August 17, 2003

Mount of Olives: The Place of Retreat
Luke 21:37-38; 22:39-46

Our dog loves to go under our bed. If there are too many people moving about the house, he will go under the bed. If it starts to lightning and thunder, he’ll go under the bed. Just a week or so ago, we had a birthday party for my daughter, and the table was covered with balloons. Some of the people sitting around the table blew up several of the balloons, and, while stretching the opening of each balloon, released the air. You know the screeching sound that results when you do that. After listening for a few moments—the sound was beginning to drive me crazy, too—I noticed that Sniffles was nowhere to be found. I can hardly overemphasize how unusual it is for him not to be near the table when food is present. But he just wasn’t there. He wasn’t under any of the chairs in the kitchen, and he wasn’t hiding in the inner most recesses of his kennel. We didn’t know where he was. Did someone let him outside? we wondered. Then it dawned on everyone, seemingly at the same time. Check under the bed. And there he was.

Our dog loves to go under our bed. It seems to give him a sense of security when the world around him is noisy and perhaps chaotic. The bed provides a degree of shelter, and it offers an alternative to the cares and worries of a typical dog’s day, whatever they may be. That space, as confined and as dark as it might be, serves as Sniffles’ get-away—his place of retreat. Perhaps you have a space like that in your life. If not, find one.

Jesus had such a place. It is called the Mount of Olives. The Mount of Olives, situated on the eastern edge of Jerusalem, rises only a few hundred feet above the city itself, or some 2,700 feet above sea level. A trip to the top of the mountain, however, rewards any traveler with a breathtaking view, both to the east and the west. To the east, you can see the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea, nearly 15 miles away. On a particularly clear day, you can even look across the Valley and see the Hills of Moab. To the west—it is unforgettable—you enjoy the most stunning panoramic view of the entire city of Jerusalem, a view unmatched from any other vantage point.

In addition to the view from the top of the mountain, the western slope of the Mount of Olives provides a collection of beautiful resting places, none more famous than the Garden of Gethsemane. Places where a person can catch his breath under the trees. Places where a pilgrim either leaving or entering the city can sit and reflect on the experiences of the day. Places where a weary traveler, distracted by the noise and concerns of the world, can set all cares aside temporarily and be renewed. The Mount of Olives is a place of retreat.

It is not difficult, by the way, to imagine how Jesus first came to know and love the Mount of Olives. During those times of the year when people made pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the population of the city momentarily tripled. With the associated increases in the cost of lodging—you know what it is like traveling during the high season—most people, particularly the poor, made arrangements to stay in the surrounding villages. These are the earliest examples of “Mennoniting Your Way” on record! Jesus, as you perhaps remember, bedded down at the house of his good friend, Lazarus, in Bethany. From there the only reasonable route to Jerusalem, just a short distance away, was across the Mount of Olives. Jesus no doubt walked up and down the mountain every day when he was in the area.

Before too long, the place took on a special meaning for him. He would go there to unwind after long and challenging days of teaching in the temple (Luke 21:37). He sometimes sat there with his disciples and entertained the various ideas and questions that they raised (Matt. 24:3). Importantly, a number of the references to Jesus visiting the Mount of Olives appear during his so-called Passion Week, the week when he was betrayed and eventually crucified. This association is telling in and of itself. During the most difficult week of his entire life, Jesus apparently found on the Mount of Olives at least some respite, some space, some relief.

There are in the Gospels less than a dozen references to Jesus visiting the Mount of Olives, but we are certainly entitled to imagine a great deal more. Luke, after all, tells us that Jesus “came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives… (22:39). Can’t you picture him resting on its slope, regaining strength after a trying encounter with some stubborn and obstinate people? Don’t you see him there, listening quietly as his heavenly father speaks with him about the days to come? Is it difficult to imagine Jesus setting everything else aside—regularly—in order to have his own strength replenished and his soul renewed? I am quite certain that all of us have little if any trouble conjuring up mental pictures of Jesus healing the sick, confronting the Pharisees, or even standing before the Roman magistrate. We can see him hustling and bustling through the crowded streets of Jerusalem—why, we can nearly feel the commotion that his visits to the city often created. Can we just as easily see him lying down under a tree on the Mount of Olives, hanging out with God?

As the Mount of Olives rises above the Judean landscape, it reminds us of the need that all of us have to constantly create a sense of balance in our lives. The Mount of Olives serves to symbolize forever the need to retreat from the cares and responsibilities of life and to cultivate a profound and life-giving sense of connectedness with our heavenly father. In Jesus’ own example, we can easily sense the tension that he must have felt between penetration into the world and separation from it. Yet it is a tension that Jesus learned to live with in healthy ways.

Who of us, after all, could imagine a calling in life more important, more demanding, more draining, and more exhilarating than that of redeeming the entire world? Who of us here serves in some capacity that is even remotely similar to our Lord’s in terms of its demands and impact? Are teaching or serving on staff at the college of equal stress and significance? Or working as a doctor or a lawyer? Cleaning houses or office buildings? Administrating a company or running one’s own business? Maybe providing counseling or therapy to dysfunctional people on a regular basis—that would surely be trying. Being a student? Papers and projects and tests—piles and piles of homework that often seem to have no apparent connection to the real world. Perhaps being a stay-at-home parent, and adding home schooling on top of everything else? That is a 24-hour a day job.

Honestly, who among us occupies a position or serves in some capacity that is even close to the role assigned our Lord? He constantly had things to do. There were always people to heal. Bridges to build. Questions to answer. Trips to make. Lessons to teach. Surely Jesus, of all people, had the understandable right to work incessantly and to resist the urge to withdraw from time to time. But he didn’t. There is no hint in the records of his life of such hysteria. Instead, “he came out and went, as was his custom, to the Mount of Olives…” Jesus powerfully penetrated the world. Jesus prayerfully separated from it.

We, too, need to find such a balance. It is absolutely imperative. We can, of course, pray throughout all of life’s responsibilities—at home, in the office, or on the road. I shared a sermon with you last summer—I’m sure you all remember it well!—about Frank Laubach and his challenge for us to flash instant prayers everywhere we go. We can and should convert even the most ordinary activities of life into acts of worship.

But we also need to crawl under the bed from time to time. We need not only to penetrate the world with the life-giving message of the Gospel, but to separate from it in order to find refreshment for our own souls. Finding a place—a sacred space—can help us to do that. In his book entitled The Other Side of Silence, Morton Kelsey describes the importance of such a space in this way:
The first problem is to find a place where the outer confusion can be shut off, where the bright lights and the telephone cannot break in, and where even religious discussion is stilled. The purpose is not to create, or make something happen, but to allow it to happen, and where it takes place is an individual matter.
Some people find it easy to quiet down in a church where the rule of silence is observed. For others it may be in one’s own room, or in a garden or near the water, or on a mountain top…. There is a manna in certain places that can draw a person to silence…. Each of us can have a place like this, where stillness takes over and one becomes open to a reality beyond oneself.

Madeleine L’Engle, the renowned writer who has somehow managed to publish over 60 wonderful books, many of which relate to spiritual formation, has such a place. “My special place,” she writes in A Circle of Quiet,
is a small brook in a green glade, a circle of quiet from which there is no visible sign of human beings. There’s a natural stone bridge over the brook, and I sit there, dangling my legs and looking through the foliage at the sky reflecting in the water, and things slowly come back into perspective…. If I sit for a while, then my impatience, crossness, frustration, are indeed annihilated, and my sense of humor returns.

Richard Foster is equally convinced of our own need to find such a place. In Celebration of Discipline, he even starts to meddle a bit. We can find or develop a “quiet place” designed for silence and solitude. He writes:
Homes are being built constantly. Why not insist that a little inner sanctuary be put into the plans, a small place where any family member could go to be alone and silent? What’s to stop us? The money? We build elaborate play rooms and family rooms and think it well worth the expense. If you already own a home consider enclosing a little section of the garage or patio. If you live in an apartment be creative and find other ways to allow for solitude. I know of one family that has a special chair; whenever anyone sits in it he or she is saying, ‘Please don’t bother me, I want to be alone.’

As the Mount of Olives rises above the Jerusalem skyline, it reminds us of a simple truth, a simple truth that my dog even learned early in life. He is no spiritual giant. He reads very little, and I’ve never been able to teach him to pray before meals. But he learned something that you and I would do well to embrace. We need to separate from the cares and busyness of the world from time to time. We need a place of retreat. Such a place could be a retreat center nearby. A small room in our house. A stump by the stream. The prayer room here in our church. A storage closet at work. Wherever our place of retreat might be, we need such a place. A place that calls us to quietness. A place that calls us to God.