Out of Zion, God Shines Forth

Transfiguration Sunday:  Mark 9: 2-9 (and Psalm 50: 1-6)

“Out of Zion, God Shines Forth”

Feb. 19, 2012

I have always had an abiding interest in Scotland, and all things Celtic.  Years ago I had the opportunity to visit Scotland.  I loved everything about it, but was especially taken by the standing stones that appear seemingly out of nowhere, in the middle of a farmer’s field.  They aren’t part of any historic park or set aside with special signs….they’re just there in the place where they were erected several thousand years ago.  These large stones were placed by an ancient and pre-Christian people called the Celts, about whom we know very little.  But it is thought these standing stones mark places that were sacred to these unknown peoples.    It may have been my imagination standing out there on that wind-swept field, but it did feel like a very special place.

Celtic spirituality is a variety of Christian devotion practiced in Ireland and Scotland since the 5th century AD.[1]   This tradition builds on the ancient Celtic reverence for the earth, and shares with the ancient Celts the affinity for sacred places.  The term thin places, used in our invocation this morning, was coined by devotees of Celtic spirituality.  It refers to a place where the boundary between heaven and earth is very thin. It’s a place where we can sense the divine more readily.

The term is really getting overused these days, but I like it and feel that it has special application on this Sunday, Transfiguration Sunday. Peter, James and John got an up close and personal glimpse of God on that mountaintop.    But a thin place doesn’t have to be a mountain top, or even a geographical place.  We can think about places along one’s spiritual path where God’s spirit feels especially near.  It could be a moment when one feels that God has revealed a vision of the future or a calling.  A thin place can be a time of communion with God’s wondrous creation.  Certainly the parents among us would say that the birth of a child can feel like a place where the human world meets the divine.

Baptism is one of the thinnest of all the thin places.  We think of the moment in scripture when Jesus was baptized and the sky was torn open and God revealed that this was his beloved Son with whom God was well pleased.  Heaven met earth in that moment.  This morning at the font God revealed that Mark and Noah are part of God’s beloved family, spiritual sons with whom God is well pleased.    We don’t own the land on which this font stands because it is Holy Ground.   It belongs to God just as the one being baptized belongs to God.   We have scriptural authority for the audacious claim of God’s presence here in this moment.

Marcus Borg, in his book The Heart of Christianity, says that the term thin places is deeply rooted in biblical and Christian tradition because it sees God as not somewhere else, but right here.  He goes on to say that it is anyplace that our hearts are opened, where the sacred is available to us and where we can commune with the Holy Spirit.  So perhaps we can say that it is a place of spiritual renewal, where we can go when we are thirsty and need the living water.   Maybe these places seem all too few and far between for you.  Maybe you’ve never felt God’s presence and don’t where to find it.

Jesus himself seemed to seek God’s presence in special places.  A passage we read just a few weeks ago, Mark 1:35, tells us that “in the morning, while it was still very dark, he got up and went out to a deserted place, and there he prayed.”  Jesus often withdrew to deserted places to seek refreshment and counsel from his Father.   I guess any place in which we can spend time with the Lord can become a thin place.

But it is useful to realize, though, that Christians did not have designated sacred places, portals if you will, for those of us who have read Harry Potter.   Key places in Jesus’ life did not take on sacred status among his followers.   We have no reason to believe that his birthplace, the tomb, the Garden, the hillside where he fed 5000—none of these places assumed revered status in the early days of the faith.   Mark Roberts remind us that this made the early Christians very different from their neighbors in the Greco-Roman world.   “Virtually every recognized religion in the culture was identified by its holy places, people, and things.”

Rev. Dr. Mark Roberts [2]has written a wonderful blog on this topic and he examines how Jesus impacts our understanding of thin places.  “If a thin place is a location where God’s presence can be experienced with unusual intensity, then Jesus himself was the ultimate thin place.”  Jesus is the fullest expression of God on earth.  You want to be close to God, get close to Jesus.

The Temple, in the Jewish tradition, was God’s home on earth and the Inner Temple (available only to the high priest) was the thinnest of all the thin places.   But in the Christian tradition Jesus becomes the Temple.  And after the resurrection, from Pentecost onward, the Church becomes the thin place of the world.  “And as the church scattered into the world, it permeated the world with human “thin places” so all people might experience the grace, love, and presence of God through his people.”[3]

As uncomfortable as it may make us feel, as inadequate as we may feel, as unwilling as we may be, Jesus made us his body on earth.  I have no idea why he did it.  But we’re the portal through which the world glimpses the divine.  We’re the stained glass window from which the light pours forth.

How come we get to have all the fun here at a baptism? How come we get the fun of seeing two dear little twin boys wriggling in their parents arms and getting cold water poured down their necks?   Can’t just be done with the immediate family in their living room, or privately with the pastor at a nice spot down by the stream?   We get to do it because we’re the Body of Christ, and it is among us that God has ordained as the place for this momentous event.   It is among us that God chooses to dwell on this earth.  We are God’s thin place, yesterday, today, and tomorrow.  This is where everything fits in the fullness of time.

As thin places go, I suppose this church is no more likely than that cow pasture on a Scottish island.  I’m not here to explain it.   I’m just her to proclaim it!

Yesterday I was walking the dog and using the time to think about our church and to work out some things regarding this message.  I was thinking about the Celtic cross in my office and that I should bring it along to church.  We’d had a nice walk and stopped on our way back at the stream at the end of our road. As always, Dominic stopped to get a drink before we headed back to the house.  The sun was peeking through the trees at the moment and I looked down and saw a remarkable sight.  There before me in the stream, two small branches had fallen and gotten caught in the rocks.  They formed a perfect cross…no lie.  At first I thought someone must have placed them there, then I saw leaves wrapped around the ends and realized that it had naturally occurred.  The sun was coming through in a way that cast a circle in the center of the cross.

A thin place?  Maybe…but one thing is for sure.  Had I never learned about the cross here in the Body of Christ, I would not have recognized it there.   Out of Zion, God shines forth!

[1] It is a popular legend that the Celtic Catholic cross was introduced by Saint Patrick during his time converting the pagan Irish, though there are no examples from this early period. It has often been claimed that Patrick combined the symbol of Christianity with the sun, to give pagan followers an idea of the importance of the cross by linking it with the idea of the life-giving properties of the sun. Other interpretations claim that placing the cross on top of the circle represents Christ’s supremacy over the pagan sun.(wiki)


[2]  Blog is www.markdroberts.com  Dr. Roberts is a pastor, teacher and blogger.  This series was in 2009.

[3] Mark Roberts