The mountain I want to look at today in our series ‘behind the ranges’ is Mount Carmel, and the very wonderful part of the story where Elijah has prayed and there has been no rain in the land, in order to bring the people to a place of repentance. He then has sent word to Ahab, the wicked king, that he will meet the prophets of Baal on the top of Mount Carmel, where they will make sacrifice, and the God who answers by fire coming down on the sacrifice will be God. The prophets of Baal have tried all day and have had no success. And so we come into the reading:
At the usual time for offering the evening sacrifice, Elijah walked up to the altar and prayed, ‘O Lord, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, prove today that you are God in Israel and that I am your servant. Prove that I have done all this at your command. O Lord, answer me! Answer me so these people will know that you, O Lord, are God and that you have brought them back to yourself.’
Immediately the fire of the Lord flashed down from heaven and burned up the young bull, the wood, the stones, and the dust. It even licked up all the water in the trench! And when all the people saw it, they fell face down on the ground and cried out, ‘The Lord – he is God! Yes, the Lord is God!’
Then Elijah commanded, ‘Seize all the prophets of Baal. Don’t let a single one escape!’ So the people seized them all, and Elijah took them down to the Kishon Valley and killed them there.
(1 Kings 18:36–40)
It is a theme of tremendous triumph, one that many of us love and at times have identified with as we have seen God triumph and perhaps have seen people set free from the power of darkness, and we have found the victory of Christ coming into various situations in life. There is a certainty in us that Jesus Christ is Lord, and that we have the God who answers by fire.
I thought about Elijah and his preparation for this hour. Soldiers being prepared for battle undergo very rigorous and difficult training, with great rehearsing of warfare. But we don’t read of Elijah struggling with the powers of darkness before that. We actually find a very unusual training that is very revealing and shows to us something of the hidden ways and the deep ways of God. There are three years of drought in the land brought about by Elijah’s prayer, and Elijah finds himself at the brook Cherith by God’s commandment alone. He passes many a lonely hour there, dependent on God to send the ravens morning and evening to bring him food. He has no other security than God, and he is alone. For a servant of God I think it is part of the training that there is a certain loneliness and aloneness in spirit, and I imagine that in these hours his faith was being tested. What it must have meant to him every day to see the ravens coming and the water flowing, until one day the brook dried up!
God sometimes lets us come to extremity in circumstances before He seems to act. For Elijah it would have been more comfortable, I’m sure, if God had told him before the brook dried up just what he was to do. But we read that the brook dried up, and then He told him to go to Zarepath, where there was a widow woman who would provide for him. He goes and he finds a woman, presumably poor, who has only a little oil and a little meal, just enough to make a cake for herself and her son, and then they’re going to die. And Elijah says: ‘Feed me first.’ It took some faith in the woman also! But she does that, and he says: ‘The meal in the barrel will never give out, the oil will never run dry, and there will be food for us.’ And so he is brought from the situation of absolute aloneness to being with just one person and her son, provided for – but provided for, not really by her, but very miraculously by God. But she also is blest – and what that must have done to her faith!
It seemed to me there were some echoes of our very present situation, in the aloneness, then being allowed into just one household, and a training ground for Elijah that seems to us quite unusual, and a preparation for the hour when he’s to come out of the aloneness to face the prophets of Baal on Mount Carmel. But the key to his victory is tremendous faith in God, and that has grown in the silent places, in the hidden quietness, in the back parts of the desert. We don’t know what was going on in Elijah’s mind and spirit. We don’t know how many a conflict he had with the enemy during that time. But we do know that he emerges with an incredible faith in God and a God-given power over the power of the enemy.
It caused me to think of where the very ultimate victory is won, and that is on Calvary. On Carmel, the prophets of Baal are seized and slain, it’s acknowledged that God is God, Elijah prays and the rain comes, and there are 7,000 that have not bowed the knee to Baal. There is tremendous victory. But Calvary is a greater victory. It’s not just 7,000 that will not bow the knee to the wicked one. Myriad myriads proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord.
Christ’s preparation for Calvary in some ways is a contrast with Elijah’s, in that He is not hidden away these three years; He is actually in public ministry, even amongst the people. He is working miracles, and none are able to touch Him. And yet, in His own spirit, such an aloneness with God, nobody else walking the path that He is walking. We find too that there is that same principle, that Elijah initiates the confrontation on the top of Mount Carmel, and it is Christ – it is God – who initiates the confrontation on Mount Calvary.
Where is mine adversary? Let him come forth that I may contend with Him. (Isaiah 50:8, paraphrased)
That is faith: that is the faith that knows that the victory is secure, that is unafraid of the enemy and what he might do.
There on Calvary we know the fire came down on the sacrifice, but the sacrifice was Christ. The fire was within Him and the fire came down upon Him, and that sacrifice could not be consumed, for the life of Christ the Son of God could not be extinguished. The flesh went through the article of death, but His spirit was triumphant.
These things are told us, I think, to open to us the secret of victory: that a Christian is called to live not in the shadows and defeat, but in a place where there’s no absence of trouble and the arrows of the enemy can come thick and fast, but we have a great God. God’s triumph on Mount Carmel was just a forerunner. Elijah was like a forerunner of the Christ who was to come, who was our forerunner into an excellent glory, and He went by the way of Calvary but by the way of victory. The enemy makes dupes of us: he tricks us into thinking that we’ll not make it, that we have to struggle to get victory in life over sin, over self, whatever. And what is the secret of victory? It’s not just that we make a lot of song and shout – although there can be a happy time for that too – but it is that like Elijah we find ourselves dependent on God, drawing food from Him, often in circumstances when we can feel very alone and leaning only upon God, and then we’re ready for the crisis hour. We’re ready to see the glory of God and the routing of the enemy. And we find that He takes the fear out of us and causes us to enter into something of that yet greater victory, the victory of Calvary, because we live by the faith of the Son of God.
Still following the theme of looking ‘behind the ranges’ for treasures that can be found in God, we come now to the smallest of these hills, and yet the highest –Mount Calvary.
Calvary follows on not so very many days after the revelation on the mountain of transfiguration. Obviously we have all found treasures at Calvary if we have found Christ as our Saviour, and it is a subject to meditate upon for the rest of our lives. There are just one or two aspects that I’ve felt to focus on for today.
As we think of Calvary, there is a sense of a darkness, not in a sinister way, but Calvary was dark: it grew very dark there physically. The hordes of darkness were there to try to obscure Christ. But His light could not be hidden. And there is a sense of entering the cloud of darkness there that I associate again and again with the revelation of God in the cloud that led His people through the Red Sea and through the wilderness. On the inside it was a fiery, cloudy pillar, but there were times it would just have seemed like a dark cloud. It was a thick darkness that Moses entered into on Sinai, but on the inside found the revelation of God in a very wonderful and very beautiful way. On the Mount of Transfiguration it was a bright cloud; it seems to me that the revelation of Christ was so strong that it was the brightness of His light that was shining. We come to Calvary, and we come there often, certainly to begin with, in our dark hours; we come in our need, and in our most lonely moments: Calvary is the place to go. And for Christ there must have been a darkness about it: the hour of suffering and the hour of sorrow. We read:
He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. (Isaiah 53:3–5)
There is a wealth of material to meditate on regarding Calvary and regarding Christ Himself. That is where the deepest treasure is: meditating upon Him. But I want today to look at the treasure that I suppose we first come upon and begin to find there at Calvary. We find Him as our Saviour, and in that discovery we find something of the love of God. Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13). That was the text on my calendar on Armistice Day, and it gave the example of an occasion when American troops were in Korea fighting an ongoing battle over many days. One day they recaptured their position on the hill where they were fighting and found the body of the major. A young soldier, moved by his death, said: ‘He didn’t belong on this hill, he didn’t have to be here, but he was, just the same.’ That makes us think of Calvary. He didn’t have to be there, but He was, just the same. Christ didn’t need to be there, but we needed Him to be there.
We come there and find many treasures, too many to cover in a short time. But one of the first treasures that we find and go on finding is forgiveness. Is ‘forgiveness’ not one of the most beautiful words in the world? Perhaps even sweeter than hearing someone say: ‘I forgive you’ is when someone who has wronged us says: ‘Please, will you forgive me?’ It takes a hard heart to say No. I do remember when I was a young person one of my sisters had offended me. She asked if I would forgive her, and I said: ‘Well, I might forgive but I won’t forget!’ I’m happy to say I have forgotten! But that’s not at all what God is like. His forgiveness is so deep.
I had cause for various reasons to be meditating this week on these words of Christ:
Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:24)
They are easy words to accept until we are in a situation where there is someone that we find it hard to forgive, and we think of that prayer of Christ. Sometimes it’s because one of our friends has been wounded by another. I have a dear friend who is having a very difficult time just now, and being really persecuted by another (not by anyone in the church), and I thought: ‘Can I really say: ‘Father, forgive that person’? – because I know what I would really like to happen with that person! I would certainly like them to be stopped from their wounding behaviour. And yet God’s standard is so high. Christ is saying: Father, forgive them. What must it have been like for the Father to have to forgive those of us who have wounded His dear Son? And yet how rich, how deep that forgiveness is, how full it is. And how we sometimes stay away too long, and yet He is inviting us, saying: For the sake of My Son, the power of His blood and the efficacy of His Name, there is forgiveness.
Along with forgiveness there comes healing: by his stripes we are healed. Often when we come to God for forgiveness there are wounds of our own sinning that have to be healed. Sometimes when we have to come and ask Him for grace to forgive other people there are wounds that have been inflicted upon us, and the heart knows its own bitterness. There is only one place of healing, and it is that place called Calvary. And indeed don’t we sometimes find in a dark and lonely hour there is no other place to go, and we suddenly remember: I can go to Calvary, and Calvary always has an answer, showing to us healing.
He is called the place of repair of His people (Joel 3:16, KJV margin). In these modern days of the consumer society we tend to throw away things, but something we really treasure we like to get mended. Where it’s ourselves, whether our bodies, our spirits or our hearts, we can’t just throw them away. There is only one place of repair, but it is a tremendous place. From that hill called Calvary (dark, bitter, sore for Christ), to us there come, blown in the breezes by the Holy Spirit, a breath of sweetness, a breath of healing, a breath that wafts to us the very fragrance of heaven itself and of the Son of God. He didn’t belong on that hill, and yet in a way He does: it was foreordained from before the foundation of the world that He would lay down His life upon that hill and bring to us immeasurable sweetness. It says in the Song of Songs:
Until the day break, and the shadows flee away, I will get me to the mountain of myrrh, and to the hill of frankincense. (Song of Songs 4:6)
What other mountain is that but Calvary? A place of death, associated with myrrh, and yet of healing ointments that sweep over our soul; a place of frankincense, gift given to a King, foreshadowing or foretelling the infinite sweetness, the healing spices that flow to us from that place called Calvary.
Wherever you are today and whatever state your being, your spirit, is in, it might be that you badly need forgiveness and have been too ashamed to come and ask God for it. Try Him. Try that fountain that never fails, that opened on Calvary’s hill. Try Christ. It may be that the wounds of life have stricken you, and you struggle to keep going. There is a place of repair, and it’s that place called Calvary, the place where Christ is always to be found. And the shadows become light for us as He emerges.
O Calvary, dark Calvary, the thorns, the nails, the spear,
’Twas there Thy love, my Jesus, in flowing wounds appeared.
O depth of love and mercy, to those dear wounds I flee;
I was a guilty sinner, but Jesus died for me.
Our theme for the last few weeks has been ‘exploring behind the ranges’ spiritually and finding something of the depths of God. Continuing on this theme, I want to look today at the Mount of Transfiguration.
We are not quite sure which mountain it is. Some think it is Mount Tabor, but with fortresses on top it seems unlikely. Others think it was one of the slopes of Mount Hermon. I love to think of it as Mount Hermon with its covering of snow. They probably wouldn’t be at the very summit (over 9,000 ft), but they could have been on one of the lower slopes.
Christ on this occasion takes three of his disciples with Him when He goes to pray. It is shortly after the declaration of Caesarea Philippi, where Peter has said: You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. He has then gone on to argue with Christ when He predicts His own death, and soon after that there comes this very remarkable occasion, which Peter never forgot. He refers to it in his letters: We were with Him in the holy mount, and we saw His majesty (2 Peter 1:18, 16). There comes a revelation of Jesus Christ, for the recording of which we are exceedingly grateful – because it lets us know that there is this to be discovered, that in the spiritual world there is a beauty, there is a glory, there is a majesty that only the Holy Spirit can reveal to us. We may not go up a high mountain; we may not be taken up in quite the way that Christ took these three, Peter, James and John. But He still reveals Himself, and we go on a journey all our lives to discover more of this Christ. We’re not satisfied knowing about Him and even the details of His life, or even finding Him as Saviour at Calvary. There comes to us the awareness that there is a revelation of the innerness of His beauty, His glory and His purity that comes to those who truly believe in Him and whose life is a search for more.
These three men are taken out of the realm of the ordinary and transferred, or translated, for a little into the spiritual world, where they see Christ transfigured before their eyes. He is actually the same Christ, but they are now seeing Him as He is. We read in Luke’s gospel just what happened for them:
About eight days later Jesus took Peter, John and James up on a mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was transformed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly, two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared and began talking with Jesus. They were glorious to see. And they were speaking about his exodus from this world, which was about to be fulfilled in Jerusalem.
Peter and the others had fallen asleep. When they woke up, they saw Jesus’ glory and the two men standing with him. As Moses and Elijah were starting to leave, Peter, not even knowing what he was saying, blurted out, ‘Master, it’s wonderful for us to be here! Let’s make three shelters as memorials – one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.’ But even as he was saying this, a cloud overshadowed them, and terror gripped them as the cloud covered them.
Then a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen One. Listen to him.’ When the voice finished, Jesus was there alone. They didn’t tell anyone at that time what they had seen.
As Christ was praying, His appearance was transformed. I wonder how often that had happened when nobody was present. But they were here to see it. We read that his clothes became dazzling white and His face like the noonday sun. Another translation (literal, I think) is ‘became white, or bright, as a flash of lightning’. We know how a flash of lightning can light up the whole landscape in a moment, too dazzling to look upon. What it must have been: a sudden flash of lightning that remained, the brightness of Christ. No wonder that they went prostrate as they saw the shining out of the inner purity, the beauty that is Christ’s, wholly other. He had said He was the Son of God, they had believed Him, and now they see the absolute, unmistakable evidence. He is who He said He is.
There came a cloud over the mountain. It wasn’t unusual for Mount Hermon to have a cloud, but this was a different cloud, luminous and bright, that overshadowed them. We read that terror gripped them as they entered the cloud, because they were in the presence of the divine. They were familiar with the whole concept of the cloud that had appeared to Israel, that had led the Israelites through the wilderness, that had come down into Solomon’s temple – the luminous cloud that was associated with what was called the Shekineh glory, ‘the Lord is there’. Sometimes the priests hadn’t been able to go into the temple because of that cloud of glory. Now these disciples are being drawn into the midst of it. Did they remember Moses on Mount Sinai? Now Moses is here with Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration. Moses had entered into the cloud on Sinai and had heard that voice speak to him words of graciousness. Now they are entering in. And it’s bright, it’s glorious. From out of the midst of it there comes a Voice saying: This is my beloved Son. Hear Him. ‘Peter, it’s not a time for you to speak. It’s not a time to be looking at even Moses or Elijah. This is My Son. Believe what He is saying. Listen to Him.’
They were talking, Moses and Elijah, about His coming death, resurrection and ascension, His exit from this world. We don’t know all that it meant to Christ on that mountain; it’s speculation. But Peter knew that he had been wrong in contesting what Christ was saying, and we can understand something of what it meant to the three disciples. They were baptized into that cloud, just as (we read) the Israelites as they went through the wilderness were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. That cloud had come to them at a difficult time, when they were about to cross the Red Sea with no seeming means of that to happen, and with the army of Egypt behind. The cloud had appeared, protecting them from behind and leading them from the front, and they were baptized into it in that hour of difficulty. To be baptized into something means that we actually take on its properties. If you baptize or dip a piece of wool in a colour, it takes on that colour. They were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, but now they were being baptized into that glorious cloud of the presence of God, revealing Christ. What an inheritance is ours! To be baptized into the cloud of His glory, to take on something of that glory into our inner being, something of the revelation of that beauty, that purity. If you remember the priests in Exodus, Aaron’s sons were given garments for glory and for beauty. That was in the outward, but Christ’s garments of glory and beauty weren’t just outward: they were the innerness of His being.
Into the innerness of our being He would imprint something of that, so that even in our situation now and in any cloudiness that it brings, there is a place apart. There’s a place for our spirits to be lifted out of the humdrumness, the ordinariness, at times the dreariness, of life as it is at this moment. It is not dreary when our spirits begin to probe into the spiritual world … and He is revealed.
I have felt an overwhelming sense of His compassion in these days for us: for His world, for His own church, and for us in Struthers Memorial Church. Believe Him. Let your spirit – let our spirits – soar into that other world, and we’ll find the glory and the beauty that is there in the Godhead. He will show it to us.
The brightness shines all the brighter on a cloudy day.
This week we continue our exploration ‘behind the ranges’ – exploring the world of God and the depth that we can find in God. Again, it’s a word that I hope will speak to all who read it, but it is particularly for those who are very earnestly following God and searching for more of Him.
Today I want to look for a little at Mount Moriah. You will realize I’ve not been taking the theme in a chronological fashion, but rather as it has come to me – as I’ve felt God has shown to me. Mount Moriah speaks of the time that Abraham went up there to sacrifice Isaac. I thought to myself it’s one of the best-loved stories in the Bible – but then perhaps it’s not. It’s a very challenging story, though quite a comforting one because obviously Isaac is restored to Abraham unhurt.
Some time later, God tested Abraham’s faith. ‘Abraham!’ God called.
‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘Here I am.’
‘Take your son, your only son– yes, Isaac, whom you love so much– and go to the land of Moriah. Go and sacrifice him as a burnt offering on one of the mountains, which I will show you.’ (Genesis 22:1–2)
They go together to that mountain. Isaac observes that there is no sheep for the burnt offering, and Abraham says:
‘God will provide a sheep for the burnt offering, my son.’ (v.8)
Abraham has told the servants who have travelled part of the way with them to stay with the donkey, and he says: ‘The boy and I will travel a little farther. We will worship there, and then we will come right back.’ We know that God speaks to Abraham and tells him not to harm Isaac as he’s there on the altar. Then He says to Abraham: ‘Because you have done this and not withheld your son, I will bless you.’
It’s a very wonderful story. It’s a very comfortable one for us in some ways if we think we’ll get our Isaac back. But sometimes we don’t get Isaac back, and the sacrifice God asks, He keeps.
This episode in Abraham’s life comes to him as a very mature man of God: he’s not at the beginning. I think if we go to Mount Moriah before God calls us there it can be too much for us, but it’s a place that does speak to us of sacrifice and suffering, and this is a part of true discipleship of Jesus Christ. Some of you who are maturing and mature in God know that; we all know that. It is actually a privilege to be called to suffer in any way for the sake of Christ and because we are faithfully following Him. Christ Himself said: ‘You must take up your cross and follow Me,’ and we cannot cut that part out of discipleship. As a man who was called the friend of God, as one who loved and sought God, Abraham was further along that road that hopefully we are travelling, where we are seeking for the unexplored territory behind the ranges, seeking for more of God.
And there comes to us unmistakeably at times the sign that says: To Mount Moriah. Sometimes there is something to be given to God, but very often it is a part of ourselves, our own nature, that has to die, or has to be prepared to suffer. Or it may be as with Abraham, where it wasn’t his old nature suffering, but it was as he was being drawn into a very deep fellowship with God: because we can see that Mount Moriah is foreshadowing Calvary, and Abraham and Isaac foreshadow the Father and the Son walking up Calvary’s hill. We can see all that, and I don’t know how much was revealed to Abraham as he took these steps up that hill that God had said – a mountain that I will show you. Any mountain that God shows to us becomes a blessed mountain. But there is that in our inner being that shrinks away, and sometimes sees a road that to be faithful to God will involve suffering.
For Abraham there would be many strands, I think, in that suffering. There would be a very lonely and misunderstood road to walk. I don’t know if he told Sarah what he was preparing to do, but if so, I don’t think he would have had an easy time with her. The servants must have wondered; Isaac wondered. What did he feel? Did he begin to suspect? What did he feel when he was laid on the altar? Abraham had to trust God, and trust God that his son would trust him, Abraham, as a father. It was a lonely road, as the road of a pioneer often is. It was a rocky road, as the road up the mountain often is rocky, literally. But spiritually it can be a rocky road, and he had to walk every step. He didn’t know what was going to happen, though he believed that God could raise Isaac even from the dead. He wouldn’t understand why God was giving him this command.
But in the afterward and in the revelation that I think would come to him of Calvary he would understand more. His faith, we read, was tested, and so is ours. It wasn’t over in a moment for Abraham. It lasted some time, between the command and the ultimate deliverance. And so it does for us, the walk of faith, the learning of that faith, the acquiring of the gift of faith: it doesn’t happen in a moment, and it happens out there in the heat of the road and the difficulty of it.
It caused me to think of another story. I was by the seaside further down the coast for a day or two recently. On a very stormy day we were walking along the shore, and seeing the waves brought to me the story of Peter walking upon the water. I saw the connection with this incident in the life of Abraham walking a very rocky road. Peter and the disciples were alone in the Sea of Galilee when Christ was away praying in the hills. They were there by Christ’s command, but they
were in trouble, far away from land, for a strong wind had risen, and they were fighting heavy waves. (Matthew 14:24)
Does it strike a chord? I know that is exactly how some of you are feeling just now, for various reasons. The wind has risen in your life, the waves are stormy, and it’s not like previous incidents when Christ said: Peace, be still, and in a moment everything was calm. And I saw more clearly than ever before why Peter had had to walk on the stormy water, why Christ was walking on the stormy waves as He came towards the boat where they were. The waves stayed stormy, and Peter came out and walked on the stormy water. He was afraid he was going to sink when he took his eyes off Christ and cried out for help, and immediately Christ saved him. But the waves were still stormy, the wind was still blowing, and they walked together on the stormy water till they came into the boat, and a calm came then.
And so for you and me. We have to learn that even when Christ is there with us the waves can still be very stormy, and our faith is being tested and tried. He wants us to strengthen and to keep walking, because the spiritual world can be quite tumultuous at times. Spiritual conflict is real, and so it doesn’t just vanish in a moment. We can be walking very carefully with God, but we are in the storm, and it doesn’t go away. But that is the key, isn’t it? He never leaves us alone in it. He has seen them there in the storm. He was watching Peter walk towards Him, and then they walked together.
As we take courage and come out of our quiet hiding place where we would stay out of trouble, we say: ‘Lord, I’ll be faithful to You whatever the cost. I’ll walk with integrity in my heart towards You; however misunderstood I am at times, I’ll do that. And the stormy waves might remain stormy, the spiritual world might stay very rocky, but You and I will walk together and You will not leave me, and together we will come ultimately to the safe harbour, where all grows quiet and is again at peace.’ Christ walked up Calvary’s hill, and He said: ‘I am not alone. Though you will all leave me, the Father Himself will be with Me.’ And He will be with us.
And so do we discover, not always in the quiet back parts of the desert, the revelation of God, but right out there on the stormy waves we discover the security of walking just with God and no other when the sea is stormy. Blessed Saviour! Do we truly want to find these deeps of God? Let Him take us by the road of His choosing. We will never regret it. We’ll enter in one day to the sanctuary of heaven, still leaning on our Beloved, whom we’ve learned to trust truly.
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