Introductory Note:

Vernon Johns


Known as the father of the Civil Rights Movement, Vernon Johns was an ordained Baptist minister who served in Virginia and later in Alabama. He was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s predecessor as pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama and was sought for his wise counsel by both King, Jr. and Civil Rights leader Ralph Abernathy. Johns was a passionate and creative preacher with a brilliant mind. As a young man, he taught himself Greek, Latin, Hebrew, and German, and he could recite long passages from the Bible, including Romans in its entirety. When he was turned down by Oberlin Theological Seminary, he protested the decision. The Dean handed him the scripture in Greek and Johns proceeded to read it with such fluency that the decision was reversed. The excerpt shared here comes from Vernon Johns’s sermon “Transfigured Moments,” the first piece by a black preacher to be published in the Best Sermons series.

Grace Pouch
Content Manager

A Transforming Vision

After six days Jesus took with him Peter, James and John the brother of James, and led them up a high mountain by themselves. There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. Just then there appeared before them Moses and Elijah, talking with Jesus.

Peter said to Jesus, Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters — one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah.” Matthew 17:1 – 4 

It is good to be present when the ordinary is transformed; when the dull plain garments of a peasant becoming shining white, and the obscure mountain place, apart,” comes into the gaze of centuries. It is good to see the commonplace illumined and the glory of the common people revealed. 

On the Mount of Transfiguration there is no representative of wealth, social rank or official position. The place could boast in the way of population only four poor men, members of a despised race, and of the remnant of a subjected and broken nation. But it is here, instead of Jerusalem or Rome, that the voice of God is heard. 

It is here, instead of Mount Moriah, where the mighty temple stands, that the cloud of glory hovers. Out there where a carpenter and three fishermen keep vigil with the promise of a new day, God is a living Reality and life is charged with meaning and radiance. Out there in a deserted place, the meek and lowly are enhaloed.

There are two ways in which this transfiguring of the ordinary is specially needed. The lowly ones of earth need to experience this transformation. The great majority of our lives must be lived apart from any elaborate or jeweled settings; must plod along without any spectacular achievements. We ordinary people, then, must learn how to set the scraggy bushes of the wilderness ablaze with glory and make the paths that we tread, under the pressure of duty, like Holy Ground. 

In the humblest routine, we must discover our task as a part of the transforming enterprise of the Heavenly Father. The laborer that toils on a country road must know himself as the builder of a highway to a Christian civilization. The cobbler may be a mere cobbler, or he may transform his occupation and be a foundation man in the Kingdom of Christ. Make tents if we must, but we will illumine the old task with a radiant new heart, and, with our tent making, make a shining new earth. If toil will be confined to the same old field, keep a land of promise shining in the distance and call down angels to sing until the drab turns golden. Let us light up the commonplace and make the ordinary radiant. Let us make seamless peasant garments shine like the sun. 

Second, those who think themselves the favored ones of Earth need a transforming vision of life among the lowly. There is no warrant in the theory and prac­tice of Jesus for dull and frigid doctrines of lesser breeds without the law.” If the life of Jesus means anything, it means implicit faith in the universal capacity of man for the highest character and worth. 

To this end, the doors to the kingdom of the Best are to be thrown open to all the points of the compass, that men may come from the North and the South, the East and the West to sit down with Abraham and Isaac, in the Kingdom of God.” Humanity that has climbed to places of social and economic authority must learn how to trace the rainbow tint over the life of the lowly, and to inter­pret the swelling and ferment at the bottom of society as a healthy and beautiful essay of one’s fel­low men in the direction of fuller life. It is a heart strangely unChristlike that cannot thrill with joy when the least of the children of men begin to pull in the direction of the stars.

Aglow with the Good Life

It is good to be in the presence of persons who can kindle for us fine, heroic living. 

The population on the Mount of Transfiguration was very small, but it was tremendously significant. Jesus, Moses and Elijah! In the presence of personality like this, men can kindle their torches and go forth in life as bearers of light and heat. Humanity needs the contagion of lofty spirits. Humanity needs contact with persons who are aglow with the good life. 

We practice brotherhood within carefully restricted areas. We forgive other people’s enemies. We carry a Bible but not a cross. Instead of the Second Mile, we go a few yards of the first and then wonder that Christian goals are not realized. 

O fools and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken!” When we lift ourselves, at least from the ruin and entanglements of our diluted and piecemeal righteousness, it will be under the leadership of persons for whom righteousness was a consuming and holy fire, instead of a mere lukewarm and foggy something. 

It is such leadership, such righteous dynamics as this that we find in the presence of Jesus and Moses and Elijah. We beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth. And of his fullness we have all received.” You can kindle a flame like that! It is the full receptacle that overflows, spreading its content to neighboring borders. It is a flame vital enough not to be extinguished by a slight jostle.

It is good for us to be here.”

Questions for Group Discussion

  1. In his interpretation of the phrase, It is good for us to be here,” Johns speaks of here not as a physical location, but as presence with others. Who are the ordinary fellow learners among whom God has placed you? Who are the lofty spirits” — leaders by example — who kindle your heart for God and the good life? When you are here” with these people, how is it good for your soul?
  2. Does your Christian fellowship include those at the bottom of society? At the top? 
  3. Johns says: The great majority of our lives must be lived apart from any elaborate or jeweled settings…We ordinary people, then, must learn how to set the scraggly bushes of the wilderness ablaze with glory and make the paths that we tread, under the pressure of duty, like Holy Ground. How might you honor the ordinary moments of life and the people around you as opportunities to experience God as a living Reality?

Excerpted from Transfigured Moments,” a sermon delivered in 1925 at Court Street Baptist Church, Lynchburg, Virginia. Originally published in Best Sermons 1926, Vol. 1, ed. Joseph Fort Newton. Public domain.

Image: Transfiguration by Alexandr Ivanov, 1824 source

Text First Published January 1927 · Last Featured on May 2024