Episcopal Diocese of Minnesota

Environmental Stewardship Commission (MEESC) Lectionary Reflection Holy Name of Jesus (January 1), Old Testament

Exodus 34, vs 1-8

The LORD said to Moses, "Cut two tablets of stone like the former ones, and I will write on the tablets the words that were on the former tablets, which you broke. Be ready in the morning, and come up in the morning to Mount Sinai and present yourself there to me, on the top of the mountain. No one shall come up with you, and do not let anyone be seen throughout all the mountain; and do not let flocks or herds graze in front of that mountain." So Moses cut two tablets of stone like the former ones; and he rose early in the morning and went up on Mount Sinai, as the LORD had commanded him, and took in his hand the two tablets of stone. The LORD descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name, "The LORD." The LORD passed before him, and proclaimed,

"The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation."

And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth, and worshiped.

Reflection on Exodus 34, vs 1-8 by John Gibbs, PhD

The most dramatic and influential place of meeting God was, for ancient Israel, "outside the camp" whether in "the tent of meeting" (Ex. 33:7) or at the great Mt. Sinai (34:2). There is where covenant was made (Ex. 20) and, as in Ex. 34, where covenant is renewed. That is where the "hidden God" is described as the God of mercy, grace, steadfast love, and faithfulness (34:6-7). Law and grace are not at war, for the Law-Giver is the God of all grace.

The God of Abraham and the Patriarchs was "El Shaddai," which is to say "the Mountain One" (Ex. 6:2-3; Gen. 17:1). Mount Sinai is in a range that reaches to about 8,000’ above sea-level. There clouds frequently hover, so that "the Mountain One" is hidden at least as much as disclosed.

Subsequently Christian spirituality, no less than Israelite, has carried a strong emphasis on the via negativa, the way of thinking and living that negates what cannot be said about God, but which finds difficulty in speaking the unspeakable, or in conquering the impenetrable space at highest elevation. The Otherness and ultimate inaccessibility of God is symbolized in that cloud-shrouded mountain peak.

All the great theologians speak of the limits of theological language. John Chrysostom preached 12 sermons "On the Incomprehensible Nature of God." For Gregory of Nyssa: "The knowledge of God is a mountain steep indeed and difficult to climb" (Life of Moses, III, 158).

Karl Barth, whose Church Dogmatics extends to 13 volumes, used to say that when he took a wheelbarrow full of his writings to the Pearly Gates, then his situation would be none the better on that account. After delivering his lectures on Evangelical Theology at Chicago in 1962, the 76-year old Barth spoke extemporaneously: "So much as an introduction to evangelical theology. But one thing needs to be added. Allow me to say it a little enigmatically and cryptically wit the words of the Rebel General Stonewall Jackson, spoken at the hour of his death: ‘Let us cross the river"—nobody knows whether he meant the Potomac or the Jordan—"and have a rest in the shade of the trees.’" (Evangelical Theology, p. 59; Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963).

An excellent discussion of all this is given by Belden Lane in Ch. 4, "The Sinai Image in the History of Western Monasticism," within his book, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes (Oxford, 1998). He comments: "The spiritual function of the apophatic tradition is to bring us to the end of ourselves, to the abandonment of language and the relinquishment of ego." (114) ["apo" or "beyond"; "phasis" or "image"]

God has willed not to be experienced by us except in this world, on our mountains, in our wildernesses, under our trees. In all the centuries of pilgrimage across all the continents, God calls God’s People to care for their home in this world as a People who have relinquished ego, and have learned to become vulnerable "outside the camp" of all their thought, their civilization, their acquisitions of knowledge and things.

John Gibbs, a retired theologan, attends Trinity Episcopal Church, Park Rapids, MN. He originally wrote this reflection in 1998. He and we welcome your comments. Please address your comments or additional reflections to John Gibbs or any MEESC member, or mail them to:
MEESC Holy Trinity Church Box 65 Elk River, MN 55330-0065 USA

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