Like many other preachers I’ve been looking at Matthew’s gospel’s account of the transfiguration of Jesus this week. Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a mountain. At the top his face starts shining like the sun and his clothes become dazzling white. Moses and Elijah appear and stand talking to him. Finally a voice speaks from a cloud telling the disciples they should listen to Jesus because he is the beloved son of the speaker with whom the speaker is well pleased. At this point the disciples are overcome with terror and fall on the floor. Jesus comes and touches them, he is now alone, he tells them not to be afraid. The four descend from the mountain again.
There are a variety of possible themes and topics in this extraordinary passage but what’s held my attention this week is the disciples’ fear. This is clearly (to me) the fear of God that is the beginning of wisdom. Their terror is occasioned by the direct encounter with the Lord, whose voice it is that they hear. They have gone up the mountain with Jesus to meet God and when they do they are overcome by fear.
So what’s so frightening about God? Is it that they think they have done something particular to deserve or provoke God’s anger? This doesn’t seem likely to me. After all these three have abandoned everything to follow Jesus who has announced the coming of God’s kingdom. God’s command to them is to listen to Jesus, which they have dedicated their lives to doing. If God is well pleased with Jesus it seems unlikely that he is going to be especially wrathful with regards to Jesus’ closest followers.
The disciple’s fear must be simply fear of God. God is scary just by virtue of being God. Many of the warnings about meetings with the Lord in the Old Testament imply this. Exodus 33:12-20 is an excellent example. God tells Moses that he is particularly pleased with him in v17 but then in v20 refuses Moses’ request that he (Moses) might see God’s glory because “no one may see me and live”. This is not, I think, along the lines of “if I told you I’d have to kill you” but rather a statement of fact. In the same way no-one could live unprotected in a vacuum no-one can live in the direct and full presence of God. It would simply be fatal to see Him.
It is also clear that this is not necessarily and always the case. One of the peculiar things about the stories about the Garden of Eden is that in them God is so straightforwardly present. There are also stories in the patriarchal narratives about meetings between Abraham and Jacob/Israel and God. When we get to Exodus, though, this is all behind us. Moses has close brushes with the Lord but cannot see him.
Human beings and God have got to a point where they can’t really be in the same place. Hence the Tabernacle and the Temple as places where this can be managed and made safe, where God can come into touch with his people without destroying them. These places become the centre of the Universe as the point at which its meaning and purpose can be fulfilled.
If we accept that our relationship with God is the most important thing about us, which I do, then this is disturbing. To go fully into what we are for, what we are about, being the image of God, implies a vision of someone whom to see is to die. We can’t be ourselves safely, to grow into our vocation might seem to be to risk destruction by an encounter with the one whose presence is fatal.
To get a sense of where to go with that desperate thought it might be worth speculating on why God is so dangerous to us, what it is that we fear. It is more than mere death, I think. In face of God we would be confronted with the fact that we are already, have always been, nothing. If we become something only in so far as we fulfill our purpose of representing God and if we have been failing and refusing that task then we have chosen nothingness always and already, this is “original sin”.
What we most fear, I think, is the recognition of our own emptiness and meaninglessness. To meet God is to be unable to avoid it. It is a deep existential terror because it has within it the truth of our being.
There is good news, though. The disciples survive and Jesus dispels their fear. In him they see the possibility of a humanity restored, the image of God fully present, so fully present as to be God. In the new Adam all is made right. After that hilltop experience they have come through the worst that could befall them and in hearing the story we can be reassured that with Jesus as companion we too can, if not see God’s face, at least hear his voice. We too can move forward in faith towards the realisation of our purpose.