By Jon Hall
This sermon was originally delivered at our Good Friday evening service on March 30th, 2018.
What I have to share tonight is more like a meditation than a normal sermon. So get as comfortable as you can. And if you want to, you’re welcome to close your eyes.
I want us to picture in our minds a mountain. Not an enormously high mountain. But rocky, and desolate. With a hot sun beating down.
And imagine that we’re standing together on the top of that mountain, on bare flattish grey rocks, flecked with grass and little tufts of wiry shrubs. With a warm breeze whipping around us in stiff little gusts.
And the day is clear, and we can see a long way – miles and miles over hot, dry country. Rocky, sandy, and mountainous.
And it’s quiet here. Just the sounds of nature: The wind in the gorse. A bird’s cry. A mountain goat dislodging a scatter of loose stones.
It’s a lonely sort of place.
Here and there on the horizon are the thin black plumes of smoke from village fires.
But it seems there’s not a living soul for miles.
So your mind relaxes, And your heart settles into the quiet rhythms of this unhurried place.
But then the peace is disturbed by a new sound. The heavy crunch of old and weary feet on the sand and gravel. And you turn to see an ancient man – well over one hundred. With a long grey beard turning thin, but the man himself is vigorous, sinewy, and sun-darkened. Nowhere near death.
And he carries in his right hand a flaming torch, and in his left hand a vicious-looking knife. And over his shoulder is a coil of rope.
The ancient man crests the mountain and you notice a much younger man following behind him, also strong and wiry, and laboring under a significant load of firewood.
Sweat beads his face, where patches of wispy black beard are struggling to emerge.
But the face, you see, has the same shape as the ancient man’s.
The same bright dark eyes peer out of it.
And you recognize the two as father and son.
The father stops and looks about. And silently decides that this will be the place. He sets down the knife and the coil of rope. And props up the flaming torch in a crevice in the rocks. Then he helps the boy to set down his own burden.
And the two sit silently together for a few minutes, breathing hard, sharing a swig of water from a skin. And recovering from their climb.
Then up gets the ancient man, and with great sense of purpose sets about collecting rocks. The son jumps up to help him. They find a good number of large stones. Some of them can only be lifted with the two of them working together. And they stack up the stones into a sort of rectangular structure, longer than it is wide, and about three feet tall.
It has a hollow in the middle. And into this hollow they arrange the firewood the boy had been carrying. And now you see that the stone structure is an altar. And the two men are planning to offer a sacrifice to their God.
And now everything is ready, but you can’t see any sign of the animal they intend to offer.
The work stops, and the mountain goes quiet again. And the father and son look at each other for a long time.
Then the father speaks.
His back is toward you and the wind carries his words away, so you can’t make out what he’s saying, but you can see the son’s face as it goes through an alarming cycle of emotions.
First it contorts in horror.
Then horror turns to anger and the eyes go hard, sizing up the old man as if measuring his strength in a fight.
Then anger turns to fear, and the eyes dart left and right, choosing an escape route and deciding whether to run.
But as the father keeps speaking, the boy’s face crumples. The fight goes out of him. He nods his head. A tear starts down his cheek as he slowly turns his back to his father. Hands behind him, wrists together, waiting to be tied.
The father reaches behind him for the rope. And you see that his wise, ancient face is also a mess of tears. He binds his son, elbows, wrists, knees, and ankles, And lifts him, helpless, onto the altar.
And now the father is almost blinded by grief, trembling violently as he commands his muscles to do their duty. He fumbles on the ground for the vicious knife. It takes him several seconds to find it. But, finding it, he stands up straight, returns to the side of the altar. And closes his eyes, summoning his strength. The seconds stretch and grow long.
The father takes a deep breath and composes his face. A sort of peace comes over him, a fixed resolve. He lifts the knife high over his head. And lets out a loud cry of violence and anguish.
Pause the scene.
The father’s cry is cut off. And there’s total silence. He stands there fixed in his moment of intense emotion. With the knife held high in the air over his son. And now, suddenly, it’s like someone punched the super fast-forward button.
The ancient man and his son vanish, disappear,
The altar is still there. The wood is grey ash.
The sun plummets from the sky and it’s suddenly night.
Now day again.
Now night, with stars arcing in visible circles in the sky.
Now day again.
Time is rapidly spinning forward.
One of the top stones of the altar tumbles. Another slips sideways. Like a melting snowman, the once-tidy structure disintegrates into a clumsy pile of rocks.
People start to arrive. In the valleys all around you. Settlements. Camps. Then villages.
A town grows up. With houses springing up like daisies.
Then a city. With walls rising up from the ground, growing as you watch.
It’s a city called Jebus.
Now the plot of land where you’re standing on the mountain is sold.
Sold to a man named Ornan. It’s a nice high rocky place, so Ornan uses it as a threshing floor. For threshing his wheat. You see him clearing away the last well-weathered stones of the ancient man’s altar. And then grinding his wheat against the rocks, and pitching it into the air. And watching the chaff blow away.
But not for long.
A King comes to him.
A conquering king who captured Jebus.
Who captured Jebus and renamed it Jerusalem.
He’s here. In person! The famous king they call David. Marching up the mountain to talk to Ornan. He’s paying Ornan money. He’s giving him 600 shekels of gold! Ornan is collecting his things and leaving.
David is picking up rocks to build another altar. Some of the rocks he touches fell from the altar of the ancient man.
He prays to God for mercy and forgiveness.
And the LORD answers him: Answers with fire from heaven. Fire falling on David’s altar. And with mercy for the people who suffered after David’s sin.
And so David comes back to this place to worship and offer sacrifices.
Many times he comes, until he’s too old to come any more.
Time speeds on.
Night into day. Night into day.
Workmen arrive. Hundreds and hundreds of men. Bringing tons of wood and stone. They work in shifts, day after day, raising from the ground a glorious building: High and lofty and intricate and golden. Enclosing David’s altar.
The mountain is transformed.
No more bare rock and shrubs. The whole top of it is covered in a magnificent temple. And now another king arrives. Wise King Solomon, along with hundreds of thousands of his people.
The king raises his arms in prayer.
The people worship.
The glory of God descends on the temple and the temple is filled with lightning and smoke.
Time passes more quickly now. That glorious temple is destroyed. Ruined. The mountain is returned to quiet desolation.
Then, later, people come back to that desolate mountain and start rebuilding. In the same place, but on a smaller scale.
And the second temple is finished, to a loud mixed cry of rejoicing and wailing.
But no glory falls on it.
No glory fills it.
Time speeds on, and Jerusalem grows. Its walls grow higher and thicker. Wooden houses are replaced with stone. The temple itself is expanded and embellished.
A massive open courtyard surrounds it.
Huge walls, great gates, stone staircases.
And now, as time slows again, another son is coming up the mountain. Riding on a donkey. Accompanied by a large crowd, shouting and singing, "Hosanna!" He’s not much older than the young son of the ancient man.
But he belongs here. This is his home.
And he brings to this place a glory it hasn’t yet known. He comes and stands on the very spot where the ancient man once built his altar.
But now there are tables there.
People buying and selling. Exploiting the poor.
And the son is angry. He turns the tables over and drives the traders away.
Then he leaves again.
A few more days pass, and he’s back. This time, bound.
In the custody of a small group soldiers.
He stands trial.
In the Antonia Fortress, in one corner of the temple complex,
On the mountain of the Lord.
A shout rings out. “Crucify him!” The son is led away, and he walks down from the same mountain,
Carrying the wood of his own execution.
While his Father carries the fire and the knife.
As Jesus stumbles on, under the weight of his cross we can still see him clearly.
But everything else starts to fade away.
The walls of the temple grow thin and translucent. The people grow quiet and vanish like smoke.
The bustling city shrinks down into the ground,
Like a rain puddle evaporating,
And nothing is left but bare mountainside, rocky and desolate.
The only sounds are the wind in the gorse. A bird’s cry.
A mountain goat dislodging a scatter of loose stones.
We still see Jesus, taking his slow and painful steps,
But nothing is left now on our mountain,
Except a tidy little stone altar,
An unlit fire,
A young man, bound elbows, wrists, knees, and ankles,
And an ancient man poised motionless beside him with a vicious-looking knife held high in the air.
Time unfreezes and the silence is broken by a loud cry of violence and anguish.
But just as the knife starts to descend there comes an urgent voice from heaven, crying.
And the ancient man stops. He looks around in amazement, saying,
“Here I am.”
And the voice from heaven comes again,
“Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.”
And Isaac sits up in amazement, looking around for the source of the voice.
As Abraham, exhausted, lowers his knife to cut the cords around his son’s elbows.
As the ropes snap we hear the sharp sound of hammer on metal, and look up to see, on a hillside not very far away, that a nail has just been driven through Jesus’ left hand.
Abraham keeps cutting, and the cords around his son’s wrists snap.
Just as a nail is driven through Jesus’ right hand.
The knife slices the ropes around Isaac’s knees and ankles.
And a nail goes through Jesus’ feet.
The son of Abraham jumps down from the altar.
And the son of God is hoisted into the air.
The earthly father rejoices.
The heavenly father weeps.
A sudden rustling in the undergrowth leads Abraham to discover a ram, with its horns caught in a thicket. And so he seizes it, and binds it, and lifts it onto the altar where his son so recently lay. And the vicious knife goes in, and the blood is spilled, and the fire is lit.
And a loud cry rings out from the distant hillside:
“It is finished!”
So Abraham called the name of that place:
“The Lord will provide."
As it is said to this day: “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”