Column for June, 2017
In early May, many of you know that I had to go to a meeting in Denver, Colorado, for a committee I am on for our General Assembly. I decided to take a couple of days after my meeting to go to a small town high in the Colorado Rockies called Gunnison. My family moved to Gunnison when I was six, and we moved from there to California when I was ten. I had not really spent any time there since about 1983 when we moved away, so it was a trip through some old memories I didn’t even know I had. But it was also a chance to see a landscape which is very, very different than what we have around here in coastal Georgia.
There are a lot of really big mountains in Colorado. Looking at the map before I went, I saw the mountain ranges with peak after peak after peak stretching high into the atmosphere. There is really only one direct way to get to Gunnison from the east, and that is by crossing the Continental Divide on Highway 50 over Monarch Pass, which tops out at 11,312 feet above sea level. The town itself is in a valley with an elevation of about 7,700 feet, and within a 45-minute drive, you can get to vistas of mountains which top 14,000 feet.
Like many people of their time and place, the ancient Hebrews believed that the mountains are pillars which hold the sky in place. The mountains are strong and sturdy, giving structure to our world. When God gets angry, the pillars shake, and the whole of creation threatens to collapse (see Job 26:11). The Hebrews’ neighbors believed that some of their gods lived in the highest of the mountains, which served as natural palaces. But the Hebrews, as God’s own people, had no reason to see the mountains that way. God’s presence was not restricted to any particular place, but filled God’s whole creation at all times, and so they were called to worship everywhere. When the Psalmist says in Psalm 121, “I lift up my eyes to the hills; from where will my help come?” he is mimicking those neighbors, who would expect their gods to come down from the mountains in order to help them. The Psalmist answers his own question: “My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth!” He does not expect his help to come from the mountains, but from the One who created the world and everything in it, including the mountains.
When we look at the mountains, we see that God is in charge. Everything is under God’s control, even the mountains themselves. God uses the mountains to protect us; the sky will stay in place because God put the mountains in place to hold it up, and even when God gets angry and the mountains quake, they never fall, and we are safe. Because they are under God’s control, the mountains reverberate with the glory of God, showing God’s people that even in our toughest times, God leads us, protects us, loves us, and welcomes us home.
In the time of the prophet Isaiah, God’s people were far from home, exiled into Babylon after their own cities and homes were destroyed or seized from them. But the prophet still spoke to them on behalf of God. He said that things are rough now, but in the future, “You shall go out in joy and be led back in peace; the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song, and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.” The mountains are not too big, too sturdy, or too strong that they are unable to sing praises to the God who made them, echoing with their own chorus and the applause of the trees as the people take the road back home.
And so on my quick journey, I found myself praising God “in the heights,” as the Psalmist encourages: “Mountains and all hills…praise the name of the Lord, for his name alone is exalted; his glory is above earth and heaven!” (Psalm 148:1, 9, 13)