Is Easter early or late this year? It is a question that many of us have asked at some point, as we think about scheduling events. We ask the question because the date for Easter does move from year to year. It’s not like Christmas. You know that every year Christmas Eve will be on Dec. 24 and Christmas Day will be on Dec. 25. Instead the date for Easter changes. Some years, like this year, it can be very early. Other years it can be quite late.
The reason for this is that the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection took place at the time of the Jewish festival of Passover. Passover always occurs on the 14th day in the month of Nisan on the Jewish calendar. The problem is that the Jews used a lunar calendar – one that was based on the moon. Our calendar, is instead a solar calendar – one that is based on the sun. And so while Passover in the Jewish calendar is always on the 14th day of Nisan, its date on our solar calendar varies.
This fact caused some real problems in the early history of the Church. We know that the resurrection of our Lord occurred on a Sunday, the first day of the week. However, if you figure the date for Easter based on the exact of date of the 14th day of Nissan, it often does not fall on a Sunday in our solar calendar. This gave rise in the second century A.D. to what is known as the Quartodecimanism controversy – a name based on the Latin word for fourteen.
Christians in Asia Minor – modern day Turkey – figured the date for Easter in relation to the 14th day Nisan and celebrated Easter on that day even if it didn’t fall on a Sunday. Other parts of the Church celebrated Easter on the first Sunday that came after the Nisan 14 date. This became a real controversy because it dealt with the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ– the foundational events of the Christian faith. It wasn’t finally settled until the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD which established for all the Church the way we continue to figure Easter today – the first Sunday after the Nisan 14 date.
While the calendar differences have been a source of difficulty in the Church’s history, on this particular morning it is actually a very helpful thing. Easter is early this year, and so the season of Epiphany is compressed – very compressed. January 6 was the Feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord. Last Sunday was the Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord. Now, today is already the end of the Epiphany as we celebrate the Feast of the Transfiguration of Our Lord. The early date of Easter means that the Baptism of Our Lord and the Transfiguration of Our Lord occur on back to back Sundays. The juxtaposition of these events helps us to better understand what is happening in our Lord’s transfiguration.
Last Sunday we saw that Jesus received the baptism administered by John the Baptist. It was a baptism for repentance – a baptism that people received confessing their sins. Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, entered into the water and after his baptism the Holy Spirit descended upon him like a dove and the Father said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” We learned that the descent of the Spirit on Jesus and the words of the Father were a fulfillment of Isaiah chapter 42. They identified and endowed Jesus as the Servant of the Lord. We saw that in this event Jesus took on the role of the suffering Servant of Isaiah chapter 53. He went into the water to take on our sins – in order to take our place.
Isaiah tells us in chapter 53 that the Servant is nothing to look at – there is nothing impressive about him. He says: “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men;
a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”
Jesus goes forth in his ministry as the humble One. He does not seek confrontation. Instead, he acts as One who is gentle. In Matthew chapter 12 we learn that the Pharisees conspire to kill Jesus. But instead of seeking a battle with them, Jesus withdraws and Matthew tells us, “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: ‘Behold, my servant whom I have chosen, my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. I will put my Spirit upon him, and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets; a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory; and in his name the Gentiles will hope.”
Jesus Christ is the humble servant of the Lord who acts in gentle ways. We might even be inclined to say he is gentle to a fault. Our text this morning begins by saying, “And after six days.” Specific time references like this in Matthew’s Gospel are very rare, and so we know that what Matthew now narrates has a connection to what has just happened. What has happened is this. Matthew has just told us: “From that time Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
Jesus is the Servant of the Lord who says that he is going to die – indeed, who predicts that his opponents will kill him. Now if you knew that people in Carbondale were going to try to kill you, you wouldn’t go there. But Jesus tells his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem to suffer and die. This is not just humility. This is not just gentleness. This is not just weakness. It sounds like pure lunacy.
And so we learn in our text that Jesus takes Peter, James and John along with him up onto a mountain. Then Matthew tells us, “And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became white as light.” Jesus Christ is Emmanuel – God with us. He is God in the flesh. At that moment, he allowed his disciples to behold the glory of his divine nature. Here was glory, not humility. Here was might, not gentleness. He was power, not weakness.
There appeared with Jesus, Moses and Elijah – the two great prophets of the Old Testament to whom God revealed himself on a mountain. It was an amazing moment. And true to form, Peter just couldn’t help himself. He said, “Lord, it is good that we are here. If you wish, I will make three tents here, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Apparently, Peter wanted to stay in that moment of glory, basking in the presence of the luminous Christ and these Old Testament greats.
But then a bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” As Jesus stands transfigured in glory, God the Father speaks the exact same words that we heard last Sunday at Jesus’ baptism. Once again, the words are taken from Isaiah chapter 42. Once again, the Father identifies Jesus as the Servant of the Lord. But this time Jesus stands there with his face shining like the sun, and his clothes as white as light. Jesus has just predicted his suffering and death, yet there he stands, transfigured in glory.
These two Sundays – the Baptism of Our Lord and the Transfiguration – confront us with the saving paradox of Jesus. He is the suffering Servant who takes on our sin in order to die for us. He is the almighty Son of God who possesses all power and might – who created the universe. Jesus goes to the cross to fulfill the Father’s will. He goes in humility and gentleness and weakness. Yet this has saving meaning for us because Jesus is glorious, mighty and powerful. He willingly submits to the role of the suffering Servant out of love for the Father; out of love for us. He gives himself to carry out the Father’s saving plan.
That plan leads to death, as Jesus has just told the disciples. But it does not end there. He had told them that on the third day he would be raised. In the transfiguration of Jesus we see a preview of Easter. Jesus will die as the suffering Servant for our sins. But he will rise as the second Adam who defeats death and begins the resurrection – the resurrection we will share in on the Last Day.
Peter wanted to stay there – to stay in that moment. You and I are no different. We want the glory … not the cross. After Jesus predicted his passion for the first time he said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
The old man in us wants to avoid the cross. He wants to avoid suffering and sacrifice that is caused by belief in Jesus.
But we are called to follow in our Lord’s footsteps. We are called to follow in the way our Lord has already walked for us. That way looks weak and humble, because it is. But the paradox of Jesus’ ministry now applies to us too. The way of faith that follows Jesus receives the forgiveness that Jesus won as the suffering Servant who died in our place. And the way of faith leads to the Last Day, when the risen Lord will raise us up and give us a share in his resurrection.
Last week we saw Jesus in the water. This week we see Jesus on the mountain transfigured in glory. At both events we hear God the Father say, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.” They are events that together help us to understand the paradox of the way God works in Christ. Jesus goes to the cross as the sacrifice for our sins. He goes in weakness and humility because he is the almighty and glorious Son of God. The glory of the transfiguration reminds us of this, and points forward to his resurrection.
We follow Jesus in the way of the cross. But because of his death in our place we have forgiveness now. And because of his resurrection we know that the way of faith leads to resurrection and eternal life with the triune God.
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