Summary: In the a downturn we may need to check the map carefully and find out where we really are and find that there are more reasons to rejoice than we know.
Sometimes it helps to check the map.
The people of the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum lived at the bottom of a mountain. They loved the mountain, because they believed it was a place where gods dwelt. The land was fertile, and the harbor was good, so the city prospered and grew. Then in 62 and 63 AD, earthquakes started to become more frequent. In 63 AD, a strong earthquake nearly leveled the nearby city of Pompeii. But the land was good, the harbor was good, so the people rebuilt. Then in 79 earthquakes set in again. The mountain itself seemed to be shaking. Finally, the mountain, Mount Vesuvius, erupted, and Herculaneum and Pompeii were destroyed.
Now, I suppose we can excuse these folks. They must not have known that they were living at the bottom of a volcano. What amazes me, though, is that they didn’t learn their lesson. The land is so good and the harbor is so good that they rebuilt again. Today, Naples sits there in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. 2 million people live in Naples. Vesuvius is still an active volcano. It has erupted time after time over the past 2,000 years. It has never been as spectacular as it was in 79 AD, but people have died. Right now, 500,000 people live in the “red zone.” That’s the area that would be destroyed before people could evacuate if there were an eruption like in 79 A.D.
If I were living at the bottom of a volcano, I’d want someone to let me know. Imagine coming to Naples for a job interview and looking for a house. So you pull into the driveway of a beautiful three bedroom villa. You love it. It’s got a courtyard with a nice fountain, and it’s in your price range. But then you look out the back window and see a beautiful mountain, so you pull out a map to see which mountain it is. It says, “Mount Vesuvius” on the map. You’ve got a volcano in your back yard! So what do you do? “Oh, look honey. This house comes with its very own volcano.” No! You get in the car and you keep looking. Probably not in Naples! Sometimes it helps to check the map to see where you are.
Hebrews 12:18-29 checks the map and tells us where we are.
Is our world unraveling?
There’s a mountain in front of us right now. The mountain is the economic crisis our country is facing. It’s big and national. You hear about it on the news every night. Just this week we heard about record budgets, bailing out banks, car companies having a tough time and the stock market continuing to fall. This mountain is also intensely personal. It affects our bottom line and makes us nervous. So as we look at the mountain in front of us, it looks menacing. It’s shaking and rumbling, and we’ve got to decide what it is.
If you’re Israel, having Mount Sinai behind you can be a great thing. Hebrews was just describing what the nation of Israel found at Mount Sinai out in the wilderness after God rescued them from slavery in Egypt. They camped at the foot of Mount Sinai in the desert on the Sinai Peninsula. God was planning to meet with the people and speak to them, so he told them to get ready. He said, “Don’t come onto the mountain. Don’t even touch it.”
Hebrews is very graphic about what this was like. When God descended onto the mountain there was fire and darkness and clouds and lightning and peals of thunder that were so loud it sounded as if the top of the mountain were going to blow. God’s voice was a rumble so loud and so deep that the people begged Moses, their leader, to ask God not to speak to them directly like that again. It sounded like a volcano! That’s terrifying in a way, but what happened at Mount Sinai was amazing. God promised to be their God and claimed Israel as his people. God gave the Israelites the law to live by, but it wasn’t this problem for them. The law told them how to live and to be happy and how to get along with their new God. The people of Israel who had been runaway slaves when they went to Mount Sinai came away God’s chosen people, a nation, unique among all the nations on earth. Remembering Mount Sinai was a good memory for them, because it was in the past.
Having Mount Sinai in front of you, though, can be terrifying. When it’s behind you, Mount Sinai tells you who and what you are. When that mountain is in front of you, it is holding you accountable. Have you lived according to God’s law and the agreement he made with Israel? There is judgment coming, and all of a sudden, that is terrifying. It’s like having a final exam in front of you. The only problem is that you know the questions you’re going to be asked, and you know you’re going to fail. Imagine the sense of dread that would create. All of a sudden, the thunder and smoke and fire aren’t symbols of God’s holy presence and of your God’s amazing power. Now they are symbols of your own destruction.