A sermon from the Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs
“Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him.”
Which was it? Were they awake, or were they asleep?
Such is the nature of visions.
Someone asked me recently if I believed in visions. If by that did he mean do I believe that God has ways of getting our attention in ways that defy our intellectual capacity and even our physical senses? Well yes, I do. The biblical tradition of dream and vision, which spans both testaments from Genesis to Revelation, and the historical tradition of religious mystics like Teresa of Avila, Hildegard of Bingen, and Julian of Norwich to name just three, is a long and—depending on who you’re talking to—an honored one.
But it is a spiritual gift that, if not held with the utmost humility and care, can be easily misunderstood and misused. For example, Constantine’s fourth-century vision of the Chi Rho—the symbol of Christ—in the sky before the battle that effectively made him sole emperor of the Roman Empire and resulted in his conversion to Christianity—this vision entwined Christianity and Empire in a way that Verna Dozier has called the one of the major “falls” of humankind—a major detour from the Way of Jesus and the Dream of God. On the other hand, Teresa of Avila went to great effort to discern the nature of her visions and used them for the spiritual growth and nurture of the members of her community; her spiritual guide, The Interior Castle is one of the classics of Christian spirituality.
The power–and potential danger–of a vision lies in its aftermath—in what actions are taken, or not, afterward, and who is served as a result. A true vision from God illuminates God’s vision for us, not our vision for ourselves.
That being said, here’s another question:
“Was the Transfiguration a vision or did it really happen?”
Either Luke was writing in the language of vision, as he often did, in his Gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles, or he was relating an event of such significant import that it was included in all three synoptic Gospels and in the 2nd Epistle of Peter. There was reality and truth here that transcended the ordinary and captivated the imagination. Four men went up a mountain. And when they came down—which is really the most important part of the story—they were not the same.
Look at the context of the writing: Luke’s late-first-early second-century audience was coming to terms with the fact that their idea of Jesus’ “imminent” return–and God’s idea of that return– were not exactly the same. Luke needed to put their waiting into the context of salvation history so that they could find a way to chart their path forward as a community. How were they to live—together, and in the world? What was God calling them to do and be in this transitional moment?
For a transitional moment it was. Luke’s account of the Transfiguration marks a bridge point in salvation history. The vision of Jesus in conversation with Moses—the liberator of the People of Israel, the bringer of the Law from Mount Sinai—and Elijah, the prophet and harbinger of the Eschaton, or End of Days—this vision effectively places Jesus at a fulcrum point between Old and New Covenants. And the Transfiguration itself is the fulcrum of Jesus’ own life: his ministry on earth is almost done, and now he will journey down the mountain, to Jerusalem, death, and resurrection.
Placed powerfully within this vision’s gleaming white brilliance—sees his identity and his path forward with new clarity. “This is my Son, my Chosen; Listen to him!”
My Chosen. Also translated, My Beloved.
In this moment you can almost feel the tectonic plates shifting.
And for Peter, James and John; the witnesses—what now? Stay and bask in the glory, or turn away—leave it behind and head into an unknown future?
Of course Peter’s first reaction (bless his heart) was to focus on the comfort of the glorious present. His intentions may have been good, but he was thinking more of how this vision made him feel, rather that what it was calling him to do. An understandable temptation. Who wouldn’t stand transfixed? Who wouldn’t want it to last forever?
But no. The point isn’t the friends’ vision for themselves. It’s God’s vision for them, and for the world.
“LISTEN.” Don’t just look. Listen. And go down the mountain.
This moment calls to us as well—this is a fulcrum point in the liturgical year. We are at the end of the season of Epiphany, in which we have observed milestones in Jesus’ life that illuminated his identity as God’s son. The divine voice of the Transfiguration echoes Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan at the beginning of the season: “This is my son, the beloved, in whom I am well pleased.”
Named Beloved as Jesus began his ministry at Baptism, and now named Beloved again as he emerges from the Vision and sets his face toward Jerusalem. When the four friends come down the mountain, “they were silent.” Were they excited? Resolute? Anxious?
And as they descended from the mountaintop, the vision fading into memory, they were confronted almost immediately by a different, more gritty and visceral reality—
Crowds. Demons. And frustration.
The father of a suffering child says, “I begged your disciples to cast [the demon] out, but they could not.”… [Jesus responds,]”You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?…Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.”
Healing. Reunion. And awe. Such is the nature of the work of the Vision of God.
As we enter Lent in the coming week we are called deeper into the work of the Kingdom; into a new season of looking inward to our hearts and outward to a world in need. We are challenged and called to a season of renewed spiritual discipline; as the Ash Wednesday prayer says, “by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.”
As we set our faces toward Lent and Easter, we are called to journey with Jesus; a journey that must begin by going down the mountain, strengthened, but not imprisoned, by the vision. We’re called to hear that we, too, are beloved children of God—beloved with all of our frailty, brokenness and Peter-like tendencies to shoot from the lip. We are called to be liberated and nourished by that knowledge; not in order to bask in it and rest on our laurels but to see and serve that belovedness in the troubled world that lies down the mountain from this Transfiguration moment. It won’t be easy. It isn’t meant to be.
Are we ready for the journey? Are we excited? Resolute? Maybe even a little anxious?
Are we alone?