TEXT: HEBREWS 12:18-24
Proper 16, C
For almost as long as there has been history, mountains have been an important symbol of the meeting of the heavens and the earth. And for obvious lofty reasons. It also probably doesn't hurt that most of the life-changing and history-changing occurrences of the Bible happened on the tops of mountains. Indeed, when many people have a life changing experience even in this day and age it is often called a mountain-top experience.
However, there is nothing to say that just because an experience changes your life that it will be pleasant. Not all mountain-tops are created equal. That’s the point behind our reading from Hebrews this morning. There the writer describes two very different mountains. Picture yourself in the midst of a vast and featureless plain when suddenly right in front of you there rises up two solitary mountains. Yet for all their close proximity they couldn't be more different from each other.
To the left is a mountain straight out of your worst nightmare. It is blackened and barren. It is capped with fire and smoke. Thunder and lightening shatter its sides. It is terrifying and unsettling. One look at it tells you in an instant that climbing it would be suicide. Mount Sinai: the mountain of God's Law. The mountain of self-righteousness. The mountain of death.
The other mountain in contrast is more beautiful than your sweetest dreams. It is lush and green. Vibrant, with all the colours of life and light. The sound of celebration sweetly wafts down from the dazzling heights. Mount Zion: the mountain of salvation. It is the mountain of God's grace. It is the mountain of everlasting life.
Which of the two mountains would you like to dwell on? You may only choose one. Which is the mountain you are called to? Which is the mountain where you belong? Which mountain casts its shadow over your life? It seems too silly to even ask doesn't it? And yet, sadly for too many people in our world the mountain they choose is the wrong one. And it all has to do with the path leading up to each of the mountains. The path to first is broad and flat. It is easy. Along the way there are plenty of opportunities to stop and rest. To take pictures, and rejoice in one's own deeds and accomplishments. “Here is the day I chose to follow. There is the spot where I remained true. Over here is my stand at commitment, and back there is my climb over the hump of doubt.” Plenty of little non-threatening, personal mountain-top experiences to draw your strength and vigor and resolve from.
Sometimes even devoted Christians can begin to look for these landmarks along the way. "See how committed I am to reading my Bible and going to Bible Study?" "See how good I am for going to church every Sunday?" "Look at how much work I am doing for the Lord and His people!" The path to this first mountain has plenty of places to show you just how good and deserving you are of the spectacular views from its mountain-top.
And yet, we are told that to even touch this mountain means death. Why? If you are familiar with mountains at all then you may have heard of something called a false summit. When you stand at the bottom and look up … the top that you see is almost never the real thing. You can climb for hours and hours and hours, reach what you thought was the top, and there find out that you aren't even halfway there yet. So it is with those who try to come into God's presence on their own terms, under their own deeds and righteousness. No matter how good it is, it will never be good enough. The best you can do after a life-time of trying to please God and prove yourself worthy is end up seeing just how far away from the goal you really are.
The book of Hebrews was written, in part, to encourage Christians to give up following the easy path, and looking for false summits, but to seek out instead the only true mountain-top experiences of life. And thus we look not to the first mountain but to the second. BUT, the path to this glorious mountain is not a pleasant one. Unlike the first, it is narrow, and difficult. It is not a path given to rest or leisure. It starts at the hill of Calvary. One cannot begin down this path until they have first witnessed the broken and bleeding body of Christ upon the cross. This is not a path that glories in the accomplishments of the self, but in that of our Lord. Those who hike upon it cannot boast of what they are doing or have done, but humbly repent of their sins and seek forgiveness.
However, also unlike the first path to the first mountain, this path is full of experiences that are not hollow but the true life-changing mountain-top experiences of this world. For along this path, as difficult as it may be some times are heavenly rest stops. To go to church, to join with fellow believers in hearing God's Word to receive the Lord's Supper; these make the trip worthwhile.
Take a good look around you. This is as good as life in this world gets! Yes! Really! When you come to the church you come to Mt. Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, to the city of the living God. Never mind that all you see is the same old sorry bunch that are usually here. It is God's sanctuary, a city of mercy. It's a place where broken, repentant sinners can receive forgiveness and peace with God. Listen to His Word. Where Jesus Christ is proclaimed crucified and risen for you, and where His sacraments are offered and applied to sinners, it is literally heaven on earth. You don't have to wait, or struggle for it. Heaven comes down to you, where the Word and the Sacraments are. Each and every Divine Service of the church is a ready-made mountain-top experience guaranteed to be life-changing.
Here, we are gathered with the angels of heaven in joyful assembly. We sing their liturgy of praise - "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Sabaoth. Heaven and earth are full of your glory." And they worship along with us. Here we are gathered in the presence of our fellow believers in Christ, "to the church of the first-born whose names are written in heaven." Every gathering around the Word and the Lord's Supper, no matter how small or struggling is the fullness of the Church. As we hear the word of forgiveness this morning and receive the Body and Blood of Christ, we are spiritually joined to all believers in Jesus Christ everywhere. There is only one church, and where the church is gathered, the whole church is present.
What’s more, here we are gathered with the spirits of righteous men made perfect. You are in the company of the justified, those who have died trusting in Christ and not in themselves. Here we are in the presence of all the saints who have come before us, those who have fought the good fight of faith, who now rest from their labors in Christ. Some go to the graveside, some gaze at pictures or hold on to their memories. But there is no closer place to those who have died believing in Christ than in the liturgy. For with the angels, archangels, and all the company of heaven, we praise the Lord of our salvation together with them. Where Christ is, there His saints also are. We are in the company of those who have received what we now hope for.
How is this all possible? I mean, angels are nice. And so are the saints, both living and dead. But none of this is possible without the presence of Jesus. He is the "mediator of the new covenant." He stands between God and us, perfect and sinless. Through Jesus we have a covenant relationship with God. He promises to forgive us. He receives us as His own people. He gives us eternal life.
You see, to hear the word of God spoken to you is to come into judgment. The word of the law says you are guilty and the sentence is death. Even the slightest glance at the wrong mountain, a careless word of anger, the momentary flash of lust, a glimmer of self-righteous pride deserves God's judgment of death and damnation. But on that little hill of Calvary God judged His Son in your place. On that little hill the blood of Jesus was sprinkled upon the earth. "The blood of Jesus Christ, God's Son, cleanses us from all sin." On that little hill Jesus became your sin and was damned in your place. And so God declares you innocent for Jesus' sake; He now judges you to be righteous. You are forgiven, acquitted, free.
The blood of Jesus speaks a better word. It testifies FOR us, not against. It pleads to heaven for forgiveness. It cries out for mercy. It covers you before God the Judge and qualifies you to worship on this holy mountain with the saints and angels. The blood that was poured out for you on the cross is sprinkled on you with the water of Holy Baptism, in the forgiveness I speak to you, in the cup of His Supper. You weren't there when Jesus shed His blood for you on the cross. But the blood He shed is here for you now, telling you for certain that Jesus died for you.
By His grace we have indeed been richly blessed. But not because of us. In this life people will look to all sorts of mountain-top experiences to find comfort and solace, peace and meaning for life. Looking for them in ourselves we will always fall short of the real summit of true peace and comfort. Look for them instead where God so freely gives them. IN His Word and Sacraments, and in the Divine Service of His church. As our text said. We have not come to the first mountain, barren and lifeless, terrifying and deadly; the mountain where God’s law was written in stone. Through Jesus Christ and his love for us we have instead now come to the better mountain. A mountain of life and light, eternal joy and celebration; the mountain where our names have been written in the Book of Life.