Hello, again, dear friends! Don’t worry—I’m still alive! I’ve spent the last week in Egypt, and I’m still trying to dig out of massive piles of laundry and homework, a very full inbox, and a nasty bug that has made me sick for a few days. I apologize if it takes me a long time to answer your e-mails.
Last Thursday our group toured the Karnak and Luxor temples, two of the most impressive remaining structures built in antiquity. Dedicated to the worship of various deities of the Egyptian pantheon, these temples are vast and imposing, brilliantly engineered, with some of the original paint still extant even after four thousand years. Even when partly in ruins, these majestic and ornate temples inspire a sense of awe. In the days before skyscrapers, when these temples stood tall, their carvings unmarred and their colors still vibrant, they must have been orders of magnitude more magnificent.
On Sunday we hiked to the top of Mount Sinai, which is 2285 feet high, to watch the sunrise from its summit. The hike took several hours in the bitter cold and the rocky, sandy desert terrain. The sunrise from the summit was beautiful, but the hike up the mountain, one of the first natural temples where the presence of God had rested, was an even more incredible experience. I am not a very strong hiker and I was already ill, so I had difficulty getting up the mountain. But the difficult climb gave me an opportunity to reflect on my place in God’s plan.
I couldn’t help but think about the feelings that Moses would have experienced as he climbed this mountain, a feat he achieved eight times while already at an advanced age. Moses would have visited the Egyptian temples as a prince of Egypt, and there made offerings to and covenants with the Egyptian gods. When he left his position in the Egyptian court and fled to Midian, he no longer had a temple in which to worship the Lord, nor did he have a God to call his own. His experience on the mountaintop gave him an understanding of who he was and who his God was.
The shear size of the mountain must have awed Moses—Moses, who had seen the Pharaonic temples made with slave labor, now ascended into the temple made without hands, a temple that was made holy by God’s presence there, not by statues, carvings, or magnificent artwork. He had seen the works of man and worshipped at the altars of the Pharaohs, and now the Lord brought Moses to behold the works of God and to worship at His feet. Set beside the massive chunk of stone that is Sinai, all other human creations pale in comparison, even the most magnificent. It is as if the Lord was telling Moses, “You think Pharaoh’s temple is impressive? Let me show you my temple, and then we’ll talk about impressive. You think that Pharaoh is pretty powerful? Well, while we’re at it, let me show you the stars and worlds without number I have created, and then we can talk about powerful.” Having seen both, I can testify that the contrast is stark.
I grew up in New England, where there are lots of trees but no mountains. As a child, I never saw mountains except in pictures, so I didn’t really grasp how massive they are. I guess it’s easier to pretend that you’re big and important when you don’t have a huge chunk of granite in front of you reminding you of how small and puny you are by comparison. Standing in front of that mountain gave me a great deal of perspective, and left a lasting impression.
Several times during the ascent I turned off my light and looked up at the sky. I have long dreamed of going to a place without light pollution, where the cars and the streetlights and the neon signs can’t disrupt my solace, just to sit and look up at the stars. And as I looked out at the innumerable stars that dark morning, as I struggled up that holy mountain, which once served as both the temple and the classroom of the Almighty God, I was led to proclaim with Moses, “For this cause I know that man is nothing, which thing I never had supposed” (Moses 1:10). I knew the Psalmist’s wondering awe when he wrote, “When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars which thou hast ordained, what is man, that thou are mindful of him, and the son of man that thou visitest him?” (Psalms 8:3-4). As I climbed, my recognition of my own nothingness took the form of a desperate plea for help: “Dear God, I know how small I am, for You have created this mountain, and I can’t even climb it!”
Mortals have built beautiful monuments and imposing cities, but they pale in comparison to the magnificent creations of God. That the Almighty God would condescend to visit His unworthy children is a marvel to me—a miracle for which I will ever be grateful. For God has “made us a little lower than the angels, and has crowned us with glory and honor” (Psalms 8:5). I pray that someday I might be found worthy of that crown.
Photo from Wikimedia.com