Second Sunday of Lent, 2018
Spiritual Geography: The Landscape of our Faith
The Mountain Click here for audio
Micah 4:1-4, Luke 22:39-46
Pastor Marty Raths
Last Sunday Donna introduced us to our theme for Lent: Spiritual Geography: The Landscapes of Our Faith. Throughout the Season of Lent we are going to be looking at the importance of geographical place, and how certain places have a spiritual prominence in the scriptures. These are holy places, places of encounter with God, so they are places of confrontation and confession and inspiration, and places of invitation and transformation.
Last Sunday Donna talked about the desert. God called Moses there. The Israelites wandered there. Elijah fled there. And Jesus spent 40 days there, in the desert, struggling with Satan, and clarifying who he was called to be, and how he was called to be. The desert is a place of solitude, where so many of the things of life are stripped away, and our lives get pared back, where we are made to stand alone before God, without distraction or excuse or rationalization./
Around the world hills and high places and mountains are considered to be holy places too, and like the desert the mountain has a place of spiritual prominence in the scriptures. Suffice it to say that, if somebody is up on a mountain in the scriptures, then we need to listen up and pay attention because something significant is going to happen. God is going to happen.
Like deserts mountains are isolated places, and they are unchanging in appearance, so to our ancestors in the faith they symbolized what was ancient and timeless and constant. “Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains, O God,” the psalmist wrote.
And mountains must be climbed if we are going to experience the summit, so they require effort. And many have compared the effort required to the requirements of faith, using the ascent of a mountain as a descriptive image for the path of discipleship and the way of salvation. It is hard work climbing a mountain, just as it is hard work growing in the faith. But the climbing is about progress not perfection, which is surely a word of grace to us who live in a world of so many unrealistic expectations. God does not ask for perfection from us, thank God, but for effort and progress, like the steady climbing of a mountain.
And along the way we are rewarded with changing and sometimes even stunning views and vistas. The prophet Micah gives us a glorious view of what God envisions for our world, and at the center of it is the mountain of the Lord. From every direction peoples and nations shall come to this mountain, Micah proclaims, and they will learn from the Lord the things that make for peace, and no one will be afraid, and all will be able to enjoy the fruits of their labor. But this is a rare view, one given to prophets alone, this glimpse of things from the very summit, from the promised future of God.
We do not usually get to ascend straight to the top. Our views and vistas usually unfold over time the farther up the mountain we go. One writer has called this “the grace of gradual illumination” which is a wonderful phrase. And it is very much a gracious act on God’s part, this gradual disclosure of the truth of things. We are usually not prepared to deal with the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth all at once, whether it be the truth about ourselves, or the world in which we live, or the mysterious ways of God. So God offers the truth to us in small doses, this same writer goes on to say, through words and images and symbols, through the scriptures and the sacraments, in our relationships with others and in the changing circumstances of our lives.
Like the desert the mountain can be both an actual and a metaphorical place. As a metaphorical place, it refers to those times when we have a heightened perspective, when we are allowed to see something new, or to see something old in a new way. The list is long of the things that can lead us up this metaphorical mountain. As I look back at my own life, there were certain people who were there at critical times in my life, and there have been certain writers and thinkers and artists. There have been periods of travel and time spent in other countries, among people with very different historical and cultural and religious traditions. And there has been my time as a pastor, and the privilege it has given me to be with people in all the circumstances of life.
These mountaintop experiences are decisive moments in life, those before and after moments that change our perspective forever and often our lives as well. Our lives can be changed forever pre and post graduation, or marriage, or children, or divorce, or retirement. In our view of life there can be no going back to a time before we had cancer, or some other serious illness, or before we lost a loved one, or before we served our country in a time of war. And often it changes us, and we are never again the same person.
I think of the students and teachers and staff at Stoneman Douglas High School. Their perspective on life changed forever a week ago Wednesday with the horrific shooting at their school. There is no going back for them, to a time before the shooting. And when we have one of these decisive experiences, the challenge is to try to find a way forward, by the grace of God and the love and support and encouragement of others. And that is what they are trying to do right now, as we all are as a nation, trying to find a way forward in the aftermath of yet another mass shooting, in the hopes that we never have to face such a tragedy again.
So these mountaintop experiences can be positive or negative, but either way they are epiphanies, times when we are allowed to see more deeply into the way things are, or the way they should be, or the way God intends for them to be. In a much less serious way, I had one of these experiences with our son, Nate. But others of us may have had a similar experience. When Nate was small, I had aspirations for him like any parent. To this day I still believe that most of them were reasonable, nothing more than a father wanting what was best for his son. That first year when he went off to kindergarten in the morning, I would often say to him, “Nate, be good, learn something, have fun. In that order.” And I still believe in my heart that that was okay to say, father to son, though he did get weary of me saying it to him, so I stopped after awhile.
But there was this one aspiration that I had for him that was maybe a little unreasonable. As far as I was concerned, Nate could grow up to be whatever he wanted, as long as it included playing guard for the Boston Celtics. Now that is not so unreasonable, is it? Is it? Well, I did the father/coach thing, and I envisioned him putting long hours in the gym on his way to the NBA. And he was a good player, and he worked hard, and he enjoyed playing. But one day I found myself up on that metaphorical mountain, and it dawned on me. And deep down I knew this all along, but I did not really want to admit it to myself until then.
That day it dawned on me that Nate was not really Celtic guard material. And more importantly, far, far more importantly, it dawned on me that this was not what he wanted for his life. It is what I wanted. And to be even more honest, it was not really what I wanted for him. It is what I had wanted for me. You see I had wanted to play guard for the Celtics at one time in my life, and I was not Celtic guard material either, and I was just projecting upon him my own unfulfilled dreams about that.
Sometime later, and a little farther up that metaphorical mountain, I can across these words by Carl Jung, “Nothing has a stronger influence psychologically on children than the unlived lives of their parents.” . . . than the unlived lives of their parents. Now that was an epiphany for me, one of those before and after moments. And it can be such a fine line for us as parents, and a real delicate balancing act, the one between loving parental expectations and burdensome parental projections, but what a world of difference for a child to have to live with the one or the other. And in my ministry I have known people who have had to bear this burden of parental projections, sometimes their whole life, and that is the last thing that I wanted for Nate. So I have been trying my very best ever since, to be as loving a parent as I can be, while respecting what had dawned upon me up there on that metaphorical mountain: that Nate’s life is not mine to live. It is his.
Now I have had to revisit that mountain from time to time, to remind myself of what I know to be true, and to renew my commitment to being the most loving father that I can be. And we can do that with our mountaintop epiphanies. Revisit them, letting them remind us again of whatever truth it is that we have come to know about life.
On the night before his death Jesus spent time on the Mount of Olives. So this is one of those listen up and pay attention times in the scriptures. This was more a revisiting for Jesus, a revisiting of his epiphany in the desert. At that time Jesus had contended with Satan, and clarified for himself that his final loyalty was to God. And now he stood at a crossroads, the one that had awaited him his entire public ministry.
If he continued walking the way he was on, he was going to die. The scriptures tell us that Jesus was like us in every way except sin, and like us he did not want to die. And he prayed to God to take this cup from him. But not my will but yours be done, he prayed. Someone once said that what matters with our prayers is not where they begin, but where they end, and Jesus’ prayer ended with his commitment, or recommitment actually, to carrying out the will of God for his life, to completing what he had begun when he left the desert to begin his public ministry.
And from there Jesus would be led down the mountain by Roman soldiers, who would then take him to Pilate, who would then sentence him to death. And this is a part of all our mountaintop epiphanies. We do not get to stay up there. We always have to come down the mountain, getting back to living our everyday lives, and to living out the will of God for our lives. This was true for Abraham and Moses and Elijah and Jesus and us.
And what allows us to carry these epiphanies with us down the mountain is commitment. Someone once said that events inspire, but commitments transform. It is the difference between a wedding and a marriage. One is an event, the other is a commitment. Sometimes you hear couples say, “We want our wedding to be perfect.” And that is all well and good, but a perfect wedding will not make for a good marriage. What makes for a good marriage is regularly revisiting those wedding vows, and renewing our commitment to them, and then living them out in the course of our life together.
It is the difference between conversion and discipleship. We may be able to recount in great detail the day of our conversion, and that is all well and good. But what counts is discipleship, and the commitment to grow in faith and hope and love of God and neighbor. John Wesley stressed the importance of conversion, and it was an important part of his life. But the follow up question that Wesley always wanted to ask those who entered into the Methodist Movement was this: so, now that you have been given this new life in Christ, what are you going to do with it? And to what good end are you going put it?
Just as being a good parent means recognizing that our children have to live their own lives, and that we cannot live them for them; being a faithful disciple means recognizing that we are not called to live our lives for ourselves only. Someone else has a claim upon them. God in Christ has a claim upon them. So whatever we do in life, in all the decisions that we make, in all the paths that we take, we need to be praying that simple but all transforming prayer that Jesus prayed up on the Mount of Olives, that prayer that helped him to remain faithful to his commitment to God until the very end: Not my will, God, but yours be done. Let us pray . . .