Conrad Gempf: 5th Sparrow

July 2001
Divine summitry
Previous 5th Sparrows

Comment on this column IN DESCRIBING particularly intense and spiritual experiences, it's fairly common to use the phrase "mountaintop experience". Until I started writing this, I hadn't appreciated how difficult it is to define what we mean by that analogy without using other images that are also related to mountains.

Words like lofty, peak, high point, pinnacle and so on keep coming into it. And from earliest times, God's presence and mountaintops were intricately connected. It is no mistake that Moses in Exodus climbs a huge mountain to meet with God; no mistake that in 1 Kings Elijah has an encounter with God in the mountains.

Even in New Testament times, Matthew would see it as more than merely fitting that we know his first great sermon of Jesus as "the Sermon on the Mount".

It comes up because I recently had someone describe to me the intensity of their spiritual experience of real mountain climbing. It was a time of intense prayer. The prayers were "Please, Lord, get me out of this trip... please Lord, let this be over quickly." And going down was, if anything, worse than going up. He hated every minute of it; it was hard, unrewarding and dangerous work.

IT NEVER occurred to me before to wonder about Moses or Elijah and the other guys – I think of them at the base of the mountain and I think of them at the business end, but I had never wondered how they felt along the way.

Now I know that Sinai is not a particularly difficult bit of climbing, but the paths are probably a lot better now (if we've got the right mountain) and Moses' footgear would be reckoned as somewhat deficient by today's standards. It might also have seemed hard, unrewarding and dangerous work – especially the trip back down. I wonder if they hated every minute of it.

The surprise through both testaments is not that mountains are religiously significant and spiritually powerful. That concept would be present in most, if not all, of the surrounding cultures and competing religions. The surprise rather is how Judaism and Christianity moved away from the mountains... or rather, how willingly God did.

The tabernacle, the temple, the incarnation. Although the Jerusalem temple was built on a high place of sorts, the point, as with the tabernacle, was that God was there with them, where they lived, not off and away on a mountaintop. In the Jewish and Christian story, it's God as much or more than humanity who does the commuting.

The incarnation must have seemed a hard, unrewarding and dangerous climb down.

Dr Conrad Gempf is a lecturer in New Testament at London Bible College. He also writes for and edits the monthly webzine there.

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