“Oh Lord I need a mountain to climb on. Just a quiet place to go and know you’re there.” We sang those words at church camp when I was a kid. Camp was the ultimate spiritual mountain top experience. We were convinced that heaven must be a lot like camp. And honestly we may someday come to find out that we were right. My camp experiences were filled with innocent searching and wide-eyed worship. The friendships were true and gospel message was good. My young soul was formed during those special weeks.
Although adult mountain top experiences cannot compare to those of my teenage years, I do still have them. Periods of time, and places, where God is so tangibly present. Where the line between heaven and earth is thin and everywhere I look I see the goodness of God reaching toward my heart. But as I learned on the bus back home after church camp, we don’t live on the mountain top. Mountain top experiences end and soon the worries of normal life become loud and distracting. God doesn’t feel close anymore. We struggle to remember the truths that were so clear, so enveloping, when we were on the mountain.
As kids, we were warned about the dangers that would be waiting for us at the bottom of the mountain — all the sex, drugs and rock and roll that would beckon us into worldly living and tempt us to forget the moments on the mountain. For me the re-entry issues were less glamorous. The cares of the world that drew me away from the mountain top usually involved my mother telling me to go to bed or drink my milk — cares I had been gloriously free of just days earlier. But as adults the return from the mountain is more subtle. The events of one day conspire to make us tired, discouraged or angry. Our heads hit the pillow long after our bodies need sleep and when the morning alarm interrupts us we already feel late. The space for quiet, for reflection and prayer, for worship, vanishes and we’re left hurrying through our days and doing it all on our own. Then one day we notice that we left the mountain top a long time ago and we wonder where God could be.
In the first chapter of Mark we get a picture of Jesus on that spiritual mountain top.
About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”At once the Spirit forced Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among the wild animals, and the angels took care of him. (Mark 1:9-13)
This short paragraph is a snippet of Jesus’s story — one of the earliest stories from his life because we have very little in the Bible about his childhood. While we may imagine a physical scene in which Jesus is baptized in the Jordan River and a dove lands on his shoulder and a voice booms for all to hear, the writer may be describing a spiritual reality that Jesus alone experienced. The text says “Jesus saw” heaven splitting open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. Whether others saw it or not, is not the point. The point is that Jesus saw, with his eyes or with his heart, that heaven was opening and the living God was reaching toward him. And Jesus heard, with either his physical ears or the ears of his soul the voice of God claiming him, calling him beloved and rejoicing in him.
In that moment the line between heaven and earth was thin. The heavens opened and God’s reality was made visible, knowable, tangible. You have had these moments — moments when the temporal and the eternal meet. Maybe you can think of an example right now — a birth or a death of a loved one, or some other event that captured a vision for your life and your priorities became crystal clear. But sometimes there is no big event — just a moment when understanding hits you and know who you are and who God is and what matters on a deep, soul level.
What’s frustrating to us is that these moments end and before we know it we’ve forgotten the power, the clarity, of that moment. The burdens of life — both external and internal — crowd our minds and God feels far once again. If we go back to the Jesus snippet we’ll see in that illustration the exact same dynamic! From the mountain top of his baptism Jesus quickly swings to a wilderness space where he is “tempted by Satan.” How far he moves, so very quickly, from a place so close to God, literally hearing the voice of God in his ear and feeling God’s presence in his body, to a desolate space wrestling with the actual face of evil.
But if you’ll notice, even in this space — a space that feels so far, so alone, so void of spiritual vitality — even in this space God is there. The text says “He was among the wild animals, and the angels took care of him.” We may not know it, we may not feel it or see it but God is there even in the emptiest spaces that seem farthest from the mountain tops. Whatever wild animals you are facing today, God is with you and God is for you. Because the truth that was so visible in that moment of clarity remains. You are eternally loved and your life is the source of eternal joy.