I admit I was a bit deflated by this response. I thought maybe
he was just tired of planning worship after 30 years in ministry,
while I was an idealistic seminary student, focusing on worship
arts. But upon further reflection, I realized that maybe how we
were approaching things wasn’t all that different, even though
we were using different language to describe it. Let me put it this
way: if everything is special, than being special is . . . well,
ordinary. And if your everyday effort is the best that you can bring,
than your ordinary is . . . well, pretty special.
You have probably figured this out already, but it’s difficult
to preach an extraordinary sermon. I can add certain bells and whistles,
throw in a few extra punchlines, but really, my best effort at study
and composition and practice and delivery is what you’re going
to get. However, this continues to come from my conviction that
each biblical text, each opportunity to preach is a special occasion,
because maybe -- just maybe -- the Holy Spirit will make more out
of that occasion than I ever could. I don’t expect it every
Sunday for every person, but if my preparation can create an opportunity
for someone to hear a word from God, then that is a very special
thing to be a part of. I know that we all come here -- myself included
-- with other things on our minds, other schedules and commitments
to keep track of, other concerns and cares which are weighing on
our hearts. It is an effort to even make ourselves available to
the Spirit, let alone have anything actually happen.
This text from Exodus is about an exceptional thing which happened
to the most revered leader in the Old Testament, but like any story,
it has its own context. We know this context from the biblical material
which comes before and afterward, but it’s pretty long and
involved. I’d encourage you to read Exodus chapters 19 through
32. Our text from chapter 24 is the hinge of that material: the
point where the narrative changes from the law and correct behavior
toward other people to worship and correct relationship with God.
If you don’t remember what’s in Exodus chapter 20,
add it to your mental filing cards: it’s where we find the
Ten Commandments. Moses received these laws from God on the top
of Mt. Sinai in chapter 20, and then chapters 21 through 23 go on
to list a lot more commandments which we’re not likely to
ever see on a statue outside the courthouse -- rules to follow when
you sell your daughter into slavery, for instance, or how to treat
resident foreigners. God promises to go before them into the land
that God has promised them as long as they continue to follow him,
and the people response, “All the words that the Lord has
spoken, we will do.”
But it gets even better for Moses and a small group of leaders
who are invited to a special audience with the Lord Almighty. When
they get to the mountain, God tells the others to wait, and takes
Moses and his assistant Joshua up the mountain. And then Moses enters
a cloud of fire and smoke, and Moses is there for forty days and
forty nights. This scene has all of the special effects the Jewish
people associate with the presence of God: in Exodus 19 we got thunder
and lightning and the last of a trumpet, and now there’s a
voice from heaven, and a cloud and fire like the ones which have
been guiding the Hebrews in the wilderness for the past forty years.
That number 40 again--it’s symbolic of the fullness of time:
40 days and nights of rain for Noah, forty years -- a whole generation
-- of wandering in the desert, and forty days and nights on the
mountain with God.
And Exodus chapters 25-26 are full of elaborate instructions about
how to build the ark of the covenant, the beautiful, portable tabernacle
which will hold the sacred stone tablets, written by the finger
of God, the focus of reverence and the worship of God. God finally
gives these tablets to Moses at the end of chapter 31.
And when Moses goes down from this mountaintop experience, he finds
that the people are running wild. That’s how the Bible says
it, “Moses saw that the people were running wild.” We
might say -- quite correctly -- that all hell had broken loose.
It turns out folks can get into a lot of trouble in forty days and
nights. The brother-in-law whom Moses had trusted to keep things
under control had collected all the jewelry, melted it down into
a golden calf, and the people were having one heckuva party. That’s
not exactly how the Bible says it -- the Bible says they sat down
to eat and drink and rose up to revel -- but the reveling was so
loud that Joshua thought there was a war going on; until Moses figured
out that battles don’t usually include music and dancing.
All this is to say that Moses literally descends from this mountaintop
experience into a monumental mess caused by poor leadership and
people who could follow directions for even forty days. It isn’t
even like they missed the fine print on the contract. The very first
commandment is You shall have no other gods before me. They respond,
What the Lord has spoken, we will do. And forty days later they’re
dancing around a golden calf. Does Moses ever have a mess on his
hands. It reminds me of a Zen proverb which says, “After the
ecstasy, the laundry.” Whatever mountaintop we’re on,
we’re going to have to go back to the mess of the ordinary
sooner or later.
It isn’t coincidence that the folks who put together the
three year cycle of readings we know as the lectionary put this
text -- the mountaintop experience of Moses in Exodus and the mountaintop
experience of Jesus in the New Testament -- on this Sunday of the
year. Today is a special day. We get to be on the mountaintop with
Moses. We get to remember how Moses and Jesus were transfigured
by the presence of God so that their faces glowed. We get to sing
and shout and proclaim Alleluia! Let’s just stay up here.
But we can’t stay. Things are going downhill from here. Way
downhill. Down into the lonesome valley of isolation and temptation.
Down into the valley that is shadowed by death.