The 14th Sunday After Trinity August 28, 2005
23, 378, 375, 652(1,4)
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
For you have not come to the mountain that may be touched and that burned with fire, and to blackness and darkness and tempest, and the sound of a trumpet and the voice of words, so that those who heard it begged that the word should not be spoken to them anymore. (For they could not endure what was commanded: “And if so much as a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned or shot with an arrow.” And so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I am exceedingly afraid and trembling.”) But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, to an innumerable company of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are registered in heaven, to God the Judge of all, to the spirits of just men made perfect, to Jesus the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better things than that of Abel.
Dear fellow redeemed in Jesus Christ our Lord:
The classic novel, A Tale of Two Cities, begins: “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.” The same could be said of the two mountains that are presented before us today in our text. Sinai was in some ways the worst of times. It is a mount upon which we see our mistakes and God’s holiness. We see a Christ-less relationship with God. It’s a mountain which is viewed in true terror. As we approach Mount Zion we see the best of times. We are privileged to view God through Christ and see the heavenly Jerusalem of which He has made us citizens. Today we hear A TALE OF TWO MOUNTAINS. I. Mount Sinai where we see the terror and destruction when we approach God with what we do; and II. Mount Zion where we see the blessedness of approaching God through Christ. May the Holy Spirit open our hearts to receive His message.
Even before the Law of God was recorded by Moses, people knew in their hearts the basic of right and wrong. When Cain murdered Abel this was as much against the will of God as murder is today. The will of God has not changed. On Sinai He did, however, record His Law. This written law was not only the Ten Commandments but also included laws governing the Israelites’ worship and everyday life. This was an agreement in which the Lord would enter with the Israelites, but it was a covenant that they would break.
Picture the scene: There was smoke and fire and thunder and lightning. Think of how you can be nearly jolted out of bed by a clap of thunder. Think of how the strong winds of a storm—or tornado—make us cower under whatever protection we can find. Now just imagine viewing this day after day upon Mount Sinai knowing that the source was the God whom you had come to worship. All the people were frightened. They were given stern warnings that even if an animal strayed onto the mountain they were to kill it. They couldn’t even touch it with their hands, but had to shoot it with an arrow.
Who can blame the Israelites for their fear and anxiety? We too would have been frightened. We still are frightened—and should be—if we approach God as those convicted of sin. A preacher named Jonathan Edwards delivered a famous sermon many years ago called, “Sinners in the Hand of an Angry God.” This sermon displayed the abject fear a person has when confronted by his sin and the consequences of it. God not only gave a demonstration on Sinai, but still demonstrates in our hearts the penalty for disobedience. That penalty is no less than the fires of Hell itself.
Yet, Sinai was necessary. The Law of God is necessary in order to show us our sin and our need for a Savior. We have to have it made clear to us that we cannot approach God by our own worthiness. Sin has separated us from God. If a person thinks he has no sin, he deceives himself (cf. 1 John 1:8-10). Take, for example, the Fifth Commandment. We may not think that we break this commandment often. After all it speaks against murder. Yet, when Jesus links murder to mere hatred we have nowhere to stand. How often have we had unjustified anger—losing our temper for no reason? How often have we had ill feelings toward another person that were so intense that we even rejoiced when that person suffered? How often have we failed to help those who needed our assistance? Sinai was a preview of God’s reaction to disobedience against His commandments. You can’t fool this Judge and you are responsible to Him.
In view of what took place on Mount Sinai it seems like there should be no chance we would rely on ourselves and attempt to approach God on the basis of our goodness. This would seem so obvious, and yet, just as when you’re driving in circles and always seem to end up at the same place, our sinful flesh will take control of our hearts and inevitably end up at Sinai. Our flesh wants to keep coming back to approaching God without fully relying upon Christ.
One of the reasons for this is that we don’t always remember how to deal with guilt. Guilt is by far the most powerful motivator there is. We would do just about anything to get rid of guilt. At times you’ll find kids push and push their parents until they get a spanking. Then the problem’s over and guilt went away. We as adults are no different. At times wouldn’t we rather have someone we’ve wronged just hit us or get vengeance on us so that things are evened out in our minds?
At times when we read in the Bible or hear that we’re forgiven by Christ, it doesn’t seem like enough. We may not feel forgiven. That’s when we go for the hard swat of the Law. Once we have done some sort of penance, or made up for the wrong somehow by ourselves, the guilty feeling goes away. But we must be honest. There is a difference between feeling and fact, and they often don’t have much to do with each other. The fact is that guilt is only truly removed through the forgiveness of Christ. Any other way is just a facade. When faith turns to Christ in repentance then that fact will also turn into a feeling of relief. The Lord is clear that the only genuine removal of guilt comes through the cross of Christ. In Christ we have a completely different view of our God.
“But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” [v.22] Here we have a picture of the Holy Christian Church, the gathering of all believers. Zion was one of the mountains upon which Jerusalem was built, and often is a picture of the dwelling place of God and believers in Christ. We don’t need to physically go to Jerusalem. It is called the heavenly Jerusalem. In fact, you’re already there.
You are already in the heavenly Jerusalem because of Jesus who is called: “the Mediator of the new covenant, and to the blood of sprinkling that speaks better than that of Abel.” [v.24] Recall what happened just outside of Jerusalem: the crucifixion of Christ. There you see the true and only effective way by which guilt is removed. The blood of Jesus shed for our sin is the only way in which we find forgiveness. It is effective because God accepted the sacrifice of His Son, and He judges all who are washed in that blood as righteous.
We may approach God through Jesus. He is our Mediator, the one who approaches the Father for us. Unlike the blood of Abel which cried for vengeance, the blood of Jesus calls for our pardon. As true God and true man Jesus was the only one who could take away our sin and guilt. In the familiar hymn, “Rock of Ages,” [TLH 376] we sing of being cleansed from the guilt and power of sin. Even if at times you may not feel forgiven, the facts speak differently. You cannot let emotion betray you and rob you of peace that God gives. We read in 1 John 3, “…if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart” (1 John 3:20)
Through Christ we can and should approach God. You don’t have to approach Him in fear and terror, but are able to approach Him as your Father. Rely on the perfection, holiness, and righteousness of Christ. Have confidence that the holy, innocent blood of Christ was sufficient to pay for all of your sins, even those that you may feel are unforgivable. It is God’s view that matters, and He is clear that He has forgotten about your failings. Your sins are truly removed. You can approach God, who is called the Judge of all, knowing that a verdict of “not guilty” has been declared upon you.
There is the importance of remaining on Zion. It is essential to continue to rely on Christ—not anything or anyone else—because in Christ your name is written in heaven. You’ve probably all had the experience of making a reservation and finding that somehow it got messed up. I had made arrangements for renting a house years ago when I moved from South Carolina to Eau Claire. I put a deposit down to hold it. When I arrived they told me that the house had been sold, and the new owner was not going to rent it out. I said, “What about my deposit?” They told me that they’d cut me a check, but I was out of luck. The reservation did me no good.
Yet this is not a real estate agent or hostess at a restaurant, but the Lord Himself who tells you that your name is registered in heaven. It is written in the book of Life.
There will be a lot of allurements that would make you look away from Christ and away from heaven. You may take a look at a lot of different avenues religiously. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard something like this in the course of my ministry, “I don’t have to do this to be a Christian. I can still be a Christian and do this.” That may be true…for the time being. But such an attitude is steps away from your Mediator, Christ. That’s a way of saying to Christ, “Thanks, but no thanks for Your work. I’d rather face the Judge without You.” That also is going back to Sinai and relying on yourself.
Know the preciousness of the work of your Savior Jesus, and the crucial difference between Sinai and Zion. “You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God.” [v.22] It is and will be the best of times and God invites you to stay. Amen.
Ministry by Mail is a weekly publication of the Church of the Lutheran Confession. Subscription and staff information may be found online at www.clclutheran.org/ministrybymail.
All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the New King James Version®. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.