Sunday sermon on the Gospel lesson from Matthew 17:14-23
In the Name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
Today’s Gospel lesson is preceded by the story of Christ going up to the mount Tabor with His three disciples, Peter, James, and John, where He was transfigured before them, where He revealed to them His divine nature.
While they were on Tabor, a man approached the other disciples, who waited at the bottom, and asked them to help his son, who was sick. He was possessed; he had seizures. In fact, the literal translation of his disease is lunacy. We don't know what the disciples did or tried to do, but they could not help the poor boy.
We can be sure that the disciples were upset at not being able to help because by that time they already had the power to, among other things, heal the sick, raise the dead, and cast out demons (Matthew 10:1, 8). Power given to them by Christ Himself. Power that they already had used to heal the sick, raise the dead, and cast out demons. But here, they were powerless.
There is an interesting parallel between the Transfiguration of Christ on Mount Tabor and reception of the Law by Moses on Mount Sinai. Moses left the whole nation of Israel at the foot of the mountain and spent forty days conversing with God and receiving the Law.
Apparently forty days was too much to ask the people to wait and maybe pray (or something). They got tired of waiting, (forty days!), lost their focus, forgot why they were there in the first place, and in the end built a statue of a bull and worshipped it as their god that they claimed saved them from Egypt. In short, they perverted themselves; they played a harlot with demons.
Without Moses to lead them, Israel became confused, lost. And something very similar happened when Christ went up Mount Tabor. We don't know how many days He spent there, but without Him His disciples lost the power to heal. The first thing Jesus hears, upon descending from the mountain, is that His disciples are helpless.
It’s as if without Christ being physically present with them, He was forgotten. Sometimes, it seems, we act as if Christ were not physically present with us. So we tend to forget about Him. And forgetting Christ means following our own interests, which usually evolve around money or pleasure or entertainment or success (whatever that means) or money again.
In other words, we play a harlot with our own demons, like the ancient Israelites. Even as a church, we are focused (in my not so humble of an opinion) too much on money.
Forgetting Christ means worshipping statues of bulls (why do you think they have a statue of a bull on Wall Street?). Forgetting Christ makes us pagans, it makes us possessed, like the boy from today's Gospel lesson. It makes us lunatics.
Like the boy, we throw ourselves into the fire, which is our anger and passions – the things that bring out the worst in us. Or we throw ourselves into the water, the waves of which engulf us in our daily struggle about our family, work, carrier, social position, but all of which distract us from one thing needed – Jesus Christ.
Does this mean that we have to abandon our families and money and livelihoods? By no means! But it does mean that all of these things need to be Christ-centered.
In a sort of frustration with His disciples’ inability to heal the boy, Christ says to them, after they couldn't heal the boy, “How much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you?” And the answer is – always, forever. Christ will be with us forever; He will put up with us till the end of this age because we are His. He was willing to suffer and die for us, so that we would stop playing a harlot with demons, and suffer because of that, but would repent and inherit the Kingdom that He has prepared for us.
And in order for us to be with Him and begin defeating our lack of faith and our own lunacy and our own demons, Christ points us in the direction of praying and fasting. “This kind [of demon],” He says, “does not go out except by prayer and fasting.”
Prayer is faith in action, and fasting is an essential aid to prayer. Together they constitute the foundation of the Christian life. One of the common self-deceptions among Christians today is that prayer is important, but fasting is optional. Too often we hear jokes about the ways in which we avoid fasting, but even more often we attempt to justify our failure.
Fasting is more than just giving up meat and dairy products for a few days. Diet may not even necessarily be part of it. For example, pregnant women and nursing mothers are sometimes even discouraged from dietary fasting. Same thing with children and elderly people who need specific nutrients.
Fasting is rejection of, or to be more correct, liberation from everything that enslaves us. Fasting is the liberation from our passions and temptations. We give up some small things, small passions and temptations voluntarily, training ourselves to give up and avoid bigger and more dangerous passions and temptations.
Fasting does not make us miserable, but free. In a Christian tradition, proper fasting makes us free and independent from all unnecessary earthly pleasures and temptations. Fasting opens us up to truly and completely belong to God, for Him to dwell in us and work through us.
Prayer and fasting, through the grace of God, deliver us from our own lunacy. Prayer is intentional effort to spend a few conscious moments in the presence of God. And fasting is intentional effort of liberation from demons. In other words, prayer and fasting make our life Christ-centered, so that we would not forget Him and start building our own statues of bulls.
May the Lord continue to be with us and continue to put with us until we are fully healed and present with Him in His Kingdom.