Season of Creation Worship Series, week 2 — MOUNTAIN SUNDAY: Protection and Care
September 9, 2018
Mountains are a key theological concept in the Bible. When you read the Bible with an eye toward mountains, you see that God likes to do business on mountains. Think about it: Mount Ararat is the mountain where Noah and the Ark landed after the flood. This is where Noah saw the rainbow of God’s promise. This is the mountain where the people came off the ark and praised God. It is the mountain where God made a covenant never to destroy the earth again. God provided Abraham a sacrifice instead of his son on a mountain (Moriah). God, as a burning bush, called Moses to free God's people from slavery on a mountain (Horeb). God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses on a mountain (Sinai). God gave Moses a glimpse of the Promised Land on a mountain (Pisgah). It was on a mountain (Carmel) that the great prophet Elijah proved to the people that his God is the one true God. Jesus was led into the wilderness to fast for forty days; then was led up to a mountain (known as the Mount of Temptation), where he demonstrated how to resist temptation. It was on a mountain (possibly Mount Hermon, the highest in the area) that Jesus was transfigured and showed the glory of God to some of his disciples. When Jesus was struggling with the task before him, he went to a mountain (Olives) to pray, "Father if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done" (Luke 22:42). And, in Revelation, The Lamb of God stands on a mountain (Zion) and shows us the ultimate destination for those who are faithful.
It could be said that mountains serve as a bridge or a halfway point between heaven and earth, where God meets and does business with humanity. Those who have driven, hiked, ridden a train, biked, or navigated to the top (or close to) of any mountain and looked out at the majesty of creation from that lofty perch probably felt like they, too, have done business with God.
In the spring of 1999, the youth group I directed went cross-country from east Tennessee to Pueblo Pintado, New Mexico, to work on a Navajo reservation for a week. After the week of work, we drove to the Grand Canyon. On June 1, forty-five youth and adults sat out on the northern rim of the canyon at sunset. Snow was falling, and we could see mule deer climbing the ridge. There was no devotional given, and there was no Scripture read; yet people began tearing up at the majesty they were witnessing. Spontaneously, the group began singing “Oh Lord, Our Lord, how majestic is your name in all of the earth…” God did business with us at that lofty perch that day.
Consider the Texts
Psalm 125 is regarded as a “Song of Ascent.” In the ascent, we see the movement up the mountains in the imagery, drawing us closer to God. We reach Mount Zion, and we are in a place where we are unshakable, where we can endure forever. Parallel this to Revelation with the lamb of God standing on the same Mount Zion showing the ultimate destination for those who are faithful, a place that cannot be shaken and that endures forever. Mount Zion is a place symbolic in Scripture as a place of God’s help (see Psalm 121:1-2 and Psalm 124:8 —both also Songs of Ascent).
A little research on Mount Zion will show that it is not the highest mountain around. To its east lies the Mount of Olives; to the north is Mount Scopus; to the west and south are other hills and mountains all higher than Zion. These mountains rising above Zion in all directions serve as a fortification for Mount Zion. Thus Mount Zion became a symbol of security. These mountains surround Jerusalem and offer security, just as verse two suggests the Lord surrounds his people both now and forevermore.
We know that irresponsible practices of harvesting resources from mountains has created dynamics where the ecosystems that exist on top of mountains have been destroyed, killing everything living on mountains. There are other practices of harvesting resources, in particular coal seams, that literally blow up mountains so coal can be easily harvested by bulldozer and dump truck. The reason this is a popular choice of harvesting coal is that it is not labor intensive, thus making it the most cost feasible method of harvesting coal and other resources; but it is also the most destructive method to the mountain and the people around it. Once the mountains are disrupted by dynamite, the leftovers are either piled back on top to resemble a mountain or are used to fill in the valleys around the mountains. Either way, the disturbed land has its resources brought out so that rain falling through the disturbed land leeches toxins like selenium from it, carrying it into the water supply to be ingested by the residents who live around the mountains. Selenium is a major cause of birth defects in babies. These birth defects are prevalent in children born around mountaintop removal coal sites.
The Proverbs 22 text could be brought in to address the concerns of the poor who live around mountains that have been mined irresponsibly. In The United Methodist Church, we have permanent mission posts in eastern Kentucky around such sites. These are the product of mining companies coming in and taking the resources they want without any concern for what they are leaving behind. They leave behind a place where the land has no value and the people are stuck with no jobs or prospects. Red Bird Mission is a permanent domestic mission outpost and annual conference set up to care for the residents of rural Appalachia.
Some supplemental Scripture to consider: We know faith the size of a mustard seed can move mountains (Matthew 17:20 among others), but Paul reminds us that even if we have faith that can move mountains, if we do not have love, then we have nothing (1 Cor 13:2.) In essence, faith lived out in love is the only thing that should move mountains.
Further, in the prophecy from Isaiah 40 quoted in Luke 3, we hear of a time when mountains will be laid low and valleys lifted up. A modern-day living out of this prophecy could be mountaintop removal coal mining. If we lose these places where God can do business with us, then we become more and more disconnected from God.
Consider a Sermon Direction and Application
In thinking about today’s sermon and direction, consider the majesty of a mountain. Depending on your context, you could be thinking of the Smoky Mountains, Rocky Mountains, or any number of others that depict majesty. The song “America the Beautiful” (United Methodist Hymnal, 696) speaks of “purple mountain majesties.” It is hard to look at such a significant monument of God’s creation and not be inspired. I believe it is impossible to stand atop a mountain and look out and not have an encounter with God. The Scripture is consistent that God does business on mountains. Depending on your context, you may or may not want to take on the social justice and environmental justice issues of mountaintop removal coal mining. Many resources and studies are available that stress the hazards of this practice. All this information may be too much for some congregations to digest. Regardless, there is power in pointing out the strong theological symbol that mountains play in Scripture.
We often refer to our “mountain-top experiences.” Jesus retreated to the mountains to pray and be near God. Though there is no conclusive evidence to prove this, in light of the way mountains are used in Scripture, it would make sense that God did business with sin and death on a mountain when Jesus was crucified. Although the exact location of Golgotha is not known, many believe it is near or on Mount Moriah, where Abraham was told to sacrifice Isaac ; or it may be just north of Mount Zion, the place of the enduring reign of God. Both are relatively close to the area outside the temple gates. Golgotha, we know, was elevated, so it could be visible from a great distance.
The sermon for this Sunday could be evangelistic, concerning how God does business with humans on mountains. It could also be oriented toward social justice and environmental justice, as it reflects on the environmental impact of industrial activity on mountains and on the people who live nearby.
Regardless of the sermon direction, we understand that God likes to do business on mountains; humanity has a rich history of mountain-top experiences with God.
Rev. Ryan Bennett is an elder in The United Methodist Church and Senior pastor of First United Methodist Church in Lebanon, TN. He also works with Blessed Earth and Blessed Earth Southeast helping clergy and lay persons practice Sabbath. Heather Bennett earned her M.S in Sustainability from Lipscomb University in 2014. She started the first chapter of Blessed Earth in 2015. Blessed Earth Southeast inspires and equips Christians to become better stewards of the earth.