Holy Week Sermons 2013 (3rd of Series of 5) – Places on the Way: The Mount of Olives
Each evening he went out to spend the night on the hill called the Mount of Olives Luke 21:37
Do you have a special place? Somewhere you go for peace and quiet, somewhere you go to get away from annoying things, somewhere you go just because it is a good place to be? In days as a curate, there were two spots I would go just to be there. One was an island in a lake, joined to land by a stone bridge. It had been the site of a monastery in ancient times and there was still a sense of holiness in the place, a sense that it was ‘other’ from the world around. The other place was on top of a hill that stood high above the town. It was a quiet spot with views for miles all around, but the best thing of all was the view of the town. From the hilltop, every street and estate could be seen; from the distance, they were all in miniature. Problems that seemed large when down among them seemed to take on a new perspective when seen from the top of the hill.
The Mount of Olives was a special place and it was a place for looking across the city of Jerusalem; a place for quietness, a place to see things as they were.
When King David was driven from Jerusalem, the Mount of Olives was a place that he went in penitence and sorrow. In the Second Book of Samuel Chapter 15 we are told, ‘David continued up the Mount of Olives, weeping as he went; his head was covered and he was barefoot. All the people with him covered their heads too and were weeping as they went up’. From the hilltop, David could stand and look at the holy city.
When we read the prophet Ezekiel, the Mount of Olives is place where the presence of God stops, Ezekiel Chapter 11 Verse 23 says, ’The glory of the Lord went up from within the city and stopped above the mountain east of it.’
In the prophet Zechariah, the day of the Lord, the day when God comes to Earth to protect his people and to establish his kingdom, will be centred on the Mount of Olives. Zechariah Chapter 14 Verse 3-4 says, ’Then the Lord will go out and fight against those nations, as he fights on a day of battle. On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west, forming a great valley, with half of the mountain moving north and half moving south’.
When we come to the story of Jesus in this Holy Week, we need to remember what a special place the Mount of Olives was for Jesus and his people. This was no ordinary part of the landscape—it was a place where the mere mention of its name would have brought to the minds of Jewish people memories of their history in the days of King David and hopes of a new Kingdom when the Lord came to be with his people.
When we read Luke Chapter 19 Verses 28-30 in the light of the Old Testament Scriptures, we see that stopping at the Mount of Olives is stopping at a place filled with meaning. Saint Luke writes, ‘After Jesus had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem. As he approached Bethphage and Bethany at the hill called the Mount of Olives, he sent two of his disciples, saying to them, ‘Go to the village ahead of you, and as you enter it, you will find a colt tied there, which no one has ever ridden. Untie it and bring it here’.
The prophecy of Ezekiel Chapter 11 speaks of the glory of God leaving Jerusalem and stopping at the mountain to the east of the city, but promises that the Lord will return. As the Lord’s presence stopped at the Mount of Olives as he departed from the city, so the Lord’s presence, in his Son Jesus, now stops at the Mount of Olives as he returns to the city. Those awaiting the coming of the Lord would surely have seen this moment as hugely significant.
Saint Luke writes in Chapter 19 Verse 37, ‘When he came near the place where the road goes down the Mount of Olives, the whole crowd of disciples began joyfully to praise God in loud voices for all the miracles they had seen.’ The disciples use words from Psalm 118 which was a psalm used for processions up to the Temple, a psalm celebrating God coming to be present with his people. The disciples are shouting out that this ride down from the Mount of Olives is the arrival of God. It’s no wonder that Jesus’ opponents said Jesus should tell his disciples to be quiet—they fully understood what was being claimed.
Reading the story twenty centuries later, it is easy to overlook things, easy to fail tor recognize the importance of each detail and each moment. When we read the story, do we appreciate what it means for God to come to be present with his people? Do we really have a sense of that God in our own lives?
The Mount of Olives was a place of holiness, a place of holiness far more significant than the old monastic site I used to visit, it was a place of God’s presence. The Mount of Olives was also to which to retreat from the city, a place where Jesus would go to find peace and quiet at the end of the day. Saint Luke Chapter 21 Verse 37 says, ‘Each day Jesus was teaching at the temple, and each evening he went out to spend the night on the hill called the Mount of Olives’.
In Jesus’ place, I think most of us would have been inclined to have stayed in the city, listened for every whisper, every rumour of what was going on, what was being plotted, who were the conspirators. If we are dealing with very serious matters, I wonder how much time we would leave for thought and reflection and prayer, very little, I suspect. Yet, here is Jesus, at this most important of moments, and each evening he goes out to the hillside to sit in quietness.
After the Last Supper we are told in Saint Luke Chapter 22 Verse 39, ‘Jesus went out as usual to the Mount of Olives, and his disciples followed him’. The Garden of Gethsemane, where Jesus was to be arrested was at the foot of the Mount of Olives, even in this most critical moment, Jesus finds time for quietness and prayer.
The way Jesus approaches the crisis in his life is completely different from the way most of us would approach a crisis. Our response to problems tends to be even more busyness, even more activity, even more words. Jesus’ response to the crisis is stillness. How different might we be if we spent more time being still?
If mention of the Mount of Olives prompted us to ask just two questions, then we might become very different people.
Firstly, am I aware of God’s presence in my life, do I have a sense that God is there, wherever I am, whatever I am doing?
Secondly, if I am aware of God’s presence, then shouldn’t it change the way I think and the way I live? If I seriously believe that God is with me at every moment, then shouldn’t I spend a lot more time talking to him?
To the people of Jesus’ time, the Mount of Olives was a special place because it was a place of God’s presence. Our faith is in a God who is with us in all places, so every place should be special, every moment a chance to meet with him.
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