The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Sacred Mountains

Do we revel in the commonality of all humanities hunger for interaction with God?

by Russell Rathbun

Old Testament Reading: Exodus 24

For Sunday, Mar. 6 , 2011: Year A – Transfiguration

 The top of the sacred mountain is covered in clouds, fire burns and around it are erected twelve stone monuments, one for each − each of the ancient Greek gods that is.

No, this is not a description of Sinai, this is Olympus, where Prometheus ventured to steal fire from Zeus and bring it down the mountain to the mortals, so they might have life.

Sacred, Not Rare

Sacred mountains, while sacred, are not rare. Since about 3000 B.C.E. the emperors of China have made a pilgrimage to Tai Shin, in Eastern China, Shandong Province, to be blessed and receive the wisdom to lead their people. Tai Shin is one of five Taoist sacred mountains, in China.

There are also four Buddhist sacred mountains there. Muhammad was transfigured on Mount Hira. Mount Vesuvius, the Himalayas, and the Black Hills in South Dakota, all are considered, in some way, the home of the gods (or god).

How is this different?

So Moses goes up a mountain that is covered in clouds, crested with fire, to meet God and receive from the deity the words by which his people might live.

How is this different from all the other peoples and their gods that have met on mountaintops?

Our God does eventually come down from the mountain, and after quite a bit of instructions on how it is to be made agrees to live in a tent. But there are many stories of gods coming down off the mountain to move among the mortals.

In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus ascends two mountains, one to bring the words that we may live by and one on which he is transfigured. It seems that mountain meetings were important to Matthew. Was he trying to trump other mountain top meetings, or allude to them?

Are we to be bashful?

Are we to be bashful about the commonness of these occurrences or is there something definitively different about the ones in our Holy Book? Religious traditions are built on top of each other; perhaps similarity does not threaten truth, but thickens it.

The Hardest Question

Going to the mountaintop to meet with God and receive a revelation is demonstrably not unique. Perhaps what our God does after the meeting is. Do we revel in the communality of all humanities hunger for interaction with God or do we seek to ferret out what is different about our God’s mountain top meetings?




 Russell Rathbun is a preacher at House of Mercy in St. Paul, Minnesota, the author of Midrash on the Juanitos (Cathedral Hill Press, 2010) and the curator of The Hardest Question.


  1. Todd says:

    This is a response to Tony’s THQ – regarding why Jesus would command the disciples to not tell anyone what they had seen on the mountain until after His resurrection.

    After taking in this incredible sight, the dark cloud covers the disciples and they are very afraid. There, in the midst of their inability to see, God’s voice proclaims Jesus as the beloved Son – and God commands the disciples to “listen to him (Jesus)”.

    What I find amazing is our incredible proclivity to value the experience of God to the extent that our experience of the Holy exceeds that which was communicated to us by God.

    Gods says, “listen to him (Jesus)” and Tony’s conclusion is that they likely didn’t. Their experience is perceived as being so incredible that it would be a ridiculous request. How could they be expected to not share this experience with others? Surely Jesus must have told them not to, knowing full well that they would, right? The experience itself was so magnanimous…certainly others would like to know! Wouldn’t I be depriving them (those with whom I share this story) of some important, insider info? It’s just too juicy of a story – and it involves me! I have to say something.

    If the disciples did go and tell others, (by the way, the text does not say that they did, while in other healing narratives there is an instance where the one healed does go and do contrary to what Jesus had commanded) it would reveal an important and common revelation of our broken, twisted sense of revelation, experience, and our desire to bear witness to God.

    We often share our experience AS the communication, even if sharing that experience would contradict what has been communicated and revealed to us by God. We think that they experience will “add to”, “clarify”, “signify”, “enhance”, or in some other way play a more central role than the content itself. Sometimes sharing the experience at the wrong time can “diminish”, “confuse”, “distract”, “muddy”, God’s word from being proclaimed in purity. To be honest, I think we are attracted to sharing such experiences because they draw a lot of attention to ourselves, even if it may distract others from seeing, hearing, and believing God.

    Note: It’s not that this story was not to be shared. However, attentiveness to God’s command and timing of when, where, how, and why one ought share thing that have been revealed to are important things to prayerfully discern…for every disciple and at all times.

    Still, we would rather do what we think would be best and share our experience – even if the One revealing and performing such incredible things tells us to listen to Jesus – and Jesus tells us to be silent.

  2. Amigo Cowboy says:

    Mountaintops are nice. Mountaintops with an encounter with God are especially nice. I like my mountaintop experience(s). And I’m as prone as the next guy to go on and on about how special it was. I’m sure others have had their experiences. Sooner or later, we need to get back into the valley. There are lots of others who haven’t even set foot on a mountain. They have no idea what a mountaintop experience is, let alone the similarities and differences among the world’s religions.

How do you read?