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Climbing God’s Mountain

For many of us, mountains are irresistible. If you ask any mountaineer why they do it, the response is: ‘because it’s there!’ For us in North Wales, the one mountain that stands out is Snowden. Of course, you don’t have to climb it. You can go on the train. Someone even managed to get his four by four up there a few years ago but couldn’t get it back down again and they had to bring that down on the train. By world standards, Snowden is not a high mountain, but it is high enough for the climate more often than not to be very different on the summit to what it is below. When thick cloud rapidly descends on the peak and the wind blows, it can quickly become eerie and a little frightening.
Even though Israel does not have many high mountains, there are a number mentioned in the bible such as Ararat, where Noah’s art came to rest and Nebo from which Moses viewed the promised land. Our new testament reading has two more: Sinai and Zion.
Mount Sinai was the mountain where God called Moses to receive the ten commandments, the book of Exodus describes the awe-inspiring circumstances of Moses’ encounter with God and the writer of the book of Hebrews picks up on that occasion describing a mountain that can be touched with burning fire; darkness, gloom and storm. He reminds his readers of how the voice of God spoke on that mountain in such a way that those who heard urged him to stop. No animal could touch the mountain and even Moses trembled with fear. (Hebrews 12. 18-21)
But the writer stresses to his readers that they have not come to that mountain with all its fire and darkness. No, they have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly city; to thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the first born, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect. (Hebrews 12.22-23) There is a huge contrast here between these two mountains. One is all about shock and awe, the other peaceful coexistence. The first, Sinai, marks out God’s dealings with his people in the old covenant, based on the ten commandments on tablets of stone, the law given to the people of Israel via Moses. The second, Zion, has been mediated; negotiated by Jesus with his own blood shed on the cross which speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12.24) Abel’s blood cried out to God from the ground (Genesis 4.10) protesting after he had been murdered by his brother Cain, the first murder recorded in Genesis. Jesus’ blood made a pure sacrifice which brought cleansing. Just as the blood of bulls and goats in the sacrifices of the old covenant was sign of the cleansing of the people, so in the mystery of Jesus’ death is true cleansing from the stain of sin.
Clearly, these two mountains and the experience of the living God which they represent are very different. Sinai is about the old testament; the old covenant or promise that God made with the descendants of Abraham. Zion is the new testament, the new covenant which is sealed by Jesus’ death and resurrection and of which our communion meal is a continual reminder. Let look at three key differences.
Firstly, Sinai was and is very physical. You can go and climb it if you wish. It’s in the Sinai peninsular in Egypt. It can be touched. (Hebrews 12.18) But the Hebrew writer makes clear that Zion by contrast cannot be touched. Mount Zion is the heavenly Jerusalem. Zion was the name used for the religious part of the city of Jerusalem and there are countless references to it in the old testament. The name is still used for a part of Jerusalem to this day. But critically, our reading refers to the heavenly Jerusalem. For Christians, Mount Zion is not a physical but a spiritual place; the place where God is. At Sinai, God reveals himself to Moses in ways which emphasize his power and utter holiness. On Zion, through Jesus, we see him in tenderness and love…yet still the judge of all, (Hebrews 12.23) no less concerned that right is done.
When Jesus carried out his ministry, the question was; was he the Messiah? Was he going to make Jerusalem the centre of a great kingdom again because he spoke often of the Kingdom of God? For Jewish people today, especially those who would call themselves ‘Zionists’, there remains the desire to see an earthly Zion re-established on the temple mount in Jerusalem. But Jesus constantly emphasised his kingdom was from heaven. It was firstly spiritual in nature, not based on a physical, earthly, geographical place. It was rather a kingdom made up of those who in repentance and faith would accept hi ways. Sinai is physical and Zion spiritual. Yet, we must not fall into the trap of thinking our faith is just about a heavenly hereafter. In Jesus’ life and ministry, the Kingdom of God had very practical and physical outcomes which made a positive difference to people’s lives as in the case of the woman healed in today’s gospel reading of which Wayne spoke last week. As we own this spiritual kingdom of Zion in our hearts, so we pray and work for it to be on earth as it is in heaven. Zion, even though it cannot be touched, can and should be tangibly seen in lives and communities changed though the offices of its people.
Secondly, whereas Sinai’s covenant was temporary, that of Zion is permanent. Alongside the ten commandments and on the tablets of stone came the establishment of rules and regulations for a sacrificial system, the keeping of the sabbath etc which were intended to keep Israel’s relationship with God pure, to atone for their sin. Jesus makes clear that he has come to fulfil the law. (Matthew 5.17) The keeping of the sabbath need no-longer forbid healing. He will destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days. (John 2.19) Jesus ushers in a new covenant in his blood. In the words of the ancient hymn, the Te Deum, ‘it opens the kingdom of heaven to all believers.’ The sacrifice of bulls and goats is now redundant according to the book of Hebrews. In Christ, the new age has come, the old has gone.
Thirdly, where as Sinai, being earthly and temporary was shakeable, Zion is not to be shaken. The picture comes from the prophecy of Haggai (2.6) The writer to the Hebrews picks up on God’s shaking of the world at Sinai as he gives the law to Moses and God’s shaking of the earth again at some point in the future for it cannot be permanent. (Hebrews 12.26-27) The writer was quite possibly writing to Jewish converts who were being mocked for leaving what were seen as the certainties of Judaism. Zion, being the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom in the hearts and minds of believers cannot be shaken. (Hebrews 12.28) ‘Solid joys and lasting treasure none but Zion’s children know’ so wrote John Newton concluding his hymn ‘Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken.’
Seeing all the contrasts between Sinai and Zion, old and new testament, old and new covenant, it is tempting to think that God is either different or has changed between the two. So many people say: ‘I far prefer the God of the new testament to the one in the old. But notice how the Hebrew writer finishes our reading today: ‘…for our God is a consuming fire.’ The God of Mount Sinai is the same God as Mount Zion. He is still a consuming fire. He is still holy. He still makes the earth to shake. His ways are not my ways or yours. (Isaiah 55.8) I can not explain why he chose to appear in fire to Moses and give an agreement to a tiny tribe in the middle east and then comes as Jesus to deliver the kingdom in through a cross of Roman crucifixion and an empty tomb. What I do understand is that his ways are love and mercy; that the honest and contrite sinner will find in him the fullness of life. So ‘see that you do not refuse him who speaks’ as our writer says.

Trinity 10. 25.08.2019

Rev Jonathan Smith

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