Scripture: Hebrews 12:18-29
One of the things that I like about human nature, is that we tackle a big challenge because we can. If a person find something that has not been done before, and they think they have a chance to pull it off then they will put energy, time, and resources to make it happen. Part of human nature is to see mountains and climb them, just because they are there. This was, no doubt part of what motivated a British expedition to climb Mount Everest in 1953. On May 29th of that year Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay became the first people to reach the summit of Mount Everest and stand on top of the world. Since that time, others have sought a similar mountaintop experience and it has become a bit of a problem. In the past few years it is not uncommon for as many as 1,000 people a year to try and reach the summit of the world’s tallest mountain. In the grand scheme of things that is not a lot of people, but there are only so many routes up the mountain, and there are is a fairly small window when the weather is favorable for climbing. This has led to incidents where long lines have actually formed on the mountain. A picture from 2019 showed a couple of hundred people waiting in line to make the final ascent to the top of the mountain. A National Geographic article interviewed one of the people who was stuck in that line, and they described the experience as saying, “It was like being at a crowded ski resort. Frustrating but mostly boring.”
There is something ironic about people seeking a rare, once in a life time experience only to have stand in an hour’s long line with all of the other people looking for the same experience. While most of us are not mountaineers, many of us do look for mountain top experiences. It may not be a mountain that we are climbing, but we do pursue a goal, we work, we climb, and we strive to reach the top and survey over all that we have overcome. In our faith, a mountaintop experience has also become a way to express a high point in our faith journey. No doubt many of you have has such an experience. A time when God felt particularly close, when the truth seemed especially clear, or your purpose felt keenly focused. It totally makes sense why we use the language of the mountain top to describe a time when the divine felt close. Mountain imagery and encounters with God in high places are all over the bible. This morning’s scripture from Hebrews draws upon that rich tradition, and makes a surprising point. If we are seeking to be in relationship with God, then we may not need to be looking for the next mountaintop experience because we are already standing on one.
The book of Hebrews is somewhat unique among the New Testament in that there is no consensus who wrote it. The author does not identify themselves. This is also true for gospels like Matthew and Mark but church tradition going way back remembers the authors of those books. Some characters from the Bible such as Paul’s traveling companion Barnabas have been floated as possibilities, but a lot of that is conjecture. The destination of the letter also is not known. Based on some context clues, biblical scholars think it was written to a community based in Rome but that is not for certain. There are a lot of unknowns about the book of Hebrews but there are two things that are known. First, as the name we have assigned it implies this originally written to a community of Jewish converts. Second, the author themselves was also Jewish. Not only that, but the author really, really knew their stuff. The entire letter that we now call the book of Hebrews is a case made for Jesus as the messiah from a completely Jewish context. The book of Hebrews makes arguments for Jesus as the final high priest and ultimate sacrifice to reconcile people for God and these arguments are firmly rooted in the Hebrew Bible and 1st century Jewish theology. We see the depth of Jewish lore on clear display in this morning’s scripture.
This morning’s scripture comes from very near the end of Hebrews after the case of Christ has clearly been laid out, and the author uses the familiar metaphor of the mountain top to express a life of faith. The author of Hebrews lifts up two biblical mountains and states that following Jesus is not like one of these but instead like the other. The first mountain lifted up at the beginning of the scripture but not named is Mount Sinai. The book of Exodus describes Mount Sinai as a holy mountain, and it is on this summit that Moses meets with God and is given the law. However, it is also described as an intimidating place. Exodus 19:18-20 describes the scene, “Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the LORD descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up from it like smoke from a furnace, and the whole mountain trembled violently. As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder.”
In this morning’s scripture the author of Hebrews makes reference to the fact that while God was present if any living creature touched the mountain it was to die. It is no wonder that with all of this Exodus points out “That everyone in the camp trembled.” By calling back to the encounter at Mount Sinai the author of Hebrews reminds the readers of one way to understand and relate to God. On Mount Sinai the full, terrible power of God was on complete display. The perfect holiness of God was made clear, and the otherness of God could not be denied. The God encounter on Sinai is a God that should be feared, a God that should be revered, and a God worthy of worship. However, we are presented an image of God that we cannot relate with, an image of God that cannot be known. The author of Hebrews begins with an image of a mountain where God is encountered but it is a mountain of fear and trembling.
Unfortunately, there are people today who’s understanding of God is stuck here. I have been in more than situation in various parts of the state where different people have made the almost identical joke. I will be in a situation where someone finds out my vocation is and they will say something to the effect of, “You may not want to stand too close then, in case the lightning bolt aimed for me gets you too.” Obviously it is a joke, but it also reveal a great deal about what the person believes about God’s nature. There are many people who see God as distant and obscured by billowing smoke. They believe God to be an unknowable being who is quick to judge and quicker to punish. I get the impression that people who hold this kind of view of God, go out of their way to avoid God, they stay away from our buildings, in a hope that they will not attract the attention of a God that they only fear and hope to avoid.
Like me, there is a decent chance you have encountered people with this view of God, and it so tragic. Because they have an incomplete understanding of the divine. Yes, God is so much greater and beyond what we are; Yes, God is all powerful; Yes, God is a God of justice. Yet that is not all God is. The bible gives us a much fuller picture of our Creator. That is the point that the author of Hebrews is getting at as followers of Jesus, we can encounter God on the mountain, but it is not in the smoke and fear of Mount Sinai bur rather in the majesty and protection of Mount Zion.
Even if you not 100% sure what it refers to, there is a good chance that if you have spent a decent amount of time in church you have at least heard of Mount Zion because it is all over the scripture. To understand the reference though requires a super quick geography primer. In Israel, the city of Jerusalem lies above the meeting points of two valleys. The original city was on a lower plateau close to a natural spring. Above that plateau was another flatter place. This became the temple mount. However, the temple was not built on the highest point. Across a fairly shallow valley from the temple, was the high point of the city’s area and it was called Mount Zion. In the Psalms and the prophets this became a way to refer to Jerusalem, not just as a city or as a political capital, but as an ideal. Mount Zion came to represent Jerusalem being envisioned as God’s holy city where God could be found, where the people were God’s people and God was their God. The 51st chapter if Isaiah does a good job at capturing this, where it states “Those the LORD has rescued will return. They will enter Zion with singing; everlasting joy will crown their heads. Gladness and joy will overtake them and sorrow and signing will flee away.”
This is the mountain image that best symbolizes our faith. The mountaintop experience that best sums up or faith is Mount Zion, home to a kingdom that cannot be shaken, where we are saved by grace made available through the blood of Jesus, where we are reconciled with our Creator. On this mountain top God is not distant and hidden by terrible smoke, but because of Jesus God is accessible and God is relatable. God is our God and we are God’s people. It is not a mountain of fear, but it is a mountain of joy. Mount Zion is the mountaintop which describes what it is like to encounter the divine as a follower of Jesus.
One of the things that I most appreciate about what the author of Hebrews does in this scripture is that he uses these sets these two biblical mountain metaphors against each other without watering down who God is. Because of Jesus being the mediator God is approachable unlike how God was on Mount Sinai. However verses 28 and 29 still remind us who God is when they state, “Let us be thankful and worship God acceptably with reverence and awe for our God is a consuming fire.” The God of Mount Zion is the same God of Mount Sinai. God is still greater than us and deserves reverence and awe. God is still all powerful and God is still a consuming fire. For those on Mount Zion though the fire of God is not to be feared, it does not billow and obscure with dark smoke. Rather God’s consuming fire burns in us, it breaks our hearts of stones, purifies us, so that what remains is what cannot be shaken away. Our Christian faith should be a mountain top experience that perfects us and enables us to more fully love God and more fully love others.
There is one final aspect of the mountain imagery that the author of Hebrews is using here, and I think it might be the piece I love the most. In our faith journeys when we refer to a mountain top experience, it is a high point. Like scaling Mount Everest, the mountain top experience is a destination that we arrive at. In the way we talk about our faith we often treat the mountaintop experience where God seems more real, closer, and more powerful as the exception rather than the standard. But that is not how this morning’s scripture puts it. This morning’s scripture describes following Jesus as a mountain top experience on Mount Zion. Friends, Zion is not a summit to visit and then leave, Zion is a city it is a place to live, dwell, and stay. This morning’s scripture describes the Christian life as a mountaintop experience every day, where we are God’s people and God is our God.
I find that thought wonderful, because there days where it feels like we are not on the mountain, but we are stuck in the valley. There are days when God feels distance and everything seems to be falling down. On those days I find it encouraging to be reminded that we can always find God on the mountaintop. It does not matter how many steps away we have taken, it is only one step back to Jesus. God does not move on us, and we can always return to God, we can always come back to the mountaintop. It does not need to be a special destination, it can be the solid rock upon which we stand while we boldly live out a life of faith and love.
This morning’s scripture uses a familiar, biblically rooted image of encountering God on the mountain. This scripture reminds us that God is not unapproachable but because of Jesus Christ we can know God and be known by God. This scripture reminds us that God is there for us and that a mountaintop experience where God is near, where God is leading, and God feels real does not need to be a rarity but it can be our everyday experience. So brothers and sisters in Christ may we march on to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion. No matter what we are going through may we be able to march upward to Zion the beautiful city of God. May we claim and may we know that we are God’s people and God is our God.