The God of grace meets His servants at a point of effort, after 40 days or 40 years, in desserts or on inhospitable peaks. After journeys and danger and strenuous climbs.
We rose Thursday at 3 am to climb the sheer, steep, bare-rock slopes of Horeb, the Mountain of God, also known as Mount Sinai. Cool darkness, quiet monastery, sleepy kids who were nevertheless game for adventure. Problem was, even with flashlights, it was dark and confusing. 99.9% of people who go up the mountain use a gradual camel path that the Egyptians made in this century. We had read about a steep but more direct ancient path of 3,700 stone stairs made by the monks of old. And 99,9% of people start earlier, so when we got to the base at 3:30 the last camels were setting off, and the handful of guides still at the bottom tried to push us that way. But an angel named Joseph agreed to guide us, I think he found the idea novel and thought we'd probably never make it anyway with three kids.
Which is how we felt most of the way up, too.
"Path" and "stairs" turned out to be generous descriptions. Without Joseph we would never have found our way, we might be in a ravine somewhere wandering like the Israelites still. This was a serious climb, from just above sea level to about 7 thousand feet, on boulders, into the crevices of the mountain, in pitch darkness, with our tiny lights. Gasping for breath, aching legs, aching lungs, short rests, moving on, racing to beat the 5:45 dawn. Joseph turned out to also be a fantastic cheerleader, holding kids' hands at various times and assuring us of our progress. We did not see another soul all the way up, though he pointed out a dim light that indicated the cave home of a contemplative solitary monk.
At nearly the top our path intersected with the main path, and there we met a long line of people from every tribe and tongue. We sat outside a bedouin tea shelter where a group of Korean Christians were singing in beautiful harmony as the sky infiltrated with rose, then picked our way through crowds of pilgrims to find a perch on the very top and await the sunrise, sitting on top of a small rock-hewn building (of course there is a church on the peak). I read Exodus 19 and 20 out loud to the kids while Scott photographed the stunning sunrise. Surely this mountaintop is a foretaste of Heaven, with austere beauty and people from all over the world who have nothing in common except a desire to worship God.
And then, because God delights in small gifts, while we were taking a family photo, an American-sounding dad called to his son who was climbing up on a rock, "You're a gentleman and a scholar". Which is a phrase my dad used all the time, a way of praising and teasing all at once, since he was using it with two daughters. It's not something I hear people say often, ever. So to hear it on the top of Mt. Sinai was a small but profound delight, a reminder of earthly and Heavenly fatherly love and approval.
Once we diverged paths again we were alone, this time in the light, wending our way down the same slope that Moses and Elijah descended after their meetings with God face to face, unchanged from those times, nothing but bare stone.
For you have not come to the mountain that may be touched and that burned with fire, and to blackness and darkness and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet and the voice of words, so that those who heard it begged that the word should not be spoken to them anymore. But you have come to Mt. Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, . . to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel. Heb 1218-24
Climbing Mt. Sinai was very similar to our final ascent on the Rwenzoris: dark, cold, unknown, physically pushing to the limit, leaving me trembling and spent. But in both cases, the experience of God on the mountaintop was not fearsome awe, but a deep awareness of love. I can't explain that. When Moses does have God pass before him, after the second set of tablets, He calls Himself merciful and gracious, longsuffering and abounding in goodness and truth. After the intense terror of His glory, those who approach are left with the still small voice, with the assurance of grace, with the wonder of a feast (Ex 24:11).