Mountains have long been associated with humanity’s encounter with the Divine. Think of the proverbial spiritual seeker climbing the mountain to hear the wisdom of the guru who lives at the summit in a perpetual state of meditation. Think of Moses on top of Mt. Sinai, receiving the words of the law for the people of Israel. Think of Elijah on top that same mountain years later, hearing no audible words from God, but a sound of sheer silence that causes him to hide his face in his cloak. The prophet Muhammad is said to have taken his night journey to the furthest most mosque which was on the temple mount in Jerusalem and from there to take a journey through the heavens where he encountered the prophets and was commanded to teach Muslims to pray five times a day. The Greeks associated Mt. Olympus with the home of the gods, where all the action took place that made the world the way it was. In the gospels Jesus was transfigured on a high mountain. Jesus taught his most eloquent and ethically demanding sermon on the mount.
During my senior year of college I had the chance to study for a semester in the Middle East and during that time had a fall break of sorts when we were allowed to be on our own for a number of days. I went with a group of other students to the Sinai Peninsula – partly for the good beaches, and partly for the chance to hike up Mt. Sinai. No one is exactly sure where the Mt. Sinai of the Bible is, but there is a mountain in the southern part of the peninsula that has been the traditional sight and has become the official tourist destination for those wanting to hike Sinai. The hike begins at St. Catherine’s monastery, which stands at a little over 5000 feet above sea level, and proceeds up the east side of Mt. Sinai, eventually 7500 feet or so above sea level. It’s a hike that takes 2-3 hours. The typical tourist thing to do is to begin hiking around 2am so you can arrive at the top in time to settle in to see the sunrise. This is what others in our group wanted to do, but I was wanting to spend a little more time up on the mountain, so I headed up in the evening by myself, trusting the guide book and some other tourists around who said that there are Bedouins with a small shop toward the top who have blankets and mats available for those who want to spend the night up there in the open air. I took my time with the hike, following the well-marked path and stopping to take in the scenery every once in a while – red and gray granite mountains and desert as far as the eye can see. At one point the path joins up with a series of steps hewn out of the rock, hundreds of steps, know as the steps of penitence, created by monks of St. Catherine’s centuries ago. This part is slower going, and if I remember right, the steepest part of the climb……
The reading from Hebrews is a difficult passage. It’s full of abstract, theological language, heavy on symbolism that the 1st century reader would have understood but which seems distant to us. The central symbol here is that of the mountain, a metaphor for how we encounter God. There is a certain kind of mountain we are being led away from, and one that we are being led towards. Throughout the letter to the Hebrews the writer has been taking the listener on a tour of sorts over the landscape of faith. The letter begins by stating, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days God has spoken to us by a Son whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom God also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” That first generation receiving this letter had experienced a kind of seismic shift in their environment in how they came to perceive of God. The love that Jesus had lived out toward all people became for them like a carbon copy of what God is like, the exact imprint of God’s very being. And this caused a big enough rupture to the world as they knew it, that it could have been as if they were standing there stunned, looking around, dazed, trying to figure out what just happened and what this new geography might mean for how they thought things should be ordered. The author of Hebrews takes it upon himself to attempt to give them a guided tour of this terrain and better understand this altered lay of the land. The 11th chapter that we’ve looked at these last couple weeks is part of this long prelude to the present moment that the author has been working with. These are familiar stories of people who lived with faith, all framed in such a way so as to be anticipating something on the horizon. Something they can’t quite perceive, but something coming into view, coming into focus, something erupting from within this story.
The eruption comes in chapter 12 v. 2: “Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” Jesus the pioneer, carving out new space in which to live. Arranging a certain kind of geography where shame is disregarded, and God’s throne, God’s presence, is right along side those whom others consider most shameful and despised. A pioneer offering a certain shape of what it means to be human together and of how God encounters us in our humanity. Weakness, the cross, the defeated fragile human life, being the place where God loves to dwell. This is indeed a strange terrain, an odd arrangement of things.
As a way of summing up what has been said throughout the entire letter, the author asks us to imagine that we have been brought to a mountain. That place in this strange landscape that represents humanity encountering God. Given the seismic shift that has occurred through the ministry of Jesus, What should we expect with this kind of encounter? What kind of mountain is this that we are at?
The first task undertaken here is to describe what kind of encounter it is not. Chapter 12, v.18-21. “You have not come to a mountain that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, 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.’” The reference here is to the Israelites experience at that mountain where they were given the law. You have not come to this kind of mountain. What is being said is that encountering God need not involve terror and gloom. “You have not come to a mountain that is a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest.” Inasmuch as God is associated with utter terror and fear, this is not the kind of mountain, the kind of encounter we have been led to. This is a part of the landscape that Jesus has helped overturn, not the landscape that has been set before us.
Religion and fear have long been too closely wed together. Fear and terror are powerful motivators. We’re learning about that more and more in our political climate. People fall in line a lot easier when they’re afraid. Fear has a way of gelling people together for a common cause against a common enemy. Fear has far too often been the motivating energy behind religion.
The early 20th century mathematician, Bertrand Russell, who also happened to be an atheist, had this to say on this subject: “Religion is based, I think primarily and mainly upon fear… Fear is the basis of the whole thing – fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand. It is because fear is at the basis of those two things.”
A tough critique of religion. One, it appears, the author of Hebrews would share. Fear and the attempt to escape punishment have been a part of the religious experience of many, and what would religion be without fear of punishment? What would it be? What kind of mountain is it that we’re looking at here?
1 John chapter 4 offers some key words that apply here: “Whoever does not love has not encountered God because God is love. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment. We love because God first loved us.”
The kind of mountain we have come to, Hebrews goes on to suggest, is one we could call Mt. Zion, the city of the living God. Led away from terror, away from perceiving of God as one out to get us, we have come to Mt. Zion, where there appears to be a party going on. “innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn, and to the spirits of the righteous made complete, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” The author is again using complex imagery to say something very simple. We are invited to be a part of a community of celebration where we are slowly discovering that we are loved. This is the picture that the book of Hebrews has been leading up to. The invitation to slowly leave behind the life of fear for the life of living as one who is welcomed into something like a festal gathering.
At the risk of being anticlimactic, I will say that my experience hiking up that literal mountain was good, but nothing out of the ordinary or life changing. I made it up the steps of penitence not very focused on things I would like to repent of. When I reached the top I did what I could with the one hour of daylight left. I rented my mat and blanket from the Bedouins, found a spot where I would sleep, ate my supper that I had packed, and soon was down for the night. I slept pretty solidly until about four in the morning when loud German tourists began arriving at the summit all pumped up for the sunrise that was still a couple hours from happening. Probably the most amazing miracle that happened while I was up there was that I somehow managed to get my contact lenses in my eyes when it was still dark, not having a flashlight or any other way of seeing what I was doing. I watched the sunrise along with perhaps one hundred other people, found some folks from my group, walked down with them the way I came, and soon headed off to the next destination.
When I think back on that semester in the Middle East there wasn’t any one particular mountain top experience that stands out. No earth shattering moment of revelation. The mountain of God’s presence that I encountered there was more like this Mt. Zion of the living God that breaks into the landscape right in the middle of our everyday lives. The ongoing challenge to see the world as Jesus sees it. To encounter God in the face of the other, even if we have been taught to fear that other. The challenge to listen openly to those of different faiths. The chance to experience the ways that love breaks down barriers and draws people into community.
Mt. Zion is that place in the terrain of our lives where all these things are taking place. Where fear and terror are giving way to loving community.