Sermon on Exodus 20:1-17 and Hebrews 12:18-24, 3rd Sunday in Lent 2021 (B), "Two Mountains"
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Our OT reading from Exodus 20 is the giving of the 10 Commandments on Mt. Sinai. I’ve substituted Hebrews 12 for the regular Epistle reading of the day. Hebrews contrasts two mountains. Mt. Sinai on the terrifying day when Israel came to the mountain to hear God directly speak the commandments out loud to them. And secondly, Mt. Zion, where we the gathered worshippers have come to this second mountain, and to Jesus Christ.
Consider God’s work for us and our salvation at each mountain. First, Mt. Sinai. God delivered volumes of teaching, instruction, and laws to Moses and the Israelites on Mt. Sinai. Most of the 5 books of Moses. Sinai was the place of His revelation, God speaking to His people. But of all that God revealed to them, only the 10 Commandments God spoke directly to Israel without a mediator (Deut. 5; Ex. 20). Everything else came by Moses. But at the scene in Exodus and Hebrews 12 they heard the 10 Commandments direct from God. It was terrifying—in the words of Hebrews: “For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and a sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further message be spoken to them, for they could not endure the order that was give, ‘If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.’ Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear’” (Heb. 12:18-21). After this terrifying encounter with God’s holiness, fire, and awesome power, they meekly asked to hear everything else through Moses, lest they die (Ex. 20:19). We’ll take a mediator, please!
God’s 10 Commandments are the core of His law. Jesus summed them up in two basic commands—Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. Now just take a moment for a thought experiment. We are often impressed by our failure to keep these commands, and rightfully so. Not that we can’t ever keep ourselves from murdering or stealing, but even the most upright, moral person can never consistently keep their heart and their thoughts free of lust, anger, resentment, coveting (the sinful desire to have wrongfully what’s not yours). And everyone builds false gods or idols in their heart.
But let’s do this thought experiment. Picture the world, even with sin and death present, but ordered by God’s good ten commands. Allowing for sin and repentance and atonement but striving to do these ten good commands. If every person on earth worshipped only the One True God, and no other, and used His Name worshipfully and prayerfully, and not to curse others or speak falsely in God’s Name, how peaceful the earth would be! Religious wars and the persecution of the godless against the believer would be over. God’s Name would be honored.
If all mankind and their animals remembered the Sabbath Day and kept it holy, we would all have our weekly day of physical and spiritual rest. We would not be burnt out and exhausted by relentless work, and we would take the time to worship God by receiving His gifts and spiritual nourishment. We wouldn’t fill our day of worship with competing distractions and work. If we honored father and mother and all authorities as an extension of the family unit, society would be orderly, families would be intact and respectful and loving. If we did not murder, grow angry, or hate, or deny the needed help and physical protection to our neighbors in their bodily needs, there would be no one uncared for, injured, or mistreated. We would be free of the ugly sin of racism or the bitter taste of resentment and revenge.
Were all people to honor the marriage bed and keep it holy, by not committing adultery, and reserving sexual intercourse for God’s given boundary of marriage between one man and one woman, we would not have the rage and jealousy of betrayal or the lust for what’s not rightfully ours. We would content ourselves to stir the flame of love in the fireplace of marriage, to bless the family. Were we to guard each other’s possessions by not stealing or even coveting (entertaining thoughts of wrongfully seizing or plotting to get something that’s not rightfully ours), we would be content with what we have. We would not fear thieves and robbers and could live in peace. And if we were to guard each other’s reputations by speaking the truth and not lies, we could live lives of integrity and respect. We would not cut down anyone with our words, but bless, encourage, and build up.
Even as we imagine what the world could be like if we all made an honest effort at obedience, we can’t escape seeing the multitude of ways we fail to keep it. The always Law does its mirroring work and shows our sin. But we often neglect to see the positive good in the commandments. Earthly, temporal blessings for obeying the ten good commands and life ordered God’s way. Despite our sin and failure, the Christian is still called to love God and love neighbor in these ten concrete ways. And He blesses to a thousand generations...
We often act as though God were a kill joy, by saying “no” to this or that in the commandments. But all the so-called “sinful fun” at the expense of God’s commands, lies, dishonesty, immorality, greed, etc., is chip by chip, taken away from those tablets of stone. When living in the broken rubble of God’s good commands, life is filled with all the brokenness of idolatry, violence, jealousy, unfaithfulness, theft, insecurity, fear, and disloyalty. Sin kicks up a choking and bitter dust. But God’s commands are true and good. Even imperfect obedience would vastly improve life. Sadly, instead we stand before the broken tablets of the law like the Israelites, they worshipped the golden calf. Already you’ve broken them?! As Israel and even Moses trembled before God’s holiness on Mt. Sinai, we also do well to tremble before God’s holy ten commands and recognize that we are far from having kept them. In fact, when inwardly searched by God’s judgment, we are daily in noncompliance with His Law. It’s honestly worse than we think; “Lord, have mercy!”
So back to our two mountains. Sinai and Zion. Sinai was the commandments and the Law; a dreadful, awe-inspiring experience. Because of Israel’s eventual failure to keep this conditional covenant at Sinai, God ordained a better, unconditional covenant. One that He alone would keep (Jer. 31). Mt. Zion represents this new and better covenant. Here’s the contrast: Sinai was deadly to the touch. Our sin provoked God’s holiness blazing in fire and smoke, and it was not safe without a mediator. Even the mediator, Moses, was scared because he too was sinful. But Mt. Zion cannot be touched. It is a spiritual mountain, not a physical heap of rock on the earth. It’s the heavenly Jerusalem, the bridging heaven and earth.
Where do we access this spiritual mountain, this holy place of communion with the Living God and saints and angels gathered in festival celebration? We are doing it here and now! In worship, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, we’re assembled at the heavenly Jerusalem, Mt. Zion! We’re in God’s presence now, and Jesus is with us! We stand at this mountain, not in fear and despair of our sins—which are great, but we stand as those who have been absolved, forgiven, who’ve laid down our sins at His cross. We’ve confessed our sins and heard His promise of forgiveness. We have the holy privilege of boldly coming to His throne of grace, through the blood of Jesus.
Moses was mediator at Mt. Sinai. He did the job as well as a sinful man could do. But his own sin and stubborn leadership kept him outside the Promised Land. But Mt. Zion has a better mediator. One final and perfect Mediator. One Who already stands in the Promised Land, waiting for us. Jesus, who did not take the 10 Commandments as some utopian dream, but patiently and reverently obeyed them to the fullest, every day of His life, in every good detail God intended, and every evil detail God forbade in His ten good commands. Jesus, the sinless and perfect mediator of a new covenant, and His sprinkled blood that speaks a better word. Jesus sprinkles His pure blood over all who come to Mt. Zion, all who cry out for His forgiveness. He declares us righteous and perfect in Him. He purifies us from sin and every evil, and clothes us with His righteousness. Jesus is the Mediator par excellence; whose work never needs replacement or supplement. It’s total, complete, finished; for you and for me.
You have come to this mountain, Mt. Zion. You’re gathered to be sanctified by the blood of Jesus. You’ve been spiritually bathed and made clean in the waters of Holy Baptism, joining you to Christ. You’ve confessed your sins and sought God’s forgiveness, for all you’ve failed in the ten good commands. You’re preparing your hearts, even now, to receive His sprinkled blood on the cross, poured out for you in His body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. There His sprinkled blood speaks the better word of forgiveness, into your ears. His mediation, between the Holy God and you, makes you acceptable, approved, welcomed in His presence. Welcomed to gather at this Holy Mt. Zion, with heavenly worshippers among us.
The last two weeks have seen several more of our earthly number join the heavenly crowd of worshippers at Mt. Zion. They have moved over from this side of the altar to the other side, joining angels, and archangels, and all the company of heaven, in praising God and saying: Holy, holy, holy Lord God! Heaven and earth are filled with your glory! And for our hour or so of worship, we are joined through Christ, with all the company of heaven. Saints in the Lord who have gone before us, the spirits of the righteous made perfect. They worship Him in glory, as we gather here on earth. All Alalike cleansed and redeemed by His sprinkled blood. Heaven and earth bridged by this holy Mount Zion. The throne of Jesus. We don’t worship with the fear and dread of Mt. Sinai, but with the boldness and confidence of sons and daughters, cleansed in heart and conscience by the better blood of Jesus. We “draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful” (Heb. 10:22-23), Jesus Christ our Mediator! Amen.