King of the Mountain
Dr. Philip W. McLarty
As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, today marks the beginning of a new Christian year. Starting today we have the privilege of telling the story of salvation in Jesus Christ all over again – from the prophecy foretelling the coming of the Messiah, to Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem, to his life and ministry in Galilee, to his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, to his passion and death on the hill of Golgatha, to his resurrection from the dead, to the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, to the spread of the gospel to the ends of the earth, and finally, to the enthronement, where Jesus is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty as King of kings and Lord of lords.
This should come as no surprise. Mountains play a big part in Biblical history. Noah’s Ark came to rest on Mt. Ararat (Gen. 8:4). God gave Moses the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai (Exod. 19-20). Abraham offered his son, Isaac, as a sacrifice to God on Mt. Moriah (Gen. 22). Elijah confounded the priests of Baal on Mt. Carmel (1 Kings 18). The list goes on. In the New Testament Jesus often went up to the mountain to pray. The transfiguration occurred on Mt. Hermon (Mt. 17), and it was on Mt. Calvary that he died.
Robert Glendinning writes: “(In ancient civilizations) primitive people often viewed mountains as the abiding places of the gods.” This is why, in the Bible, mountains are associated with places of worship. They speak of the awe and majesty of God.
Even today we hold a special reverence for the mountains. When I lived out in West Texas, I used go to up to Fort Davis just to walk around in the Davis Mountains and breathe the fresh mountain air. Tracy and I love to go to Ruidoso, New Mexico every chance we get.
Through the years, people of faith have seen a connection between the majesty of the mountains and the sovereignty of God. Little wonder the people of Israel built their holy temple high atop Mt. Zion.
But they weren’t the only ones to have holy mountains, and this is where the problem begins. The Samaritans, for example, worshiped on Mount Gerazim. This is what the woman at the well was getting at when she told Jesus,
“Our fathers worshiped in this mountain, and you Jews say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.” (John 4:20)
In the Old Testament, even the worshipers of Baal erected shrines on top of the mountains of Judea. This is the background for Psalm 121, where it says,
“I will lift up my eyes to the hills. Where does my help come from? My help comes from Yahweh, who made heaven and earth.” (Psalms 121:1-2)
With all these holy mountains came the inevitable conflict over whose mountain represented the true dwelling place of God. Of course, that was a long time ago. The question is, has anything changed?
Today Muslims make pilgrimage to Mecca; the Jews, to Jerusalem; the Hindus, to the Ganges River. The Catholics have the Vatican; the Mormons, Salt Lake City; and the Methodists and the Baptists compete over Nashville, Tennessee! Where can we find signs of convergence upon the mountain of the house of the Lord?
The National Council of Churches in this country and the World Council of Churches internationally are our most visible attempts of “ecumenism” (Christian unity), but they get mixed reviews, and they’re poorly supported by the rank and file members of the participating churches.
In 1965, the major denominations of the Christian faith formed an ecumenical group called “COCU” – an acronym for the Consultation on Church Union. The goal was to explore matters of faith on which we all agree. That was some forty years ago, and we’re still looking!
So, what do you think? Will there ever come a day when all the various denominations of the Christian faith (much less, the other religions of the world) come together in common communion with God and each other?
Why not? What stands in the way? I suspect that one of the biggest hurdles to overcome if we’re ever going to agree on anything of substance is our own pride. The first church I ever served was in a small, rural town in North Texas. We had three churches: Baptist, Methodist and Presbyterian. They all struggled to make ends meet. One day a member of my church came up with a bright idea. (In case you didn’t know this, I was Methodist at the time.) “Why don’t we combine the three churches into one church?” he asked. “We all know each other. We’re neighbors. We work together on civic projects. Our kids all go to the same school. Why don’t we worship together as one big happy family? We’re all Christian, aren’t we?” “That’s a great idea,” I said. “Just out of curiosity, what would you propose to call this new church?” He smiled and said, “Why, Methodist, of course!”
What separates us from each other, doctrinal differences or competing egos? What are the really important matters of faith? Does God care, for example, whether we say “debts” or “trespasses” in the Lord’s Prayer; whether we baptize by sprinkling or immersion; whether we use the right liturgical colors?
God doesn’t care, but we care, and that’s the point.
|A SERMONWRITER SUBSCRIBER SAYS: “Keep it up! Your work is much appreciated. I often end up with something quite different––but just knowing that there is a fall‑back is a great comfort every time!”
When I was growing up, one of our favorite games was called, “King of the Mountain.” One of the neighbors would have a dump truck load of dirt delivered and, before it got spread, we’d play on it, digging tunnels and building bridges and driving our toy cars and trucks over it. Then someone would stand on the top of the mound of dirt and announce that he was “king of the mountain.” It was an open invitation for the rest of us to try to throw him off. When the king of the mountain was toppled from his summit, another would take his place, and another, until finally we were too tired to struggle any longer.
Well, sometimes I think church folks spend more time playing “king of the mountain” than following in the footsteps of Jesus Christ.
And this is the point Isaiah makes perfectly clear: The kingdom of God will come upon the earth when all the various peoples of the world – including us – are willing to give up their desire to be Number One and surrender their wills to God’s good and perfect will for all humankind. He says,
“For out of Zion the law shall go forth… He will judge between the nations… and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” (Isaiah 2:4).
Only as we pledge our allegiance to God over all else will we ever be able to convert our implements of war into instruments of peace and be reconciled to each other.
So, how is that possible? Doesn’t it still depend on who’s king of the mountain?
This is where the gospel lesson comes in, for Jesus told the woman at the well:
“Woman, believe me, the hour comes, when neither in this mountain, nor in Jerusalem, will you worship the Father…But the hour comes, and now is, when the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such to be his worshippers. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:21-24)
The upshot of it all is this: It’s not our mountain or their mountain, whoever they might be – it’s God’s mountain, and God has revealed the nature of his mountain in his son Jesus Christ. In him we see that God’s mountain is a mountain characterized not by power and might, but by humility and self-surrender. Paul said it best,
“…who, existing in the form of God, didn’t consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, yes, the death of the cross.” (Phil. 2:6-8)
Jesus’ life was a portrait of self-surrender, and this is what he taught his disciples:
“If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever will lose his life for my sake, the same will save it.” (Luke 9:23-24)
It’s a paradox; yet, it’s true: The more we’re willing to give up our egotistical nature and lose ourselves in serving others, the more God is able to use us as instruments of his peace and love.
Here’s another way of looking at it: In western culture our symbol for strength is the rock. “He’s strong as a rock,” we say. TV ads tell us that “Chevy trucks are built like a rock.” Prudential Insurance is as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar. Sports fans chant, “We will, we will rock you!” Our symbol for strength is the rock.
But in eastern culture, the symbol for strength is water. And at first, this seems odd. Water is placid and yielding and adaptive. It follows the path of least resistance. It seeks the lowest common level. At first blush water is anything but a symbol of strength. But then, look at its effects: Over time, water can carve out a vast canyon, erode a hillside and crack open a boulder of solid granite.
So, which is stronger, rock or water? It’s pretty obvious. In the same manner, which is more Christ-like, one who is determined to have his own way or one who’s willing tosing God’s praise in whatever language the people understand?
Isaiah promised that, when the Messiah comes, the mountain of the house of the Lord will be established as the highest of the mountains. As Christians, we believe the Messiah has come in the person of Jesus Christ. In him, we see a new way of living, a way in which we’re able to exert influence and power not by dominating others, but by serving them in his name. And so, we sing this hymn with Christians far and wide,
“Christ brings God’s rule, O Zion; he comes from heaven above. His rule is peace and freedom, and justice, truth and love. Lift high your praise resounding, for grace and joy abounding. O blest is Christ that came in God’s most holy name.” (Presbyterian Hymnal, p. 13)
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
Copyright 2004, Philip W. McLarty. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible.