“Fear Not! The Fear of the Unexplainable”
preached at Bay Evangelical Covenant Church, Green Bay, WI
and Christ Community Church (a Christian Reformed Church), Sheboygan, WI,
on March 31, 2019
Old Testament Reading: Exodus 34:29-32
New Testament Reading: Matthew 17:1-9
Dear friends in Christ—
In some ways we modern American Christians are very fortunate. We are free to worship God without fear of persecution or death. We live in a society, that while it can’t be considered a Christian society, reflects at least some of the same concern that we Christians have: a concern for justice; a sense that there is something special, something dignified, about human life; the idea that society should be based on laws. And while we certainly face struggles and concerns, when we compare our lives with those of many Christians around the world and in the past, we’ve got it made; we have plenty to eat, good places to live, and communities where we are welcome and respected.
But sometimes I think there is something we are missing as modern American Christians, something that other Christians in other places have over us. And that is a sense of mystery—the fear and wonder of God.
We see this sense of mystery and wonder in our Scripture texts today. Look at how the Israelites reacted when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the law. Because he had spoken with the Lord, his face was radiant. When Aaron and all the Israelites saw Moses with this radiant face, they knew it had to be related somehow to his being in the presence of God. And so they were afraid to come near him.
And then we read the story of the transfiguration. Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up to a high mountain. In front of their very eyes he changes—he transfigures and his face shines like the sun and his clothes become as white as the light. And Moses and Elijah appear and begin talking to Jesus. Now, at first, the disciples seem to take this in stride. Peter even offers to put up three shelters—three tabernacles for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. But, then, before Peter can act, a bright cloud covers them, and they hear a voice: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” The disciples know that this is the voice of God, and they fall facedown to the ground, terrified. Jesus has to come over and touch them and tell them: “Fear not! Don’t be afraid!”
We’ve lost some of that sense of fear and wonder. Some of that is because of sin. Sin makes us blind to the glory of God. And because we are blind, we live without awe.
But I don’t think it is solely because of sin that we’ve lost that sense of fear and wonder. You see, we modern Christians have a lot of answers. We have the benefit of 20 centuries of Christians who went before us, experiencing the Christian life, studying Scripture and God’s creation, and thinking about the answers to many of the mysteries of the Christian faith. In some ways, that is a good thing. Because of the people who’ve gone before us, we have a better understand of whom God is and of what his gospel message means for us.
Some Christians might be guiltier of this loss of fear and wonder—this sense of mystery—than others. We in the Reformed tradition are often accused of being the “frozen chosen,” or of being “brains on sticks” because of our focus on academic knowledge and our tendency to create intensely detailed systems for explaining the teachings of Scripture. We Reformed folk are not particularly comfortable with mystery and paradox. We prefer systematic theologies and detailed explanations and fear the unexplainable.
I admit it—I resemble that remark. I recognize in myself the tendency to spend hours reading theologians to try to tease out some particular point of theology, without taking even just a few minutes to simply enjoy God in all his incomprehensible nature—in fear and wonder.
Now, not all Christians are quite so intolerant or fearful of mystery and paradox. For example, I’ve really come to appreciate how Lutherans embrace a level of paradox in their theology. For them, what some might see as a contradiction is a beautiful paradox. As another example, charismatic Christians understand that there is a great deal that is mysterious about the Holy Spirit and how he works in the world, and they embrace that mystery And almost all Christians recognize that there is a level of mystery in the nature of the Trinity, or in the virgin birth of Christ, or in Christ’s resurrection.
And yet, we are not always particularly comfortable with mystery and paradox. We fear the unexplainable. We try to come up with explanations.
You see, we like explanations for what happens in our lives. Explanations give us a sense of control, a sense that we are directing the events of our days. When confronted with things that have no explanation, we get scared! We make up explanations and we try to fit them into familiar categories so we don’t have to live with the mystery.
My good friend, Chris Nonhof, introduced me to his favorite poet, Rainer Maria Rilke. Rilke, who was brought up in a Christian environment, wrote in German. While he was not a practicing Christian as an adult, he referred to God and Biblical themes in his poetry in a way even the most orthodox Christians can appreciate. Now, we Americans have this stereotype of Germans as being very practical and very blunt—probably even less open to mystery and paradox than American Christians. But Rilke very much appreciated mystery—his poetry is often described as inherently mystical.
Rilke understood the fear of the unexplainable. He wrote a series of letters that was later published as “Letters to a Young Poet.” There he wrote that “[t]he tendency of people to be fearful of those experiences they…assign to the ‘spirit world,’ including death, has done infinite harm to life… Fear of the unexplainable has not only impoverished our inner lives, but also diminished relations between people.”
Later, in another letter he wrote later in life, Rilke notes that, to him, any understanding of God must include an acceptance of the unexplainable, even when that causes us discomfort or fear.
But it is not just poets who embrace the unexplainable. Article 1 of the Belgic Confession describes God not only as a single and simple spiritual being, but also incomprehensible. And if God is incomprehensible, that means he remains a mystery to us.
There is a reason this idea of God being incomprehensible is at the very beginning of the Belgic Confession. You see, incomprehensibility is related to a key tenet of the Protestant Reformation. That tenet—that teaching—is that the finite cannot contain the infinite—the finite cannot grasp the infinite.
Human beings are finite creatures. We have a beginning and an end. And so our minds always work from a finite perspective. We live finite lives and move on a finite plane. Our very being is finite. But God lives, moves, and has His being in infinity. Our finite understanding cannot contain an infinite subject; thus, God is incomprehensible.
Now, this doesn’t mean we can’t understand God at all. Incomprehensibility doesn’t mean God is completely unknowable. Rather, it means that no one can ever understand everything about God. There will always be things about God that will remain a mystery to us as humans.
So, I’ve spent half a sermon trying to persuade you that we shouldn’t fear the unexplainable, that it is a good thing for there to be some mystery in our relationship with and our understanding of God.
But of course, it is not good enough to rely on mere human poets, or even on human theologians, to make that case. After all, even though poets gain a level of insight on the world because of the understanding God gives all humans—his common grace, they are still merely human. And even though theologians may be interpreting Scripture, they, too, are merely human. As much as we can learn about from God from his creation, from his general revelation to us, we still need Scripture as lenses to help us focus on and understand the truths of God.
If we look at Scripture, though, we can see that the Bible is no stranger to mystery. In the Old Testament we read texts like Job 11, where Job’s friend asks him: “Can you fathom the mysteries of God? Can you probe the limits of the Almighty? They are higher than the heavens above—what can you do? They are deeper than the depths below—what can you know? Their measure is longer than the earth and wider than the sea.”
Later, the prophet Daniel tells King Nebuchadnezzar that “No wise man, enchanter, magician or diviner can explain to the king the mystery he has asked about, 28 but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries.”
In the New Testament, the focus on mystery moves from a general understanding of God’s incomprehensibility to mere humans, and focuses on a very specific mystery: the mystery of God’s purpose to save his people.
The most common meaning of the word “mystery” in the New Testament is one that Paul uses: a Divine truth that was once hidden, but is now revealed in the gospels. In other words, “mystery” refers to God’s secrets, His counsels and purposes which are not known to humans apart from Scripture or direct revelation from God through his prophets and apostles.
In the very last words of his letter to the Romans, Paul lays out exactly what he means by “mystery.” There, he signs off his letter by saying “Now to him who is able to establish you in accordance with my gospel, the message I proclaim about Jesus Christ, in keeping with the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all the Gentiles might come to the obedience that comes from faith—to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.”
The mystery of God’s will is His plan to redeem His people through the death and resurrection of His Son, the way of salvation that we cannot discern from nature but receive by faith alone as the Word of God is proclaimed to us.
And that brings us back to the Transfiguration. If you still have your Bibles open, turn back to the end of Matthew 16, right before the account we read in Matthew 17, and follow along.
Immediately before the account of the Transfiguration, Jesus reveals the mystery of God’s will. He explains the Father’s plan to redeem His people through the death and resurrection of Jesus. It says starting in Matthew 16:21 that “Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.”
Peter didn’t like what he was hearing. He had given up his fishing business to follow Jesus, and he expected that Jesus would act like any other human. He thought Jesus was going to find a way to take political power, to boot the Romans and their collaborators out of Judea, and restore the Jews to power. So “Peter took [Jesus] aside and began to rebuke him. ‘Never, Lord!’ he said. ‘This shall never happen to you!’”
And so “Jesus turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.’” Peter didn’t understand and embrace the mystery of the Gospel, and so he became a stumbling block.
And then Jesus explains the mystery further: “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 25 For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done. Truly I tell you, some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.’”
And then comes the famous account of the Transfiguration. “After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.”
This is a special place, up on a high mountain. In the Bible, when a story takes us up to a mountaintop, it’s a fair bet that something dramatic and important is going to happen.
And it does! Jesus is transfigured. “Transfigured” is kind of a weird word. We purposely use the word “transfigured” instead of “transformed.” Jesus was transfigured; he was not transformed. “Transfigured” implies a revealing of one’s true nature, whereas “transformation” implies a changing—a remaking—of the nature of the thing being transformed. Jesus was transfigured—his true nature was revealed. His disciples were granted a vision of who he really is: truly divine, the true Son of God whom the Father sees and loves. The disciples were finally able to see through the husk of his body to the soul of his being and power.
And yet, Peter still doesn’t totally understand the mystery of the Gospel. He sees that Christ is truly divine. Peter sees the humanity of Jesus suffused with the eternal glory of God, and in that instant Peter glimpses the incomprehensible mystery of our faith: that God became human so that humanity might become like God. He is amazed by what he sees, and while he doesn’t really understand this mystery, he understands that this is something worth preserving. So “Peter said to Jesus, ‘Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.’”
The actual Greek word for shelters also means tabernacles. It is also the same base word used in the Gospel of John when John tells us that the Word made flesh made his dwelling among us—he “tabernacled” among us. Peter wants to build tabernacles.
The Tabernacle in ancient Israel, of course, had been the temporary home of God before the building of the Temple in Jerusalem. In a sense, Peter wanted to capture the glory of God in a kind of latter-day tabernacle right there on that mountaintop. Maybe they could move those glory-filled tabernacles, just like the Israelites used to pack up and move the original Tabernacle to a new place—maybe even all the way to the Temple in Jerusalem. And maybe when they did that, the temple would be filled with Christ’s glory, ushering in the kingdom of God once and for all.
But that isn’t what happens. “While [Peter] was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!’”
“Listen to him!” Not “look at him!” Not “remember the glory you’ve seen today!” No, “listen to him!” Listen to the mystery he is revealing to you! Listen to his plan for salvation. Listen to what he is actually saying when he preaches to the crowds or when he talks to you about what must happen in the coming days. As you remember the glory that amazed you, listen to Christ’s instructions to you his apostles, to who are being given the job to proclaim to the world this mystery of the Word made flesh who tabernacled among us, the mystery of God’s plan of salvation, the mystery of the Gospel.
“When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. “Get up,” he said. ‘Don’t be afraid.’ When they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, ‘Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.’”
Fear not! Don’t be afraid.
Peter did not get to build his little tents to hold in the glory of it all. But as John understood years later when composing his own gospel account, Peter didn’t need to build that tent. The real tabernacle containing the glory of God was still right in front of him. Jesus himself, in his human form, contained the glory of God. And from the overflow of that humble tent of glory, the whole earth really would eventually become filled with the knowledge of the glory of God!
And so the disciples have no need to fear! And neither do we. The transfiguration reminds us that while we may never fully understand God’s plan for salvation—that it will always remain at some level a mystery—we can rely on it. God’s glory came to earth, and it will come again as well. And when it comes again, mystery upon mystery, we too will reflect the glory and brightness of Christ.
And there is yet another mystery, something else that is unexplainable. Our bodies, which today are perishable, dishonorable, and weak due to sin, will be glorified, made imperishable, honorable, and powerful. We won’t simply be transfigured, but we will be transformed.
And so, while death remains a mystery, we can look at it differently, without fear. Martin Luther put it this way: “This appearance [of Christ’s glorified body at the Transfiguration] teaches us also that we should despise death, and look upon it merely as an emigration or a sleep. In short, this appearance proves that this life is nothing at all in comparison with the future life.
“What do we have to fear in death when Jesus shines like the sun for you and is white as light to enlighten you to what He has done on your behalf?... There is nothing to fear in life or death when you compare it to the future life our Father has in store for you through Jesus Christ, our Lord.”
Fear not! The Gospel mystery shines out in the Transfiguration. It previews Jesus’ resurrection, which guarantees that His death truly did atone for the sin of the world. And it previews our glorification in the new heavens and the new earth. Praise the Lord--he overcame death and sin, and He did it for you! Amen.
 Paul Tripp, “The Problem of Living Without Awe” https://www.christianity.com/christian-life/spiritual-growth/the-problem-of-life-without-wonder.html
 Quoted by Maria Popova at https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/02/27/a-year-with-rilke-unexplainable/, frin a review of A Year with Rilke: Daily Readings from the Best of Rainer Maria Rilke, by Joanna Macy.
 Daniel 2:27-28
 Romans 16:25-27
 1 Corinthians 1:18-25
 Matthew 16:22
 Romans 16:26
 Matthew 17:1-2
 Matthew 17:4
 Matthew 17:5
 Matthew 17:6-9
 1 Corinthians 15:42-44
 Luther’s Explanatoruy Notes on the Gospels, 101, quoted at https://lutheranreformation.org/theology/luther-on-the-transfiguration/
 Rev. Stephen K. Preus, at https://lutheranreformation.org/theology/luther-on-the-transfiguration/