The Mountain Mandate: that was then, this is now
Is it possible to feel exhausted, overjoyed, terrified and hopeful all at once? Perhaps that’s
what some of the people of Libya are feeling right now, especially in the “free” Eastern part; maybe the people of Egypt feel the same.
In fact, feeling exhausted, overjoyed, terrified and hopeful all at once over the downfall of an Egyptian dictator is exactly what the Israelites felt when they came to Mount Sinai.
Picture this: here is a group of people who have been horribly oppressed slaves – bricks without straw – under a genocidal tyrant that had tried to exterminate all their male children. They just barely managed to escape with their lives, after an impossible sea-crossing with a superpower army of chariots (the tanks of the ancient world) in hot pursuit.
On Eagles’ Wings
They get to the other side, and begin to make their way out into the desert bad-lands, where “scarcity” barely begins to describe the lack of food and water. Somehow they scrape by for three months and finally find their way to a mountain. They are not home, they are not at an oasis, they are not safe. What is going to happen?
Moses tells them what God has told him to say – this is that famous “eagles’ wings” passage:
Exodus 19:4 “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. 5 Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, 6 but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. These are the words that you shall speak to the Israelites.”
That part about “if you obey my voice” calls for a response, so we read:
8 The people all answered as one: “Everything that the LORD has spoken we will do.” Moses reported the words of the people to the LORD. 9 Then the LORD said to Moses, “I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, in order that the people may hear when I speak with you and so trust you ever after.”
Everything, We Will Do
Pause right there for a moment – did you catch that? The people have committed themselves to do everything the Lord tells them to do – and this is before they hear the law which Moses is about to climb up the mountain to get.
This means that they have committed themselves to doing everything – not just the Exodus torah, but all that God says – now and in the future – all the ways Deuteronomy will expand on the law, all that the prophets will say in the future – no exclusions. The people have affirmed: “When God speaks, we will obey.”
Now, this exhausted but happy-to-be-free multitude of former-slaves is about to become terrified. As it turns out, this is no ordinary mountain; Moses is going to meet God there. So, precautions are necessary. Moses warns them:
12 You shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Be careful not to go up the mountain or to touch the edge of it. Any who touch the mountain shall be put to death.”
The warning was indeed necessary: this next scene had them all shaking in their sandals:
Ex. 19:16 On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, as well as a thick cloud on the mountain, and a blast of a trumpet so loud that all the people who were in the camp trembled. 17 Moses brought the people out of the camp to meet God. They took their stand at the foot of the mountain. 18 Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the LORD had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. 19 As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder.
A Mediated Voice
Now they feel more terror than anything else. The idea of meeting God seemed good from a theoretical perspective, but up close and in person – that’s another story. Maybe it would be best not to be so close. Maybe Moses should be in between, the mouthpiece that acts as a safety-shield from God’s terrible, dangerous God-ness.
Ex. 20:18 When all the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distance, 19 and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”
Moses bravely ventures up the God-invaded mountain. He receives the Torah, God’s laws, the mandate from the mountain, and comes down to instruct the people, with the evidence that he had been with God written on his face:
Ex. 34:29 “Moses came down from Mount Sinai. As he came down from the mountain with the two tablets of the covenant in his hand, Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone because he had been talking with God.”
Wanting and Not Wanting God
We all share this strange conundrum about being human. We were born with an in-born longing for God; we feel it. We get glimpses of God’s presence in that feeling we get at sunset or when the sun-beams stream out of thick clouds, or when the music goes to that place in our hearts, or when the painting speaks to us. We long to be in the place where we can hear the voice of God.
But then, we also have this instinctive fear of getting too close. What might God do if we really met him? What might change in us? What might need to be changed about us? Would it be safe, or should we stay back lest we touch something we could not survive?
In Act II of this great drama, we see another group of people feeling exhausted, overjoyed, terrified and hopeful, who have been attracted to a young Galilean preacher named Jesus.
He comes to a mountain. Not alone, but with disciples he goes up. God is there. There is the cloud, the bright light, the voice from heaven. Moses, the law-giver is suddenly there, along with Elijah, greatest of prophets, both who have spoken the word of God to the people. Jesus’ face shines like Moses’, but more than that – his clothes become dazzlingly white.
What the Voice Says
The voice from heaven proclaims,
5 “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”
The presence of God – in fact the un-mediated voice of God is overwhelming.
6 “When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear.”
Now we have come to the central core. Now we have come to the ultimate solution to the human conundrum. In the time of Moses, to touch was to die. That was then, this is now.
The New Touch
The core of Christianity is that God comes to us in the form of Jesus. Now we experience God in Jesus. What has changed? Is he less God? Less awesome? Less awe-inspiring? Not at all – notice we have left them all lying on the ground, terror-struck. But now, instead of forbidding touch, watch this:
7 “Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.”
Jesus has come to touch us with the presence of God! Jesus has come to be Emanuel, “God with us,” not just in theory, and not just watching us from a distance, but to come up and to touch us, skin to skin.
So what? What now? What happens in the life of a person touched by Jesus? Jesus has a purpose for us. He begins this way, saying to us:
“Get up and do not be afraid.”
We are to begin by asserting the awesome holiness of God: “Hallowed be thy name” as Jesus taught us to pray, but then comes the next line immediately, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth.”
We were never meant to stay on the ground, groveling. This is not about building religious shrines on mountain tops, as Peter suggested. This is about getting up off the ground, leaving the fear behind, and following Jesus. He has a purpose for us.
And what is his purpose? It is to take us back down the mountain to the place where the people are.
It is not an accident that the church has built schools and hospitals around the world across the centuries. Rather it is a direct consequence of our core understanding of our calling. We exist as a church, not to stay up on the mountain enthralled in a cloud. We have been given the mandate of recognizing Jesus as God’s Beloved Son, so that we may, as the voice said, “Listen to him.”
Everything, We Will Do
We are here to commit ourselves, just as the Israelites did, to doing everything he says, without exception.
It is not an accident that we tutor kids, that we reach out to people in need across the street, that we build Habitat for Humanity homes. It is because we have heard Jesus and are committed to putting his words into practice that we extend our welcome to people in recovery, people who are different, people who are lost souls.
What is Jesus saying to us, today?
“Get up and do not be afraid.”
Let us go down the mountain with him! People are waiting for people who have been touched by Jesus, and who listen to his voice. They are waiting for us, the exhausted, overjoyed, terrified and hopeful people of faith.
“Get up and do not be afraid.”