Last week, my wife and sister-in-law were watching the Miss USA pageant. This might be closer to terrifying stuff. There for the whole world to see a young woman shrieks, cries, and is given roses and a tiara or whatever they give to this young woman. Usually you can see her hands and face trembling as the full import is realized – I'm Miss USA. But still, being crowned Miss USA probably doesn't genuinely terrify a person, again, perhaps this is because it doesn't just happen. You enter a beauty pageant, and believe me, looking that good for that long takes a lot of advance work. You plan for these things.
I think true and genuine terror comes from those things that find us unprepared, the things that come without a hint of warning. You've all been to movies where the music gets scary and you know that something evil is going to happen – and that's not terrifying. The terrifying movies are the ones where the music doesn't give away the monster hiding in plain sight – the ones where the entire audience jumps because they weren't prepared for what was coming. You can't plan for those things – and they are truly terrifying.
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Now, step back in time with me, back almost 2,000 years, to a small second story room in Jerusalem. Seven days ago you and your friends watched with great joy as Jesus of Nazareth, your teacher and friend, rode into Jerusalem like a conquering hero. People waved palm branches to welcome him and laid their coats at His feet to honor Him. You had been with Him for three years as He walked the Galilean countryside. He healed the sick. He welcomed the outcasts. He taught the people what it means to truly live in the love of God. His followers grew and grew, and everywhere He went, you got the feeling that God was doing marvelous, wondrous things through Him. Finally, Jesus turned toward Jerusalem, and you thought that surely, He was the Messiah, God's Anointed One, the Christ, and maybe, just maybe, the restoration of Israel was about to take place, and the new Kingdom of God was about to be born.
But something happened during that week in Jerusalem. The high priests didn't welcome Jesus the way the crowds of Galilee had welcomed Him. Every word He spoke seemed to anger the priests more and more, and they began to whisper among themselves whenever Jesus was teaching in the Temple. Finally you realized that the Pharisees and Sadducees and all the other high officials of the Temple were beginning to plan against Jesus, and you began to feel worried for Him.
But when that plan was put into action, your worries turned out to be not nearly strong enough. They actually came and arrested Jesus, charged Him with treason against Rome and blasphemy against God, and convinced the governor to execute Him. They nailed Him to a cross like the worst criminal. But that wasn't the worst of it. The worst was this: you ran away. You had to hear how your beloved Jesus died from the lips of a stranger, because you were hiding in fear for your own life. You and all your friends abandoned Jesus because you were afraid the Romans would do the same to you if they caught you with Jesus.
So here you sit, in this upper room where you shared your last meal with Jesus before He was arrested and executed. On Friday, He was crucified and buried, and now it's Sunday night. Simon Peter and some of the women have said that Jesus' body is gone, and that two men in blinding white robes told them the incredible: "Jesus is risen!" Just a few minutes ago, two of your fellow disciples came running back from Emmaus and said they had actually seen Jesus, had walked several miles with Him on the road. You're amazed and suspicious and scared and confused about what all of this means.
All of a sudden, in the middle of this quiet room with its locked doors and its flickering candles, Jesus is here. No sound of warning – no knocking at the door – not even a rustle of His robes as He enters the room – He's just here, materializing out of thin air, and some of your friends don't even notice Him until He speaks. "Shalom alechem," He says: "Peace be with you."
Now you know what it means to be terrified. Jesus came out of nowhere and greeted you, His friends. The friends who had abandoned Him in the garden of Gethsemane. The friends who had left Him to die alone. The friends who even now are still afraid of what might happen if you are identified as Jesus' friends. It just happened to you, without any warning, and so you are terrified.
But look at how Jesus addresses you, terrified though you may be. He makes no mention of blame or anger for your abandoning Him. In fact, Jesus only mentions His death because you are looking at Him as if He were a ghost. To put your doubts and fears to rest, Jesus invites you to come and see just how alive He really is. "Come and touch me," Jesus says, "and see that I am still flesh and bone. I am no ghost – I am alive again!" Finally, just when you're starting to think that this is too good to be true, that there's no way He actually might be alive, Jesus sits down and blesses you by sharing a meal with you. He actually eats your fish as if He's hungry – and who knows, perhaps His hunger is as real as the wounds on His hands and feet?
But this is not enough for Jesus. Your mind and your heart are reeling with what's happened in the last few days, but Jesus isn't done rocking your world just yet. He begins talking about the scriptures, just like He's always done, and yet this time it's different. He opens your mind to understand what has happened and what's going to happen. This time you begin to understand everything He says to you. You begin to believe that all the things Jesus said and did weren't accidents, but planned from the beginning, and that even the cross was part of it all along. You get the sense that Jesus knew it was coming, that Jesus knew the church would reject Him, that Jesus knew you wouldn't be strong enough to stand with Him, and that even though He knew all of these things, He wouldn't have done it any other way.
It isn't the power of His argument that persuades you. It isn't the way Jesus can quote chapter and verse of the law of Moses, the prophets and the psalms. It isn't the logical proof that He offers that convinces you. What convinces you is Jesus Himself. Your mind and heart believe what Jesus is saying because it is Jesus who says it, and that's all that matters to you. Slowly, your terror begins to fade, and what replaces it is a feeling that your life itself is being changed by His words, by His promises, and that what you're seeing here will transform your life forever. In the small space of this upper room, in the presence of Jesus of Nazareth, your beloved friend and teacher, the One who was crucified and now has risen, God is creating faith where there was none before. You have been moved from terror to transformation.
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How does Jesus move the disciples from terror to transformation? Through experience. He reminds them of everything that happened to them while He was with them and reminds them that His ministry was about loving people, forgiving sins, changing lives, not destroying politicians or building bigger temples or even nation-building. It's not a question of knowing enough scripture or acting right or having your doctrine all wrapped up in a neat little package. The transformation that God offers comes through experiencing God's presence, through knowing that in our times of terror and confusion we are never alone. The transformation comes through living under the promises of God, through abiding in the love of Christ and in that love alone.
If I or any other pastor ever stand in this pulpit and tell you that faith in Jesus Christ means the end of suffering and death, you should run screaming. If I or any other pastor ever stand in this pulpit and tell you that faith in Jesus Christ means things never change, that you'll never be surprised again, that the things you love will always remain just as they are, you should come to the next Council meeting and demand that pastor's resignation. Faith in Jesus Christ is embodied by transformation. Or, as one of my fellow pastors put it this week in our text study, "if you come to believe you should expect to be changed!"
John's letter to his beloved community tells us that this is what happens when we come to believe. "what we will be has not yet been revealed." But notice how John starts this part of his letter: "Behold what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God; and that is what we are." The moment God calls you His child, you are changed forever. It's not a matter of earning that adoption – it's a matter of coming to believe more and more that we are actually God's children, and then acting out of what we believe.
I'm not terrified anymore by the thought of God transforming me, and I'm not terrified by the thought of a future that is different than what I had planned. As the saying goes, "the best way to make God laugh is to start making plans." What terrifies me is the thought that a day might come when I will no longer be transformed by God's love. What terrifies me is the thought that a day might come when I will be so separated from God that I can no longer believe that God loves me. What terrifies me is the thought that a day might come when I might think that I must find God instead of God continually searching for me. But because I believe that God has created me and knows me better than I know myself, I believe that God continues to move and work and shape my life in such a way that my terror becomes my transformation, that the fears I have become the very things that God and I survive together so that I might believe in Him more deeply still.
What terrifies you? What uncertainties rise to cause you to be afraid? Trust, my friends, and know that your hope in Jesus Christ will not leave you unfulfilled, and believe more strongly still that in the midst of your terror, God will appear and will give you the words you so desperately need to hear: "Peace be with you." This peace, which truly does surpass all human understanding, will transform you and the world in which you live, and take you beyond all that terrifies you, accompanied by the one who holds your future carefully, gently, in His scarred, pierced hands. Amen.