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The Mountain Top
Rev, Dr. David J. Fekete
March 6, 2011
Exodus 24:12-18 Matthew 17:1-9 Psalm 2
I can think of three story elements from our Bible readings for this morning. They are all interrelated with one another. First, there is the mountain. Moses ascends Mount Sinai, and Jesus ascends a high mountain whose name we are not told. Then there is the presence of God on the mountain top. In Exodus, the glory of the Lord settles on the mountain and appears like a consuming fire. In Matthew, the glory of God shines through Jesus Himself as His face beams as bright as the sun and His clothes become as white as light. Furthermore, the same bright cloud of God’s glory that settled on Mount Sinai settles on the mountain where Jesus, Peter, James, and John are. We hear God’s voice saying that Jesus is His beloved Son with whom He is well pleased. The third story element is God’s laws and commands. God calls to Moses to come up onto the mountain top in order to receive God’s law and commands. In Matthew, Moses and Elijah appear on either side of Jesus, as representatives of the law and the prophets. They appear because Jesus is the human embodiment of the law of God, or in other words, the Word made flesh. Swedenborg tells us that Jesus Christ is Divine truth of the Word in human form.
It’s no accident that these story elements all surround a mountain. God’s glory appears to Moses and Jesus on the mountain top. Why would Moses and Jesus need to go up to a mountain top in order to experience this revelation of God? We don’t need Swedenborg’s system of correspondences in order to understand the meaning of mountains for the Biblical writers. Mountains are high places. Some of the very names for God involve mountains, or high places. In Genesis, God is often called El Shaddai which means, “The Mountain One.” Another name for God in Genesis is El Elyon, which means “God Most High.” And El Elyon was worshipped on none other than the mountain on which Jerusalem was built.
It’s not as if God lives on mountains. God is actually present everywhere. It would be too literal a reading of these stories to think of God as actually living on mountains. Rather, it is the symbolism of mountain tops that gives the power of these stories. We talk of God as being above. We pray for God to send us help from on high. As high places, above the ordinary places in the world, mountains were associated by the ancients as holy places and the dwelling of God. So when God appeared to the Biblical writers, He appears on mountain tops. This mountain revelation is a powerful symbol in the Bible. It gives power to our ideas about God when we envision the mountain covered with the glory of God.
In ordinary language we use reference to heights to describe important events in our lives. When we have particularly strong feelings of connection with God we talk about being on a spiritual high. On the natural level, even when we are very happy, we say we are feeling high. There was a psychologist named Abraham Maslow who talked about rare and exceptional human experiences as Peak Experiences. The Wikipedia–thank God for that wonderful research tool–defines just what these peak experiences are. It says,
Peak experiences are described by Maslow as especially joyous and exciting moments in life, involving sudden feelings of intense happiness and well-being, wonder and awe, and possibly also involving an awareness of transcendental unity or knowledge of higher truth (as though perceiving the world from an altered, and often vastly profound and awe-inspiring perspective).
Maslow describes peak experiences in a book entitled, Religions, Values, and Peak Experiences. In its very title, one can see that Maslow is considering the realm of religions when he talks about peak experiences. Notice, too, that these special moments are called peak experiences, drawing language from mountain peaks.
I like Maslow’s term, but it would be best to leave his psychology behind as we proceed to talk about spiritual peak experiences. In our spiritual life, we will find times when it seems that God is particularly close to us. There are times when we feel the presence of God more strongly than at other times. Sometimes these peak experiences happen when we are in special natural environments on earth. I have found these experiences at our various church camps. But it doesn’t have to be limited to these spiritual surroundings. I can recall one special peak experience I had when I was in my late teens. I was just standing on the front lawn of my parents’ house. I looked at the sun, and thought about God as the spiritual sun, and thought about my church friends, and then felt this wonderful closeness of God. I knew in that moment that there was a God. I had felt Him in my heart with as much certainty as if I had touched Him with my hand. Since then I have never doubted the existence of God, although my relationship with God has been a bumpy road.
Our journey of spiritual growth is not an even line of progression. It is not even a straight, uphill pathway. Rather as we grow and mature spiritually, we will have peaks and valleys. We will have experiences of wonderful union with God. and then we will come down from the mountain to the world of ordinary experience. Both Moses and Jesus came down from their mountains. Jesus’ complexion turned back to normal and didn’t shine with the brilliance of the sun. We can treasure our peak experiences of God, but acknowledge that we won’t necessarily stay there. I remember how sad and disappointed I used to be when I would leave Almont, and return to my ordinary life in school and at home. I see this feeling, too, when I work at youth retreats and Paulhaven Camp when the spiritual high that the teens feel together in God’s name must be left behind for life back at home and away from camp. But these peak experiences of the nearness of God still remain with us, although pushed back into the recesses of our unconscious minds. When Moses came down from the mountain, where he met God, he carried with him the tablets of stone on which God’s law was written. Swedenborg might call this part of our personality the inner self. There will be moments when this inner self shines brilliantly through our personality and then moments when it is clouded over with the darkness of life in this world.
There is also the issue of the lawgiver that we can associate with these peak experiences. The Wikipedia says that the peak experiences may also involve “an awareness of transcendental unity or knowledge of higher truth.” The is the lawgiver of our Biblical stories. This is the law and commands that God gave to Moses on Mount Sinai. And this is the appearance of Moses and Elijah in the mountain top experience of Jesus, Peter, James, and John. During a peak experience, our minds may find resolution of a problem, a new truth may intuitively come to us, or we may find how a particular truth we memorized actually works in real life. This relationship with truth may help create the peak experience itself. We may come into that higher feeling of God’s presence by contemplating a Bible passage, or a teaching from a theologian. I once asked the teens at Paulhaven Camp if they thought that the camp would still have that magical feeling if we took away chapel, classes, and confirmation class. They all said, “No, it wouldn’t be the same.” So chapel and religious instruction helped to create that peak experience that they associated with Paulhaven.
I think that in a mountain top experience, God’s presence is intimately connected to truth. We show our love for God by living according to His principles. Jesus says,
If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him (John 14:23).
We see from Jesus’ words that love to God means doing what Jesus teaches. So conjunction with God depends on learning what Jesus teaches and then doing what Jesus teaches. Love of God is not just a feeling. In our society, we think of love as a feeling. But love is actually an ongoing relationship. It means how we are acting in relationship to our beloved. So loving God is actually a relationship in which we are doing Godly things. We can’t do Godly things unless we know what they are. So Swedenborg writes,
Love to the Lord is nothing else than committing to life the precepts of the Word, the sum of which is to flee from evils because they are hellish and devilish, and to do good because it is heavenly and Divine (DLW 237).
Only by the lawgivers Moses and Elijah can we find the glory of God that enveloped the holy mountains in our Bible stories. There is an intimate relationship between God’s laws and God’s presence. We love God when we do what God asks of us. Only by learning God’s law from the Bible and applying what we learn to our lives can we open ourselves to God’s presence. But as we grow spiritually, as we learn truths intuitively or by conscious study, and as we flee evil and do good, more and more we feel God’s presence. We will be transported to the mountain top. We will see the glory of God and bring that glory into our ordinary lives. We can expect to go up and down the mountain as we travel along this pathway in life. By going up the mountain to experience God’s nearness, we will have God in our hearts to shine through our lives when we go down the mountain. Our peak experiences will elevate the plane on which we live in ordinary life. As we progress spiritually, our peak experiences will grow higher, our comprehension of truth will grow more profound, and our lives will become more and more characterized by a love of doing good. Then God will come to us and make His home with us forever.