Mountaintops are clearly romanticized in our culture. The adulation and reverence paid to mountaintops is certainly pervasive. Nearly all references to mountaintops are positive. We speak of “mountaintop experiences” after all – which represent moments of great inspiration on our journey through life and easily contrasted with the fear of having to traverse a “dark valley.” Higher, in this case, is definitely better.
Songs of all varieties can’t seem to praise the mountaintop enough. In our national hymn, America the Beautiful, we revere the “purple mountain majesties” that soar “above the fruited plain.” The Sound of Music ends with the uber-dramatic and climactic Climb Every Mountain, as the von Trapp family joyfully marches to freedom from the Nazis. The Motown classic Ain’t No Mountain High Enough equates the size of the mountain to the intensity of love we feel when we have finally found “the one.” Even the tear-jerking Go Rest High on that Mountain by Vince Gill compares the mountaintop to the the kingdom of heaven and the location of eternal life. Mountaintops represent our greatest inspirations, the best of our emotions and intentions and the truest desires of our heart.
In scripture, perhaps not unsurprisingly, big moments often occur on mountaintops. God gave Noah the rainbow sign on Mt. Ararat. Abraham was spared his son’s life on Mt. Moriah. Moses received the 10 commandments on Mt. Sinai. The temple in Jerusalem was built on Mt. Zion. Jesus withstood Satan’s temptations on a mountatintop. He was transfigured on a mountaintop. And he ascended into heaven from a mountaintop.
The reality, however, is that mountaintops are dangerous. They are difficult to traverse. They can be scary, as the higher we climb the more dangerous the fall. Mountaintops can reveal our weaknesses, insecurities and vulnerabilities. For all of the uplifting moments that occur on mountaintops in scripture, we also remember that Jesus was crucified on Mt. Calvary.
In Exodus 19, the basis of our sermon this past Sunday, Moses converses with God on a mountaintop. Among other things, God tells Moses that if any of the people touch the mountain, they will die (19:12). Clearly these words represent the mountains-as-dangerous motif more than that of mountains-as-places-of-joy-and-euphoria. With a slightly larger context, it begins to make sense. The people had just come into freedom after generations of being slaves in Egypt. God had just set them free and delivered them from danger to safety by means of a miraculous crossing of the Red Sea! Yay God!!! But God wants them to know that with freedom comes not just privilege and luxry, but rather responsibility as well. That is why the words God speaks to Moses from the mountaintop are these: “If you (the people) obey my voice and keep my commandments, you will be my treasured possession…” With freedom comes the responsibility of being faithful to God’s Word and that word and seeking to build new communities based on the commands God will give. These commands will essentially fall into two main categories: 1) honor God – the God who saves, delivers and gives life; and 2) treat others with dignity, grace and respect. Or, as Jesus would later put it, love the Lord your God and love your neighbor as yourself.
With blessings come responsibilities. God blesses us and we, in turn, respond with our faithfulness; being living expressions of those blessings in how we live as we journey forward. That is serious business and should not be taken lightly, but it is our responsibility to the one who blesses us. God blesses us freely and we are held accountable to those blessings. Just as mountaintops are both idyllic, majestic and inspirational and dangerous and thus should be treated carefully and respectfully.