Sometimes there is no mountaintop handy when you need one.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, every time we needed to know the right thing to do, we could climb up a mountain and find out directly from God? Should we take a new job? Is that person the one we’re supposed to marry? Should we pick Emma Stone in this year’s Oscar pool?
That used to be the model for receiving divine insight. Mountaintops are where God makes plain what God wants people to know. Mountaintops figure prominently in both of our readings today.
Both passages are pretty famous within Christian scripture.
It’s hard to think of a more iconic moment or location than Moses ascending Mount Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. The Commandments themselves are considered by many to be one of the earliest examples of law itself within human society, and are often depicted as a foundation for the legal traditions that have arisen since then. Within Judaism, Sinai is arguably the most important physical place of all. It’s not for nothing that you find its name on major hospitals nationwide.
While perhaps not quite as central a moment as Moses receiving the law, the transfiguration of Jesus is nonetheless pretty major, as well. What precisely happens isn’t entirely clear, and what is meant by “transfiguration” itself is subject to interpretation. The appearance of Moses and Elijah are generally understood to represent the law and the prophets, which together form the basis for the entire Jewish religion. Appearing alongside them and then remaining is taken by some to mean that he is surpassing them in spiritual importance, though that view is clearly quite Christocentric.
What’s pretty clear, however, are the words “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” God’s opinion and instruction seems hard to mistake.
The pattern seems straightforward. Climb a mountain, get God’s word, and climb back down. For those of you with pressing spiritual questions, I suggest we form a hiking group and plan a trip up Mt Agamenticus this spring. We can each take turns waiting for God to tell us what to do.
Assuming you found that joke funny, the humor was that we all know that’s not how God works in human lives these days, or at least not consistently. If I were to survey Christians (or, really, people from any number of faith traditions) worldwide, some of them may literally have had mountaintop contacts with the divine of their own. Far be it from me to say it never happens, and if anyone here wants to go seeking a spiritual connection in the outdoors, a mountaintop is probably a good place to start.
But there’s certainly no guarantee of one. You can go up and come back down with nary a whisper, and God very rarely speaks to people nowadays in actual audible sentences, or with instructions literally carved into stone.
On the one hand, there’s something liberating about that. If you hear God’s voice telling you precisely what you should be doing, there’s not much room for free will. I suppose there’s always the tactic my kids use when I’ve given them very clear instructions indeed, which is pretending they didn’t hear me. However, it’s probably pretty risky to claim you didn’t catch what the Creator was saying if it happens to you directly.
On the other hand, there’s something so comforting about knowing exactly what you should do in a given situation. Life is riddled with uncertainty, and that uncertainty is one of the hardest parts of being a grown-up. Even if they chafe or disobey, my kids can at least rely on knowing what I want them to do from one moment to the next. Realizing that we have to figure out things on our own is a big, and not entirely easy, step toward adulthood.
As Episcopalians, we don’t traffic much in rigid certainty, either. Some corners of Christianity offer a more cut-and-dried approach to God’s word – biblical literalism some might call it. Not so much here, where we often view scripture through an historic lens, and give our own God-given reason a role in biblical interpretation. I’m not going to stand here and tell you exactly what you should think the transfiguration truly meant. I urge you, instead, to ponder what it means and draw your own conclusions.
What we are left with in place of certainty is faith. True faith, at least as I understand it, takes a bit more effort.
Faith means that, when we want to know God’s will, we strive to discern it. It means we believe that we can find it, by the grace of God, if we bend ourselves diligently to the task, but often it cannot be found on the surface. It means abiding in those moments when God’s will for us is not easily known, with only the belief that we will eventually find it to sustain us.
This can be especially hard when times are troubling, as many find them in our country now. It seems every day the news is more troubling. As a parent of three biracial children, my mind at the moment is consumed by the two men who were attacked in Kansas City, one killed for the crime of having dark skin and speaking with an accent. It is difficult, even painful, to dwell with events like these and wonder where God can be found. But ours is an assurance that, even within our grief, God is present. God’s voice is subtle, but never stops speaking.
We read passages like the ones from this morning because within the words we find guidance for our own lives. Certainly, I think it’s best to abide by “thou shalt not steal” and the remaining Commandments. They’re a very good place to start. But for the subtler questions of our lives, there are other answers to be found. I do wonder if sometimes within our tradition we lose sight of the role scripture really should be playing. At the risk of sounding out of place, I’ll encourage you to read the Bible more if you don’t. There’s good stuff in there!
But it’s not a literal instruction manual, and I can’t promise you simple answers to questions you find yourselves asking. Heaven knows I ask my own share of questions, and have to turn to faith in place of certainty myself much of the time. Yet even if God doesn’t give us proclamations from mountaintops that often any longer, we join together this morning in the belief that answers are still there for those who truly seek them.