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Gates-Fourth UMC

Transfiguration Sunday

February 19, 2012


Mark 9:2-9

          Today we celebrate the Transfiguration of Jesus. Next Sunday is the first Sunday of Lent, heading toward Easter. The Pentecost lection for today comes from Mark 9:2-9, although it is also found in Matthew and Luke. The lection says Jesus took three of his disciples, Peter, James and John up to a high mountain. While they were there, Jesus became transfigured, his clothing appearing a dazzling white. Then twp great persons from the past, Elijah and Moses joined them, causing Peter to suggest making three booths or shrines, one booth for Jesus, one for Moses and one for Elijah. Peter wanted to make this mountain where persons could journey to sense being next to Jesus, Elijah and Moses.

But suddenly a great cloud overshadowed them and out of the cloud they heard the voice of God cloud saying, “This is my beloved son. Listen to him.” Then the cloud, Elijah and Moses disappeared and they saw only Jesus. If we sophisticated moderns can bracket out our dismissal of such stories we may find them very suggested even though they come to us in simply, first world understandings.


          New Testament scholar, Markus Borg, says sometimes experience “thin places” in our Christian journey when all the mundane stuff of life disappears and we feel very close to God. John Muir, Scotch immigrant and naturalist believed that the majesty of our western mountain ranges were “thin places” for him. As a young man he roamed these wilderness areas and experienced them as places where he sensed the presence of something beyond ordinary life.

          As a result he began a crusade to save these places from commercialism and development by those who wanted to exploit them for personal


gain. In this struggle he became a disciple of preserving these natural areas into what became our Natural Park System. If you have ever stood in awe at the rim of the Grand Canyon, or traveled through the Black Hills of North Dakota, or stopped to visit the marvels of Yellowstone Park, you are to thank John Muir for saving these natural lands where they too, can become “thin places” where we sense a reality deeper that than day-to-day life.

          Or we might find our “thin places” in great bodies of water, lakes, the beaches or the oceans. Some say vast stretches of water not only humbles us and makes our own troubles and difficulties seem trivial. We are reminded that human life has come from the water and somewhere within us we sense our beginnings. Like John Muir we fight against those who rape and disfigure these “thin places”, who see nothing in them but an opportunity to become wealthy at the expense of places where humans can listen an inner voice that is the very voice of God.

I don’t know where you find the “thin places” where the mystery and awe come over us, but all of us them have them. We sense that there is something more and wonderful to life than what the poet Wordsworth once described as “getting and spending…laying waste our powers” to really be alive to life’s heights. Life without our “thin places” is intolerable.


As important as the “thin places” are in our lives we need to notice how this lection closes. After the astounding transfiguration of Jesus, the appearance of Elijah and Moses, and a voice from heaven telling the disciples that Jesus is God’s beloved Son and they must listen to him, the lection says Jesus came down from the mountain. We cannot permanently live in the “thin places” moments, nor should we.

The most important point of this story is verse nine that says, “And when they were coming down from the mountain…” Jesus felt compelled to reject staying up on the mountain, transfigured in glory and sensing the immediate presence of God. Instead he left that “thin place” and went down the mountain to minister to human need. The story goes on from verse nine and says immediately he was confronted by a father asking Jesus to heal his epileptic son. Jesus went down from the mountain to face the sufferings of people.

Someone has said that Jesus was always “going downhill.” Usually when we say this about someone we mean they are not what they used to be. An athlete getting a bit older discovering his abilities slipping is described as “going downhill.”

In the 1960’s Bob Gibson was the premier pitcher in all baseball. Towering down on batters from the mound, his fastball was almost unhittable. Gibson so dominated the game what when he retired, baseball lowered the pitching mound several inches, to that no future Gibson could be that overpowering. Yet there came the time when Gibson’s fastball lost some of its velocity. He couldn’t batters out people said he was “going downhill.”

Most of the time “going downhill” means someone is falling from their abilities and prestige. But Jesus didn’t experience going downhill because he was not up to his usual abilities. For Jesus “going downhill” meant throwing himself in with the fortunes of the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized.

Paul’s letter to the Philippians quotes an early Christian hymn making the same point:

Have this mind among yourselves,

Which you have in Christ Jesus,

Who though he was in the form of God,

did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,

but emptied himself taking the place of a servant.

In poetic theological language, early Christians when speaking of Jesus sang of his coming down from his divine status to address human need and suffering. Jesus was always a “downhill person.”


          So the story of the Transfiguration presses upon us the question, “Are we willing to go downhill with Jesus to care about our neighbor, or are we going to stay on the mountain isolating our self from discomforting reality that our neighbors far and near cry out to us to meet them in their need?” Last week in a planning meeting, we wondered why the change. For just ahead lay the six Sundays of Lent, culminating in Palm/Passion Sunday, where Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem a few days before his death.

When I was a young pastor we called this Sunday simply “Palm Sunday.” Now we call it “Palm/Passion Sunday.” We wondered why this change? And the answer says it is to prevent going from the joyful coming of Jesus to the city, waving Palms and singing, “Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” and forgetting Jesus’ suffering and death. The poignancy of the Last Supper when Jesus tells his friends he is certain of his death, and the cross where the state hangs him on a cross, are muted helping us to avoid coming down from some mountain to join Jesus in his suffering for the world. Dietrich Bonheoffer Christian who chose to resist the Nazis in Hitler’s Germany put in one of his early book’s, The cost of Discipleship, the first sentence reads, “When Christ calls a man (sic) he calls him (sic) to come and die.” We pay nothing to jubilantly cry, “He I risen” on Easter without going through the passion.

Christian faith is grounded in our leaving those wonderful “thin place” moments, not trying to sustain them and forgetting that down from that mountain are persons who need love, care, justice and hope. Jesus continually urges us to go downhill with him, even allowing the suffering and pain of the world to break our heart. But as the Apostle Paul said, we will know something even better than the mountaintop experience. He calls this “the peace that passes all understanding.”