United Presbyterian Church of West Orange

"Don't Be Afraid"
Dr. Daniel Migliore
February 26, 2017

Mt. 17: 1-8

          On the church calendar, this is Transfiguration Sunday.  So our text this morning is the Gospel story of the transfiguration of our Lord.  We are told that on a mountain top, and in the presence of Peter, James, and John, Jesus was transfigured.  His face shone like the sun, and his clothing became dazzling white.   Often when we hear this story, our reaction is: What in the world are we supposed to make of this puzzling episode?   Equally baffling:  what could it possibly have to do with us today, here in West Orange and on February 26, 2017?  Well, sometimes a difficult passage of Scripture may, if we look more closely, encounter us as the very word of God.  Perhaps this may happen in this very hour as we ponder this story of Jesus’ transfiguration and ask what gift it offers and what claims it makes on us in the situation we all find ourselves today.  So meditate with me on the words of Jesus found at the center of the transfiguration account: “Don’t be afraid.” 

        “Don’t be afraid”—that was God’s message through the angels to the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth.  “Don’t be afraid” –that was Jesus’s message to the disciples when their boat began to sink in a storm.  “Don’t be afraid” –that was the message of the risen Lord to the women at the tomb on Easter morning.  “Don’t be afraid”—that’s the message of Jesus to the three disciples after his transfiguration when his face shone brighter than the sun. 

        Why would the disciples be afraid after seeing the transfigured Jesus?  Was it because he had for a moment appeared to them as the very presence of God in human form?  Does not Scripture tell us that even a brief glimpse of the glory of God can make sinful beings tremble?  Maybe this is part of the reason for their fear, but I think more is involved. 

       Just before Jesus was transfigured, he tells his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem where he will suffer and die.  He then adds that all who want to be his disciples must be willing to take up their cross and follow him.   Soon after Jesus is transfigured, he repeats his prediction of his coming suffering and death.  In other words, this story of the transfiguration of Jesus has a frightening prelude and a frightening postlude.  So it’s not only the fact that the disciples had for a moment witnessed Jesus in all his glory that makes them afraid.  For the evangelist who tells the story, the transfiguration of Jesus and his message “Don’t be afraid,” occur right in between Jesus’s twice repeated word that the redemption of the world will be costly to him and in a different way will prove costly to all his disciples too.  Any wonder that the disciples were afraid?  Wouldn’t we be afraid?  Jesus recognizes their fear--and our fear-- and says, “Don’t be afraid.” 

          So this morning I’m asking you to keep in mind the Gospel context of the  story of the transfiguration of Jesus.  When we hear it this way, we will discover that it is a story that speaks to the fear that we, like the first disciples, experience from time to time as followers of Jesus.  Many Gospel stories cause us to rejoice and sing hallelujah.   But the transfiguration story, in the context in which it appears in the Gospels, speaks to our fear as disciples of Jesus.  It speaks to our fear about the cost of discipleship, the cost of being disciples of the crucified Lord of glory.  The transfiguration of Jesus is a revelation of the glory of God who gives himself even to death on the cross for our salvation and the salvation of the world.  Like the Easter appearances of Jesus, the transfiguration is a special assurance to the disciples that, whatever the future brings, they can have confidence that Jesus, the crucified one, is indeed the Lord of glory.  The face of Jesus who will be crucified becomes bright as the sun, and he says to the disciples: “Stand up.  Don’t be afraid.”   

        Let’s face it.  We live in a time of fear.  I’m sure you have noticed that anxiety and fear are on the rise in our society.  You encounter it everywhere.  You meet it in the newspaper articles you read.  It appears in the images on the tv evening news.  Fear lurks in many of the ordinary conversations people have today when they meet on the street or at work.  It’s even present in the words of leaders of Christian churches and in the conversations people have after worship services.  Fear is certainly evident in many messages we receive from the White House.  Who does not know that there are millions of undocumented immigrants in our country, the vast majority of whom have not committed any serious crime, and many of them are afraid?   And let’s be honest, we who are gathered here this morning are afraid too--afraid for these immigrants, and afraid for ourselves too  because Jesus has told us that Christian discipleship sometimes exerts a cost.  

         Now fear is by no means always a bad thing.  Fear is a natural human reaction to a perceived danger.  When you see a multi-colored snake moving among the rose bushes you are pruning, your immediate reaction is one of fear.  When you hear weather reports that tornados are possible in your area and you see the sky above you filled with dark, swirling clouds, you are understandably afraid, and if wise, you will take necessary steps to protect yourself.  When you approach a train crossing, and you can see or hear a train drawing near, you do not press down on the accelerator and speed across the tracks.  You are rightly afraid that you may not make it safely across.  When a pregnant woman hears that the Zika mosquito is rampant in an area where she has planned to vacation, she naturally fears for herself and for the new life inside her, and she decides to vacation elsewhere.  So fear can be a good thing.  It’s an alert signal built into us by nature.  It’s a survival instinct.  We might even say it’s an unappreciated gift of God to warn us of danger.

        But like every gift of God, the fear response can get badly distorted.  It can get out of control.  The desire for pleasurable bodily experiences is part of our human nature as created by God.  But if we allow this desire to get out of control, if we, for example, feed and amplify it with powerful drugs, the desire for a scintillating high can eventually master us and do us and others great harm.  Aspiring to be successful, to become good at something you enjoy doing, is innocent and praiseworthy.  But if you aspire to succeed at any cost to yourself or others, if you are willing to succeed by cheating or ignoring the needs of your neighbors, the drive to succeed becomes something destructive rather than something creative.  Like the wholesome pleasures of our bodily senses, or the innocent desire to be successful in what we do, fear can become our master rather than our helper. 

        My friends, I’m old enough to remember the early years of the cold war, when the possibility of atomic  warfare seemed imminent and almost inevitable.  School children were instructed how to huddle under their classroom seats for protection.  Families were advised to build underground atomic-bomb shelters on their property and to stock them with food, water, and flashlights.  A culture of fear was awash in the country.

         Now another wave of fear, even hysteria, is spreading in our communities and sadly, even among many Christian folk.  This time it’s not primarily the threat of nuclear warfare, which is still all too real.  Instead, this time the fear is generated by the presence of many undocumented immigrants in our midst and the coming of still other immigrants to our shore, many of them refugees from war torn countries.  These refugees are mostly of a different ethnic makeup than many of us here this morning.  Many of them do not speak English well.  They are mostly of a different religious faith than we confess.  But they are homeless, weary, and needy people--some of them are children and older folk—all are refugees seeking our help, hoping for our welcome, and wanting to begin life anew among us.  We are told to be afraid, and we give in to the fear, that lurking among these immigrants are those who plot to do us great harm.       

            Now before uttering one more word, let me be as clear as possible about why I say the things I do this morning.  I do not speak to you from this pulpit today as a Republican or a Democrat.  I do not speak to you as a conservative or a liberal.  If you want to know where I find myself on those topics, ask me at coffee hour.  But here, in this pulpit, I speak to you as a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ, trying to understand how this mysterious story of the transfiguration of Jesus speaks to us today.  That’s why I am asking: In what way are these words of Jesus as he comes down from the mount of transfiguration—“Don’t be afraid”-- the Word of God to us here and now?   I’m not interested in scoring a political point.  Instead, my concern is that all of us ask ourselves: What is the cost of discipleship when you try to follow a transfigured Lord who gives himself for us and for all people even unto death on a cross?  By what light will we as followers of Jesus be guided as we come to terms with the issue of mass migration in our time?  Will we let our fears master us, or will we let the light that shines from the face of the transfigured Jesus illumine our dark, fear-consumed world?  Will we let the transfigured one say to us, “Don’t be afraid?” 

         Now, I well know there are serious arguments going on about what we should think and do about the new reality of global, massive migration today.  I for one do not think all the truth is only on one side of the argument.  There is surely some truth on the side of those who say every society has right to protect itself from people who intend to do it harm.  And it is also true that the constitution of our nation gives to the President the power to put in place policies that are intended to insure the safety of its citizens.  But there is also truth on the side of those who say ours is a society that has welcomed immigrants and benefited enormously from their presence.  It is also true that the very first article of the Bill of Rights of the constitution guards the freedom of religion, and stands opposed to discrimination against people, whether in immigration policies or otherwise, on the basis of race, gender, national origin, religious conviction, or lack of it.  We can be certain that these arguments will continue to engage us in the days ahead.  They are needful in a democratic society.  They should go on in our classrooms, in our courts, on the streets, and yes, in our churches too. 

        And in our churches and our Bible Classes, the conversation will have an additional component.  If it is Christian, the conversation will necessarily ask what difference following Jesus Christ makes in how we think and how we act on this burning issue of our time.  So I make no pretext this morning of being able to resolve all the complex questions the realities of mass immigration have thrust upon us today.  No, I am simply pondering with you the message of the transfigured Jesus. It’s not on the basis of the New York Times or of Fox News but on the basis of the scriptural text of this morning that I ask you to ponder with me the simple question: Will we let fear totally control us as needy immigrants knock on our national door?  It is surely reasonable to be concerned about safety, but can we ever attain complete safety from every conceivable danger in any domain of our life?  It is surely reasonable to refuse to take unnecessary risks, but can we remove all risk in life without suffocating it?  So I ask you as I ask myself: What frame of mind, what spiritual orientation, what kind of faith, what condition of the heart, do we bring to our encounter with the world-wide, massive movement of immigration today?  What deep convictions motivate us, what bright light is guiding us--we who confess Jesus Christ the crucified one as Lord--as we take part in these discussions and arguments, and come to our decisions?  Is it the radiant light from the face of the transfigured Jesus who tells us:  Follow me, do not be afraid? 

         My friends, stories of migration, stories of the movements of people to seek a new and better life, are deeply embedded in the Bible.  Recall that the people of Israel were migrants from slavery in Egypt.  Recall that these people when they arrived in their homeland were reminded by their prophets that they should be hospitable to strangers in their midst because they too were once strangers in a foreign land.  Recall that Joseph and Mary with their infant baby, the one who would become the Savior of the world, fled to safety in another country because King Herod, out of fear that enemies were plotting to overthrow him, decreed that all Hebrew children under two were to be destroyed.  Recall that in his ministry Jesus traveled into foreign territories like Samaria.  And ponder his final journey from Galilee to Jerusalem: can we compare it to an immigrant entering a strange land, a land where he will at first be welcomed but then eventually executed.     

         And after recalling these things, ask yourself the deepest question of all.  What is the God of the biblical witness really like, and in particular what does this God have to do with the movement we call immigration?  I think the Apostle Paul gives us the answer to this question.  He tells us that “Although Christ was one with God, for our sake he humbled himself, emptied himself, became one of us, and was obedient even to death on a cross.”  If we want a contemporary translation of these words of Paul, I cannot think of a better one than this:  God in Christ emigrated from the eternal domain of God and, lived, died, and was raised to new life for our sake?   The triune God we worship and adore is the God who for the salvation of the world became an emigrant.   

       Make no mistake, emigration is a fearful business.  It’s fearful for the emigrant who is moving from the familiar to the strange and the unknown.  It’s fearful for those into whose territory the emigrants are moving because the emigrants are strangers to the new land and whatever is strange unsettles us and awakens our fear.  So we should have no illusions: The reality of immigration is bound to mean things will be different.  Things will change.  Yes, and there will be some risks.  Yes, and there will be costs for all involved that will have to be borne. 

        The question is only: How should we think about these changes, these risks, and these costs?  Who will guide us?  What principles will steer our way?  Will there be any light for our thinking and acting on these matters in the weeks and months and years ahead.  That’s what I am asking this morning: Do we have a bright light in the darkness of our world that will guide us?  Will it be the light of the glory of God that shone so brightly in the face of Jesus when in coming down from the mountain of transfiguration he said to his disciples, “Stand up.  Do not be afraid.”            

         A few weeks ago, Nicholas Kristof, a columnist for the New York Times, told the story of his father, Wladyslaw Krzystofowicz.  His father was raised in Rumania in an area that is now part of the Ukraine.  He was imprisoned by the Nazis during WW II as a spy for the Allies.  Some of his relatives died in the Auschwitz concentration camp.  He fled the Soviet regime after the war, and eventually met an American woman in France who convinced her family back in Portland, Oregon, to encourage the First Presbyterian Church in that city to sponsor him as a refugee to America.  And so it happened that Wladyslaw Krzystofowicz was welcomed to this country and became a thankful and industrious citizen.    

           Recently his son, Nicholas Kristof, visited the First Presbyterian Church of Portland to thank the congregation for all that they had done for his father and indeed for the entire family.  At the end of the meeting, a woman rose to ask if he had any advice for the congregation.  They were, she explained,  now discussing the possibility of sponsoring a Syrian emigrant.  Kristof’s response was: “More power to you.”  He might also have chosen the words spoken by Jesus on a mountain top many years ago, his face shining as bright as the sun:  “Don’t be afraid.”