. He just couldn’t manage to speak the words aloud. The family sat there and watched him struggle. No one seemed to know what to do. Should they say something? Would it hurt his pride if someone helped him?
No one did anything for what seemed to be a very long time. But Emily, the 6-year-old granddaughter, was just learning to read. She knew exactly what to do. She quietly tiptoed over to his chair and plopped herself beside him. Then, taking his finger into her hand, she helped him point to each word, saying them out loud with him as they read along together:
is born this day
which is Christ the Lord.”
“Do you know what you’re reading?” Philip asked the Ethiopian eunuch. The man nearly begged, “How can I unless someone guides me?”
So Phillip went
and sat beside him.
Jesus says, “Get up. Stop being afraid.”
Who will Christ lead you to sit beside?
* This sermon incorporates material by Rev. Dawn Darwin Weaks, as provided through the gracenet.info website. These sermons are licensed for use, in whole or in part, by purchasers of Unbinding Your Church.