Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. (Luke 6:12)
Good morning! This Sunday is week four of our Summer Road Trip sermon series, where our congregation is traveling virtually through 8 of America’s National Parks together. Three weeks ago we began our Summer Road Trip with Yellowstone National Park and talked about how God works through us so that the worst thing is never the last thing—there is always hope to be found even in the worst of times. Two weeks ago, we went on to Olympic National Park and were reminded that God has created a richly diverse world and it is up to us to protect and value that diversity.
Last week, we went to Carlsbad Cavern National Park, right here in New Mexico, and we talked about the gifts that can be found in the darkness. If you have missed a week and want to catch up, you can always find a video of the sermon on our Facebook page or read a text version of it on our website.
The inspiration for this sermon series is the book America’s Holy Ground: 61Faithful Reflections on our National Parks by Brad Lyons and Bruce Barkhauer. I love their devotional based on this week’s park, Grand Teton National Park. In it, they describe the Tetons this way:
“You will never see mountains rise so abruptly, so unbelievably, so imposingly, as the Grand Tetons, the 40-mile-long range reaching for the Wyoming heavens. One of the world’s youngest ranges, no foothills build up to these mountains. You see only the mountains stretching more than seven thousand feet above Jackson Hole. Once you see the Grand Tetons, you can’t take your eyes off of them.
As a child, when you drew peaked mountains, you were probably imagining the Grand Tetons. Perfect, snow-capped pyramids, just a single row, with valleys between the peaks and the tree-lined alpine lakes at the foot of the range. You’ll be amazed to see your drawings come to life.”
They go on to explain that the Grand Tetons were created by the collision of two tectonic plates that were covered in sandstone. The eastern plate pushed beneath the western plate, raising it up. Through the passing of the years, glaciers chiseled the rock and created the mountains that we see today.
Grand Teton National Park is one of the most visited of America’s National Parks, with over 3 million people journeying there each year. When I began telling people that I was going to be preaching about the Tetons this week, the responses were so great! One person said that Grand Teton is the most incredible place he has ever visited. Another said that if she could only visit one National Park for the rest of her life, she would choose Grand Teton. I was reminded that one of my best friend’s even named her lab puppy Teton because of her family’s love of those snow-capped mountains.
Since most of us live here in Las Cruces, I don’t have to work too hard to convince you that there is just something undeniably special about mountains. Kelsee and I haven’t had a lot of opportunities to explore the area yet because of the pandemic, so our only real adventures out of our house have been to have a picnic with a scenic view of the mountain landscapes that surrounds us or to travel up the Organ Mountains to Dripping Springs so we could breathe that mountain air. Our friends and family are all envious of the photos we send them- they can’t wait for this pandemic to be over so they can come and experience the beauty of the mountains for themselves!
This awe of the mountains is not unique to us, however. Poets, writers, and artists have all been fascinated by the expansive beauty of hills and mountains. They have inspired beautiful works of art and pieces of writing, like this quote from Victoria Erickson, “Although I deeply love oceans, deserts and other wild landscapes, it is only mountains that beckon me with that sort of painful magnetic pull to walk deeper and deeper into their beauty. They keep me continuously wanting to know more, feel more, see more.”
That is a more contemporary example, but humanity’s fascination with mountains dates back as far as people do. They are sacred places in many of our world religions. The Indigenous peoples here in America hold many of our mountains and hills as sacred places—places still talked about through oral histories and honored through traditions. Mount Olympus was the most sacred place for the Ancient Greeks because according to their mythology it was where Zeus lived.
In the Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, and Shinto religions several mountains throughout Asia hold sacred significance. They are the focus of pilgrimages and some even are thought to be doorways to other worlds. The Abrahamic religions—Islam, Judaism, and Christianity—each teach of mountains where our religious ancestors found God, wrestled with God, or had life-changing sacred experiences.
In fact, mountains are mentioned over 500 times in the Bible! When Noah’s ark landed on dry ground, it was on Mount Ararat. Mount Moriah was where Abraham was told to take his son Isaac and offer him as a sacrifice to God, and where God blessed him and spared Isaac’s life. Moses was given the Ten Commandments at the top of Mount Sinai, and it was from the top of a mountain that Moses saw the Promised Land. The site where Elijah proved that Yahweh was the one true God is said to have happened on Mount Carmel. And that’s just a few examples from the Old Testament!
In the New Testament, we are reminded over and over that mountains are sacred places, because Jesus’ ministry is linked to mountains! In our scripture for this morning, Jesus goes into the mountains to pray. This is just one verse within a larger story—but I picked it because it’s one example of the many times the Bible says Jesus went into the Mountains to re-center himself spiritually. When Jesus sought solitude to pray in, he went into the mountains. The story of his temptation took place in the mountains. When he wanted to be seen and heard by a large crowd he preached from a mountain. The transfiguration, where Jesus was revealed to be the Son of God to Peter, James, and John took place at the top of a mountain, he was arrested on a mountain, and his final ascension into Heaven happened at the top of a mountain.
For our spiritual ancestors, climbing a mountain was the closest that they could get to the sky. The top of a mountain was the place where they felt closest to God—so it makes sense that so many stories of humanity’s encounters with God take place on mountains. It’s because of this that we use the term Mountaintop Experience to describe a profound spiritual experience in our life.
Author and Priest Henry Nouwen once wrote in a sermon about Mountaintop Experiences that:
“At some moments we experience complete unity within us and around us. This may happen when we stand on a mountaintop and are captivated by the view. It may happen when we witness the birth of a child or the death of a friend. It may happen when we have an intimate conversation or a family meal. It may happen in church during a service or in a quiet room during prayer. But whenever and however it happens we say to ourselves: “This is it … everything fits … all I ever hoped for is here… These moments are given to us so that we can remember them when God seems far away and everything appears empty and useless. These experiences are true moments of grace.”
These Mountaintop Experiences are essential to our spiritual life. Being on the mountain with God changed the lives of so many of our Spiritual Ancestors in the Bible and it can be life-changing for us as well.
Life is an uphill journey, and we do not get to the top of the mountain very often. Most of our time is spent in the valleys, or cliffs, or maybe even pits of life. So, it is important that when we do have a Mountaintop Experience, we hold onto it and use it to continue to propel us forward.
Remembering the moments where we most felt the presence of God gives us something to hold onto when times get hard. When I am in what Brene Brown calls a shame spiral or I am doubting myself or maybe even my faith, I remember feeling the presence of God in the Chapel of the Holy Cross in Sedona, AZ. I remember watching the sunset on the shore of Madeira Beach in Florida and thinking that only God could have painted the sky that beautifully. I remember the feeling of peace and love in the laughter of my best friends.
Mountaintop Experiences can’t happen all the time, or they wouldn’t be special. We live and grow in the valley. Over the last few months, many of us are feeling stuck further down than usual…maybe in a ditch or a pit at the bottom of the valley. So, I invite you to find comfort in some of the moments where you have experienced God in a profound way. Was it literally at the top of a mountain, looking down at the city below? Was it when you held your child for the first time? Was it standing among other activists at a rally or march when you were fighting for justice?
As you remember your mountaintop experiences this morning, I hope you can hold onto them and let them help you keep moving forward today. If you can’t think of anything off the top of your head, that’s okay too…there are plenty of stories in our scriptures that can help us feel closer to God when we are too overwhelmed to find comfort in our own experiences. If that is you this morning, I offer you these words from the writer of Psalms, and I hope that they bring you peace:
I lift up my eyes to the hills—
from where will my help come?
2 My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth.
3 He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
4 He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.
5 The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
6 The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.
7 The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
8 The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and forevermore.