Mt. Hermon: The Place of New Beginnings
Chris McCandless was raised in a seemingly happy family from an affluent suburb of Washington, D.C. His father, Walt, was an aerospace engineer who ran a prosperous consulting firm with Chriss mother, Billie. Chris had a sister named Carine, with whom he was particularly close, and six older half-siblings from his fathers first marriage.
Chris, whose story is retold in John Krakauers book Into the Wild, possessed what Krakauer calls a streak of stubborn idealism that did not readily mesh with the realities of modern life. Yet McCandless was no nut. He graduated with honors from Emory University in 1990, earning a degree in history and anthropology. He was an accomplished athlete, excelling in long-distance running. And he was socially minded, demonstrating a profound concern for the poor and needy of the world. Nevertheless, in the summer of 1990, Chris McCandless checked out of life, so to speak.
Chris first declined membership in Phi Beta Kappa, an international honor society, because he insisted that titles and honors were of no particular importance. He next gave all of the money in a college fund established for him by his parentssome $20,000to the Oxford Famine Relief Fund, money that was earmarked for his tuition in law school. Then, without telling a soul, Chris loaded his few belongings in his yellow Datsun and headed west. In July of 1990, his Datsun broke down, leaving Chris wandering in an Arizona desert in 120-degree heat. Feeling liberated, Chris burned the little cash he had remainingabout $160 in small billsand continued an uncharted journey that would eventually lead him to total isolation in the wiles of Alaska by April, 1992. McCandless, as Krakauer describes him, sought
to shed a life of abstraction and security, a life he felt was removed from
the heat and throb of the real world. Chris McCandless intended to invent a
new life for himself, one in which he would be free to wallow in unfiltered
In short, Chris McCandless wanted a new beginning.
I suppose that, at one level, longing for a new beginning in life is a relatively common human urge. Countless Christians throughout the years have wandered into the mountains and deserts to find a new beginning as monks and nuns, and a good number of us here this morning have at least thought that it might be fun to start over again. Were tired of the pace, weary of societal expectations, frustrated at repeated failures, overcome by sin and guilt, searching for new challenges, or just itching for a change, and we want to check out and find a fresh start. I admit itIve already felt that way too.
For everyone who resonates with such a longing, there is a mountain in the Bible just for us.
Last week, we looked at Mt. Horeb, otherwise known as Mt. Sinai. Mt. Horeb, the place where God met with Moses and then later with the Israelites, symbolizes for us this extraordinary idea that the God of all creation and history wants to meet with the likes of you and me. Mt. Horeb is the place of encounter. Unlike Mt. Horeb, which is significant in the Bible because of the events that took place there, Mt. Hermon is important simply because of its natural make-up.
Mt. Hermon rises some 9,200 feet above sea level, making it the highest mountain in what today we call Lebanon, Syria, Israel and Jordan. On a clear day, Mt. Hermon can be seen from as far away as the Dead Sea, some 100 miles to the south. The upper portions of the mountain are covered by snow for most of the year, leading local Arabs throughout the ages to call it the gray-haired mountain. Mt. Hermon is known for the large amounts of dew that settle there, and the water that results from melting snow serves as a primary source for the Jordan River. Mt. Hermon is where it all starts. If Mt. Horeb announces the possibility of a genuine encounter with God, then Mt. Hermon assures us that, in the midst of dryness and desperation, a new beginning awaits us.
The precise context of Psalm 133 is impossible to determine, although the various possibilities all lead to the same fundamental conclusion: Lets put the past behind us and start over again. The psalm clearly celebrates unity over division, harmony over discord. Apparently, however, the unity that was once enjoyed by the community here has since been lost, and the Psalmist prays that it might be restored.
At least three possible scenarios come to mind with respect to the situation envisioned here. Perhaps the Psalm dates early to the reign of David, say 1000 B.C., when the people living in the northern sections of Israel initially failed to support him. In 2 Samuel 5, these northerners have a change of heart and throw their hat in the ring with this new king. Or perhaps the psalm dates much later, sometime between 722/21 B.C., when the northerners seceded and created a separate kingdom, and 587/86 B.C., when that northern kingdom was destroyed. If so, Psalm 133 reflects a strong desire for the two now-divided kingdoms of Israel and Judah to be reunited into one nation with Jerusalem as its capital. Or maybe the Psalm dates even latersay 460 B.C. or soto the time when Nehemiah sought to rebuild the Jewish community in Judah following their period of exile hundreds of miles away in Babylon. I dont know for certain which of these, if any, serves as the actual context for this Psalm.
But again, the theme is the same. The people want to start over again. They want to move from the disunity and discord that currently characterize their lives into unity and harmony. They want to distance themselves from what is and experience what could be. They want, as did Chris McCandless, a new beginning.
The Psalmist uses two images here to capture this sense of a new beginning. He refers, first of all, to what is perhaps to us a grotesque pictureoil flowing down over Aarons head as he is anointed priest. The oil, running freely, captures a sense of lavish generosity and extravagance that compares to the profound satisfaction growing out of unity. The second image centers directly on Mt. Hermon and the dew or water that it provides. Mt. Hermon, notoriously rich in moisture in a region that to this day cries out for water, serves as a source of hope, sustenance, and life itself. Mt. Hermon is a place of new beginnings.
I can easily imagine that there are any number of us here today who feel something stir in the depths of our own souls when we allow ourselves to entertain thoughts of new beginnings. Ive messed up, someone thinks. Can I really start over again? Ive wasted countless opportunities, another person realizes. Is today genuinely a new day? Im tired of the rat-race and the same old stuff, someone chimes in. There must be more to life than this. Ive been in the same rut for so long, tripping over the same thing forever, someone else concludes. Can I move beyond the past? If Mt. Horeb announces that God genuinely wants an encounter with us, then Mt. Hermon provides us with symbols of hope and a new beginning.
There are, of course, numerous examples of discord and imbalance represented in a congregation such as this, examples that stir my heart as much as the division in Israel stirs the heart of the Psalmist here in Psalm 133. I can only mention a few.
There are, first of all, several marriages in our congregation that are in a state of gross disrepair and on the verge of total collapse. Other marriages here are floundering, lacking the joy and sense of adventure that I believe ought to characterize Christian marriages. Perhaps some of you have neglected your marriages or taken your spouse for granted. Youve forgotten how to talk intimately with each other, and its been ages since youve set aside everything else and done something special together, something particularly romantic. Perhaps its time to turn off the television and read a good book together about nurturing your relationship. Maybe you can register for a marriage enrichment weekend, go to marriage counseling, or invite another couple from the churcha couple with a strong relationshipto journey with you. As Mt. Hermon provides water that brings its surroundings back to life again, you can start again today, too.
In addition to marriages in need of care, there are no doubt strained relationships here between parents and their children. Lets be honest, for a moment. There is no responsibility more challenging for a person than parenting a child, and there is nothing more frustrating at times for a child than being parented! Perhaps you have grown apart. Youve forgotten how to talk to each other, and it seems as though you have nothing in common. When was the last time, mom or dad, that you set absolutely everything else aside and spent a few hours alone with your son or daughter doing something that they really wanted to do? Do you make quality time for your children, or do you send the message that everything else in your life is more important than they are? And you children and teenagers, when was the last time that you gave your mom or dad a break and even tried to imagine how taxing it can be to raise some of you sometimes?!? Today could be the day to rethink what we are doing, and to resort our priorities. Perhaps some of the dew from Mt. Hermon will fall on our families this morning and offer us a new start.
Several months, Dave and Lynn Brown shared a bit of their story with us. They told of their ongoing struggles with their daughter, Emily, who was at that time on a self-destructive course. Recently, Emily committed her life to Jesus, and she and her father just began a weeklong backpacking trip this weekend. They are reconnecting. Its a new day!
Some people here today might be struggling vocationally. Perhaps you feel as though you have wasted several opportunities or have failed to follow the deepest longing of your soul. Some of you have settled for far less than you are gifted for, and you sense yet another tug to take a risk and do something else, something different. Others of you have fallen prey to the pressures of our world and have made vocational decisions based primarily on salary and prestige. Perhaps there is something you have always wanted to do but were afraid to go for it, or maybe you even realize that you are avoiding what God has in mind for you.
I read in the newspaper just this week that Bill Bright, the founder of Campus Crusade for Christ, died at the age of 81. Campus Crusade has a $340 million budget these days, and I certainly was positively influenced by their ministry during my teens. I never knew, though, how the organization began. In the article this week, I learned that Campus Crusade started when Bill and his wife sold everything they hadlock, stock and barrelin the 1950s and told God they would do whatever he asked. It was a new day for the Brights, a new beginning. Mt. Hermon symbolizes the possibility of such a new day for us as well.
The examples are endless, arent they? Your spiritual life in general is dry. You struggle with habits that seem almost impossible to break. You are preoccupied with daily routines and never have the time to volunteer or give yourself away. Youve wanted to go back to school but wonder if it is worth the time and energy. And on and on. Today could be a new day.
Or think corporately as well. As the Psalmist imagines the dew of Mt. Hermon, he has his entire community in mind. Perhaps in Gods grace, the dew of Mt. Hermon might fall in ever expanding amounts on our entire church family, giving us a corporate vision of hope and newness. Today could be a new day for our congregation as well, a new beginning as we open ourselves more completely to the possibilities that lie before us.
In 1990, Chris McCandless checked out of life as he knew it and sought a new beginning. Unfortunately, his story doesnt end well. On September 6, 1992, six moose hunters found Chris decomposing body lying in his sleeping bag inside an abandoned bus near Mt. McKinley in Alaska. Mt. Hermon doesnt invite us to new beginnings that end in death and defeat. Instead, it symbolizes the life-giving hope that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is all about. Phillips Brooks suggests that we are haunted by an ideal life, and it is because we have within us the beginning and the possibility of it. Hes right. We can, with Gods help, put the past behind us and start again. If we are in Christ, Paul reminds us, everything old has passed away and everything has become new (2 Cor. 5:17).