Wandering Heart: Praise the Mount

Rev. Taylor Hall Avatar

Today I invite you to join me on a journey. A journey that requires not your feet, but your heart, your mind, and your spirit. I invite you to close your eyes and step back in time, back into the pages of the Gospel of Matthew.

Picture this. You are walking along the dusty roads of Caesarea Philippi, surrounded by the rustic beauty of the ancient town. The air is warm and dry, filled with the scent of fig trees and the distant murmur of conversation. You are not alone. You are walking with a group of people, but there is one who stands out from the rest. A man of humble grace yet commanding presence. His name is Jesus.

You have left everything behind to follow this man. You’ve seen miracles happen before your eyes and heard wisdom from his lips that has stirred your soul. And now, as you walk along these roads, Jesus turns to you, his eyes meeting yours with a depth of love and sincerity.

The world around you seems to fade away, as if you two are the only ones standing there. He wants to hear from you, just you. And so he asks, “But who do you say that I am?”

This is not a question for the masses, nor even a smaller group. It is a question for you. Jesus is asking you for your answer. Who do you say that Jesus is?

Let that question echo in your mind, let it resonate in your heart. Who do you say that he is? Not what others say, not what you’ve heard or read. But your own answer, your own revelation.

As we open our eyes and come back to the present, carry the thought with us throughout the sermon today. Remember, Jesus is asking you, right here, right now, “But who do you say that I am?”

When Jesus asks Peter this same question, we encounter a moment of profound revelation. When Jesus asks Peter, “But who do you say that I am?” Peter responds with a conviction born not of human wisdom, but of divine revelation. Peter boldly declares, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16)

This response, my friends, is not just an answer. It is a declaration of faith, a testament of belief, a rock-solid conviction that is unshakeable and unbreakable. It is the very essence of the faith that we uphold as followers of Christ. Peter boldly declares to Jesus, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”

In our hymn we’ve been exploring this Lenten Season, “Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing” the lyrics at the end of verse 1 into the beginning of verse 2 sing, “Praise the Mount, I’m fixed upon it / Mount of God redeeming love / Here I raise my Ebenezer / Here by thy great help I’m come”

Today we are praising the mount! We are bolding declaring our more inner truths that God have revealed to us! We raise our Ebenezer for the great things that God has done!

In the Old Testament, the prophet Samuel sets up a stone to commemorate the Israelites’ victory over the Philistines. He names it Ebenezer, saying “Thus far the LORD has helped us.” The term Ebenezer, in Hebrew, translates to “Stone of Help”. For Samuel, this stone served as a tangible reminder of God’s divine intervention and faithfulness.

And here we see, Peter, echoing a similar sentiment. His declaration is his Ebenezer. It is the bedrock of his faith, his personal acknowledgment of the divine identity of Jesus. Despite his future doubts, despite his resistance to change, despite his imminent denials, this moment stands out as a beacon of his faith.

Peter is praising the mount, declaring his faith in who Jesus is. The two establish a symbolic Ebenezer, with Jesus in turn renaming Simon Peter to Peter. Peter’s name now means “rock”, perhaps because of his unshakable and unbreakable declaration. And whether Jesus meant Peter is now the rock on which the church is built or whether Jesus just meant that time and place in the rock, this moment is laid out as a foundation to the Way and the Church that Jesus and his followers will build.

We know Peter was not perfect. His faith wavered in the face of the storm, he resisted the path that Jesus had to take, he even denied knowing Jesus three times during his crucifixion and death. But, this moment of confession, this moment of revelation, stands as a testament to his faith.

Peter’s faith – his conviction in that moment – was so profound, so unshakeable and unbreakable, that Jesus named him to be the rock. This was not because Peter was without fault, but because at his core, he knew who Jesus was. 

Our faith is not defined by our perfections, but by our divine revealed truths. Despite our doubts, despite our shortcomings, it is our faith and our convictions, our personal Ebenezers, that define our relationship with Christ.

But what exactly is a conviction within the context of faith?

A conviction is a firmly held belief or opinion that we hold in our hearts. It is a divine truth that has been revealed to us by God. It transcends human reasoning and understanding, anchoring us in our faith even amid waves of doubt and uncertainty. You can think of conviction as a rock, unshakeable and unbreakable beliefs because God has made them known to us.  

I would like to share a personal story that beautifully illustrates this concept. This story involves a deeply held conviction of a woman of faith, someone very close to my heart – my mom.

Growing up, my family and I were part of the Lutheran church in North Dakota. However, when we moved to Colorado, the landscape of our faith community changed. The only Lutheran Church in our new town, a thriving community with a vibrant youth program, belonged to a branch of Lutheranism that did not endorse women as leaders within the church.

Upon moving, we received multiple invitations to join this local Lutheran Church. To many on the outside, it seemed logical for us to join this community because we were, after all, Lutherans. Yet, my mother held a conviction, a divine truth that had been revealed to her through her relationship with Jesus. She firmly believed, with every fiber of her being, that women were also called to be leaders within the church. This conviction was so profound, so unshakeable and unbreakable, that we never stepped foot inside that Lutheran Church.

Instead, we joined the Presbyterian Church in our town. This church, belonging to the Presbyterian Church (USA) branch, mirrored my mother’s conviction. And the rest is history, including my ordination as a PC(USA) pastor. I believe, with every fiber of my being, my mom’s rock-solid belief that women were also called to be leaders within the church became the foundation that people like me are also called to be leaders in the church.

Much like Peter, who stood firm in his belief of Jesus as the Messiah, my mother stood firm in her belief that God had revealed to her and my family and many others.

We are all called to reflect on and share the divine truths revealed to us by God. They may not always align with the world’s expectations or follow the easiest path, but they are the pillars of our faith, the rocks upon which our spiritual journeys are built.

However, it is crucial to understand that our faith journey is not about having convictions about every single aspect in our faith. Faith is not a puzzle to be solved, where every piece perfectly fits together without any gaps. Rather, faith is more like a tapestry, woven with threads of convictions, questions, doubts, and revelations. It’s perfectly normal, and indeed, healthy to have questions and uncertainties.

As we journey together in faith, it is essential to recognize that our rock-solid beliefs, our answers to Jesus’s profound question, “But who do you say that I am?”, will not always align. Do you think everyone whispered in their hearts the same answer when we imagined together earlier? Of course not! Our tapestries of faith are woven together different.  Each of us, through our unique experiences and relationships with God, will have different responses. That is the beauty of our faith community – our diversity in faith and revealed truths. It is this diversity that enriches our understanding of God, of faith, and of each other.

Yet, amidst this diversity, there are moments when our convictions converge, creating pillars of shared belief that ground us as a community. We might call these core values. In our congregation, we have identified rock-solid convictions that we collectively uphold, revealed to us through our communal journey with God.

The first of these is that we strive to see Christ in each person, practicing expansive welcome and steadfast love. This conviction challenges us to look beyond our differences, to see the image of God in each other, and to extend love and welcome to all.

Our second core value is our commitment to center our life around joyful and grateful worship of God. This revealed truth reminds us that our faith is not a burden but a joy, a reason for celebration and gratitude.

The third is our aspiration to continually grow in our faith. This Ebenezer pushes us to never become complacent in our faith journey, but to always seek to deepen our understanding of God and the living word.

The fourth conviction is our determination to use our gifts to fulfill God’s call. We know with certainty that God has blessed each of us with unique talents and abilities, and we must use these gifts in service of God’s plan.

Our fifth and final core value is our commitment to serve God by serving our neighbors near and far. This rock-solid belief calls us to look beyond our own needs and to see the needs of others, to extend the hand of service in love and humility.

In our congregation, we have five core values that bind us together. These are our collective convictions, our shared Ebenezers. They are the rocks upon which we build our community of faith, our church.

Life is a winding road filled with doubt and uncertainty, hardships and challenges. We know this as individuals, and we as members and friends of First Presbyterian know this as a community. We must cling to what rock-solid convictions, what has been revealed to us by God. For it is in these beliefs that we find our strength, our courage, and our faith. It is in these revelations that we find our answer to Jesus’ question, “But who do you say that I am?”.

When life overwhelms us with its choices and possibilities, we must return to the core of our faith. We hold fast to our what God has revealed to us, to the love and grace of God that binds us together as a community.

“Praise the Mount, I’m fixed upon it
Mount of thy redeeming love.”

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.