On the morning of the third day, thunder roared, and lightning flashed, and a dense cloud came down on the mountain. There was a long, loud blast from a ram’s horn, and all the people trembled. Moses led them out from the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. All of Mount Sinai was covered with smoke because the Lord had descended on it in the form of fire. The smoke billowed into the sky like smoke from a brick kiln, and the whole mountain shook violently. As the blast of the ram’s horn grew louder and louder, Moses spoke, and God thundered his reply. The Lord came down on the top of Mount Sinai and called Moses to the top of the mountain. So, Moses climbed the mountain.
Then the Lord told Moses, “Go back down and warn the people not to break through the boundaries to see the Lord, or they will die. Even the priests who regularly come near to the Lord must purify themselves so that the Lord does not break out and destroy them.”
“But Lord,” Moses protested, “the people cannot come up to Mount Sinai. You already warned us. You told me, ‘Mark off a boundary all around the mountain to set it apart as holy.’”
But the Lord said, “Go down and bring Aaron back up with you. In the meantime, do not let the priests or the people break through to approach the Lord, or he will break out and destroy them.”
So, Moses went down to the people and told them what the Lord had said. (NLT)
As Christians await Easter and the resurrected Christ, the Revised Common Lectionary reminds us of another great anticipation from the Old Testament. The ancient Israelites were amazingly delivered from Egyptian slavery, miraculously walked through the Red Sea, and traveled with wondrous anticipation to Mount Sinai. Now, in today’s reading, they are about to meet with God!
The scene of this meeting is not exactly the romantic highland encounter of the Man from Snowy River (my wife’s all-time favorite movie). The landscape is much more akin to the dark and volcanic Mount Doom from The Lord of the Rings. The picture appears more foreboding than loving. The thing about mountain top experiences is that they are not all monolithic one-size-fits-all encounters with bright rainbows and happy skipping unicorns.
Mountain Top Experiences
Holy Scripture is replete with mountain experiences. Mountains serve as symbols for significant encounters with a mighty God. Whether it is Christ’s transfiguration on a mountain, or the giving of the law on a mountain, the awesome mountain serves as a tangible symbol of divine majesty, strength, and sovereignty. And, I might add, conversely, valleys in Scripture are symbolic of difficulty and suffering. Our God is Lord of both mountain and valley. The God of the Bible is both transcendent and immanent, ruling with power and might high above us on the holy mountain. Yet, the Lord also comes near to us in the valley of the shadow of death.
Leading up to the giving of the Ten Words (Commandments) in Exodus 20, Exodus 19 portrays an awesome scene of God in transcendent holiness and power. In fact, the experience was so otherworldly that the people were afraid to even come near the mountain. The Israelites needed limits placed on themselves because of God’s holy presence. Just like coming too near the immense power of the sun will destroy us, so getting near to God can ruin us if we do not respect divine holiness.
The Lord of the Mountain
Respecting God’s power and transcendence brings the reality of the Lord’s immanence into greater appreciation. God has gone to extreme lengths of self-revelation to people. For the Christian, it all culminates through the incarnation of Christ, the sending of the Son. In Jesus, the transcendence and immanence of God meet perfectly to bridge the chasm between humanity and the divine. Because of Jesus, the awesome sounds of thunder and trumpet do not lead to fear; they announce grace to those who approach God by faith.
You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant….
See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? At that time, his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:18-29, NIV)
Our God is an awesome God. The divine dramas of God’s victory over Egypt and Christ’s victory over sin, death, and hell, have provided God’s people with spiritual power. Both the deliverance of the Israelites from Egyptian slavery by God and the deliverance secured on Mount Zion from spiritual slavery by Jesus are meant to free us to do the will of God. With God’s Word and God’s Spirit given to us, we are emancipated from an empty way of life to experience the fullness of Christ.
May the peace of God which surpasses all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of the Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord, and the blessing of God almighty. May Father, Son, and Spirit be among you and remain with you always. Amen.