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  • Writer's pictureRev. Gerald (Jerry) Reiter, Emeritus

A Tale Of Two Mountains

Eleventh Sunday After Pentecost

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.

Hebrews 12:18-24

In our Epistle lesson today, we read about two mountains: Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion. They are both wonderful mountains, but they are very different from each other. Both mountains have played important roles in the life of the people of God, and both have profound implications for our life today.

Mount Sinai has quite a history. It was smoking and thundering when the children of Israel first approached it – it must have been pretty exciting! They were coming into the presence of the God who had done mighty works for them. He had delivered them from the slavery of the Egyptians. He had rescued them from certain slaughter at the Red Sea. He had given them water and food in the desert. And now they were coming into the presence of God at Mt. Sinai with songs of joy and praise.

But that’s not the way we usually think of Mt. Sinai. The feeling of joy and praise became cloudy and almost lost in history. It was at Mount Sinai that the people lost faith. It was at this mountain that they formed other gods for themselves. It was here that they came face-to-face with their own lack of faith, lack of vision, and lack of understanding of their destiny as God’s chosen people.

At Mt. Sinai God’s gift to His people in the Ten Commandments would change from being directions to enable a grateful people to fulfill their destiny – change to the judging Word of a jealous God against a rebellious people. This mountain would become the symbol of a burden that God had put on them.

They would lose the perspective that they were God’s people because of His covenant with them. And they would twist the whole thing around so that keeping the commandments became the means of becoming God’s people and earning His blessings. What was good news became bad news. And this perversion of God’s word has continued down through the ages.

This same confusion of Law and Gospel continued right into Christianity! In the Epistle to the Galatians, we learn that false teachers were coming to Paul’s converts and saying, “Yes, Jesus is our Savior, but…” Let me warn you against those “buts.” Let me warn you against those who want to add anything to the finished work of Jesus Christ. When Jesus said on the cross, “It is finished!” that’s exactly what He meant! He wasn’t saying “it’s all over.” He was saying “Everything the Father sent me to do has been accomplished.” Everything that was necessary to restore harmony and fellowship between God and man has been accomplished and nothing needs to be added to it!

These false teachers who had come to Galatia wanted to add ritual and ceremony to it, and the keeping of the Law. And Paul wrote to them and said, “That’s not so! Ritual and ceremony never saved anybody.”

Now this is not just an historic question – it’s just as pertinent and timely today as it was in those days! Because, you see, the message of the Gospel is pretty garbled in our day. Even the view of God that’s often presented is a gross distortion. We often like to form gods in our own likeness – create gods in our own image: gods that approve of the things we approve of and disapprove of the things we disapprove of. And we’re prepared to rewrite theology or morality to conform to the latest fad about the nature of God.

But we’re just fooling ourselves if we think we can create for ourselves an indulgent grandfather, who’s a little senile, as our god! God has acted on our behalf through His Son and says “Anybody – anybody – who will accept that, I will accept.”

And that’s the Gospel – the Good News. It is good news, but it’s an insult to man. The Gospel, you know, has always been an offense to the world. The preaching of the Gospel, St. Paul says, is foolishness to those who are walking in their own way – but to us it’s the power of God unto salvation!

You see, it’s an offense to man because we’d like to believe that after all, we’re not so bad! And because of that, we can do a lot of things for God – and if I work hard enough, I can put Him in my debt. If I work enough, He’ll have to accept me. And we like the idea that religious acts are meritorious in the sight of God.

But it’s not true! The Lord, speaking through the prophet Isaiah says, “All our righteousness are as filthy rags” in the sight of God. And that’s our righteousness – not our sins! Can you imagine what our sins look like?! Jesus said, “When you’ve done all those things commanded you, say, ‘We are unprofitable servants.’” No way to do enough works to earn favor with God. If we worked with all our might we couldn’t measure up.

Now that’s not intended to put you down. It’s intended to help you see that you need a Savior! And that’s where the second mountain in our Epistle lesson comes in. Because the story of Mt. Zion is the story of God’s winning us back from sin and the terrible fate of being left only with the judgement of Mt. Sinai. Access to this mountain had always been available because of the grace and mercy of God. For years God had provided that sinners could be assured of forgiveness by the shedding of the blood of the lamb, or the sending of the scapegoat into the wilderness.

And the writer of Hebrews tells us that this gracious act of God through the history of His people has now been sealed in the one called the Lamb of God, His own Son whose sprinkled blood seals the forgiveness and salvation of all who look to Him.

When John the Baptist saw Jesus coming and said, “Behold the Lamb of God, that takes away the sin of the world.” Every Jew understood what he was saying. Jesus came as the final sacrifice – God’s own offering – to forever pay the penalty for our sin. That’s the most fundamental truth of the Christian faith, and the one that separates it from all other religions.

You know, you really only have two choices in religions, and the greatest distinction between the Christian faith and all the other religions of the world – name any you want to: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam – any of the religions of the world – and the greatest difference between them and Christianity is that all of them are works religions! All of them recognize that there’s something basically wrong that needs to be made right. If you’re a Buddhist you must climb the 10-fold path to reach Nirvana, or the state of bliss. If you’re a Muslim, then you must keep the Fast of Ramadan, you must pray 5 times a day facing Mecca; once in your lifetime you must make a pilgrimage to Mecca, and so forth. And by these things, you are accepted by God, they say.

You see, the religions of the world are unified on one point, and that is that salvation is something we gain by our own efforts. And the Christian Gospel comes in absolutely counter to that and says there isn’t a single thing you can do to gain the favor of God! Nothing at all!

There’s a story in Carl Sandberg’s monumental biography of Abraham Lincoln. It takes place when Lincoln was President, but before the abolition of slavery. He went one day to nearby Virginia, to a slave market, and attended an auction of slaves. And he bid upon, and purchased, a slave girl. After he had been awarded the girl, he paid the price of her and was issued papers indicating ownership.

He took the papers, and he walked up to the girl and he handed her the papers and said, “Now you are free.” But the girl didn’t understand. She’d never known freedom. She’d always thought of herself as a piece of property, owned by somebody else. She didn’t know what he was talking about – she didn’t understand. She said, “Sir, I don’t know what you mean.” And in great tenderness he tried to explain. He said, “You have always been a slave. You were born into slavery.” You’ve never known freedom. You’ve never known what it means to be your own person. You’ve always had to do the will of another person. You’ve never known freedom. But today I bought you and you became mine. These are the papers of ownership. You are mine – and I choose to set you free!”

And she just stood there motionless as the truth of what had happened began to sink in. And when the wondrous truth really dawned on her mind, she looked up at him and said, “Sir, if what you say is true, and I am now free to go wherever I want, and do whatever I wish, then I want to serve you every day that I live.”

You see, she had exchanged the bonds of slavery for the cords of love. She was still a servant, but what a difference! Once she was a servant because she had to be a servant. She was under law. Now she was a servant because she chose to be one – out of love!

And that’s what the Lord Jesus has done for you and for me. Once we were in bondage and He paid the price. He bought us. And He said, “It’s my will that you live freely from now on.” We haven’t come to Mt. Sinai and the slavery of the Law but to Mt. Zion and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant.

Understand something of the marvel of the grace of God. We don’t deserve this. We don’t deserve it. Over and over again we’ve chosen contrary to His holy will. We’ve walked in our own paths, according to the light in our own hearts which has often meant darkness. We’ve exchanged a holy God for gods of our own making, and we’ve bowed down to worship them, whether they’ve been the gods of family, or success, or career, or peer pressure, or whatever.

And yet the Lord came to the slave market one day, and He paid the price, and He bought us. We became His. That’s why St. Paul said, “Do you not know… You are not your own; you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body.” – because you belong to Him.

So that’s what the Gospel is all about. Think about it. Remember the story of the slave girl and understand that Jesus Christ bought us and set us free. And now we are slaves of the Lord – because we choose to be! Because we want to be close to Him and serve Him with our whole heart – and soul – and mind. Our one desire is to fulfill His perfect will. Whatever it costs we don’t ask, because the price paid for us is the price of the life of the Son of God!


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