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By Dr. Philip W. McLarty
|This morning I’d like for us to think about turning points – those pivotal moments in which we change course and take a different direction, for better or for worse.
My interest is spawned by the story of the Transfiguration. As we’ll see, it proved to be a key turning point in Jesus’ life and ministry. We’ll take a quick look at the story, then we’ll think about the significance of turning points in our own lives.
First, the story. According to Mark, Jesus and his disciples went all the way up to Caesarea Philippi, at the base of Mount Hermon. If you go there today, you’ll find that it was a hotbed of pagan worship. There were temples to Zeus and Pan and a host of other gods and goddesses. It was here that Jesus asked his disciples,
“‘Who do men say that I am?’
They told him, ‘John the Baptizer, and others say Elijah,
but others: one of the prophets.’
He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Christ.”” (Mark 8:27-29)
Mark goes on to say that six days later Jesus took Peter, James and John with him, and they went up on the mountain, and there he was transfigured before their very eyes. Moses and Elijah stood beside him. His clothes became a dazzling white. A voice came from heaven saying, “This is my beloved Son. Listen to him.” And then, just like that, it was over and everything went back to normal. (Mark 9:2-8)
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For the early church, the transfiguration served as a restatement that Jesus was the son of God, and that he had the authority to speak and act in God’s name. The story echoed back to Moses on Mt. Sinai, where Moses came down the mountain after meeting with God, and his face shown so brightly that he had to wear a veil. (Exodus 34:29-35)
Anyway you look at it the transfiguration marked a turning point in Jesus’ life. Up to now, he’d been teaching, preaching and healing in the area north of the Sea of Galilee. After the transfiguration, all that stopped. He came down the mountain and headed south. As Luke put it, “He intently set his face to go to Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:51)
We’ll come back to this in a moment, but first, I’d like for us to think about turning points we see every day. They’re everywhere. For example, in football, we know that a fumble recovery or pass interception or injured player can prove to be the turning point of the game. Remember what Don Meredith used to say on Monday Night Football? “Big Mo just went over to the other side.”
In war, a decisive battle or major offensive can prove to be the turning point at which the outcome of the war is decided. For example,
• In the Civil War, there was the Battle of Gettysburg, where Hancock’s forces held fast and the Union Army got the upper hand.
• In World War II, there was the Battle of Midway in the Pacific and the Russians’ defeat of the Germans at Stalingrad.
• And, in Vietnam, there was the Tet Offensive which, despite the victory for us, broke our will to win the war.
There are turning points in health care. My father tells the story of a time when my grandmother was seriously ill. Everybody wondered whether or not she would recover. The family assumed a death watch. He said he was standing by her bedside when she whispered that she’d like a drink of water. Dr. Branch happened to be in the room and heard her mumbling. “What did she just say?” he asked. Dad told him she’d asked for a drink of water. He breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Well, then, she’s going to make it.” And she did.
Life is filled with turning points. Some are unintentional. Life throws you a curve, and the effects are life-changing. In a negative way: Unexpected circumstances can have tragic consequences. You hear things like …
• “That accident changed the course of her life. She was never the same after that.”
• “He never got over her death.”
• “When he lost his job, that’s when his life took a turn for the worse.”
• “He was a different man when he came home after the war.”
On the other hand, tragic circumstances can have positive consequences. For example,
• “That DWI ticket was the wake-up call he needed. As far as I know, he never took another drink.”
• “I thought all was lost when the business failed; turns out, it was a blessing in disguise.”
Some turning points come about because someone else cared enough – or dared enough – to intervene. A woman told me the other day about how she had all but dropped out of church, but a couple of the other women wouldn’t give up on her. Turns out, they took it upon themselves to pry her out of her shell. They called her one evening and said they’d be by to pick her up to go to circle. She didn’t have much choice. It proved to be just the stimulus she needed.
Another told me about how he came to faith. He said a couple of girls kept pestering him to go to church with them. Finally, he gave in and went to a service or two. He enjoyed the music and the fellowship and he related well to the minister. He started going on his own. Then one day one of the members encouraged him to make a profession of faith, and he did. He got down on his knees and prayed for Jesus to come into his life. He said that marked the beginning of a whole new way of life for him – a life of peace and joy he’d never known before.
When it comes to turning points, the Good News is that, in many ways, God gives us the grace to choose the direction we want to go. As a young person, for example, you can join the army or go to college or get married or take up a particular trade. As an older adult, you can choose to keep working or retire; to venture out or stay put. It’s up to you.
Plus, there are times when you come to a turning point in your life and you consciously say to yourself, “From now on …”, and that becomes for you the start of a new life. For example,
• Giving up an old habit. I was three years old when my father quit smoking. For one thing, the cigarette smoke affected my asthma. I’d catch a big whiff and I couldn’t stop coughing. Plus, it was expensive. He had better things to do with his money than buy cigarettes. So, he quit cold turkey—he never lit up again. That was sixty years ago. He says it was one of the best decisions of his life.
• Recovering alcoholics say the same thing. Many celebrate their birthday, not on the day they were born, but on the day they stopped drinking. It’s the turning point of their life.
• Starting a new habit can have the same effect. I knew a man who was grossly overweight. He started having major back pain. The doctor told him he might avoid surgery if he lost some weight. So, he went to a rehab center, changed his diet and started working out. In time, he lost the excess weight and got in great physical shape, so that, to this day, he can outrun, out-lift and outlast most men half his age.
Robert Frost spoke of turning points when he wrote:
“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth.
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same.
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I–
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.”
– The Road Not Taken
You may well be at a turning point in your life today, a place where you need to decide which way to go. If so, I encourage you to look to God to trust God to lead you down the right path.
Of course, the greatest turning point in the life of any Christian is the moment you accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior; when, in the words of an old revival song, you’re able to sing, “I have decided to follow Jesus … no turning back, no turning back.”
But that’s not always as simple as it sounds. As many of you know, I was baptized as a baby and grew up going to Sunday School and church every Sunday. Afar back as I can remember, I knew that God loved me and that Christ died for my sins. Many of you could say the same thing. So, what does it mean when we talk about accepting Jesus and being saved?
I think about this older student in seminary at SMU who was working on a Ph. D. in Old Testament. He was like a 20th Century scribe – he pored over the scriptures day and night. I can’t imagine anyone more devout than he. Well, one day he was eating a Hunger Buster at the Dairy Queen when a teenager walked up out of the blue and said, “Mister, have you found Jesus?” Not batting an eye, he looked up and said, “What? Have you lost him again?”
What does it mean to be saved when you’re already saved? I’ve been asking that question for a long time now. Here’s just part of what I’ve found.
One person I asked used the word surrender. He said he knew that he was a child of God and that he was saved. But he said he also knew that there were parts of his life that he didn’t want God to have anything to do with; that, to be honest, he lived by the motto, “not Thy will, mine be done.” Yet, he knew that he’d never be at peace until he surrendered his will to God’s will and so, one day he did just that. He surrendered his life to Christ and vowed to trust God, no matter what. From that point on, his life took a turn for the better.
Another used the term, “letting go.” He said it was like the game youth groups sometimes play, where one is blindfolded and all the others form a tight circle around him. The one in the middle turns around a few times, stands perfectly rigid, then falls back into the arms of the ones standing behind him.
Have you ever played that game? I can tell you, it’s a scary experience. If the ones behind you don’t catch you, you’re going to get hurt. But they always do. And it’s an incredible feeling, free falling and feeling the strength of a power greater than yourself – especially when you’re the youth director and they’re a bunch of teenagers!
Anyway, that’s how this person described his experience of accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior: “Letting go,” and letting God watch over you and guide you, trusting that God won’t let you fall.
O.K., let’s go back to Jesus and the Transfiguration. It was the turning point of his life and ministry in Galilee. The way Mark tells the story, when he came down from the mountain and headed to Jerusalem he knew full well what he could expect when he got there. Not a week before, he’d told his disciples,
“He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things,
and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes,
and be killed,
and after three days rise again.” (Mark 8:31)
Yet, knowing what the future had in store for him, he went anyway. In Paul’s words,
“…he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death,
yes, the death of the cross.” (Philippians 2:8)
This is how I hear the Transfiguration speaking to us today: Christ has set the example. Because he has shown us the way, we can follow in his footsteps and allow God to use us as instruments of his grace and love, as he chooses.
I don’t know of anyone who understood this better and expressed it more beautifully than Thomas Troeger. He begins by saying, “Swiftly Pass the Clouds of Glory, heaven’s voice, the dazzling light,” and goes on to recount the story of the Transfiguration. Then he writes,
“Lord, transfigure our perception
with the purest light that shines,
And recast our life’s intentions
to the shape of your designs,
Till we seek no other glory
than what lies past Calvary’s hill
And our living and our dying
and our rising by your will.”
(Presbyterian Hymnal, p. 73)
The season of Lent begins this week with Ash Wednesday. May that be a turning point for us, as we accept Christ anew and resolve to walk evermore in his footsteps.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.
Copyright 2009, Philip McLarty. Used by permission.