Tuesday, September 2, 2008

On the Mountain

I spent Labor Day weekend at a church retreat in the Texas Hill Country; the theme was "mountaintop experiences." No doubt a native of Colorado or Nepal would laugh to hear the hills of central Texas described as "mountains," but they're tough enough climbing for those of us who live on the flat Gulf Coast.

Perhaps because it takes effort to reach the summits, perhaps because they seem to rise above the world's problems, or perhaps simply because they point up toward Heaven, mountains hold deep spiritual significance in almost every religion. In the Christian Gospels, Jesus's Transfiguration took place on a mountain, and His best-known preachings come from what we call the Sermon on the Mount. Numerous Christian works use mountain imagery; Hannah Hurnard's novel Hinds' Feet on High Places and Steven Curtis Chapman's song "The Mountain" are just two examples.

Both those works--indeed, most mountain-climbing stories--mention the descent as well as the heights. For all the beauty and triumph of attaining a mountain summit, every climber eventually must return to the "lower world." Often it's a "comedown" in more ways than one. Moses, for example, spent forty days alone with God on a mountain--then returned to that same God's supposed followers to find them worshiping an idol. No wonder he exploded with anger (Ex. 32:19); sin seems especially dirty after we've received a close view of God's holiness and purity.

Our first instinct, on realizing that our time "on the mountain" is drawing to a close, is often to beg for an extension, to delay our return to the dirtier matters of earth. Peter was thinking in such terms at the Transfiguration, when he said, "Lord, it is good for us to be here. If you wish, I will put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah" (Mt. 17:1-9, NIV). Let's not spoil the experience, Lord. Let's all just stay here. Didn't You just tell us a week ago (Mt. 16:21) that there was suffering and death waiting in Your earthly future? Why would You want to go down and face that?

Jesus went down because His love for helplessly sinful people like Peter--and all the rest of us--was stronger than His love for glory. The same heart that led Him to leave the unimaginable riches of Heaven for the hardships of earth led Him away from the mountaintop and toward the Cross. He did it for us, to break the spiritual shackles that kept us earthbound with no hope for more than temporary joys.

We can never truly be His followers if we let selfishness replace worship--which is exactly what we are doing if we cling to the mountain summits while He is telling us to go work in the valley.

Moses was upon Mount Sinai
Six long weeks through day and night,
All alone in God's great Presence,
Bathed within the glorious Light:
Must he not have wished to linger
In the Father's luminous glow,
Rather than confront the idol
Rising on the plains below?

Jesus taught upon a mountain,
Taught of blessings and God's grace;
As His followers sat and listened
In that wilds-made-holy place,
Must they not have wished to linger
In those moments' radiant glow,
Rather than apply His teachings
In the stress-filled world below?

Peter saw, upon a mountain,
His Lord shine in radiant white,
In the presence of the prophets,
Blazing with a holy Light:
Can we fault his wish to linger
In that perfect, heavenly glow,
Rather than to face the trials
Waiting in the world below?

We all have our "mountain moments,"
When God seems especially near,
When Creation shines with beauty,
When we feel no trace of fear;
But, though we may wish to linger
All our lives within that glow,
If we love Him, we must also
Go to do His work below.

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