Seventh Sunday after Epiphany
Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ! Amen.
The lesson for our meditation this morning is recorded in Hebrews 12:18-24:
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.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”
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. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men 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.
This is the Word of our Lord.
Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, fellow travelers, whose names are written in heaven. Are you fascinated by mountains? I know I am. Their height and beauty speak to me of lofty things, the wonders of nature, the majesty of Creation, and the power of our God. Other times, they evoke fear and trembling. Some appear to be lofty roads to heaven, others, volcanoes, for instance, portals to hell. In our text for today, we are confronted with two very different mountains. One fills us with dread, the other with hope. One is a wall that slams us down and condemns us to hell, the other is the gateway to heaven. So on this Transfiguration Sunday, when we remember Jesus revealed in his divine splendor on a mountain, let us consider these two mountains: Which way to Heaven? Sinai, the Mountain of Terror? Zion, the Mountain of Peace!
Now, the letter to the Hebrews speaks about more than just mountains. It is, among other things, a warning against refusing Christ and his Gospel promise of salvation, and returning to the old promises of the Law – which also promises salvation, but only if you can keep all of God’s laws. Here in Hebrews chapter 12 we come to the center of that teaching, where the writer lets us know exactly what is the difference between these two promises. He warns us not to be cavalier about the inheritance we have as sons and daughters of God, not to give it up like Esau, the Old Testament figure who sold his inheritance as firstborn son, in favor of an immediate earthly need – a bowl of soup. He reminds us that the promise of the Law was given from an earthly mountain, but the gospel promise is from heaven, and how dangerous, even fatal, it would be to abandon it.
To illustrate his point he directs us to two mountains. The first is Sinai. In case his readers aren’t familiar with the story he reminds them: thunder, lightning and clouds filled the sky. Smoke and fire covered the mountain as the Lord was present upon it. A trumpet blast began, growing louder and louder, and then the Lord spoke from the mountain! So frightening and awe-full was the scene and so great the terror of the people that, when confronted with the voice of their holy God, they asked that they not hear it, but that Moses would speak to God alone. Adding to their terror of his wrath, God put restrictions on the mountain, that anyone, human or even an uncomprehending beast, should so much as touch the mountain, he was not to be touched, but stoned or slain with arrows from a distance. So terrible was the scene that even Moses, God’s prophet, admitted that he too was terrified.
Yet still greater is the terror of a people who knows they have failed to live up to the commands God gave on that mountain, the Law Jesus summed up with “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.” This Law was given by a holy and righteous God who commands, “Be perfect, as I am perfect! Be perfect, or face my wrath!” This Law provides no room for error – and no mere human could ever keep it. The promise given with the Law offers salvation, but only if it is kept completely. It provides no forgiveness, no reconciliation with God, no peace for troubled souls. It can only beat us down and remind us of our failure, of our sin.
Now, the writer to the Hebrews is warning his readers against a return to that Law promise, which offers only condemnation, God’s judgment against sinners. But is he not also writing to you? Is there a danger that you might abandon Christ’s gospel forgiveness and rely on your own efforts to keep the Law? Perhaps not today. But the devil, the world, and our sinful hearts are clever and deceitful. The enemies of Christ—your enemies—are patient, and are willing to help you move, one step at a time, away from Christ and the forgiveness he offers. Have you ever thought like the Pharisees, thinking, yes, I can keep this part of God’s Law? Have you ever minimized your sin, thinking that some “minor” sins aren’t so bad, at least not so bad as your neighbor’s? Have you thought to hide your sins? Have you thought, “well, I’m not perfect, but I’m pretty good”? Be careful, friend, for these are the little steps Satan wants you to take, as he tries to move you, one little step at a time, away from Jesus.
Consider, friends, the consequences of letting Satan, or our own arrogant pride have their way in our hearts: if we abandoned the Gospel, we would be abandoning the forgiveness won by Christ, and we would be forced to rely on our own righteousness, which frankly does not exist. We’ve seen how we cannot keep God’s Law, and so if we were to rely on our ability to keep it, or listen to Satan and the world telling us that it doesn’t matter, then we would fall, once again, under the judgment of our holy God against sin. Without Christ, we would receive the punishment we deserve, not life in him, but eternal death in hell. My friends, there is no future at Mt. Sinai – no access to God, no forgiveness, no eternity. Only weeping and gnashing of teeth.
What would you be giving up if you abandon Christ and trust instead in your own efforts? You will come only to Mt. Sinai, where you will be condemned for your sins. But God in His Word has shown us another way. The way to heaven is not Sinai, but Zion, the Mountain of Peace!
And so the writer to the Hebrews takes us there, to that other mountain, Mt. Zion. Zion is one of the hills on which the earthly Jerusalem was built, but Scripture frequently uses it as a metaphor. Here, it is the name given to the heavenly home of God and his church, the Holy City, the paradise that all believers hope for and expect.
And what a contrast is this mountain to the terror of Mt. Sinai! It is a glorious scene – a golden city, as beautiful and radiant as a bride dressed for her husband. There we find an uncountable host of angels singing the praises of God. A city of light, where all those who have died in the Lord dwell in peace, where they enjoy their inheritance as sons and daughters of the Lord. This is the city where God our judge dwells – the same God who judges and condemns those who abandoned him, but who has declared the faithful justified: “not guilty.”
Here we find the peace of the Gospel, the Gospel message of forgiveness, promised and won by Christ. This is not a promise founded in what we must do, but in what Christ did. He lived the perfect life we could not, fulfilling his Father’s demand that the Law be kept perfectly. Then he gave that perfect life on the Cross, shedding his own blood to pay the blood-price demanded for our sins.
This is a promise built on Christ’s sprinkled blood. In the Old Testament, God demanded that the price for sin was the shedding of blood. In order to make peace with God blood must be spilt, and on the great Jewish Day of Atonement the high priest sprinkled blood on the people to ceremonially cleanse them of sin – but that was only a shadow of the sprinkling mentioned in our lesson today. How much better this is than the old way: the blood of Abel spoke of murder and vengeance; Christ’s blood speaks of life! For his blood truly cleanses us of all of our sins, forever, and grants us eternal life in God’s kingdom, the Holy City, on Mount Zion!
The Holy Spirit, by the power of the Gospel in God’s Word, the Bible, brings us to this mountain. And on this mountain we find peace for our troubled souls, reconciliation with God, forgiveness for all of our sins: forgiveness for pride that makes us rely on our own efforts; forgiveness for doubts that cause us to stray from God when troubled by Satan and the world; forgiveness for minimizing, avoiding, or denying our sins.
And, dear Christian, you have that peace now! It’s a peace you can cling to right now, knowing that your name is written in heaven! Your name is in God’s Book of Life and a room has been prepared for you in your Father’s House. It’s a peace in which we Christians can live together, even while we live in the world, so we may build each other up in love, and rescue those in danger of wandering from the faith. Finally, it’s a peace we can share with those outside the faith, as the Spirit uses us to bring many more to this mountain of peace.
Dear brothers and sisters, which way to Heaven? Zion, the Mountain of Peace, where angels sing the praises of our saving God! Where believers who have gone before dwell in peace, and believers who still struggle on this earth have peace for their weary hearts, and forgiveness for their troubled souls. We may not dwell there yet, but our hearts are there already, as we wait for the triumphant return of our Savior from sin, that we may dwell with him, in his Holy City, forever. Amen.
Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times and in every way. Amen.