There is something in human nature that, for some reason, relishes the thrill of being safely terrified. I can remember when I was very young being afraid of things that go bump in the night, that is, until what were called Horror Hosts started appearing on late night TV. Many cities around the USA had one – a man or woman whose show began around 11 PM and who ran old horror films from the 1930s. In Boston, sans host, and in an earlier time slot, Creature Double Feature was a huge hit with the smallfry.
Not only did many folks who would never have otherwise seen these old films fall in love with the genre, and get over their fear of the dark, they also went to libraries to seek works like Dracula and Frankenstein, and while doing so discovered terrifying books, such as The Haunting of
Hill House, by Shirley Jackson. Ghost stories, haunted house stories – they remain very popular today, not the gory ones, but the ones that are just downright scary. Interestingly, one place we never look for terrifying tales, the kind that make us look over our shoulder and jump at unexpected noises, is the Bible.
Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain … On the seventh day God called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain.
We’ve all heard this story before – but does it frighten us? Nope! At best we might think that Moses must have been crazy to enter that cloud, but that’s about as far as we take it. We know that this God, the God of the Old Testament, is a God of fear and trembling, a distant God high and exalted. He is a stern judge and a king whose deeds surpass human understanding. We know that the Children of Israel probably trembled when they thought seriously about this God of power and might, of wrath and judgement. But for some reason, we’re comfortable with this God.
Maybe our comfort derives from the fact these are ancient stories. No one here has seen the God of Moses raining down fire or manifesting in the whirlwind. Well, we may have seen fire and wind, but meteorologists have learned how to explain all that to us – nothing to be afraid of there. TS Elliot wrote of the descent of Holy Spirit based on his experience of the bombing of Britain during WW II – but we have not lived through war raging in Everett or Malden. We have not experienced such terror.
Then, too, we can take comfort from the knowledge that ordinary people like us usually are at the bottom of the mountain, not up there at the top like Moses. Better yet, on the very unlikely chance we might be confronted by the God of Moses, the God of fear and trembling, we already know how to act. Bow down before the Lord your God – kneel, make sacrifices, and worship your Creator. We can do that. But the truth is that we’re comfortable because we have become self-assured and complacent, we have found other distractions with which to occupy our minds and lives. No one looks for God or expects to encounter God. There’s nothing scary about God. For us, Bible stories talk about the distant past.
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.
For the disciples, the Presence of God was a daily reality, but one of which they, like us, were unaware. And then, one day, they accompany Jesus up to the top of a mountain – the Biblical imagery for drawing near to God – and the unimaginable happens. We call it the Transfiguration, though the proper translation of the word is metamorphosis.
… And … 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.
The God who had always seemed so distant, the God of their history, was suddenly no longer only an historic memory. They believed in the teachings of their faith. Prophets had revealed God's will, called to His people through Noah and Abraham and Moses and made covenants—contracts -- with them. All this was in their scripture and they had been raised with this knowledge, but it was history. Now, the God who spoke long ago was speaking to them, and their leader and friend was transformed before their eyes.
The disciples did what anyone would do, they fell to the ground trembling with fear. Others might have turned their backs, afraid to look, afraid of what might come next. Surprisingly, there really are some scary stories even in the New Testament, and this certainly is one of them. But on this day, the day in our Gospel reading, we learn that the God of fear and trembling, of whirlwind and fire, had chosen to change things, to do things in a new way.
The new way was and is Jesus. Jesus looks like us, He walks and talks like us, He laughs and cries like us, He bleeds and dies like us. God comes among us as one of us, and Jesus reaches across the gulf of fear and trembling and touches us and says, "Get up. Do not be afraid."
God came among us as one of us that we might see that we, too, are made in the image of God. But something extraordinary, something more than just our human image, happened on the mountain that day.
Jesus’ face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.
And what shone through Him was the Light that is God, the God who is Love.
On that day, Jesus reached out to comfort His disciples, but before He did so, they wisely were afraid. It wasn’t the thrill we get sitting in a movie theater, or as we watch TV, or read a ghost story. It wasn’t safe fear, it was genuine terror. To be in relationship with our Lord, we need to feel awe that touches on fear, we need to be aware the He is God.
The fear of God is the beginning of wisdom, but what is the fear of God? First and foremost, it is a gift, given to us at out baptism through the Holy Spirit. This fear gives us the ability to look at ourselves and see our sins, our very human state. Then, when we do this, we begin to grasp the greatness of the Lord. We see the amazing sacrifice He made in becoming one of us and then, incredibly, dying for our sins.
The realization of the depth of our sins and the depth of Jesus’ sacrifice instills in us for Him a tremendous respect, reverence, and awe. This is an awe that borders on fear, because, though we may have the best and most healthy psychological self-image, once we have looked at our sins we know we cannot be worthy of Jesus’ sacrifice, cannot be worthy of such great love.
Fear of God, as C. S. Lewis describes it, is one filled with awe, in which you "feel wonder and a certain shrinking". It is a fear that comes forth out of love for the Lord.
God is love. That's one of the first verses of Scripture that we each learned and that we teach our children and grandchildren. We say it with ease, but we also need to remember what it looks like.
Love shines. We've all seen it. The eyes are bright with a new sparkle, the smile is radiant, the cheeks aglow. The same is true of a woman pregnant with child. Her love for the baby growing within her shines through her face.
That's how God wants to be seen by us, as love making radiant all of creation; all of it - especially us. God wants us to shine with the light of that love, given to us at baptism by the Holy Spirit, just as Jesus shone on the mountain top, because each one of us, as we walk through our lives, is a moment of Transfiguration for the people we meet. It is through us that God's love shines to fill the world with light.
This Wednesday we enter into the season of Lent, and in some ways it is a scary season, not like the horror movies, but because Lent is when we make the extra time to look at the ways in which we have and do offend God. We are to look and be both afraid and sorry. And it is good, as we begin these forty days of penitence, to remember that the God of fear and trembling has not gone away, but instead has added something new.
As the disciples cowered in fear, during Lent we are meant to be appalled by our sins, but then, instead of retribution from our Heavenly Father, the Love that is God pours through Jesus to us, and Jesus says, “Do not be afraid.” Lent is the season to atone for our sins, to be cleansed of them, that we may shine with the Light that is the Love of God.
Let us pray: (In the words of Mother Teresa)
Dear Jesus, help us to spread Your fragrance everywhere we go. Flood our souls with Your Spirit and Life. Penetrate and possess our whole being so utterly that our lives may only be a radiance of Yours. Shine through us and be so in us that every soul we come in contact with may feel Your presence in our souls. Let them look up, and see no longer us, but only You. This we ask for Your love and mercy’s sake. Amen!