The transfiguration is an epiphany (revelation), a moment at which the glory of the risen Christ, who shall also come in glory at the end of the world, is made manifest in advance, even in advance of his passion and death. Upon the mountain Jesus was “transfigured.” The Greek term literally means, “a change in form.” The idea it conveys is that Jesus’ earthly form was exchanged for that of his heavenly form; for a moment in time he appeared to his disciples as the risen, glorified Christ. In particular he appeared to them in the form of the Son on man who is portrayed in the book of Revelation (1:12-16). Two Old Testament figures appear on the scene: Moses and Elijah. These two men had an important role concerning the coming of the Messiah. Moses was the first to announce his coming (Deut 18:15), and Elijah was to return and announce his coming at the last hour (Mal 4:5-6). Why would Peter suggest making dwellings on this occasion? Dwellings symbolized that the people were “at rest” under the protection of God during the 40 years, and that they would again be “at rest” in the messianic age to come. The high point of the drama followed. A “bright cloud” overshadowed them—an indication of God’s presence. God spoke out of the cloud: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased: listen to him.” Here the Father confirmed Jesus’ own teaching that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer, die, and rise.
In this lesson from the Sermon on the Mount the truly hard cases are dealt with. How is one to react to insult, injury, and bothersome requests? And if one has enemies, how does one relate to them? The first part of the text deals generally with nonresistance. Jesus departed from the given form of the law to get to a deeper concern: one should not go about life seeking revenge for wrongs committed against them. Christians are not to let their own concerns for self govern their attitude toward others, regardless of how insulting, annoying, abusive, or demanding others may be. What is at stake, then, in this section (5:38-42) of the Sermon on the Mount is a way of life that is responsive to the will of God, not self-will, in problems which face us. The next section (Matt 5:43-48) deals with the extent of love. Jesus said, Christians are to love their enemies and pray for their persecutors. To love one’s enemies sounds impossible. But the term love has a breadth of meaning in the Bible it does not have today. Love in the Bible is not merely an emotional thing, nor is it “liking” the other person to a high degree. It is a commitment of the one who loves toward the other person, and it seeks the well-being of the latter. Christians love not because other people evoke a feeling of love from them, but because it is the Christian’s nature to love; the Christian is simply a loving person. Christ himself gives us the capacity to love, and even forgive!
Our text comes from the section of the Sermon on the Mount which spells out the “higher righteousness” prescribed for Jesus’ followers (Matt 5-7). Three of these sections are covered in this text: adultery, divorce, and oaths. First Adultery: “You shall not commit adultery” is one of the Ten Commandments. A wife was thought of essentially as her husband’s possession, therefore adultery was the act by which one man offended his neighbor by trespassing on another man’s property. A man could have several wives and even women servants (a harem) and still not be considered an adulterer as long as he kept to his own. Divorce second: Jesus was clearly opposed to divorce. It is not likely that he granted any exceptions. Unless it has been broken by adultery already, those who go through a divorce and remarry are themselves guilty of adultery. While legalism should be avoided, the church must be in the business of asserting the sanctity of marriage and seek, through support and counseling, to shore up marriages which begin to disintegrate. Neverless, to affirm that even in the area of divorce and remarriage the doctrine of forgiveness of sins in operative. Third oaths: It is said that all speech must be truthful. It need not be accompanied by an oath to make it so. Language cannot, according to Jesus, be used to deceive, and no double standard can be used which required truth where an oath is taken and allows lying where there is no oath. One of the great problems of mankind is clear communication. The problem is that people use language to deceive. Jesus is urging his disciples to energetically seek reconciliation with others as we have received reconciliation with God as the result of Jesus’ death on the cross. Paul teaches (2 Cor 5:19) that we have been reconciled with God and empowered by Christ to live out Christ’s mission of reconciliation in our daily lives.
In each case Jesus simply declares that his disciples are salt and light. He does not tell them to become such; they are such. They are such because they possess the presence of Christ himself in their lives. In John 8:12 Jesus says, “I am the light of the world.” But here he says, “You are the light of the world.” The rest of the passage has to do with righteousness, the very righteousness which is to permeate our witnessing. The position of Jesus concerning righteousness is distinguished from that of the scribes and the Pharisees: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” The righteousness of the Christian must go beyond theirs. Today righteousness means things like virtue, correctness, and uprightness. It has a narrow, moralistic connotation. It is a static term. But, righteousness has a broader meaning in the Bible. It is dynamic not static. Certainly it has a moral meaning. But it has the equal connotation of one’s being in the business of making things right—right between God and persons, and between persons and their neighbors. And so our text goes on to say that the unrighteous person is one who insults his brother, while the righteous one gets reconciled with his brother before offering a gift at the altar. The Pharisees had righteousness in a static sense, but they were the “separated ones.” They were not in the business of bringing about reconciliation or wholeness in society. The followers of Jesus, by contrast, are to exceed the Pharisees in righteousness—not righteousness in the static sense of setting up regulations which one observes, and then is called righteous by his fellows, but righteousness in the dynamic sense. Christians are not called to display virtue; they are called to be salt, light, and leaven in society.
The Beatitudes are brief declarations which begin with the word “blessed” in English. In the Latin Bible, the word for “blessed” is beatus, from which our beatitude is ultimately derived. The Beatitudes do not give promises which can be realized here and now in the ordinary sense. It cannot be said, for example, that the meek ordinarily inherit the earth. Nor can the Beatitudes be taken as blueprints for obtaining rewards in this life. And to think of them as a list of virtues which, if practiced, will be rewarded in heaven is also to miss the point. Rather, the Beatitudes are declarations of salvation to those who place their trust in God. The persons blessed are the “humble,” those who have realized their helplessness and know the desperate need for grace alone. The Beatitudes can be divided into three sections. The first four (5:3-6) declare blessing to persons who are particularly in need and realize it—poor in spirit, those who mourn, and so on; the next three (5:7-9) declare blessing to persons who might be designated activists—exercising mercy, acting from unmixed motives, making peace; and the last two (5:10-12) declare blessing to those who suffer persecution. The Beatitudes show that they anticipate the new age not yet realized, when God will bring about his universal rule at the end of history. The Beatitudes do not promise earthly, secular standards. In fact, each beatitude is an attack on such standards. Nevertheless, the Beatitudes do declare those who are receptive to God and his will that they already are “blessed,” and they do describe virtues which Christians should put into practice. They should practice these things not for the sake of reward, but because they know that these virtues describe the life which God wants among people, the life which will be in the world to come.
The main emphasis of Jesus’ mission was, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” If Jesus preached about anything, he preached about the kingdom and its coming. Even his parables are devoted to the kingdom, its coming, its character, and its demands. Jesus was not primarily a teacher of wisdom or morals. He was first and foremost a prophet of the kingdom—the reign of God among men, which wants to become effective now, and will be effective in the world to come. In this Gospel Jesus calls his first four disciples at the Sea of Galilee. What he saw in Peter, Andrew, James, and John is not said. They appear to be ordinary men involved in ordinary tasks. But they are recruited by Jesus to join him in his mission of preaching the kingdom. The term follow is used three times in the passage. In Judaism pupils did quite literally, in a physical sense, follow their masters; they walked behind them and assisted them. Overpowered by the call of Jesus to enter into his work, these four Galilean fishermen followed him and finally, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, were among the apostles of the infant church. This passage from Matthew is appropriately an Epiphany text. Jesus appeared in Galilee with his message of the kingdom, appearing among Jews and Gentiles, the religious and nonreligious, scribes and fisherman, and among the learned and the simple. We have here a manifestation of the divine mission among all sorts of persons.
Jesus’ baptism was seen to be the event which inaugurated his ministry. In accepting baptism from John, Jesus accepted also the will of God for all men unto himself, and he was declared to be God’s “Beloved Son,” upon whom God’s favor rested. Through the evangelist John we get another look at Jesus in connection with his baptism. John does not give an account of the baptism itself, but gives instead a testimony of the Baptism concerning Jesus. He is the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” He is the one upon whom the Holy Spirit has descended and “remained.” He is the one who bestows the Spirit. He is “the Son of God.” This attaches to Jesus the role of the suffering servant described in Isiah 53:7. There the servant of the Lord is portrayed as “a lamb that is led to the slaughter,” and it is said (53:12) that “he bore the sin of many.” What was said about this servfant by Isiah was, to the early Christians, fulfilled in Jesus Christ. He is the Lamb of God who, in the words of John, “takes away the sin of the world.” The “Lamb of God” is the divinely appointed servant of God commissioned to bring salvation “to the end of the earth.” Having described Jesus as the Lamb of God, John the Baptist goes on to assert the primacy of Jesus’ role over his own. The Spirit descended upon Jesus at his baptism and remained upon him. Jesus was thereby equipped to set forth upon his ministry, and the Spirit remained with him throughout its course. As the one who “baptizes with the Holy Spirit,” Jesus was the one who gave the Spirit to his followers. The Holy Spirit cannot, therefore, be thought of apart from Jesus himself.
We celebrate Epiphany on January 6 (or the nearest Sunday). Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost were the great holy days for the early church. It was not until five hundred later that Christians began to celebrate Christmas. The word epiphany means an appearance or manifestation, particularly of a divine being––or an illuminating discovery, especially one that comes unexpectedly. Epiphany marks the first manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles. It signals that God loves Gentiles as well as Jews––that God's plan of salvation includes Gentiles too. Epiphany challenges us to reconsider all the people whom we see as outside the boundaries of God's love. Instead of shepherds, Matthew gives us Magi from the East. Instead of a stable, Matthew takes us to Herod's palace. Instead of a manger, Matthew shows us gifts fit for a king (gold), a priest (incense), and the death of a Savior (myrrh). Instead of angels, Matthew tells us of dreams. The wise men's visit probably took place long after the shepherds had departed. Presumably the wise men visited during the latter part of Mary and Joseph's visit to Bethlehem and Jerusalem. Matthew includes a number of dark elements in his story: Joseph resolves to put Mary away quietly (1:19). (Exodus 1:16,22); Herod kills babies in an attempt to do away with the newborn king (2:16-18). (Exodus 2:1-10); Joseph and his family flee to Egypt to escape the murderous king (2:13-15). (Exodus 2:15); Joseph and family return to Nazareth rather than Bethlehem (2:19-23). (Exodus 4:19); For Matthew, these are important parallels between the stories of Moses and Jesus.
"Wise men (magoi) from the East came to Jerusalem" (v. 1c). These magoi come to Jerusalem, because the capital city is the logical place to look for a king. Magoi, "originally the title of a Persian priestly caste who played an important role in advising the king, was applied more widely to learned men and priests who specialized in astrology and the interpretation of dreams, and in some cases magical arts." They were probably members of a priestly caste in ancient Persia, possibly followers of Zoroaster. We call them kings, but Matthew calls them magoi, which we transliterate "Magi." We think of these magoi as astrologers because they are observing stars (v. 2). However, from the perspective of the Jewish people, magoi look to the stars for answers that legitimately come only from God (Acts 8:9-24 and 13:6-11). From the perspective of the Jewish people, magoi work magic using demonic powers. They are far from the Jewish community, which makes these magoi especially useful for Matthew's purposes as he shows how the Messiah brings salvation even to Gentiles (non-Jews)–even to Gentiles who might be magicians or sorcerers. Matthew's Gospel is very Jewish, but he introduces these Gentile worshipers at the beginning, preparing us for Jesus' last words to his disciples, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations" (28:19 –– the Greek word translated "nations" is ethne, which also means "Gentiles"). We are struck by the contrast between these Gentiles, who follow the star to Jesus, and the chief priests and scribes, who know the scriptures but who do nothing to seek out the Messiah, whom they have determined to be only five miles away in Bethlehem (v. 5). God's people ignore the Messiah, while pagans eagerly seek him out. Without this newborn king, the astrologers and King Herod (and we too) remain in sinful separation from God, living in the miseries of our own devising, believing that worldly wisdom can somehow offer us a relationship to God. For the most part, we misunderstand faith and trust in God as something of our own making, instead of a gift from God. The power of God's Spirit transcends the Church. The Spirit of God is at work in the world, especially in the lives of our family and friends, even those outside of the Church. This frees us to invite our unchurched loved ones to deepen their relationship with God where they are at, instead of thinking that we have to bring them to God -- who only resides in the church.
In this Gospel Jesus’ family flees to Egypt and lives there till the death of Herod. They live the hard life of refugees because of the threat of death, and can return only when it has gone (Matt 2:13-22). Why is Matthew so interested in telling hi Jewish readers about Jesus’ stay in Egypt? The mention of Joseph going to Egypt would remind his readers immediately of another Joseph, son of Israel, who was sold by his brothers into slavery in Egypt, but saved his whole family from famine. They would also think of the most important event in the whole history of their people, the exodus, how through Moses God liberated them from a life of slavery in Egypt, made a covenant with them in the desert and brought them to the land of promise (Gen 37-50; Ex 1-14). Matthew sums up these events by quoting Hosea 11:1 Where, the prophet tells how God loved his people and called them out of Egypt, took care of them and made a covenant with them which they continued to break throughout their history. For the Jews this liberation from Egypt and the covenant enacted at mount Sinai constituted the birth of their nation and they celebrated it every year as if they were living it again. In their celebrations they rekindled their hopes that one day the Messiah would bring them full liberation. Matthew shows to the Jewish Christians that their hopes are now fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus is the new Moses coming out of Egypt to liberate his people. In the way Matthew writes the story of Jesus, Jesus seems to be reliving the history of the people of Israel. If we, the new people of God, follow Jesus our teacher, the new Moses, we will have the strength to overcome all our trials and temptations.
All through Advent, we heard words of hope and newness proclaimed in the context of desolation, the wilderness, and finally humiliation. Now, at Christmas, God's gift of light is given in the darkness. That's where God comes to us--not on the heights but in the depths, where there is desolation, a wilderness of doubt and despair where there is darkness. Christ was born for the shepherds, just as he was born for tax collectors and prostitutes. he was born, lived, and died for the downtrodden, the outcast, and the outdone of every shape, size color, and description. He said so himself (Mark 2:16-17; Luke 4:16-30). And he did so himself, shedding his light in the darkness to break its grip wherever it reigned. But that's just the beginning of the good news. For this child, born in the darkness and laid in a trough, was destined to reign and reigns now as Lord of the worlds. He is the one of whom Isaiah sings, of whose government and peace "there will be no end," who establishes and upholds his kingdom "from this time forth and for evermore." He is the one of whom the angel says, "to you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger" (Luke 2:11-12). For all of our celebrations of Christmas, we seldom catch the startling contrasts involved: that the holy angels should sing to some notorious shepherds, that the Lord of the universe should be tucked away in a cattle trough. But it is in these contrasts that the miracle of Christmas and all of its good news lies. The God "who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist" (Rom. 4:17), who "chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are" (1 Cor. 1:28), has come into your darkness because he has chosen you. As they sang to the shepherds, the angels sing to you: "For to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord"--the Lord of all the worlds.