A sermon on Luke 9:28-43 & 2 Corinthians 3:12-4:2 by Nathan Nettleton
We hear a lot these days, both inside and outside the church, about each person achieving their potential. There is plenty of cynical advertising that works by telling you that if you purchase this or that product, you will be closer to achieving your potential, but there is not only cynicism. That sort of advertising works precisely because the hunger to reach our potential or fulfil our destiny is very real and common to all of us. The vast majority of people in this country dream of making a radical change to their life. We live with a sense that we could be so much more than we are, and we yearn to bring that unrealised potential to fruition. But how are we to know what our potential is? How are we to know what it is that our lives could look like if we were to get there? What have we been created to be, and how are we to find out?
When Peter, James and John – three of the disciples of Jesus – witnessed his transfiguration on the mountain top, they learned a lot about who Jesus was and what he was created to be. As the story we heard said, they saw him positively aglow with the glory of God. In his appearance, in the voice from heaven, and in the content of the conversation with Moses and Elijah, they glimpsed something of the astonishing potential that tied together his baptism, his ministry, and his impending execution and resurrection.
The voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, my chosen one,” echoing the words that were heard from heaven as Jesus was baptised. Back then, the voice had addressed Jesus himself, assuring him of his identity, his mission, and his potential. Now it addresses the disciples, assuring them of who he is and instructing them to listen to him, perhaps even suggesting that they should listen to him rather than even Moses and Elijah.
His appearance, exalted and on fire with the glory of God, points forward to Christ’s resurrection and ascension to the right hand of God to such an extent that many biblical scholars have wondered whether this story really began as a resurrection story and has been relocated, out of chronological order. We’ll leave that for the scholars to speculate about. The important thing for us is what the story says where it is, and here it is telling us some important things about the journey from baptism to resurrection. For one thing, it is telling us that the potential that was seen fully realised in the resurrection and ascension of Christ was always present. It might not have been obvious most of the time, but the glorious image of God was there in him all along. But there is something else.
Did you hear what it said Jesus was talking about with Moses and Elijah? He was talking about “his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” He knew what he was up against in Jerusalem. He knew that to maintain his path with integrity would bring down the wrath of the powerful establishment who had the power to arrest, try, and execute him. And he knew that only by maintaining his path with integrity would he fulfil the potential declared at his baptism and reach his destiny of resurrection glory.
But none of us is Jesus, so what has all this got to do with us and fulfilling our potential? Well let’s listen again to what the Apostle Paul said in our reading from his second letter to the Corinthian church: “And all of us, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” Again: “All of us are being transformed into the same image, from one degree of glory to another.” “The same image.” The same image that the disciples saw light up in glory on the mountain top is our destiny too. That same potential lies hidden in us, for we, like Jesus, are made in the image of God and destined to fully reflect the glory of God.
And before we go any further, please don’t start feeling inadequate about Paul’s suggestion that all of us are ” seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror”. If those words caught your ear, you may be thinking, “Gee, I certainly never seem to have that clear a vision. I must be a spiritual failure.” Paul was writing hundreds of years before the invention of the modern clear glass mirror. The mirrors he was talking about were either coloured glass or polished metal. They were little better than those vandal proof stainless steel ones you sometimes see in public toilets. As he said in another passage that we heard a couple of weeks ago, “we see as in a glass dimly.” Paul is not saying you need a perfect vision of God for this transformation to be happening to you. The blurry glimpses are enough, because the image and glory of God already exists within you. You don’t need to reproduce it or manufacture it. It is an integral part of who you already are. You just need to learn to uncover it and let it shine.
I am not, however, suggesting that this is easy. There are obstacles both around us and within us. In the second half of our gospel reading, when Jesus had come down from the mountain and met up with the rest of his disciples, he finds them unable to exercise the healing power of the glory of God that is within them. They are trying to heal a boy who is afflicted by some kind of evil spiritual force, and they can’t. In exasperation, Jesus says, “How much longer must I bear with you, you faithless and perverse generation?” In part he’s probably just being a bit grumpy, but in part too he is acknowledging the difficulty of charting a completely different course than the culture, the rest of your generation. Going against the flow requires unusual courage, but it is also hard because it is much more difficult to imagine what might be possible and to catch a vision of how you might be a part of it. Almost all the role models and examples point in the other direction.
And there are internal obstacles as well. The demonised boy in the story illustrates this, and did you notice the way the gospel writer tied the portrayal of the boy to the vision of transfiguration on the mountain? Did you hear the concerned father echoing the voice of the heavenly Father on the mountaintop? He cries out to Jesus, “Look at my son; my only son.” So we have the only son on the mountaintop, fully reflecting the glory of God, and the only son down below, in the grip of something demonic that keeps the glory of God well and truly buried and out of sight. There is no suggestion that the boy is evil or demonic. The boy, like all of us, is created in the image of God and destined to reflect the full glory of God, but at this point, like a rampant virus, something evil has colonised him and is destroying him. “But Jesus rebuked the unclean spirit, healed the boy, and gave him back to his father. And all were astounded at the greatness of God.”
This Wednesday we will begin our annual journey through the season of Lent. The season of Lent is all about this stuff; about tackling the obstacles that would lock us into the futile and unhealthy ways of our faithless and perverse generation. It is about seeking to purge our inner selves of those things that infest us and cripple our capacity to love, to hope, to be merciful; our capacity to shine forth the glory of God.
On three of the Sundays during Lent, our liturgy will include prayers which ask God to drive any remaining evil from us. The prayers will focus especially on those who are in the final stage of the catechumenate – because the Lenten season is structured around this stage of their journey – but it is a prayer for all of us too. Even the fact that we do it three weeks in a row is a reminder that we can’t ever think we’ve got it finished and done. Evil will continue to assail us, both inside and out, and we need to remain vigilant to its attacks and ready to stand against anything that would obscure the image of God in us. It will not just be the prayers in the Sunday liturgies that help us here. Our congregational covenant calls on us all to take on some additional disciplines of personal prayer and reflection for this season, and our guidelines and suggestions for this “school of discipleship” should be coming your way on the email tomorrow, or in hard copy when we gather for the liturgy on Wednesday night.
We won’t only be focussing on the inward dimensions though. We will endeavour too to take seriously the influence of a “faithless and perverse generation” on us. This year’s Lenten home group study series will involve watching and prayerfully discussing five episodes from a recent documentary series on the meaningless that infests so many aspects of modern culture.
All of this is to better enable us to undergo the transformation from being like the helpless only son at the foot of the mountain to the gloriously transfigured only Son on top of the mountain. All of it is about unleashing our potential and fulfilling our destiny. All of us were created in the image of God, and in Jesus Christ we have seen what that potential looks like fulfilled and on fire with the glory of God. The connection I mentioned earlier between the transfiguration story and the resurrection stories is written into this Lenten journey. On this last Sunday before the journey begins, we hear this story, and when the journey ends, we will be celebrating the resurrection. In between, the journey of transformation takes us by way of the cross. Those who would realise their potential and achieve their destiny with the transfigured and risen Christ, must walk with him the way of the cross. For only there, only as we are put to death with him, will the powers of death lose their hold over us, and leave us free to be raised with Christ, that we might with him shine with the blazing glory of God.