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Mountaintops: Touching the heavens, we fancy them closer to God. Up in the thin air, we survey the mountain range and the valley below. The beauty up there takes our breath away. And if we pause to contemplate it all with only the sound of leaves rustling in the breeze, we descend with a little more truth in our pockets than we carried to the top. We have something to tell those we love.
Down below, things get noisy and confusing. The large perspective lost, we find ourselves in the marketplace with its shouting and complaining and vying for a better deal. Nobody knew about this better than Moses.
Why Moses? God heard the groans and cries of the slave nation Israel down below. Life without freedom hurts. Resignation to servitude depresses. The LORD had mercy, and enlisted Moses to set them free. They collaborated on a spectacular escape across the Red Sea.
Yet, that did not end the groans and cries. Now the people faced the threat of hunger with no slave masters to feed them. They faced the elements without the shelter of slave quarters. Problems and decisions proliferated after generations of having no choice. Overwhelmed and hungry, they turned to Moses with bitter complaints and religious doubts.
So God invited the exhausted and exasperated servant, Moses, to the top of Mount Sinai for a retreat. There God gave him a tablet with straightforward commandments that, if followed, would help the people enjoy and conserve their new freedom. They boiled down to something like this:
Worship only the one free and loving LORD who set you free, not some lifeless, manageable substitute like the idols of Egypt. Respect the one God’s powerful name, and enjoy the Sabbath blessings that God provides. Otherwise, some pretender god will enslave you again.
Then protect each other’s freedom by taking care of your parents when they cannot take care of themselves, and take no liberties with anyone’s life, marriage, property, and the truth everyone needs to trust each other. Do not drive yourself mad comparing your lot with that of your neighbor.
Within those parameters, you will find that God provides so much more than manna. You will enjoy the freedom for which you dreamed in Egypt. You can enjoy being yourselves, God’s children, loving God and each other. That is what freedom is for in the first place.
Upon coming down the mountain, Moses saw the problem all too clearly: These people did not know what to do with the fragile gift of freedom. They had crafted a golden calf they could keep in its place and dance around, like the ones they made for Pharaoh. Enraged, Moses smashed the tablet with the Ten Commandments and gave them a piece of his mind instead.
Back on the mountaintop, he found a more enraged God whom he talked down and persuaded to forgive the people rather than bury them like Egyptian troops in the Red Sea. So God gave Moses a second draft which he took to the people. A gracious gift from a forgiving God.
Over 1300 years later, according to Matthew, Moses had a second coming as Jesus, and he too spoke from a mountaintop. The predicament of the audience differed from that of the newly freed slaves in the wilderness on their trek to a homeland. This audience lived at home in Judah but were not free. Rome occupied and taxed them so heavily that all but about three percent barely had enough left to survive. If they turned to God for consolation and hope, the religious leaders promoted such strict and detailed purity requirements that few other than the elite could enter sacred space and believe God welcomed them and heard their prayers.
But this Jesus of humble origins performed miraculous healings and announced a different kingdom in which they could be free then and there. Every healing offered a glimpse of the kingdom, the shalom. So they came not only to be healed but to listen.
From a mountaintop clear with no smoke, blazing light, or thunder, Jesus, the new Moses, delivered blessings to people all but fully resigned to home confinement. But from Jesus, these blessings bestowed power. For the word, “blessed,” Matthew quotes with the Greek term, makarios, the blessing reserved for princes. Jesus named and empowered them, and how surprising the names:
“Poor in spirit,” he named them, or more literally, beggars of God. Tear-stained mourners. The meek, the ones who do justice and love kindness even when it is thankless or dangerous. Those who hunger and thirst for righteousness they do not yet have. The humble, not the proud. These he said will have it all and know real peace, real fulfillment, real shalom.
He blessed those who reach out. The merciful, the broken who care for others in their brokenness. The pure in heart who reach out to God until they behold the one thing they desire, God’s face. The peacemakers who welcome the alien and love the enemy, and those persecuted for offending the powers-that-be with such love. Foolish as they seem, these are the children of God, honored as the prophets who made good trouble before them.
To an occupied people living in the trap of social and political powerlessness, with names like these, Jesus offered words of empowering force, not parameters, but blessings.
What about us?
Do we know and practice the art of freedom when having so much of it makes us nervous? Do we need parameters to help us make the best of it and preserve it? We certainly are not former slaves fresh out of the Egyptian brickyards trying to identify edible wild plants and figure out where to find shelter for the night.
Yet, freedom overwhelms us, although we seldom think of freedom that way. At the mundane level, we cannot buy a pair of sneakers without having to select from scores of variations in arch support, cushion, color, weight, and so forth. At a more fundamental level, we marry then decide several times along the way whether to stay married. We move in one career direction then tack to another several times before we retire. Then we must decide whether to eat, drink, and be merry for soon we die, or to hold on to as much as we can in case we live past 100. It can drain our souls. Do we console ourselves with more manageable golden calves?
At the same time, do we know and practice the art of freedom when it seems we have too little of it, when the people and things we claim and love demand so much of us that we scarcely know what we want anymore? We certainly are not farmers or fishermen in an occupied land, but we juggle such a cluttered calendar that it seems our Egyptian master. We feel like we have no choice. We resign to it. Dare we trust that Christ empowers us to discern and do the things that matter and leave the rest?
If you are like me, you live in both predicaments, sometimes anxious amid the insecurities and excessive choices of freedom, other times frustrated and nearly resigned to all the necessaries of life. But the God who heard with compassion the groans and pleas of a slave nation and their descendants in an occupied country wants us to be free to love God and neighbor as God loves us. Through Moses and Christ on the mountaintop, God sent words to give us wisdom and power to practice the art of freedom. And to borrow words issued on a mountaintop on another day, Christ, the beloved Son with whom God is well pleased, is still with us. Listen to him.
Image of the man on the mountaintop is in the public domain from www.goodfreephotos.com.