July 19, 2006

Climbing Mount Sinai

1520 page14 capK, so I’m no Moses. But when they asked if I’d like to climb Mount Sinai, I was willing. It would be a pleasant experience, I was sure—the thought that I’d see just what Moses had seen, follow in his footsteps, stand where he’d stood, that kind of thing.
Well, Moses may have been 80-plus when he climbed that mountain, but for sure he was in better shape than I was.
A few days of “Rameses’ Revenge” had ravaged my food absorption capacity. To say I was feeling weak would be an understatement. All I’d had were liquids.
Then we’d driven all night across the Sinai peninsula from Cairo. Sleep deprivation is a terrible thing. The plan had been to arrive at 4:00 a.m. and climb in the dark to avoid the blazing heat. But a discussion with the driver as to how many should be on the bus had delayed us, and we arrived late, with the sun very much up in the sky. Time to decide.
I look around. The few Sinai rosefinches that had been hopping around the parking lot have disappeared into the dark shade of the monastery trees. A brace of sand partridges scuttle away into a deep crevice in the rocks for their siesta. The hamsterlike desert hyraxes head for their burrows. It is hot!

Lord, Help Me Find a Way Out

At that point our friendly leader announces that I have to lead the party to the top, because of his recent heart surgery.

1520 page14They place a two-liter bottle of water in my hand, point to the path up, and say “Walk!” My mind recites the words of Christina Rossetti’s poem “Up-Hill”: “Does the road wind up-hill all the way? Yes, to the very end.” It certainly looks like that . . .
My heart sinks. I am never going to make it in my feeble condition. I take a few steps. I admit to myself that this is not the pleasant tourist event I’d expected. More of an epic trek, closer to the ascent of Everest than a pleasant promenade along a beach boardwalk. Muttering under my breath, I drag my reluctant body up the trail.
“Lord, this isn’t going to work. Help me find a way out. This is one climb I’d rather not make.”
My Egyptian friends bound ahead, experienced climbers that they are. I try to fool my brain by concentrating on the marvelous landscape. “What a magnificent place!” I tell myself. “A stark and rugged grandeur. A dramatic place for the divine-human encounter. Imagine Moses climbing . . .”
No, not that! Don’t focus on the climbing, the agonizing stretch of tortured muscles, the crippling shortness of breath, the fainting from the blazing sun pouring molten metal heat out of a furnaced sky . . .
Too late. Already I have to stop. I fake it by looking around as if I’m amazed by the spectacular view. Surreptitiously I take some swigs of water from my bottle.
“Lord, I’m not going to make it. Let me stop now. Enough is enough—this is foolish.” A companion distracts me with a smile and a question: “So, you like visiting Egypt?”
Sure. The pyramids were fine, complete with friendly taxi drivers and helpful hosts. The museum was enchanting, full of objects and images of former glories. The reason I’d come—the lectures, presentations, outreach—had been fulfilling. But this . . .

Back on My Knees

I force a smile back and nod. Even speaking is an effort.
I’m praying again. “OK, Lord, this is it. I need real help, now. If I’m ever going to make it to the top, I need You. I can’t make it by myself . . .”
Not an instant infilling of power, but I recognize my steps are easier. I look up, and set off again. Progress, at least. We walk for nearly an hour. And I can see the end in view—a small building on an outcrop.
“So we’re almost there?” I ask.
“What, over there? No, that’s not it. The top of Mount Sinai is up there.” My helpful respondent points almost vertically up to a point my eyes can hardly make out. My heart not only sinks but hits the bottom of the seabed.
I’m back on my knees, literally and spiritually.
“Lord, really. I know this climb is impossible. I have no energy, I’m unfit, and I haven’t eaten in days. My legs are already tired out, my muscles are sore, and my head is spinning. I can’t do it!” I’m about to sit down and argue petulantly. Another fine mess You got me into—and all that.
But a voice, still and small, whispers in my ear, “I know.” And I know I should not complain anymore.
I hear: “Yes, you can’t do it. Good. Now get up. I am with you. And I am with you always, even to the end of the world—and to the top of Mount Sinai, too.”
I stand up. Step-by-step, God gets me to the top of that burning mountain, blazing under the merciless sun. Miraculously (and I mean that in the best sense of the word), I am standing on the peak of Mount Sinai.

Conquered by Grace

As we worship, sing, and praise, I am praising the more. For Sinai, the mountain of law, has been conquered, but not by me. Conquered totally by grace! For it was God who took me to the top, not by my own weak and feeble efforts, but by His all-transforming power of grace.

1520 page14Grace that is God’s power to change us and help us. Take the symbolic for the literal:
            • Grace to energize our muscles
            • Grace to motivate our minds
            • Grace to smile, despite the situation
And grace abundant to save all who come to Him.
Looking out over the valleys and plains below, I can see in my mind’s eye the camp of Israel, stretching wide, with their fires sending gray smoke trails to ascend with their prayers to heaven. In their fear, they had promised, “All that the Lord says, we will do!”
But as Moses communed with the Lord here, the people of God soon forgot their contractual promise. They cast the golden calf and partied as did the pagans.
So God in His infinite mercy gives the commandments, to show the way they are to live. Tragically, they too become the objects of legalism, and not the agents of grace that God would desire. For they are descriptions of the way God’s people will choose to live, not the demands of some system of legal observance. The Pharisees had it oh-so-wrong, and they are the descendants of those who saw the God of Sinai as law-demander, not grace-provider.
As I stand on Mount Sinai, repeating the commandments, they are what I choose, not what I am obligated to do in order to achieve salvation. They are the descriptions of the kind of ideals I want in my life, not the means of gaining heaven.
After all, as a child of God, should I even think of killing or stealing or committing adultery? “God, keep me from such thoughts as I live my life, agreeing with You that Your ways are true and right.”
I sit and admire the view, and admire still more the glorious goodness and grace of God.
“My muscles still ache, my body still complains, but I am here with You, Lord, my gracious God.”
As I tear myself away to leave, I’m thankful for the lesson in grace on the mountain of the law. Then it occurs to me.
“Oh, and Lord: one more thing. Could You get me back down again?”
Jonathan Gallagher is an associate director of the Department of Public Affairs and Religious Liberty, at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. In that capacity he also serves as the church’s representative at the United Nations.