This month we’ve been exploring mountaintop experiences, through the stories in scripture where someone encounters the divine on a sacred mountain. Most of our religious lives is in the everyday of our lives. But there can be important heightened experiences where there is revealed something of the nature of this Holy Mystery we call “God.”
In some cases those heightened experiences have been so important that they’ve been passed down generation to generation. That’s what we’ve been exploring in some of these stories in scripture, where different dimensions of the Divine are disclosed, at least in part, are imparted to humanity.
You know about Martin Luther King’s famous mountaintop speech? It was the last speech of his life, at a rally in Memphis for striking sanitation workers, part of Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign. This was the night before an assassin killed him, and in his speech Dr. King seemed to know he would soon die for his sacred cause.
“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land! And so I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man! Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord!”
Dr. King is a prophet, who has been to the mountaintop where God has given him the sure vision of a good and true and just and holy and faithful possibility for human life, what Dr. King called the “Beloved Community.” This week we’ll explore two mountaintop stories from scripture that contain this kind of revelation. The first is Moses’ second major experience on Mt. Sinai. His first experience was when his people were still enslaved by the Egyptians. On Mt. Sinai Moses encountered what the Hebrew calls the “I Am That I Am”, the powerful mystery of YHWH, the Holy Source and Destination of all Being, the Eternal One in which we all live and move and have our being. This experience with Pure Being beyond Being claimed Moses’ being for the purpose of liberating his people from slavery, liberating his people from the human forces that were suffocating their own beings.
Moses’ second encounter on Mt. Sinai took place three months after he, with God’s help, had indeed led his people out from slavery. They were now a free people, making their way through the desert toward this distance hope of the promised land.
Exodus 19:14-25, 20:1-3 Moses went down the mountain to the people and prepared them for the holy meeting. They gave their clothes a good scrubbing. Then he addressed the people: “Be ready in three days. Don’t sleep with a woman.” On the third day at daybreak, there were loud claps of thunder, flashes of lightning, a thick cloud covering the mountain, and an ear-piercing trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp shuddered in fear. Moses led the people out of the camp to meet The Holy I Am. They stood at attention at the base of the mountain. Mount Sinai was all smoke because The Holy I Am had come down on it as fire. Smoke poured from it like smoke from a furnace. The whole mountain shuddered in huge spasms. The trumpet blasts grew louder and louder. Moses spoke and The Holy I Am answered in thunder. The Holy I Am descended to the peak of Mount Sinai. The Holy I Am called Moses up to the peak and Moses climbed up. The Holy I Am said to Moses, “Go down. Warn the people not to break through the barricades to get a look at The Holy I Am lest many of them die. And the priests also, warn them to prepare themselves for the holy meeting, lest The Holy I Am break out against them.” Moses said to The Holy I Am, “But the people can’t climb Mount Sinai. You’ve already warned us well telling us: ‘Post boundaries around the mountain. Respect the holy mountain.’” The Holy I Am told him, “Go down and then bring Aaron back up with you. But make sure that the priests and the people don’t break through and come up to The Holy I Am, lest God break out against them.” So Moses went down to the people. He said to them: “The Holy I Am spoke all these words: I am YHWH, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of a life of slavery. No other gods, only me.”
These images are images of great power. Thunder, lightning, fire, smoke. These are images of a power far beyond human scope and human reckoning, power that can be deadly, in fact, if we don’t respect the right boundaries around it. It inspires, awe, reverence, fear, devotion. But also notice that these images of The Holy One revealed to Moses on Mt. Sinai, are also images of something that is hidden at the same time as it is intensely present. There is a cloud upon the mountain summit, and within that cloud, God’s Glory glows like a devouring fire. God’s Glory is both intensely present and hidden.
What is disclosed to Moses through these experiences are the 10 Commandments, “Precepts” is a better word, as well as the Law. These are ways of organizing human affairs, hopefully, so that things are just and harmonious. Now this isn’t the time to get into the details – and there is a lot to talk about there. But just to remind us, these are the 10 Holy Precepts: 1. Honor the Holy I Am as our God 2. Worship only the true God, not anything less 3. Have reverence for the name of God 4. Set aside Sabbath time as holy time 5. Honor your mother and father, or you could say, honor our elders. And for the mothers and father and elders I would like to say, be worthy of that honor. 6. Do not murder, respect life 7. Do not commit adultery – you could also say this means, honor sacred commitments we make to each other 8. Do not steal, respect what other people have 9. Do not lie to or about other people, respect the truth 10. Do not feed desire for what other people have that we don’t
Jesus, as well as other Rabbis, summed this all up by saying: “Love God with all your mind, body, heart, and soul; and love your neighbor as yourself.” Easier said than done, of course. Especially when other people aren’t living like this, and when we haven’t been. Experiences of divine revelation can lead us past the wrack and wreck of human affairs into what is possible for a Good and Just and True way of living with each other, with ourselves, and with God. And, with revelation, there is obscurity as well as disclosure. As we like to say, “God is still speaking,” and speaking in a way that has helped human being evolve in terms of morality and justice, evolve at least a little, God help us.
This leads to our mountaintop experience, which is Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount.
Matthew 5:1-12 Seeing the crowds, Yeshua walked up the hill. After he sat down, his disciples came to him, and he began to speak. This is what he taught them: “How blessed are the poor in spirit! for the Realm of Heaven is theirs. “How blessed are those who mourn! for they will be comforted. “How blessed are the meek! for they will inherit the Land. “How blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice! for they will be filled. “How blessed are those who show mercy! for they will be shown mercy. “How blessed are the pure in heart! for they will see God. “How blessed are those who make peace! for they will be called children of God. “How blessed are those who are persecuted because they pursue righteousness! for the Realm of Heaven is theirs. “How blessed you are when people insult you and persecute you and tell all kinds of vicious lies about you because you follow me! Rejoice, be glad, because your reward in heaven is great — they persecuted the prophets before you in the same way.”
Let’s notice the shift in mood here. There seems to be more of a gentleness here on this mountain, more of a gentleness than the fire in the cloud on Sinai, with its deadly boundaries. With Jesus, sitting with the people he’s invited up the mountain, God is doing something somewhat different.
Jesus’ sermon on the mount begins with words of blessing for those who so often are cursed.
He then goes to the heart of the precepts and laws for life together that Moses brought down from his experience on Sinai. More than just having correct behavior, it’s about a transformation of heart, into a loving heart, that is free enough from selfish attachments to be generous and courageous, peaceable, forgiving, and merciful.
But, though the mood with Jesus may be gentler than Moses, (a bit gentler, Jesus is still quite stern), the nature of the revelation to us, I think, still is like flashes in the fog. Flashes that beckon us forward.
Let me end by repeating what I said earlier: Experiences of divine revelation – either as flashes in the fog, or as full-on breakthroughs into the clear bright, crowning vistas – experiences of divine revelation can lead us past the wrack and wreck of human affairs, into what is possible for a Good and Just and True way of living with each other, with ourselves, and with God.
So, when you have a sense that a better world is possible, even just as flashes through the fog, when you sense that there is a better way possible for yourself to be with yourself and with others and with God, when you sense that there is something Good and True and Just that can better guide the decisions people make, that may not be madness, my friends, it may well be glimpses of God.
(Delivered Sunday, February 16, 2020, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, United Church of Christ, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)