Genesis 22:1-2, 9a, 10-13, 15-18
Psalm 116: 10, 15-19
I was eighteen when I had the chance to climb a mountain. Hau Ling Peak. It took a good deal of concentration, but my aunt and uncle focused my attention on the top and what I would see when I reached it. It was so high and windy, and felt removed from everyday life. Houses and cars seemed no bigger than pinheads.
Mountains: they’re majestic; they’re immovable. They have stood there since time immemorial. In ancient times, they were metaphors for peak spiritual experiences, for feeling closer to God and seeing life from a different vantage point. Many times people would feel or be different after coming down. Our readings this weekend are no exception.
So I invite you. Come up the mountain with me. Let us encounter God, let God encounter us, and let us never be the same.
When Abraham went up the mountain to sacrifice Isaac, he thought he was doing the Lord’s bidding. The understanding of sacrifice was to dedicate something (or someone, in this case) to the Lord so that no one else could use it for common purposes. Isaac was Abraham’s heir. Abraham wanted to dedicate all he had, his whole family, his prestige, his immortality, to God. Everything belonged to God. This was a good thing.
Like Abraham, we desire to dedicate to God all we have. And we do. We go up the mountain. But then Abraham experiences an epiphany. How is he to dedicate Isaac to God? His former understanding is to give up his son, to sacrifice Isaac. But instead he hears a voice from heaven and sees a ram caught in the bushes. He understands that God wants him and Isaac to “walk before the Lord in the land of the living,” as the psalm for tomorrow reads. Why sacrifice the sheep? Perhaps he is sacrificing the old thinking, or celebrating the coming forth of a new thinking.
Jesus takes his disciples up on a mountain. When he becomes dazzling white and converses with Moses and Elijah, the disciples are terrified. They then want to build tabernacles or tents to commemorate this awesome event, to come and worship at a specific place. This is also a good thing.
Like the disciples, we desire to commemorate our profound spiritual experiences. And we do. We go up this mountain. But then the disciples experience their own epiphany. A cloud, a shadow, a voice. They were not only to commemorate this experience, but to listen to Jesus. They were to listen to Christ, the one who would lead them into a fuller understanding of life and truth. We will be able to interfere with this charge?
What is our mountain? With these stories, we may gain some insights into what our own mountains look like. As per Abraham, we desire to give to God all we have or ever will have. But how do we dedicate it? We may not hide our gifts and desires under a rock, and say that we are giving them up as a sign of dedication to God. That is one understanding. But maybe we can use our gifts and our desires, all of them together, to witness to God, to “walk before the Lord in the land of the living.”
Like the disciples, we can wish to commemorate our experiences. However, if we stop there, we will be incomplete. Additionally, we can listen to Christ, who will lead us into a fuller understanding of life and truth. No one can take that inner listening away. No one can stop us from living in Christ’s life and truth. We may not be able to recognize the significance of it, much as Jesus’ disciples puzzled over the incomprehensible statement about “rising from the dead.” They did follow Christ as much as they were able at the time, and it was enough. We follow Christ as much as we are able at this time, and it is enough.
I wish I could say that climbing Hau Ling Peak when I was eighteen was a transforming experience for me. I did not see visions or hear voices from heaven, much as I would have liked to. Maybe I was. Going up the mountain, I was terrified on the steep slope with nothing to hold onto and loose gravel under my feet. Coming down, I was more confident and didn’t need to hold my uncle’s hand. Listening to that experience tell me that transfiguration is possible in the ordinary things of life.
Sister Gretchen Johnston