The Scottish town of Stirling is built around a castle. It's a real castle, going back to the middle ages. It wasn't built as a tourist attraction and it has been the site of many major battles in Scottish history. The location of Stirling is such that whoever controlled Stirling Castle controlled Scotland. Anyone who has ever been to the castle would immediately see why it is so important. The castle is built on a huge rock standing in the middle of a plain. To the north, the Scottish highlands dramatically appear, great hills standing like sentinels, with passes disappearing between them, leading to the north of Scotland. To the south, the plain stretches out to smaller hills. Beyond them, lies England. Every invasion from the south was won or lost at Stirling. Looking down from the castle, it is possible to see where William Wallace defeated the English army at Stirling Bridge.
I wonder if anyone who heard today's gospel, while in the castle during one of the innumerable sieges it endured, would have seen the irony of the reading. To stand in the great stone castle, looking out from the battlements and feeling the sheer power and safety that the cliffs provided, while looking forwards to a messianic age, when 'God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God'. For most of human history, rocks and mountains have represented security. The psalms themselves witness to this. God is called a rock about twenty times. One example will do, Psalm 71, verse 3: 'Be to me a rock of refuge, a strong fortress, to save me, for you are my rock and my fortress.'
The messianic age is therefore an age of vulnerability, at least for those without faith. The history of Israel is a history of a land surrounded by enemies. The hope for the messianic age was a hope that there would come a time when Israel would no longer fear their enemies. More than that, it was a hope for a time when Jerusalem would be the centre of the world, the place where all the people of the world would gather to worship the one God. The mountains and the valleys were merely obstacles to the arrival of the people.
Much has changed in recent years. For one thing, mountains are no longer the protection they once were. In an age of aerial warfare, weapons of mass destruction, even the highest mountain range can be breached. Castles on mountain tops are just for tourists. They remain as symbols, symbols of security, but also of mistrust and enmity. As long as there is division, there will be mountains of a different sort to divide us, to act as symbols of safety. The modern world has different ways of being afraid of others, of treating the other as a threat. These ways are less violent but sometimes no less deadly. The modern mountains are made out of paper, or exist as ideas. They are immigration laws, passports, refugee allocation laws, employment regulations. Financial walls built up between countries, rules about the interchange of currency and debt policies, all these also act as our new mountains.
As long as we live, as long as there is human history, there will be mountains between us. Whether as societies, as families or as individuals, we will find ways of living in a state of separation and mistrust. Safety will be preferred to community. A great rock to live on, and to look down from on all the others, is what we want. Below us or over the horizon are the people we fear, the people we were never meant to fear. That's the way of the world. That doesn't mean to say that we can't begin to pull down the mountains for ourselves.
'He said to them, "Because of your little faith. For truly, I say to you, if you have faith as a grain of mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move; and nothing will be impossible to you."' (Matthew, chapter 17, verse 20.)