"On this Mountain"

April 23, 2000 message
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA
based upon Isaiah 25:6-10a 

Native Americans called the tallest mountain on our continent, "Denali," or "the great one." And it certainly does fit that title. More than 20,000 feet above sea level, its peak is visible, on a clear day, from over a hundred miles away. The summer Karen and I spent in Anchorage, Alaska, we could see it from the porch of the home in which we were staying.

The weather around this mountain, otherwise named "Mt. McKinley," is fickle, however. We made a trip to Denali National Park, pitched our tent in the campground there, and boarded the bus for a 60-mile journey closer to this massive piece of rock. The day was crystal clear as we began, promising to offer spectacular sights. And it was a great day, full of all sorts of wild animal sightings, including a huge grizzly bear which calmly marched around our stopped bus. The weather, though, began to shift. By the time we reached the best vantage point for beholding Mt. McKinley, this great mountain was shrouded in clouds. On the way back, a torrential rainfall began. Our bus was the last one out before a mudslide closed the road behind us.

Now, Iím sure the prophet Isaiah didnít have in mind Mt. McKinley when he painted that marvelous portrait of words we just heard, that vision of a great banquet which God would one day prepare for all people "on this mountain." He probably had in mind a different peak, one we might not think of as a "mountain." Upon this rock had been built Godís Temple in Jerusalem. From a distance, it was spectacular, this marvelous feat of human engineering created for the worship of God.

Of course, as Isaiah and the other prophets revealed, the weather surrounding Mt. Zion was highly unpredictable. In fact, clouds shrouded the place most of the time. Oh, I not talking literally, you know. Iím speaking of the "stuff" that gets in the way of really seeing something for what it truly is. Like when jealousy prevents us from seeing another person as a precious child of God; or when greed warps our view of what we possess, making us think we never have enough; or how pride keeps us from seeing a path through conflict; or how lust blinds us to real beauty. When you canít see whatís really real, when Godís mountain is shrouded in the fog of sin, your own sin or the sin others, you wander aimlessly in the dark valley below.

This past week has involved much "valley wandering in the fog" time, hasnít it. In more ways than one, really. Yes, in the Christian calendar, Holy week - the days from Palm Sunday to Easter - is an intentional period of journeying through the valley of the shadow of death. Maundy Thursday recalls an upper room, but it also remembers an arrest, and the beginnings of a trial.

Good Friday lifts up the story of the crucifixion, the death of Jesus upon the cross - which always begs the question, "why is it called Ďgoodí Friday?" a title peculiar to the English-speaking part of the church. In German, for instance, that day is known as "Mourning (as in grieving) Friday."

There is a cloud that surrounds this past week in the traditional celebration of it, a fog dispersed by the winds of Easter Sunday. But, before heading to this height, letís also remember the other clouds which have hung over these last few days. Wasnít Wednesday the anniversary of the Oklahoma City Bombing? Wasnít it a year ago Thursday that two young men made the halls of Columbine high school a killing ground? In the background there are also anniversaries of what happened in Waco, Texas, as well the 25-year benchmark since the end of the Vietnam war, events that still divide our nation. We donít have to travel back 2,000 years to get in touch with the shroud of death. It prevents many a view of whatís really real, even today.

However, thatís not the whole story, is it? Isaiah saw the mountain. Whether it was Denali, or Mt. Zion, or that mountain called the human heart, does not really matter. On this mountain Isaiah saw a rich feast given by God for all people. No more hunger! On this mountain, Isaiah saw the clouds blown away, the shroud, the burial sheet that covers the nations, pulled aside. No more death! On this mountain, Isaiah saw the very hand of God move to wipe away the tears from every face. No more disgrace!

Do we see this mountain, as well? Our forbearers in the faith turned to Isaiahís vision to help describe what they saw in relation to the events of Easter. Of course, that Hebrew prophet of old was not necessarily thinking of a Messiah with his revelation on the mountain. He was dealing with the struggles of his own time, with the pending destruction of Jerusalem, the tearing down of the Temple and the city of Jerusalem, as well as the deportation of the best and the brightest to Babylon. His was a vision of apocalypse. And yet, on that mountain he saw something new happening, amid the breakdown of Israelite society - a promise of God for the future. No more hunger. No more death. No more disgrace. The day will come. The day will come.

Our spiritual ancestors pulled on the thread Isaiah used to create his tapestry, and with it wove a new picture of a day that has already come. In this inspired vision, the mountain is viewed from various perspectives. From one angle there is an upper room, where a feast is spread, the main course of which is the lamb of God. The hungry are fed the bread of life. The thirsty drink from a cup that never runs dry. This is Godís mountain.

From another vantage point, there is a mound of garbage - a town dump outside the walls of Jerusalem - where a scaffold is erected. Nailed to a crosspiece is this lamb of God, our Messiah Jesus. His death is itself a mountaintop, strange as that may sound. You and I would think of it more in the category of "valley of the shadow of death" experiences, which it indeed was. However, it was upon this mountain that we see Isaiahís vision being fulfilled. "(God) will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples, the burial sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever." (Isaiah 25:7) This is Godís mountain!

And then there is a third angle of the very same peak - the third day vision. When the various persons who knew and loved Jesus came to the mountain of his tomb, to prepare his body for death, or to check out rumors of his disappearance, with tears of grief or fears of reprisals, Isaiahís words became real. "The Lord GOD will wipe away the tears from all faces, and the disgrace of his people he will take away from all the earth, for the LORD has spoken." (Isaiah 25:8) This is Godís mountain!

Easter is the mountaintop of our faith! Iím not just speaking in the past tense, though. Itís very easy to view this mountain of a story as a delightful piece of entertainment, to see it as just another program on the history channel, or as a nice work of fiction that, once finished, is put back up on the shelf along with all our other novels. Unfortunately, thatís often what we do with Easter. Imagine, however, if those who went before us in the faith had done the same with Isaiahís vision. "What a marvelous picture that Hebrew prophet painted with words! But that was yesterday and this is today."

No, guided by Godís Holy Spirit, they took Isaiahís vision and ran with it. They saw Easter as the fulfillment of those words. "This is the mountaintop from which we can view past, present, and future," they cry out to us even today. "Donít just be satisfied with hearing it. Do as we have done in Christ. Appropriate it for your own day. Believe it in such a way that you, yourself, live it."

This is not just their mountaintop. Easter is OUR mountaintop, as the Lord of hosts spreads a feast for all peoples here and now, as he destroys the shroud of death covering all nations even now, and he wipes away every tear. No more hunger! No more death! No more disgrace!

Indeed, hunger (physical and spiritual) continues to plague our world. Death still cuts short our walk, especially difficult to handle when it comes before it is expected. Disgrace still spreads over the landscape, our fears and tears watering the land. But that is not the final word! Like a volcano erupting out of the earth, Godís mountain is rising. Jesus died! He has risen! Christ will come again! The past and future meet here and now as we take these words and live out of them. This is your mountaintop. Live every day of your life with this mountain in view, even the dark, valley days. The shroud no longer covers it. No cloud can obscure it. Keep the peak in sight!

Yes, our lives are not lived on the mountaintop. We have our ups and downs. All too quickly we will need to step away from Easter, perhaps even right after we sing our last rousing chorus of "Christ the Lord is risen today. Alleluia." Let me share a story to help with the process of living out of this mountain of good news. Last year in Chicago I attended a seminar led by Parker Palmer, a delightful Quaker spiritual director. He tells about his first experience in rappelling down the side of a rock, a tale youíll find repeated on the back of an upcoming bulletin. *

"His instructor, a master teacher, guided him. ĎParker, you must back up to the edge, tighten the rope, lean back, and walk down.í His first two attempts were failures, as he slid down the face of the rock to the nearest outcropping where he landed in a heap. Each time, the instructor called down to him, ĎParker, you donít quite have the hang of it. You have got to lean out before you step off!í

"These failed attempts resulted from Parkerís thinking that his instructor could not possibly mean he should lean that far. The risk of such a move was more than he could imagine. His third attempt, though, actually worked! He discovered a new center of balance he did not know existed, and he was able to move down the rock."

My friends, as you leave this place, seeking to live out of the Easter story that we have told yet more time; as you come down the mountain, remember to lean. The rope is attached firmly at the top. Trust that God is true to his promise - no more hunger, no more death, no more disgrace. "It will be said on that day, Lo, this is our God; we have waited for him, so that he might save us. This is the LORD for whom we have waited; let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation. For the hand of the LORD will rest on this mountain." (Isaiah 25:9-10a)

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*shared by Ron and Harriet Finney on the Church of the Brethren Living Word Bulletin for May 21, 2000.

©2000Peter L. Haynes

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