Second Sunday of Advent
Pastor: Rev. Kim P. Wells
Why do people climb Mount Everest? The most famous response is, “Because it’s there.” Those are the words of George Mallory, one of the first climbers to attempt to summit Everest. We still don’t know if he made it or not because he never returned from his summit bid of 1924. His body was found in 1999 but it has not been determined if he died on the way up or the way down. Why do people risk life and limb to climb Mount Everest?
At the end of the book, High Exposure: An Enduring Passion for Everest and Unforgiving Places, film director and mountaineer, David Breashears concludes: “The risk inherent in climbing such mountains carries its own reward, deep and abiding because it provides as profound a sense of self-knowledge as anything else on earth. A mountain is perilous, true; but it is also redemptive.” [pp. 304-305]
The incredible challenges involved in climbing Mount Everest evidently bring out your essential character. You find out who you are. If you have seen the movie, “Everest,” or read Into Thin Air, the best seller by John Krakauer, you know the story of the tragic climbing season in the spring of 1996 on Mount Everest. Horrific storms led to 8 deaths in the course of two days.
One of those left for dead, three times, was Beck Weathers. I have read Weathers’ book, Left for Dead, a memoir which includes the Everest story. I must say, in reading about Weathers before the Everest episode, he is not the most likable person. He seemed rather self absorbed, self indulgent, and, consequently, alienated from his wife and family. Yes, he suffered from depression, but he was a successfully employed pathologist and able to function professionally. Personally, it was another matter.
Then you read of Weathers’ Everest experience. He spent two consecutive nights exposed to the frigid temperatures during fierce storms at 26,000 feet. He was left for dead three times by fellow climbers. There was no way that he could survive. But he did. This is how he describes it: “Then, a miracle occurred at 26,000 feet. I opened my eyes.
“My wife was hardly finished with the harrowing task of telling our children their father was not coming home when a second call came through, informing her that I wasn’t quite as dead as I had seemed.
“Somehow I regained consciousness out on the South Col – I don’t understand how – and was jolted to my senses, as well as to my feet, by a vision powerful enough to rewire my mind. I am neither churchly nor a particularly spiritual person, but I can tell you that some force within me rejected death at the last moment and then guided me, blind and stumbling – quite literally a dead man walking – into camp and the shaky start of my return to life.” [p.7]
Weathers’ hands and feet and face were frostbitten. He ended up having to have his right arm amputated between the elbow and wrist, the four fingers and thumb of his left hand removed, parts of both feet removed, and his nose and face reconstructed. It was bad.
David Breashears, the film director referred to earlier, was on Everest that spring filming a movie for IMAX. As a seasoned climber, he was involved in rescuing those who were caught on the mountain. He ended up walking the blind, frost bitten Beck Weathers back to base camp. This is what Breashears says about the experience:
“It wasn’t long before I began to understand how remarkable this stranger at my back really was. We’d just started down, when Beck said, ‘You know, David, I paid $65,000 to climb Everest. And when I left Dallas, I said to my wife, I said, ‘Peach, $65,000 to climb Everest! It’s costing me an arm and a leg!’ Then he added, ‘But I guess I bargained them down.’”
Breashears goes on:
“I was astounded. This man, this mutilated survivor, was telling me a joke? About his own injuries? He was a pathologist. He well knew what lay in store. Both hands were frozen through to the bone. He knew he’d lost them. He still had no idea about his face. We weren’t about to tell him. He probably would have simply invented some jokes about that.
“It went on, pretty much nonstop the whole way down. He was funny as hell. He compared our little string of climbers to a conga line. He wanted to sing ‘Chain of Fools.’ It kept his mind agile and his body moving.
“He didn’t complain. He was so thankful. He had a profound effect on me. After all that death, after being judged dead himself, not once but three times, this man’s spirit was transcendent. He was a gift for all of us from that tragedy. Out of all that horror emerged this great spirit. He never should have survived. . . His first night was spent lying on the edge of an abyss, and his second was spent screaming in a tent with the doors blown open, exposed, his sleeping bags torn away. The very fact of his survival was astounding. He came out of the horror with his humanity and intelligence intact.
“The stresses of high-altitude climbing reveal your true character; they unmask who you really are. You no longer have all the social graces to hide behind, to play roles. You are the essence of what you are. And if I can be one tenth of what Beck was that day, I will have been a worthy man.” [pp. 273-274]
It’s not Everest but this morning we heard about John the Baptizer calling people in the wilderness to confront who they really are. Out in the wilderness, away from the trappings of power and comfort, the social roles that protect, and the wealth that obscures, John is calling people to repent. To come clean. To face who they are and deal with the truth of it. To turn their lives around.
John invites the people to be baptized. This is a ritual cleansing, yes. But in Christian symbolism, baptism represents new life in Christ. The submersion under the water symbolizes dying. The coming out of the water represents new life, like emerging from the waters of the womb. Baptism was a commitment to a new future. Regardless of who these people were in the past, there was a different future ahead once they were baptized; once they had come to terms with their situation and were ready to commit to change. The mountains brought down and the valleys lifted up and the crooked places made straight.
Now one of the things I really like about this story is the specificity. We’re not just given theoretical platitudes. The story includes not only the symbolic but also the practical. The people ask John directly, “What should we do?” He offers advice about concrete changes in real life circumstances that represent substantial transformation. This brood of vipers has a lot of work to do. They are going to have to make major changes if they are going to bear the fruit of repentance.
Two coats? Give one away to someone who has none. That’s pretty direct and specific. And with food, do the same. Take down that mountain of excess.
This week I heard about someone who went out to eat at an extravagant, expensive restaurant. The food was delicious, yes, but the bill was also astounding. To mitigate the sense of overindulgence, the person determined to donate the cost of the meal to an area food bank. That is just in keeping with the counsel from John the Baptist in this story. You have two, give one away to someone with none.
The tax collectors also ask, “What should we do?” They were overcharging people all the time. They gave the expected portion to the Romans and then kept the rest. The Romans didn’t care what the people were forced to pay just so Rome got the amount due. It was a set up ripe for taking advantage of people and that’s what happened. So, what are these repentant tax collectors to do? Just collect the fair amount. No more extortion. That’s a drastic change. A valley filled in.
And soldiers who were essentially Roman police there to keep order, what are they to do, these Gentiles who have come to be spiritually renewed in the wilderness? No threats. No undue violence. And be satisfied with your wages. No extra duty security. There’s something crooked made straight.
John’s strong language and direct appeal seem to inspire a sense of hope and promise. We are told that the people are filled with expectation. His teaching is described as good news: “So, with many other exhortations, John proclaimed the good news to the people.”
In our honest moments, it is good news to know that we can change; that God is not finished with us yet, that we can create a different future, that the mountains and valleys can be surmounted.
This Advent season used to be referred to as “little Lent.” It was a time of repentance. A time to examine your life and see how God is calling you to turn around and live in the light of God’s realm. Our faith teaches that we can be transformed. Our valleys smoothed over. Our mountains leveled out. Our crooked edges softened.
In thinking about Wonder-Full peace this season we are aware of the mountains that need to be moved so that all people can live together in peace. We need to level the mountain of violence. And the mountain of racism. And the mountain of environmental destruction. And the mountain of greed. We need to fill in the valley of hunger. And the valley of poverty. And the valley of entitlement. And the valley of alienation. We need to straighten out the crookedness of power abuse and injustice and oppression and self centeredness. How can we face these huge challenges on a societal let alone a world wide basis?
How do they climb Mount Everest? They climb Everest step by excruciating step in the thin air while their bodies are breaking down and their minds are going askew and their energy has ebbed below functionality. Yet they take another step. And another. Sometimes having to wait for minutes until they can summon the power to go just one more. Step. Yet they press on. And the summit appears.
To move the mountains of problems in our world, to fill in the valleys of inequity and scarcity, to straighten out the corruption and selfishness and suffering, we have to face the personal transformation that each of us is being called to make. Each one of us needs to be willing to take another step. Start anew. Turn over a new leaf. Make a change. Be transformed by the power of love. To see the big changes, we have to be willing to change, to be changed, to face the often difficult and painful process of individual conversion.
And it is good news in the context of our faith, because we know that we are called to face who we are so that we can be redeemed. When we are honest, when we let ourselves see the truth, we know that we are missing the joys and delights of life with our dissipation and greed and obsessions. And we are given the opportunity to change. The Christian call to conversion is a call to new life which is purposeful and satisfying and peaceful. It is a life of bearing good fruit.
When you find out who you are on Mount Everest, it may be too late to change. Your character flaws and weaknesses may lead to your death. But our faith teaches us that each and every day, God is seeking to work for our highest good by bringing out our best nature so that we might bear the fruits of goodness and justice. It is never too late to repent. And we are never beyond hope or beyond the scope of God’s transforming power.
Beck Weathers essentially died three times. And he is alive to tell about it. So he knows what it is to have your life upended and turned around. The mountain brought low, the valley raised up, the crooked made straight. And in reflecting on that experience he tells us:
“I learned that miracles do occur. In fact, I think they occur pretty commonly.
“I also now understand that humans are the toughest creatures on Earth. There’s a reason we’re at the top of the food chain, and it is not simply because we’re a smarter cockroach. There’s drive, determination and strength within each of us.” [p. 283]
May we not be afraid to scale the mountain of personal growth and change. Amen.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.