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.”
Matt 17:6-7 +INPFSS+
I. The Fear of God
This morning, I wish to speak about fear. One kind of fear, in particular: the fear of God. Now, you've probably all heard sermons on the fear of God that try and explain that when the bible says “fear”, it doesn't really mean “fear”, it means things like “reverence” or “respect”. Now, while this is not entirely wrong, I think such re-definition falls short of biblical truth, and actually robs us, as Christians, of the appreciation we really should have for who God is.
God's glory, as we see twice in our lessons this morning: Shown to Moses and the Israelites on top of Mount Sinai, and shown to the three disciples on top of Mount Tabor – God's glory is scary. It's not just scary, it's terrifying. The only description Moses can find for it is that it's like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain, and when the Three Disciples see it in Jesus, and hear the voice from the strange-glowing cloud, they fall to the ground, overcome with fear.
When God shows his glory, it is evidently brilliantly bright, and overwhelmingly scary.
And the normal response isn't merely reverence, it's fear.
Now, when we think of fear, we think it's a bad thing, but that's because when we hear the word 'fear', we think of the things that we are afraid of: Dark Alleys, Being alone in the woods, The monsters of childhood under the bed, that, if we're honest, we're still a little scared of.
MOST things that cause fear, are genuinely bad. But fear itself, fear, as an emotional response, is actually a good thing. It's actually a proper response to something that could have power over us, or that could over-power us.
God gave us fear so that we could know instinctively to stay away from the dark cave where the bears are hibernating, or to avoid the snakes that can do us harm, or to give us pause before throwing our lot in with criminals on the seedy side of town.
Fear is for the most part, that is – when it doesn't dominate our daily lives, fear is actually a good thing, because it helps us avoid harm. When we feel fear, it is because we become aware that there is something that is stronger than us, that could alter our lives in ways we would rather it wasn't altered.
And this is true of snakes, and caves, and heavy-machinery and edges of cliffs, and muggers and tyrants. The lot of them. All of these things have the power to potentially do us harm. And we are right to be afraid of them.
And actually, when we lose the appropriate sense of fear, through familiarity, well, that's when bad things happen. All of the tragedies at Zoos, and on factory floors, and in big cities, so many of them happen because a right sense of fear had been lost.
And, what I'd like to suggest to you this morning, is that all this applies to God as well.
Like the rightfully famous CS Lewis quip about Aslan being good but not safe, God is, in a sense, dangerous.
Jesus himself, as recorded in Matthew chapter 10 tell us, do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell.
And he's referring here, not the devil, as you might mistakenly suppose, but to God! God alone has the power to send soul and body to hell. And this is a lot of power, and we are right to be afraid of it!
Now, at this point let me be really clear: As Christians, we do NOT need to live in fear of hell. But the one who has the power to send us there, HIM we are right to be afraid of. Like a ferocious lion, or like a giant machine, it should cause us some alarm, and lead us to be cautious, and thoughtful.
In short, to be afraid.
II. Glory: veiled and unveiled
Now most of the time, because God is so humble. Because our Lord is meek, and lowly of heart. Because God wants us to enter a relationship with him out of love, and not because we have been flabbergasted and don't know what else to do. Because of these things, the terrifying aspect of God, what the Scripture's refer to as his glory, it is often veiled. It's hidden, the way a bride hides her beauty at first behind a veil. God's terrifying glory is not right here in front of eyes.
Now, if we look at all the amazing things he has created here on earth: The mountains, the glaciers, the Lions and Whales, we catch a glimpse of it. And if we reflect on it even for just a moment, we can begin to see it with our minds' eye, but in day to day life, it's not visible. It's not tangible.
But there have been a few times in history, where God has removed the veil. Where he has allowed his glory to be seen in broad-daylight. Paul saw it, on his way to Damascus. John saw it, in the face of an Angel. Moses saw it, on the mountain, and, the theme of our feast this Sunday: The three disciples saw it on Mount Tabor, where Jesus was transfigured.
That is, simply, his appearance, his figure was changed: trans-...figured. His true Glory was for a moment revealed. Brought out from the curtain behind which it had been hiding. Every other day of his short mortal life, Jesus looked just like an ordinary man. But that's because the veil was on him. Who he really was – the immortal Son of God – was hidden from earthly eyes. But on this one day, when he had gone up away from the crowds, to be with his inner circle, he pulled back the veil.
Matthew paints the scene for us vividly:
His face was brighter than the Sun. Literally. It was painful to the eyes it was so dazzling. His clothes turned from their drab linen hue, to radiant white.
How scary would that be!
And then, Moses and Elijah appear out of thin air, and Jesus is talking with them!!
Peter evidentally doesn't know what to do with himself. You can almost imagine him, peering out from behind a rock or something, and then, when he realizes he's not hidden at all, he just starts blurting things out, “urrr, If you want, errrrr, I can make three dwellings here?!”
And before he can finish speaking, the air suddenly changes to a thick bright cloud, whatever that looks like, and a voice booms from heaven, the voice that strips the oak trees bare, and it declares that this Jesus is his beloved Son, and is to be listened to.
And, with my imagination I can almost see Peter and James and John flipping backwards and over on to their faces, completely aghast at what is happening, terrified for their very lives. And this is right. It's totally normal. Who wouldn't respond that way, if these things happened to you?
III. More than Fear
And what these strange unveilings communicate to us, Christians today, is that God is never a safe entity that we can take for granted. Behind the veil, there is a force more powerful than anything we can imagine. A dread king, who has taken account of every thought and deed done by every human being who ever was, and who has bound himself to the execution of Justice.
In other words, in the face of all our familiarity, and the merciful condescension of God into our lives, and how cozy and normal our Christian lives become – and these things are not bad – in the face of these things, we must also remember who it is that we are dealing with, when we address God by name. When we turn to him in prayer.
That's the first thing we take away from the unveiling of Christ's Glory, at his Transfiguration.
But it's not the only thing.
While right, Fear is not the end of our response to God. Or at least, it's not supposed to be.
For when the disciples have thrown themselves on the floor in terror, what happens then?
Jesus comes over to them. Touches them, and tells them to get up and to not be afraid.
What?? Not be afraid? Is he kidding? What about that scene isn't scary? Why would Jesus tell them this? What's going on?
In the first place, Jesus is pointing out that the scary-ness of God is different than other scary things. Whereas the power of other scary things looms only to do us harm, God intends to do us good with his power. He is for us, not against us. He will be satisfying his justice himself, through his Son, on the cross. He loves us. He is GOOD. Not safe, but GOOD.
And his goodness is ours, in Christ Jesus.
I think what happened to the disciples on Mount Tabor is a figure for what is true of all of us, as Christians:
It is only when Jesus himself touches us, that we can get up and not be afraid any more.
It is only when God the Son himself looks us in the eye and says, “it's gonna be ok”, that we can come and stand boldly before the fearsome God in prayer.
And it's only because of what God the Son did on the cross – dying for our sins, in our place – and only because we have been united to his life, through our faith and through baptism – only because we are spiritually connected to him, as his body, that we can stand before the Great Judgment of God the Father on the Last Day.
And so we see that, whereas, as mere human beings, we would feel only terror before God, knowing that our sinful selves would be totally immolated in the presence of his Glory. As Christians, being now found in Christ Jesus, fear is only the beginning. There is also love. And gratitude. And Worship.
Love for the Savior who has made us his own, so we do not need to be afraid.
Gratitude for the gift he has given us, of himself on the cross, and
worship, because this was God's plan all along – to save us from the wrath of justice.
And through these things, carnal fear, human fear is sanctified, and it becomes holy fear. Christian fear. Which is at once genuine fear, and, in a sense, no fear at all, because we have seen the Goodness of God in the face of Christ Jesus. And his Love has cast out our fear.
And in a way, you could say this is right back where we started: In lived life, this looks like reverence, more than it does fear per se. But see how it's not reverence as just something less than fear. It's reverence as something more than fear. It's fear and... It's the accelerator and the brake at the same time. It's the character of Christian awe. The shape of Holy Fear.
May God himself increase it in us more and more, as we give more and more glory to our all glorious God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.