Thursday, January 27, 2011

On the Mountain of God [Third-Day Stories]

Hiking down Mount Sinai, Egypt, at sunset
How ready are we to hear or to recognize God's voice?  As I've been reading about Moses’ journey to Mount Sinai in Exodus 19, where he led the people of Israel and they received the ten commandments…I was reminded of a time when I too was told by God to bring someone to Mount Sinai and, no, I'm not kidding. I want to share with you a little later how that happened...but for now let me ask you this:  If you had three days to prepare to hear God’s voice, would you know what to do?  Moses didn’t…until God told him.

One of the difficulties we have in communicating with God is imagining where God is.  When we pray, “Our Father who art in heaven” some may think of God as distant and difficult to reach… in outer space or the twilight zone. In Jewish thought there is a helpful distinction made between three heavens: (a) The firmament, as in the "birds of the heavens" (b) The starry heavens and (c) "The heaven of heavens," or "the third heaven.” Now God occupies all three of these “heavens” – God is as far out and further than we can imagine, and as close as the air we breathe. That helps me when I think about speaking to God in prayer; knowing that the God who created both space and time chooses to meet us right here and now in this space and this time, which is why….

(i) God instructed them to set aside a holy time. “Go to the people and consecrate them today and tomorrow… because on the third day the LORD will come down upon Mount Sinai in the sight of all the people....On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightening with a thick cloud over the mountain and a very loud trumpet blast” (Ex. 19: 10-12, 16). There is something potent about an appointment.  There is something powerful about promising someone that you will be there at such and such a time on such and such a day.  The world could not advance very quickly without appointments, without the promises and commitments we make to one another to be there “on time” or at least close to “on time.” Renewing our relationship with God requires the same kind of intentionality that we give to our boss or our family, or the gym.  Indeed, the appointment we make with God every Sunday… or on our way to work or school, or in the living room before sunrise is the most important appointment on our calendar.  Notice that God showed up exactly when he said he would…on the morning of the third day (16).  God is always on time.  It was a revelation to me to think that when I set aside time to focus on God and his word; that it is not just for my benefit, but that God also desires it and misses me when I don’t show up.

(ii) God instructed them to set aside a holy place. “You shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Be careful not to go up to the mountain or to touch the edge of it….Set limits around the  mountain and keep it holy” (Ex. 19: 23).  I think it’s significant that the first place that God meets Israel is not in a building, not in a temple, not in a palace…but on a mountain.  If we are going to be intentional about meeting God we’ve got to get out of our minds the idea that we have to be in a church to do it.  Mountains can be holy places, a cathedral of trees can be a holy place, just as a library or a study or a bedroom can be a holy place. We have an outside God – a God who is continually calling us outdoors…and into the world… which means that Holy places also include any place in which we are loving and serving other people in Christ’s name. Now if you’re having difficulty hearing God’s voice, the first thing I would ask you is this: Do you have a place and a time?  Have you set aside a holy corner of God’s universe in which to meet the Creator for a few minutes each day?  You need that place and time…and God will meet you there when you set it aside.                                                   

(iii) Next, God tells Moses and the people how to adopt…a holy mind-set.  As human beings whose minds are clouded by sin, we need a new way of looking at reality in order to hear God clearly, a holy mind-set.  The first thing God impresses upon the minds of his people is the need to accept a new identity“If you obey my voice and keep my covenant you shall be my treasured possession … a priestly kingdom and a holy nation (Ex. 19: 5-6). Now Israel’s mind-set up to that point was more cranky than holy.  In Ex. 16: 2-3, not long after they were delivered from Egypt, we read that “The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness [saying] ‘If only we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt when we sat by the fleshpots and ate our fill of bread; for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”  But God chose them anyway; chose them to be his treasured possession (cherished and beloved), chose them to be a kingdom of priests (people who help other people get closer to God)  and a holy nation (a nation defined not by their military arsenal or powerful gov’t, but by the goodness of their lives). That would be a great plan for any nation…and Israel was supposed to be the model.

Sometimes we need to be reminded of our true identity.  While I was in Egypt in the late 1980's on my way to the Sinai desert, I was walking with a friend through the temple of Luxor with its forest of 150 foot columns.  An Egyptian man came up to us and said to my friend Joan, “Ahhhh! You are a 5,000 camel woman!”  Now she was not feeling particularly attractive that day and so I took a picture of the two of them together.  When I got home, I sent her a copy of that picture and wrote on the back… “Never forget, you are a 5,000 camel woman!”  When I told that story to my wife, I added, "Baby, you are a 10,000 camel woman!"  And what I want to say to those who are reading this is, “You are a 10,000 camel child of God, and don’t forget it."  That’s what God was doing as he reminded rebellious Israel that they had a new identity as his people.

If the first step is to accept a new identity, the second step for the Israelites was to dress the part.  God says to Moses: “Have them wash their clothes and prepare for the third day” (Ex 19: 10). In other words, after weeks of walking through a dessert wasteland, they had to wash up and play the part of a royal priesthood and a holy nation. The other day, I was reading the blog of a teleworker who worked at home in pajamas and old t-shirts.  He said that if his clients saw him beside a 15 year old fast food worker, they would pick the teenager to do their website design.  But if your clients don’t see you, how important could dressing up be?  For an experiment, he decided to dress in slacks, a collared shirt and leather shoes for a week.  He found that (1) he wasn’t spilling food and coffee all over himself so much.  (2) When colleagues dropped by after short notice, he was ready for them.  He didn’t have to run in the backroom and say, “Just a minute.”  (3) He was getting everything done on his to-do list and more.  The point…dressing the part helped him be the part.  Dressing up like Christ, means imitating his prayers, copying his way of speaking and acting and loving; doing the things that we imagine he would do if he were us!  As we do that, as we play the part, as we try to use our mouths and minds and our bodies in God-honoring ways, we will inevitably fall short, sense our need, cry out for God’s help, and grow in closer communion with him.   

Adopting a new identity requires a change of mind.  Dressing the part requires a change of the will.  And finally, Israel is challenged to make God your first love.   OK, I admit that “making God your first love” sounds a lot different from Moses’ command for men “not to go near a woman” (Ex. 10:15) as they prepared for the third day…but I think it’s a valid reframe.  When it comes to hearing God’s voice and walking in his ways there are a number of things that want to claim our deepest passion.  Sexual gratification is just one of the these, but it’s certainly not the only one. Many have the idea today that they should be able to satisfy any and every desire…whether it’s the desire for food or sex or exercise or excitement…or revenge.  But none of these deserve first place in our lives… and in fact can destroy our lives if we let them reign over us.  In response, God may very well be calling us to back away from that habit or thing that has gained power over us, that is hurting others and is not glorifying to God.  More importantly, God may be calling us to put him first by redirecting those energies towards the needs of others, listening to a discouraged friend, feeding the hungry, righting a wrong, or sharing Jesus with someone far from God. The point is that God wants to be first, to be our first love… and anything that occupies that place is going to hinder us from clearly hearing God’s voice.

(iv) Finally, they listened to "all" that God had to say.  When it came time for God to speak, we’re told that he spoke “all these words” (20:1)  to “all the people”  (19:11).  The key word here is “all.”   They “all” listened to “all” of his words.  The message had two main parts, and they are summarized in the first three verses of Exodus 20.  The first word reminded Israel that God called them because of his steadfast love: “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt.”  Before Israel knew the Lord, he called them.  Some feel that the Hebrew Scriptures portray God as a God of laws, while the New Testament portrays God as a God of love.  In truth, God’s steadfast love (his hesed) is a pervasive theme throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. The second word reminded Israel that God is a God who gives commands (mitzvot): “You shall have no other gods before me.”  God blesses, but then God commands.  In fact, it is God’s hesed that empowers us to obey God’s mitzvot.  Y’shua Jesus came to embody and to show us, in person, God’s hesed and his mitzvot, his love and his will for our lives (his commands).  In fact, Jesus accomplished for us what we could not do for ourselves: he perfectly obeyed God’s commands, and perfectly demonstrated his steadfast love..

My concern is that we hear only half of God’s message, the message given on Sinai and embodied in Jesus. Some of us hear only the first part, “I am the God who loved you and brought you out of Egypt…” but then feel like we can ignore God’s commands.  After all, we say to ourselves, God will love us no matter how we actually live.  We forget that if we truly loved God we would want to obey him and turn from what we know is wrong. Others of us hear only the call to obedience…and excel at keeping all the rules, but have forgotten that we were saved by his grace through Jesus our Lord, and that he wants us to pass on that grace by loving one another as he loved us.  In truth, we “all” need to hear “all” of God’s message (no exceptions here) We need both his empowering love, and his sanctifying call to obedience.  To the extent that we try to make excuses and deny either of these…we will fall into error and fail to come to know the true God. 

I was never a very patient hiker.  In fact, when I was 19, I remember grumbling and complaining when a girl plodded along in front of me; and later, when she was injured, I grumbled again that we would have to take her down the mountain cross country…that is until the guide pulled me aside and told me how selfish I was.  I’ve learned that sometimes God speaks to us through other people, and he was my Moses that day. And it’s because of that experience (God speaks to us through experiences too) that I ended up helping someone to the top of Mt. Sinai.  Joan, the 5,000 camel woman, was ready to give up and not even try to complete the three hour hike up the mountain.  She was really moaning and groaning, and I was so tempted to pass her and keep going; but then I heard God say to me, “Steve, I want you to slow down and bring Joan up to the top of Mount Sinai with you.”  “Lord do I have to?  Can’t you send someone else?”  “I’m sending you Steve.  Now go…”  It was time for me to accept a new identity, practice some new habits (like pretending I wasn’t so self-centered), and give God first place.  To motivate us both, we set a goal…let’s get to the top of the mountain by sunset.  We learned from Moses that it helps to have a place and a time to shoot for!  And you know what?  We made it to the top, huffing and puffing…just as the sun was going down! Up there, I opened my Bible and read those holy words… “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, you shall have no other gods before me….”  And I gave thanks for the love of God poured out through his only begotten Son upon a selfish man like me.  In the years since that day, I’ve learned that a hiking trail or a sanctuary, a living room or the bedside of a sick friend can be as holy a mountain as Sinai and that the same God who met his people on the third day, is ready to meet us there today.  Will you join him?   

Father God, we long to hear your voice as clearly and unmistakably as a thunderclap or a quiet whisper, but how often we’ve felt unprepared, apathetic, and disinterested. Captivated by the quest for more and more, distracted by business, and the need to satisfy any and every desire…we’ve forgotten the beauty of holiness, or the power of your words and ways.  We’re tired of sin and ready for renewal.  Let it begin as we set aside time and space to hear your word.  Empower our minds and bodies to receive, believe, and act upon your blessings and commands.  We want to know once more that a living room or an office cubicle, a shaded tree or a school bench, is as holy a place to ponder your word as a sanctuary or holy mountain could ever be.  Now reshape and renew us daily by your gracious commands that we might walk as Jesus walks, pray as he prays, serve as he serves, give as he gives, and love as he loves…in the strength and holiness of your Spirit.  Amen!

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