Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 21, 2016
Hebrews 12:18-29 Commentary
Reading this passage creates the sensation of watching a tennis match. In tennis if a good volley is going back and forth, then those in the stands are constantly swiveling their heads. They look right, then left. Right, then left again. Right, Left, Right, Left. Now Serena hits, then Venus. Serena, Venus, and so on.
The end of Hebrews 12 is rather like that. The author keeps toggling back and forth between words of grave fright and warning and then words of great comfort and assurance. Turn right: God is majestic and terrifying. Turn left: our great High Priest Jesus is wonderful and tender. Turn right: God is going to shake the earth and the heavens. Turn left: We dwell in a kingdom that cannot be shaken. Turn right: God is a consuming fire! Turn left: Jesus is our loving Savior.
Back and forth and back and forth it goes. The author wants to let us know several things simultaneously and so ends up making a list of propositions that we very simply have to hold in creative tension. On the one hand we do not need to feel the sheer terror the Israelites felt at Mount Sinai. Back then it was all booming thunder, dread, gloom, darkness. God’s holiness flashed like lightning and his presence had so inhabited the entire mountainside that even an errant cow who touched the edge of the mountain’s face would drop dead. Even God’s best friend and blessed servant Moses was quaking in his sandals.
But that’s not the mountain we are coming to, the author assures us. No, we are coming to Mount Zion, Jerusalem, the heavenly city of God. As a wonderful choir anthem has it, “We’re marching to Zion,…that beautiful city of God.” This is a place of salvation and safety. Our names are already written there. Our salvation is already accomplished by the sprinkling of Jesus’ blood. No need to fear. No need to tremble. No doom and gloom smokiness here. All is well. All is light. We have already been made perfect in Christ.
But no sooner is this said and the tennis ball gets hit back to the other side of the net. The author will not let us forget for even a moment that the God we serve is nevertheless holy and majestic and awesome and, all things being equal, worthy of a goodly dose of reverential fear. He is still going to shake things up in heaven and on earth. There is still a lot of serious business to attend to here. Don’t mess with this God. Don’t get so cozy with him as to forget that existential divide between mere creatures and the Creator of all. This God will still terrify those who oppose him.
Serious stuff. But then the ball gets batted back the other direction. But remember, the author says, we are in a kingdom that is already well established and safe and it cannot be shaken. Remember that with you all is well. Don’t forget grace. Don’t forget Jesus.
And yet . . . a goodly amount of reverence and awe should attend even those of us who know we are safe in the arms of Jesus because—last word of the sermon here—don’t forget that our God is a consuming fire!!
Seldom in the Bible do you find such a glaring instance of both/and thinking, of “On the one hand . . .” followed by “On the other hand . . .” These things need to be held in creative tension because if you cannot pull that off, then you face one of two not-so-good scenarios: you either live with an irreconcilable contradiction (and so swing wildly in life between hope and despair) or you embrace only one side or the other but never both at the same time.
The first scenario leads to a life of peaks and valleys but the valleys can be pretty tough and we may arrive in those low places precisely in those difficult moments when we most need the assurance of God. We mostly believe God loves us and has saved us but . . . then come those moments when we just are not sure, when we are deeply afraid of our salvation being a mirage or fantasy. That’s just no way for a Christian to live.
Then again the second scenario is even worse: you live with constant and abiding uncertainty. You don’t let your children sing “Jesus loves me, this I know” because—you teach your children—you really cannot know that for sure when you serve such a holy and angry God. You refrain from ever taking the Lord’s Supper because you can never be sure you are actually worthy enough. And so you are a Christian and you are pious and serious and deeply moral but you exude just a dead joylessness that few would want to join your cause.
Or . . . you go the other way and turn God into a giant teddy bear of a deity who is your pal and chum. You sashay into the sanctuary every Sunday morning sipping a latte you got at the coffee kiosk in the church lobby and you settle into your seat without a care in the world. You get through the whole service without giving holiness or the awesomely fearsome majesty of God much of a thought because the music is all upbeat, the sermon is all about DIY Christianity bristling with tips and good advice on child-rearing and business success, and the old fusty Confession of Sin stuff got gutted out of the service years ago as too much of a downer.
Hebrews 12 puts us preachers—and all of us—squarely on the balance beam of the faith. You can fall left or right but to stay on the beam you have to know BOTH how gracious and tender Jesus is AND how radically holy and awesome he is. This is not a God to be trifled with. Salvation from this God is not something to take lightly. It may all be grace and all be free and all be wonderful and true and secure in a kingdom that cannot be shaken and yet . . . our God is a consuming fire. Worship him with gladness but also holy fear. Sing to him with joy but also a dose of humble wonder that you can talk to this God at all.
It’s not easy to structure worship services that get both right or to preach sermons that keep both in creative tension. But even as God is one and yet three and Jesus is one person with two natures, so in all of our Christian living we embrace the paradox and engage this God with a reverence borne of holy fear and a joy borne of child-like trust.
It’s a bit hackneyed now as lots of us use this illustration often but . . . surely the end of Hebrews 12 summons to mind C.S. Lewis and his classic description of Aslan the Lion in the first Narnia book. The children are first told about Aslan by Mr. and Mrs. Beaver, prompting Lucy to say “I think I should be quite frightened to meet a lion. Tell me, is he a safe lion?” “Safe?” Mr. Beaver replies, “Course he’s not safe. But he’s good. He’s the King!”
And of course Lewis keeps this tension alive throughout the Chronicles of Narnia. Those who meet Aslan, who hear his earth-splitting roar of majesty, are properly afraid, wary. This thing could rip you to shreds at a moment’s notice. It would be like swatting a fly to him. And yet when Lucy and so many others look deeply into Aslan’s eyes, they see something that stirs in them a fathomless desire for nothing else but him. They see a kindness and a tenderness that is as fiercely determined to exude love as the Lion himself just is fierce.
It’s Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration: for a few brief moments the disciples could not bear to look at his radiance or bear the thunderous voice of the Father from heaven. But then the cloud lifts, the light fades, and Jesus touches them tenderly on the shoulders and tells them to stand up. They do, they look again at the ordinary Jesus they’d been seeing daily for a long while already and yet nothing had finally changed from the moment he was glowing with radiant holiness, either. It was the same Jesus, the same majesty, the same holiness. Both were there, together, all the time.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!