SERMON: THICK AND THIN PLACES – REV . PAUL DAKIN

THICK AND THIN PLACES
A sermon on Matthew 17:1-9
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
February 23, 2020
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the mediations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
“Mountain top experiences”…It seems to me that the phrase “mountain top experience” has been a part of the Christian lexicon for as long as I can remember. I am sure that it predates me. Whenever you get of group of Christian believers together and someone mentions a “mountain top experience,” usually folks know what you are talking about. A mountain top experience is a time and a place in which God seems to draw especially close to us. We sense God’s presence in an unusually strong way. God makes his presence known to us in new, fresh ways that we have never experienced before.
Sometimes those experiences do occur on literal mountain tops. Who among us has never stood on a high mountain overlook and not been drawn into silence by the beauty of God’s creation? Perhaps you felt his presence especially strong as you quietly marveled at the majesty of the created order and, in doing so, you quietly offered your worship to the Creator of all and felt him especially near.
When I was in high school and college, I used to hear friends and acquaintances talk about mountain top experiences that they had had at various youth camps and church retreats. Times of retreat are often occasions for mountain top experiences. At a particular retreat, perhaps one hears a speaker to whom God gave a message that connected with you in a way that you had never experienced before. Or maybe in a time of quiet listening and mediation during the retreat, God spoke to your heart. Or in the silence, a scripture passage spoke to you in ways that were unique and meaningful.
Sometimes location has something to do with it. I have heard more than one person tell me that they have felt God in a special way when they went to the Baptist conference center at Eagle Eyrie for a camp or retreat. The encounters with God that people have had there—and continue to have there—make it a sacred place in the eyes of many…I imagine that there are some of you here this morning that could attest to that as well…
I think the sanctuary at First Baptist Church is another of those places where it is easy to sense the presence of God. Maybe you experience it in the same way. Occasionally during the week, I will come into the sanctuary and just sit quietly in one of the pews for a while. In my imagination, I can see people sitting all around me, especially those who made life-changing decisions over the last 134 years in this place. And I imagine listening to some of the great preachers from the church’s past as they declared God’s word from the pulpit. My eyes will feast on the beauty of the sanctuary’s furnishings and its stained glass. It is especially powerful if I am here in the silence and I witness shadows slowly falling across the sanctuary as the last few rays of the sun cast their light upon the pews and the pulpit. Frankly
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it can be an almost mystical experience. And it is in those moments that I am reminded that the First Baptist sanctuary is an especially sacred space…
The ancient Celtic Christian tradition has called such sacred locations a “thin place.” A thin place is defined as a place where the barrier which stands between the Sacred and the secular, the veil between heaven and earth, the distance between the supernatural and the physical, is especially thin. A place where it is possible to catch a quick look from the temporal to the eternal…
The ancient Celts believed that the tiny island of Iona off the coast of Scotland is one of those thin places. Iona is the place where the Irish missionary Columba brought the Christian faith to that area of the British Isles back in the 6th Century. And now, even to this day, the community that lives and works at the island of Iona continues to be recognized as a center for spirituality. Each year, hundreds of pilgrims from around the world travel to Iona each year seeking after God.1 They come to learn spiritual practices and ways of discipleship as they work, study and worship; and then these pilgrims return to their homes with a renewed sense of God in their lives…
Thin places, though, do not operate on demand. NO. The Celtic Christians believed that, to experience the Divine in a thin place, you must either stumble into the thin place unexpectedly, or you must come to it with the proper reverence. In a thin place, it is the Divine that encounters you—not the other way around…And upon catching a glimpse of the Divine in a thin place, we are then called to return to our daily lives. We will be renewed in our hearts, for sure, but we will still be waiting on God and hoping to catch another glimpse of him at another time. After one has an experience in a thin place, the veil may be thin and torn—but the veil is still there…
The scripture passage today is the gospel of Matthew’s account of what is known as “The Transfiguration.” If there was ever an event in the life of our Lord Jesus where there was a thin place—where the veil between heaven and earth became thin and frayed—then this was one of those places…
Verse one begins, “Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them to a high mountain, by themselves.” Okay…Six days later…Six days after what?
Well, in the previous chapter, we are told that Jesus had asked his disciples who they thought he was. You probably remember the story, and you may recall that it was Simon Peter that answered that Jesus was “the Christ, the son of the living God.” Jesus then described his disciples what was about to happen in the weeks ahead—about his impending death in Jerusalem at the hands of the authorities and about how he would be raised from the dead on the third day. This was the first time that he had been that explicit with them about what was about to happen to him. It would not be the last…
And verse one goes on to tell us that Jesus and these three disciples “went up a high mountain.” Scholars are divided as to which mountain that they climbed, but it does not really matter all that much.
1 We use worship materials and music from the Iona Community at First Baptist from time to time.
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What is significant to note that they went up the mountain. Mountains throughout the Bible are often demonstrated to be “thin places.”
Just a few examples of what I am talking about will suffice: Moses went up Mount Sinai where he met with God and God gave him tablets of stone inscribed with the Ten Commandments by God’s own finger. Later God took Moses to the top of Mount Pisgah in order to show him the Promised Land before he died. Elijah was on Mount Horeb when he met God when he was fleeing Jezebel. And it was on a mountain that Elijah defeated the 450 prophets of Baal in a contest by calling down fire from heaven. In Bible days, mountains were often considered to be thin places between heaven and earth…
So Jesus took three of his disciples and ascended a high mountain. The scriptures do not indicate whether or not Jesus had given them a reason as to why they were going there. Do you suppose that questions filled their minds as they hiked up the mountain? Did they wonder why Jesus was taking them there? I imagine so. But once they got to the top, something unexpected happened. They had arrived at a thin place…a VERY thin place…and the three disciples witnessed what is undoubtedly one of the most incredible scenes to be found in the gospels…
Without any warning, we are told that Jesus was “transfigured.” The word “transfigured” is a translation of the Greek word metamorphoō. This word is the root from where we get our English word “metamorphosis.” Jesus was changed—he underwent a “metamorphosis”—right there before the astonished eyes of the disciples. He began to glow with an otherworldly light as brilliant as a bolt of lightning. (That’s the word picture of what the phrase “dazzling white” in verse two means. In Luke’s version of the story, he makes it even more clear…) And if that was not dramatic enough, two other people appeared out of nowhere on the mountain. Moses and Elijah—two famous Old Testament guys, both of whom had been dead for hundreds of years. I find it interesting that Moses and Elijah completely ignored the three disciples. Instead they spent their time talking with just Jesus. (Wouldn’t you like to have heard what that conversation was about?! I wish one of the disciples had taken notes…)
But as incredible as that was, there was more still to come. For the second time in Matthew’s gospel, God audibly speaks to those standing nearby. We are told that a bright cloud descended on the mountain, and from within this cloud, a voice from heaven declared, “This is my son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” You may recognize that these words closely resemble the same words that God had spoken at Jesus’ baptism as recorded earlier in Matthew 3.
Matthew tells us that the disciples were terrified at what they saw. But let’s tell the truth—who wouldn’t be?! I know that I would! Not surprisingly, in response to what they had just witnessed, we are told that the disciples hit the dirt face down in fear. This mountaintop was not just a place where the veil between heaven and earth was very thin. It had been positively shredded—at least for a while. And because of that, the disciples were given a unique—and frightening—peek into eternity…
And then, just as quickly as all this had occurred, it was over. Jesus walked over to the disciples looking like he normally did. The shining cloud, Moses and Elijah had all disappeared. The scriptures tell
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us that Jesus tapped the disciples on the shoulder, told them to get up and to not be afraid. And at the conclusion of this passage, our Lord commanded them not to tell anyone about what they had seen until after his resurrection…I imagine that it must have been really hard to keep what they had just experienced to themselves. Wouldn’t you just be bursting to tell someone—anyone—what you had just seen?! How could they not want to share it with others? I know that it would be hard for me to keep quiet about it, and I am sure that it was tough for them as well…
An unbelievable story from the gospel of Matthew about an encounter with the Divine at a thin place. What are we to make of it? And what’s the takeaway from the sermon this morning?
At the beginning of the sermon, I spent some time talking about mountaintop experiences. Mountaintop experiences was a not an uncommon topic of discussion among the Christians that I knew back in the 1970’s. In reflecting on that and contrasting it to the present day, it occurs to me that I very rarely hear anyone talking about such things any more. And I wonder why that it. I do not think that it is because God is not still active in the world and still active in the lives of his people. I know differently. God is not dead…nor is he asleep…God is still working in his world, even during those times when we cannot always understand what he is doing…
So…was it a function of the time? Perhaps talking about “mountaintop experiences” was a trendy thing among Christians in those days—perhaps it was similar to the whole “WWJD” fad was a few years ago. (Remember when that was popular?) The phrase “What Would Jesus Do?” was something that was on the minds (and t-shirts and bracelets and bumper stickers…) of a lot of people 25 years ago. But not so much anymore. Nowadays most people regard WWJD as a quaint little fad whose time has come and gone. Could be like that…
Or maybe it is that such discussions are characteristic of people who are still relatively young in the Christian faith. In those days, my friends and I were still discovering what it meant to follow Jesus and how to apply his teachings to our lives. Back then, we were taking the faith that we had learned from our parents and our churches, and we were trying to figure out how it fit in with the new discoveries that we were making about ourselves and the world around us. We were open to all the possibilities that a budding, growing faith could bring to us—and that these discoveries sometimes happened when we least expected it…often in thin places…
I have a hunch that the latter explanation may be the one that is the most accurate. Like me, most of the people that I know nowadays have been followers of Jesus for a long time. We have been Christians for years—most of us for decades. And I think that, on some level, we have come to the place where we do not expect to experience any more spiritual breakthroughs in our lives. Over the years, we have heard all the stories from the Bible—most of them multiple times. We have heard hundreds—if not thousands—of sermons—good, bad, and in-between—on practically every conceivable topic. We have heard all the songs, we have sung all the hymns, and we have heard all the choir anthems. And so, even when we come to a thin place like the sanctuary at First Baptist Church, our expectation that God will actually speak a fresh word to us—of the Lord whispering to us through the thin veil that separates
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us—is pretty small. The faith that we cherish and have lived with has become familiar… comfortable…and well-worn like a favorite easy chair in front of the fireplace…
If one is going to experience God in a thin place, then one must be sensitive to the mystery that is the life of the Spirit. One must come to the thin place with an attitude of expectation and reverence. If our expectations are low—if we do not think that God will be likely to show us anything new or unexpected, then—thin place or not—we will not be likely to be able to hear his voice. We will not likely to have any fresh experience with God. We will likely leave in the same condition in which we arrived…
This morning, our choir began the service with a song that began with the words “We are standing on holy ground.” The reference, of course, is to Moses encountering the burning bush in Exodus 3. That certainly was a thin place as Moses experienced it. The sermon closes with a piece of a poem from Elizabeth Barrett Browning that makes an allusion to the burning bush. And it makes an important observation for those of us who are seeking after God—especially in thin places:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God:
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit around and pluck blackberries
And daub their natural faces unaware.”
O Lord, help us to be receptive to your Spirit’s call—and allow us to hear you in the thin places that we encounter. And to God alone be the glory! Amen.

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