A Tale of Two Mountains
A sermon based on Hebrews 12:18-24
Sunday, August 25, 2013 – Pentecost 14C
Do you like to be scared? I like movies a lot. And I enjoy pretty much all genres: Action, Comedy, Drama, Sci-Fi, Western, even the occasional chick flick. But one genre I've never gotten into is Horror. I don't like the disturbing thoughts or images. I enjoy being entertained, but I don't like being scared.
But to be honest, Hollywood, has nothing on God. Because nothing is more disturbing or horrifying than the wrath of God. Nothing is more terrible or terrifying than hell. And that's a real horror, not just some fictional terror made up by a script writer. Yes, hell is very real. And it's a fate that we all deserve for the many times we've crossed the line and rebelled against God's clear commands. And that truth brings a real and valid fear.
But today, the author to the Hebrews reminds us that even though we once used to live in fear and terror under the threats of God's law, we don't live there anymore. We live in the joyful assembly of God's grace. Listen now to the contrast between two mountains—Mt. Sinai, the mountain of terror, and Mt. Zion, the mountain of joy—described for us in Hebrews 12:18-24…
18 You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; 19 to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, 20 because they could not bear what was commanded: "If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned." 21 The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, "I am trembling with fear."
22 But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23 to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, 24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
I. The Mountain of Terror
Mount Sinai was horrifying. Just imagine the scene. Having just left Egypt by God's miraculous rescue, you are on your way to the Promised Land, a glorious paradise where you can live in peace and prosperity. But you have to make a pit stop first. You have to head south to Sinai. So there you are camping at the base of the mountain.
One day Moses comes before the assembly and announces to you that in three days God is going to appear before all the people. So you get ready. You clean up your tent. You bathe. You put on your finest clothes. And when you're as ready as you can be to meet the Creator of the Universe, the morning of the third day arrives. And you are utterly terrified as all of your senses are affected…
A storm quickly rolls in and a thick cloud covers the mountain. Thunder echoes through the valley and shakes your very bones. The lightning flashes and fire consumes the mountain. Thick smoke fills your nostrils and your mouth. It stings your eyes. And the whole mountain shakes in a violent earthquake, rocking the earth beneath your feet.
Then you hear an even more terrifying sound: A trumpet blast calling out from the top of the mountain, steadily growing louder and louder—more terrifying than the storm because you know this is not a natural disaster. This is from the hand of the Lord. Then, you hear the most terrifying sound of all: The voice of God himself speaking from the cloud. A sound so terrible that you beg Moses, "Please, don't ever let us go through something so terrifying again. From now on you speak to God for us. You come and tell us what he says. But don't make us listen to his terrifying voice again." And, Moses, your leader, disappears into the cloud on his way up the mountain.
How terrifying! Now fast forward a little more than a month. Forty days later, Moses, comes down the mountain. And you thought he was dead! You thought God destroyed him in the storm on the mountain! So you moved on. You thought God had abandoned you, so you came up with your own. You worshiped a cow—not a real cow, but one that your new leader, Aaron, had made at your insistence. And Moses tells you what God told him on the top of the mountain. He starts, "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me."
Can you imagine the sheer terror you must feel? God has displayed for you his power and his wrath on Mount Sinai that shook you to the core. Now you've forsaken him and broken his commands. You've trespassed against him. And if God demanded that stupid animal who didn't know any better were to be stoned to death for breaking the law and stepping across the line that God said, "Do not cross!" then how much more would his wrath pour out against you, who should have known better than to trespass against God's commands!
Of course you can imagine that sheer terror! For you too have rebelled against God and crossed the line that he said, "Do not cross!" You too have had other gods—maybe not a golden calf, but other gods of your own making. You've served your selfishness, your entertainment, your comfort instead of God. You've taken his name in vain by your apathy toward it and toward his Word. You've rebelled against those God has put in authority over you. You've mistreated your own bodies and hurt others, failing to help those in need. You've ruined reputations, even God's. And you've refused to be content with God's blessings, but sought more riches, not to be used to God's glory, but for your own indulgence. In short, you've broken all of God's commandments too.
And you know that God is still the judge of all men. And you know that hell is a very real place that you rightly deserve. Though you never experienced in quite the same way as those Israelites did, you too know the terror of Mount Sinai.
Do you like to be scared? Then think on your failure to keep God's commands. And consider the hell that should be yours.
What terror is there if we stay there at the foot of that mountain and try to live only under the law. But there is a better mountain—one that brings, not terror, but peace and joy. So, come on, let's quickly move on. Mt. Sinai is just a rest stop on our journey, on our way to Mt. Zion…
II. The Mountain of Joy
So, where's Mount Zion? Well, it's in Jerusalem. Zion was one of the hills on which the city of Jerusalem was originally built. In 2 Samuel 5(:7,9) we're told, "David captured the fortress of Zion…David then took up residence in the fortress and called it the City of David." It was the ancient fortress of the city.
As such an important historical feature, the name "Zion" became associated with many things. First, Zion became a name that could be used for all of Jerusalem. Then, it became used as a name for the center of worship the temple. It was where God descended and condescended to be with his people. It was where God made himself accessible to them.
But the author to the Hebrews isn't talking about some geographical location. He makes it clear that it's not some tangible place: "You have not come to a mountain that can be touched… But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God."
Zion is used as a name for the Church where God himself still dwells, where God condescends to be with his people. You hear that reminder often in our liturgy before we confess our sins: "God invites us to come into his presence and worship him with humble and penitent hearts…" or "We have come into the presence of God, who created us to love and serve him as his dear children…" But how can we sinners who "[are] by nature sinful, and [who] have disobeyed [God] in [our] thoughts, words, and actions," and who "have disobeyed him and deserve only his wrath and punishment…" come into his presence? How can sinful people dwell with a holy, sinless God and not be destroyed?!
Through the Mediator. Through Jesus.
Once a year in ancient Israel, they would celebrate the festival of Yom Kippur, that is, the Day of Atonement. And the high priest would serve as the mediator between God and man. He would slaughter one goat and sprinkle the blood all over the Ark of the Covenant in the Most Holy Place where God himself dwelled, all over the temple, and all over the altar. Then he would take a second goat, and place his hands on the goat's head symbolically laying the sins of the people on that scapegoat. Then it would be sent off into the wilderness to die.
This was, of course, all pointing ahead to the Day of Atonement that we call Good Friday. On Mount Calvary, which sits right next to Mount Zion, Jesus became the perfect Mediator. Having lived a sinless life in our place, his blood was shed on the cross that it might sprinkle us and make us clean. He became our scapegoat, taking our sin on himself and being sent away from God's loving presence, forsaken by him on the cross, that our sins might be sent off with him. Now we are clean. Now we are holy.
And now we are full of joy that in spite of our failure to keep God's commands, in spite of deserving the terrors of hell, we have peace with God and will dwell with him in the heavenly Zion forever. There we will, "come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven… to God, the judge of all men," of whose judgment we no longer need to be afraid.
For we're forgiven. We have peace with God. Our names are already written in the Book of Life. We have reservations there. We have our papers of citizenship in heaven. And now we live on this mountain—Mt. Zion—with the Gospel of God's forgiveness in Christ.
Eventually, Mt. Sinai will be destroyed—on the Last Day. But Mt. Zion will remain for all of eternity. Mt. Sinai was terrifying as the people stood in the presence of God for a day. But on Mt. Zion, believers will dwell with God in peace forever. On the penalty of death only a few could touch Mt. Sinai. But everyone in the whole world is invited to live on Mt. Zion.
So which mountain do you prefer? God has brought you through Mt. Sinai to Mt. Zion. Now don't leave it and go back to living life under threats of the Law. Don't go back to living in fear and guilt and shame. But stand firm in your faith. Let no one rob you of your Gospel joy! Let no one move you off Mt. Zion ever! Keep listening to God's Word and then serve him faithfully, striving to keep his commands, not in fear, because you must, but in love for him because of the peace and joy he gives in Christ on Mt. Zion.
Do you like to be scared? Then go ahead and watch your horror movies if you must. But the real terror of hell? No thank you! None of us ever want to feel that fear. So leave Mt. Sinai behind. Rejoice that you've come to a better mountain. And stay at Mt. Zion, where you find peace and joy, where you find Jesus. In his name, dear friends, amen.