Dear friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.
The world is filled with mysterious, holy places. An American was visiting the Holy Land on a 2 week tour with his devout Christian wife and even more zealous mother-in-law. Sadly, his mother-in-law died on the trip. When seeing the local undertaker, the man was told that either they could ship the body back to the US for $5,000, or if they preferred, they could bury his mother locally in the Holy Land for $150. The man said to the undertaker, “We’ll ship her home.” Surprised, the undertaker asked him, “Are you sure? It’s an awfully big expense and we can do a very nice burial here.” The man replied, “Look, I not a very religious man, but I have learned a few things on things on this trip. 2000 years ago I am told that they buried a guy here and three days later he rose from the dead. I’d rather not take the chance.”
Yes, the world is filled with mysterious, holy places. In Celtic spirituality, these places are known as “thin places. The ancient Celts had a saying that Heaven and Earth are only three feet apart, but in the “thin places” that distance is even smaller. Such thin places are often secluded places across Ireland, Scotland and Wales along remote sea shores, stony cliffs, including mysterious trees, wells and valleys. Even today pilgrims travel to these thin places because they believe that it is where the veil that separates this world from the other is lifted and one is able to receive a glimpse of the glory of God.
Where ever they may be, sacred places “places” are important to our faith. Indeed, I believe God wants us to experience these holy places. But they are not merely meant to be destinations to visit and then tick off for bragging rights on a bucket list of life. These holy, “thin places” are meant as a gift from God to encourage and inspire us. And like Jesus’ transfiguration on the mountaintop before his disciples, they are meant to change and transform us for our work back in the valleys of life.
My friends, let me share with you three purposes of the “God’s sacred places.” First, they are meant as places for rest and meditation. Second, thin places are meant to help see the ordinary holiness of God in our lives. And third, thin places are meant to keep us moving towards the work of God’s kingdom.
We all have our personal, “holy places”- whether we are aware of them or not. They are places that you return to again and again for inspiration and strength. There are some people who prefer chase after for something new and different, but I find that in order to do my work and face the challenges of each day that I find return to the familiar places that allow me to become centered and focused again.
“Thin places” are meant to do that – to offer rest and meditation. Throughout the gospels, we read that Jesus went to “quiet places” to be alone, and to speak with his Father. Soon after he was baptized by John the Baptist in the River Jordan, he was led by the Holy Spirit to wander in the wilderness. On the night in which he was betrayed, he went to the Garden of Gethsemane to pray by himself. In the story of the Transfiguration, Jesus led Peter, James and John to a quiet place where he conversed with the great Old Testament figures about his imminent death in Jerusalem.
Most holy, “thin places” tend to be secluded, quiet and isolated places unlike most of the places we live. It is certainly true that in these places we can be more attentive to God. But one can easily make a mistake and assert that God is only present in such isolated places. Peter began to think this way as he saw the holiness all around. “O Lord, it is good that we are here. I’ll put up a tent for each one of you.” Jesus didn’t have to say a word. The voice of God was enough. “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.” Thin places are important places for glimpsing God’s majesty and listening to his voice, but we are not expected to stay there. They are to be a source of strength to send us back on our journey.
This leads me to my second conviction, “thin places” are meant to help us glimpse the ordinary holiness of God in our lives. Not all “thin places” are actual places. Theologian Marcus Borg writes, “A thin place is anywhere our hearts are opened. They are places where the boundary between the two levels becomes very soft, porous, permeable. Thin places are places where the veil momentarily lifts and we behold (the “ahaah of The Divine”)….all around us and in us.” You could say that the life of every Christian is a journey from one “thin place” to another. The scene of the Transfiguration ends abruptly, and Jesus sends his disciples back down the mountain. Jesus seems to be saying life’s ordinary experiences in the valleys are just as important as the extraordinary, the dazzling mountaintop experiences- but your eyes must be open to see them. That is what thin places teach us.
For Christians, there are certainly magnificent religious, “thin places” around the world. In the Holy Land, there is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the place of Jesus’ birth, and in Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the place of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Even the loneliness of the Sea of Galilee offers Christians a sense of God’s presence and in the great cathedrals of the world, one is offered a glimpse of the majesty of God. But every Sunday, Christians are reminded as well, that holy, thin places are not simply distance places, but they are occasions where God breaks through into the world though his spirit. It is true as the word of scripture is read, and when hearts are changed. It is true in the trickle of the baptismal water poured over a child’s head. It is true in the word of forgiveness offered in true confession. It is in the breaking of the communion wafer and in the pouring of wine. Yes, these are all “thin, holy places” for those whose eyes are open to see, and they are not far away.
Third, “thin places” are meant to keep us moving towards the work of God’s kingdom. I believe that thin places help us to listen to God. You see, God also makes his presence known through the loud praises of his people doing work in his name. God makes his presence known when people build houses for the homeless. And God makes his presence known when a Sunday School teacher loves a bunch of rowdy three-year old boys. And God makes his presence known when somebody extends a word of sympathy to a colleague who is going through hard times.. And so on and so on. In these ordinary thin places we are offered a renewed sense of direction.
For Jesus and the three disciples, Peter, James and John, the mountaintop may not have been on the list legendary, Celtic “thin places,” but Jesus’ transfiguration certainly made that mountaintop into a dazzling and dizzying “thin place.” From that vantage point, the disciples experienced something truly wonderful. They glimpsed the brilliance of God’s eternal kingdom pouring out upon them. It’s no wonder they wanted to erect a tent and stay there. Then in the midst of the “thinnest of places,” they heard the voice of God saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to him.” And then suddenly all was quiet. The brilliance of heaven was gone, and as quickly as the “thin place” had been opened to them, it was closed again. The glimpse of heaven disappeared. And Jesus alone was standing there directing back down again into the valleys of life.
We all need these thin, holy places in our lives for encouragement and inspiration- even Jesus. Of course, Jesus could have stayed on the mountaintop in that thin, holy place. He could have avoided the pain and the agony of the valley below. He could have remained a glorious figure of wisdom and teaching, and waited for the searching generations to come to him. But from that vantage point, he could see God’s purpose for his life. Why would Jesus act so foolishly and selflessly? Why would he so willingly die upon a cross? Why? For one reason. Because of his great love for you. This Jesus loves you, and longs for you to be changed and to live abundantly in his care.
At the brilliant midnight hour of his transfiguration, Jesus set his eyes unto Jerusalem and the cross. He was certain that what he was doing was the fulfillment of all his life and thought and work. He was certain of his Father’s approval, for from the cloud came a voice that would ring in is ears in the darkest hour of the crucifixion, “This is my Son, my Chosen, listen to him!” And he was certain that at least a handful of his disciples knew who he was. Nothing could prevent him from taking that lonely path down from the mountaintop. Nothing could discourage him from journeying to the cross on another hill called Calvary. Nothing could destroy his joy or hope, not even death.
My friends, God’s holy “thin places” wherever they may be are not simply meant to be visited, but the “thin places” of life are meant to change you and to keep you on your journey – even in the darkest place. For you go with the assurance, that Jesus goes with you- and he has been there before. Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.