“Mountains & Visions” Colchester Federated Church, February 19, 2023, (Matthew 17:1-9) Transfiguration Sunday

“As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus commanded them, ‘Don’t tell anybody about the vision until the Human One is raised from the dead.’”[1]  The story of the transfiguration is read in churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary on the Sunday before Lent begins.  On Transfiguration Sunday we contemplate Jesus as fully human and fully divine.  As Christians, we know what is to come as Lent approaches.  Jesus references his death and resurrection in conversation with the disciples.  Perhaps seeing Jesus with his face shining like the sun and his clothes white as light high up on that mountain gives his followers courage to walk beside him as we grapple with the lessons of Lent on our own individual faith journeys.  We have this story of Jesus in all his love and light and glory to help us on our way.

The transfiguration is a highly symbolic story.  Matthew tells us that this all happened on the “top of a very high mountain.”[2]  Mountaintops were places of revelation.  Mountaintops are still viewed as holy places in World Religions.  Look at all of the monasteries and holy sites built on top of mountains that pilgrims climb to visit. 

We could also consider the story of Moses that both Jews and Christians share.  The Old Testament text this morning is Moses on top of Mount Sinai for forty days and forty nights receiving the Law of God.  In Exodus we can read, “Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain.  The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he [God] called to Moses out of the cloud.  Now the appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel.”[3]

Our Gospel story today from the Gospel according to Matthew has aspects that are similar to the Exodus story.  We keep in mind that mountains were holy places for Jesus too.  Jesus was well-versed in his Jewish tradition.  He would have been familiar with the story of Moses atop Mount Sinai conversing with God and having a personal encounter with God in all God’s glory.  Additionally, we’ve been hearing passages from the Sermon on the Mount the last three Sundays.  Jesus revealed some of his most important teachings on top of that small mountain as the crowd gathered before him above the shores of the Sea of Galilee.  There’s a beautiful symmetry happening here. 

Though Jesus is most likely on top of Mount Tabor where the Church of the Transfiguration stands in Israel to help people commemorate this Gospel story.  So we have our holy place and the setting—the mountain and all that it means.  And then we have the vision of what happens on top of that mountain that Matthew shares with us. 

This is a vision of Jesus transfigured.  A vision of Jesus transformed before the eyes of his disciples Peter, James, and John.  We hear this account of Jesus’ face shining like the sun and his clothing becoming as white as light itself.  Moses and Elijah appear to talk with Jesus, representing the law and the prophets.  We have a cloud in this vision, a cloud that overshadows all of them.  A voice comes from the cloud, “This is my Son whom I dearly love. I am very pleased with him. Listen to him!”[4]  The disciples’ response is to fall on their faces as they are filled with awe.

So here’s the question: what do we think about visions? 

Episcopal priest James Rowe Adams wrote a great book about biblical metaphors called From Literal to Literary.  He asserts that “visions play an important part in the unfolding drama of the Bible.”[5]  Adams explains that there are two Greek words that are translated into English as “vision” (horama and optasia).  Both words come from the same verb which means “to glimpse” or “to catch sight of.”  It’s fascinating because both of these Greek words are used in our story of the transfiguration from Matthew.  Our text says that Moses and Elijah appeared to them and Jesus says to tell no one about the vision

When “vision” gets used in modern English there are multiple meanings.  It could mean planning for the future and anticipating that future.  Our church has a Vision Statement.  Did you remember that we have a Church Vision Statement that was adopted in 2007?  Well we do!  The Vision Statement of Colchester Federated Church is:

The Love of God, the Redeeming Power of Jesus, and the Wisdom of the Spirit holds, leads, walks with, and strengthens our community of faith by which we welcome all to journey with us sharing, learning, teaching, and reaching out in love.[6] 

Organizations (like churches) often have Vision Statements that help plan for the future.  Vision statements are supposed to be inspiring and idealistic, helping to clarify what your meaning and purpose happens to be as an organization or institution.  Now vision as we use the word these days could also mean to have wisdom and extraordinary insight.  That Robert sure has vision!  Or vision could mean to have a dream-like experience.  So this is going to sound nutty, but I had a vision the other day.

Alright, with all of these possible meanings clarified—was this vision that Jesus told Peter, James, and John not to tell anyone about an event that took place on a particular day on Mount Tabor?  Or was this vision an internal experience, a dream-like personal experience that the disciples had when they were awake? 

Here’s how James Rowe Adams explains the situation, “In earlier times, that is, before the seventeenth century, most readers of the Bible would not wonder if a reported vision was a literary device or an event that took place in real time and physical space, nor would they have made a sharp distinction between a vision, which is essentially an internal experience, and an observation, seeing actual figures in front of their eyes.  They knew that people had dreams at night and dream-like experiences when wide awake.  These visions may have been just as real to them as seeing their families and neighbors.”[7]

The truth is that we don’t know exactly what happened during the transfiguration.  Perhaps it was an event in real time and space.  Perhaps it was an internal experience.  Though it’s worth contemplating what we think about visions.  Because visions can mean anticipating the future or having extraordinary wisdom or having a dream-like experience.  I would argue that visions can inspire people and help give people hope.  It’s terrific that our church has a Vision Statement because it’s a reminder of what you and I are called to do as part of this faith community here at Colchester Federated Church.  We are called to welcome all to journey with us.  We are called to share, to learn, to teach, and to reach out in love.  This vision helps ground our congregation just like the vision on top of that mountain (in whatever form it happened) helped ground the disciples to go back down the mountain to carry on Jesus’ teachings to the ends of the earth.  Visions are not just one-off events that happened thousands of years ago.  Having vision matters here and now.  Let us be people of hope and vision today.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Matthew 17:9, CEB.
[2] Matthew 17:1.
[3] Exodus 24:15-17, NRSV.
[4] Matthew 17:5, CEB.
[5] James Rowe Adams, From Literal to Literary: The Essential Reference Book for Biblical Metaphors, Second Edition, pg. 306.
[6] Colchester Federated Church Vision Statement.
[7] Adams, From Literal to Literary, pg. 308.

Photo by Artem Sapegin on Unsplash