Sunday, August 11, 2019

Hebrews 12.18-29: Recurring Motifs

The people stood between two mountains, and the preacher asked them to acknowledge. After eleven full chapters (plus a bit of a twelfth), the congregation hearing the sermon that is the Epistle to the Hebrews is brought to this point: Unlike your ancestors, you didn't come to Mount Sinai - all that volcanic blaze and earthshaking rumble - to hear God speak. The earsplitting words and soul-shaking message terrified them and they begged him to stop. When they heard the words - "If an animal touches the Mountain, it's as good as dead" - they were afraid to move. Even Moses was terrified. No, that's not your experience at all. You've come to Mount Zion, the city where the living God resides. The invisible Jerusalem is populated by throngs of festive angels and Christian citizens. It is the city where God is Judge, with judgments that make us just. You've come to Jesus, who presents us with a new covenant, a fresh charter from God. He is the Mediator of this covenant. (Hebrews 12:18-29). The people stand between the two mountains, exhausted and discouraged. The preacher encourages them to remember what Jesus has done for them. Toward which mountain will they move? Sinai? Or Zion? You'd think the choice would be easy. Surely they could see the difference between the two mountains as they were presented side by side.

These are far (far!) from the only appearances of mountains in scripture. Mount Ararat, the Mount of Olives, Mount Hermon, Mount Carmel, Mount Nebo, Mount of Transfiguration, and the list could go on. Each time a mountain shows up, we should look back to where else we have seen a mountain, remember those stories, and then see what is similar and what is different in the most recent appearance of a mountain. It's in the side-by-side observation that we can see the richness of the symbol as a whole and the nuances of each mention.

American artist Jim Dine (b. 1935) was known for taking one object - often an everyday object - and exploring it in a variety of ways. A recurring motif. In the late 1970s Dine spent three months in Jerusalem. His studio was near Mount Zion. Among the works he produced was a painting titled "Painting Around Mount Zion." Is the painting below what you imagined such a work would look like?
Jim Dine. Painting Around Mount Zion. 1979. Oil on canvas. 71" x 173". Akron, OH: Akron Art Museum. 
It's bathrobes, one of the recurring motifs in Dine's art. Here there are four of them. Four bathrobes with sashes tied and sleeves that look perfectly placed for the wearer to have hands fisted on hips or concealed in pockets. But four bathrobes with no people in them. Nevertheless, when we see the robe, we might imply the people. After all, who else would be using a bathrobe? Each is slightly different. Notice the fall of light on the lapels of each robe, and compare the colors in each image. So we might see these as four individuals. Four "people around Mount Zion."

The people of Hebrews didn't have to move toward Zion (and they probably weren't wearing bathrobes when they heard the preacher's use of  the recurring mountain motif). But they would choose either Zion or not-Zion by the way they moved forward after hearing the preacher's encouragement in the midst of their discouraging world. Are these four bathrobe people ready to move? Or are they unable to move from their solidified pose?

We also choose. Are we, as Christians, moving? Are we moving toward Mount Zion?

For thoughts on Luke 13:10-17, click here.
For thoughts on Jeremiah 1:4-10, click here.
For thoughts about the "shaking" mentioned in Hebrews, see Art&Faith Matters on Facebook.

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