There are always two Sundays in the Epiphany season that you can count on—the Baptism of our Lord and Transfiguration Sunday.
At first glance, the two couldn’t appear any more different. For the first one, Jesus goes down into the water. And the Jordan River is pretty low, altitude-wise, when compared to all other rivers. And the second one is literally a mountain-top experience.
There is one thing that is almost exactly the same, though. There is the voice from heaven, the Father’s voice, who claims Jesus as his beloved Son. Only in Luke’s account does the voice say that this is my ‘chosen’ one. (This isn’t surprising, given the introductory chapters in Luke that focus on Jesus being special.)
In the Gospel according to Matthew, it is at this point that the three disciples fall on their faces. I was surprised to find out that this is something relatively rare in the gospel accounts.
It’s interesting that, near the beginning of Luke, there’s a man with leprosy who falls on his face before Jesus and asks to be cleansed. And then, near the end of Luke, there’s the Samaritan man with leprosy who, after he was cleansed, falls down on his face before Jesus and thanks him. And the only other time is in Matthew when Jesus himself falls on his face and prays while in the Garden of Gethsemane.
It’s rare for someone to fall on their face. It probably would hurt a bit. I guess I’m a little surprised that the disciples didn’t fall on their faces a bit more—or a bit earlier on that first day of the Transfiguration. Jesus’ clothes are like light and his face like the sun—two important things mentioned during creation.
Peter liked that mountain-top situation, especially having Moses and Elijah around. That comes at a pretty high price. What he and the others get, after tasting a little dirt, is ‘only Jesus’. And that’s good enough to last a long, long time.
Obviously that small verse at the end of the text for this weekend gives people a lot of trouble. And I can see why. At Matthew 5:48, Jesus says, "You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect."
First of all, I'm not sure that it's helpful to have the word 'must' there. It's not in the original text. The text simply says, "You, therefore, be perfect...." The word 'must' certainly adds something to the text. When you add a word like 'must', then you can start to treat it like a 'should', and that's a completely different thought. (I, for one, think that the current translation of the Small Catechism, with the meanings of the Commandments, is a really bad one. Instead of 'We should fear and love God...," I would prefer, "We are to fear and love God....")
If you think that by these translations I'm making it even more difficult for us to do them, then you are exactly correct. The sooner we give up on trying to do these things, the better.
We definitely need some help to be perfect. And we can't get away from the meaning of the word 'perfect'. Although the Greek word can refer to attaining an end or purpose, it describes God. He didn't evolve toward an higher end or purpose after billions of years. He is and has always been perfect.
I should have said in the previous paragraph that this describes our heavenly FATHER. That's certainly a clue that God is willing and even eager to give out some gifts.
The Beatitudes near the end with saying that the pure in heart will see God and that the peacemakers will be called sons of God. I think that's also a significant clue to say where Jesus is headed with this insurmountable task. We need a lot of help, and, in church, we've come to the right place.
That could well be the theme of this entire account, even with all its sermons: Jesus is our Savior, our Rescuer. Near the middle of this sermon he's going to say to the disciples that they shouldn't be like the hypocrites who show off. At the end of this sermon he's going to call God 'HIS Father (not YOUR Father any more)', and he's also going to tell the disciples to listen to his words and do them.
And so we continue to follow him. It's not too difficult to see where he's headed with this.
It is easy to overlook things. The New Testament, starting with the Gospel according to Matthew, starts out pretty much like water from a firehose. The Old Testament starts out that way as well. And the sermons of Jesus, with the Sermon on the Mount being the first one, are like that as well. Things come at you so fast; it’s sometimes hard to take it all in.
It would be incredibly easy to overlook the first use of the word “Father” within the Sermon on the Mount. The translation of Matthew 5:16 is usually something like, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Did you see how it was almost hidden within the text? I can almost imagine the people who heard those words for the first time sort of jumping up from where they were. I can also imagine them talking to one another saying, “Did he just call God ‘Father’?” “And did he just call God OUR Father?”
That kind of language did not happen too frequently in the Old Testament. In fact it is extremely rare.
For those who love to count things, Jesus uses the word Father seventeen times within this Sermon on the Mount. The middle time—the ninth from either way—is the “Our Father” in the Lord’s Prayer. And at the very last time, Jesus uses the words “my Father.” Apart from that, it is always “your Father.”
I think there is a pattern here that would take too long to explain. More importantly, I would think most people would expect more of “my Father” from Jesus and him saying “your Father” only a little and especially at the end.
But that’s what Jesus likes to do; he turns things around—those who are headed for hell, death, and depression, he sets them in the opposite direction. And he LOVES to overflow with his love.
One of the great things about the Sermon on the Mount is that you can see it within the context of the entire Gospel according to Matthew, but you can also look at one word and see it within the context of the entire scriptures.
An easy word to do that with is ‘righteousness’. It’s essentially throughout the entire bible. In the text from the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says our righteousness has to surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees (5:20). But that’s not too hard if God is in control of that word—which he is from the beginning. (And Abraham believed the Lord, and the Lord counted it to him as righteousness—Genesis 15:6.) The Lord, the Righteous One, gives that righteousness out, where and when it pleases him.
It’s not too easy to see the word ‘think’ in context with all of scripture. It’s not a bad thing to do though. The human race ends up thinking a lot. In the text we are not supposed to think that Jesus came to do away with the Law and the Prophets. That word’s use within all of Matthew is pretty distinctive—an interesting characteristic of this very ‘human’ gospel account.
In that command, the verb ‘to think’ is given as follows in one of the dictionaries (BDAG): ‘To form an idea about something, but with some suggestion of tentativeness or refraining from a definitive statement.’
In our era, you have probably heard it said that you need to exaggerate to be heard. Perhaps you have heard of people encouraging others to speak up with confidence, even if they have reservations about what they believe. This is not new. And those things that are true and lasting will prove themselves in the end.
We are constantly forming ideas. We are in a constant state of tentativeness. That’s this life. And that’s usually pretty depressing.
That’s why Jesus came down. We needed a savior. We needed a savior, even from our own thoughts. And we have that—and more—in Jesus.