Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
The prophet Isaiah calls us, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that God may teach us God’s ways and that we may walk in God’s paths.” (Isaiah 2:3) Scripture tells of many mountains upon which people of faith draw nearer to God. Today marks a new year in our worship calendar told mostly by Matthew. Seeking God on the mountaintop is a recurring theme of Matthew’s gospel.
In my youth, there was one mountain that loomed over everything in Northern Colorado. At 14, 259 feet, Long’s Peak can be seen anywhere from Denver to Ft. Collins. Climbing that mountain always started around three in the morning. We’d get in the car pre-loaded with food and gear the night before and drive three hours to reach the trail head by 6:00 AM. After signing in with the ranger, we’d start winding through silent forests of Pingree pine, Blue Spruce, and Aspen. By about 9:30, we’d break from the trees, passing gnarled wind-twisted pines and stunted undergrowth, emerging onto the open tundra. “God’s country,” it’s called. It’s too high in elevation and too harsh for trees to grow, nevertheless life flourishes there. With its delicate small flowers and silky grasses, it’s a world of miniatures in a land of giant geological structures that stretches for miles and hundreds of miles.
On top of Long’s Peak, six hours and 5,000 feet above your car, nearly a mile above the trailhead, ordinary lives are transformed. Life is a party. Several people have been married on top of Long’s Peak. In the mid-70’s, half of a 12-piece brass band assembled on the summit to play the Star-Spangled Banner, and Nearer My God to Thee. Strangers celebrate together like old friends.
The day I was there, someone did a headstand to pose for a picture. Another shot golf balls over the diamond face. That day, we were entertained by a glider, piloted by someone who overcome a different set of obstacles, riding the winds that spiral above the mountains to carry his plane silently just over our heads.
Mountain tops are wonderful, enchanted places, where nothing seems out of place except the ordinary. They are foreboding, majestic, even sacred places which lift our minds and spirits to God. Mountain tops can be a place to feel the presence of God, a place of revelation, understanding, and light. They would seem to be the perfect place for Advent. A perfect place to stand watch for the coming of God. Indeed, Jesus seem to love to pray and teach on mountaintops as a way to prepare himself and the disciples for what they would confront in the world.
As Jesus sat and spoke to the disciples in our gospel today, he is somewhere on the Mount of Olives, just across the Kidron valley from the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The time and manner of his coronation as Lord and King remain unimaginable and largely unanticipated by his little band of followers. The disciples still don’t know what’s about to hit them although Jesus already told them on three separate occasions.
Maybe we hoped we could avoid this. We would rather not confront our pain, our shadowy selves, let alone all the suffering that exists in the world. We comfort ourselves with popular books based on bad theology about a rapture that is supposed to helicopter us out of this war zone—right? A closer look at our gospel (Matthew 24) reveals the righteous remain to fight the good fight while the unrighteous were taken up in the flood.
The message of Advent is, “Wake up!” The message of Matthew today is, “Keep watch!” The call of the season is to recognize that we’re not paying attention to what really matters. It is to confess that we are alive and yet dangerously asleep to what is real. God so loved the world that God sent the Son and now sends us to be a living sanctuary of hope and grace in the midst of a confusing and hopeless planet. Remember, Jesus walks with you.
In a sermon entitled, “The Face in the Sky,” Frederick Buechner describes God’s descent into the world in Christ as a kind of scandal — one that requires us to ponder the shocking unpredictability of God: “Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in the stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of humankind. If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there too.”
Strong winds and blowing snow forced all the roads to Longs Peak trail to close today. But it is never impossible to take another day hike with Jesus. We walk beside Jesus into valleys of the shadow of death like frail, confused, and mortal angels shining the borrowed light of heaven upon our path. We do not know the way to go. Yet we remain confident knowing the end of our journey will always return to our beginning in God.
Advent wants to shake us out of our complacency, out of our cynicism, out of prejudice, ideologies and learned expectations –all the things that keep us from seeing things new and fresh as they really are. As St. Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, “…you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light…” (Romans 13:11, 12a).
Remember the mountaintop. Remember that you are mine. Remember the fellowship you experienced with strangers, for you are all my children. Remember the feast of joy prepared for you at the heavenly banquet. Always remember that you belong to the kingdom of God as you follow my way of the cross. As a child, we journeyed to the mountaintop from far below on the plains. Our spiritual journey runs in the opposite direction. It begins in our home on God’s holy mountain and continues into the world God so passionately loves.