The Sundays following our celebration of the Epiphany, that is the coming of the Magi, which is on January 6th, until the Sunday prior to Ash Wednesday. These Sundays, make up the Season of Epiphany. The season of Epiphany is about the revelation of Christ as it was given to us in and through the life and teachings of Jesus. Throughout this season of revelation we have been coming to a better understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus by looking at the Sermon on the Mount. In these teachings, Jesus has been revealing to us about what it looks like to be one of his disciples.
As we come to this final Sunday of the season, we remember the time when Jesus took a hand full of his disciples up on a mountain and was transfigured before their eyes, in what has come to be known as the Transfiguration, making today “Transfiguration Sunday”.
As the Season of Epiphany comes to a close, the transfiguration serves as one final story of revelation. In the transfiguration we, along with a select few disciples, see Jesus revealed as the Holy one of God, the Messiah. The transfiguration is the event in the life of Jesus with which we choose to use as the conclusion the season of the revelatory Season of Epiphany, and begin our move into the season of Lent and ultimately points us forward to our celebration of the Resurrection.
In this passage, Jesus takes his disciples up on a mountain. In the Old Testament, the mountain-top was a place where people “met God” so to speak. Abraham takes Isaac up on the mountain where God provided the ram for the sacrifice. Moses went up to the mountain where he received the covenant as well as the 10 commandments. Elisha had an encounter with God in the silence he found while in a cave at the top of the mountain.
This is also not the first time; an encounter with God resulted in a person’s visage changing, as Jesus’ does here. When Moses went up on the mountain when he returned to speak to the people he had to cover his face because it was shining with the glory of God and was reported to have the appearance like that of the Sun. Radiating the reflected glory of God is a sign of an encounter with God.
The Disciples see Jesus talking with Moses and Elijah, two other people who also encountered God on a mountain. Different gospels will use the same events to highlight different themes. Other Gospels use this encounter to show that Jesus’ teachings are a continuation of and built upon the Law and the prophets. This is hardly necessary in Matthew, particularly for the reasons expounded upon in last week’s sermon. Last week we walked through a day in the life of Jesus, after which the disciples worshipped Jesus as the Son of God. So the question is why these two people of all the people who ever lived? We begin to answer this question by knowing it was commonly believed at the time this gospel was written that these two figures both ascended into heaven without dying. We have a biblical account of Elijah’s ascension. And it is most believers in the first century believed Moses did not die on the Mountain overlooking the Promised Land but that instead Moses ascended to be with God, rather than having died.
So what the disciples see here is Jesus glowing as if he was shining with the glory of God and standing, talking to two others who also encountered God, were believed to have gone to be with God instead of having died as all other have done. We then have Peter overwhelmed with the situation stepping forward and offering to make shelters for them there on the mountain. Other Gospels explain that Peter did this because he did not understand, but Matthew leaves this out. Matthew’s implication is that Peter understood, at least in part. For Matthew it is important that the disciples understand, because this is not a revelation TO Jesus. Jesus understands who he is. This is a revelation of Jesus’ divinity TO the disciples. Although the disciples have seen Jesus as the Son of Man, they do not yet fully understand who he truly is. But for the first time, here on the Mountain, they get it. Peter understands (at least in part), there Jesus is shining with the light of God’s glory, communicating with Moses and Elisha and Peter wants to commemorate this great revelation of what he believes to be the fullness of God in Christ Jesus. What he does not understand, is that he has not seen the revelation of Christ’s glory in its fullness, which can only be seen in the resurrection.
And as if this revelation is not enough a voice comes booming out of the sky, just like it did at Jesus’ baptism, saying, “This is my Son.” And then it adds, “Listen to him.” God is telling them that they will come to a better understanding of what is ahead comes from the listening. Again I want to point out is that Matthew makes no comment about the disciples not understanding what it is God is telling them.
Matthew does tell us that the disciples’ reaction is that of terror, which is the most common reaction when one encounters the divine or divine messengers throughout both the Old and New Testament. So here we have the disciples standing on the mountain, seeing the God of the universe reflected in Jesus Christ. And that very same God speaks to them, telling them they should listen to this one who is here shining with the God’s own glory reveling himself to be divine.
And here we stand with the disciples on the mountain, seeing the glory of God in Jesus. We stand in this sanctuary on the virtual mount of transfiguration looking into the valley of Lent before us. This week is Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of Lent.
So today we stand on the mountain with the disciples, seeing the divinity of God shining before us, in Jesus. We see the one with whom we have journeyed through Matthew and with whom we will journey toward the cross. And all this happens right after he told his disciples to take up their cross and follow him (16:24) and then he leads them up on this mountain and then following this he begins his decent into Jerusalem and his journey toward the cross.
Through the season of Lent, we will journey with him, in our own personal preparations, and our communal fasting, taking out our crosses and following him, as he journeys toward his own. Here we have a foretaste of glory divine.
A foretaste of our resurrected Lord here on the mountain. And then he and his disciples descend toward the cross and we descend toward Ash Wednesday, and Lent which will also lead us to the cross and the glory beyond. And we begin this descent by contemplating the sacrifice of the Lord.
Though this was the Lord’s transfiguration, and revelation of glory it was the DISCIPLE’s encounter on the mountain top. So we too, as disciples who have come late to the mountain, look at the reflection the glory of God in Jesus which will be more fully revealed at Easter, before taking the long dark path toward the cross.
As we progress in our journey through Lent, we have the responsibility to heed the words of God issued toward the end of the Sermon on the Mount, in chapter 6 of Matthew where Jesus talks about fasting. In order to prepare ourselves for the journey on which we are about to embark through Lent toward the cross and beyond, it is tradition for Christians to fast during the season of Lent.
As we think about Lent and we think about fasting, let us listen to the words of Jesus as found in Matthew 6:16-18
“And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
The spiritual discipline of Fasting is one of the spiritual practices of the Church which are more than just a little counter-cultural. In our culture of plenty, where more is the goal and sooner is always better, the idea of going without something we want or even need . . . voluntarily . . . for spiritual reasons, is beyond comprehension for many. Our culture is about instant gratification, why would anyone go without something when we can have it delivered to our houses; in two days; for free; from Amazon? We don’t like to wait for something we want, why on earth would we go without something we need? Fasting is about denying ourselves of something otherwise readily available, it is about not giving into our wants, not giving into our desires, and even not giving into our needs, so that we can draw close to God, an act of submission, an act of humility. Fasting give us practice in the lifelong spiritual skill of saying, “No,” to the things I want and instead saying, “Yes,” to the things of God. In many ways it trains our wants and our desires so that ultimately saying “yes” to God and the things of God is not saying “no” to what I want, because what I want is trained and honed through fasting and other spiritual disciplines so that what we want and what we desire are the things of God. Fasting is truly something that pulls us away from the voices of our culture so that we can focus on really paying attention to the voice of God.
Lent begins this Wednesday with the community Ash Wednesday service (77 Columbia St). With Lent beginning this week, this is the time of year that we think about Fasting. So as before we move into this season we begin to think about fasting. What is fasting? Voluntary abstinence from the ordinary enjoyment of something – often times food, but can be other things as well.
As we look at the Matthew 6 passage what do we learn about fasting? I know there may not seem like much here in this one verse about fasting but what does this passage specifically say? When you fast don’t make a show of it – don’t make it LOOK like you are fasting for all to see. When you fast do your best to look put together, clean and tidy. If you do God will reward your fast - you will not get your reward in praise or the appearance of piety but instead from God.
At the time Jesus spoke these words, is was popular to put on ripped, torn, dirty, clothes, put ashes on your face and make yourself look pitiful to show that you were fasting. Even if you only fasted for one day or one meal – it was to let everyone know you were fasting, to look pious/ spiritual. It was also common at this time, when people fasted for an extended period of time, a person begins to get weak, they look pale, they look sick. If a person spent extended time in prayer and fasting to the extent that the person was neglecting themselves and their appearance their clothes would look dirty or disheveled and in rare instances might begin to show wear from the amount of time praying.
People who truly gave themselves over to the practice would LOOK like they have been fasting without trying. What Jesus is speaking against is people who DID things to themselves, to make it appear as if they had spent A LOT of time in prayer, in fasting whether they had or not. Jesus is saying that doing that is not pious; it was trying to make oneself look “spiritual” w/o actually doing anything that was actually “spiritual.”
The passage says “Whenever” you fast. Jesus makes the assumption that his disciples will fast and by extension we can assume that we too are expected to fast. Jesus tells us, when we fast we are to do so with a purpose. Fasting is not about piety or looking like a “good Christian” or “spiritual” before others, nor should it simply be about our willpower or endurance, but should be about God.
As we move into the Lenten Season, we begin to contemplate the sacrifice of the Lord made for us on the cross. As we fast and prepare ourselves to celebrate the resurrection in just a few short weeks, we look at ourselves and humbly see who we are in light of who the Lord is. We stand with the disciples on the holy mount of transfiguration this morning, looking at the reflected Glory of God in Christ, knowing that this is a foretaste of the glory that is soon to come and then we turn and look down into the valley that is Lent and are reminded that although this was the Lord’s transfiguration, it was the DISCIPLE’s, it is our, encounter on the mountain top. So we look at the glory and soak it in before taking the long dark path that is before us, as we follow Jesus toward the cross.
As we progress in our journey through Lent, we have the responsibility to listen to Jesus, as God calls for us to do here. Our familiarity with this journey taken each year can let us coast easily into complacency. We know the road down which we travel and we know, even as we pass through the darkest days the earth has seen that Son will rise on Easter morning. So we allow ourselves to be teachable by taking time to focus on God, to put aside things here on earth, to allow ourselves to draw close to God by spending time in fasting and prayer during Lent as we journey with Jesus toward the cross.