A VIEW FROM A MOUNTAIN
Easter 6, Year C
From this morning’s second lesson, from the Book of Revelation:
And in the spirit he carried me away to a great, high mountain
and showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God.
I hardly ever preach sermons out of the Book of Revelation. It’s a weird book, full of psychedelic visions of bizarre animals, strange symbols and numbers. Revelation has been used, misused, and abused by cranks and end-times preachers, politicians, and all kinds of people, for hundreds of years, but particularly in the last half century, who have made a whole bunch of money selling the idea, in print, in the radio, TV and film, and now on the vast sea of internet crazy, that the Book of Revelation is actually talking about events and people in the here and now. Revelation, in this view, is a code describing the end of time, and if you just send a little love offering of $10.99, they will help you crack the code. And, of course, for an additional love offering, they’ll send you a get ready for end times kit, and sign you up for the daily apocalypse e-mail newsletter.
Do I drip too much sarcasm here? Please forgive me. Suffice to say, over my half century of bible study I have wasted inordinate amounts of time and spiritual energy on that kind of malarkey. So, when Revelation shows up in our lectionary I usually just skate right by without looking or listening.
But this week, something — the Spirit maybe?– made me stop and linger. During the Wednesday morning Bible study, as we pondered this striking visionary passage from Revelations, I had a moment of recognition. I realized, I knew what John, the visionary, was looking at. I have seen what he saw. Because I have stood on that high mountain. And I have looked at the very spot that inspired his vision.
The place John and I both stood is the top of the Mount of Olives. Every picture you have ever seen of the city of Jerusalem was taken from that spot. Every pilgrim who has ever made a journey to the Holy Land has stood at that spot. It is directly east of the ancient city. And one of the most powerful things a pilgrim can do is get up early enough to stand on that spot as the sun rises. When you stand at the top of the Mount of Olives and face Jerusalem, the sun rises directly behind you. Today, the first thing it touches with blinding brilliance is the gold-leafed Dome of the Rock. But in the days of the Bible, those first sun rays would have danced upon the gold leaf and bronze trim and the creamy limestone facing of the great Temple. Even today, surrounded by the outrageous, hurly-burly urban sprawl of modern Jerusalem, the busses and cranes and high-rises and hotels, the panoramic view of old Jerusalem from the Mount of Olives is breath-taking, awe-inspiring, and intensely sacred. This beautiful spot and vista is the inspiration for the vision we hear in today’s passage.
But on Wednesday I also suddenly remembered other biblical texts that use almost precisely this same language. Numerous times in the Bible, a person is taken to the top of a mountain and offered a view, a view of what God is up to. I did a little research and found that a mountain figures in nearly 300 bible verses. A quick inventory would include: Abraham summoned to a mountain to sacrifice his son; Moses summoned to a mountain first to receive the Law, then at the end of his life to see the promised land in the distance; Elijah taken to a mountain where he hears the “still small voice” of God. Throughout the Old Testament, mountains are places of fraught encounter with God.
And a remarkable number of these mountain stories happen at that specific spot, the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem. When Jesus is tempted by the devil, the devil takes him from the Temple to a high mountain, where he shows him all the nations of the world – everything west of Jerusalem. Later, Jesus gazes down upon Jerusalem and laments how the city “stones the prophets and those sent to you” and longs to gather it into his embrace as a mother hen gathers her brood. And, of course, it is from the foot of this mountain that Jesus will be arrested and hauled off for execution, and weeks later it is from this same spot that he will ascend into heaven as his disciples gape in awe. It’s a pretty amazing little spot with a lot of important stories.
John our visionary, though, seems to have one specific bible story in view when he tells of his vision. John’s vision is almost a mirror image of another that we find in the book of the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel was a priest who survived the destruction in 587 B.C. of Jerusalem and the Temple at the hands of the Babylonian army. He was carried off into exile in Babylon. There, Ezekiel lived among the community of other exiles as they wallowed in despair and depression. They were little better than slaves, a defeated humiliated people. They were torn from their homes and had no hope of return.
Ezekiel also despairs. But then, he is granted a vision. He is carried to the Mount of Olives, where he looks across the valley at a totally devastated Jerusalem, everything in ruins, flattened and burned by the Babylonian army. But in his vision he also sees an angelic figure who tells him to “watch closely, listen carefully, and pay attention to everything I show you…declare everything you see to the house of Israel.” And this angelic being begins to show Ezekiel a new Temple and a new Jerusalem. He tells Ezekiel the precise measurements of every part of this Temple. The vision goes on for nine chapters in the book of Ezekiel. It is an architectural and liturgical blueprint that Ezekiel is to remember and write down in anticipation of that day in the future when God will rescue the exiles, when they will return home and rebuild their city and temple.
About 600 years later, John had his vision. Like Ezekiel, he stands upon the Mount of Olives and gazes at a flattened, devastated, burned out husk of a Temple and city. This time, the Roman army has done it. But where Ezekiel envisioned a rebuilding of the old Temple of Solomon, John sees something entirely new. He sees a new heaven, and a new earth. He sees a new Jerusalem, come down from heaven. The old has passed away. And where once there was a grand stone temple dressed in gold to catch the rays of the morning sun, now John sees the very presence of God, radiating light brighter than any sun, light that makes the sun obsolete and irrelevant. And where once the Temple mediated the presence of God, now God and the Lamb of God reside, dwelling among humanity. A temple is no longer needed. And where gates once were shut in fear, now the city’s gates will never be shut, day and night they will always be open. And all the people of the world will be welcome to gather there.
And thus ends the Holy Bible. The last chapter of the last book of the Bible ends on this note of visionary hope. Remembering Ezekiel’s vision at another time of destruction and despair, John fills our imaginations with a vision of God dwelling in our midst. John sees a heavenly Jerusalem, of which the earthly Jerusalem in all its glory was and is but a poor rendering.
And that is what the book of Revelation really means to tell us. It is not meant to be a countdown clock or a secret code to an apocalyptic end of the world. It is meant to reassure us: to reassure us that, even though things are falling apart all around us, though life is sometimes drab and scary and dangerous and unfair, nevertheless the dwelling place of God is among human beings.
Jesus in today’s Gospel echoes that hope when he tells his disciples in the hours before his death, tells us today: “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you…Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid. I am going away, and I am coming to you.”
We are summoned this morning to that high mountain just as Ezekiel and John were. We are invited to see the vision God sets before us, the promise of God’s presence. Whatever might happen to us in this earthly life, we are all citizens of that eternal heavenly Jerusalem. And in that Jerusalem, as John heard and wrote,
The Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.