I thought that today, we might talk about mountains, since a mountain, Mount Zion, is featured in our Old Testament text for today.
Have you ever noticed just how often mountains are mentioned in the Old Testament?
There is Mount Ararat: resting place of Noah’s ark;
Mount Carmel: scene of Elijah’s defeat of the prophets of Baal;
Mount Ebal: site of Joshua’s altar to God
Mount Gerizim: site of blessing; and later claimed by the Samaritans as their holy mountain
Mount Gilboa place of Saul’s suicide;
Mount Hor: place of Aaron’s death;
Mount Moriah: where Abraham took Isaac, to offer him as a sacrifice
Mount Sinai: where God gives Moses the law—
Mount Nebo: place of Moses’ death;
Mount Zion, really a hill, but called a mountain—where the city of Jerusalem is located, and which is central to our reading today, and
Mount Rainer—Just making sure you are still awake
These mountains, minus Mount Rainer are just a few among many mountains and high places mentioned in the Old Testament.
Now while we are still deep into Hebrew scripture, I want to teach you two Hebrew words that mean Mountain—one is Tur—This is just a ’guess but I am thinking that our word Tower comes from the Hebrew word Tur. The other Hebrew word for Mountain is Har. You know Armeggedon, something that some of us are fearful of, with this change in the political landscape? Armeggeon, comes from the Hebrew. Har (mount) -Megiddo. Mount Megiddo is a place North of Judah, where an important battle took place. Har Megiddo.
The New Testament is no less mountainous. In seminary one of my New Testament professors said, “You know Jesus is about to say something important when he climbs a hill or a mountain. Where did Jesus go to deliver the Beatitudes which is our other reading for today? We can imagine that every time Jesus went up to a mountain, his disciples shushed the crowds and people sat down to listen ears stretched wide.
The New Testament was written in Greek. The Greek word for mountain is oros and I don’t know that oros is related to any English words—I leave it to you to come up with some though.
So, Mountains is our topic for today. I’ve been here for almost two years now—can you believe it? Seems like yesterday. I don’t think I have told you about MY mountain yet, so for today, I thought that I might share something with you about Heards Mountain.
When I first came to Central Virginia, I lived in a church manse in Covesville,
Covesville is a rural area. Just a few homes scattered here and there, some along Route 29, others further back. I lived further back. But even in that rural, unpopulated area, every morning I had a breakfast companion. It was not actually a person, though. It was MY mountain.
My breakfast table faced two sliding glass doors that looked out on Heards. I say breakfast table, which sounds kind of snobby, like “Every morning I dined on strawberries and champagne at my breakfast table.” Actually, it wasn’t like that at all. My breakfast table was really just a small, round kitchen table. I ate my cereal and drank my coffee and juice there, while looking out on that glorious mountain scape. There are far worse ways to spend a morning, I’d say.
That’s what I discovered anyway. Before moving to Covesville, I had always lived in urban areas--Never, EVER had I lived in a house with a mountain view.
What I noticed living near that mountain, was how it changed with the seasons. It was a young, vibrant green, when I first moved to the manse—that was in June. Then, as you might expect, in the fall, the mountain emitted one last blast of color--turning orange, yellow and red before sinking into an old age brown. When it snowed, of course, it’s rounded top wore a shroud of white snow. In other words, Heards confirmed for me the human rhythms of life.
Heards gave me new insight into the Psalms, too. The Psalmists write about mountains singing, dancing, clapping hands. My mountain never did that, or at least I’ll never admit to you that I saw it do that, but Heards definitely took on a persona. It was wise, much wiser than I am. It was steady, patient, even tempered. Unflappable. I might get frazzled and harried—sometime I’ll tell you about the snakes in my basement! But Heards Mountain—Well, it was steady as, well, steady as a mountain.
I had been at the manse for a little over a year, when Heards caught fire. I don’t know how, but I saw the effects. Fire trucks arrived from all over. Heards wore smoke like a wide-brimmed- gray-hat. The road I lived on was blocked off for days. The air was heavy with that acrid, telltale smoky odor. I wasn’t evacuated, though. Thank goodness for that. Since my house was at the foot of the mountain, I was even allowed to drive in and out on the road in front of my house.
The fire would not be put out, and would not be put out. I got curious. One early evening about a week into the conflagration, I was brave enough, you may say stupid enough, to take a stroll up. The paved road turns to gravel just beyond the manse. I walked on that. All was quiet except for the crunch of my tennis shoes on stone. Eventually I stopped to study the underbrush on the side of the road. You know, twigs and pine needles and the past fall’s decomposing leaves. It wasn’t blazing, but it was “a-glow,” smoldering. I stamped down on it with my tennis shoe. Quick jabs so I wouldn’t melt my rubber soles. It went out, but not entirely. it seemed to spontaneously reignite. Eventually I met up with some firefighters. They brusquely, but with good reason I am sure, ordered me to leave.
All to say, my warm and friendly mountain, my companion through the seasons of my first year in Covesville, had turned regretfully sinister and mysterious.
So, in my limited experience, mountains can be friendly, sturdy, unflappable, sinister and definitely mysterious.
They are also holy. That’s according to scripture. Mount Zion is referred to as God’s holy mountain over and over again. Have you ever thought about why that is so?
There’s a scholar named Mircea Eliade who was born at the beginning of the last century—born in 1907 He was a Romanian religious historian. Say that three times fast! He took it as a given, and I think this is true, that humans are religious by nature. He traveled the world trying to figure out what was common to all religious systems. He surmised that primitive religious communities divided their worlds into three parts--Earth, Heaven (up there) and the underworld. Primitive religious societies further believed that all the parts come together at an axis mundi. That is what he called it. An axis mundi. The center of everything. When you leave here today and people ask you what I preached on today, tell them I preached on the axis mundi. That will really impress them.
In his most famous book, the Sacred and the Profane, Mircea Eliade says that in primitive societies the axis mundi, that holy place where the three parts come together—the center of everything, is often a mountain. It makes sense, right? I mean if God is up there, where primitive societies believed God is, then climbing a mountain, was as close to God as they could get. And a mountain is still on the earth, is part of the earth, so in that respect a mountain brings heaven and earth together. Finally, I guess it was easy to imagine that an entryway to the underworld lay under the mountain—and sometimes the underworld came to the surface at the site of the mountain, spewing volcanic lava and ash.
BUT what if you were a person who embraced this primitive notion of a three-part creation and an axis mundi; And, what if you wanted to be in touch with the Holy, with God, and you didn’t live near a mountain? Well, Mircea Eliade said that many primitive peoples living in flat areas and even in not-so-flat areas, just created their own stylized mountains— a tower, a pyramid, a ziggurat (that’s a Babylonian temple) a pile of stones (think of Jacob creating that altar) and they called THOSE humanly constructed places holy. Ever wonder where steeples come from? Maybe we are not so advanced after all, we Christians.
Eventually, we humans came to realize though, that mountains, ziggurats, and even steeples are not so holy at all. They have no special powers. They can’t clap, or dance. And they positively aren’t helpful in our times of need. I know that from personal experience. I mean I really could have used some help with that snake situation in my basement, and Heards Mountain just stood there!
Yes, we humans eventually decided that we had had enough of mountain gazing—not to be confused with navel gazing—although both, I think you will agree are in the end, a waste of time, if you are in the market for a relationship with God.
Just when we thought we would have to go through life godless, God decided to help us out. Finally, finally God came to earth not in any geological formation, but in human form. God came to us as a baby. Immanuel. That is Hebrew for God with us.
A baby? A baby? What of that? Amen