A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Randy Hammer, July 26, 2015
Psalm 50:1-6 ESV
There have long been spiritual associations—and a spiritual draw—to “Zion.” For thousands of years, pilgrims have flocked to Zion, otherwise known as Jerusalem. And the truth is, all of us need our “Zions,” in one sense of the term.
The word “Zion” occurs in the Bible well over 150 times, over half of them in the Psalms and book of Isaiah. In Hebrew, the word means “hilltop,” “mountain ridge,” or “fortress.” Zion dates back to the time of King David (the 10th century BCE), whose military forces took the mount and captured the city that later would come to be known as both Zion and Jerusalem. So the word “Zion” was variously used to refer to the city of Jerusalem, or a part of the city of Jerusalem, as well as its inhabitants.
Theologically, Zion came to be seen as the abode and seat of God. Over time, the belief grew that God had chosen Zion as his earthly abode, giving it a special status. In many cultures of that day, you know, the gods were believed to dwell on the mountaintops. So it was only natural for the ancient Hebrews to come to see the hill of Zion as the abode of their God, “the city of the living God.” As the seat or dwelling of the living God, Zion’s attributes included both beauty and perfection. Also attached to the belief that Zion was the abode of God was the idea of protection, that God would always protect Zion; hence, the significance of “fortress,” as mentioned earlier.
Zion would later come to be a synonym for the Jewish Temple and the people’s worship of God that took place there. In other words, as it evolved into the Jewish cultic center, it was the place where all Israel went to worship and offer sacrifices. So it is easy to see why the psalmist would say, in the psalm that served as today’s reading, “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth” (Psalm 50:2 ESV).
I have been to Mount Zion, as I shared in a Wednesday evening program a few months ago. I have stood on the Temple Mount, where David, and many of the Hebrew prophets, and Jesus himself stood. Of course, there is no Jewish Temple on Mount Zion today. There is only the Western Wall, the sole surviving remnant of that Jewish complex that must have been so impressive in Jesus’ day.
Today Jerusalem, or Zion, is probably recognized as the “holiest” or most sacred place on earth, as the faithful from Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and other religions flock to it for spiritual pilgrimages and worship, fulfilling in a sense the scriptural prediction of Micah that nations would stream to Zion. Micah prophesied,
“It shall come to pass in the latter days
that the mountain of the house of the Lord
shall be established as the highest of the mountains,
and it shall be lifted up above the hills;
and peoples shall flow to it,
and many nations shall come, and say:
‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
For out of Zion shall go forth the law,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” (Micah 4:1-2)
In a sense, Micah’s prophesy has been fulfilled. Well, such has been the Zion of Israel.
Week before last, we had the great joy of visiting another Zion, just as impressive in its own way. Zion National Park also has spiritual significance attached to it. And, I must say, it was a spiritual experience for me to be able to visit it. I found it to be quite apropos that on the same day we returned from our Utah vacation, there was a full-page article in the Knoxville News Sentinel on Zion National Park. The writer, Ellen Creager, began her article by saying, “This is a spiritual place. A glorious place. . . People are coming not only to tour the park but to nourish themselves.”1
Some of the sites in Zion even have spiritual names, such as Court of the Three Patriarchs (named for Abraham, Isaac and Jacob); Angels’ Landing, so named because it was said that so high and narrow is the pinnacle, nothing but angels could land there; the Altar of Sacrifice; the Great White Throne; and the Organ.
I found Zion National Park to be awe-inspiring. Upon awaking in Zion Canyon as the sun starts to crawl down the red sandstone cliffs, you cannot help but stand in awe of the sheer beauty, magnitude, and stories those cliffs have to tell. Several years ago, while on vacation with our children, we passed through Sedona, Arizona, and were moved by the red rock mountains there. But the color and beauty and majesty of Zion surpassed anything I have ever seen. It is easy to see why the huge Visitor Center parking lot is full by 10 am, and why Zion expects to see over 3.6 million visitors this year.
I also found Zion National Park to be spiritually restorative. Of the five national parks, two national monuments, and one state park we visited, I was most spiritually moved and restored in Zion. Standing in Zion Canyon makes you want to proclaim with the psalmist, “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.” And with Jacob of old, “Surely the Lord is in this place!” (Genesis 28:16 ESV). The marvelous beauties everywhere you turn; the mountain stream; the vastness of the sandstone mountains, with all the tell-tale signs of time; the sense of serenity as you enjoy the Lodge and its natural setting; the sense of something Sacred being there—all of it proved to be restorative to the soul for me.
And I found Zion National Park to be transformative. Zion is one of those places on earth where you cannot help but be changed by being there. As you study the red sandstone cliffs and the various layers and colors of strata, you realize how many millions of years it took for layer upon layer upon layer of sediment to be piled and compacted, one after the other, to form them. And then as you study the scarring of those 1000-foot high cliffs, caused by massive floods, and the forces of wind and rain; and as you consider the depth of Zion Canyon, cut over time by those same floods, you realize that our earth couldn’t have been created a mere 6,000 years ago as Creationists contend. It had to take millions of years to create Zion’s mountains, and millions more for the forces of Nature to cut and shape them and carve the canyons below them. So if I had gone to Zion as a Creationist, my faith would have been drastically shaken. Of course, I didn’t. But the experience was a transforming one, nonetheless.
This past week I found myself having difficulty transitioning back to everyday life. Not that I don’t love you all and appreciate being here with you, mind you J . But I found myself, to draw on another biblical phrase, “longing for Zion.” Because as noted in the beginning, the truth is, we all need our Zions. We all need those special places where we are inspired, restored, perhaps even transformed a bit because of having been there. For the Hebrews of old, the City of Zion (or Jerusalem) was such a place. And it continues to be such a place for faithful pilgrims from around the world who go there today. For Mary Lou and me, week before last it was Zion National Park, Utah. But it need not be either.
Our “Zion” might be as far away as Jerusalem or Zion, Utah. But it might also be as close as the Great Smoky Mountains, the local arboretum, or even coming weekly to this United Church. “Zions” can be any number of places that inspire us, restore us, positively change or transform us. So, what is your Zion? It is needful that we go there—or maybe, come here—every now and again. Amen.
1Ellen Creager, “Mighty Zion National Park . . .” Knoxville News Sentinel, 9E, Sunday, July 19, 2015.