Three months after fleeing Egypt, the people of Israel arrived at the foot of Mt. Sinai. In the days since the people had crossed the parted sea on dry ground, they had worried about not having enough food to eat. They had suffered enough that they wondered if they had run away from Egypt only to die in the wilderness. They complained and worried and struggled. All the way, God provided for the people miraculously. The people received enough manna every day to meet their needs. They were given quail to eat when they complained about not having any meat. Day after day, they were provided with just enough and no more – except for the day before the Sabbath day when they were given enough for two days. I’m not sure how the people of Israel were feeling when they made it to the base of the mountain, but if I put myself in their shoes, I imagine they were exhausted, weary, and wondered how much more they could take.
I have never spent months wandering in an actual wilderness, though sometimes it has felt a little bit like that as we have navigated the uncharted territory of life in a time of disease and uncertainty. As a person who has always dearly loved my schedule and my routine, I have struggled with the daily uncertainty and unpredictability of life in a chaotic time. Even though I have gotten a little bit better at receiving from God each day as it comes, I confess it sometimes leaves me weary. I ask God, “Is it possible for me to have more than just today’s manna? Maybe a little bit for tomorrow, too?” Or, maybe more accurately for the situation, “Is it possible to have two days in a row where everything goes according to plan?” And God responds to me every time, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
The weary Israelites arrived at the foot of the mountain, and God knew they needed some encouragement. God told Moses to share these words with the people: “You have seen what I did to the Egyptians, and how I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore, if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all the peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.” God had not yet given the people the law – the ten commandments – to follow. God had saved the people from the oppression they were under in Egypt before they had done anything to ask for it or deserve it. And here, at the foot of the mountain, God promised to treasure them, to choose them, to make them a priestly kingdom and a holy nation. God told the people God was making a covenant with them. All they needed to do was keep it on their end, too.
After these words of encouragement, Moses told the people they were not to go up the mountain. Moses would go and listen to God. But before that, the people had to undergo three days of preparation. The people did this, and on the third day, there was lightning and thunder. The Lord descended on the mountain in fire, which enveloped the mountain with smoke. The mountain shook and trembled, and a loud, long trumpet call was sounded. God summoned Moses, and Moses went up the mountain into the smoke. On the mountain, God spoke the ten commandments to Moses. Down below, the people saw the thunder, lightning, and smoke. They heard the trumpet and trembled as the mountain shook. They were so afraid that they told Moses they didn’t want to do it anymore. They didn’t want to talk to God. They didn’t even want to be in the audience while Moses talked to God. In Exodus 20:19, the people said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die.”
I used to read this like an excuse. The people were afraid and they asked Moses to do the hard thing for them. They were too afraid to go, and so they sent someone else. But, today, I read these words and I hear a weary and worried people. I see people who are so worn down from the road they’ve walked that they aren’t sure they have it in them to take one more step – let alone a terrifying one. They ask Moses to talk to God, not because they are cowards, but because they have reached the end of their ropes and they aren’t sure they can go any further. “Moses, you speak to God. We aren’t sure we can listen to God through the smoke and the fire and the thunder and the lightning. But, maybe we can listen to you. And in your words, maybe we can hear God.”
The truth is. We all need each other. And one of the many reasons Jesus called the church to be a community is because we cannot do this on our own. As we live our lives, we face struggles and hardships. We have times where it is hard for us to believe. We have times where we want to have faith or hope, but we are having a hard time seeing through all of the terrifying things in front of us. In those moments, we can carry each other. Sometimes, we are Moses, able to help others hear and see God. But many other times we are the people at the foot of the mountain wondering if we can take one more step. The beautiful truth here in Exodus 20 is that with the painful past behind the people and the terrifying future in front of them, God had already promised to make a covenant with the people. God had already carried them like on the wings of eagles. And God was preparing to give them the ten commandments, not as a strict structure to discipline the people, but as a way of forming this weary band of travelers into a blessed community, a people of life, and hope, and love.
One of my favorite authors – Anne Lamott – loves to quote Ram Dass who said, “We are all just walking each other home.” Every time I read this quote, it awakens something within me because the words are just so true and beautiful. But, the truth is, a lot of times, I am not very good at letting people walk with me, or letting them know that I need that. If I’m honest, a truer quote for me would be this little quote from Anne Lamott’s book Stitches, “One of the hardest lessons I had to learn was that I was going to need a lot of help, and for a long time. (Even this morning.)” In the people of Israel at the foot of the mountain, I see a people who found the courage to admit they needed a whole lot of help if they were going to keep moving forward. I see people who had been burned by life, run ragged by the journey, and in short supply of hope and courage. Into their desperation, God spoke words of comfort and love. God reminded them of the way he had “bore them on eagles’ wings” and brought them close to God. And then, God invited Moses to come on behalf of the people. The people were too weary and afraid to listen to God, but perhaps through Moses, the good news of what God was about to do would be a healing balm, a gentle word, an encouragement for the days ahead.
I am reminded of the man in Mark 2 who could not walk on his own, and who could not reach Jesus because of the crowd that had pressed in from all sides. Reading that story in this era of social distancing stresses me out as I think of all those people crowded together, but what stands out to me even today is the way the man’s friends found a way to lower him from the roof and into Jesus’s presence. And how does Jesus respond? He heals the man on account of the faith of his friends.
On this World Communion Sunday, as we prepare to gather around our tables and share this meal with those in our midst and those far away, we gather as a community of people in need of the hope Jesus can give. We gather because we know, as Henri Nouwen writes, “that we are alive not for ourselves but for one another.” He continues, “Community is the fruit of our capacity to make the interests of others more important than our own (see Philippians 2:4). The question, therefore, is not ‘How can we make community?’ but ‘How can we develop and nurture giving hearts?’”
Friends, this week – whether you are like Moses, invited to help others into the presence of God’s love, or you are like the people trembling and weak at the foot of the mountain, the good news is that the love and hope of Jesus is for you. If you are weary from all of the difficult things in the news, if you are stressed and anxious and wondering how everything is going to turn out, the love and hope of Jesus is for you. Around this table, Jesus nourishes us with a foretaste of the kingdom, like manna in the vast wilderness of this world. In this feast, we gather in the hopes that we will find the strength for the journey, a journey that is, like author Alia Joy described, “a journey back to the heart of God, back to the garden where we saw his face and he called us good.”
At the table, we are invited to lay our burdens down, and to take upon us the yoke of Jesus – one that is lighter, and one that is shared. In our reading from Philippians, the apostle Paul talked about all of his credentials, all of his reasons to boast and feel self-assured in his journey, and then he said that all of those things pale so far in comparison to good news of the Gospel, that they are like rubbish. Instead of putting his hope in the external things in the world – in his status, his upbringing, his own abilities to do and say the right thing – Paul found rest in the truth that he belonged to God, not because he had already succeeded at making holiness his own, but because Jesus had made Paul his own. Whatever burden you are carrying today, you are invited to lay it down at the feet of Jesus. If you are afraid today – there is so much fear right now, isn’t there? – you are invited to lay it at Jesus’s feet. If you are angry, or confused, you are invited to lay it at Jesus’s feet. If you are hopeless, you are invited to lay it at Jesus’s feet.
Somehow, together, we can help lead each other to Jesus. When we aren’t strong enough, those of us who are feeling stronger can help show us the way. Other times, we might be a Moses for someone else. No matter whether we are ready for the journey or trembling before we’ve even headed out the door, we are all invited to this table. As we let our burdens fall, may we take up instead the peace of Christ. As we feast at the table with Jesus, may we find not only our bodies filled but also our souls. As we share in this meal together, may God knit us together into a community. And as we leave from this place, may we rest in the assurance that God will draw near to us in our weakness. At the foot of the mountain, we will be drawn into the compassionate, redeeming, and life-giving presence of our God, who promises never to leave us nor forsake us. Amen.