Defying Newton’s Third Law

by jacobjuncker

This sermon was delivered at Christ United Methodist Church on Sunday, February 19, 2012.  To listen to this sermon, click here.

2 Six days later Jesus took Peter, James, and John, and brought them to the top of a very high mountain where they were alone. He was transformed in front of them, 3 and his clothes were amazingly bright, brighter than if they had been bleached white. 4Elijah and Moses appeared and were talking with Jesus. 5Peter reacted to all of this by saying to Jesus, “Rabbi, it’s good that we’re here. Let’s make three shrines—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” 6 He said this because he didn’t know how to respond, for the three of them were terrified.

7 Then a cloud overshadowed them, and a voice spoke from the cloud, “This is my Son, whom I dearly love. Listen to him!” 8 Suddenly, looking around, they no longer saw anyone with them except Jesus.

9 As they were coming down the mountain, he ordered them not to tell anyone what they had seen until after the Human One had risen from the dead.

Mark 9:2-9, Common English Bible, Emphasis added.

Sir Isaac Newton, born in 1643, “was an English physicist and mathematician, and the greatest scientist of his era.”[1]  It was Newton who discovered that white light is composed of the same spectra of light as the rainbow.  Newton was one of the first scientists to experiment with the forces of gravity.  From these experiments, he came up with “Three Laws of Motion.” They are taught to every entry-level physics student (check out this link for a Lego Presentation of Newton’s 3 Laws of Motion).

Law #1.   An object at rest will tend to stay at rest, and an object in motion will tend to stay in motion (with the same speed and trajectory), until an outside force acts upon it.

Law #2.   The force of an object is directly related to its mass times acceleration.

Law #3.   [Perhaps the most famous]  For every action (force) there is an equal and opposite reaction (force).

 For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Newton’s third law of motion applies not only to the physical world, but also to the relational world as well.  A snarky, short comment produces a snarky, short comment back.  A smile yields a smile.  And (I should mention this has been scientifically proven) a yawn when witnessed by another usually results in a yawn.[2]  In theological terms we call it retribution which is a stuffy term for the old cliché, “what goes around comes around.”  If we are bad, bad things will happen to us.  If we’re good, good things happen to us.  With every action comes an equal and opposite reaction.  The problem is that life doesn’t always fit into these nice, neat—eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, smile for a smile, yawn for a yawn—categories.  Bad things happen to good people and good things happen to bad people.  Some actions defy reaction.  They leave us speechless, dumbfounded, awestruck, and/or paralyzed.

Have you ever experienced or witnessed an action that defied your ability to react?

The doctor telling you that you will never be able to conceive a child.  The realization that against the odds, you will become a parent.  The tragic death of a close friend.  The kindling of new friendship.  Being diagnosed with a chronic disease.  Being healed of an incurable disease.  The sudden loss of a job.  Being “at the right place at the right time” to get the job you’ve been looking for.

Some circumstances, actions, and forces in life simply defy our ability to react.

In our Gospel lesson for today, Jesus takes Peter, James, and John on a field trip to the top of, what the Gospel records as, “a very high mountain where they were alone” (Mark 9:2d, Common English Bible).  And, it is on that mountain that something miraculous happens: Jesus’ “appearance changed from the inside out, right before [the disciples’] eyes. His clothes shimmered, glistening white, whiter than any bleach could make them. Elijah, along with Moses, came into view, in deep conversation with Jesus.  Peter [unsure what to do] interrupted, ‘Rabbi, this is a great moment! Let’s build three memorials— one for you, one for Moses, one for Elijah.’ He blurted this out without thinking, stunned as they all were by what they were seeing” (Mark 9:2-7, The Message).

Some circumstances, actions, and forces simply defy our ability to react.

It is hard to imagine what impact witnessing the transfiguration of Jesus had upon Peter.  The glory he saw was so beyond description that he didn’t know how to react.  On the way back down the mountain, Jesus instructs Peter and the other two disciples not to tell anyone what they had witnessed until after Jesus’ resurrection.  Far from encouraging the disciples to keep a secret, Jesus was acknowledging that this situation was more than the disciples, in that moment, could understand.  And the implication is clear that after the resurrection they would all be able to better understand what they had experienced on the mountaintop and be able to speak more clearly about the event.  In fact, they would cite this vision and other irrefutable proofs as evidence of the deity of Christ and his resurrection.[3]

There will be times when a situation renders us speechless, dumbfounded, and/or awestruck.  We may never understand the situation, but we are called nonetheless to bear witness to God’s mysterious presence in the midst of the mystery of the situation.  Peter experienced this, even though he did not necessarily understand it, in the cloud that overshadowed him.  God’s presence, in that moment of confusion, was made known to and recognized by Peter.  And, after the resurrection, when he found some words, regardless of how insufficient they might be, he bore witness to the presence of God in that situation.

We are called, regardless of the situation, to bear witness to God’s loving presence in the world.

Jesus’ promise to us is that he will always be with us (c.f. Matthew 28:20, John 14:18-19).  In a world where outrageous things happen—where actions often defy our ability to react—the Good News continues to be that we are not alone.  And, that’s news worth sharing in a lonely world.

How have you experienced God’s presence in those moments that defy your ability to respond?

And, how will you share those experiences with the world?


[1] “Isaac Newton (1643-1727),” from BBC History (http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/historic_figures/newton_isaac.shtml)  Accessed February 17, 2012.  Other great resources to learn about Newton’s Laws of Motion include this great Youtube video (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NWE_aGqfUDs) and this fascinating site for children (http://www.physics4kids.com/files/motion_laws.html)

[2] “Why is Yawning Contagious?,” from Discovery News (http://news.discovery.com/human/yawning-social-behavior.html).  Accessed February 17, 2012.

[3]Adapted from the notes entitled “Transfiguration Sunday/Last Sunday After the Epiphany, February 19, 2012” from GBOD.org/worship (http://www.gbod.org/site/c.nhLRJ2PMKsG/b.3784805/k.D1A1/Worship.htm).  Accessed February 16, 2012.

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