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The Church of Mount Sinai and the Church of Mount Zion

Rev. Dr. Warner M. Bailey
Jeremiah 31:31-34, Hebrews 12:18-29, Luke 13:10-17
Aug. 21, 2022

Today I want to talk about two clusters of feelings. One cluster has in it the feelings of guilt and suffering and fear. The other cluster has in it the feelings of joy and gratitude and discipline. Guided by our reading today from the Epistle to the Hebrews I want us to consider how both of these clusters can shape a congregation. Using words from the Epistle to the Hebrews, I am calling these two kinds of congregations the Church of Mount Sinai and the Church of Mount Zion. Every gathering of Christians has both of these clusters of feelings present. The question is: how we will deal with these negative feelings in order to keep ourselves vibrant, thriving, and progressive, while conserving the rich heritage of our church. Sinai and Zion are prominent touch points in the religious tradition of the children of God which is recorded in the Old Testament. Mount Sinai is in Egypt. It is where God revealed the full measure of God’s holiness. Mount Zion is where the Temple in Jerusalem stood and was the center where God was worshipped. As we search for someone to lead permanently this church, we need to look at how the Church of Mount Zion and the Church of Mount Sinai help us to define who we are. First, we take up the cluster of the guilt, the fear, the suffering we bring to our gathering. Guilt can be a destructive feeling, especially if you cannot attach it to a particular cause. The worst kind of guilt comes from obsessing over crimes that you cannot remember doing but you cannot erase from your memory. That makes it impossible to do something about resolving your feelings of guilt. Instead, you find yourself going round and round in a maze that keeps upping the ante on what you must do and never lets you have any resolution. Many times guilt is joined to the anticipation of death to make for a terrifying life since you cannot do anything to stop the annihilation of all that gives your life meaning—love, family, relationships, community, your achievements. Suffering saddles you with a loss of confidence in yourself, and it saps your ability to endure as you come to the end of your lonely struggle. The faucet of suffering relentlessly drips, and the acids of guilt slowly leach away the bedrock of peace. You are sure that you will never breathe in deeply the joy of living. You come to church with these feelings: You fear that The Man Upstairs is Watching. You are being watched sternly by a disapproving Father God who glowers his disapproval upon all humanity. You are convinced that Jesus cannot do anything to help because he suffered like us, the most shameful death, naked on a cross. If what you hear in church confirms your fears that the Man Upstairs is Watching and that Jesus is a wimp, then you are going to leave that church worse than when you came in because there will be nothing in that church’s message that can heal or cleanse a guilty conscience. That church is called in the Epistle to the Hebrews the church of Mount Sinai. Let me remind you how the epistle describes Mount Sinai Church: “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….Indeed so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.’” It’s as if what happens in the Church of Mount Sinai is like a heavy-metal concert with ear shattering screeching, strobe lights, and smoke. The writer of Hebrews is describing a church full of fatalism, conflict, and terror. It is a place of deep fatigue. You can bet that in this church you will fall deeper into the rut of how ruined a person I am and how much an ogre is God. You’ll find others in this church who will obsess with you over just how much I grieve my life, how much I resent not having it better, how much of what I see makes me angry. The people who stream out the doors after a service in the church of Mount Sinai are bitter, suspicious, tight fisted, combative and desperate. You should not be surprised, then, at how worship in the church of Mount Sinai colors your view of the state of our country. Nicole Russell, a conservative editorial writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram recently published two columns on the recent gathering of CPAC held last week in Dallas. In the first one she described the authoritarian god promoted by conference speakers, and in the second she observed that “a lot of rhetoric was filled with doom and gloom catchphrases and came from anxiety-ridden panel discussions. And much of it drew applause.” She connected the dots between the church of an authoritarian God and the politics of doom and gloom. It made her sad. “What happened to the kind of conservatism,” she asks, “that said America is great regardless of who holds office?” Maybe it makes you sad, too. People bring their fear, suffering, and guilt to any gathering. The potential to produce a Church of Mount Sinai is always present because we bring to church what we see and read every day around us. But the writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews wants us to look beyond what our eyes tell us and listen with our ears to something we haven’t heard before. He writes: Listen to the sounds of “angels in festal gathering.” Listen to the buzz of the “assembly of [those who know they are] first born.” First born! First born to great heritage. First born to a solid future. First born to a noble purpose. First born to confidence. Lift your eyes from earth and listen to the sounds from heaven. You don’t have to be in the Church of Mount Sinai. You can be in the Church of Mount Zion. In the Church of Mount Sinai the people heard “a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them.” But now, in the Church of Mount Zion, listen to something else. “Listen now to the voice of the sprinkled blood of Jesus.” For what the voice of Jesus says is backed up by what he has done. In his dying that shameful death on the cross and being raised from the dead he breaks the power of guilt, suffering and death. “The sprinkled blood of Jesus” is a code phrase his readers would know. It means that Jesus, by dying a despicable death and rising victoriously, has broken the grip of their feelings of guilt and their terror of suffering and death. He then, is the only one you can bet your life on when he tells you your guilt is forgiven, or when he tells you that he will never leave you no matter how lonely you feel in your suffering, or when he promises you victory over death when you we face your own death. You can relax and breathe deeply the joy of living. Jesus entered the Church of Mount Sinai and turned it into the Church of Mount Zion. He took away to himself what we are—angry over our fate, ashamed of our guilt, resentful at what makes our life so hard, and envious toward those who seem to have it so good—in order to give us the gift of what he is: First Born. Your angry, shameful, resentful, and envious feelings are not yours anymore to brood over and coddle, but Jesus has taken them over and taken away their power to make your life hard. You can be joyful, thankful, and full of purpose. Jesus has delivered us from the Church of Mount Sinai and placed us alongside himself in the Church of Mount Zion. Become therefore the gift of what Jesus has made of you. Breathe deeply the joy of being a First Born. First born to a rich heritage. First born to a solid future. First born to a noble purpose. First born to confidence. Be that congregation that uses its rich legacy to support a vibrant, thriving, progressive, and caring life. That’s what God is looking for and expecting to see here.

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