First Sunday before Lent

Sermon preached by Rev’d Karen Charman on the First Sunday before Lent, 23rd February 2020.


Mountains and gods.  Mountains and temples, shrines or holy ground.  Have you noticed that they’re often linked?

Mount Olympus, home of the Greek gods Zeus, Hera, Athena, Ares, Apollo and the others.

The Parthenon, at Athens – built on the Acropolis – the highest point of the city.  The shrine of Apollo at Delphi, built on the slopes of Mount Parnassus.  And there are many other mountains which are regarded as sacred, including:

  • Mount Everest
  • Mount Fuji
  • Mount Graham – sacred mountain of the Apache people
  • Mount Kailash – sacred to Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism
  • Mount Kenya – the sacred mountain of the Kikuyu people
  • Mount Kilimanjaro – sacred to the Chaga people, who believe the god, Ruwa, lives on the top
  • Machu Picchu – sacred to the Inca
  • Uluru, or Ayres Rock, in Australia
  • Mount Vesuvius

And I’m sure you’ve come across many other sacred mountains.

Judaism, too, has its sacred mountains:

  • Mount Ararat
  • Mount Carmel
  • The Mount of Olives
  • Mount Sinai
  • Mount Zion
  • And the Temple Mount

Perhaps you’ve been fortunate enough to visit some of these mountains – perhaps on the pilgrimage there in January, or perhaps on an earlier pilgrimage?

Christianity, too, has its sacred mountains and holy hills:

  • Mount Tabor, or the Mount of the Transfiguration
  • Cuddesdon, of course
  • And many other churches and cathedrals, in this country, and abroad, are built on a hill

Why the association between mountains and gods?  Why are so many temples, shrines and churches built on a hill?

Is it just that mountains and hills make good defensive positions?  That people first settled on hills and mountaintops, and worshipped their gods there?  Or is there more to it than that?

Some people talk about ‘thin’ places – a Celtic Christian term for places where the veil between heaven and earth – between God and humankind – is easy to sweep aside.  Rare places where the distance between heaven and earth collapses … where the walls are weak … places of encounter … places where we might meet God … or have a strong sense of God’s presence … and a feeling that – like Moses at the burning bush – we are standing on holy ground.

The air is certainly thinner at altitude.  It becomes less compressed, as we ascend, and there is less oxygen to breathe.

However, I don’t think it’s just the change in air pressure that makes mountaintops and hills ‘thin places’ where we might encounter the divine.

Perhaps it’s something about the journey to a mountaintop, or to another holy place … something about pilgrimage, and journeying, which makes us more receptive to an encounter with the divine?

Think about it.

We travel light, when we’re climbing a mountain.  We don’t want to take suitcases and heavy burdens.  So we take only the essentials – some simple food and water, suitable clothing, a map and compass, perhaps … but we travel light, taking with us only that which will help us on our journey.  We leave our burdens behind.

We choose our travelling companions wisely.  We might travel alone or – as Jesus did in today’s Gospel reading – we choose just two or three trusted friends.  Even in the case of a group pilgrimage, we generally travel with like-minded individuals – those who share a desire for divine encounter, perhaps, or for space to meditate or pray.

We slow down, when we’re going up mountains or hills.  Even if we cheat and go by train (Mount Snowdon); or by chairlift (the Cairngorms); or by cable car or gondola (the Nevis range, near Fort William); we still travel at a slower pace than normal.  And we’re more aware of our surroundings.  We take time to stop and stare at the vistas or views which open up before us.  And those magnificent views inspire a sense of awe and wonder and, perhaps, draw our thoughts towards the God who created the heavens and the earth.

Our pilgrimages, and our prayers and praise when we reach the end of our pilgrimage, render spaces sacred.  A place where people have prayed and worshipped for hundreds of years develops an atmosphere of holiness … of peace … of divine encounter.

And people then journey to that place because it has a reputation for, or history of, holiness and divine encounter.

We choose places for pilgrimage because of their divine associations or histories.  God always travels before us and, if we are fortunate, in ‘thin’ or sacred places, we might become aware of his presence, or of his footprint there.  Like Jacob arriving in Luz, we might reach our journey’s end and exclaim, “Surely the Lord is in this place …  How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.”

Of course, Peter and James and John were already in the presence of the divine.  God had been with them, in the form of Jesus, since they first responded to his call to leave their nets and follow him.

But it’s only on the mountaintop that their eyes are opened and – in that ‘thin’ or sacred space – away from the thronging crowds and their constant demands for healing … for bread … for miracles and signs … it’s only on the mountaintop that they see Jesus in all his glory, as he really is … the beloved Son.

And perhaps it’s only on pilgrimages and in ‘thin’ places … it’s only when we slow down, leave our burdens behind, and go off into the hills … that we see Jesus as both our Lord and our friend … as the Way, the Truth and the Life.

And perhaps it’s only on pilgrimages that we hear for ourselves those special words of affirmation and love, which were spoken first of Jesus – at his baptism and again at his transfiguration – but which, I believe, are intended for each one of us to hear and believe – God’s own word to each one of us: “You are my beloved child … you are my beloved son … my beloved daughter … with you I am well pleased.”

[Long pause]

2020 has been officially designated a year of pilgrimage, and a year of cathedrals.  You might already have been on a pilgrimage this year, or you might have one planned.  I had the sudden idea yesterday that we should – as a Benefice – have a mini (one-day) pilgrimage this Lent; and perhaps we could do something bigger later in the year.

But please do watch out for details of a day pilgrimage sometime in Lent.  Perhaps you’d like to help organise it?  I’m thinking of a walk … maybe a pub lunch … and a church or cathedral visit.  Maybe a Eucharist.  Definitely a time to pray.  But I’m open to ideas.  Do let me know if you’d like to join me.

I’m also organising a weekly reflective space during Lent, Oasis – there’s details in the Benefice notes.  And there’s the Lent Course taking place in Horspath.

Do think and pray about how you can make this Lent – and the whole of 2020 – a time of pilgrimage.  Where are your ‘thin places’, where you might encounter God?

It doesn’t necessarily need to be far away.  Perhaps you have a favourite spot in your garden, or a room in your house, where you can encounter God.

How can you slow down and get away from the crowds?

Where might your eyes be opened to a vision of Christ’s glory?  Where might your heart be warmed by the Holy Spirit?

Where might you best hear that still, small voice which whispers to you, “You are my beloved child … with you I am well-pleased.”

In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord.