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This I Know
The Reverend Matt Gaventa
March 17, 2019
A Reading from the Book of Exodus
The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain, and wait there; and I will give you the tablets of stone, with the law and the commandment, which I have written for their instruction.” So Moses set out with his assistant Joshua, and Moses went up into the mountain of God. To the elders he had said, “Wait here for us, until we come to you again; for Aaron and Hur are with you; whoever has a dispute may go to them.” Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the Lord settled on Mount Sinai, and the cloud covered it for six days; on the seventh day he called to Moses out of the cloud. Now the appearance of the glory of the Lord was like a devouring fire on the top of the mountain in the sight of the people of Israel. Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. Moses was on the mountain for forty days and forty nights.
This Lent we are preaching through forty-day stories in Scripture — as I mentioned last week when we talked about Noah and the flood waters, there’s something sacred about this forty-day period of time, something sacred about this forty-day journey. Last week as we stepped fully into the Lenten journey, I invited you to take something of Noah’s sense of trust home with you — something about that willingness to go back down off the mountain with the disciples and turn onto this path that leads inevitably to Jerusalem. But this morning, by contrast, we find Moses spending his forty days not in movement, but in discernment — back up on the mountaintop, no less. Israel has just fled from Egypt; they have come quickly to a spot in the wilderness called Sinai, and God has gathered them around the base of this mountain and wrapped the peak in a thick cloud. And then God summons Moses to the top, one-on-one, and when Moses comes back down, forty days later, the Ten Commandments come with him.
That all sounds pretty straightforward, but the problem is that not unlike with the Noah story last week, narratively speaking, the Book of Exodus is a mess. It’s clear that Moses goes up on the mountain for forty days and gets the Ten Commandments. But in point of fact in Exodus this happens over and over. Moses goes up the mountain, Moses comes down the mountain. And there are some new laws and regulations. And then Moses goes back up the mountain, and Moses comes back down the mountain, and now there are some more laws and regulations, and so on, and so on. None of this is presented with an air of historical continuity; it doesn’t feel like Moses actually does this over and over; it feels like a bunch of different voices telling one story and vying for attention within the text — and in fact we could go down a historical rabbit-hole not so different from the one we tried to avoid last week with Noah last week but we’d end up in the same stuck place. I’m not sure it matters how many times Moses climbed up the mountain — though that’s easy for me to say, since I’m not the one climbing. I think what matters is what kinds of stories that get to be told about what happens in these forty-day encounters with God.
The first of them is in fact our text from today, in chapter 24, when God invites Moses up to the top, and it says that Moses stays there for forty days and forty nights. And what I did not read this morning are the verses that follow, and the reason I did not read them is that they are profoundly uninteresting. Well, maybe not uninteresting, but certainly unexciting. What comes next is not the Ten Commandments, nor anything even remotely close it. What comes next are architectural schematics. The Lord says to Moses, tell the Israelites to make me a tabernacle, and let me tell you how to build it, and if you’ve ever imagined what the director’s commentary to an IKEA manual would sound like, you’re getting pretty close to chapters 25 through 33 of the Book of Exodus. If you liked the cubits from last week, boy, have I got some scripture for you. Like the part about the curtains in the tabernacle, ten of them, the length of each is 28 cubits, and the width of each curtain four cubits, and so on and so on. There’s a whole paragraph just about the lamp-stand. This story starts by going up the mountain, but real fast it ends up in the weeds. At real IKEA, I lose my patience in about 15 minutes. Moses gets this for forty days.
But this isn’t the only version of the story. Ten chapters later, ten chapters of cubits later, Moses goes back up again. Or some other voices pick up the story and tells it again, either way, this time, instead of spending forty days furiously taking notes about curtains, Moses goes up to the mountain and comes back down with only two tablets, newly-carved. Moses gets to the top; God recites the commandments to him; God tells him to write the words down, and the text says that “He was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he neither ate bread nor drank water. And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.” Note the difference. Note how different forty days feels in these two perspectives. If I had forty days and nothing else to do I could probably memorize the ten chapters of architectural schematics that God gives Moses in that first encounter, but that’s all it would be, memorization pure simple, and I’d have to dump it out as soon as I got down like everything I crammed into my brain the night before an exam. On the other hand, ten short commandments, cut into the rock, chisel against the stone, over and over and over. You can memorize them in about twenty minutes. But maybe it takes forty days to carve them deep enough for it to last.
When I was in high school, we were required as a part of the standard curriculum to take a short-course on Drivers’ Education. And so for six weeks my section of this class gathered in some unloved basement in the school and pored through the New Jersey Drivers Manual and learned copiously about the rules of the road. We learned all about lights and signage. We learned about signaling. We learned about safe follow distances and safe passing. I remember several significant conversations about how to use your lights in the fog, and more than one discussion of what to do when one of the local Jersey deer jumped in front of your car in the middle of the night. We watched more than a few of those made-for-school videos where terrible things happens to unsafe adolescent drivers. We strategized for the notorious New Jersey driver’s license exam, particularly for the stop sign just past the check-in kiosk that many failed to realize was separate from the kiosk itself and thus required additional attention. We emerged from that Drivers’ Education class about as educated as you could possibly be about driving.
Except that what we never did at any moment was actually sit behind the wheel of a car. I’m sure this wasn’t a casual omission; I’m sure this was a profoundly tactical decision. I’m sure that the school board had figured something out long ago — namely, that a classroom was a really good place to fill up your brain. But also that driving a car isn’t just about filling up your brain. It’s also about teaching your eyes how to see. It’s about teaching your arms and legs how to respond. It’s about teaching your ears how to listen. It’s about teaching your instinct how to predict what the other car’s going to do next. Learning to drive a car isn’t just learning all the schematics and the diagrams and how many cubits before the intersection you’re supposed to start your turn signal. Learning to drive a car is about muscle. You learn it by exercise. You do the same things over and over and over and eventually you hope that it starts to sink in. And I wonder whether this explains Moses goes back up the mountain again, forty days on Ten Commandments. Maybe it wasn’t enough for the journey for him to fill up his head with diagrams and cubits. Maybe he also needed to work on his muscle. To sit there on the mountain and carve the same words in the stone, day after day after day.
I am the Lord your God. You shall have no gods before me.
I am the Lord your God. You shall have no gods before me.
I am the Lord your God. You shall have no gods before me.
“You shall put these words of mine in your heart and soul,” it says in Deuteronomy, “and you shall bind them as a sign on your hand, and fix them as an emblem on your forehead. Teach them to your children, talking about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.” Israel knew that real discipleship takes muscle. It takes exercise. It is not as simple as weaving the curtains for the tabernacle exactly to specification. It is rather about habitually and repeatedly and inexhaustibly reminding ourselves who God is and who we are, and that God calls us into something, and that God loves us for something. You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and all your mind, it says in scripture, over and over. Over and over and over. It says it over and over and over because if you thought carving into stone took a while you should try carving words into heart. It can take a lifetime.
Last week I sent you into the world with a word for the week, “trust.” This week I send you out, instead, with “learn.” But don’t get too excited. Learning sounds easier than it is. Especially here. Here at University Presbyterian Church — with the University of Texas right across the street, with Austin Presbyterian Seminary right around the corner. We’ve got us a whole mess of smart people in this room. We’ve got us a whole mess of people who like learning about as much as we like life itself. But I’m not talking about cubits. I’m talking about the stuff carved on your heart. Some of you smart people may know the famous story where Swiss theologian Karl Barth, who is probably responsible for more words about theology in the 20th century than anybody else, and who has an entire shelf of words in my office and more than a few filing cabinets in my brain, in 1962 Karl Barth having already published an entire Dewey Decimal System’s worth of systematic theology, he’s lecturing at the University of Chicago and a student asks him if he could summarize his life’s work in theology in one sentence, and Barth allegedly and famously replies, “Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.”
And some of you smart people know that story already. It’s an old sermon chestnut, so you’ve heard it before. You’ve filed it away, same place I have, in the same storage closet where you keep architectural schematics for tabernacles and safe following distances for foggy driving. But that’s not where God’s love needs to go. It needs to go somewhere more immediate. It needs to go somewhere more instinctive. It needs to go somewhere so elemental that when the fog hits or when the road bends or when the villainy of the world jumps out in front of you as it has so profoundly done in Christchurch this past week — it needs to go somewhere so elemental that when the news of the day makes it intellectually inconceivable to imagine God’s love for me or God’s love for you or God’s regard for any of us — then, precisely then, precisely in that dark corner of the journey, precisely in that moment, precisely for that moment God has carved this love into our hearts instead. Somewhere unassailable. Somewhere unimpeachable. Somewhere it cannot be misfiled. Somewhere it cannot be misplaced. Somewhere it cannot be misremembered. Somewhere written on our hearts.
But it does take exercise. Moses spent forty days carving ten short phases into the rock and even then, they didn’t always take. And so we practice. We exercise. We say it over and over, every Sunday. We go back to the same hymns, over and over. We join the repetitive choruses of Taizé, over and over. We rediscover the same prayers, over and over. We say the same words: In Jesus Christ we are forgiven, healed and made whole. Over and over. God welcomes all, strangers and friends. Over and over. On the night of his arrest, our savior took bread, over and over. Remember who you and whose you are, over and over, and over, and over, and over, not because we know them so well. Not because they are so familiar. Not because they are so readily available. Rather we say them over and over and over because eventually, hopefully, by God’s grace, in God’s sight, with God’s help, eventually, helpfully, we’ll do the hardest work of all. Someday, thanks be to God, we’ll learn.