July 20, 2003

Mount Horeb: The Place of Encounter
Exodus 3:1-6; 19:1-25

I remember standing at the base of Mt. Kenya just over ten years ago now. It was a stunning sight—Mt. Kenya is the second tallest mountain on the entire African continent—and even a casual glance helps a visitor begin to understand a longstanding belief among the Kikuyu people who live in the area. Mt. Kenya, they tell us, is the home of Ngai, their god. So profound is the Kikuyu attachment to this belief that the traditionalists among them continue to build their homes facing the mountain.

The Kikuyu of central Kenya are of course not unique in their associating mountains with gods. In fact, Edwin Bernbaum devotes some 200 pages of his enlightening book, Sacred Mountains of the World, surveying holy mountains all around the globe. Virtually every religion in the world, it would seem, shares at least a story or two about their god’s connections to certain mountains. The ancient Greeks believed that Mt. Olympus was the throne of Zeus. Certain Hawaiians venerate Mauna Kea—“the White Mountain.” Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims alike all venerate Sri Pada—“Adam’s Peak”—in Sri Lanka. The Navajos of North America have four sacred mountains of their own—Mount Blanca and Mt. Hesperus in Colorado, Mt. Taylor in New Mexico, and the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona. We even have a holy mountain right here—Mt. B.I.C. here in Grantham, the very ground upon which our own building and denominational headquarters rests, considered sacred by Brethren in Christ all over the world! Throughout history and across cultures, mountains and faith seem to go together.

The sacredness often attached to mountains is relatively easy to understand, at least for any of us who have stood in awe of one. “Mountains,” Bernbaum writes, “have an extraordinary power to evoke the sacred.” So it is not surprising that the Bible itself is chock full of stories concerning mountains—Mt. Ararat, Mt. Nebo, Mt. Gerazim, Mt. Hermon, the Mount of Olives, Mt. Calvary, and on and on. Among the many mountains of the Bible, one stands out for both Jews and Christians as being of central importance: Mt. Horeb, also known as Mt. Sinai.

Mt. Horeb is the scene of two of the Old Testament’s most familiar and important stories, both of which describe direct encounters between God and people. Yet in spite of its importance, we don’t even know for sure where it is located. Scholars and treasure hunters alike have examined soil samples, ancient trade routes, and occasional archaeological remains, hoping to identify with certainty the location of this sacred place. Through such efforts, no less than 22 mountains have been suggested, situated in such varied places as the Sinai Peninsula, Israel, Jordan, and even Saudi Arabia. Since the early Christian Period, pilgrims have recognized Jebel Musa in the southern area of the Sinai Peninsula as the sacred spot, and a monastery named St. Catherines is conveniently located at its bottom. Yet Jebel Musa’s claim to legitimacy can no more be confirmed than can that of selected alternatives. Apparently, what mattered more to the biblical writers concerning this great mountain was not so much its location, but what took place there. And what took place there will be forever etched in the hearts and minds of everyone who counts the Bible as sacred.

The two central stories whose settings are at Mt. Horeb are in Exodus 3 and 19. In Exodus 3, Moses is wandering is search of grazing land for his flock. In the process, he arrives at Mount Horeb, which the biblical writer, sounding somewhat like a Kikuyu, refers to as the mountain of God. Suddenly, Moses sees the strangest of all sights—a bush that, though burning, remains unconsumed (that bush, by the way, is still on display on the grounds of St. Catherine’s monastery should any of you visit there someday!). What follows for Moses is an encounter with God that leaves him changed and his life redirected.

In the second story, found in Exodus 19, the community of Israel replaces Moses the individual, and they too have wandered to the foot of the mountain. There, instead of a burning bush, they experience thunder, lightening, and an earthquake. What follows for them results in an entirely new configuration of the community—a covenant relationship with God—and a fresh vision for service within the world.

But back to the mountain. Of all of the mountains in the Bible, Mt. Horeb best captures this inspiring idea: “The God of creation and all of history wants to have a first-hand encounter with the likes of you and me.” Mount Horeb serves as a symbol or metaphor, as Bruce Feiler points out, of the relationship between God and his people. It is like a wedding ring rising up to the heavens, reminding everyone of the sacred union that has been established.

Mt. Horeb, first of all, reminds us that God comes to us. He takes the initiative. Moses is minding his own business, preoccupied with locating suitable grazing land for his flocks. He himself does nothing whatsoever to bring about the events of Exodus 3. What could he do? And yet God comes to him, just as he does to the community of Israel a short time later.

Now keep in mind at least a bit of Moses’ past. He was abandoned as a child and raised in a foster home. He is a fugitive from Egypt, having murdered someone in a fit of rage. And, he was apparently an aging man at the time—7:7 suggests that he was 80 years old. Moses was hardly a person who “had it all together,” we might say today. Yet God comes to him at Mt. Horeb.

Much the same can be said about the Israelites collectively. In fact, the writer of Deuteronomy informs us that the Israelites were God’s chosen people, not because of any significant accomplishment on their part, but because they were the least among the nations. They were weak, small, and achievers of nothing particularly noteworthy.

I have at times likened God’s selection of Israel to a dating experience. Imagine yourself sitting at a table at Brothers or, depending upon who has invited you, Alfred’s Victorian. It is your first date. As you sit there, appreciative of the occasion, you ask the other person why they asked you out on this date. To your surprise, the person responds, “I asked you out because you are the homeliest, least desirable person I could think of, and I wanted to make you feel better!” The Israelites were a motley crew. Nevertheless, God came to them at Mt. Horeb.

We sometimes have our theological debates about such things as predestination, God’s sovereignty and human free will. While such conversations certainly have their proper place, I suppose, one thing must always be remembered. No one comes to God without God moving first. Even those of us who place a high premium on affirming human freedom and responsibility emphasize this—we humans do not initiate encounters with God. We don’t act first. We respond, or fail to respond, as A. W.Tozer once said. As Mt. Horeb rises up toward the heavens, it announces to all of the world, “God invites you to come into his presence.”

Mt. Horeb further reminds us about the very nature of God himself. We recognize, of course, that God’s overtures to humanity begin with grace. “Come here, Moses.” “Bring the Israelites to me.” God’s act of initiating the encounter grows out of his unfathomable love and mercy.

We notice something else about him, however. As we stand and gaze up at Mt. Horeb, our senses are aroused. Our indifference fades away. Our own limitations and weaknesses cease to be important. Our boxes become too small. God, to our amazement, is much bigger and greater than we might otherwise have realized. Bushes burn, but they aren’t consumed. Lightning flashes. Thunder rolls. The earth shakes. You can feel God. You can hear God. You can smell God. You can see God. Why, in the food eaten during the encounter, you can even taste God. “Take your sandals off, Moses.” “Don’t touch the mountain, people of Israel.”

I remember preaching at a church north of Philadelphia a few years ago. Behind the pulpit was a painting of Jesus carrying the lost lamb. It is a wonderful image of Jesus, but the painting itself was horrible. It was a sort of depraved “paint by numbers” kind of thing. After the service, the church held a banquet, and I had the opportunity to speak to various people in the congregation. I quickly realized that what we had here was a church in turmoil. I wondered for at least a moment or two whether or not the people there had been looking at the horrible painting of Jesus carrying the lost lamb for too long. They had grown complacent and argumentative, and they needed, or so I thought, to see another picture of God for a while. They needed to see God descending on Mt Horeb. They needed to see images of a God who was bigger than they were, and a God who could rattle the very foundations of the earth.

Contrary to what some of you might think, if God were to come among us this morning in all of his glory, we wouldn’t raise our hands in praise. We’d duck beneath the pews and hide our faces. The God of Mt. Horeb is overwhelmingly gracious, but he is also simply overwhelming.

Finally, Mt. Horeb remind us that, when someone has a genuine encounter with God, they leave with a new sense of mission or calling. When you encounter God, you begin to see the people around differently. Moses encounters God, and, while he might not relish the task, he moves out with a new responsibility to free the Israelites. These same Israelites soon stand by the same mountain themselves, and they now move out with an entirely new calling of their own. They are to serve as priests among the nations. They are to be conduits of God’s love and grace to people everywhere. One simply cannot encounter God in any meaningful way and remain unconcerned about the needs and of others. “You were once slaves,” Mt. Horeb reminds us, “but God invited you to this extraordinary encounter. Now, go and invite others.”

Mountains and faith often go together. They always have. And mountains can tell us a lot. For the Kikuyu of central Kenya, Mt. Kenya constantly reminds them that their God, Ngai, is right there, looking down over their villages. It is an imposing and powerful reminder, believe me. For us this morning, Mt. Horeb can serve as no lesser a reminder, and I only wish that I could transport it briefly, place it in Cumberland County, and let you gaze up at it. As you wander by, looking for land to shepherd your flocks, keep an eye out for the unusual. Mt. Horeb reminds us that the God of heaven and earth longs to meet us. He might have to do something extraordinary to get our attention, but he longs to meet us. He is a great god, gracious and overwhelming, bigger than anything you can possibly imagine. And he wants to use you and me to touch the broken people of the world.