Fasting in Faith

Isaiah 55:1-9

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy?

Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food. Incline your ear, and come to me; listen, so that you may live.

I will make with you an everlasting covenant, my steadfast, sure love for David.        See, I made him a witness to the peoples, a leader and commander for the peoples.

See, you shall call nations that you do not know, and nations that do not know you shall run to you, because of the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, for he has glorified you.

Seek the Lord while he may be found, call upon him while he is near; let the wicked forsake their way, and the unrighteous their thoughts; let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord.   For as the heavens are higher than the earth,so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.


 

Luke 4:1-13

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished. The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command this stone to become a loaf of bread.” Jesus answered him, “It is written, ‘One does not live by bread alone.’”

Then the devil led him up and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And the devil said to him, “To you I will give their glory and all this authority; for it has been given over to me, and I give it to anyone I please. If you, then, will worship me, it will all be yours.” Jesus answered him, “It is written,‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.’”

Then the devil took him to Jerusalem, and placed him on the pinnacle of the temple, saying to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down from here, for it is written, ‘He will command his angels concerning you, to protect you,’ and ‘On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.’

Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’” When the devil had finished every test, he departed from him until an opportune time.

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What does it mean to “have faith”?

It can be quite easy to convince ourselves that faith is something we have to be or do on our own. We look at Jesus in the desert, and we see him stand up to Satan and we wonder—is that what faith looks like? Is that how I am supposed to be in order to be faithful?

In Luke 4, for example, we see Jesus wandering in the desert, being tested multiple times by Satan, the accuser (think of him as the prosecuting lawyer). And Jesus is out there, alone, and the accuser shows up and offers him all sorts of things in exchange for his allegiance. Food, Power, you name it—Jesus can have whatever he wants if he just rejects God.

Before we make any other observations, I think one thing we can learn from Jesus in this moment is that, if nothing else, faith looks an awful lot like an endurance sport. It is an exercise in building up our Spiritual Muscles, so that you can become capable of seeing where God is at work in the world, and where God isn’t. And that takes practice. That requires self-control. That requires good posture.

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How many of us got our posture checked when we were in kids? I remember when I was in elementary school the local nurses’ association came through and checked everyone’s posture and alignment. They were looking for signs of trouble—early detection of scoliosis was a big thing then, and they could see whether you were at risk by evaluating your posture. Of course, plenty of us didn’t have scoliosis, but most of us definitely had poor posture. And the nurses, bless their hearts, would remind us that posture matters—that we needed to practice good posture, because good posture turns out to be really good for your health—studies today show that good posture supports overall muscle and skeletal health. And poor posture, it turns out, can create all sorts of problems.

So if faith is about good posture, then how do we get it? Two places:

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1) The Bible teaches us good faith “posture”

The first way that we can develop a good faith posture is by learning how to recognize God. We need to learn how to trust that God is who God says God is. And we can begin to figure that out by opening our bibles, and learning about what God’s vision for us looks like.

Visions like Isaiah 55, which say:

Come, all you who are thirsty, come to the waters;

And you that have no money, come, buy and eat!

Come, buy wine and milk without money and without cost.

Notice what God does not say: “Come, you who are powerful, you who are worth billions and own your own jet. God does not say, “Come, all you who follow this religion, or speak that language, or come from this particular part of the world.” God does not say, “Come, you who are beautiful, or popular, or successful.”

No, God just says, “come, all who are hungry and thirsty.”

We who desire a good posture towards God need to hear what God is saying: that we have put our faith in a Creator who envisions a kingdom in which those who are hungry, those who are thirsty are fed. We have put our faith in a God who doesn’t build walls to keep people out—instead he breaks down the barriers so that as many as possible may enter.

And as we seek to build up our endurance, our posture, we must take the time to ask ourselves: what does this mean? How does God’s Word convict me? What is God asking me to do?

If the Kingdom of God looks like a banquet that is open to everyone who is thirsty or hungry, with not other restrictions—are we willing to come? Will we show up? Will we share the invitation with others?

Or do we prefer exclusive gatherings? You know, those parties with the carefully curated guest list, where simply being invited makes you feel special?

The problem with seeing faith in a certain way—in seeing faith as some sort of personal achievement—is that sometimes we start telling ourselves that we know what the rules are—we start making statements of faith that we imagine are universal. And we begin to exclude those who don’t fit our criteria. But God has only two criteria: hunger and thirst.

The real irony here is that God doesn’t exclude anyone from the Kingdom—more often, we exclude ourselves. By our insisting that there is some place that we would rather be. By turning down the open invitation, either it is because we want control over the menu, the guest list, or the seating chart. We tell ourselves that the limits we prefer protect the party, but God just wants the people to eat.

It turns out faith is not unlike an open door that we choose to walk through, or an invitation that we choose to keep. Faith is what happens when we accept the invitation, with our lives, and let go of the need to control what is on the other side of the door, or what the party will look like. It is being open to the surprise of what God has in store for us, and trusting that whatever it is, it will be good. Because God will be in it.

Which means that faith isn’t a list of “I believes;” it is the practice of trusting in God. Faith is a posture of openness.

And that takes practice. Like good posture or good athletic health, we have to work at it every day. Every day we are faced with the choice again, just as Jesus is in the wilderness: will I succumb to the temptations of this world, or will I choose God, choose the Kingdom, choose the banquet God has set for me and all who hunger for God?

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2) Good “posture” is learned in community

Now there is a second way in which we learn good posture, and that is this: we learn from each other. Every time we gather together, every time we choose community over isolation, we give ourselves the opportunity to learn what it means to have faith in God. When we spend time with a little person, or an older person, or anyone in between, because we choose to be here instead of somewhere else—we learn about how to love Jesus. When we give freely of our time, our hospitality, and our compassion, to be with someone who is suffering, grieving, or rejoicing, and do not count the cost—we learn what it means to be a servant like Christ. When we take the time to learn about teen homelessness, or food insecurity, or poverty, from other people of faith, and struggle together with how to be the face of compassion in a suffering world—we are building a posture of faith.

It is something that we do better together. Because alone, we aren’t Jesus. But together, we are the body of Christ. And the Body of Christ together has the power to withstand the forces of darkness, those who would demean, belittle, and dis-empower the people of God. The Body of Christ can endure the slings and arrows of hatred and violence, wherever it may be found. The Body of Christ can stand as beacon of God’s light for the powerless, the vulnerable, those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.

All that is required for us to stand—Together.

To learn—together.

To love—together.

To resist—together.

Because that is the power God has given us.

Let us together be a people of faith such as this.

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Fasting in Appreciation

Joshua 5:2-12

At that time the Lord said to Joshua, “Make flint knives and circumcise the Israelites again.” So Joshua made flint knives and circumcised the Israelites at Gibeath Haaraloth (the hill of foreskins).

Now this is why he did so: All those who came out of Egypt—all the men of military age—died in the wilderness on the way after leaving Egypt. All the people that came out had been circumcised, but all the people born in the wilderness during the journey from Egypt had not. The Israelites had moved about in the wilderness forty years until all the men who were of military age when they left Egypt had died, since they had not obeyed the Lord. For the Lord had sworn to them that they would not see the land he had solemnly promised their ancestors to give us, a land flowing with milk and honey. So he raised up their sons in their place, and these were the ones Joshua circumcised. They were still uncircumcised because they had not been circumcised on the way. And after the whole nation had been circumcised, they remained where they were in camp until they were healed.

Then the Lord said to Joshua, “Today I have rolled away the reproach of Egypt from you.” So the place has been called Gilgal to this day.

On the evening of the fourteenth day of the month, while camped at Gilgal on the plains of Jericho, the Israelites celebrated the Passover. The day after the Passover, that very day, they ate some of the produce of the land: unleavened bread and roasted grain. The manna stopped the day after they ate this food from the land; there was no longer any manna for the Israelites, but that year they ate the produce of Canaan.

Rituals. We all have them. When I was in college, and I played in the marching band for USC, there was a guy in our section who wore the same pair of underwear for every game—”It’s lucky!”  He liked to say.  “Helps our team win!” (and did I mention that part of the “luck” involved not washing them either?) We had our doubts about magic underwear, but perhaps you can relate to the sentiment he expressed.  There are just some things that we do that give us courage, or put us in the frame of mind to believe that we are going to achieve our destiny. Things that make no sense apart from their context.  Rituals.

The Maori people of New Zealand are no strangers to ritual either. They are, perhaps, most well known for a ritual dance called the haka.

Who wouldn’t want to get married after that?

I just have to pause and share there are a few moments that really make this video for me.  First of all, there is this moment in the beginning where they pan to the bride and she is crying.  The first time I saw the video I thought to myself, “man, I think I would be crying too if this happened at my wedding!”  But that was before what came next.  As the dance deepened in intensity, the groom, and the bridesmaids, and then the bride herself jumped in!  The ritual–this dance–invited their participation.  This was something bigger than a dance in that moment.  Like every other meaningful ritual, it had a story to tell.  Through the dance, those guests told the world who they are—they were able as well to share their sense of belonging to their culture and their values. The dance was them.


It turns out that the Israelites of the Hebrew Scriptures have a special ritual too. In our scripture this morning, they mark their entry into the land of Canaan…. By celebrating a mass circumcision.

I would just like to take a moment and admit that the last thing I expected to be talking about when reflecting on a fast of gratitude was the subject of circumcision. And yet here we are. So perhaps the first thing this story can help us appreciate is the fact that the Christian faith does not require adult male circumcision.

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And they thought eating manna for forty years was rough…..

But the question remains-why circumcision? What was the point?

In order to understand, we must go back, and remind ourselves where circumcision comes from:

Genesis 17:4-11

You will be the father of many nations. No longer will you be called Abram; your name will be Abraham, for I have made you a father of many nations. I will make you very fruitful; I will make nations of you, and kings will come from you. I will establish my covenant as an everlasting covenant between me and you and your descendants after you for the generations to come, to be your God and the God of your descendants after you. The whole land of Canaan, where you now reside as a foreigner, I will give as an everlasting possession to you and your descendants after you; and I will be their God.”

Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you.

In circumcision, the people carry on their very bodies a reminder of God’s promise to them—their own created selves bear the imprint of God’s covenant, that God will provide for them. It is this that allows them to say with the Psalmist, “The Lord is my light and my salvation: of whom shall I be afraid?”

But still—why circumcision, specifically? Couldn’t God have gone with a cool tattoo or a special hairstyle instead?

As I have pondered this question, I don’t know that I have the answer, but I wonder if it has something to do with intimacy—for circumcision is, if nothing else, something between you and God. You don’t wear it on your forehead because it isn’t for others to see. It is for you. Every time you see it, every time you bathe or change your clothes, every time you have intimate relations with your partner, you will remember God’s covenant promise—that God is with you. That God will provide for your present.

God will also provide for the future. In this covenant remember that God is promising to create a physical people. It is a new identity, one that we cannot take back. The scars of circumcision will forever remind the one who bears them of the moment that they left their old life behind in order to hold fast to God’s promises. And God is promising that Israel will become a mighty nation of faithful people.

This perhaps is why it is so important the people in the wilderness fulfill the covenant before they enter the land—the last step of their journey is to embrace the promise of God as a promise FOR them. Until they do, they cannot embrace their destiny. They must therefore remember from whence they have come, and give thanks for God, the stronghold of their life, who will keep them safe and will lead them in straight paths.

I hope I am not making too much of circumcision here. But the important truth to remember is that it is more than just a hygiene choice—it is a lasting and meaningful a mark of faith for the Jewish people.

Now as Christians, circumcision plays little to no role in our religious expression.  And that is, in large part, because we have our own ritual, our own moment where the promise of circumcision finds its full expression, and that is the ritual of baptism. According to Colossians, in Christ we “are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ.” We are, Paul says, “buried with Christ in baptism.”

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Mass baptism of children in the Orthodox Church in Atlanta, GA.

Baptism, like circumcision is something that is between you, the community, and God.

It is intimate.

It is personal.

It is a covenant, like circumcision, a promise that we will learn to live into every single day. And it begins in the reminder that our journey to the font is preceded by a God who has been there for us every step of the way. That everything we are and everything we have is a gift from God. And so we approach the waters as babies, as teens, as young men and old women, because we know that God has claimed us in baptism, just as God claims Israel in circumcision, from the very beginning of time.

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Like circumcision, baptism also moves us to act.  It pushes us out of ourselves and into a world in which we are called to respond to God’s promise.  In recognizing God’s generosity to us, we are moved to be generous with one another.

To appreciate one another.

To love one another.

To baptize one another.

Because the gifts we have received are meant to be shared. The question becomes—how will we share it?

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This woman can’t wait to share her baptism with the world!

 

Remember, the Maori people share their culture, their traditions, their values through dance. So how do we share our baptism? What would our Christian “haka dance” look like? How might we communicate the Good News we have received? The gratitude we feel to the God who claims us?

Perhaps like the Maori we can begin with the reminder: What is the most important thing in the world? It is people! It is people! It is people!”

Let us go out into the world, and seek to appreciate what we have been given, appreciate those around us, so that our lives might become a fast of gratitude. And let us walk through the world leaving wet footprints as a sign of the baptism that will never dry up when we hold fast to Christ.

 

Fasting in Humility

Deuteronomy 26:1-11

When you have come into the land that the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess, and you possess it, and settle in it, you shall take some of the first of all the fruit of the ground, which you harvest from the land that the LORD your God is giving you, and you shall put it in a basket and go to the place that the LORD your God will choose as a dwelling for his name. You shall go to the priest who is in office at that time, and say to him, “Today I declare to the LORD your God that I have come into the land that the LORD swore to our ancestors to give us.” When the priest takes the basket from your hand and sets it down before the altar of the LORD your God, you shall make this response before the LORD your God: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.” You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God. Then you, together with the Levites and the aliens who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house.

Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

“Beware of practicing your piety before others in order to be seen by them; for then you have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So whenever you give alms, do not sound a trumpet before you, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and in the streets, so that they may be praised by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you give alms, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

“And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.


“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. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 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.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

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Around this time of year, when throngs of people are packing into churches (or not) and marking themselves with ashes (or not), there is this commentary that seems to creep up over and over again—and it goes something like this:

“Does your church do ashes?”   Yes, we do.

“Isn’t that…well…a little ritualistic?” Not really.  It’s a practice that helps us draw closer to God.

“Seems awfully religious to me.  I mean, I like God and all, but it seems like the church likes rules more.  Seems like y’all are going through the motions and not actually doing anything.” Grrrrrrrrrrrrrr……………*sigh*


 

All this gets back to a conversation we started together on Ash Wednesday with our friends at Warminster UCC. Pastor Josh preached and he proposed that the biggest problem that the church faces is authenticity. He pointed out that those who are suspicious of religion and Christianity often are pretty knowledgeable about what we believe, and are often spiritual people themselves. But they look at the church and see lives that do not reflect the claims of Jesus.

It’s an authenticity problem.

Now there is some good news and some not so good news, and that is that when we look back on the story of God’s people in the Bible, we quickly realize that the people of God have always struggled with authenticity. Long before Jesus, the prophets were pointing out that our ritual is empty unless it is for something (see Isaiah 58:1-12). And that something is the righteousness of God.

So when Jesus stands before the crowds of people and preaches about empty ritual in the sermon on the mount, he isn’t breaking from tradition. He isn’t saying something that the people haven’t heard. No, like any good preacher, he is standing within his own faith tradition and proclaiming a truth that we humans just can’t seem to hear enough: that faith is only meaningful when it is AUTHENTIC.

But how are we supposed to be authentic, you may ask? In the time of hipsters and artisanal pickles, isn’t everyone striving to be the most authentic they possibly can be? Isn’t it awfully easy for “authenticity” just to become another badge we proclaim pridefully—“we are more authentic than YOU are!”

The answer is pretty simple. And it is found in our Scripture this morning.

Consider Deuteronomy 26. Now this text is on the tail end of the covenantal law, which, I will be the first to admit, is probably one of the driest parts of the Torah. Move over Leviticus! Deuteronomy, with its detailed dimensions for tents and poles and copper bowls HAS YOU BEAT.

But there is also a lot of important information in Deuteronomy about how we are to live.

If you can make it through the lists of families and the dimensions of the tent of meeting, you get some pretty neat advice on how we are to live together. And all of it is in the context of faith and fidelity to God. In other words, living authentically.

The passage in question this morning deals specifically with rules regarding something called the First Fruits offering. Now, there are lots of offerings that can be made to God in the ancient Hebrew religion—there are sin offerings and guilt offerings, tithe offerings and peace offerings. I could go on. The First Fruits offering is given at the beginning of the harvest and given with gratitude to God for the gifts that we receive.

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The first fruits offering didn’t look anything like this….

But Moses isn’t satisfied just with the giving. Moses (and God too!) wants us to remember why we give. And so, in Deuteronomy, we are told that those who give a first fruits offering should approach the priest with these words:

A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous. When the Egyptians treated us harshly and afflicted us, by imposing hard labor on us, we cried to the LORD, the God of our ancestors; the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression. The LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders; and he brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me.”

Sounds like an awful lot of ritual, right? Imagine having to memorize those lines– it’s a lot longer than the Lord’s Prayer, to be sure!  But let us also consider what the ritual is for. Throughout this proclamation, the people are asked to refer to themselves in the following ways:

-a wandering aramean: in ancient times these were a nomadic, landless people.

-an alien: again, outside of any nation or community of belonging

-a foreigner: have we gotten the point yet that the people of Israel have no place to call home?

-few in number: did I mention they were a small group of people?

-treated harshly and afflicted: oh yes, and they get trampled on by other people on a regular basis.

I assume we have picked up on the intended point: that the people of God aren’t much to look at on their own.  They have no nation, they aren’t terribly large, and they are functionally powerless as other nations abuse and misuse them.

As they prepare to offer their gifts, the people of God are reminded first and foremost not of their own awesomeness, or power, or might—instead, they are called to reflect on their vulnerability and weakness. They are reminded of just how little we have on our own.

But that is not the end of the story.

For these powerless people depend on a God who:

-hears us: we are not alone!

-sees us: we do not suffer without witness!

-brings us out of our affliction with terrifying displays of power, with signs and wonders: Our God is invested in our well-being, and will do anything to protect us.

-gives us landless people a home and citizenship in a new land: God will bring us out of our poverty and our homelessness and give us a place to call our own!

Have we figured it out yet?

Alone, we are weak and exposed; with God, we are safe and secure.

Here is the kicker: this ritual isn’t for the benefit of other people. It isn’t religious theatre, not for the benefit of the crowds who gather or for the priests who receive the offering. Rather, this ritual is the for the benefit of the giver. This ritual is meant to put us squarely where we need to be: in a posture of humility.

Jesus will later expound on this further—he will remind us that when we give alms, or pray, or fast, we must remind ourselves whom these practices are for—they aren’t for the benefit of others seeing what good Christians we are. They are for the benefit of our relationship with God, and for the righteousness and justice of the world. When we are doing them correctly, they will have their source in humility.

Humility is a difficult concept to fully embrace, I know. It sounds an awful lot like subservience or weakness. And yet humility is the life that Jesus calls us to. Again and again, Jesus tells us that the last will be first, to take the less desirable seat at the dinner, to be meek, to be a servant, to pick up a cross, too pray for our enemies—and that through these humble actions, we will be lifted up.

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Josh shared with us on Ash Wednesday about something he called the generosity paradox, that often it is in letting go of things that we gain something more. And I think that the same can be said of humility. Humility is a moral imperative of the Word of God, not because we are supposed to feel bad about ourselves, but because it makes room for others—the poor, the outcast, the stranger, the sick, even the enemy. When we operate from a posture of humility, we can let go of the need to always be right, always be first, always be stronger/wiser/richer/more powerful. Instead, we can free our hands to be generous: with our time, with each other, with our gifts and talents. Humility frees us to serve Jesus, who revealed to us the paradox that there is strength in weakness, and life in death.

Will you join me in a fast of humility? Will you follow Jesus? The way is long, but it is worth it.

 

 

We Shine Together

2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2

Since, then, we have such a hope, we act with great boldness, not like Moses, who put a veil over his face to keep the people of Israel from gazing at the end of the glory that was being set aside. But their minds were hardened. Indeed, to this very day, when they hear the reading of the old covenant, that same veil is still there, since only in Christ is it set aside. Indeed, to this very day whenever Moses is read, a veil lies over their minds; but when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.

Therefore, since it is by God’s mercy that we are engaged in this ministry, we do not lose heart. We have renounced the shameful things that one hides; we refuse to practice cunning or to falsify God’s word; but by the open statement of the truth we commend ourselves to the conscience of everyone in the sight of God.

 

Luke 9:28-43

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not knowing what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted, “Teacher, I beg you to look at my son; he is my only child. Suddenly a spirit seizes him, and all at once he shrieks. It convulses him until he foams at the mouth; it mauls him and will scarcely leave him.  I begged your disciples to cast it out, but they could not.” Jesus answered, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you? Bring your son here.” While he was coming, the demon dashed him to the ground in convulsions. But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.

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Have you ever put off sleep in order to get something done?

Maybe in college you stayed up late to study for a midterm. Or you burned the midnight oil finishing a project for your first job, sewing your kid’s Halloween costumes, or simply took advantage of the quiet hours to power through a season of the Sopranos.

How did you feel afterwards?

It turns out that long-term sleep deprivation, which is acknowledged as a form of torture when inflicted on the unwilling, can result in often extremely intense hallucinations. Just twenty-four hours without sleep is equivalent to being legally drunk. Longer bouts of sleep deprivation can affect your health and your perception of reality. In 2007, a man in England attempted to break a world record of sleep deprivation, ultimately going over 11 days without sleep while the public monitored him over webcam. After five days, he reported seeing giggling elves and pixies. By day ten, he couldn’t write or think coherently.

I say all of this because the Transfiguration story in the Gospels is an odd one. And if we try to explain it, we can certainly come up with plenty of reasons why it may not have actually happened. Luke’s Gospel tells us that all we have to go on here is the word of a bunch of sleep-deprived disciples, men whose days lately had been consumed with service to needy people and long travels without adequate rest. So maybe all of this was just an illusion.

But I think that misses the point.

Because this story doesn’t depend on what actually happened. It matters because of what this vision tells us about reality, which can be tested.

Consider what happens: Jesus drags his disciples up a mountain after long days of toil for a time of prayer and discernment. In a moment of glory, the disciples see Jesus flanked by Moses and Elijah, who in Jewish tradition stand for the two ways in which God’s will is revealed: the law, and the prophetic tradition.

As the dumb-founded disciples watch, they see the glory of Moses and Elijah reflected on Jesus, but they also see Jesus’ glory reflected back on Moses and Elijah. Each of them shines brighter in the presence of the other. Together, they are brilliant as the sun.

I don’t know about you, but to me there is truth to be found in that moment whether or not it actually happened. The notion that Christ is no lone wolf—rather, Christ stands within a long tradition, carries on a story of God that includes the witness of Moses and of prophets like Elijah, that the voice of God continues today in us—that is a message that we need to hear.

Perhaps we also need to remember that Christ shines brightest in fellowship with others. And if we are made in God’s image, perhaps we are meant to understand that the glory of God for us is also found in community. We shine together. We grow together. We wrestle with the mystery of God in God’s Word together. And as we do, we are not alone—even our ancestors stand beside us, and their witness reveals to us how the light of God strengthened them, and how it may strengthen us too.6884da49e861acf2bd6b6f3f73665a93.jpg

But that is not all that this story teachs us. For the glory on the mountain isn’t the end of the story. It is simply the end of Act 1.

Those of you who love theatre know that Act I exists to set the scene—in Act I, you meet the characters, learn what they stand for, what matters to them and why. All of this only matters because of what will happen in Act II. How will they respond to the reality of the world that is before them?

In the Gospels, the mountain sets the stage for the descent. For having come down the mountain, all are changed. They have seen God’s glory; now they must understand what it means. And what the gospel teaches us is that this transformation isn’t a party trick; rather, it is FOR something, and that is ministry in the world.

It is not for no reason that the first thing Jesus encounters on the way down the mountain is a man whose son is bound by the chains that will not let him go. We are meant to understand in this moment that our light, our glory, is for the purpose of banishing the shadows of the world. With God’s help.

The theologian Claudio Carvhalles writes:

Our world is dashing the poor against the rocks of despair, hunger, and abandonment everyday. The economic beast controlled by few demons is making our people convulse day and night. The homeless, the immigrant, the incarcerated, those mothers who work three jobs to make a minimum wage to feed three, four kids, they are like that boy, thrown into the shadows of our society, convulsing day and night right in front of us! And we, who seem to not know anything about the transfiguration of Jesus or our own transfiguration (metamorphoses) are looking at these people while asking Jesus: can we dwell in our worship tabernacles basking in your glory, away from the people and their pressing needs?

God’s glory on the mountain means nothing if we do not put it to use. And we put it to use when we shed light, when we seek to be light, to seek out light in places where light seldom shines. We put it to use when we co-labor with the saints in ministries like Broad Street and West Kensington Minstry, who minister alongside communities imprisoned by homelessness, poverty, mental illness, and gang-violence. We put our light to use when we join our voices with the people at the Warminster Food Cupboard and Synergy Project, who shine a light on food insecurity and youth at risk right here in Bucks County. We put our light to use when we use our gifts for the arts and our love of young people to create safe spaces like Ivyland Community Arts, whose mission is to empower young people by giving them tools to express themselves in healthy and life-affirming ways.

We shine light whenever we welcome a stranger, pray for the sick, and bear witness to injustice in the world.

Let us keep on bearing light, in a world that sorely needs it, from the mountain to the cross.