The Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost (Proper 16), Year C.
You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. (For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”) But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven! At that time his voice shook the earth; but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.” This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of what is shaken– that is, created things– so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.Hebrews 12:18-29
You can never take a good picture of a mountain. It doesn’t matter how good the weather conditions, how nice your camera is, your skills in Photoshop, the angle you approach it at. You can never take a good picture of a mountain. Perhaps it is because images of mountains are plastered all over motivational posters and plastic drinking water advertisements that we have become desensitized to their mystique. Or perhaps that they are so large in scale that putting them onto a tiny, flat image, our tiny human minds fail to grasp their immense size. While both of these may be factors, the real reason why you can never take a good picture of a mountain is because when you take a picture, you get a near-perfect representation, but at the cost of what makes being near a mountain awe-inspiring: presence. When you see the peaks or a range of mountains, even way off in the distance, where to our minds, they are only a large two-dimensional objects, they have a presence. They make themselves known and regardless of how we see them. They exist, and make their existence known regardless of our actions, feelings, or perception of them.
The Author of Hebrews tells a story about two mountains. Contrasting what their presence has meant in the history of faith, and what they mean now in the wake of the New Creation. In his concluding argument about Jesus as the perfect fulfillment of the Torah and all the Prophets, he draws us back to a very old question that puzzled even the earliest patriarchs: Where is God’s presence? Or as they would ask: Where does God live? For such a simple question, any answer given comes with profound, and often dire consequences. For example, if we simply answer “God lives in heaven” we have accidentally concluded that God is an absentee parent, existing so far out of reach that He might not really care about humanity, or in contemplating His own perfection, doesn’t even know that creation exists. If we answer “God lives on earth” we have unintentionally concluded that God plays favorites to the extreme, choosing one place over another, and letting the world suffer while his chosen few get to bask in His glory. If we answer “God is everywhere, in heaven and on earth” That would mean God is everything, from the noblest person, to the most mindless, evil virus, and would leave us with some questions about the supposed goodness of God. If we go with the hallmark card and television Christmas special answer: “God lives in the hearts of the believers”, we have done exactly what Nietzsche described. We have killed God and reduced him to little more than a feeling brought out only for convenience, ego, and boosting holiday-season profits. Like any question pertaining to God, it gets complicated very quickly.
The author of Hebrews, recognizing the complications from trying to make such a direct answer, chooses a metaphorical approach. Two mountains, Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion, both which have hosted the presence of God, are contrasted with one another to illustrate God’s presence. Each speaks to a very different aspect about encountering God. The first, Mt. Sinai, is a huge peak standing at 7,497 ft (or 2,285 meters for the Canadians and geologists amongst us). It lies deep in the desert wilderness, and when God appears to Moses, it is with fire, cloud, tempest, darkness, gloom, and the sound of a trumpet. It is where God makes his great demands for justice through the law, where His awesome power strikes terror even into Moses, his most trusted servant. It is a place so sacred, awesome, and terrifying that no one may approach it, not even the wildlife, without fear of death. Contrasted to it is the gentle Mt. Zion, which is a hill composing the western side of Jerusalem. It is where the Temple was built to serve as God’s home amongst his people. It is a place easily accessible, civilized, where anyone could come near to meet God to offer prayers without terror for their lives.
The author of Hebrew’s seems to make a very clear metaphor, the god of the Old Testament, the Law, and the Old Covenant clearly has been replaced by something kinder, gentler, and inevitably better. Except that is not at all the case. He describes Mt. Sinai, the mountain that no one could touch except Moses, as “something you can touch”. He describes all the ways God made himself known as something physical. A fire, a Cloud etc. Yet when he describes Mt. Zion, a place easily touched, he describes it as something spiritual, “The city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem”. What is he trying to say about God’s presence? Did he mix up his metaphors? Not at all, he is describing through the image of these sacred places, God’s presence.
There are two aspects to God’s presence, Transcendence and Immanence. Transcendent refers to God’s eternal nature, the primordial creator wielding such ultimate knowledge and power that we can scarcely comprehend. So, is the Author really saying that the Old Covenant (represented by Mt. Sinai) was bad? No, but the Torah and the Old Covenant emphasizes God’s Transcendence; God’s Otherness to the world, His existing above all things, and His High Standards. Immanence is God’s presence on earth, that God is personal, interested in human affairs, and loves us. What the Author of Hebrews points us towards with Mt. Zion, is the ultimate example of God’s immanence: Jesus as God Incarnate. Jesus by walking amongst us, living the full human experience, taught us that God is not only Transcendent, wholly other from His creation, He is also Immanent, as deeply personal, approachable, relatable, and loving as any one of us.
But that doesn’t quite answer our question. Jesus completed his earthly life two thousand years ago. If he left us to go into heaven, does that mean that God has left the building? That the ultimate example of God’s presence on earth is gone until He promises to return? Long before even Jesus lived the exiles returning to Jerusalem had the same question. With the Temple gone, Jerusalem destroyed, and no where for God to live, did He leave us? Where will God live now? Here is what God had to say about it through the prophet Isaiah:
If you remove the yoke from among you,Isaiah 58:9b-14
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,
if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,
then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.
The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;
and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.
God’s presence dwells among us when we seek it. When we follow God’s law, striving for justice and righteousness. God will make us like a watered garden, something cared for, beloved, full of life when we seek God’s presence. Put simply, God lives with us when we invite Him. But for all this talk of presence, of mountains and of gardens, how can we know that God is with us? For many, seeking God’s presence is more about showing they have experienced God’s presence and actually experiencing it. Much like taking a video of a concert to prove that you went there instead of listening to the music. Or trying to take a good picture of a mountain. God’s presence is like standing at the foot of a mountain: transcendent in its scope, scale, and awe-inspiring glory, immanent in its undeniable reality, and the challenge to ascend to its peak.