TEXT: Ex. 3:1-15; Ex. 20:1-3

The first real mountain I ever climbed was Mt. Chocorua, here in New Hampshire. It's a lovely mountain to look at, with it's Matterhorn-style peak. They say it is the most photographed mountain in the world. It was a good place to start, and up the Piper Trail I went with my family. I expected to be tired, as I climbed a steep mountain, but when we got toward the top, I came to a new realization. "It's dangerous up here!" The top is rocky. You don't have to hang from ropes or climb a cliff face or anything, but you can't exactly stroll to the summit either. You have to balance, jump a bit, and crawl in places to get up. And if you miss, it's a looong way down.

This was new to me. I was used to safe places. It really didn't cross my mind as an adolescent that I could follow a trail set up for the public and be in danger. I figured there would be handrails or something to be sure people didn't lose their footing. There was no such thing. Just steep rocks, and if you didn't pay attention and climb carefully, you could fall off.

That day back in the 70's when I climbed my first mountain, I learned that mountains can be dangerous places. It's not the mountain's fault. The mountains are not bad for being dangerous. It's just that when you approach a mountain on the mountain's terms, you have to be careful. That's just the way it is with mountains.

Israel also learned that lesson at the beginning of their history. Mt. Sinai is a mountain out in the desert between Egypt and Israel. There are not the perils on Sinai that you would face climbing Mt. Everest, or even Mt. Washington. Mt. Sinai was a dangerous mountain because God was waiting there to encounter whoever might step onto its slopes. That's not God's fault, and it doesn't mean God is bad. It's just that when you approach God on God's terms, you have to be careful.

I hope that sentence sounds strange to you. I hope that you have heard me say enough times that God is love to wonder what it might mean that I would call a meeting with God dangerous. To look at that more closely, I invite you to visit a bit with Moses.

Moses is one of the most important characters in the Bible. He is born as a Hebrew slave in Egypt at a time when Pharaoh, which is what they called Egyptian kings, had ordered all Hebrew boys to be killed at birth. Nasty.

Moses' mother hides her son for several months, and when she can't hide him anymore, she puts him in a basket on the Nile and floats him downriver. His sister Miriam is assigned to watch the basket. In a short while, Pharaoh's daughter comes to take a bath in the river and finds the basket. She wants to keep the baby, and what Pharaoh's daughter wants, she gets. So Moses is raised in the palace. Skip ahead a few years, and you find Moses as a young man, watching an Egyptian overseer whipping a Hebrew slave. Moses is furious and kills the Egyptian. The deed is discovered, and Moses runs for his life into the wilderness. There he finds a wife and becomes a shepherd.

After forty years of tending sheep, Moses is out looking for pasture on the slopes of Mt. Sinai. This is where we are at the opening of Exodus, chapter 3. He's not working particularly hard at his climb, but his years in the wilderness have taught him to be aware of his surroundings, and a burning bush leads him to an encounter with the living God. Moses is frightened and hides his face...and well he might.

What does God want of Moses? Oh, not much. Just to go back to the place he ran from, and command the king to free all the slaves in Egypt. Moses' jaw drops to the ground. He tries to worm his way out of it, but in the end he goes...his life changed forever. All safety gone in a moment. I cannot stress to you enough, that the marching orders Moses gets at the burning bush are exactly the sort of thing you can expect when you have a real encounter with God. That's what I mean when I say that God is dangerous. Really meeting the living God will cost you your life. You will be asked to give up your life in order to begin living the life that God has for you.

Moses learned this at the burning bush, and the Hebrew people learned it shortly thereafter. Their first real encounter with God was as a liberator. God worked through Moses to free them from 400 years of slavery, and they rejoiced. But God was not through with them yet. They still had to come to the mountain. The Hebrews were at the base of the mountain for two days, preparing for something special it seemed. And then, on the third day, it got dark.

Moses would later record it this way: "On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mt. Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, the whole mountain trembled violently, and the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder. Then Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him." The answer God gave was the Ten Commandments.

The pyrotechnics at Mt. Sinai were appropriate. It was a dangerous thing for Israel to go near the mountain. Moses could approach safely, now, because he had already lost his life back at the burning bush. But Israel had not yet made the dangerous leap. They had not yet decided to wipe out the life they had been used to and to take up with this strange new God. Yes, they had seen some mighty miracles along the way, but that had nothing to do with their choices. God had just helped them and bailed them out because God always works for justice and for liberation. But now they were free, and once they were free, they had a choice to make...a dangerous choice...a choice that would cost them their lives as they knew them.

God presented the choice on the mountain. Many times we forget that the Ten Commandments aren't just rules given in a vacuum. What God is offering on Mt. Sinai are the terms of a relationship. It's an offer of covenant. God makes the offer...I will be your God and you will be my people. I will help you and care for you and make you a blessing to all nations. In return, I want you to keep these laws I have given you, and to live in a way that is not like all the other nations. When God stops speaking, it is not over. The people have yet to decide. Will they accept the offer and the laws of God or will they choose to go another way and try to make it without God's help? The rest of the Bible is the history of their answer.

This event at Mt. Sinai is the basis for the Jewish festival of Pentecost. Pentecost means "50 days," and is so named because the Hebrew slaves got to Mt. Sinai 50 days after Passover, the night they escaped from Egypt. The festival of Pentecost is the reason that the disciples of Jesus were gathered in Jerusalem 50 days after the passion of Jesus, which took place at Passover. And once again, some 1230 years after God shook Mt. Sinai with fire and smoke and appeared to the Hebrews, the Holy Spirit of God blew across Mt. Zion with a mighty wind and tongues of flame. The disciples of Jesus, who were gathered to celebrate the day that the Hebrews met God on Mt. Sinai, had a similar encounter of their own. After that encounter, described in Acts 2, the disciples were scattered across the known world, preaching the gospel to all who would listen and to many who would not. Once again, meeting God cost people their lives.

Back in March, I was invited to a church in New Jersey to preach about stewardship. As I was greeting people after the service, a woman came up to me and said, "Going to church is a dangerous business. Every time I come, I want to increase my pledge." She is exactly right. Going to church is an extremely dangerous business, and feeling like you want to give your money is just the tip of the iceberg. You see, if you end up actually meeting God in this place, it won't just cost you your money, it will cost you your life. One of my favorite authors is Annie Dillard and she writes, "It is madness to wear ladies'...hats to church, we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may awake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return." Church is a dangerous place.

In some countries today that is very literally true. Kyung-hee told us last week about being physically struck by her mother for leaving Buddhism and becoming a Christian. For many, choosing the faith of Christ means that those who disagree will seek to do them harm–even to the point of killing them. Even in this country, really following the teaching of Christ can be physically risky. In the first church I served, I had threats from hate groups left anonymously on my desk as I went forward with bringing in the first African-American member in that church's history.

But when I say that meeting God will cost you your life, I don't just mean your physical well-being. When God speaks out of the fire and thunder and smoke on Mt. Sinai, God's very first words are: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me." The terms of the meeting are that choosing God means un-choosing everything else. Nothing else can come before God.

We sometimes think of Jesus as being the warm fuzzy of the Trinity, but the words of Jesus in the Gospels demand just as much. "Whoever puts a shoulder to the plow and looks back is not fit for the Kingdom of God." "Let the dead bury their own dead. Come and follow me." "Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me." "Whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."

It doesn't matter whether you are encountering God in Father, Son, or Holy is still the most dangerous encounter you will ever make. God the Father will march you up to Pharaoh to free slaves. God the Son will have you stand in silent protest before Herod and do battle with death itself. God the Holy Spirit will send you across the known world to share the love of God, no matter how many times you get imprisoned, stoned, and beaten along the way.

So...ummmm...Anne, why should we do this again? The only answer I know of is the one that Peter gave under similar circumstances. Jesus had just offended a whole bunch of his disciples. They complained to Jesus that his teaching was too hard, but he wouldn't back down. John's gospel tells us that "many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him." So Jesus looks at his inner circle...the twelve disciples closest to him, and he asks them, "Do you want to leave, too?" Peter answers, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We believe and know that you are the Holy One of God."

In the end, I think that's the only real answer there is. I don't follow God because it is safe. It isn't. I do find comfort and joy and meaning and purpose in my faith. I do find that my life works and that God is faithfully present with me no matter what I am going through. But that is not why I follow God. I follow the God revealed in Jesus because there is no other God. Who or what else would I follow?

To meet God is to meet the Truth, and in a world mostly built on lies, Truth is a threat that many would like to eliminate. Truth says that it is wrong to gain wealth from the suffering of others. Truth says that a stoned teenager in a crack house is no less entitled to love and care than the obedient child at home doing schoolwork. Truth says that the money I earn working 60 hours a week is not mine, but God's, and that God–not Madison Avenue--will show me how it should be used. Truth says that the way to receive is to give away, that the way to live is to give up our sense of entitlement to life, and that love is the only means to peace on earth.

It is a risky thing to come face to face with Truth. It is a dangerous thing to meet God on the mountain, because God will ask you for a decision. If you follow the Truth, it will cost you your life. If you follow the lie, it will cost you your soul. I want people to realize that God is love. But I also think at times that it might be helpful if church buildings flamed and smoked and quaked like Mt. Sinai on occasion...or that people inside could hardly stand up against the fierce winds of Pentecost. Maybe then we would realize that crossing the threshold of a church, a place that has openly invited the Spirit of God to be present, is about the most dangerous and risky thing we could do in a week. Love, you see, means being willing to die for the beloved. God asks no less.


© 2003, Anne Robertson

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