A sermon for the Pentecost Season by Pastor Jon Zabell
You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; 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, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”
But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
What comes to mind when you hear the word home? Home is the place you go after a long day. It’s where you relax and unwind. It’s where you eat, it’s where you sleep, it’s where you rest. It’s where you live. Vacations are nice, but there’s no place like home. Home is where you belong.
In today’s reading, the writer to the Hebrews invites us to think about our home. He’s not talking about a mailing address somewhere. He’s talking about the place that is home for your soul. He shows us Mount Sinai and Mount Zion. Each mountain is vitally important, but only Mount Zion can rightly be called home.
Why is Mount Sinai important?
You may know that Mount Sinai is connected to God’s laws. Three months after the Israelites escaped from their slave-masters, the Egyptians, after God used Moses to part the waters of the Red Sea to allow the Israelites to escape on dry land, the people camped in the desert of Sinai, at the foot of Mount Sinai. That’s where the Commandments come from, you know: You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. There are hundreds of other laws connected to Mount Sinai, too: laws about eating only kosher foods, laws connected to Sabbath Day worship regulations, laws about special worship holidays, laws about temple sacrifices. Mount Sinai is important because it is a place where God’s people learned who he is and what he expects.
Mount Sinai is also a place of fear. Let’s remember what happened there before the giving of the laws. When Israel was camped at Mount Sinai, the Lord told Moses, their leader, that for two days the people were to prepare, and that on the third day the Lord would come down the mountain in the sight of the people. Because it was a holy place, the Lord said, “Put limits for the people around the mountain and tell them, ‘Be careful that you do not go up the mountain or touch the foot of it. Whoever touches the mountain shall surely be put to death.... No person or animal shall be permitted to live’” (Exodus 19:12-13). Then, “On the morning of the third day there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled.” (Exodus 19:16).
Everyone trembled. Does everyone still tremble before God’s holiness? Does anyone? Don’t people actually seem to take a more casual view of God? Comedians joke about him. People of the world mock him. Even we who believe in God might find it easy to think rather casually about him. We think he doesn’t care much about our sins. We think as long as we try hard he’ll give us a pass. Mount Sinai sets the record straight. God is infinitely high above us, his creatures, and so also the standards he sets for us. He requires nothing less of us than perfect obedience. The punishment for failure is nothing less than eternal death.
You don’t need to have been physically present there at Sinai to know these things. You don’t need to have experienced the smoke and the earthquakes. Just read God’s law carefully and take it to heart, and you’ll be right there at Mount Sinai with Old Testament believers, and you’ll understand firsthand why everyone was trembling in fear. It’s not just the thief who is caught in the act of stealing. It’s also the faithful Christian who works hard and goes to church each week. It’s the public minister of the gospel who stands up front and preaches a sermon. Take away all the excuses and strip away all denial, and it’s clear that every one of us has failed to love God with all our heart. Nor can we deny what we deserve, any more than Isaiah could, when he saw himself standing before the Lord’s throne. “Woe to me!” he said. “I am ruined. For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty” (Isaiah 6:5).
Still, for the nation of Israel, Mount Sinai felt like home. Strange, isn’t it? That anyone would think this place of fear was their home? But many felt that what happened there defined them: the commandments, the ceremonial laws, the civil laws. So when they felt pressure from the world around them, Mount Sinai was their place of refuge. When they were scattered around the world by persecution, Mount Sinai helped them remember who they were. Many Jewish people still today consider that place and everything that happened there home for their souls.
Don’t you and I often act like Mount Sinai is our home, too? Not that we’re into eating kosher or bringing temple sacrifices. Those laws were fulfilled at the coming of the Savior. I’m talking about the commandments given on Mount Sinai, the moral law for all time, laws about loving God above all things and loving your neighbor as ourselves. When we are battling burnout, or shouldering guilt, where do we often find ourselves looking for help? We often flee to Mount Sinai, to the laws of God, for answers. We think we can feel better about our sin by jamming our schedule so full of work that there’s no room left to breathe. We ease our guilty consciences by serving in as many ways as we possibly can, leaving no time to actually graze in the gospel good news of God’s Word and Sacraments. In short, we think that the answer for our failures before God is to try harder. We act like our soul’s home is Mount Sinai.
Why do we do this? Maybe it’s because the law of God reminds us of who we are, or at least who we’re supposed to be. But I suspect the real reason we try to make our home on Mount Sinai, on the law of God, is because we think we can climb that mountain. It’s because of our arrogant hope for the kind of success that gives all glory to SELF.
Mount Sinai was only a stopping place on the way to the promised land. The stop at Mount Sinai was to teach God’s people God’s will, and to show them the reality of sin and its power to destroy. Then, after they finished camping at Mount Sinai, the children of Israel picked up camp, and eventually moved to a different mountain in the promised land. A place they could truly called home, and it’s your home, too.
Their new home was Mount Zion, one of the mountains on which Jerusalem was built. You can tell quickly that this mountain looks different from Mount Sinai. Verse 22 says, 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, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. This is not a strange, fearsome spot off in the desert somewhere. This mountain is home. It’s where a child returns to claim his inheritance.
The glory of God is the same on Mount Zion as it was on Mount Sinai. God is always a righteous and holy judge. But the difference is this: On Mount Zion, God shares his glory with us. He makes us perfect. As the writer to the Hebrews says, You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect (verse 23).
And it’s all because there’s an association to Mount Zion that will never change. Zion is the place near which the Son of God let himself be led out of the city and slaughtered. The blood of Jesus is forever tied to Zion. This blood speaks a better word than the blood of Abel (verse 24). Abel’s blood cried for VENGEANCE, we’re told in Scriptures, since Abel was murdered by his brother. But Jesus’ blood cries out: “FORGIVENESS!”
Listen, my friends. Do you find yourself dealing with sin and guilt that don’t seem to go away? Are you working hard for a kind of peace that never seems to come? God’s law can’t help you with that. Don’t go running to Mount Sinai, to the commandments. Go to Mount Zion, to the cross. You have a Savior who has taken taken your place under God’s law. He has died and has risen for you. Your name is written in heaven, and eternal life is your inheritance. Do you have this sense that no matter how hard you try, it’s never enough? It’s good to know that, but don’t stay at Mount Sinai trying to work it out. Go to Mount Zion, to the cross. Here is your substitute. In him you are made perfect before God. Does it seem like your past is catching up with you? Does it seem like you’re being punished? Remember the blood of Jesus crying out from the ground at Mount Zion. God hears what that blood is saying: Forgiveness! Fellow belivers, what joy it is to be on Mount Zion, to be gathered around Word and Sacrament, to be forgiven of all sin!
This mountain is not a vacation destination, a place to go to once in a while for refreshment. This is your home, it’s where you get to live, day in and day out. So since you belong to the church of the firstborn, since you’ve been made perfect before God, since Jesus’ blood cries out for the forgiveness of all your sins, make your home on Mount Zion. Live the sacramental life, one where you confess your sins each day, and where you are raised to life each day in your baptism, where communion is the highlight of your week, where God’s Word of sin and grace is your daily companion. Since the Lord has given you this home far better than any other home this world has to offer, make your home there.
When a mountain-climber is asked why he wants to climb a mountain, the answer he gives is: “Because it’s there.” Maybe that’s why we are so drawn to Mount Sinai, to God’s laws and commandments, as if they are the answer to all our problems. We want to reach the summit Mount Sinai because it’s there. Its glory and splendor draw us in. But the summit of Sinai is impossible for sinners. That mountain devours every proud soul who wants to climb it.
Mount Zion is the mountain your soul needs. You’re in no shape to climb this one either, but you don’t have to. Jesus carries you to the top. And the view from up there is breathtaking. On top of Mount Zion you gain a new perspective on those problems and crosses that usually loom so large, problems related to health, or to relationships, or to finances. From way up on the top of Mount Zion, loved and embraced by your Savior God, those things look like ants. What you DO see looming large is the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God, thousands and thousands of angels in joyful assembly, AND YOU BELONG HERE, because Jesus brought you here.
Both mountains are important for your soul and mine. Mount Sinai is a necessary stopping place. We need to go there each day, to know what God requires of us, to be confronted with our sin. But we don’t live there. Mount Zion is where we eat, where we rest, where we belong. Mount Zion is our home. Amen.
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Sermon Copyright (c) 2022, St. Paul Lutheran Church, Green Bay, WI 54301