An Awesome God

Scripture: Exodus 24:12-18; Psalm 99:6-9; 2 Peter 1:16-21

Mountain top experiences are mentioned throughout scripture. The term itself has come to be contrasted with experiences that happen within the valleys of our lives. Something there is about a mountain that is majestic. Something there is about a mountain that removes us from the everydayness of life. Something there is about a mountain that emotionally draws us nearer to God within our souls.

It was on the top of Mount Sinai where Moses met God and received the Commandments, otherwise known as the Covenant Code. It is one of the holiest events recorded in scripture. The presence of God come down to meet with Moses was so intense that it appeared to those gathered below that the whole mountain top was afire. It was at that moment that God would put into writing not only how we are to relate to God but how we are to relate with one another.

This becomes the way through which it is understood what Yahweh’s intention is for one’s life. The Code covers every part of life: worship, ethics, public, personal, economic, and sexual. That meeting in the very presence of God changed the appearance of Moses. When he descended the mountain with the Tablets of the Commandments, he was so radiant in appearance that the people could not look upon him.

Today, on the Christian calendar we remember the event of the Transfiguration of Jesus on another mountain top. Jesus usually went by himself up into the mountains to pray with his Father. Often it is recorded that He went at night when the crowds had gone away and the disciples were likely already asleep.

This time Jesus takes with him Peter, James, and John. As Jesus prays, He is changed in appearance before their very eyes. His face became radiant, and his clothing became white and gleaming, or, another interpretation would read, it looked like lightning was flashing all around Him. And standing there, talking with Jesus, were Moses and Elijah. It is surmised that they have come to talk with Him about his last days on earth and his resurrection, his “exodus” if you will, and his return to glory. It is another of the holiest moments on record. It is also not fully understood by the disciples who are with Him. Their solution is to build dwelling places for Jesus, Moses, and Elijah, and remain on the mountain.

God comes once more covered with a cloud, and once more, repeats the directions that God gave at the baptism of Jesus, saying, “This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to Him.”

As we know, we all must come down from the top of the mountain at some point.  And so, they did to return to the needs of those who lived in the valley.

The history of our African American sisters and brothers is that they have lived many years of their lives in the valley. Since the days of the Emancipation Proclamation they have struggled to travel up the mountain, but the struggle has at times seemed hopeless. There have been moments when hope was born in their lives, sometimes to later die and push them down again.

One such moment of hope came in 1957 with the passage of a voting rights act, known as “An Act to provide means of further securing and protecting the civil rights of persons within the jurisdiction of the United States.” It had begun as a recommendation to the Congress by President Eisenhower, but by the time it passed and was signed on September 9, 1957, it had been so hollowed out that it was of little help. It resulted in only a 3% increase of Black voters. Black churches in the South were bombed and burned. Black activist, both men and women, were attacked.

Dr. King sent a telegram to President Eisenhower asking him to make a speech to the South and to “use the weight of his great office to point out to the people of the South the moral nature of the problem.” Eisenhower responded, “I don’t know what another speech would do about the thing right now.”

It would remain for President Lyndon Johnson, working with Dr. King, to pass Civil Rights Acts in 1964 and 1965. Much of those rights have now been hollowed out by the U.S. Supreme Court and voting rights is an issue once more.

Maybe you remember the Plessy v Ferguson decision in 1896 that set up the Separate but Equal society. By 1960 there were Black folk who would tolerate this no longer. On February 1st, four young men, spurred on by the brutal murder of Emmett Till, decided to act. Black people were allowed to shop at Woolworth but were not allowed to eat at the lunch counter. Those young men entered the store at Greensboro, North Carolina, as customers and made their way to stools at the lunch counter. When asked to leave, they refused and sat there until the store closed. They came back day after day, finally gaining the support of 300 more college students, both black and white. The movement spread to other lunch counters in other cities. In response to the movement, dining facilities across the South were beginning to integrate by the Summer of 1960. At the end of July of 1960, when many local college students were on vacation, the Greensboro Woolworth’s quietly integrated its lunch counter. Four Black Woolworth’s employees were the first to be served. It was another step up the side of the mountain.

By the next year, 1961, 436 people (Black and white) participated in 60 separate Freedom Rides. As mixed groups, they rode buses from the North into the South to call attention to the Laws that forbad segregation on interstate transportation. Those laws were not being enforced. The first Ride included John Lewis who would later almost lose his life while participating in a Civil Rights march across the Edmund Pettis Bridge in Selma, Alabama.

The police in the South conspired with the Ku Klux Klan to give them time to attack the riders without any arrests being made. They were beaten with baseball bats and iron pipes and bicycle chains. Busses were burned. When the injured were taken to local hospitals, they were refused treatment because of the fear of the mob outside of the hospitals. Local police arrested Black riders for trying to use all-white facilities. 

More Freedom Riders arrived to take the place of those injured or arrested, and their strategy became one of trying to fill the jails to overflowing. Once the jails were filled in Mississippi, the riders were moved to the state prison and housed on Death Row, where they were issued them only underwear. When the Freedom Riders refused to stop singing, they took away their mattresses, sheets, and toothbrushes. At one time there were more than 300 Freedom Riders housed in these conditions.

The Kennedy administration called for a “cooling off period” and condemned the Rides and the Riders as being unpatriotic because they embarrassed the nation on the world stage at the height of the Cold War. James Farmer responded, saying, “We have been cooling off for 350 years, and if we cooled off any more, we’d be in a deep freeze.

International outrage, resulting from media coverage, pressured the political leaders. On May 29, 1961, Attorney General Kennedy sent a petition to the Interstate Commerce Commission asking it to comply with the bus-desegregation ruling that had been issued six years earlier. The request had no effect and the Freedom Riders continued to be arrested and jailed. One such group included 15 Episcopal priests, 3 of whom were Black.

Three months later the organizers planned a march on Washington that would mobilize hundreds, if not thousands, of non-violent demonstrators to the capital city. The idea was pre-empted when the Interstate Commerce Commission finally issued the necessary orders to comply with the ruling in September. Passengers were permitted to sit wherever they wished. Signs were removed from terminals. “White” and “Colored” signs were removed from drinking fountains, toilets, and waiting rooms.

The White press continued to condemn the Freedom Riders and the results of their rides. At the same time the Freedom Riders were well accepted by both Black and White throughout the country. They became the inspiration for voter registration and preparation to meet the tests for voting that the White establishment had developed. Because of a great price that was paid by many, it was another step up the mountain.

So much pain!  So much death! So much shameful action!

How could those who acted so shamefully not listen to God’s words? How could we continue to ignore God’s words? “This is my beloved, my chosen Son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to what He says.”

And Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and all your soul and with all your might, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s what He said. That is what He continues to say.

Let me be clear. Sometimes Pastors need to say hard sayings. God made man and woman in God’s own image and placed them in this world; all men and all in any way that degrades and demeans and damages another person who has been created by God, that is sin; sin against that person and sin against God.

God so loved the world that God sent God’s Son (to all the world). The ground at the foot of the cross is level.

“This is my beloved Son, my Chosen One. Listen to Him.”

Do you hear Him speaking to us?