The 15th Sunday After Pentecost September 9, 2007
536(1-5), 383, 289, 536(6)
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 through the holy blood of Christ Jesus:
In northern Colorado, we are able to enjoy the panorama of mountain peaks. From our city we can see two especially outstanding mountains: Long’s Peak and Meeker’s Peak. From our point of view those two landmarks appear to stand side by side and shoulder to shoulder. But perspective can fool you. These mountains are not shoulder to shoulder. Long’s Peak is hundreds of feet taller than Meeker’s Peak and are a good half mile apart. If you get up into the mountains, Long’s Peak obscures Meeker’s Peak entirely.
The writer to the Hebrews used mountains as symbols of spiritual things in order to impress a truth that he was teaching all the way through his letter.
This letter was addressed to Jewish Christians who were being persecuted and pressured to give up their faith in Jesus as Savior and be joined once again to the Jewish community. For the sake of peace, it would have been easier for these Christians to abandon, or at least compromise, their faith in Jesus.
The approach the writer takes in this letter is simple but thorough. He goes to lengths to demonstrate, first, that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment and the object of all that the Old Testament laws and rituals were pointing toward. Secondly, as the fulfillment, Jesus was superior to all the practices and trappings of the Jewish religion that was based on the Old Testament. The writer makes the point that Jesus is greater than the angels, that He is a better High Priest. that He is a better sacrifice for sin, and that His blood is far more able to atone for sins than the blood of all the lambs and goats and bulls that were offered. The writer’s plea is that these Christians not give up the better religion for a lesser one, and not lose their faith in Jesus by returning to work righteousness. He sums it all up by drawing on two symbolic mountains that were very familiar to the Jews. He declares that Mt. Zion is the better place to be. I. Mount Sinai represents a life of obligation to the Law and II. Mount Zion represents a life of grace in Jesus Christ
Mount Sinai is a lonely rock outcropping in the wilderness on the Sinai peninsula. Mount Zion was one of the mountains on which the city of Jerusalem was originally built. We first learn that Mount Sinai represents a life of obligation to the Law.
The most significant event in Old Testament Israelite history took place at Mount Sinai. It was about a month after the Children of Israel had escaped from Egypt under the leadership of Moses. They had already crossed through the Red Sea on dry land. Now the whole nation—probably some two million strong—was gathered at the foot of this forbidding rock in the middle of the wilderness.
They were told by Moses that the Lord was going to speak to them. Some very stringent rules were set up before the meeting with the Lord. There was a fence erected around the base of the mountain with the warning that any man or beast that set foot on the mountain would be killed. Husbands were not to sleep with their wives. Everyone was supposed to go through certain cleansing rituals.
Finally, the day came when they were to meet with the God that had delivered them from Egypt. But it soon became clear that the Israelites were getting more than they bargained for. The mountain itself was trembling. Black smoke and fire were pouring out of it. Dark clouds with thunder and lightning loomed overhead. Then came the long, searing blast of a trumpet, and finally, a voice from heaven. By this time the people were already terrified by the strange goings-on, but this voice floored them. It started listing God’s commandments: “You shall have no other gods before Me, You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain…” and so on (Exodus 20). God was proclaiming His holy and absolute laws to them.
The Law is that teaching of the Bible that shows us God’s holy will for men: what we are to do and what we are not to do. It is the moral code that we know as the Ten Commandments. As God’s creatures these basic truths are imprinted on our hearts and we are accountable to God for keeping them. When we fail, we merit His punishment.
The Israelites weren’t in any way a holy people. The Law, being spoken to them, exposed their sinful ways. They felt a genuine guilt and a terror at the thought that they had to answer to God for their ways. They begged Moses to get the Lord to stop. They couldn’t bear to listen to His words and His thunderous voice any longer. They asked Moses to be a mediator—the go-between—who would go and receive God’s message and pass it on to them.
But even Moses—the leader God had hand-picked to stand at the head of Israel, who had led them through the Red Sea, and who stood up to Mighty Pharaoh in God’s name—was terrified at this encounter with God based on His Law.
God’s says that the Law can save: “You shall therefore keep My statutes and My judgments, which if a man does, he shall live by them” (Leviticus 18:5, cf. Romans 10:5). But God also warns that “if the man keeps the whole law, but stumbles in one point, he is guilty of all.” (James 2:10)
When Moses went up on the mountain, the Lord gave him the ten commandments written on tablets of stone. People were to know and hear what God’s Law says. They are never to be allowed to put their head in the sand and pretend they are ignorant of it. God also gave Moses a whole set of laws specifically for Israel, many of which had to do with religious ceremonies that they were to practice as a nation (Ceremonial Law). But these rituals, like observing the Sabbath day and offering sacrifices, were all given as reminders of the promise of a Savior from the Lord—a Savior from their sins against the Law.
By the time of Jesus’ day, many Jews had come to look upon the ceremonial laws as a means by which to satisfy God and be accepted into heaven. They forgot that even Moses trembled before God’s holy judgment. Paul, once a pious Jew and outstanding Pharisee, after he came to know Christ pointed out that it is not only the Jews that must tremble when God’s laws are proclaimed. He told the Romans that “whatever the Law says, it says to those who are under the Law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.” (Romans 3:19)
Many people and every religion except genuine Christianity, in one way or another urges people to approach God at Mount Sinai. Every religion but one teaches salvation by works. People by nature seek to be justified before God by their own works. But the writer to the Hebrews quotes one detail of the Mount Sinai story: “…if so much as a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned…” [v.20] to emphasize this truth: We cannot approach God through works of the Law.
But the writer then reminds his Christian hearers that they have been called to approach God on a completely different mountain. Mount Zion represents a life of grace in Jesus Christ.
Originally, Mount Zion was the name of a crest in the group of hills on which Jerusalem was built. But eventually, it was used to refer to the Temple where the sacrifices were made and prayers to the Lord were offered by the priests. The writer to the Hebrews was not talking about an earthly location at all. In this context, Mount Zion refers to the Christian Church which is described in the Apostles’ Creed as the “Communion of Saints.” This is not a mountain that can be touched or burned with fire. It is the state of a believer in Christ—being part of a living body with Christ as the head.
Listen to the wonderful places this mountain shows us: It is the “heavenly Jerusalem.” [v.22] The Jews thought of Jerusalem as the place where one went to meet with God. They journeyed several times a year to Jerusalem so they could worship at the Temple. But that city has been destroyed, rebuilt, and destroyed again. It is now in the hands of Muslims. God has brought the believer into a better place.
In the “new” Mount Zion we meet God and He meets us through His Word and Sacraments. They all center on Christ who atoned for our sins just outside the old Jerusalem. There is no need for the earthly place any more. The heavenly Jerusalem is our refuge and strength. We live there by faith and will live there with God eternally.
We have come to a place where holy angels serve God day and night and constantly praise Him with glorious songs just like that first Christmas night over the pastures of Bethlehem. Today, the hymns we sing with faith mingle with theirs even if we can just sort of croak along!
In Mount Zion—the Holy Christian Church—we are among “the spirits of just men made perfect.” [v.23] That is, we are justified through our faith not by our imperfect works. God counts us as perfect, even while we come day in and day out seeking forgiveness for our sins and shortcomings. God, the Judge, delights in us because our sins are covered in Jesus’ precious blood. He who came into this earth to bear our sins and atone for them, rose from the dead, and sits at the right hand of God. He, not Moses, is our Mediator who confirms our peace with God.
Earlier in the letter, the writer to the Hebrews mentioned Abel and his faith which led to a pleasing sacrifice (Hebrews 11:4). When Cain killed his brother, Abel, God told Cain, “The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10). We have Jesus’ blood “speaking better things” [v.24] than the blood of Abel. Jesus’ blood calls for God to be merciful and gracious to us. In Mount Zion we live under grace—unmerited love—brought to us by Jesus.
These days, you sometimes hear people talking about others who have found some sort of peace or contentment or stability in life. They will say “she’s in a good place, now.” That’s something you’d like to be true for everybody, isn’t it? But outward wealth, or earthly security, or worldly acceptance are not necessarily the best place to be. All these things will fail us when we finish our lives and stand before our Creator. When it comes down to that there are only two places any person can be: either on Mount Sinai—living by his own flawed righteousness and the guilt of sin, or in Mount Zion—alive in grace and free of sin through Jesus’ blood.
As the Hebrew Christians were learning, life is not always easy or pleasant for the follower of Christ. But His Word assures us of where He is, namely, in Heaven. His Word also assures us that we who follow Him here are together in Mount Zion with Him and that is a good place to be. God give us faith and courage for the journey. Amen
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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.