Responding to God's Call
The contrast between our Hebrew Scripture and our Gospel Lesson couldn’t be more stark: Abram’s response to God’s call was to immediately obey. And, we know from other stories, that Abram, or Abraham, obeyed God’s call time and time again throughout his long life. He was ready to sacrifice his son for God, if that’s what it was going to take to be obedient.
Nicodemus, on the other hand, has a few questions! Nicodemus is a Pharisee, a church leader, and, he was taking a great risk going to Jesus to ask questions. It would not have been good for him to be seen with Jesus, but something compelled him to go and speak with him.
Other stories about Nicodemus have him defending Jesus after he is arrested, pointing out that Jesus should have a fair trial, and finally, Nicodemus shows up after Jesus has died to help with his burial.
Both faith responses, absolute obedience, and healthy skepticism are represented many times in the bible, and in real life.
At one time or another, we’ve all received a call from God. We may not have heard it, it may have been a still, small voice, or it may have been a booming commandment. But as God’s children, God calls us to live faithful lives, to love our neighbors, even love our enemies.
Looking inside ourselves for a moment, how have we responded to God’s call? More like Abraham, or more like Nicodemus? I’d hazard a guess that the majority of us are more like Nicodemus! Drawn to God and to Jesus, but needing some logical answers before we commit.
I believe very strongly that while there is an obvious difference between Abraham and Nicodemus in their responses, both are acceptable to God. Of course, God would appreciate all of us acting as quickly and as faithfully as Abraham, but I also believe that God patiently tolerates our questions. God is a big enough God to handle any question we could come up with!
Jesus wasn’t afraid of Nicodemus and his questions, he wasn’t even annoyed. Given enough time, the Nicodemus in all of us will come to the conclusion that obedience to God and God’s son is the way to go. Nicodemus had heard enough from Jesus to take a public stand after Jesus was arrested, and he was strong enough in his faith to publicly assist with our Savior’s burial.
Given that Lent is a journey, the challenge I have for you today is this: I’d like us to reflect on whether we are more like Abraham, or more like Nicodemus in our responses to God’s call. Over the course of our lives, have we responded with obedience, or with questions?
If you have examples of how you are like Abraham, what did you do in obedience to God’s call? If more like Nicodemus, what questions did you need to have answered before you were willing to act?
In my own life, having felt a call to ministry even as I was in high school, and at first I responded more like Jonah! I went in the other direction! I felt very strongly that my ministry was serving the developmentally or intellectually disabled, and so I set my course on learning psychology, on getting jobs serving people with disabilities.
But God’s call was persistent. And there came a time when I couldn’t hide from it any more. The call to go to seminary was strong. Do you think I simply packed everything up and showed up on the front steps of Colgate Rochester Divinity School? Nope! I asked questions! A lot of questions! Betsy and I attended a conference for potential seminarians, where we could ask students and professors and administrators all the questions we wanted, to our hearts content. Of course, everybody there was prepared to answer questions about how I could go to seminary. Nobody there was prepared to answer questions about if I should go to seminary!
I was expected to find that answer on my own. That was a question better addressed to God. The God that expects obedience, but patiently tolerates pesky questions!
While the bible tells of people like Abraham, those who hear God’s call clearly and immediately obey, most of us will hedge toward Nicodemus in our responses. As modern children of God, we have more information, more knowledge about the sacred, and about life in general, than people like Abraham ever did. But some will argue that in the end, the only thing that matters is whether we faithfully obey. The path we take is less important than our ultimate response.
The faith world needs Abrahams, Naomis, Esthers, Jonah’s, Isaiahs, Elijahs. All with their own way of answering God’s call. And the faith world needs us, reflecting on how God is calling us to act today, and tomorrow. It doesn’t matter if we are 4, or 94, the God that is Still Speaking speaks to us, calls to us, beckons us.
And I want to reassure you that it’s OK to ask questions! It’s not considered unfaithful, disrespectful, or impertinent. Of course, like Nicodemus, we may not get the answers we are hoping for, we may not understand the answers, it may not help us make decisions about our obedience, but it’s OK to ask questions!
In the Spiritual Direction leadership program I’m in, we’re learning to ask questions about the possible fruits of an action: ‘what would happen if I did this’, or, ‘what benefits will occur if I do that’. ‘What would God want me to do, and what are the possible fruits of that action?’ ‘Who gains from my actions, me, or someone else?’
Human-kind has spent the last 2 millennia developing its intellect, its logic, its collective understanding of the universe. And the more complex the thinking about the universe, the harder it is to respond to God like Abraham. But if we’re going to ask questions like Nicodemus, at the very least we might want to ask the right questions!
I take it on faith that God calls to each of us, in some unique and special way. Do we hear it? Every once in a while, we might hear something, maybe a faint whisper. But our faith tells us that the call is there, whether we hear it or not. The first step is to start listening. Nobody can say, I’m too old, or I’m too young, or I’m a lost cause….God reaches out to all of us, calls to all of us, loves all of us…
And God aches for our responses. Imagine a world where God’s faithful children put extra effort into listening for what God is saying: we can make that world happen simply by listening for God in our own lives. And the beauty is that we can ask all the questions we want! The story of Jesus needed an Abraham at the beginning and the story of Jesus needed a Nicodemus at the end.
The key to hearing God’s call, and being able to respond faithfully is no surprise: it’s prayer. It’s being in prayer, not just on Sunday mornings when we gather to worship our God, but being in prayer in the morning, or during the day, or in the evening, or whenever we have a quick moment. And prayer often takes the form of a question, doesn’t it?
Asking God questions is really just praying! Who knew? Asking the questions we need to ask is really just prayer. And the more we ask, the more we pray. And the more we ask, the better the likelihood that we will hear an answer. An answer from the patient God who aches to be in contact with us!
I don’t believe God interacts with us like God did with Abraham: very few of us will ever be asked to do the things God asked Abraham to do. But many of us will find ourselves asking questions like Nicodemus did. Many of us will feel like we need to be private, discreet about our questions. We may feel insecure, or unfaithful. Let’s not worry about that. Because if we’re asking questions, it means we’re engaging our faith, engaging our God. And that is a good thing!
We can learn a lot from the persistence and temerity Nicodemus showed. And while we can’t know the details of what he learned from his questions, his behavior tells us that he was convinced enough to act faithfully, in public, at great risk for his safety and his standing in the community. He asked the questions, he engaged the sacred, and he acted.
I pray we can do the same. Amen.
Several years ago, our family used the February break from school to visit the Grand Canyon in Arizona. We flew into Phoenix, rented a van to drive to a town called Williams, north of Flagstaff, and then took a train north to the Grand Canyon National Park on the South rim.
From the moment we started heading north, the elevation began to rise. Phoenix is already 1000 feet above sea level. And the further north we traveled, the higher the elevation. Markers on the highway told us when we had reached 2000 feet, then 3, then 4 then 5 and so on until we were just outside Williams, at about 7000 feet.
To put things into some kind of perspective, Mt. Marcy, the highest peak in the Adirondack mountains is a little over 5000 feet. Mount Washington, the highest peak in New England is a little over 6000 feet.
The train from Williams took us the final 60 miles into the park, and we went up another 1000 feet, so that by the time we reached the south rim of the canyon, we were at 8000 feet.
Standing on the edge of one of the most majestic and awesome canyons in the world, where the land looked flat as a pancake, we were higher than the highest peak in New England, and we weren’t even on a mountain!
And even though we weren’t technically on a mountain, our experience there, our presence on the rim of the Grand Canyon can be considered a ‘Mountain-top Experience’.
Mountain-top Experiences are moments when we feel absolutely exhilarated, almost overwhelmed, a real high point in our lives, so to speak. They don’t have to actually occur on a mountain-top, they can occur anywhere, at any time in our lives. But it’s the exhilaration and the thought that it sure would be nice if we could stay right there in that moment that sets a Mountain-top experience apart from other moments in our lives.
Everybody has a Mountain-top experience or two in their lives. A moment when your breath is taken from you by the beauty of what you are seeing, or by the impact of what you have seen.
Other Mountain-top experiences in my life include living in India, climbing one of the Alps in Austria, (remind me to tell you the story of Betsy’s crazy cousin Gunther sometime) and renting a cottage on Cayuga lake with Betsy and the girls.
There are probably many more, but these are the moments when I felt like I just wanted time to stand still, so I could bask in the moment for as long as I liked.
Can you think of one of your Mountain-top experiences? A time when you were so exhilarated, overwhelmed, when you had your breath taken away by what you were feeling? If you can remember that feelings, then you are close to understanding what Peter was feeling on the mountain with Jesus.
Our gospel lesson this morning describes what happened when Peter, James, and John went up on a mountain with Jesus. There, they saw Jesus glow a dazzling white, his face shone like the sun. At that moment, Peter’s thought was to build Jesus a dwelling, so he could stay there all the time.
As far as I can tell from the text, Jesus ignored Peter, didn’t he? See, one the most important aspects of Mountain-top Experiences is that we can’t stay in them. We can’t stay there. Those times are fleeting. Or life moves on. Or it’s impractical based on the realities of life.
Whatever reasons Jesus had in taking James, John, and Peter up to the mountain, where he had them glimpse his transfiguration, one thing was sure: they were not going to be staying up there hanging out with Moses and Elijah. There was serious work to be done!
Now, does that resonate with our own lived experience? We live certain moments where we wish time would stand still and we could stay in the moment forever, but we know that we can’t stay, life moves on, and we have a powerful memory of our exhilaration and our excitement.
And after all, would we really want to isolate ourselves on a mountain-top, stuck in an experience that is meant to be fleeting? It’s OK if you say yes! But I think we’d all have to agree that reliving a Mountain-top Experience over and over and over would get old eventually. We can’t remain fixed in an experience like that. That’ s not living life.
And that’s not what Jesus had in mind when he went up to the mountain. In this gospel’s version, he merely ignores Peter, in another, he rebukes him, and tells him that he doesn’t have his mind on the Kingdom of Heaven.
Mountain-top Experiences can motivate us, feed us, remind us of what is important. They can sustain us during difficult times. And we can spend much of our lives seeking them. But they can’t last more than a moment or two. They aren’t designed to be anything more than fleeting moments of awesomeness!
Our Hebrew Scripture tells of Moses, going up to the mountain to meet God. He stayed there for 40 days and 40 nights, but he did not stay up there forever. Moses still had work to do, life to live, faith to explore.
Mountain-top experiences enrich our lives. They add excitement, spice, and a healthy appreciation for God’s beautiful world. I love reflecting on my own Mountain-top Experiences, and I hope you enjoy reflecting on your own.
But ultimately we can’t dwell there. We have to move on. Our family had to pack up from the south rim of the Grand Canyon, and take the train back to Williams. We saw different things on the way back than we did heading into the park.
When we left Williams, we went a different way, and saw even more amazing sights in Sedona. And, as we made our way to Phoenix, we got closer and closer to ground level.
Arriving back in Syracuse, I knew I had had another Mountain-top Experience. And I also knew I wouldn’t be able to stay in it. Now, that doesn’t mean some people shouldn’t at least try: practically everybody who served us, waited on us, or sold us something came from some place other than Arizona. That tells me that a lot of people go to Arizona and have Mountain-top experiences, and a lot of people try and stay to recreate them.
But their days weren’t filled with exhilaration and excitement. Hopefully their weekends were!
By and large, very few people can make their living staying in Mountain-top experiences. It’s too much. It’s not for everyday living.
I give thanks to God for my experiences, and for the insight they have given me so far, and for whatever insight they will give me in the future. We can always learn from our Mountain-top Experiences, no matter how long ago they occurred.
But I’m even more thankful for my daily life. The one that is sustained by those fleeting moments of awe and beauty. The routine, the responsibility, the challenges. The stuff real life is made of.
Moses and Jesus knew that those moments were meant to galvanize them, steel them for the challenges ahead. We know that too.
Just before we left for Phoenix, Betsy and I ran into a parishioner from Fairmount at Wegmans. You should have seen the look in his eye when we told him we were going to try and go through Sedona on our way back to Phoenix. I could tell that he had had a Mountain-top Experience there. It was all over his face.
Now I know why.
On the eve of our Lenten Journey, may our Mountain-top Experiences help us along the way, though our challenges and our temptations. But when all is said and done, may we have the wisdom to know when we must move on from our mountain tops.
Jesus helped Peter, and James, and John, and I suspect he can help us too. Amen.
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