Visions of God

Epiphany Last, Year A

Matthew 17:1-9


The Transfiguration must be the most famous vision of God ever. Every year, on the last Sunday after the Epiphany, just before we go into the season of Lent, we hear the story of the Transfiguration. This enduring power of this vision has inspired people through the ages.

Jesus takes Peter, James and John to a mountain and there they see Jesus transfigured into a brilliant, glowing figure and they see Moses and Elijah talking with him. Peter is dazzled and amazed. Peter must have been an extrovert. He can’t seem to stop talking: This is amazing. We have to commemorate this experience. We have to make this mountain a shrine! We have to build a chapel for Jesus, Moses and Elijah right here where we saw the vision of these three great prophets of God!

But God interrupts Peter’s enthusiasm with another vision. As if the vision of Jesus glowing with God’s light and the most famous prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures standing there talking with him were not enough, there is also a glowing cloud. And from the cloud there comes a voice – great and terrible – “This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased. Listen to him.”

Visions are interesting things. Most visions take just a moment. They are over before we know what is happening. The vision is there, we see, feel, hear something that grabs our attention, and then we are left trying to understand what just happened.

Visions can be a lot like dreams in that way. Most of us can remember a dream that really got our attention. Some dreams seem to be filled with meaning. You just have to tell someone these dreams. You tell the story and you try to understand. What does that mean?

Visions are like that. They do not come with explanations or instructions. The meaning of a vision unfolds over time. Peter, James and John see Jesus transfigured and they hear a voice speaking from a cloud. Something important has happened, but the meaning will unfold over time.

Jesus seems to understand this. “Let’s not talk about this until much later. You won’t really be able to understand what happened here until after I have been resurrected from the dead.”

Mother Teresa had one vision from God. Only one. She then spent 45 years serving the poor, sick, and dying in Calcutta and around the world. In an interview late in her life she was asked if she spoke with God. I thought this was an interesting question. I remember thinking that Mother Teresa must be a truly holy person. She must have some sort of special ability to experience God. Surely someone who is as tireless and selfless as Mother Teresa, someone who seems to be the living image of a saint, must have special access to God. God must speak to and guide her. So I was shocked to hear her answer. No, she said, God only spoke to me once. She had a single vision of Jesus among the poor, sick and dying of Calcutta and then she spent the rest of her life bring hope and comfort to the poorest of the poor and the sickest of the sick.

How could she go on so long and so tirelessly? How could one vision energize an entire life like that? I remember being confused by her answer. I think that I wanted her to say that God spoke to her, answering her prayers and guiding her work.  How else could she work in those conditions for so long?

We had a theology professor in seminary named Bishop Mark Dyer. He was a wonderful storyteller, and he would hold us spell-bound, bringing life and spirit to our studies. In one of his lectures he told a story about working in Calcutta with Mother Teresa. Bishop Mark was walking through the streets of Calcutta with one of the sisters, trying to keep up. As they pushed through crowds of people a leper saw Bishop Mark and called out, “Bless me. Father, Bless me.” The nun stopped and turned to Mark expectantly. Mark looked down at the man and he was repulsed. This man was in frightful shape. He had open sores on his scalp and the leprosy had already disfigured his face. Mark stood frozen, afraid to touch the man but terrified also of what the nun would think of him. Finally, she spoke to Mark. Well? Aren’t you going to lay your hands on this man and give him a blessing? So Bishop Mark reached out, placed his hand on the man’s head and gave him a blessing. In that moment, Bishop Mark told us, he saw Jesus. In the place of the leprous, dying man, there was Jesus. As Mark gave this man the blessing of Jesus’ love, he himself was filled with that love. Bishop Mark brought Jesus to that man, and in doing so, Bishop Mark saw Jesus himself.

The thing I love about Bishop Mark’s story is that there were no glowing lights and no voices from heaven, just a dying beggar asking for a blessing. On a dirty, crowded street, love overcame fear, and in the act of giving a blessing, Bishop Mark was himself blessed. And then the nun hurried Bishop Mark on his way. This was an ordinary encounter in so many ways, and in that ordinary encounter, God was present. Mark saw the face of Christ in a man whose name he would never know.

Mark’s story helps us to understand how Mother Teresa could go on for so long doing God’s work, bringing Jesus to the poor, the sick and the dying. The interviewer asked Mother Teresa, Does God answer your prayers? Do you hear God or see God in some special way? No, Mother Teresa answered, I have my work. That is enough.

On the mountain, when Jesus was transfigured, Peter wanted to do something. He wanted to build an altar or erect a marker. Peter was inspired but he did not yet understand, and so God the Father spoke: This is my Son, the beloved, with him I am well pleased. Listen to him.

What is Jesus saying to us now? On Wednesday we begin the season of Lent with the imposition of ashes. A couple of weeks ago I asked you consider what separates you from God? What is keeping you from living fully as a child of God? What is keeping you from being completely what God intends you to be? What is keeping you from perfectly expressing God’s love? We wrote our answers to those questions on slips of paper and brought them to the altar. Those slips have been sealed in an envelope for the past two weeks and today the youth group is going to burn them along with last year’s palm crosses. The ashes from that fire will be used to on Ash Wednesday.

I want to invite all of you to come to one of our Ash Wednesday services, receive the mark of the cross in ash on your forehead, and then walk through Lent together, listening to Jesus.


The Rev. David Marshall

St. Dunstan’s Church, Shoreline WA

March 6, 2011

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