Transfiguration, February 23, 2020
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
One summer, I was the chaplain for a Christian residential camp up on Gambier Island. For the family camp, we came up with the theme “C.S.I. Artaban”. The C.S.I. stood for Christ Scene Investigation. The very first day, the chapel was festooned with yellow and black caution tape and there were warning signs posted: “enter here at your own risk”. In the opening worship, I stood at the front with the Bible in my hands. I told them what I tell you now: this is a dangerous book. If you open it, you risk being changed.
This book comes from a dangerous God. We don’t like to think of God as dangerous, but there is an edge to our faith. Christianity is not a comfortable religion. The call demands our obedience and our attention. When we draw near to holiness, there is an element of fear. Maybe it is because we do not feel worthy to be in God’s presence. Maybe it is because we are afraid of what God might ask. Awesome is very close to Aweful.
There are stories of mountaintop places- where the earth meets the heavens- when individuals are allowed to get close and listen to what God wants from the human race. There are some non-negotiables. Moses didn’t receive ten suggestions. On his tablets of stone he wrote down ten commandments. His encounter with the glory of the Lord is described as a devouring fire. It burned away any misconceptions that relationship with God is in our control- that we can pick and choose what is right and which laws to follow. The Hebrew word “torah” translates as instructions. Moses tried to hear and then explain the instructions that would make up the covenant agreement between God and people.
It took a long time, apparently. It does take a while to understand things properly. The number 40 is a Jewish code for “the full period” or as a professor of theology used to put it “a honking long time”. There are other examples in the Bible of things taking 40 days. Noah’s ark rode the flood waters for 40 days. Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for 40 days. And the children of Israel wandered around after they escaped from Egypt for 40 years! Just to underscore the work they had to put in to practice being people of the covenant.
They needed the practice. While Moses was hanging out on the mountaintop, his followers in the camp were getting up to no good. Aaron and Hur, two of the appointed priests, were supposed to settle any disputes that came up. But nobody seemed to be minding their authority. They were quick to get bored with the process and started fashioning an idol to worship instead of the God of creation. They didn’t trust their leaders. Even when Moses finally came down the mountain with the ten commandments, there was disagreement. There has been ever since. Look at the books of Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Numbers in the Hebrew Scriptures. There are many stories of how those instructions kept getting challenged. And big sections of the Bible are devoted to further interpreting the rules and regulations for living as God’s people. Moses may have waited for 40 days to try and get things straight. It’s taken us ever since to try and live those instructions out.
Part of the trouble is that humans continually get into trouble with assumptions and different interpretations. If we don’t share a common understanding, we literally run into each other. Take the concept of roundabouts. You have probably each encountered these traffic controls, where several roads converge in an intersection with a circular barrier in the center. Cars are supposed to enter into the roundabout in a way that keeps an even flow of traffic which everyone understands. Except everybody doesn’t. In Britain, where cars drive on the left-hand side of the road, it’s fairly straightforward. You come up to a round-about and if there is a car coming towards you (from the right), then you let that car go first. After all, that car has what is called the “right of way”. But in Canada, cars drive on the other side of the road. What that means is that some drivers come up to that roundabout and think that others should yield to them. After all, they are on the right of any vehicle already in the roundabout, so they should have the right of way. So what do they do? Punch the gas pedal, zoom into the roundabout and snip off the nose of the car coming towards them. A dangerous (and wrong) assumption. But humans do things like this all the time. We justify our particular interpretation and back it up with bits of the law.
To keep the spirit rather than the letter of the law, we need to raise instructions from being dry and dusty points of contention into something life-giving. We commit ourselves to a common commandment: to love God and to love others as ourselves. We have teachings that help us understand what this can look like in our daily lives. Leaders gather up understandings and check them against what has been shared in our heritage and our scriptures. Interpretation is the job of a community listening in faith to God’s voice, and then putting those instructions into action.
We do this with God’s help and in God’s presence. In our story of the giving of the ten commandments from Exodus, verse 12 says, “The Lord said to Moses, ‘come up to me on the mountain and wait there”. “Wait there” is literally “be there”. Be is the root of God’s name- I AM. So God is calling Moses to come and be in God’s presence, to commune with God in order to understand how to share the divine instructions. This listening in is key to anything we do as a community of faith. It’s the same directive as God spoke from another mountaintop to the disciples of Jesus. “This is my beloved Son. Listen to Him”. In our gathering together, let us listen deeply to what God is calling us to do. And then, we need to decide how to risk and how to trust a God who calls us to follow. Amen.