Sermon Commentary for Sunday, August 21, 2022
Hebrews 12:18-29 Commentary
What might Christian worship look like if each service began with Hebrews’, “Let us … worship God acceptably with reverence and awe”? What affect on worship might a sticky note on preachers, worship planners and leaders’ computers that read, “Let us … worship God acceptably with reverence and awe” have?
Those who proclaim and hear this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson will quickly note that, at first glance, it seems to offer two apparently competing visions of the God whom we worship and the worship we offer God. So preachers might move toward proclaiming that those two visions are at least somewhat bound together by the concept of “acceptable” worship of God.
In my 55+ years of worship awareness, I’ve watched worship styles’ pendulum swing back and forth between two extremes. Those who proclaim Hebrew 12 might offer some reflections on their own experiences or at least awareness of such fluctuation.
My parents raised me in a Christian Reformed Church that was fairly “high church.” It had a set liturgy, used an organ as accompaniment and its preaching was good but quite formal. While the churches I have pastored have been less “high church,” they’ve often been still relatively formal. They have emphasized worship that is characterized by reverence and awe.
However, I’ve also attended worship services that were considerably less formal. They featured things like strobe lights, loud bands and pastors in jeans whose preaching was relatively conversational. Such worship services at least arguably emphasize Christians’ joyful approach to Jesus as the “mediator of a new covenant” (24).
So in that context of such diverse 21st century Christian worship, what might “acceptable” (28b) worship look like? The Greek word for “acceptably” is euarestos. This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s use of it is the only one in the Scriptures. It’s variously translated as “acceptable,” “acceptably,” and “well pleasingly.”
Acceptability’s proximity to to Theo (“God”) suggests that worship must be acceptable, first, to God. So Hebrews author seems to insist that God, not people, is the final arbiter of worship’s acceptability. Those who plan and lead worship make it our goal to help people worship the Lord in ways that please God.
The Spirit, however, also inspires Hebrews’ author to add the qualifier that worship that pleases God is characterized by “reverence and awe” (eulabeias kai deous). English speakers are again challenged by the fact that both Greek adjectives are biblically unique to the book of Hebrews.
Yet biblical scholars suggest that eulabeias conveys a sense of not just fear of God, but also propriety and caution. Deous connotes fearfulness, if not timidity. So verse 28 at least suggests that those who would worship God acceptably do so not just with a desire to worship in ways that please God, but also with a deep awareness of God’s holiness and majesty.
Yet that may seem to at least initially contradict Hebrews 12:18ff’s “you have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire.” When Moses glimpsed that gloomy, dark and stormy mountain, verse 21 reports that the sight of it “was so terrifying that Moses said, ‘I am trembling with fear’.”
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s proclaimers might explore the difference between the “fear” (ekphobos) that filled Moses when he approached God at Mount Sinai and the “reverence and awe” with which God’s adopted children now approach God in worship. We sense that Moses’ fear was more than just reverence for God’s holiness. It was more like terror or a pathological fear.
So what changes between Moses and God’s dearly beloved people’s approach to God? What transforms our approach from terror to reverence? What allows God’s people who were too terrified to approach God at Mount Sinai to now approach God with joy (22)?
It’s vital that Hebrews 12’s proclaimers explicitly remind our hearers that God has not changed. That’s, after all, an expression of the ancient but still fairly popular heresy that insists that God somehow changed between the Old and New Testaments.
Mount Sinai was what Amy B. Peeler calls a place of “terror.” It was, in fact, so terrifying that God’s Israelite people didn’t even dare to touch it. However, Hebrews’ author insists that its readers and the rest of God’s people no longer come to ominous Mt. Sinai when they come to God. They come, instead, to Mt. Zion.
There God’s dearly beloved people find what Tom Long describes with four pairs of terms. We find Mt. Zion and the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. God’s people also find there thousands of angels and the church of the firstborn. At Mt. Zion we, what’s more, find the judge of all people and the spirits of perfected righteous people. On top of all that, Christians find Jesus and the sprinkled blood. At Mt. Zion, we, quite simply, find joy rather than terror.
Yet if God hasn’t changed, what has changed? While the answer is somewhat complex, perhaps proclaimers might boil it down to the fact that, by God’s grace, God has changed our access to God. While God remains majestic and holy, Christ has mediated a new covenant between God and God’s adopted children.
It’s what Long (Hebrews, Westminster John Knox Press, 2012) refers to as “a covenant of forgiveness, a covenant in which ‘those who are called … receive the promised eternal inheritance’.” Those who have faithfully received that inheritance by God’s grace can approach and worship God with joyful reverence and awe.
Yet as this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson goes on to insist, such joyful worship is not a license for deliberate moral laxity. The God whom we worship with reverence and awe, after all, still demands to be listened and paid attention to. God is a fire that consumes not God’s dearly beloved people, but God’s enemies. Hebrews’ author, however, reminds his readers that God doesn’t want God’s children to become God’s enemies who never get to approach Mt. Zion because they’ve stubbornly ignored God’s voice.
In his commentary on this passage, my colleague Scott Hoezee notes that it’s hard to structure worship services that properly balance gladness and holy fear. It’s hard to preach sermons that keep both joy and humble wonder in creative tension. “But, Hoezee adds, “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.”
As Bryan Whitfield notes near the end of his commentary on this passage, worship is an encounter with God in which God’s people hear God’s voice and are, by the Holy Spirit, transformed. God, after all, accepts us as we are. But God never leaves us as we are.
Acceptable worship that’s offered in spirit and in truth, adds Whitfield, leaves God’s people uncomfortable with our illusions of power and importance. It reminds us that both our institutions and we are only temporary. Spirited and truthful worship drives us to our knees as we, writes Whitfield, “bow in awe before the permanence, might and splendor of our God who is a consuming fire.”
Few works of literature more memorably encapsulate the paradox of worshipping God with both joy and reverence than C.S. Lewis’ children of Narnia’s experience with 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 merely hear his earth-shaking roar are appropriately awe-filled. They know that 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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