So what was he up to for six-and-a-half weeks stuck up a mountain in a cloud? It’s easy to miss biblical timescales, but when you read the text carefully the whole Bible is just full of people hanging around waiting, sometimes for decades (it took 25 years for God’s promise to Abraham to come true). According to the internet (so it must be true then) we spend on average five years of our lives waiting for something or other. For most of us it’s highly frustrating, whether we’re stuck at red traffic lights of waiting for God to answer that prayer we’ve prayed so fervently and urgently.
We tend to think of Lent, which we enter this week, more in terms of giving stuff up than we do of waiting. But in the early church the six weeks before Easter were very much weeks of waiting, in preparation for the great festival of Christ’s resurrection. As well as waiting for the triumphant celebrations of the church, some were waiting for the baptism they had so eagerly sought for such a long time; others were waiting for their restoration into the church community after a period of discipline after a lapse or failure. Moses in today’s passage was waiting for the Law, not so much because it was going to tell everyone what to do from now on, but because it symbolised the covenant relationship which God has with his people Israel. For Moses the receiving of the Law must have been one of the highlights of his entire life, perhaps even eclipsing the dramatic deliverance on the shores of the Red Sea a year earlier.
But meanwhile back at ground level another bunch of people were finding waiting rather more difficult, and so to amuse themselves they got up to all kinds of idolatry and debauchery, inventing for themselves a new god who presumably didn’t mind that sort of thing. So as we approach Lent we have a choice: are we going to spend it up the mountain in the presence of God, or pleasing ourselves at ground level? The latter would of course be the path of least resistance: the former infinitely more rewarding. But to think in terms of Lent as a journey up the mountain into the presence of the Lord can be a very helpful way of seeing it.
First of all it will assume some leaving behind: if you’re going mountaineering you can’t carry that much with you, and on this particular mountain there are no sherpas to help you. You have to travel light. It is also pretty hard work: I’m at the age nowadays where I look in my Peak District walk books for those which don’t involve too much going uphill. Climbing is hard physical effort: it makes us fitter but it can be uncomfortable at the time. It’s also my experience of mountains that they are generally pretty light on Kebab shops or Balti houses, so those kind of home comforts might have to give place to something altogether simpler. But the upside is that I’ll have all the time in the world to think, even to sing, and to wonder at the beautiful vistas which open up as I get higher. Sometimes our mountains are the opposite of Moses’: I remember a beautiful Boxing Day morning looking over Hope Valley from Stanage Edge, and seeing the valleys full of cloud whilst standing above it all in clear sunshine. That really does give you a new perspective. Maybe this journey of waiting isn’t just about the destination: it’s about what we see differently on the way.
Or we could just get ratted?