When I first began to feel stirrings that God was calling me to pastoral ministry, I was in college. That’s not an unusual time to explore a call, and my courses in religion were part of it; but the bigger part was the part-time job I had as the music director at my home church. My home church was about 45 minutes away from where I went to school and I could easily commute to direct the choirs and lead the Sunday singing. My favorite part of the job was the senior adult choir. We had only twelve voices, 10 women and 2 men. We met on Wednesday mornings at 10 am. in the sanctuary to practice, and about once a month we would take our show on the road to bring some joy and encouragement to local nursing homes. One of the favorite songs that choir loved to sing was an old hymn, “We’re Marching to Zion.”
If I close my eyes, I can hear them now: Eula and Ione, both sisters in their 90’s; Margaret, who insisted that everyone call her “darling;” Carter and Jess on the back row. They all belted it out. “We’re marching to Zion, beautiful, beautiful Zion….” We laughed and sang and had a good time every week. That’s Spirit was working on me there, and joyfulness of our time together was part of what sent me on to seminary.
This week we are concluding our series through the book Hebrews, and we have come today to Mt. Zion. That old hymn has been rattling in the background of my mind all week because the preacher of Hebrews has finally brought us to this place of joy and celebration. Remember, this gifted preacher of Hebrews has been telling us that we are pilgrims on the journey of faith. We are runners on a marathon race of faith, now, we finally see our destination. This is the climax of the long sermon called Hebrews. The pilgrim the church has come to Mount Zion.
The preacher actually gives us an image of two mountains in this passage, one is Mt. Sinai and the other Mt. Zion. We learn of Mt. Sinai in Exodus and Deuteronomy. It was the mountain where Moses received the law. It was a mountain shrouded in smoke, the mountain where the voice of God thundered and terrified the Israelites, the mountain where Moses trembled in fear. To touch Mt. Sinai was fatal, any animal that ventured onto its holy ground would be destroyed. The sights and sounds of Mt. Sinai inflicted terror on the human heart – streaks of jagged lightning and rumbles of thunder and loud trumpets; and all of that was nothing compared to the stark terror of God’s voice.
That was Mount Sinai. Mt. Zion, on the other hand, is the mountain of Jerusalem, the city of God. It was King David’s Camelot. The home of the Temple where sacrifices were made on behalf of the people. The place to which pilgrims went up with joy. The preacher uses these two mountains as metaphors for our relationship with God and the life of God’s people. Mt. Sinai depicts a relationship with God that is distant and based in fear. It depicts a relationship with God where we are trying to make it on our own merits and are forever unworthy to approach the throne of God. Mt. Zion, on the other hand, paints the picture where we may approach God freely, and where the life of God’s people is full of celebration and grace. Listen closely to how the preacher develops describes the scene.
You have come to innumerable angels in festive gathering. In other words, you have come to a feast. Heaven is having a party. Everyone is wearing their dancing clothes. It’s a joyful celebration.
You have come to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven. What does that mean? It means you have to come to a place where everyone belongs. In the world of scripture, the first-born child was the child of privilege and inheritance, and all the other children were also-rans. Here, at Mount Zion, there are no second born children. There are no seconds, no thirds, no back-row kids. Everyone is a front row kid. Everyone is a firstborn. Everyone belongs.
And [you have come] to God the judge of all. Those words sound like they could be frightening, but scripture teaches us that God’s judgment is not something to be feared, but something to be welcomed. God the judge will bring justice and will put things right.
And [you have come] to the spirit of just people made perfect. That great cloud of witnesses we spoke about last week, they are there at Mount Zion too, a communion of saints.
And [you have come] to Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant whose blood speaks a better word than that of Abel. The blood of Abel is the blood vengeance. Cain killed his brother Abel because of jealousy, and Abel’s blood cried out from the ground for vengeance. The blood of Jesus speaks a word of grace, arms outstretched in welcome and love.
Here is the crux of this magnificent sermon of Hebrews. Your faith has not led you to a place of fear and gloom; your faith has not led you to a place where you are unworthy or do not belong. Your faith in Christ has led you to Mount Zion. Your faith in Christ has led you to a place of joy, belonging, justice, community, and grace.
As N. T. Wright comments about this passage, “The most striking thing about it is that… those who now live by faithand hope have already, in a sense, arrived at this heavenly city. They already belong there; in prayer and worship they are already welcome before God’s throne.” We have come to Mt. Zion. This life, this joy, is already ours. We pilgrims already belong there, by faith, and we have come not to a gloomy place, but to a place of dancing.
Last year, the Presbyterian educator Glenn Bannerman died of COVID19. Many in this congregation knew Glenn, he lived in Black Mountain and was a fixture at Montreat. He led our first annual church retreat more than twenty years ago. Glenn’s gift to the church was his insight that having fun – being playful – is holy. I don’t know if Glenn ever thought much about Hebrews 12 or the life of Mount Zion, but I think he would have resonated with the image. Your faith has not brought you to a gloomy place, but you have come to a place where the angels are dressed for dancing.
Glenn called the Barn Dance each week in the summer at Montreat for years, and he called dances at Shindig on the Green here in Asheville. Glenn believed that play was play, but play was also theology. One of the things that Glenn was most proud of the “sit-down square dance.” You could dance the “sit down square dance” sitting down, which meant that all people could participate. People with disabilities – or those who were just plain shy – could participate. Glenn understood, and helped us all to understand, that play –with toys, and games, and dancing –can create joy and belonging, can build community, can point toward justice, can embody grace. It’s the life of Mount Zion, the life of the heavenly city.
In his book Prayers: Letters to Malcom, C. S. Lewis writes more eloquently about the same idea. This pilgrimage of life on earth, Lewis writes, is characterized so much by the way of the cross. We live with labor and frustrations, with perpetual planning, and constant anxieties. Where in this life, he asks, will we find an analogy of heaven? Where can we experience just a taste of heaven?
Lewis answers the question, “It is only in our ‘hours-off,’ only in our moments of permitted festivity, that we find an analogy. Dance and game are frivolous, unimportant down here; for ‘down here’ is not their natural place. Here, they are a moment’s rest from the life we were placed here to live. But in this world, everything is upside down. That which, if it could be prolonged here, would be a truancy, is most like that which in a better country is the End of ends. Joy is the serious business of Heaven’.”
Joy is the life of Mount Zion, and we have come to his place by faith: a place of dancing, of belonging, of welcome, of justice, of community, and of grace. We have come. By faith and hope, this life of Mount Zion is already available to us.
There is, of course, serious work to be done in the world, and for the kingdom of God. There are serious issues to address in our community as a people of faith – issues like racial justice, the education and nurture of children, affordable housing, and hunger. There are serious issues to address as people of faith in our world – poverty, and violence, and climate change. But God does not call us to be gloomy prophets of justice, or glum warriors of righteousness, or wintry worshippers, or somber saints. (I hope you’re smiling now!) We have come to Mount Zion. The angels are dressed for dancing. We are welcomed by the grace of Jesus. Our relationship to God and our life together should be bubbling over with a sense of joy, and joy fuels our journey.
This is Black History Month, and Jeremy has been sharing with our congregation on Facebook the music of black history month and he has a song celebration planned for later this month. I hope you watch for that. One of the wonderful things about the heritage of the black church is that it is marked by celebration, and the joy of the black church has fueled the justice work of the black church. In 2019, the author Jemar Tisby – who wrote the wonderful new book The Color of Compromise – organized a conference called “Joy and Justice.” Tisby said that he realized that most church conferences he went to privileged and centered the experience of the white church, and so he wanted to organize a conference that would center the experience of the black church.
He tells the story of the preacher, Rev. Dr. John Faison, coming near the end of his sermon. He began to move into the half-speaking half-singing cadence that often signals the climax of a sermon in the black church tradition. The musicians heard what was happening and they moved to their instruments. The preacher brought the sermon to an end, but he did not ask the people to close their eyes and bow their heads in prayer. Instead, he called them to sing. The whole congregation was soon on their feet, singing and swaying in collective praise. “This joy that I have. The world didn’t give it to me! The world didn’t give it and the world can’t take it away.”
Those are the sounds of Zion. No matter what else is going on in the world around us or within us, we have come by faith to a place of joy, belonging, justice, community, and grace. Play, games, fun, laughter, singing, and celebration embodies this place to which we have come.
So, come! Even in the midst of a pandemic, even at worshipping at home in your pajamas, even waiting for a vaccine, even frustrated with all that is going on in the world, come! In the words of Isaac Watts:
“Come, we that love the Lord,
And let our joys be known.
Join in a song with sweet accord,
And worship at his throne.”
 N. T. Wright, Hebrews for Everyone.