Transfiguration A Sermon (1993)

Transfiguration Sunday
Texts: Matthew 17:1-9;
2 Peter 1:16-21; Ex. 24:12-18


I saw a bumper sticker this week that caught my eye. It simply said, “Visualize World Peace.” Visualize world peace. It probably caught my eye for a couple reasons. One is that I have a great concern for world peace, and so bumper stickers on that theme tend to catch my eye. And the second is that the lessons for Sunday’s sermon generally brew around inside me all week; and this week’s lessons feature a vision, the vision of Jesus transfigured in his resurrection glory. The bumper sticker got me thinking: did the disciples “visualize world peace” when they saw their vision of Jesus?

Let’s say a few more words about the word “vision.” Webster’s begins with the basic definition of: “the act or power of seeing with the eye”; in other words, “the sense of sight.” That fits in with our central imagery of the Christmas and Epiphany seasons, the imagery of light and darkness, that those who sit in darkness shall see a great light. How do we begin to see the light? For the disciples on that mountain of Jesus’ transfiguration it was by being granted the grace of a vision in the second sense of Webster’s Dictionary: “that which is supposedly seen by other than normal sight; a supernatural, prophetic, or imaginary appearance.” The disciples were granted a vision that day, a glimpse of Jesus’ future glory, a glimpse of what it would be like when Jesus came fully into his glory. They were granted a vision that went beyond normal, everyday sight, one that could begin to move them out of the darkness and into the light.

But Webster’s has a third sense of the word “vision” that goes like this: “a mental image, especially an imaginative contemplation; the ability to perceive something not visible, as through mental acuteness or keen foresight; force or power of the imagination.” It is this last sense of the word “vision” which is most at stake this morning. The disciples were granted an extraordinary vision, a glimspe of Jesus’ glory, but could they translate that supernatural vision into this crucial third kind of vision, the kind of imagination that gives one continuing insight for everyday living? Or, we can return to that bumper sticker: If what they were in fact given is a glimpse of the glory of the Prince of Peace, could they “visualize that world peace”?

This third sense of the word “vision” is one that has become popular in management and leadership training seminars. If one is to lead an organization to get things done, we are told, then you must be able to effectively set specific goals that can be acted upon with measurable results. And if you are to properly set meaningful goals, then you must have what is called vision. You must have an overall vision of where you would like your organization to go. In the church, this management style has meant writing mission statements, trying to paint a broad vision of where we want to go as a congregation, and then sitting down to write specific measurable goals. Vision. Any group of people, if they are to go anywhere together, if they are to meaningfully share life, they must begin with a vision of what that life can, and perhaps should, be.

Jesus needed to prepare the disciples to be leaders in the church. His closing words to them in the gospel of Matthew we call the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” This is a vision for their life together in the church. It is also a vision ultimately of world peace, one that would join peoples of all nations. Our question this morning has to do with the connection between this vision for mission that the disciples are given at the end of Matthew’s gospel, and the supernatural vision of Jesus’ glory that they are given in the middle of the story, on the mountain of Jesus’ transfiguration.

I would like to illustrate this question for us this morning with a specific example out of our own congregational experience. It has to do with our visitors of a month ago, the members of the South African Ministry in Toronto who joined us for the weekend of January 23-24. The responses I have heard have been very positive. So many have commented that their participation in our Sunday morning worship and Sunday School hour was a blessing.

The question after such a wonderful time is “Where do we go from here?” Do we simply accept it as a highlight in our congregational life and go on with business as usual? Or is there some way we can follow-up on the experience and try to draw from its power? In the context of this morning’s gospel, I’d even like to ask whether or not we were granted a vision of the supernatural kind, so that we might translate that into a vision for our ongoing mission.

This morning we are making the transition from Epiphany to Lent through remembrance of the Transfiguration of Our Lord. In letting this story shape our journey, let’s look at Peter’s response. Basically, it was to try to capture the glory of the moment by building some monuments to the event, that they might be able to continually come back to it. But the moment of their supernatural vision is quickly lost and Jesus’ only response is to lead them back down the mountainside to life below. The response of Jesus was not to try to keep returning but to keep moving forward.

This story can underline for us once again that ours is a faith based on promise. Promise. It keeps calling us forward. This is not because there are never times worth trying to return to or to recapture. It is because we believe those mountaintop experiences to be glimpses of an even greater future. After the Transfiguration, Jesus told his three disciples not to tell anyone what they had seen until the resurrection. What they had in fact seen was a forward glimpse of that resurrection glory, which would only make more complete sense at that later time.

But even more important was to understand what was to come in between: a life of servanthood that would lead Jesus to the suffering of the cross. That glimpse of resurrection glory in the Transfiguration would only make sense after traveling that road to the cross with Jesus. In terms of what we have said about vision this morning, their supernatural vision of Jesus’ glory would only make sense to them after their vision of mission was shaped by the cross.

Our experience with our friends in Christ from the South African Ministry, what did that mean? Why was it so powerful to us? Can we go back and try to recapture it? I would like to suggest that the meaning and power of that morning was, like the Transfiguration, due to its glimpse and foretaste of things to come. What Jesus died and rose again for was the reconciliation of all peoples, of all creation, to God. Our morning together with folks, whose paths through life on this earth have been so different than ours, gave us a wondrous foretaste of what it will be like to finally have all the barriers that divide peoples come down. It provided a vision of what it is like to all live as God’s children, each sharing our own unique gifts with one another.

Can we follow up that mountaintop experience? Yes, but the message of the Transfiguration story is to not do so by trying to go backwards; rather, we must continue to go forwards. Perhaps it can mean getting together for further foretastes of the feast to come, further joint worship experiences. But the example of our Lord also call us to life in the valley, a life of servanthood that moves us to share the suffering of others and to work to tear down the barriers that divide us. It means living not only with the power of that supernatural vision we were granted several weeks ago, but to also risk forging that clearer vision for mission, one that anticipates the day when our Lord’s work will finally be complete. To truly join with our friends from Toronto, we must join together with them in their struggle for world peace, in their fight against racism, for all our benefits. We must go from a glimpse of the glory we received several weeks ago to the hard work of visualizing world peace and acting on it.

I invite you to join with me in taking the next step, to make a vision that informs or mission. Join me on alternate Thursdays, beginning March 4, to read an excellent and challenging book together, Dismantling Racism, by Joseph Barndt. We will be taking an honest look at the racism in our society, and in our own hearts, and planning together how we can stand up against it. We will be visualizing world peace, for the sake of doing something together. Like Jesus and the disciples’ path after the transfiguration, it may be a path involving some pain and suffering, but it is also one with its mountaintop glimpses of the glory to come, as our work befits the hope and promise given to us, that someday all people will live together as one. Even without knowing the words of the last song they shared with us, didn’t you feel the power of their struggle to bring God’s justice? Let us catch the power of that supernatural vision together and then take the next step of making a clearer vision that moves us to a common mission. Let us open ourselves to the power of that day four weeks ago and do something about it. Amen

Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Grace Lutheran,
Howell, MI, February 21, 1993

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