When I was in college, I had a part-time job at a small, independent bookstore in Hastings. This was during the era when the self-help book industry was just starting to explode. Books flooded into the store and flew off the shelves that promised to make you happier, better set up for love and connection, more productive, and more successful. The unabashed optimism and cheeriness of these books always made my cynical Generation X eyes roll dramatically and often. The epitome of the books from this age was Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which is a time management and leadership manual sealed with a kind of smarmy spiritual veneer. Despite my constitutional allergy to the whole idea of the book, it’s actually not too bad, and I remember more than my pride wants me to admit. One of the habits Covey discusses is “to begin with the end in mind.” The idea is that if you have a clear goal for where you want to go in some area of your life in the future, it will transform how you live in the present. When you see the end, you know how to begin.
The Transfiguration of Jesus, which is the story in our gospel lesson today, is Matthew’s way of beginning with the end in mind. It seems like something right out of science fiction. Jesus and three of his disciples go up on a mountain together, and suddenly Jesus gets a mysterious glow, his clothes become dazzling white, he’s joined by two long dead prophets, and the thundering voice of God declares Jesus his beloved son, and urges the disciples to listen to him. I can’t hear this story without thinking of the final scene in Return of the Jedi when the shining, ghost-like figures of Anikan Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Yoda appear to Luke and company.
It would be easy to dismiss this as just a fantastic invention of the gospel writer, but there’s a lot more than a simple magic trick going on here.
Up to this point in the story, things have gone pretty well. Jesus has been teaching, healing, and building up a nice little group of followers. But right after the episode this morning, things start to get a little darker. Jesus starts to journey toward Jerusalem, his conflict with the religious and political authorities starts to build toward its violent and tragic conclusion.
So right here on this mountain, just before things get really hard for Jesus and his disciples, God gives them a preview of what the end will look like. This episode is God’s way of saying, no matter what is about to happen, my light will outshine the coming darkness, my life will overcome the impending death. They are beginning a very difficult period with the end in mind. They have a glimpse of God’s victory at the end of the hardship they are about to face.
At the end of it all, when the disciples are on the ground overcome by fear, Jesus comes to them, touches them, and says, “Get up, and do not be afraid.”
That’s exactly what Jesus says to us this morning, too. Get up, and do not be afraid. This story is always read on the Sunday right before Lent starts, and as we prepare to begin Lent, we get a preview of Easter. As we face different kinds of darkness–the worries about our jobs, our kids, fear for the nation, weariness at how conflicted we all are, fears about our health, or our money, or fears about potential assaults on our own dignity or that of others—we hear the promise, we see the preview, that God’s light and love will outshine and outlive the worst our world can be.
Get up, and do not be afraid. Do not be afraid because God’s light and love will shine brighter than the darkness you’re facing. Get up because God’s love is more powerful than the hatred and intolerance that are out there. Get up because that light and that love needs to be carried out into the dark world, and that’s what we are for as followers of Jesus.
Every week, this is meant to be a small little mountaintop, a place where the beauty of this space and the ancient prayers are meant to dazzle us just a little with a preview of God’s promised future, so that our experience of the present darkness can be reshaped by God’s light. Each week, the Jesus we meet on this mountaintop offers us a chance to begin again with the end in mind: the end of God’s loving kindness, God’s compassionate justice, God’s perfect peace.
We stand on this mountaintop each week so that we might go back out there and help dazzle the darkness around us, transfigure whatever sorrow we encounter, infect the world with love and hope. As our Presiding Bishop, Michael Curry often puts it: our job is to help God transform the world from the nightmare it has become for so many into the dream God has for all people. Get up, and do not be afraid.
In a few minutes, we’ll baptize Oliver Pendell. As part of that, we’ll renew our own commitment to being light in the darkness, working for justice and peace in the world, and we’ll receive Oliver as a beloved brother in that work. Every baptism is this incredible moment to hear God call us beloved, to see God’s light shining in the darkness, and to be reminded that we are called to be that light in our lives.
All of us have plenty to be afraid of. All of us have more than our fair share of worry, of anger, of grief. We stand on the mountaintop again this morning, we are invited to begin again with the end in mind, with God’s glorious love and mercy in sight. We’re invited again to feel Jesus’ hand tap us on our sagging shoulders and say again:“Get up, and do not be afraid.” Amen.