Sermon 8/21/16 Pentecost 14

Pentecost 14
8/21/16
Why Religion Matters
1. The contrast is striking
2. The rewards are many
 

Hebrews 12:18-­24 You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; 19 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, 20 because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” 21 The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.” 22 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, 23 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, 24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

Have you noticed that “religion” has a bad reputation? Many people like to say that they are spiritual, but not religious. If you ask them what that means, they usually can’t explain it. All they can say is that they are not part of any organized religion. I’m sure you have seen those “Coexist” bumper stickers that imply all religions are the same; it doesn’t matter which one you choose. That’s the way most people feel about religion. It doesn’t really matter if you are Catholic or Baptist or Lutheran or whatever.

What is religion? Religion is a set of beliefs, a faith system and our text today emphasizes that it does matter. In fact, there is a clear distinction between truth and untruth and we can’t ignore that. Religion matters.

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. The false summit blocks the view of the true summit. I experienced that in my college days when a friend and I went winter backpacking to climb Mt. Elbert, the highest mountain in Colorado. Fighting 70 mile per hour winds above timber line and a lack of oxygen, we climbed to what we thought was the top, only to realize that it was a false summit, the true summit was much higher.

Our text compares two mountains, Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion. Sinai is a false summit. It looks like the real thing, the one you want to climb, but it’s not. Zion is the true summit. Zion is where we want to be. Mt. Sinai is where God gave his law, including the 10 Commandments, to Moses and Israel. Zion is the hill where Jerusalem is situated. It’s the place where Abraham was ready to sacrifice Isaac and, 1000 years later, where the Temple was built. Throughout the Psalms and Prophets, Zion is a metaphor for God’s people, the church.

Fire, smoke, trumpet blasts, the mountain trembling violently. Welcome to Mt. Sinai. You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; 19 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, 20 because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” 21 The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”

Atmosphere is important. When you take your wife out for your anniversary, you don’t take her to McDonalds, do you? You take her to a nice place with nice atmosphere. We have a beautiful church building. It was built this way for a purpose; it sets an atmosphere for worship. The scene on Mt. Sinai where God gave the law to Moses and Israel set the mood. The pitch darkness, thunder and fire, trumpet blast and loud voice set an atmosphere of fear and awe. The people there had no doubt that God was serious about his law.

When a football coach storms into the locker room at half time and punches a locker – like my high school coach did – you know he means business. The whole scene on Mt. Sinai was meant to terrify. It showed that God is deadly serious about his law.

Hell is real. God does punish sin. We should be absolutely terrified of offending the almighty God. 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, we need to hear God thunder. Even Moses trembled before God. Do we? Do you tremble when you confess your sins at the beginning of the service? If you are having a hard time trembling, it’s time to walk back to Sinai, to smoke, fire, darkness and thunder.

While God wants us to be there and know the law and how serious he is about the law, it’s a false summit. We don’t want to stay there; we need to move on. 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, 23 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, 24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

What a different scene at Zion. No gloom, no darkness, no thunder or fear. Here there is a joyful assembly of angels. The difference between Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion is Mt. Calvary. Jesus’ blood shed there on the cross has established a new covenant of righteousness and perfection. This is the true summit. This is where we want to be and remain.

But that’s not where most people go. Most want to climb Mt. Sinai and stand there. They want to have heaven on their own merit. They want to get to heaven by being good and they live in the delusion that they can do a good enough job. They want to feel good about how good they are. Every one of those religions represented on the “Coexist” bumper sticker, except Christianity, stands solidly on Mt. Sinai. They are religions of the law, of self? righteousness. That is the wide road Jesus talked about and it leads to destruction.

Religion matters. It matters that we know the truths of God’s Word. It matters that we believe in Jesus as our Savior. It matters that we teach these truths to our children in school so that they can share in Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. We call it the Holy Christian Church, the communion of saints. That’s what’s being described here. He says it’s untouchable. The Church is not a physical place, but a heavenly reality. It’s where God dwells with his grace. It’s those in heaven and those still here who have Jesus as their Savior.

You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, he says. During the Olympics many athletes stood on stage with their medals as their national anthem was played and people cheered. That’s the picture here on Zion. The angels are in constant celebration of your salvation and your child’s salvation.

Why can you be so certain of salvation? You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. On Zion, God declares us not guilty because of Jesus who brings a new covenant of forgiveness.

At Sinai God brought a covenant that we would describe as a contract. If the people kept his law, God would bless them. But they failed. They failed miserably. So do we. That’s why Sinai is a false summit.

Jesus mediated a new covenant that is not so much a contract as a promise. It’s the promise of sins forgiven through his shed blood. It’s a covenant renewed for us each time we receive the Lord’s Supper. In fact, the word “sprinkled” used here, in every other instance it’s used in the New Testament, is a reference to the Lord’s Supper.

Because of this new covenant, which we have through faith in Jesus, he says our names are written in heaven. You carry Zion’s citizenship papers written in the indelible ink of God’s grace and signed in the blood of Jesus.

What a wonderful place to be: on Mt. Zion, the city of the living God. Being a citizen of this city matters. Religion matters. Church membership matters. Being a member of a church can mean absolutely nothing. If true faith in the heart is not there, church membership means nothing. Too often people look at church membership like a club. We want membership in it for the privileges it offers. Such church membership is an empty gesture before God.

On the other hand, religion can mean a lot. If we see our religion as a confession of our faith; if we see our religion and church membership as an expression of our oneness in teachings; if we see our religion as a way of supporting and working together to build up the kingdom of God; if we see our religion as a way to join with others in praise our Savior, then it matters.

Church is more than a building. It’s more than a business with a budget and expenses. In the deepest sense, it’s the heavenly Jerusalem, the church of the firstborn, the communion of saints. May we rejoice to be a part of it, be active in it and look out for the church’s best interests. May we take more opportunities to build our fellowship in the church and strengthen our ties with one another.

Because religion matters. What you believe about Jesus and his Word matters. It matters that we stand on Mt. Zion.