FIRST CHRISTIAN CHURCH
REV. JOHN BURTON
March 9, 2011
SERMON: MOSES GOES UP THE MOUNTAIN
TEXT: EX0DUS 24: 12-18
The LORD said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I
will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have
written for their instruction.” So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses
went up into the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us,
until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute
may go to them.” Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the
mountain. The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it
for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the
appearance of the glory of the LORD was like a devouring fire on the top of the
mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up
on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.
This scripture is all about a unique transforming moment which changed the way the
people of Israel related to God.
Allow me to explain.
God sends word down to Moses – come up to me on the mountain, wait there, and I
will give you the laws and commandments which I have written.
Hey – they were talking right there. God could have just told him the 10
commandments right there and had Moses take dictation – except that God wanted a
memorable moment to help reinforce the commandments.
Consider the context of God’s directive to “come up.” Moses was in the midst of a
whiny, spoiled, bellyaching people stirred up by some self-serving politicians.
Nobody was happy no matter what Moses did.
My guess is that Moses jumped at the chance to get out of that mess and go up on the
mountain for some clean air and peace and quiet. At least that’s what I speculate he
might have been thinking when he left. But somewhere out there, when he had said
goodbye to the 70 Elders, along with Aaron, Hur, and eventually to Joshua, I believe he
began to think about whether he was jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.
God is a dangerous character. Not many people go away from a God encounter
smelling like roses. People, read your Old Testaments! Most of them limp away,
nursing some bruises. People, even the most religious, did their best to avoid a direct
contact with God because it was hazardous to their health! It’s sort of like the way we
view getting called in by the IRS for an audit – just how many times does that turn out
in our favor! How many people call up the IRS and say “I’d like to be audited, please!”
Still, Moses went on. After all, Moses had stood before the burning bush and taken his
sandals off because he was on holy ground. And he had survived that encounter with
God! That alone put him on Israel’s all-pro team!
Moses went up the mountain. Way on up there! Past the foothills. Past the tree line.
Past the area that hermits live. Past the point where it gets hard to breathe. Moses
went up to the top. He went as high up as any human could. Standing there, alone,
with his feet on the tip, top stone, as close to God as any human could get, he looked
up into the sky and waited!
I remember a ropes course in New Mexico. They had me climb a 30 foot telephone
pole and stand on top of it. Once I got up there, all alone in the shifting wind, I
remember thinking “OK, I’m here. Now what?” I think maybe that was what Moses
was wondering, on the tip top of Mt. Sinai.
And then it happened. The Bible breaks it to us slowly. In the first place it says “the
cloud covered the mountain.” That could be gentle – like a mist for a fog that silently
creeps in. But later on the scripture tells us that the people who could see it from way
down below said the cloud was like a devouring fire on top of the mountain. I try to
imagine the most violent thunder storm possible with tornado force winds, boiling
clouds, and lighting shooting out everywhere. The kind of storm that would be off the
National Weather Service’s scale.
And there was Moses, on the tip, top of the mountain, doing what God commanded,
waiting. Could there have ever been a more vulnerable position? Well, maybe. If, in
the midst of that lightning storm on top of the mountain, Moses had brought his golf
clubs with him (It never says that Moses didn’t play!) and pulled out his one iron, held
it up over his head, and yelled out that “not even God could hit a one iron!” Maybe
that could have been more dangerous – but not much!
Because that cloud was full of more than lighting. Within it, was the “Glory of God.”
That’s the Old Testament’s way of describing God’s actual presence in a particular
place and time. The Glory of God has been described as brilliant light which is
shrouded by cloud. The cloud keeps the splendor of God hidden and inscrutable
while making God more mysterious and beyond human reach or understanding.
Surrounded by God’s glory, not to mention all the lightning and winds, Moses waits –
for six days, in silence. I know what you’re thinking but no: Moses did not have an I-
pod, or a Kindle full of books, or a cell phone, not even a Sudoku book. Moses actually
had to wait six days in silence in the midst of that storm. No dinner breaks! And don’t
even bother asking me about the port-a-potty arrangements.
It is an understatement to say that this meeting takes place on God’s terms, on God’s
schedule, and for God’s purposes.
Honestly, God and Moses could have met over lattes at Starbucks, with a two-hour
max and built in “personal breaks,” and still handed over the written-in-stone-
commandments… seriously…but that’s not the way God works!
We’d like to try and schedule our God time. Right now I have a prayer penciled in on
the 14th tee box just before I have to hit my driver over that big lake! When do you
have some God time penciled in your schedule of activities?
But finally, on the 7th day, God spoke. The voice, hidden in cloud, mediated as glory,
spoke. What did God say? Well, we don’t know!!! And what did Moses reply? We
don’t know that either!!!
Isn’t that so frustrating! We want to know! But on the other hand, what they may
have said was not nearly so important as the fact that they spoke, directly, at all
because that hadn’t really happened since the Garden of Eden times. Sure, sure, God
had spoken to a few people since Adam and Eve but almost exclusively through angels
who delivered messages or in dreams. Face to face encounters – that’s a big NO. So,
talking directly with God – a very big deal.
But here, Moses reached up into the heavens receives from God reaching down to the
Earth, a great gift: the gift of God’s Law, which we call the 10 Commandments. Note:
they don’t bear any resemblance to a David Letterman Top Ten List!
What are the top 10 things that make God red in the face?
10. Stealing people’s identities and ruining their credit
9. Telling lies to the IRS!
Enough of that! That would run us way past lunch time!
Anyway, God’s gift is both a blessing and a burden which the people are to bear in
their hearts – the knowledge of what displeases God – the list of what to avoid if you
want to be in God’s good graces.
Think about it – before this time there were a few rules, mostly gleaned from watching
someone else get in trouble for doing something, and mostly passed down from
generation to generation orally. “Great Grandfather Lenny says “Just say NO to
shrimp – everybody knows they lead to crabs and lobsters!”
But now, God gives the people clear, direct, simple instructions. Follow these 10 little
commandments and I will judge you to be righteous, good, and worthy for
communion with God.
Hey, this list was small enough to carry around in your back pocket or to have tattooed
on your forearm! And it was doable! It gave people a way to live righteously and for
God to see them as good people.
One last thing that struck me about this story is that Moses stayed up on the mountain
for 40 days and 40 nights. That’s a long time! So, why did he stay up there so long?
Some people wonder if he was avoiding going back down there because he knew there
were going to be problems!
When he did go down they say his face has been transfigured – it shone! Even through
the cloud he had been so irradiated by God’s glory that the skin of his face had
absorbed some of it and he glowed. This is not the same thing as a “healthy glow”
described in all the women’s facial cream ads. You don’t apply Oil of Olay and then
glow like Moses did! Sorry if that disappoints anyone.
When he came down to where the people were gathered everyone could see that he
had been changed by being in the presence of God. He was forever marked by that
experience – and they saw what God’s presence could do! He became a symbol of a
new relationship with God.
The real story is not about Moses’ transformation, it is about how this event
transformed the relationship between God and the Israelite people. No longer was
God going to be a “Fireman God” who comes only when there is a fire, puts it out, and
then goes away until needed again. No longer were the people simply going to call on
God when they were in bad trouble. There were going to be expectations. There were
rules. Commitment was expected. Unfaithfulness was not going to be acceptable.
Hey, it sounds like a marriage. Not one of those new fangled starter marriages or one
of those open marriages. A real old fashion, till-death-do-us-part marriage.
They had no idea what they were getting into! But that is another story, or two or