Click here for the sermon video, "Mountain."
This Sunday is our last before entering the season of Lent. The rhythm of the Christian calendar is such that from the end the season of Christmas that concludes with Epiphany to the beginning of the season of Lent that begins with Ash Wednesday, we are invited to see in a new way. Epiphany is our celebration of practitioners of a foreign religion finding their way to see the Christ child for themselves. This is followed by our remembrance of Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, when the skies open and a dove descends and Jesus comes to see himself in a new way. The culmination of this ordinary time in between seasons comes with this Sunday, one in which we are invited to climb holy mountains so that we might continue to see God, not perhaps as we imagine God to be, but in all of God’s holy and truly awe-inspiring glory.
If the story of the transfiguration of Jesus is about what gets seen by Peter and James and John, the account of Moses’ ascent calls our attention to what cannot be seen, what is obscured by the cloud that settles on Mount Sinai. Our second reading is from the book of the Law, Exodus, chapter 24, verses 12-18.
Before his third and final fateful attempt to climb Mount Everest, British mountaineer George Mallory was famously asked why he continued to try reaching the world’s tallest summit. His answer? “Because it’s there.” There is something about high places that compels us. It could be that early humans understood the perceptive and tactical advantage to be gained from atop a hill or mountain. The higher you get, the more you are able to rise above whatever obstacle may be obscuring your view. Likewise, from that vantage point, you can see who and what may be coming.
This wasn’t Moses’ first trip up this mountain. The way the story goes, Moses was already living and thriving in the wilderness of Sinai. You might remember how, as an infant, his mother floated him in a basket and into the household of the Pharaoh to protect him from that same Pharaoh’s genocidal order against the male babies of the Hebrew slaves. Moses grew up within the privilege of his adoptive Egyptian royal family, but somehow always knowing that they weren’t his people. His people were the Hebrew slaves; the ones being worked to death to build Egyptian cities. And when, one day, Moses saw a slave being mistreated, he killed the Egyptian who was beating him. He tried to cover it up, but word got out and Moses became a fugitive in the desert. He thought he’d left that part of his life behind and settled down to raise sheep and a family. But then, as often happens, God came calling on this very mountain. And the call meant that Moses had to go back. He had to go back to Egypt, back to Pharaoh, back to his people still enslaved by Egyptian brick production. He had to go back and lead his people out of their oppression and into freedom. Only then, only when they’ve escaped Pharaoh and his army- whose chariots and riders are thrown into the sea- only then does God invite Moses back to summit Mt. Sinai for a tête-a-tête. This leads me to a couple of conclusions.
The first has to do with who this meeting on the mountain is for. If it were just for Moses, there’d be no need for the middle part. I mean, he was already on the mountain. He caught sight of the bush that was on fire but not consumed. He took off his shoes because he knew there was something holy about the whole thing. Why not just invite him a little further up the mountain right there and then, give him the law and call it good? No, you’re right. That DOES sound absurd doesn’t it? Probably because we’ve seen the movie with Charlton Heston and we know that isn’t the way it’s supposed to go. He’s got to part the sea first. But it’s also absurd because there is no individual faith without a community of faith. Let me say that one more time. There is no individual faith without a community of faith.
One of the things that I hear pretty frequently is the person who tells me that they don’t come to church because they prefer to worship God in the outdoors. Maybe they do, but I have my doubts. Sometimes I think that’s just the kind of thing that you hear from people who don’t want to be shamed for not coming to church and they think that sounds like a sufficiently self-righteous alternative. Don’t get me wrong. I love a good hike as much as the next person. There is something particularly holy about connecting to God’s presence in the wonder of what God has created. But that isn’t why God invited Moses to the top of the mountain. And it’s not why Jesus took Peter and James and John and led them apart up the mountain either. It was about more than getting back to nature. It was even more than the personal experience of God that they would have on their respective mountains. Even when we may be the only one who experiences the touch of God in a holy place, without a community of faith to share, interpret, and contextualize that experience, it has little meaning. There is no individual faith without a community of faith. God doesn’t invite Moses up the mountain when they first meet because Moses is alone. The invitation isn’t just for Moses, even though he’s the one who goes up by himself. The invitation is ultimately for the sake of God’s people. What will be revealed on that mountain is meant to be taken down to a people.
Which brings us to the second reason God waits for Moses to return before inviting him up the mountain. Because there are some things that you have to be clear of and separate from before you can hear what God has to say. Moses may have fled into the desert to escape his crime, but there are some things that follow you no matter how much you may try to run away from them. Moses was doing alright. Living his life, loving his wife, tending his sheep, basically minding his own business. But his people weren’t doing alright. The Hebrew slaves weren’t doing alright. And he was never going to be able to hear what God had to say until they were free to join him in what there was to hear. He could not experience the freedom to follow God’s law until his people were free to do so as well. Until that happened, Moses might have escaped from Egypt, but he wasn’t free.
Finally, that is why God didn’t send Moses to Egypt with the law already in hand. Even if they didn’t go up the mountain with Moses, the people themselves needed to be liberated first. They needed to be clear of Pharaoh. As long as we are living in slavery, as long as we are held captive and weighed down by the systems that profit from our captivity, held captive and weighed down by the hurts we hold onto and our belief that this is the best we can do, we are not free to hear what God has to say. And we are certainly not free to move toward the promise of life and blessing that God has in store for us. Mountains, due to the simple fact of topography are by their nature a place apart, a place above the fray of daily life- above the fray of obligations, above the fray family strife, above the fray of politics, and ambition, and everything else that steals our attention away from what is ultimate and eternal in each and every moment. So if any of them, if the fugitive Moses and the enslaved people of Israel are going to move forward, move into God’s new things, the first thing that they have to do on the other side of captivity is to rise above everything else that might obstruct their view of what God has to show them. Which turns out to be God’s very self.
It’s the same thing that Peter and James and John saw on their mountain. They saw Jesus transfigured, but not transformed. Jesus didn’t become something else in that moment when his skin shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white. They just saw him in a way they never had before. They saw beyond what they imagined. They saw beyond what they expected. They saw beyond the limits of their own sight to what only God can show us. To see something like that, like Moses saw, like the Hebrew people saw from a distance in that cloud that Moses entered, like the disciples saw- to see something like that is at once terrifying and truly awe-some. Terrifying because it is so big that we wonder if we can survive the sight of it, and awe-some because once we discover we can, that very fact leaves us in awe of all that we never even knew was possible.
That is the gift of the mountain. That is the gift of what God has to say and show us when we know we are free and accept the invitation to rise above those things we have left behind. So that when we come back down to the journey that awaits us, a road through the wilderness of sin and the cross, we can do so with the hope that comes from knowing just a little of what is unknowable and trusting that that will be more than enough to see us through.