February 27, 2022

A Mountaintop, “Thin Place” Experience

Passage: Luke 9:28-37

Have you ever been on a mountain top?  Have you been, for example, to the peak of Whistler or some other ski resort mountain, or perhaps some other place where you may have hiked or have been transported to the peak on a chair lift or gondola? On a clear winter’s day as you looked across the miles, the mounds of folding whiteness, like layers of whipped cream set again a blue background. You couldn’t help but be uplifted.   Let me take you back, back up there. The snow sparkles.  The air bites at your face. The sun blinds the eyes.  The scene is truly “breathtaking.”  A wondrous sight to behold. It puts you into a bit of a dizzying trance. It causes you to think about the Divine, about God, Creation, your place in the vastness, here on earth and even in the universe. Not in some linear, intellectual way. But in a truly awesome, soulful, “Oh my God!” kind of way. You may feel that you are closer to the Divine, closer to God.  Maybe you want to burst out with a chorus of “How great thou art!” (Tell Brian S. & Brian A. ski story)

You find yourself closer to the Divine, to God and all that seems Holy.

Closer than when you might be sitting at a desk, driving the car or standing in your kitchen listening to the radio while fixing breakfast in the morning. God is closer, nearer.  Up there. Up there on the mountain top.

That is a “thin place” a place where you, where others too, might connect with their Divine essence, their soul.  That is a “Thin Place” – where heaven and earth meet, where the Divine meets the temporal. There are places like that in the world. There are people, people who believe very much in these thin places. Our Scottish, Celtic, Presbyterian tradition is open to this kind of teaching and thinking. One of those these places, although it is not a mountain top, but a windy Island in the lower Hebrides off the Scottish mainland, is Iona. Iona, its ancient Abbey and attendant history of Saints and miracles, is one of these “thin places”.



We humans seem to have a natural desire for seeking out these kinds of places, mountaintop experiences especially.  We will undergo serious hardship to reach the mountain top.  Interest in mountain climbing, enduring dangers reaching summits like Everest continues.

But one need not seek to climb Everest to enjoy a mountaintop experience.  You can drive to your river-bank, you favourite lakeside, or cove, ocean shore and gaze across the water in the silence. Suddenly the silence is broken by a bird-call, a loon. Another WOW, “thin-place” experiences.  You may get out on a boat in the Georgia Straight and see a whale break the surface and hear the blow off the breathing hole. You look up, naturally, as in giving thanks, Another WOW- a “thin-place.”  We are drawn toward and remember these   “wow”, mountaintop, “thin place” experiences.

This inclination may be prompted by a desire to separate ourselves from the “real” world—the mundane and sometimes negative or even destructive human experience that we wish to leave behind.  It may also be prompted by a desire to come closer to our Divine Higher Power—our God.  We’ve always looked upward when thinking about the Divine, and looked downward when thinking about Evil.  We look to the mountaintop to experience the ultimate encounter.  Moses went to the mountaintop.  Elijah went to the mountaintop. Jesus preached the “Sermon on the Mount” from the “mountaintop”.

Today’s text from the Luke’s Gospel (9:28- 43) follows this pattern.  Jesus takes his disciples to the mountaintop, up the mountain and presents them with a divine encounter, a “transfiguration” , Jesus seen in brilliant translucent light—a truly over-the-top experience, a mountaintop, “thin-place” experience.

We, rationally-minded, truth-in-proof seeking people of the post-modern era have trouble accepting the viability of the Divine encounter that is described in today’s reading—the “transfiguration”.  We become suspicious when people tell us stories of apparitions, of ghosts appearing from the grave.  Even when these stories are from our Holy Bible, most of us will insist that sacred text too should conform, so far as possible, to the laws that govern nature.

Our empirical minds will usually try to find some symbolic, metaphysical, or ESP kind of explanation for events like these.  Some of us may have had experiences or shared stories with someone who had experiences of visitations, in dreams or through trances.

The deeper the love for a departed loved one, the greater the possibility of some kind of phantom re-presentation.  It may not be an image, perhaps a coincidence.  The ordinary takes on an extraordinary significance.  This happened to Cathy and me after our son Alex died in an accident about 29 years ago.  Soon after we would see an unusual bird and say, “There, Alex is visiting us.”  His cousins and friends had dreams of his presence which they shared with us.  The death of a child is an extraordinary catastrophe.  It is not unusual for these extraordinary events to appear as extraordinary visions.  These experiences tend to lift us from the ordinary commonplace to new heights of experience. They are like mountaintop experiences.

The question is, what do we do with them?  Do we make them the foundation of our beliefs?

Do we allow them to shape our reality and move toward denial of the measurable and reproducible reality on which our rational world is based?  No, most of us do not.  We know that there is a real world with gravity and weather, where the laws of chemistry, physics and biology rule. A real world with security, nutritional and emotional needs, and dangers. There are mouths to feed. There are bills to pay.  There are real world needs and real problems, real suffering, for which we must find solutions.

Nevertheless, we are given a text today which requires us to look at and try to understand an event that defies the laws of nature.  We are asked to consider this story and accept that something truly “supernatural” happened, a thin place experience, and that three normal, flesh-and-blood men were eye witnesses to it.  Why are we told this story?

What this text asks us to consider is: What does it mean?  How can we make sense of it?

In our case, in today’s gospel lesson, we are looking, along with three rational men, much like us, at three figures bathed in blinding light, and in translucent garments. First our mountaintop experience guide, Jesus, changes in appearance. His face changes.

His clothes become a shimmering, dazzling white.  Then two men talk with him. We are told that they are Moses, Elijah.  They are talking.  Now most of this happens when Peter, James and John , who are tired, are falling asleep.  But suddenly the are wakened and witness this holy “summit” – a meeting of Moses, Elijah and Jesus.  Peter doesn’t know what to make of it, but always ready with a suggestion, says, “Let’s build something to remember this— I will make three dwellings, he says.  Something we can come back to.  Today, we might build a rock cairn, plant a flag, take a photo, or maybe a lean-to to get out of the weather—a reminder of this incredible event for ourselves and others.

He wants to do more than that. He wants to build something more substantial.

But, suddenly a bright cloud “overshadows” them.  Now there’s a paradox:  “a brilliant cloud overshadows”—light and darkness together. First “his face shone like the sun.” Now, a “bright cloud.”

And, out of the cloud a voice:

This is my son, my Chosen.  We know those words. We remember something like them from Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan. But now some words are added.  The voice continues, ,Listen to him! it commands: Listen to him!  Exclamation point!  The disciples are silenced.

“And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.” That’s what Luke writes. He doesn’t tell us why they kept silent.  We might think about why they might keep silent. Were they afraid? Perhaps paralysed with fear, “silenced”? Were they told to keep silent, perhaps? Luke does not say.

Both Matthew’s gospel and Mark’s gospel tell the same story. Matthew’s gospel tells us why they were silent. They were filled with awe and fear. Jesus tells them, “Rise have no fear.”    Furthermore, like in Luke, Jesus tells them to tell no one. In Mark’s gospel, we are not told that they were afraid. But Jesus tells them very directly – he “charges them”, says Mark, “Tell no one until the Son of man should have risen from the dead.” This they cannot comprehend and keep silent about it.

While the three gospel accounts about the transfiguration differ slightly on the fear question, they all agree on how the story closes. Firstly, Moses and Elijah vanish. And they all, the three accompanying disciples, see that Jesus is alone. Secondly, they remain silent. And lastly, and most importantly, led by Jesus, they head back down the mountain. And, in all three gospels we get the same message on this point. When they get to the base, the bottom of the mountain, down in the valley, they encounter a crowd. They each differ in the specifics slightly, but, all three show that Jesus does not stay in the rarefied atmosphere of the mountaintop. He goes down. He goes back down to the real world.

Let’s look again at our reading today . In verse 37, 38: On the next day, when they had come down from the mountain a great crowd met him. Just then a man from the crowd shouted , “Teacher I beg you to look at my son  Not only a crowd, but a man in pain—a man in heartsick over his son, who seems to be possessed.     Jesus returns to face the agony of a father with a son “suffering” from an incurable condition – fits, shrieks and convulsions.  Jesus comes down from the mountaintop, the “thin-place”, back to earth to engage with the real world. Jesus engages with the “suffering” of the real world.

What these events presents to us is a question: “Who is Jesus Christ?” And, what is his purpose? Is he a spiritual being? Or, is he someone like you and me with special gifts of healing.? Is he God’s Son? Who is Jesus in this story? Who is Jesus in the context of the first century believers?   But, more than that.  This transfiguration story makes us ask: “Who is Jesus Christ to us today?”  It’s the same question that Jesus asks his disciples. “Who do people say that I am? “and “Who do you say that I am?”   The same question is present to this day.

There has been two thousand years of discussion on this question. In the last few years, it has been taken up by theologians, history scholars and popular authors and moviemakers as well. You no doubt have seen some of the TV programs that appear just around Easter time, usually.  You may have possibly seen movies and read books—books that sell millions, Dan Browne’s The Da Vinci Code, for instance .  They try to give answers to the question: Who is Jesus Christ?”

There are those who will debate the facts and positions presented in these Gospel representations.  The debate tends to find two polarities: those who cling to a “historical Jesus” and those who accentuate the “Christ of faith” --the spiritual Jesus.  Then there are those who cannot find a satisfactory place in either camp.  They tend to believe that the Jesus of Nazareth and the Christ of the resurrection must be embraced together.  And it is precisely this, this non-exclusive understanding of Jesus the Christ that the account of Jesus’ transfiguration is able to confirm. This is the enactment of the Incarnation—Emmanuel – God with us.

Jesus walked this earth.  He was humbly born into a Palestinian artisan family.  His father, Joseph, was a carpenter in a small insignificant town in Galilee.  This is supported with historical evidence.

Then little is known of his life until his 30th year when he seems to suddenly make a huge impact—a life-changing impact on some very close to him and ultimately thousands and then millions of others.  In life he hung out with ordinary, even marginal people---fishermen, tax collectors, prostitutes.  He ventures out of comfortably safe social settings to interact with the poor, the fearful, the afflicted, the “great unwashed” commoners, Gentiles-- non-Jews who are not privileged with the promise given to Abraham, those who it seems, were not included in the promises of the Hebrew  Scriptures. But Jesus comes  saying , “ I have come to fulfill the Old Scriptures “– the words of salvation proclaimed by the prophets.— Jesus has come to bring release , deliverance and relief from pain and suffering to all people—the crowd.

He offers them help, healing, comfort, a reconciliation of relationships, forgiveness, new ways of understanding their reality—a way of believing “the Kingdom of God is near.”  But these events all describe a very “human” Jesus:  highly charismatic, highly influential---but a flesh-and-blood person.  The Jesus of history.

Yet we Christians hold to a bigger, more profound Jesus, a “Son of God”, an” Incarnate” Jesus.

And in today’s reading, the teacher, healer, and proclaimer take on a hyper-natural, even supernatural representation.  What does it mean?

How do we who claim to be his followers deal with it?  As Jesus says to his disciples—we wait for the resurrection.   That will be an event that defies nature’s laws of life and death.  That too will be a transfigurative experience.  That too will be a mountaintop, “thin-place” experience.   That will begin at another, smaller, mountain top, a hilltop called Golgotha – the Skull. It will end with an empty tomb three days later .

Transfiguration Sunday is the last Sunday preceding Lent.  Remember we celebrate Sunday, Easter Sunday, every Sunday. Sunday is not merely the day of rest – the Sabbath—but rather is the day of resurrection—the third day.  But, on this Sunday we need to be drawn back into that narrative.

We can only enter that story through an understanding of the supernatural, metaphysical, the “Holy”, nature of Jesus.  We are taken to the mountaintop with the disciples and we are there to experience with them this “transfiguration” this remaking of the physical into the spiritual. We are taken to a thin place. We experience the transformation of the Son of man, Jesus of Nazareth, into   the anointed one of God, Son of God—the Messiah, the Savior, “This is my Son, my Chosen”—this is who is revealed, and confirmed in the mountaintop experience. We stand in awe and wonder. —jaw dropping, stupefying, breathtaking wonder. We want to sustain this, remember this, mark this moment. We want to remain in this thin place. We want this spiritual Jesus. We want this idealized Jesus – Son of God, Holy one of three – Father Son and Holy Spirit.

Like Peter, we might like to stay and bask in the brilliance.  Like Peter we might like to build a monument, something to return to, up here in the rarefied air of the mountain top far away from the concerns of the ordinary folks down below.  Here we can be separate, pious , bathed in his holiness and basking in the light of his wisdom, the symbolism, the theology.

Like Peter, James and John we might like to go to our friends, go to others and tell them.  “I know, I’m not supposed to tell you, but you wouldn’t believe what I saw.”

We might want to remember this truly “awesome” experience, and leave it there, with some kind of a marker.

But we are commanded to do otherwise— “Listen to him.”

In other words, following his words and actions, his conduct. Watch and listen! We, along with Jesus and the disciples, must come down with Jesus from the mountaintop and re-engage with the reality of the world. We come down from the “Thin Place” to the “Real Place”—the harsh place. A place like where we live with our fellow humans—the crowd, reality, their “suffering”, and our own “suffering”.  We must return to the problems, the needs, confusion, challenges of the real world. We must face our inability to make the world the way we would like it to be and live in the world the way it is. It is all about animating our faith. We must join Jesus and walk down, down from the mountain, and into the crowd.

The brilliance, the encounter with the Fathers of the faith -- Moses, Elijah-- all that is vital to establishing “the Christ”—the anointed one of God.  The “spiritual” Jesus.

But, as profound as the experience is, it is of no use staying on the mountaintop. We cannot remain at the “thin-place.” It is of no use if all we have is to mark it is a monument, a booth, a cairn, a flag or a lean-to some structure – a church building, a property, a collection of holy books and sacred songs.  This mountaintop revelation, this epiphany, must become the point of departure, the motivation or inspiration, and emboldening and strengthening to see the world down in the valley.  Down under the shadow of the mountain.

Jesus comes back to the real world and is confronted with a desperate father hardly coping with a convulsing beloved child.

You see we need Jesus to come down to be the “God with us” , the miraculous healing power that God has granted, we need him with us down at the bottom, in the crowd. Jesus, in fact says as much. In fact he doesn’t say so as much as enacts his “God with us” , his Incarnation in their presence – after dismissing them – “You faithless and perverse generation!”

“I begged your disciples to heal my boy. They failed” says the dad. Jesus scolds the disciples , “How much longer must put up with you guys and your weak faith. Your distractions, your self-serving. Remember what I said , ‘If any  want to become my followers, let them deny themselves  and take up their cross and follow me’. “(Luke 9:23). He’s angry because his disciples are missing something. They are missing the full commitment. Jesus, serves only God, not himself. He doesn’t sit in the glory of his holiness—like he was at the mountain top. “This is m Son..” No, he doesn’t stay there. This relationship, the oneness, this “Sonship” will bring him to the ultimate act of self giving and sacrifice. He can face this reality because he is God incarnate. He is passing the power of this incarnation on to his followers, not on the “mountaintop” put in the crowd.

Jesus comes down and faces the reality and “suffering” that of the real world and hos own.

What does it mean for us today?  It means stepping out of our pious, doctrinal, rulemaking mode. What is right? What is wrong? Who is in and who is out? How do we fashion a purer worship places and space?  It means engaging with the real world –“the crowd”.  It means submitting our selves to a full embrace of Jesus message—love, justice, goodness, mercy, kindness, generosity, compassion. It means being inspired, enlightened, emboldened by our experience with the Divine. But also, it means, and it requires us to share our divine mountaintop, thin place experience with others.  Sharing it only after we have gone “deeper” through our own resurrection experience, our transformation through God’s grace. Our own entry into our Divine nature. (Remember – we were Created in the “image and likeness” of God). We relieve that divine nature through our own “born from above” resurrection experience.

This is not a one-time event.  We are not “saved” just once. We confess our sins, our weakness, our need for God’s forgiveness and mercy and submit to his blessing of forgiveness, always – Jesus actually says, “take up your cross daily” (Lk.9:23). In our reformed liturgy, we do it every Sunday.  Each Sunday we acknowledge our weakness through our prayer of Confession.

And each Sunday we listen to the Words of Assurance of Pardon our resurrected Jesus:  “In Christ you are a forgiven people.”   We seek God’s mercy and forgiveness. We admit our weakness and submit ourselves to his healing power. We “listen to him!”

When we truly listen, we may just find ourselves in a “thin place”. The “listening “and “hearing” may not be in a church, or when we are thinking churchy thoughts. It may come as an encounter with nature, with people, with a catastrophic event that brings us closer to our Divine essence – our capacity for a “thin place” experience.

The mountain top “thin place” is not where we stay, however. Let that be the inspiration. Let that be what drives us to follow Jesus, back down and face the crowd. Let that experience fill us with the capacity to live out our gospel and share the love, the forgiveness and the mercy with which we have been blessed by our own mountain top “thin place “experience.  Let that be our prayer. Amen