Nature Series: Mountains
Rev. Dr. Glenda Hollingshead; March 8, 2020
2nd Sunday in Lent
Exodus 3:1-12, 19:16-20; Matt. 4:23-5:2a
“The Bucket List,” is a movie starring Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman. Freeman plays the role of blue-collar mechanic, Carter Chambers and the arrogant billionaire, Edward Cole is played by Jack Nicholson. When a diagnosis of terminal cancer brings them together, sharing a hospital room, things get off to a bumpy start. But after a while, they begin to tolerate each other until, finally, they become the best of friends.
In light of their circumstances, it doesn’t take long for the issue of God to arise. Edward thinks faith is a bunch of poppycock and compares God to the Sugarplum Fairy. Carter and his wife are people of faith. At one point in the movie, Carter shares a story with Edward about a man who scaled Mount Everest and had a spiritual experience on the mountain. During his climb, a profound silence fell around the mountaineer, and he heard the voice of the mountain. “It was like he heard the voice of God,” Carter says.
When Carter begins writing a “bucket list” for the things he wants to do before he “kicks the bucket,” it captures Cole’s imagination—so much so, he is willing to join him and cover all the expenses. In time, the two takeoff on a wild adventure that includes skydiving, flying over the North Pole, touring the Taj Mahal, riding motorcycles on the Great Wall of China, and visiting the base of Mt. Everest (which was unfortunately shrouded in clouds).
Too soon, Carter’s health takes a dramatic nosedive and he dies. Giving Carter’s eulogy in a packed church, Edward explains that he and Carter had been complete strangers, but the last three months of Carter’s life were the best three months of his. It seems that Edward has reconsidered his beliefs for he says, if there is an afterlife, he hopes Carter’s there to vouch for him and show him the ropes on the other side. The epilogue reveals that when Edward dies, his ashes are taken to the summit of an unnamed peak in the Himalayas by his assistant Matthew. There, in a Chock full o’Nuts coffee can, he is laid to rest on a high mountain beside his dear friend. [i]
This morning we continue the sermon series on nature by reflecting on mountains. How they fascinate us. People want to climb them, look down from them, and conquer them, but aren’t they really just elevated chunks of earth and rock? Hardly! If we have only a touch of mysticism in our soul, we recognize that mountains are charged with the power of symbolism and metaphor. Ancient pagans offered their sacrifices on the high places. The most revered gods and goddesses of the Greeks and Romans were said to dwell on Mount Olympus. In nearly every religion, mountains have been shrouded in a mist of legend and divine power.
In our Scriptures, have you ever noticed how often God conveys important information from a mountain top? In Genesis 22 we’re invited to accompany Abraham on a trek to Mount Moriah where he is tested. God instructs him, ‘Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt-offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” Abraham obeys, taking his one and only son up to the mountain, not knowing if it will be the last mountain top experience they’ll share together. Thankfully, God intervenes when Abraham reaches out his hand to kill his son. The angel of the Lord calls from heaven, and says, ‘Abraham, Abraham…do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’ Abraham looks up and sees a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Gladly, he offers it up as a burnt-offering and names the place ‘The Lord will provide.”
In today’s reading from the Book of Exodus, Moses is tending his father-in-law’s flock when, on Mount Horeb, he witnesses a most amazing sight—a bush ablaze with fire but unconsumed by it. He turns aside to examine the bush. To his surprise, God speaks from it and Moses is given the task of leading God’s people out of slavery and into a land flowing with milk and honey. Later, Mount Sinai (likely another name for Mount Horeb) is the place from which God gives Moses the Ten Commandments—guidelines for how God’s chosen people should live.
One of my favorite mountain stories appears in 1 Kings 18[ii]. King Ahab and his wife Jezebel have led God’s people to forsake God’s commandments and follow the gods of Baal and Asherah. God has had enough so Elijah is sent to confront King Ahab. Mincing no words, Elijah tells the king to have all of Israel assemble at Mount Carmel. It’s time for a showdown between Yahweh and the prophets of Baal and Asherah who dine at Jezebel’s table. So, the people gather and Elijah essentially tells them that this is the day to decide: “If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, follow him.”
Elijah asks for two bulls—one to be given to him as a representative for Yahweh; one to 450 prophets representing Baal. The bulls are prepared for sacrifice and placed on the wood, but no fire is set. Elijah tells the prophets of Baal, “You call on the name of your god and I will call on the name of the Lord; the god who answers by fire is indeed God.” The prophets call on Baal from morning until noon. Nothing happens. At noon Elijah begins to mock them, “Cry aloud! Surely he is god; either he is meditating, or he has wandered away, or he is on a journey, or perhaps he is asleep and must be awakened.” Desperate, the prophets cut themselves with swords and blood gushes, but no voice, no answer, no response comes.
Then Elijah tells the people to come a little closer. Let me show you how it’s done—he seems to say. Elijah offers a prayer to the Lord. He prepares the altar and digs a trench around it. “Fill four jars with water and pour it on the burnt offering and on the wood,” he says. Then, “Do it again,” he says. “Do it a third time.” Water runs all around the altar and fills the trench. Then Elijah begins praying, “O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, let it be known this day that you are God…” When Elijah finishes praying, the fire of the Lord falls and consumes the offering, the wood, the stones, and even the dust. The people fall on their faces and cry out, “The Lord indeed is God; the Lord indeed is God.”
The mountain theme continues into the New Testament. In what is known as the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus shares the principles of his Father’s kingdom, reinterpreting the law, hearkening back to the revelation to Moses on Mount Sinai. Sitting down, Jesus teaches like a rabbi saying: ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth…”
Near the end of his ministry, Jesus takes Peter, James and John with him up on a high mountain where he’s transfigured before them, his face shines like the sun and his clothes become dazzling white. Moses and Elijah appear for a little chat. From a cloud that overshadows them, they hear a voice saying, “This is my Son, the Beloved, with him I am well pleased; listen to him!”[iii]
On the night of his arrest, Jesus and his disciples gather in the Upper Room. After Jesus institutes the ritual of the Lord’s Supper, they sing a hymn and go out to the Mount of Olives, a hill just east of the city. On the lower slopes of the Mount of Olives, they enter Gethsemane and it is there that Jesus prays, “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want.”[iv]
Our faith story is rich with mountains—both physically and metaphorically. Mountains are places to meet God. Often, for those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, mountains are places from which God speaks. Where do you meet God Almighty? In nature? Among the mountains, hills, rivers and trees? Where do you see the face of Yahweh? Here, among other believers? Is it too much to imagine that every Sunday morning can be a mini mountain top experience: a journey to a place where we gather to see things anew, a journey to a place where we meet the holy God of the mountains?
[ii] 1 Kings 18:17-39
[iii] Matthew 17:1-8
[iv] Mark 14:36
*Cover Art by Unsplash, used by permission