First Congregational Church
March 26, 2017
4th Sunday in Lent
”Fear of the Unexplainable”
Rev. Dinah Haag, preaching
To start this morning’s message, I thought we might engage in a little mental crossword puzzling. So, 1 across: fear of balloons popping: globophobia. 3 down: fear of rain. ombrophobia. 10 across: fear of the number 13: triskaidekaphobia. 4 across: the fear of holes: trypophobia, and 6 down is fear of being out of mobile phone service: nomophobia.
Last week, the break from our Lenten sermon series was brought to you by the cantata, The Song Everlasting. The first message in the series was “The Fear of Inadequacy” and the second was “Fear of Circumstances.” The “inadequacy” message was based on the fishing trip taken by Jesus and a couple disciples, after a long night of fishing, resulting in a huge mess of fish. The “circumstance” message was also based on a water event, but the one when Jesus calmed the wind and waves.
This morning’s message takes place on a mountain, not so long after another trip to a mountainside: the one that fed 4,000 men, plus women and children, after numerous healings had taken place. After the Big Banquet, over the next six days or so, the Pharisees and Sadducees did a little cage-rattling with Jesus, Jesus did a little teaching about said Pharisees and Sadducees and Peter blurted out that Jesus is the Messiah. And Jesus had predicted his death, you know, just like any normal day for any of us.
After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. 2 There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. 3 Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.
4 Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.”
5 While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”
6 When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. 7 But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. “Don’t be afraid.” 8 When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus.
9 As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, “Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.”
Thank you, Betty. Imagine; all the crazy things that had been happening before that day, and then Jesus says, “Field trip!” Imagine what might have been running through your mind. Where are we going? What’s going to happen? Are we supposed to bring anything? Did everyone remember to use the bathroom before we left?
Maybe you might have been a little uneasy, given that business about the Pharisees and Sadducees and miraculous meals and prophetic prediction of the Master’s own death. In our own lives, who of us would have possibly conceived what was going to happen on the mountain that day? In hindsight, Peter’s suggestion to build shelters for Moses, Elijah and Jesus may have come from that uncomfortable place of not knowing how to respond to something that is bigger than you even realize. Even so, think about it. Who will believe such a thing if you were to tell anyone about it afterwards? (Maybe that’s why Jesus told them not to say anything.)
Maybe, more than anything else, it’s the fear of the unexplainable that underlies this passage. Our human tendency may be to wave it off to the great writers of history - regardless of gospel or record. But still. It’s in the book we deem to be holy. And Jesus must have had some inclination that it was going to happen, or why make the trip up the mountain, away from the crazy crowds?
Peter, James and John were minding their own business, caring for their families and friends, doing what adult men did at the time. And then one day, when Jesus passes by, their worlds changed forever. The whole world changes for ever - in ways that seem even more unexplainable. A face shining like the sun, clothes of dazzling white, a voice from a cloud. It happened to me last Thursday. How about you?
More than eighty times in the Bible, God tells someone "Don't be afraid," usually translated as "Fear not.” God said it to Abraham, to Isaac, to Jacob. God said it four times to Joshua in God’s first speech to him after the death of Moses. God said it to each of the prophets, and told them to tell others the same thing. Don’t be afraid. It was the angel’s first words to Jesus’ mother, Mary and over and over, Jesus said that same thing to the disciples.
Don’t be afraid. They are great words that most often produce really lousy results. Don’t be afraid, this needle that I’m sticking into your gums will only feel like a pinch. Okay, but let me pinch your gums, first. Don’t be afraid, I’m sure you will do just fine driving on that really shiny black ice. “It’s probably nothing.” says the doctor on a Friday, beginning an incredibly long weekend waiting for a biopsy report. But all those items have a direct object in fear. Whether it’s pain, a risk or a test, those are real, subjects that can elicit fear, and we can understand the need for those fears, as well as for our need to endure them.
As Marcus Roskamp says, creator of this idea of a sermon series on fear, “We like explanations for what happens in our lives. Explanations give us a sense of control, a sense that we are directing the events of our days. When confronted with things that have no explanation, we get scared! We make up explanations, we try to fit them into categories so we don’t have to simply live with the mystery.” Roskamp says, “Jesus frees us from having to explain and understand everything we experience. He invites us to not always have to explain life, but sometimes to just simply experience it.”
How he ends that section is equally good: “We don’t have time to marvel at a baby’s birth, a child’s laugh, a photo of a far off galaxy, a bird in flight, a whale breaching, or a couple walking hand in hand. We become objects to ourselves – we are what we tweet – and not beloved children, mysterious, wonderful, and a little wild. “
But fear is such a good thief: distorting our ability to think clearly and evaluate risks. Fear shrinks our souls, making us more selfish, less charitable, less idealistic. Being afraid diminishes our humanity. With the dentist, it’s a momentary, concrete fear. Driving on icy roads is generally a speed issue, so it’s an exercise in patience, as is waiting on a medical report. But when an addict gets behind the wheel of a car or a scammer has no regard for others and honest work, or any other unexplainable thing occurs, we tend not to err on the joy side of life as much as the fear side - and most often, rightfully so.
Bruce Epperly, Pastor and Teacher at South Congregational Church in Centerville, Massachusetts, suggests that “the problem of our times is ecstasy deficit. We have become so busy about our own affairs that we have lost the vision of beauty. We have tamped down 1. wonder to consume, 2. prophesy to profit, 3. beauty to buy, and 4. awe to acquire. We focus on the literal word of scripture and deny its wonder.”
A face shining like the sun, clothes of dazzling white, a voice from a cloud? Mind-blowing! Astounding! Seriously? Of all the people available that day, Jesus chose Peter, James and John to witness - that day - rather than the day before or the day after. It’s sort of how I think about moments - often certainly when I’ve been there as a person breathed their last breath. Of all the people in the world, God picked me to be there that day, not the day before or the day after, but that day, and it changed my life forever. How about you - what things have you witnessed that were miraculous events? I wonder just how often God does that for us, and fear robs us of such miraculous living?
Fear of the unexplainable. If you boil it down, I think it is mostly a fear of death. We can explain the physics and the natural order of life, using chemistry and even embrace the idea of the luck of the draw. But we can still feel that discomfort, that awkwardness, so maybe it is a fear of death - or a kind of death? We will all die, but how will I die? Will it be with honor and dignity? Will it be peaceful or pain-racked? Will it be long and drawn-out or the blink of an eye? And what about those I love? I won’t be able to comfort them or do for them the things I know would bring them comfort. And what will it really be like - after this life thing here?
But maybe we cut our vision too short. Maybe - if it is a fear of death thing - we are focused only on the life of here-and-now. Tuesday night I attended the Buckley boys basketball game in Cadillac, and it isn’t a huge gymnasium by any stretch of the imagination. Someone said it holds somewhere around 2,000 people. But at the end of the game, when Bucklely won, the Buckley fans swarmed from their seats to the floor to engulf the players. And I mean swarm! It was like a big, massive hug - jumping up and down. And the thought occured to me - that’s what heaven will be like. Or a version thereof, at any rate. And if that’s where we cast our vision, then all this stuff in the here-and-now is so very different.
Physical pain can wear on us, and be inconvenient and limiting, but it’s just a little part of our eternal lives. All the “what-ifs, wouldas, couldas and shouldas” won’t make any more difference. All the waiting and fearing and projecting and anxiety will be dissolved into simply “being” - in God’s presence like no way we’ve been able to on this earth.
When you walk out of here today, the hip may not simply stop hurting, fears will not cease, worry will continue. But in this moment, we can remind ourselves to stop every-so-often, to put our head back, and to feel the wind on our face and to see the expanse of sky above us to remind us of the even greater expanse of eternity our life there when we go back home. We need not be encumbered with fears, especially of the unexplained, or even of the fear of death, because what is waiting for us is so much greater than we can even contemplate.
Most of you know that there are four photos on my office wall, of where I go fishing in Canada. They are there for ‘those days.’ But they are also there to remind me, to ‘travel’ to those places, to remember that they are there, regardless of how good or tough the day here is. So is it one of the reasons for coming to church; besides phenomenal sermons, of course. When we are together, and Jesus is present in our togetherness, and the Holy Spirit reminds us of the ecstasy of this life we get to live with each other, our strength is renewed, so we can mount up on wings like eagles; so we can run and not grow weary - even if it is figurative running, and we can walk and not be faint - even if it’s with a cane or walker.
Our world is so different from those who lived in Jesus’ day, what with technology and modernity and the like. But our innermost needs are still the same: to be loved and known and to know what will happen to us in the end. And the truth is that God is/has the answer to all of those questions/needs. All the rest - our loved ones, our families and friends, our lives and even this little place we think of as paradise - is bonus. The beauty and joy of this life is ours for the relishing and pleasure as gifts from the One who created us. So let give thanks.
Dazzling, Life-Giver and Sustainer, we thank you for the gifts that you give us - both in this life and in the one yet to come. We sometimes forget those gifts, and even turn away from them. So forgive us when our vision becomes so narrow that it excludes you. Forgive us when our lives seem to be so hard that we forget that you have all things in your hands - even if we don’t understand how that can be. Redeem us when our humanity outweighs our spirits and our footsteps become heavy. For the gifts that you give us in others - to remind us of you and our lives with you, we are grateful. For the times when our faith has been enough, we are glad. Help us through the valleys of fear and death and darkness, that we not stay too long in those places and that they enhance our mountaintop experiences of light. For these and all your blessings, all your people say, Amen.
Just the messenger. And the collector and arranger of that which has been received. References available upon request.