Our Gospel lesson from Matthew tells us about an extraordinary event that some of Jesus’ disciples were able to experience. While Jesus and three of his disciples were on the mountain, a bright cloud covered them. Jesus was transfigured so that his face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white.
Moses, representing the law tradition, and Elijah, representing the prophetic tradition, appeared with Jesus. Then the disciples heard God’s voice tell them that Jesus was his beloved Son and that they should listen to him. The disciples were extremely frightened and fell on the ground. Jesus walked toward them, touched them, and told them to get up and not to be afraid.
What do we make of a story like this? Do we find stories like this difficult to believe? Evidently, Peter, James, and John were caught off guard by it. It actually frightened them.
This story of the transfiguration of Jesus raises the question about miracles. Do miracles like this really happen or was that just something that people in bible times believed?
One summer, I noticed several billboards of a local church that invited people to their summer sermon series on the topic of miracles. The word, “miracle,” gets our attention.
What do we make of miracles living in our post-modern 21st century world? What do they mean for us today?
In his book, Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense,” former Anglican Bishop, NT Wright offers a very helpful story to help us think about the place of miracles in our own day and age.
He writes, “There was once a powerful dictator who ruled his country with an iron will. Every aspect of life was thought through and worked out according to a rational system. Nothing was left to chance.
The dictator noticed that the water sources around the country were erratic and in some cases dangerous. There were thousands of springs of water, often in the middle of towns and cities. They could be useful, but sometimes they caused floods, sometimes they got polluted, and often they burst out in new places and damaged roads, fields, and houses.
The dictator decided on a sensible, rational policy. The whole country, or at least every part where there was any suggestion of water, would be paved over with concrete so thick that no spring of waver could ever penetrate it.
The water that people needed would be brought to them by a complex system of pipes. Furthermore, the dictator decided, he would use the opportunity, while he was at it, to put into the water various chemicals that would make the people healthy. With the dictator controlling the supply, everyone would have what he decided they needed, and there wouldn’t be any more nuisance from unregulated springs.
For many years the plan worked just fine. People got used to their water coming from the new system. It sometimes tasted a bit strange, and from time to time they would look back wistfully to the bubbling streams and fresh springs they used to enjoy.
Some of the problems that people had formerly blamed on unregulated water hadn’t gone away. It turned out that the air was just polluted as the water had sometimes been, but the dictator wouldn’t, or didn’t, do much about that. But mostly the new system seemed efficient. People praised the dictator for his forward looking wisdom.
A generation passed. All seemed to be well. Then, without warning, the springs that had gone on bubbling and sparkling beneath the solid concrete could no longer be contained. In a sudden explosion – a cross between a volcano and an earthquake – they burst through the concrete that people had come to take for granted.
Muddy, dirty water shot into the air and rushed through the streets and into houses, shops, and factories. Roads were torn up; whole cities were in chaos. Some people were delighted: at last they could get water again without depending on The System. But the people who ran the official water pipes were at a loss: suddenly everyone had more than enough water, but it wasn’t pure and couldn’t be controlled.”
NT Wright goes on to say that we in the Western world are the citizens of that country. The dictator is the philosophy that has shaped our world for the past two or more centuries, making most people materialists by default. And the water is what we today call “spirituality,” the hidden spring that bubbles up within human hearts and human societies.
Even in our hyper scientific modern world, walk into any bookstore, and count the number of book shelves that contain books on spirituality. Evidently the waters of spirituality cannot be contained underneath the rock hard pavement of secularism. People know deep down that there is a mystery at work in the world, a mystery that leaves us speechless when heaven intersects our ordinary lives.
We have heard people share bright light stories of how they had near death experiences in which they saw a bright light which brought them great comfort and peace and then they came back to life. Or maybe there are other dramatic and powerful stories that you have heard that defy explanation.
While those once in a lifetime stories can be very meaningful, there are other bright light stories that happen to us all of the time in big and small ways. They happen to us in the course of our day to day activities and they remind us of that bubbling spring of water that runs through all of life.
The Celtic Christians had a name for these moments when heaven and earth intersected in our day to day living. They referred to them as thin places. I like to refer to them as sacramental moments, those times when the sacred overlaps our time and space in beautiful and meaningful ways.
Where do you see God at work in your day to day living? What are those sacramental moments where God has been made present in a very real way for you?
A little over a year ago, I drove about seven hours to attend the funeral of my ninety-four year old aunt. She represented the last family member of my parents’ generation. She was my dad’s sister-in-law.
Her death really impacted me because I when I would visit with her, she always had a story to share about our family that I had never heard. She was like our family historian and I loved to hear her stories about my parents and my other aunts and uncles. She was also a woman of great faith and I will always cherish those times that we got to pray together.
As I started the long drive from southeast Ohio to attend her funeral in south central, Pennsylvania, I said a prayer in the car for God to give me a little sign of his presence in the midst of our sorrow. As I was driving through Maryland, my GPS wanted me to take a route that was different than what I normally take on my way back to see my family.
It was near rush hour and instead of having me go into the Baltimore rush hour traffic, it wanted me to save time by turning north a little sooner. I debated in my mind if I should take this new route but I did since it said it was going to save my some driving time.
Since this was a new route for me, I was still a little skeptical if I made the right decision. Instead of being on a highway, I was now on a two-land road. “I should have stayed on the highway,” I thought to myself. To make matters worse, it became a very curvy and hilly road.
Before too long, I was now in what seemed like a state park where I was now only going about 35 miles an hour and navigating through sharp curves. I was now regretting my decision.
It was about that time, that the miracle happened. I suddenly realized that I was taking a route that was running alongside the Appalachian Trail. As I drove through this heavily forested area, it was one of the most scenic drives I had ever experienced. The fall leaves were unbelievably vibrant and the sun was so beautiful as it made those autumn colors become even more alive.
And for what seemed like the next several miles, I was driving along a clear stream that meandered through that beautiful park. It was just unbelievably breathtaking. Honestly, it was like I was all of the sudden driving through heaven.
I started to think of Aunt Dot and wondered if this was what she was now experiencing in the heavenly realm. A smile came to my face when it finally dawned on me that this was the sign from God that I had prayed about several hours earlier when I left for the trip.
A peace flooded my soul as I continued on that drive. About a couple of minutes later, I found myself back on a highway that took me the rest of the way home. That portion of my unexpected detour was a thin place moment for me.
God works in mysterious ways. There are transfiguration stories like this all around us. And like the disciples, we are reminded that heaven is a lot closer than we may think.
I shared this with you before, but it’s one of those stories that is worthy repeating. A couple of years ago, I officiated at the funeral of a young boy who died from cancer. A few months following the funeral, I needed to make some visits at the hospital. For some reason, instead of going my typical route, I went a different way to the hospital.
This route took me by the apartment of where this little boy used to live. As I was driving by, I noticed that his grandmother was sitting on the front steps of the house, and so I decided to pull over and see how she had been doing.
This grandmother was so glad to see me. With tears in her eyes, she said that a little later that morning, she would be going to the cemetery to watch them place the headstone for her grandson’s grave.
Together, we shared a few stories about her grandson, how he had a great sense of humor and how he showed so much faith in facing his death. We laughed and we cried as we sat together on those front steps of her apartment.
And then the strangest thing happened that I will never forget. As this grandmother was sharing a story with me, a butterfly landed on her arm. We both became silent and then we looked at each other in disbelief.
Before this little boy had died, he told us that God would send us butterflies to let us know that he was with God and that everything was all right. After a few moments of silence, we looked at each other and started laughing. And then we prayed together, right there on those front steps, thanking God for sending us that butterfly at just the right moment.
I don’t know what you make of stories like this. All I know is that it felt like one of those thin places where heaven and earth overlapped in a very mysterious way. It was a holy moment that I will never forget.
Our small groups are designed to give each other the opportunity to share our Thin Place moments with each other. They remind us like we said in our opening prayer that God is constantly reaching out to us with his transforming love.
These transfiguration stories remind us that the bubbling stream of God’s presence has been under our feet all along. There is no pavement that can contain it. It springs up when we least expect it.
And the good news is that they are happening all around us in any given moment.