For those who want a change from the Gospel
Sunday Before Lent – Exodus 24:12-18
It takes all sorts … One day recently I received some really bad news, which completely shattered me. The next day I just wanted to get out of the house and go somewhere different to mope. We are fortunate enough to live close to the Peak District, so the obvious choice would have been to go out and find a mountain somewhere, or a beautiful vista which would lift me out of my depression and get me back in touch with the splendour and majesty of God as revealed in nature. But I didn’t fancy that, so I got out my bus pass and went instead to Doncaster.
Whilst (no offence) you may feel that Doncaster is a highly appropriate place for the depths of despair, it was, I admit, an unusual place to choose, however much it fitted my dismal mood. In the Bible, if you want to get away from it all you go out into the desert, and if you want to meet with God the place of choice is usually a mountain. There is something majestic about a mountain with its summit enrobed in cloud, and it is easy to see why people have glimpsed something of the divine in such scenes. Mountains in Scripture are places of encounter. To be invited up there by God is an incredible privilege. How much more then, is the invitation to stay up there with God.
It is so easy to telescope the biblical stories to fit in with our frantic 21st century Western lifestyles, but our passage challenges that with the details of the periods of time involved. Moses, responding to God’s invitation, goes up into the cloud, but then has to wait six days before God speaks. And when he does speak, the result is that Moses stays up there for 40 days, nearly six weeks.
Meeting God, like recovering from a severe shock to the system, takes time. But we live in a world where we want pain to go away instantly, and where we expect things to happen for us at the snap of our fingers. The period of 40 days we are about to enter could be a time to slow down, to give God quality time, in the hope of a life-changing encounter with him. Of course we’re dreadfully busy, and the world will stop turning if we don’t attend to business, but God has already thought of that. Aaron and Hur, Moses right- and left-hand men, can sort things out while he’s away. To be fair Aaron wasn’t going to make such a great job of that, but that’s another story. Lent can also challenge what I call ‘Saviour of the Universe syndrome’, the belief that if I don’t do it, it either won’t get done, or it won’t get done as well as I would have done it. In either case disaster would be the outcome. But what God wanted was a leader who knew him intimately, who would much rather stay in his presence than get on with the job down below. One day in God’s courts is better than a thousand at PCC meetings.
Lent, then, is a chance to refocus. When I was a vicar we deliberately dropped some of our activities and tried to avoid busyness, and the world didn’t end. There might be other ways in which we can clear the decks to give God quality time, and places to go which for us will provide encounter and healing. Lent reminds us that for the temperamental Marthas Mary has chosen more wisely.
But, as you’d expect, there’s a twist. If going up the mountain with God is a great thing, and resting there with him is a good thing to do, why, in our Gospel story, does Peter get told off for suggesting that very thing? Many a sermon has been preached about not trying to hold on to spiritual experiences and high spots by building huts to stay in. Of course both are true. Time on the mountain is designed to strengthen us for our day to day lives and ministries. We can give God time, and rest in him during Lent, but then, fortified by that experience, we have to get on with the task of proclaiming the good news that Jesus is risen and is Lord of all the earth.