Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 25, 2019
Hebrews 12:18-29 Commentary
My colleague Scott Hoezee, to whom (August, 2016 commentary) with Tom Long (Hebrews, John Knox Press, 1997) I owe a great deal for this commentary’s ideas, compares reading this morning’s text to watching a good tennis match’s extended rally. After all, spectators must constantly turn their heads to watch a good rally. They must look right, then left. Right, then left again. Serena Williams hits, then Venus returns. Serena. Venus, until one of them can’t hit a ball hit into play.
In a slightly similar way, Hebrews 12’s Preacher switches back and forth between words of solemn warning and great comfort. Warning. Comfort. Warning. Comfort. So it’s as if our heads must constantly swivel back and forth in order to read the argument the Preacher makes.
Hoezee suggests that’s because Hebrews’ readers have reached a kind of religious fork in the road. Their choice of road will, in Robert Frost’s words, “make all the difference.” Turn right: God is majestic and terrifying. Turn left: our great High Priest Jesus is wonderful and gentle. Turn right: God is a consuming fire. Turn left: Jesus is a loving Savior.
Hebrews’ Preacher wants to direct his readers to Mount Zion’s new covenant. However, he worries that they will turn toward Mount Sinai’s old covenant instead. After all, while Mount Sinai looks and sounds ominous, it’s also, in Tom Long’s words, “well-traveled, downhill most of the way, … and looks smoother. And while Zion looks and sounds far lovelier, the road to it is rockier, narrower and steeper.”
So those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson might compare Hebrews’ Preachers’ presentation to an advertisement that begins with a scene of frazzled parents driving rambunctious children to church. It cuts away to a scene of a sandy beach along a sparkling ocean that sun bathes in its soothing glow.
The ad’s narrator’s voice overlays those pastoral scenes with, “Forget the traffic and the tension. You aren’t in your car anymore. You’ve come to the magical island of Aruba.”
Of course, you aren’t actually in the Caribbean. You’re in something like your family room. But in your imagination you’re sitting at the beach sipping a cold beverage.
In verse 22 Hebrews’ Preacher says, “You have come to Mount Zion … the city of the living God.” Of course, the stormy, fiery and gloomy Sinai to which he alludes in verses 19 and following was in many ways a good thing. It was, after all, where God gave God’s Israelite people the law that guided them to a thankful response to God’s grace.
However, the Preacher portrays Sinai as a symbol of religion that’s run amuck because it’s separated from Christ’s saving work. After all, Hebrews 12’s Sinai is a particularly fearful place. At it God’s Israelite people begged Moses not to let God even speak to them. Its sights and sounds even reduced God’s close friend Moses to shaking in his sandals.
Religions tend to specialize in that kind of fear. They teach worshipers to fear their god or that god’s punishment. People worship false religions’ god in part because they’re afraid of what he or she will do to you if you don’t.
Yet some strands of Christianity also seem to traffic in that fear. I grew up near a small Bible college. One of its staff and students’ favorite bumper stickers read, “Read the Bible – it will scare the hell out of you.”
I once attended a wedding in a dark, old church. Its pastor chose as his wedding sermon’s text one of Paul’s warnings against sexual immorality. His fearful interpretation of it? “Since you’re going to be intimate anyway, you might as well get married. Otherwise you’ll endanger your soul.”
Of course, since God hates sin, people who gladly and stubbornly indulge in it have every reason to fear the living God. God’s judgment and Hell are as real as the hand in front of your face. Yet Hebrews’ Preacher insists that God’s adopted sons and daughters who wish to obey God don’t have to be afraid of God.
After all, we haven’t come to a fearful place. God has graciously brought God’s adopted sons and daughters to Mount Zion. Here God, not fear reigns. Zion is a place of salvation and safety where God has written our names in permanent ink. Hebrews’ Zion is a place where God’s children don’t need shake in fear in their boots or heels. There’s no doom and gloomy smokiness at Zion.
At our text’s Sinai, the laws are tough and the verdicts are harsh. At Zion, Jesus has perfectly obeyed the law for us. At Sinai there’s violence and stubborn sin’s blood. At Zion the only blood is Jesus’ blood that was poured out on his adopted brothers and sisters’ behalf.
So God’s beloved children are in the right place at Zion’s place of joy and peace. And if we’re wondering if we should head another way, Sinai’s warnings point us in the right direction. So worshipers and students can go have some of Zion’s coffee and juice, cookies and fruit, right?
But Hebrews’ Preacher isn’t quite done yet. To return to our earlier metaphor, our text’s rally continues. Just when we think the Preacher has hit a winner that lands in Zion, he hits it back to what seems like the other side of the net.
Yes, there’s a yawning chasm that’s bigger than America’s Grand Canyon between Sinai and Zion. Yet Hebrews’ Preacher insists there’s a kind of fire and shaking on both mountains. At Sinai fires and earthquakes destroyed and broke everything that was unholy.
Zion’s shaking, says Long, is like that of a museum curator who’s trying to shake the dust off an old statue. She’s trying to get rid of everything that hides the statue’s beauty. After all, at Zion, God shakes things not to destroy them, but to preserve them so that, in verse 27’s words, “what cannot be shaken may remain.” And what remains is God’s image in which God creates us that we deface, but God is restoring.
What’s more, at Zion, God’s not a wildfire that burns out of control. Instead Zion’s God is a controlled burn that purifies God’s people and destroys what is evil. This God burns away all impurity so that all that is left is pure, good and holy.
Whether this is good or bad news depends on whether we’re the dust that needs shaking off or the object that dust covers. After all, God’s children are precious in God’s sight. However, most of us have some sinful dust that at least partially obscures the image of God in us. While we need someone or something to remove that dust, if it were up to us, we’d be in deep trouble. After all, we don’t naturally mind letting a little of the dust that is sin like envy, gossip, and resentment cling to us.
Thankfully, then, we don’t come to Zion by ourselves. Jesus, our older Brother, the great High Priest, comes with us. He has completely saved us. However, Jesus, by his Spirit, also sometimes vigorously shakes off the sinful dust that we clings us.
Yet Hebrews’ Preacher insists that’s not license for God’s people to get so cozy with God that we forget the difference between creatures like us and the Creator of all. Of course, God has already put us in God’s kingdom from which not even the evil one can remove us. With us, by God’s grace through Jesus’ saving work, all is well.
Yet it’s still appropriate for those who belong to Jesus have a healthy awe and reverence of God. After all, God is, in the closing words of our text, “a consuming fire.” That may not be the kind of God we’d choose if we had a list of options or we’d be if we were God.
But our text’s holy God is the only living God in a world full of counterfeits. That God is the only hope for a groaning creation and its pained creatures. After all, that God is already in the process of destroying all that harms God’s creation and its creatures.
So on the one hand, both those who proclaim Hebrews 11 and those who hear us belong to Zion to God in life and in death as well as in body and soul. Yet on the other hand, God’s beloved people never take that for granted. Jesus has completely saved God’s beloved people by his precious blood. Yet we never assume that’s license for us to do and say what we please.
On the one hand, those who come to Zion know both how gracious and gentle Jesus is. On the other hand, we know how completely majestic, holy and awesome Jesus is. Salvation is God’s completely and free gift, but it’s one earned for us only through Jesus’ blood, sweat, tears and trip to hell.
So at Zion God’s precious children worship the Lord with joy, but also with total reverence. We sing to God with gladness, but also with a healthy dose of amazement that we can communicate with God at all.
Yet many of us prefer things to be more clear-cut. We want to know if they’re good for us or bad for us. So this morning’s text that invites us to live with a tension that may leave some uncomfortable. Is God holy or loving? Should we approach the Lord with reverence or confidence? Yes.
Few of us who seek to proclaim the Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for this Sunday can either resolve or explain how to resolve that tension. Instead, with Hebrews’ Preacher, we persistently point our hearers and ourselves to Jesus.
When his adoptive brothers and sisters look into Jesus’ fierce but loving eyes at Zion, we see something that’s perhaps similar to what Narnia’s children saw in Aslan the lion.
When Mr. and Mrs. Beaver first tell the children about him, Lucy responds by saying, “I think I should be quite frightened to meet a lion. Tell me, is he a safe lion?” “Safe?” Mr. Beaver answers. “’Course he’s not safe. But he’s good.”
Those who meet Aslan or even just hear his earth-shaking roar are appropriately awe-filled. They know ripping them to shreds in a moment would be little more than swatting flies for Aslan. Yet when Lucy and the others look into Aslan’s eyes, they see something that makes them want nothing but him. They see a kindness and tenderness that’s fiercely determined to show them love.
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