There is something about being on a mountain top that fills you with awe and wonder. The sense of having achieved something, reaching a goal, the wonderful view and vista, a chance to have a different perspective on what is around you. Even Auckland City looks great from Waiatarua. Mind you as I’ve got older that sense of wonder is usually that I’ve made it to the top, and the view for the first ten minutes is my knees and feet as I bend over and try and catch my breath.
We use the metaphor of mountain tops to talk of spiritual experiences, encounters with God and high points in our lives. I recently went out through the Waitakere’s to Karekare with a friend and found myself reminded of hills and high places that had been special to me. The hill top just above the Arataki Information centre, where you can look down at the bush. I had gone to pray when I had to choose between staying in Auckland and heading down to St John’s in Rotorua and receiving very clear guidance from a bible passage in Marks gospel, “a prophet is without honour in their own town”, that it was time to move away from Auckland my home that sprawled below me.
The craggy rock over the river at the north end of Karekare, where you could climb up to the lifeguards platform. I’d originally had my twenty first out at Karekare and had left the party and found this place to be alone. One night I had sat there for hours, praying and praising God, singing at the top of my voice, knowing I couldn’t be heard by anyone but God over the pounding surf. Away from the lights of Auckland the stars shone bright and the milky way arched overhead, in the warm late summer evening the waves glowed with fluorescence as they struck the sand. Maybe it would have been easy to think that spiritual experience was just being in such an awesome place at night, but in the middle of that I sensed God’s presence and he spoke to me and asked me to renounce involvement in astrology. I didn’t under stand it at the time, but I did it, and it wasn’t till years later walking and praying in Rotorua that God reminded me of that night and that as a child I had worn an Aquarius medallion round my neck, a bit like a lucky charm. Just something that needed to be worked out spiritually, as involvement in that occult stuff can be a source of spiritual problems.
In the scripture mountains are see in two ways, firstly there is the link with encounters with God, but they are also used as a metaphor for the challenges and difficulties we face in life. In the passage from Matthew’s Gospel we see it used both ways. Firstly on the mountain the disciples have this amazing encounter where Jesus is transfigured before them, they see him in his glory, along with Moses and Elijah, that represent the law and the prophets, then as they have come down the mountain they find themselves right bang in a messy situation, a demon possessed boy, the disciples can’t seem to help. Jesus rebukes them about their faith and talks of a mustard seed faith being able to move a mountain.
Its mountain Sunday in the season of creation and what I want to do today is do a quick survey of mountains in the scriptures, that speak of spiritual experiences and encounters with God and what they have to say to us about those experiences and how they relate to the valley floor of everyday life, the inevitability, that is says in Matthew 17:9 and they were coming down the mountain”
In Genesis 22 there is the mountain in the region of Moriah, where Abraham is tested and in obedience with what he hears God say, takes his son Isaac and is about to offer hm as a sacrifice. Then we have the God encounter and God provides a ram for Abraham to sacrifice in Isaacs place. This passage has always been pointed to as showing Abrahams faith, but it is a worrying story, because while Abraham has great faith and is wiling to obey what he hears God say, it also is a test of relationship, how well did Abraham know God, to think that God would want child sacrifice. But on this mountain which some suggest is the same mountain on which Christ was crucified we encounter God’s mercy and love for us, that God provides the sacrifice and of course we look forward from there into the new testament to see the death of Jesus on the cross as a sacrifice for our sins. I think the Abraham story speaks to us that we need to wrestle with our mountain top experiences with God to fully understand them and know what they mean when we go down from the mountain. We should look at them from what we know of God, God is knowable, God has revealed God’s nature through scripture.
At the beginning of Exodus, we have Mt Horeb or Sinai, where in Exodus 3 Moses encounters God in the burning bush. It’s a story of God’s compassion for his people and of calling. God calls Moses to lead his people out of Israel, so they can worship him at this mountain. That mountain top encounter with God is not always about us and God, but to strengthen and call us to go and serve and care for God’s people. Well see it again and again, genuine encounters with God result in service and the furthering of God mission in the world, and Moses is sustained by this encounter through a very difficult and trying time.
As the people come out of Egypt Moses again encounters God at Horeb, and is given the law, the ten commandments, and meets with God. Only Moses and his aid Joshua go up, the rest of the people remain behind, God is too holy and awesome for them to meet as Moses does. Moses is transformed by his encounter and for forty days after he shines with this glory from meeting with God. Spiritual encounters and mountain top experiences can leave us basking in their glory, but again the reality of a spiritual encounter is like with Moses at Horeb, that we catch a revelation of what God wants and like with the law was intended it results in a way of life that reflects the God whom we have encountered. At Horeb the people of Israel receive the law, how as this new people of God they are to live that will reflect God’s justice and mercy. Because of that other hill of Calvary we don’t have to hang back at the foot of the mountain but we are all invited to meet with and encounter God, not just at the mountain but in our every day.
Mt Horeb appears again in 1 Kings 19 right after another mountain top experience on Mt Camel, where Elijah has a competition with the prophets of Baal about who is the real God. It’s interesting in this encounter that the prophets of Baal may have outwardly been seen to have a more ecstatic experience, they dance and sing and cut themselves, hoping their God will answer them. But with Elijah it almost seems mundane, he builds an altar pours water over it and at the right time for evening sacrifice prays and God answers. Boom, we can get caught up in the externals and the exciting and different and the ecstatic and think that’s where we encounter God and not realise that its often in the personal rhythm of worship and devotion and prayer that we meet with God. I’ve found that the more regular and regulated my emotional life the more God seems to speak to me through the scriptures. At the bible course of Tuesday, we talked about the fact that the prophets of Baal were killed by the people of Israel and it seemed bloodthirsty and violent. As I’ve re red for this sermon, the thing that sticks out is the prophets of Baal and jezebel were systematically seeking out and killing the prophets and people faithful to Israel’s God, so it becomes more of a justice thing, than vengeance or simple brutality, maybe a bit like the Nurnberg trials after the second world war
But back to Horeb, Elijah is afraid because jezebel the queen threatens revenge, she puts out a hit on Elijah, if this was a gangster movie… Elijah demoralised after that flees. His encounter on Horeb when he sees God passing by encourages him, gives him a new perspective on the awesomeness and power of God, but also on God’s love and care. God speaks not in the earthquake or hurricane but in the stillness. The mark of this genuine encounter with God is Elijah comes away encouraged and with a definite plan and a way forward. He is given someone to walk the path with him in Elisha. When we are discouraged and well facing mountains that genuine encounter with God, provides clarity and ways forward, not a way out, but a way through, with Christ’s abiding presence.
Mt Zion, the city of Jerusalem, was where David established his capital and where Solomon built the temple and bought the focus for the worship of God to that specific hill. In the reading we had from Isaiah chapter 2 we see how the city is to be a place where God’s kingdom is established, people are to be drawn to that place because of God’s mercy and justice. It here of Course that Christ comes and is crucified, it is here when the promise of the Holy Spirit is poured out on all those who believe. At the end of acts 2 we have this wonderful picture of the new people of God, the church, living out that hope of peace and justice, they are a people dedicated to knowing and learning what it means to be God’s people, they devote themselves to prayer and scripture and the teaching of the apostles. They practise hospitality and generosity, and live in harmony so that none of them is said to be in need, and they experience the power and presence of God in miracles and in people coming to know Christ, they enjoy the goodwill of the people: people see how they live and it draws them in. It is a pattern and a hope for us the church, that in us people might glimpse that rule and reign of God, that will make them want to change and put aside war and conflict.
A minister who lead a Christian community in west Auckland once talked about the marks of true revival, he said that you know the geniuses of that encounter with God when it results in a hunger for God’s word and prayer, a desire for Christian unity, hospitality and generosity, a care for the poor, and a heart for seeing people come to know Jesus. Yes miracles and all that stuff goes along with it, but at its heart is the kingdom of God.
The mount of ascension outside Jerusalem is where the gospels finish and the book of acts kicks off. It is a place where the disciples see Jesus taken up from them into heaven. It would be easy to finish the story with them gazing off into the sky, simply waiting for Jesus to come back to them. To sit and wait for that vision of Isaiah to come to being, but that is not what happens they are told by angels, to go back down and wait in Jerusalem for the power of God and then be Jesus witness to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth. That is the challenge of the mountain top that we come back down and get on with making what we have encountered of God a reality where we live.
That brings us back to the gospel reading we had today and the mount of transfiguration. The three disciples closest to Jesus have this amazing encounter, their eyes are open and they are able to see the reality of who Jesus is, a real glimpse beyond the veil to the spiritual realm. Jesus is totally human, but there is a glimpse of this glorified body, conversing with Moses and Elijah and the first instinct they have is that they want to stay there and they want to build an altar and shelters a structure to enshrine this experience. Let us build a shelter for each of you… that’s a very human reaction, a very human response to such a spiritual experience. A lot of our church traditions and expressions and denominations even are built to preserve hopefully a new truth about God, but they want to encapsulate a spiritual experience. But Jesus is not having any of it. He is suddenly just plain ol Jesus and thy go down the mountain, back into the difficulties and metaphor mountains of trouble they have left behind. But they Go back down… but down there Jesu is also with them. The disciples had tried to cast out a demon and they couldn’t do it, but as Jesus is with them and he is able to do it, and teaches them how to do it, how to have faith in facing mountains. It’s not the mountain top experience where we know God and his presence, its where we glimpse the reality of the God who is with us on the valley floor, who we can trust and put our faith in as we face those other mountains.The mount of transfiguration is book ended by looking forward to another mountain, Golgotha or Calvary as Jesus speaks of his death and resurrection, and it is this mountain that enables us to know God’s presence with us on the mountain high and valley low. It Jesus giving his life for us and being raised to life again, that does not mean we need to go to the physical mountains to see and know him. Rather he is with us. In John4 Jesus has a discussion with a Samaritan women about which mountain is right to worship God on… Jesus response is to tell her that there is a time coming when we will worship God not on the mountain but in Spirit and truth, that is the hope and the reality that we have among our mountains…
Maungarei, Maungakiekie, Mt Hobson, Hamlin hill, and beyond… as we face the mountains of aloneness, searching for meaning and purpose, pain, family struggles, caring for friends facing oppressive social mountains or a whole range of personal mounds… Mountain top encounters are great and helpful and draw us on, but we have the assurance that Christ has come down the mountain with us and dwells with us on the valley floor, the up and downward trek, wanting to see his kingdom and justice and love make that Mt Zion vision a reality