Read This Page in My Language
Sermon: Hebrews 12:18-24
Pentecost 14 – September 15, 2019 – Rev. Steven J. Radunzel
Next Sunday after our worship service and the congregation dinner I’m going to be leaving on a vacation. I’m going to camp for a week in Great Smoky Mountain National Park in Tennessee. Just a little over a year ago I camped at Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. I’ve camped there a number of times over the years.
There’s something about mountains that grabs our attention and stirs our emotions. The mountains are of course beautiful, but I think that it’s also their sheer size and obvious immovability that cause us to be amazed by them. Mountains are enduring. People live and die. Nations rise and fall. The times change. But the mountains have always and will always endure.
It should be no wonder to us then that mountains play a very important role in the Bible, although many of the mountains mentioned in the Bible we would more likely call hills. God gave his Law to the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai. Jerusalem, more specifically the temple of Jerusalem, was built on Mt. Zion.
In our text today the writer of the book of Hebrews talks about those two mountains and how important they are to God’s work to save us from our sins. He compares those two mountains. God’s people have stood before Mt. Sinai where God terrified them with his Law. But more important we have also stood before Mt. Zion where we have received God’s mercy and forgiveness.
Today we consider
A TRIP TO THE MOUNTAINS
Hebrews is called the letter to the Hebrews for a very obvious reason, and it serves a very specific purpose. It’s called the letter to the Hebrews because it was written primarily to Hebrew people, Jewish people who had become believers in Jesus Christ as the Savior and Messiah. It was written to them because they were under a great deal of pressure to denounce their faith in Jesus as the Messiah and return to their Old Testament religion. The writer’s purpose in this letter then is to convince them to endure in their faith in Jesus.
He reminds them of their sin and God’s forgiveness in Jesus Christ with some wonderful imagery of two mountains. He says, “You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; . . .” The writer was making reference to an event that had taken place at least 1400 years earlier, an event in Israel’s history that his readers would certainly have been aware of.
Shortly after Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt and before he brought them to the Promised Land, the LORD brought them to the south end of the Sinai Peninsula, to Mt. Sinai. There the LORD planned to give the people of Israel his Law. If they were going to be his chosen people, if they were going to be the people from which the Savior of the world would one day come, then there was a certain way in which he wanted them to live, there was a certain way in which he wanted them to worship and serve him.
The LORD giving his Law to the people of Israel at Mt. Sinai is a fascinating lesson from Exodus 19 and 20. About three months had passed since the people had left Egypt. They were encamped at Mt. Sinai where God was about to give them his Law. But God wanted to impress upon the people what a momentous event this was and how important his Law was and how critical it was that they kept his Law.
God warned Moses to tell the people to consecrate themselves for the giving of the Law. They were to purify themselves and wash their clothes. Limits or barriers were to be put up around the mountain to prevent people or animals from wandering up on the mountain. If they did they were to be put to death.
Why such serious restrictions? Why such strict and scary warnings? God was teaching his people a lesson. He was teaching them the same lesson he had taught to Moses shortly before on Mt. Sinai when he called him to lead the people out of Egypt. In that well known scene of the burning bush the LORD commanded Moses, “Take off your sandals, for the place where you are standing is holy ground.” The LORD was teaching his people that he is holy. They were not. They were sinful. For that reason they could not approach him or stand in his presence.
If you and I are going to have any real relationship with God, if we’re going to have any hope of approaching God and standing before him in prayer and worship then we first of all have to understand and submit to this reality that God is holy and we are not. We were born in sin and commit sins every day. And our sin and guilt rightly should separate from God’s presence now and for eternity.
That threat of the Law, that threat of hell and separation from God, ought to frighten us. It certainly frightened the people of Israel. In that scary scene at Mt. Sinai the day came for the giving of the Law. There was a thick cloud over the mountain and the people heard a very loud trumpet blast. We’re told, “Everyone in the camp trembled.” Even Moses trembled. They had witnessed the plagues on Egypt. The saw the Red Sea divide and destroy the Egyptian army. But this experience was even more terrifying. They were really afraid.
This past week we observed the 18th anniversary of 9/11, the terrorists attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C. None of us was present face to face to see those attacks, but we saw plenty on television. The smoke was billowing up from the World Trade Center towers, and people were amazed. They were terrified. We certainly can also say in that scene, “Everyone trembled.” And when the towers fell their terror multiplied many times.
The Israelites’ experience at Mt. Sinai was similar. The smoke billowed up from Mt. Sinai more and more, the ground shook like an earthquake was happening, the trumpet blasts grew louder, and the LORD majestically spoke the words of the Ten Commandments to the people. But that was all they could take. They went to Moses and said, “Moses, do not have the LORD speak to us anymore. You speak to us. If God speaks like this to us we will die.”
The Israelites trip to Mt. Sinai was not a pleasant excursion or relaxing camping experience. It was terrifying. The writer of Hebrews was assuring his readers, and is assuring us, that we don’t have to make that trip to Mt. Sinai to be terrified again and again. Rather, he says, “You have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God.”
The book of Revelation talks very much about the heavenly Jerusalem. The physical city of Jerusalem that we read about in the Bible was built on Mt. Zion. It was the capital of Israel. The temple of the LORD was built there. The people came to the temple hear the word of God, to worship the LORD, and to offer their sacrifices for the forgiveness of their sins.
Jerusalem and Mt. Zion have become symbols of God’s forgiveness and mercy. When we come to Mt. Zion we don’t come to billowing smoke and fire or earthquakes or terror. We come to thousands upon thousands of angels assembled together to rejoice with us in our forgiveness and eternal salvation. When we come to Mt. Zion we come to the church of the firstborn, we come together with other believers who are born again by faith in Jesus, we come together with other believers who are like the firstborn son who will inherit the glory of heaven. When we come to Mt. Zion we have the privilege of standing in the presence of God, the Judge of all, who has forgiven all our sin and declared us righteous and perfect.
When we come to Mt. Zion we come to Jesus who is a Mediator between us and God the Father. He has established a new covenant with us, a new promise, not a covenant of terrifying law, but a covenant and promise of mercy, forgiveness, and peace. Jesus established that new covenant by shedding his blood on the cross to atone for our sins and the sins of the whole world. Jesus’ blood is far better than the blood of Abel who was killed by his brother. His blood cried out from the ground for revenge. Jesus’ blood will forever cry out for God to be merciful and forgiving to us.
The trip to Mt. Zion is a trip we want to take. And as wonderful as a trip to the Smoky Mountains might be or the Rockies or the Alps or even Mt. Everest, the trip to Mt. Zion is eternally better. Make that trip often. And you don’t have to bother packing a tent and camping gear or traveling 500 miles. You can make the trip to Mt. Zion every time you sit at home and open your Bible and read about what Jesus has done to save you from your sins. You make the trip to Mt. Zion every time you stop to have a devotion and pray to God. He loves to have you come into his presence to speak to him, to praise him, to ask him for blessings. You come to Mt. Zion every time you come here to this sanctuary to worship. Here we stand together to praise God. We sit together to listen to his word read and proclaimed. We kneel side by side to receive Jesus’ body and blood as the assurance that our sins are all forgiven.
The man who wrote this letter to the Hebrews wrote it to encourage people not to turn away from Jesus. He wanted them, especially as Jews, especially as Hebrews, to remember how far they had come as a people. Their ancestors had to endure the terror of Mt. Sinai. But God in mercy had now brought them to a better mountain, to Mt. Zion, a mountain of peace and forgiveness.
God has brought us to Mt. Zion too. Today as we sit here, and every Sunday as we sit here, we see this cross that reminds us what Jesus did for us to save us from our sins. You can take a trip to a lot of mountains in our country and throughout the world. But the trip here to Mt. Zion is the best. Amen.