Matthew 17:1-9

The Rev. Helen Havlik   –   Lent 5   –   April 7, 2019

What are you afraid of? Do you wake up in the night with anxious thoughts racing through your mind? What won’t you do because you’re afraid? Does fear get in the way of your loving God and loving neighbor? Lent is the 40 days before Easter where we think about where we’re falling short in faith so that we can keep moving toward God. This year we’re looking at what Jesus says and does about fear—so that we can “fear less.” Our reading from Matthew, Ch. 17, is a story about the mystery of God, where a number of unexplainable things take place and the disciples are understandably afraid. Listen with me to God’s holy word.

While fighting whatever bug I’ve had the last couple of weeks, I’ve spent a lot of time tuned into the Food Network and Hallmark Movies & Mysteries. Combining those two themes, I was glad to find Murder, She Baked, where Hannah, the amateur detective, owns a bakery in Eden Lake, Minnesota. Considering the size of the town, a lot of people wind up murdered—and Hannah is right in the middle of it, trying to figure out whodunit. I’ve heard that one reason mystery fiction is so popular is that it makes us feel more in control, like life isn’t so random and things will make sense eventually if you can just untangle all the clues. So at the end of a good James Patterson novel, we feel satisfied because the murderer has been found and brought to justice and everything is right with the world. Of course, we know it isn’t. Not everything in real life has an explanation. Some mysteries we have to live with—and that can be hard and that can be scary.

That night on the mountain, the disciples are in the midst of a mystery worthy of Agatha Christie. And they don’t get what’s going on and they are scared. Peter (maybe he’s a Movies & Mysteries fan?) tries to make sense of things by offering to set up tents. He puts two and two together and comes up with three—most of the amateur “detectives” I’ve been watching jump to a lot of incorrect conclusions. Maybe it was the coach because he was seen arguing with the victim; maybe it was the banker because what’s up with that creative accounting? It’s just human nature to make snap decisions about people based not so much on actual evidence as on who we are and what we’ve experienced. We make “educated guesses” about people all the time because of what they’re wearing, how they speak, the car they drive. The thing with snap decisions is we run the risk of not seeing reality clearly, of asking too much or of not asking enough. Of maybe missing a blessing God wants to give us through another person. Sometimes what’s more important is that we just experience something instead of trying to explain it. Maybe we don’t have to explain and understand everything? Maybe we can replace our fears with trust?

But how? There’s a lot we don’t know but maybe looking at what we do know about Jesus, unraveling a bit of the mystery of who he is, can help us trust more and fear less. First, we know he came to help everyone, not to harm anyone. At the beginning of Matthew’s gospel, John the Baptist appeared to expect a firebrand Messiah with blazing eyes, ax in one hand, pitchfork in the other, spewing what we’d call “hellfire and brimstone.” John expected Jesus to gather the wheat and burn the chaff, but Matthew shows us that Jesus was a compassionate healer who put his own needs on hold to attend to people who needed help. We could excuse John for his conclusion. He lived at a time when the God of Israel wasn’t the only god in town. The Greeks and Romans and Canaanites and others worshiped a whole host of selfish, capricious and sometimes vicious gods who demanded obedience and sacrifice—or else. Even the God of Israel was often worshipped out of fear rather than love. So why not expect the Messiah of God to come wielding power against us rather than for us? Instead, Matthew shows us a humble, obedient savior, who directs God’s power to heal rather than harm.

Second, Jesus shows us how to be who we really are. Jesus could have done everything he did without any disciples. He still can do everything without our help. But Jesus calls us anyway, even when the evidence may be against us. He tells us that we’re the salt of the earth and the light of the world. He tells us that, among other things, his followers don’t seek revenge, they turn the other cheek. That it’s not good enough just to love your neighbor—he wants us, his followers, to love our enemies, too, and pray for those who persecute us. And he gives us work to do—“you feed them,” he told the disciples when all they had was two fish and five loaves for a crowd of 5,000. He holds up the mirror and shows us ourselves, warts and all, and then whispers in our ears, as God did in his, “You are my beloved.” That’s who we really are, God’s beloved, and Jesus challenges us to live accordingly.

And third, Jesus came to include rather than exclude. He came to make the circle bigger than we ever expected, whether we’re talking about lepers or tax collectors—or any number of people who still don’t get invited to sit at his table because of what they do for a living or where they’re from, whom they love and how they worship. From Matthew and the other gospel writers, we learn that Jesus heals anyone who needs to be healed, he never lets anyone go hungry. He doesn’t make distinctions between who is “in” and who is “out” or who does or doesn’t deserve help. In fact, he himself chooses to be “out” so that we can be “in.” And he reminds us that, ironically, since none of us deserves his help, everyone does. Look carefully at the gospels, especially Matthew, and it’s clear that his miracles know no bounds and his welcome makes no distinctions.

All the clues point to Jesus helping not harming, including not excluding, showing us who we are and whose we are. And just when we think we have him figured out and think we know exactly what to expect, there he is on top of a mountain, shining bright as the sun, a glorious mystery. There he is giving his life for us on the cross. We’re not on a mountaintop this morning but as we worship around this table and share a holy and mysterious meal, we can see for ourselves that even when clouds roll in and we feel disoriented and cut adrift, he alone is here, now, steadfast, constant. Whatever else we might expect or questions we may continue to have, we can fear less because he is the One who reaches out a hand to us and says, “Be not afraid.”

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