A Sermon for the Sunday next before Lent, March 3, 2019
St. Dunstan’s Anglican Church, Largo, FL
The Very Rev. J. Michael Strachan
The 1662 Book of Common Prayer refers to this Sunday not as the Sunday next before Lent, but as Quinquagesima Sunday. This word comes from the Latin quinquagesimus meaning “fifty,” and, if you count inclusively, meaning you count both Sundays, today is fifty days from Easter. Since the season of Lent is forty-seven days, with forty days of fasting and seven Sunday of feasting, when you come to Quinquagesima Sunday, you know that you are standing on the doorstep of Lent.
We are three days away from walking with Jesus in the wilderness, three days away from our fasts, three days away from preparing ourselves for the sorrow of Good Friday. We are three days away from having the ashes from the burned palm branches of our Palm Sunday celebration placed on our heads with these words: Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return; turn away from sin and be faithful to Christ. We are three days away from publicly and corporately remembering and confessing our mortality, sinfulness, and need for a savior.
Before we get there though, before we come to Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent, we have this Sunday, Quinquagesima Sunday, the Sunday next before Lent. And one of the interesting facts about our lectionary is that the Gospel reading for this Sunday regardless of whether you’re in Year A, B, or C is always the Transfiguration. I think the logic is, and I’ve shared this before, that we need this vision in our minds of the stunning glory of Jesus to sustain us through the hardships to come in Lent and Holy Week. I understand this logic, but I don’t know that I like it. Or at least I want to qualify it because Jesus himself turns away from this glory and sets his face towards the cross.
Peter says in the midst of this glorious moment, “Master, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah” (Luke 9:33) And Luke, the narrator, immediately remarks of Peter’s comment that Peter didn’t know what he was saying. This statement by Peter is notoriously difficult to understand. Because of the reference to tents, some think that Peter is referencing keeping the Feast of Tabernacles with Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. Whatever the case, it seems that Peter wants to stay here in this moment. He wants to set up shop. He wants to build tents. He wants to stay here. He wants to dwell in this moment. But Luke understands that that is not how this story works. Peter doesn’t understand what he just said.
And I think we can all understand Peter’s reaction. What’s waiting for us down the mountain, what’s waiting for us in three days, isn’t pretty. It’s ugly, dirty, messy, painful, violent, and even deadly. Why don’t we stay here? Why don’t we just set up shop in ordinary time, build our tents, and wait it out for Easter Sunday? We’ll go from glory to glory, from the Transfiguration to Easter Sunday, and avoid the mess and the pain of Ash Wednesday, Lent, and Good Friday. Doesn’t that sound better?
Let me give you two reasons why we need these forty days of Lent, why we need Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. The first is one that I know I’ve made before, so I won’t belabor the point, but it is near and dear to my heart and central to our mission as a church. The Gospels didn’t come into existence because the Evangelists sat down and, starting from scratch, wrote their accounts of the life of Jesus. One of the ways we can tell this is that stories seem to get stuck together in the Gospels. Some stories appear in random places in different Gospels, and some always appear together. In all three of the Synoptic Gospels, the narrative directly connects the account of the Transfiguration to the healing of a demon-possessed boy.
Luke makes the connection clear, saying, “On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain, a great crowd met him.” It’s from this great crowd that Jesus finds out about the boy. So, Jesus cannot stay on the mountain because that is not primarily the place where Christian ministry takes place. Down at the foot of the mountain, there is still a great crowd of people who desperately need the Kingdom of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So, while it’s a natural inclination to want to stay up in the glory of the mountain, that is not where we are called minister.
The world is out there beyond those doors, and that’s where the majority of Christian ministry takes place. In here is the kingdom of God, in here we see the glory in the face of Jesus Christ every Sunday, but we can’t stay here because down at the foot of the mountain, outside those doors is a great crowd of people, some living in their homes, some living on the streets, who are broken and lonely and hurting and desperately in need of the Kingdom of God and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. So that’s point number 1. We can’t stay here in the glory because the world to which we are called to minister is outside our doors.
The second point is a little more obvious. We can’t stay on the mountain because we’re called to follow Jesus, and that’s not what he does. When Jesus is there on the mountain talking to Moses and Elijah, he’s not talking about how great it is for them to be there. That’s what Peter is doing, and he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Rather, Jesus is talking to Moses and Elijah about his death. And I’ve been saying since I got here that you can’t understand who Jesus is and what he did without understanding New Exodus theology, and if you think I’m crazy, you’re probably right, but the word for death here is the Greek word ἔξοδος. Jesus is speaking to them about his departure, his death, his exodus, and that journey has just begun. It’s nice to have a vision of the glory to come, but it’s not for us quite yet. That glory is waiting for us on the other side of Easter, and I mean that both liturgically and existentially.
There is glory, but it’s not ours yet, and the Church makes so many mistakes because it doesn’t understand that. I won’t ask you to say it out loud again, but the Way of the Lord is the Way of the Cross. As he walks down the mountain today to minister to and heal the broken and to set himself to towards the grim reality that awaits him in Jerusalem, we are called to take up our cross and follow him. That’s why we need Lent; that’s why we need Ash Wednesday; that’s why we need Good Friday because this path is the only way that leads to Easter. Saint Paul says in Romans, “If we are children [of God], then we are heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with the Messiah—provided that we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him” (Rom 8:17).
That’s the answer to why we don’t say up here on the mountain: because at the foot of the mountain, outside our doors, there is a great crowd of people who need the good news and love of Jesus Christ that we can bring them. So, we can’t stay here; we have to go. We have to go back down the mountain and out our doors not only for their sake but for ours because there is only one path that leads to Easter. It’s the way of the cross; it’s the way down the mountain; it’s the way out into a broken and hurting world. And if there are times where, like Peter, you think, “I just want to stay here in the glory.” It’s understandable, but this is the only way that leads to Easter. May God helps us truly to be a church on the Way.