Summary: Don’t Leave Your Glorious Perch! 1) Mt. Sinai was just a stopping place. 2) Mt. Zion is your home.
Do you know what a “false” summit is? A false summit is a lesser peak on a mountain. It looms large from lower elevations giving hikers the impression that once they reach the top of that peak they will have conquered the mountain. Of course that’s not the case. The false summit just blocks the view of the true summit. And no hiker would settle for the views from the false summit when the true summit still beckoned, would they? (Sermon Studies on the Epistles Series C, p. 270)
That was the question the author of our text asked the Jewish Christians to whom he was writing. These Christians, who perhaps included former temple priests, were in danger of leaving Christianity to go back to Judaism. One reason is that Judaism with all its temple rituals and sacrifices seemed so much more inspiring than Christianity. But this was the author’s encouragement to them: “Don’t leave your glorious perch! Mt. Sinai, where the sacrificial laws had been given, was just a stopping place. Mt. Zion, on the other hand, is the true summit and it’s your home.” Since we’re not Jewish, does this text have anything to say to us? Let’s find out.
When you hear of Mt. Sinai what image comes to mind? While you might not be able to picture what that mountain on the Sinai Peninsula looks like, you should be able to picture some of the things that took place there on the Israelites’ trek to the Promised Land. Mt. Sinai is where God met with Moses to give him the Ten Commandments and all the other regulations for the various rituals the Israelites were to follow. Our text speaks about the events that immediately preceded Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. It says that Mt. Sinai was on fire and covered in darkness, presumably from the smoke that billowed up from the mountain. A storm also swirled around the mountain. Anyone who has been caught in a forest fire or seen images of one can begin to imagine what a scary sight this must have been for the Israelites who stood at the base of Mt. Sinai.
But it wasn’t just what they saw that terrified the Israelites; it’s what they heard that scared them to death. They heard a trumpet blast growing louder and louder. And they also heard God speak. That so terrified them that they begged God to stop. It doesn’t seem that it was so much the sound of his voice that scared them; it’s what he said that was terrifying. “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned” (Hebrews 12:20). If this is what they were to do to uncomprehending animal that accidentally wandered onto Mt. Sinai, what would happen to any one of them that did the same thing? Even Moses was terrified at the thought (Hebrews 12:21b).
Fire. Smoke. Thunder. Trumpet blasts. Threats. What was God up to there at Mt. Sinai? God was simply being God. He appeared the way he did because he is holy and expects all his commands to be obeyed perfectly, without question or hesitation. God appeared the way that he did to the Israelites to impress upon them that the Ten Commandments he was about to give them were not the Ten Suggestions.
While Mt. Sinai was a false summit and only intended as a stopover place for the Israelites on the way to the Promised Land, it still is a place that we must all travel to if we want to reach the true summit. Spending time at Sinai is especially crucial in our day and age when most people view God as a benign grandfatherly figure who winks at sin. For if we think ignoring our parents is at worst only rude behavior, and that fooling around before marriage is part of the coming of age experience, or that complaining about our civil servants is our right, we need to hear God thunder. We need to see the smoke pour from his righteous anger at anyone who would dare think that his commands don’t apply to him or her. I mean if Moses, someone whom God described as the most humble man to ever live, trembled in God’s presence, shouldn’t we do the same? Do you tremble when you confess your sins at the beginning of our worship service? Or do you suppose we could do away with that practice because we all know we’re sinners anyway? Well God doesn’t just want us to admit that we are sinners, he wants us to tremble at that reality. If you’re having a hard time trembling, it’s time to go back to Mt. Sinai, to the smoke, to the fire, to the darkness, to the thunder and be reminded who God is.