I preached this sermon a year ago. It was interesting reading it back last night before church this morning. It's made me wonder how I'd have preached on the passage differently today. The gospel was Luke 9:28-36.
A few weeks ago, Jenny and I went up to Scotland for our nephew’s christening. We decided to break our journey on the way up, and so we stopped off and stayed in Northumberland, where we took a trip to Lindisfarne, also known as Holy Island. The Irish missionary, St Aidan, set up a monastery there in the 7th Century, and from there, his band of merry monks set about restoring Christianity to an England that had fallen into Anglo-Saxon paganism.
Our trip to that island got me thinking about a concept in Celtic spirituality called ‘thin places’. A ‘thin place’ is somewhere where people feel particularly close to God. In poetic language, it’s where the fabric between heaven and earth is stretched so thin that you can almost see through it, where you can reach out and perhaps touch the other side.
Holy Island is thought to be a Thin Place. I have to say, when I was there, although it was beautiful, and a place I do want to go back to, I didn’t particularly feel that stretching-of-the-fabric. Maybe you’ve been, and maybe you did? Perhaps next time I go, I will.
I think I’ve felt it at other times, and in other places, though. I grew up in Devon, near Dawlish Warren (which was in the news a few months ago when the tide caused the sea-side railway to collapse). Sitting on the beach at Dawlish Warren on a particularly stormy evening when that tide was crashing against the shore is one of those thin places for me. The sheer power of the sea alongside the lightning-clad sky was certainly one where that fabric was particular thin.
Mountains are often thought of as thin places. There’s something about journeying high up a mountain that makes people feel closer to heaven. Maybe when the air gets thinner, that fabric between heaven and earth feels like it does too?
Today’s gospel reading is perhaps set in the ultimate thin place. Christ and his disciples go up to a mountain to pray. On a mountain so thin (maybe made even thinner with prayer?) that Jesus is shown as human and divine. His face changes, and his clothes become dazzling; too bright to look at. Some artists when painting this moment in the past, have even had Jesus floating in mid-air (in fact, I had to read this passage a few times to make sure he *didn’t* actually start levitating…)
This mountain, so thin, that Moses and Elijah break through that fabric, and appear, and talk to Christ.
So thin that God the Father appears in a cloud, and can be heard by everyone present.
This moment, known as the transfiguration, is as thin as it gets. Some commentators describe it as where the ‘temporal meets the eternal’. Where a fraction in time (the temporal), and the whole of time (the eternal) cross and connect.
WHAT’S HAPPENING HERE?
So, what is this bit about? This angel-singing, harp-playing, light-bulb moment on this mountain? What’s actually happening?
From a story-telling viewpoint, this is a pivotal moment in God’s narrative, and a pivotal moment in Luke’s gospel too. Only a few verses before, Peter has declared that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah. And, on that bombshell, we’re ready to see what that means:
Two of the heroes of the Jewish people, of the story-so-far – Moses and Elijah – are brought back. And with them there, these giants of the faith, God tells us to listen not to them, but to “my son, my beloved’.
Where have we heard those words before? In the life of Christ, where else do we hear God speak “this is my son, my beloved”? We’re being reminded of the baptism of Christ. We’re looking back to the whole of what’s gone before, through the history of the Jewish people, to Christ’s baptism in the Jordan. We’re at a key point in our journey from the Old Covenant to the New.
We’re looking ahead too. Moses and Elijah talk to Christ about “his departure”, which he was “about to accomplish”. They are not talking about leaving this mountain. As hard a journey back down as that might be, that is no “accomplishment”. instead, with two men beside him at each point, whether they represent the law and the prophets, or whether they are two common thieves, we are looking towards the accomplishment of Christ’s crucifixion.
But still, we’re looking further than that. On this mountain, Christ is changed, and appears in dazzling white, just as he looks post-resurrection and when he ascends into heaven.
We have Christ’s journey wrapped up in this one moment; his baptism, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension, all linked to God’s unfolding plan through the representatives of the law and the prophets.
That’s what the commentators mean when they talk about this being when the temporal meets the eternal. In this moment, on this mountain, in these few minutes of the journey of Christ, just a speck in the journey of mankind, God’s narrative for the human race, for his chosen people, and for his son is prophesied.
TEMPORALITY – THIN TIMES?
Small wonder, then, that Peter wanted to halt the journey there; to set up some tents for everyone present and to make this mountain a permanent place of worship. “Surely”, Peter must have thought, “this is as good as it gets”. If you were there, you’d want to hold onto that miracle too, wouldn’t you?
God puts an end to that, straight away, though. No sooner has Peter suggested it, than God speaks out of the cloud and terrifies the disciples. When the cloud clears, the miracle is over, and things are back to normal, or as normal as they could ever be after that.
Peter has, as we often hear about Peter, missed the point. But… I think I would have done so too. When a miracle like this happens, it’s hard to focus on what it means; I’m sure I’d have been just as caught up in the awesomeness of the moment to stop to think about what it actually meant.
But, as we have seen, it does have a meaning. This miracle is a sign; a signpost - it is not the destination. It is meant to be temporary. We don’t set our tents here; we’re meant to move on; to carry on our own journey.
This pointer shows us God’s plan for the salvation of his people, and tells us to look toward Christ. Peter could not foresee the miracle of the resurrection that was to come. He could not possibly comprehend that there could be something better than had happened on that mountain when he saw his friend change, saw Moses and Elijah, and heard the voice of God. When the voice of God intervened from within that cloud, however, he had to trust that more was to come.
By focussing on the pointer, as Peter wanted to do, we could miss the point. We are never told the name of this mountain in any of the gospel accounts. I’m sure that’s on purpose. The place, this ‘thin place’ is not the focus.
I wonder if, as well as ‘thin places’, there are ‘thin times’. Moments in our journey with God and with others when (and not where) we feel that closeness. Moments that are meant to be temporal. That are meant to end, like we heard in our gospel message today.
These are only moments, fractions in time in our journey. Those times when we feel so close to heaven have to come to an end, and we have to carry on our way. Like Peter, we must trust that there is more to come.
And, when those moments do end, we can look back on them as pointers showing the way toward Christ, where he, and his life, can be our focus, and not the holy mountain, wherever it may be.
And we’ll carry on our journey, experiencing those momentary thin places, until, eventually, we reach our journey’s end, and our own temporal moment meets the eternal thin time.