Two mountain-top experiences in Judeo-Christian Scripture are highlighted in the texts for February 19, the last Sunday before Lent, aka Transfiguration Sunday. Because of that latter designation I have usually focused on the Gospel lesson when preaching on that Sunday. As Matthew’s Gospel puts it, “Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves.” This year I also noticed the text from Exodus 24 involves being led by God to a time of solitude by climbing a mountain in response to a divine call.
The closest I’ve come to mountain climbing in recent years has been to walk up a paved path to an observation tower on Clingman’s Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains. At 6643 feet, Clingmans’s Dome is the highest point in the Smokies, but in full disclosure, as with most tourists visiting there, I only hiked the final half mile which is a gain of 332 feet in elevation. That doesn’t sound like much, but it is a fairly steep climb that requires some effort; even though it would never be confused with scaling Mt. Everest. The question these two texts raise for me as we approach the season of Lent again his year is “How much effort am I willing to make in order to put myself in God’s presence?”
Moses responds to God’s call and scales Mt. Sinai, which at 7497 feet is just a bit higher than Clingman’s Dome. Exodus does not give any details on how hard that climb was for Moses, but I am struck by two things it does say. First, after Moses climbs the mountain he has to wait 6 days before God appears. I get really frustrated if I have to wait 30 minutes in a doctor’s waiting room. So what does that faithful, patient waiting tell us clock-driven Americans about what it takes to experience the Holy?
Isaiah tells us that “Those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength,” but that text doesn’t say how long that wait will be. It may just mean that we have to surrender our own agendas if we want to be fully in God’s presence. The final sentence in the Exodus text says Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights. We know that’s Bible speak for a very long time. In other words we don’t measure our time with God in chronos or clock time. Those mountain top experiences can only be described in Kairos time, which means in God’s good time and as long as it takes.
On a clear day you can see for 100 miles from Clingman’s Dome, but Moses got no such photo op on Mt. Sinai; and that’s the second detail that got my attention from the Exodus account. It says, “Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud.” Moses is totally enveloped by God’s Holy presence. There’s no multi-tasking if we want to feel God’s manifestation. We have to be fully committed and open to whatever God is calling us to do and become.
I get a lot of inspiration from music lyrics, and the song that I’m hearing as I ponder these biblical stories is “Climb Every Mountain” from “The Sound of Music” by Richard Rodgers, and Oscar Hammerstein. The lyrics to that song say,
“Climb every mountain,
Search high and low,
Follow every byway,
Every path you know.
Climb every mountain,
Ford every stream,
Follow every rainbow,
‘Till you find your dream.
A dream that will need
All the love you can give,
Every day of your life
For as long as you live.”
If you remember the story this song is sung by the Mother Superior to a young Maria who is wrestling with her vocation, her call from God which seems to be pulling her away from the religious life in the convent to a totally different purpose. To surrender to God may take us in very surprising directions, but whatever that path is it will require struggle and effort, not just one mountain-top experience. The song says climb every mountain, search high and low, and follow every rainbow to pursue a dream that requires “all the love you can give, every day of your life for as long as you live.” Every mountain. All the love. Every day. As long as you live. God doesn’t ask more of us than we can give, just all we have.
Lent is a great time to ponder such things. Jesus translates that all-in commitment to “Let the dead bury the dead.” “ Leave your nets.” “Take up your cross and follow me.” We need mountain-top experiences to refuel and renew our souls, but we don’t live on the mountain top. Moses had to come back down to his golden calf worshipping flock. Jesus and the disciples had to come back down the mountain and set their faces toward Jerusalem. We need solitude and close encounters with God to empower us, but we live in the lonesome valley of dry bones and the shadow death.
Spend time alone with God this Lent, as much time as it takes, and wrestle with whatever is on your heart about what God requires of you in this time and place.
February 11, 2023