February 11, 2018

“A Lamp Shining in a Dark Place”

2 Peter 1:16-21


One of the things that I truly believe is that God is present and real in our daily lives, and that, if we are open to God’s presence and Spirit, and paying attention, we can experience moments of profound connection with the Creator of all things. So, this means that any moment can become an epiphany and any venue a "thin place," to use the language of Celtic spirituality. What happens in these instances is that the divide between the spiritual and temporal feels like a thin veil. In such mystical experiences, our earthly lives collide with the spiritual, heavenly realm in life‑transforming ways.


In light of the recent survey, taken by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, nearly 50% of Americans report having mystical experiences: approximately 70% of evangelicals and African American Christians reported having mystical experiences, while approximately 40% of mainline Christians and Roman Catholics reported having "a religious or mystical experience—that is, a moment of religious or spiritual awakening." This same report noted that nearly one‑third of Americans report encounters with deceased persons and one‑fifth have seen or felt the presence of ghosts. (Pew Center Report, December 9, 2011) Television shows such as Ghost Adventures try to validate such experiences.


Yet we may often find ourselves discounting such experiences, writing them off as nothing more than irrational imagination gone wild, that those visions and strange experiences of the eternal, those dreams which seem to be so real and full of meaning in the moment are due to nothing more than too much spicy food before bedtime. We run to the rational, rather than embracing the mystery. Today’s passage encourages us to do otherwise, to hold on to such moments as lamps shining in the darkness- moments of profound faith which help us later in times of struggle, doubt, and worry.


Scripture is full of such mystical encounters: Abraham and Sarah’s encounters with God; Jacob’s dream of a ladder of angels and his nocturnal wrestling match; Moses’ dialogue with the burning bush; Gabriel’s visit to Mary; Paul’s Damascus Road experience with Jesus; Peter’s dream of forbidden food; and Jesus’ healing ministry, resurrection, and post‑resurrection encounters with his followers - all of these instances in scripture are examples of those thin spaces between the temporal and the spiritual.



Peter’s experience of the Transfiguration of Jesus was one such experience for him. In today’s passage, he recounted it for his followers, who were going through a time of questioning and doubt. Most scholars date Peter’s death on an upside down cross to be somewhere around 65 A.D. This letter may have been written just prior to his death or could have been compiled by one of his followers long after. In either case, those early Christians were facing many forms of persecution- from Roman emperors and from family members. Furthermore, there were “False prophets and false teachers” mentioned in this letter- There were those who scoffed at the identity of Jesus as the son of God, and as one who would one-day return- since more than 30 years had passed since he had died and ascended.


In the midst of such skeptical times, Peter recounted this foundational experience of his faith- in witnessing Christ’s transfiguration as a lamp shining in a dark place, as an example of God’s work in the world, and as an encouragement for the faithful to hold on to. Peter retold the experience of when he, James and John were woken up early in the morning and invited by Jesus to hike up a high mountain, most likely Mt Tabor. As they reached the top, Jesus was suddenly changed- his face began to shine, and his clothing became dazzling white. Then upon this mountain, Peter saw two pillars of the early faith-Moses and Elijah- symbolizing the law and the prophets, the first two divisions of the Hebrew Bible. Then Peter said to Jesus, “It is good that we are here.” He called attention to being in the midst of this mystical experience, apart from the world below. He then suggested building three booths, one each for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah. In the past, I have suggested that Peter was so amazed and confused that in this moment he blurted out something without thinking about what he was saying. Yet with further consideration, perhaps Peter was hoping to capture the moment in some way- building them booths or tents might make the moment last longer, might help him in his own faith for when he eventually had to go back down the mountain into the real world. Then a cloud, a symbol throughout scripture of the presence of God, covered the mountain peak, and Peter and the others heard a commanding voice- proclaiming that Jesus is the Son of God, God’s beloved and that the disciples were to listen to him. Peter and the others fell to the ground out of fear and closed their eyes. Next thing they knew, Jesus touched them on their shoulders, told them to get up and not be afraid, and to go back down the mountain with him. He then instructed the three not to tell of this experience until after his resurrection.


What does this mystical encounter mean for us as we celebrate Transfiguration Sunday? It can mean many things. First, it means that God uses this experience to proclaim to the disciples that Jesus is the Son of God. It also means we should look for, pay attention to, and hold onto those moments of “thin places” between heaven and earth. They can be for us a lamp shining in a dark place, as the transfiguration was for Peter and for his followers. This story also suggests that time away, time for quiet and retreat are important opportunities for us to connect with God in deep and profound ways.  We can have in such experiences, an ultimate point of reference that brings us back to faith and hope, especially during chaotic and uncertain times.



Yet time for quiet, retreat, time for space with God is difficult for us- We live in a world that competes every waking moment for our attention. With social networks like Facebook, text messaging, and email, we are living in a time that almost demands that we stay obsessively connected and involved in each other’s lives. There is little time for solitude, prayer and retreat from the reach of technology. We (and when I say “we” I also mean me!) are expected to be wired into the "net" and instantly available. We fret over missing emails, falling behind on updating our Facebook pages or responding to texts that seem to come unbidden day and night. We are never completely "off duty." It is difficult, in such a lifestyle to look for, to notice those moments of epiphany, those moments of transformation available to us as God breaks through to get our attention. If we make time to allow for such mystical moments, we can find an anchor which secures us in faith and hope in time of struggle and doubt. This enables us to live a life directed and encouraged by faith, instead of living a life that is pulled in one direction or another by popular culture, a life which does not nourish the spirit or guide us toward lives that matter.


I would like to suggest to you that our lives need time of quiet, time of retreat, time away from the business, the routine, the computer screen so that we can be spiritually nourished. We live surrounded by some of the most mystical, profound experiences of creation- mountains.  Perhaps we like Peter, James and John can find one of those experiences of a thin space between heaven and earth by going on a hike and finding a peak to sit upon. Coming to the Ash Wednesday service this Wednesday evening and receiving the cross of ash upon our foreheads which reminds us of our sinfulness and our finite nature can also be such an experience. When we allow for those moments of mystical transformation, we see the world and our own lives differently. 19th century German theologian Albert Schweitzer said, “ Any profound view of the world is mysticism, in that it brings us into a spiritual relation with the Infinite.” I am thankful I have had many moments that were profound, which Peter a calls lamp shining in a dark place, which have indeed brought me into a spiritual relation with the Infinite God. I try to remember them when my faith seems dark, cold and God distant.  I would like to share three such experiences with you.


First-As a young child of around the age of 5, I can remember going into a small chapel which was part of Fair Oaks Presbyterian church. As we went into the chapel, the air felt heavy. The sun was shining through a stained glass window, and I remember being drawn towards that light and standing in the light as it shined its many colors upon me. In that moment, I had a profound sense of God.


Second-In 1979, as a 17-year-old camper at a Christian summer camp known as Westminster Woods, I was involved in a 3-week experience known as SteP, or “service training program”, in which we spent a lot of time serving others, studying scripture, and deepening our faith. Now I’ve never been much of a journal writer, but our group leaders encouraged us to write daily in a journal, and this was probably the one and only time I did so faithfully. I have it still today, for it too, is a lamp shining in a dark place, a profound moment when God was fully revealed to me. One afternoon, as I sat under an oak tree by the stream at camp, I felt a profound sense of peace and quiet. Next thing I knew, my pen was writing, and this is what was written on the page- “Dan I am always there, whether it seems like it or not. If there is no one else around to confide with, I will listen. My love for you is real. If you want to talk with me, be not afraid; drop your cares and worries, and come abide in me. I am a true friend, Our time together is not wasted.” I cleared my head, and saw what had been written, and gave thanks to God.


Finally-In January of 1992, as I held our first child Sarah Rose in the last moments of her all too brief life, I felt without any doubt a strong presence of heaven, and as she passed away in my arms, I knew in that exact moment, beyond any doubt where she was going as I felt her soul being lifted- she was and is in heaven and in the arms of Jesus.



Each of those moments, as well as many others, have become for me lamps shining in dark places, times to look back upon as my own moments of transfiguration and transformation. And as I have remembered them, the morning star of Jesus Christ has risen in my heart, and I have found light and hope in time of struggle and doubt. God may break in at any moment in our lives, offering us such lamps shining in the darkness. We can either make space for them, pay attention to them, or sadly discount them. But if we see this world through the eyes of faith, they can become for us a constant source of hope. As 19th century English poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning affirms:



Earth’s crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God,

But only he who sees takes off his shoes;

and pick blackberries.roundThe rest sit





Don’t focus upon the blackberries! May we keep our eyes and minds open to those thin moments between the eternal and the temporal, so that we too, like Peter may be led by faith in time of doubt, sorrow, and hopelessness with lamps shining in the shadows. Alleluia! Amen.



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