Rev. Ken Kovacs preaches to the congregation at Catonsville Presbyterian Church


Get Up! Fear Not!

February 19, 2023

Readings: Matthew 17:1-8

There are moments when everything comes into focus, moments when everything becomes perfectly clear. There are moments of searing insight and brilliance, moments that change everything. I once was blind, but now I see—and see, and see, and see and nothing, no one will ever again look the same.

They thought they knew who Jesus was. They thought they had him figured out. However, here on this holy mountain, they came to see who he really was. His transfiguration transfigures their figurations of him, transfigures their assumptions, transfigures their eyes and thoughts, their ears and our hearts. Matthew says his core being was seen in the radiance of “his face [that] shone like the sun.” He became dazzling, like a flame, with the intensity of pure, white, blinding light. Peter, James, and John watched in disbelief. Soon they see Moses (representing the Law or Torah) and then Elijah (representing the prophets) appearing, and the three begin talking. Peter tells Jesus he’s grateful to witness such a meeting and, in a spirit of hospitality, offers to provide a dwelling for them, booths or tents or something. He doesn’t make much sense. Even Peter probably didn’t understand what he was saying. It doesn’t matter because while Peter was still speaking, Mathew tells us—while Peter was still speaking—a “bright cloud overshadowed them,” and they heard, “This is my Son, my Beloved; with him I am well pleased: listen to him!”

The force of the voice and the weight of its revelation threw them to the ground, overcome by terror and fear. But Jesus approached them—was he still shining?—leaned down and touched them, touched them—in their fear!—and said, “Get up! Get up, and do not be afraid.”

As many of you know, I love this story! I never get tired of it. It’s mystical, numinous, experiential, and holy and wondrous. The entire story shines, and in the light of its telling, we discover layer upon layer of meaning. I’ve shared before that it was James Loder (1931-2001), professor at Princeton Seminary, my mentor and friend, who first drew my attention to the significance of this text.[1] I asked Jim to give the charge at my ordination back in 1990. Matthew 17 was his text. It was a personal, powerful, passionate challenge—a charge—to me at the start of my ministry; these words are never far from my awareness. Two weeks after my ordination, I left for Scotland to serve as assistant minister at St. Leonard’s Parish Church in St. Andrews, Scotland. I remember walking into that sanctuary, with its soft light and beautiful stained-glass windows, looking up at the great west window and, to my complete astonishment, discovering that it was a depiction of the Transfiguration. Again and again, I return to this text and love to find artists who, through paintings and icons, and sketches, try to “capture” this scene, artists both ancient and modern. Such as in the work of Lviv-based Ukrainian iconographer, Ivanka Demchuk.

We have three imperatives here. One from God: “Listen to him.” And then from Jesus, two encouraging, compassionate commands: “Get up.” Followed by: “Do not be afraid.” Approaching this text, I’m usually drawn to God’s command, “Listen to him.” Primarily because that was Jim Loder’s charge to me, “Listen to him!” I can still hear Jim saying to me, “Listen to him!” “Listen to him!” However, the other two imperatives are worth our attention. “Get up, and do not be afraid.”

So, why were they afraid? Wouldn’t you be? Time and again, fear is the natural human response to an encounter with the glory of God, to be overcome or overshadowed by God’s presence. Yes, we can call it holy fear or awe if it makes us feel better, but there’s still an element of fear about it, a feeling of trepidation. Such an experience might even feel like a trauma for our timid egos, an encounter, an awareness of someone completely Other, an overwhelming Other before whose presence we know we have no right to stand, and so we fall, fall, as C. S. Lewis (1889-1963) beautifully described it, under this “weight of glory.” [2] We fall on our knees and cover our faces before the Holy of Holies.

So, yes, there’s a rational reason to be afraid. It can be an awe-full, fearful thing when God moves in our lives. This is probably why we often resist God or prayer or worship or being silent or listening to our hearts. We can run. We can stay busy, get distracted, go shopping, binge watch something on Netflix. But there’s really no place to hide. There’s no hiding place. As the psalmist acknowledged, “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?” (Psalm 139:7).

Yes, fear is natural because facing God inevitably costs us something; it requires something of us, namely control over our lives. When Christ is the center of our lives, our egos, preferring to be in control, are knocked off-center and displaced. We are forced to acknowledge that, as Peter, James, and John came to know, that when you get mixed up with this God, you discover there’s more going around you and in you, even beyond you in the world, more than you can begin to possibly imagine, more than what meets the eye—which is why our sight always requires transfiguring to see truly. It’s fearful, because God might actually show up, make an appearance, speak to you in a dream; ask you to do something that feels impossible; summon you to become someone you know you can’t be on your own; call you to change your ways; ask you to go somewhere you would rather not go; embark on a journey that you prefer not to take. To encounter God means that our lives will be changed, different—and better!

Again, all of this requires transformation. The Greek word, which we translate as “transfiguration,” is a form of the verb metamorphoo, as in metamorphosis. We can say that Jesus was metamorphosized. If the encounter or the experience is not changing us, then it’s probably safe to say we’re not encountering the Holy. As Loder like to say, channeling Søren Kierkegaard (1813-1855), “Once you wise up, you can’t dummy down.” Change is inevitable. And after encountering the presence of God in the face of Jesus Christ, how can you ever go back to normal? What is normal after that?

If we’re honest, being normal, along with being safe or secure, have little, if anything, to do with being a disciple of Jesus Christ. Jesus never said, “Follow me and I will make you normal.” The story of the Transfiguration, on this last Sunday before the start of Lent, is offered intentionally to remind us what it means to be a disciple, a follower of Jesus Christ. In Matthew, the Transfiguration is situated at the center of his gospel, echoing the words that Jesus heard at his baptism (Matthew 3:17) and foreshadowing what Jesus will experience in his resurrection as the beloved Son of God. The story comes on the heels of Jesus’ words to his disciples, “If any want to be 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” (Matthew 16:24-25). Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matthew 16:28)—as Peter, James, and John came to see six days later.

Get up! Do not fear! Fear and awe are part of the experience, but fear is never the ultimate reality for the disciple. Time and again, God calls us to live beyond fear—and here’s the tricky part. Being a disciple is difficult; it isn’t easy. It requires courage. In Marilynne Robinson’s brilliant, poignant, profound novel, Gilead, the main character, the Reverend John Ames, at the end of his ministry and his life, reflects on the nature of God and what’s required of us in the life of faith. John Ames says, “…the Lord is more constant and far more extravagant than it seems to imply. Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?” [3] Courage is required—courage to see, to look at, to acknowledge the radiance of God in the face of Jesus Christ—and then live from all of its life-changing ramifications.

In a speech at the University of St. Andrews in 1922, J. M. Barrie (1860-1937), of Peter Pan fame, said to a generation of youth disillusioned after the Great War, “Courage is the thing. All goes if courage goes.” [4]

Do we have the courage to listen, to be disciples, and to go where he leads? Probably not. Courage to be a disciple? Not really. Not all the time. And certainly not on our own, we don’t. The fear is real.

Amid their fear, Jesus went over to his disciples, his friends, and in their anxiety and trepidation, he reached out, reached down to them, and said, “Get up!” Literally, in Greek, “Be raised!” “Be raised!” “Get up and do not be afraid.” Fear not. Get up and follow, free from paralyzing fear, because the Beloved One, Love Incarnate, has touched you and assures you that you can. Get up and dare to follow beyond the tight confines of your fear because his grace summons you to do so. For the one who summons also equips us with the courage to follow. Get up and do not be afraid because it’s the Lord who tells us so—and he can be trusted. “Listen to him!”

For we can’t afford to remain stuck in our fears. Why? Because there’s work to be done. You can’t live up on that mountaintop forever. You can’t get lost in lofty spiritual experiences. The dazzling vision will subside. You must go down the mountain, get to work, get back to family, back to your children, back to your neighbors, back to responsibility, back to being a disciple, get back to “normal”—now the new normal. Once you have seen, you cannot unsee. And what you now see is God’s ongoing work of saving and redeeming, transfiguring, and transforming human lives. There’s an entire world that needs saving and holding and loving! You know what God desires of you. You already know what God desires for you—you really do. You know God’s will. You’ve known God’s plan from the start. It’s about God’s justice; it’s about naming evil and fighting against it; it’s the Kingdom-vision of God, of love and compassion and mercy and wholeness and healing and welcome, the very things that Jesus came to embody and realize in you and me all the way to the cross and beyond.

God said, “Listen to him.” And Jesus says to us, “Get up! Don’t be afraid!” And he says to us, “Now, let’s go. You and me. There’s work to be done!”

Icon of transfigured Jesus

[1] On the theology of James E. Loder, see Kenneth E. Kovacs, The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter and Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2011).
[2] C. S. Lewis, “The Weight of Glory,” a sermon preached at the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford, 8 June 1942, published in The Weight of Glory (HarperOne, 2001).
[3] Marilynne Robinson, Gilead: A Novel (New York: Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, 2004), 245.
[4] J.M. Barrie, Courage. The Rectorial Address delivered at St. Andrew’s University, 3 May 1922. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922), 40.