ENGAGE IN THE MISSION OF CHRIST
“With Gratitude, Reverence, and Awe” – Hebrews 12:18-29
August 25, 2019
Last week, I asked for a volunteer to rebuild this structure made of many gears.
My friend, Ron Johnson, had done a great job with the initial structure,
but there were many gears that were still in the bucket.
Alex Short took on the challenge of including every piece and built this wonderful creation.
Alex, tell me, what did you learn from this experience?
“I learned that it was very difficult to include all of the pieces.
I had to tear it down and start all over again in order to use all the gears.”
Focusing on the ideal of engaging all of the gears resulted in a wholly different structure
than if one focuses merely on building the structure itself.
If we are to compare this illustration with the Church, then we would say that the gears matter.
Each gear matters. You matter. And if the structure does not welcome or include your participation,
then the structure itself needs to be rebuilt.
Thank you Alex. You have done a wonderful job!
Perhaps there is yet more to be learned from this illustration?
Who will take the bucket this week, rebuild the structure in a different way,
and report back to us – in two weeks – something that you learned from this process?
Jake and Aiden Knapp! Thank you!
In his commentary on the Letter to the Hebrews,
Tom Long mentioned Robert Frost’s memorable poem The Road not Taken.
Some of you will remember well the poem – “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood…
I took the one less traveled and that has made all the difference.”
Tom Long claims that the Hebrew Christians were not strolling through a yellow wood.
Instead, they were in “a heat-baked and exhausting spiritual desert”.
Wow – have you ever experienced a “heat-baked and exhausting spiritual desert”?
These early Christians were in the midst of trials and persecutions,
These early Christians were facing tremendous pressure from their families and community
to turn back on faith in Jesus and go back to the old ways,
back to ritual practices based on land and family and possessions.
They were being persecuted because of their Christian faith.
Some of them had been imprisoned; others had lost their homes and property.
At the time of the receiving of this letter,\
they had come to a place where their road diverged into two paths,
a crossroads, a place of decision about their future direction in life.
Some have noticed that our nation seems to have come to a crossroads of sorts.
Like the traveler in Frost’s poem, like the first century Hebrew Christians,
the road that is taken “will make all the difference”.
The author writes, don’t go back to Mount Sinai; instead embrace that you have come to Mount Zion.
Mount Sinai, from Exodus 19, represents the revelation of God to Moses on the mountain.
Moses went up on the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments
while the order was given that no one was to approach the mountain.
No one besides Moses could come close to the presence of God.
God was experienced in tempest and lightning and storm.
along with darkness and gloom in the midst of a blazing fire and a threatening voice.
Who can approach this God? There is no access to such a God, except through Moses,
who was trembling and afraid to approach the mountain.
The writer of the Hebrews says, “You have not come to this.”
This is the old understanding of who God is and what God is like.
The new understanding, made known in Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith, is Mount Zion.
Mount Zion represents good news for the people, not fear, but protection and guidance.
God is in the midst of the city, not up on the mountain far away, not distant and fearful,
but the very presence of God is in the midst of the city.
The gathering of the firstborn are there, our elder brothers and sisters in faith who have gone on
Our mentors in faith are gathered around the throne of joy.
God is there, yes as judge of all, but as an approachable judge and Jesus is our mediator.
We do not approach God with fearfulness and trembling and dread.
We do not see only gloom and darkness, or a destroying fire.
Instead, in the presence of God, we discover light and joy, reverent hope, and thankfulness.
Hear the word of God from Hebrews 12, verses 18-29, from the Good News Version of the Bible.
You have not come as the people of Israel came to what you can feel, to Mount Sinai with its blazing fire, the darkness and the gloom, the storm, the blast of a trumpet, the sound of a voice. The people that heard the voice begged not to hear another word because they could not bear the order that said, “Even if an animal touches the mountain it must be stoned to death.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said: “I am trembling and afraid.”
Instead, you have come to Mount Zion and the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem with its thousands of angels. You have come to the joyful gathering of God’s firstborn children whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God who is the judge of all humankind and to the spirits of good people made perfect. You have come to Jesus, the mediator of the New Covenant and to the sprinkled blood that promises much better things than does the blood of Abel.
Be careful then and do not refuse to hear him who speaks. Those who refuse to hear the one who gave the divine message on earth did not escape. How much less shall we escape then if we turn away from the one who speaks from heaven? His voice shook the earth at that time but now he has promised, “I will once more shake not only the earth but heaven as well.” The words “once more” plainly show that the created things will be shaken and moved so that the things that cannot be shaken will remain.
Let us be thankful then because we receive a kingdom that cannot be shaken. Let us be grateful and worship God in a way that will please God with reverence and fear because indeed our God is a consuming fire.
The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
One signpost points toward Mount Sinai, metaphor for the Old Covenant of the Old Testament.
The Old Covenant represents the old ways of law and fear.
The author is fearful that the new Christians under duress will go back to the old ways
because the old ways are more familiar and well-traveled.
The old ways may seem easier than where the other road goes.
The old ways may seem more practical and efficient and safe.
The other signpost points toward Mount Zion.
Mount Zion is the metaphor for the New Covenant of the New Testament.
Throughout this letter, the writer encouraged his readers to choose the way of the New Covenant,
the way made known through Jesus, the Mediator, the pioneer and perfecter of the faith.
But this new road will lead to where they have never gone before.
This new road seems to be a high pathway that twists and curves,
that is narrow and potentially rocky.
This new way may not seem practical or efficient or safe.
Let us be clear: the old way is not bad. It is not bad versus good,
but rather what is “less than” compared to what is “better than”.
If we live in the old way –our hope is in the kingdoms of this world.
We focus on what is temporary, on what is material, on what we can see and touch.
Ultimately, focusing only on these things will lead us down a path of unfulfilled longings,
a path of jealousies and fearfulness.
Those who take the old path may be uncertain of God’s favor and anxious about their place in the
They harbor jealousies and fears related to others.
They constantly compare themselves to others, and thus tensions and divisions arise.
It does not matter if we are talking about comparisons at lunch in the middle school cafeteria,
or corporations fighting around board tables to make a buck,
or nations waging conversations about the future.
If we focus only on what can be seen, only on the temporal, we will end up in conflict.
What is better is to focus on what cannot be seen – things like compassion, forgiveness and
reconciliation, things like love for neighbor and ideals like “liberty and justice for all”.
Every time we say the pledge of allegiance, we commit ourselves to lofty ideals, heavenly ideals.
If our hope is in the kingdom of heaven,
then we live, even in midst of trying times, in hope and gratitude and even joy.
If our hope is not in ourselves or our little kingdoms alone,
then we seek to love, come what may, even in the midst of persecution, as best we know how.
John Calvin wrote that this passage is more affirmation than exhortation.
Calvin says this text affirms what is already true for the Church.
“Since” we have receive a kingdom that cannot be shaken,
the coming kingdom of God made known in Jesus Christ,
then we give thanks with reverent hearts.
Let us always come before God in awe and wonder,
worshiping with awe the one and only God of power and majesty.
Since we have embraced the invitation into the realm of an eternal kingdom,
then a spirit of thankfulness and reverent worship is ours.
Our conversations have changed; our lives have been transformed.
Imagine if a person’s entire life had not been marked by worship or gratitude to God.
Imagine if a person’s life had been built around themselves, and they engaged the world
through playing the “win-lose” game.
Whether in business or personal life, to “win” for them, to have personal success,
requires always that the other person “lose”. Personal success always means the defeat of neighbor.
What is important to this person is the earthly and temporal,
the material things of this earth that will ultimately fade – like money and earthly power and titles.
A different person on this same path of life plays the “lose-win” game.
They believe they will never “win”, so they always play the victim.
Whatever effort they engage in, they are sure that it will not go well
and that someone else will profit from their loss.
Their perspective is limited; they too live by scarcity and fear.
Now, imagine if these persons came to a different understanding of the possibility of human life.
Imagine if these person came to acknowledge that God is source of all things,
and that, in God’s kingdom, there is an abundance of grace available to all.
Imagine if these persons began to acknowledge that God is in charge and not we ourselves.
Imagine is these person came to acknowledge that God is judge of all,
our judge who will hold us accountable for our sins,
and that God is judge of our neighbor, which means that we are not to judge our neighbor.
Imagine if these persons came to acknowledge that God is our only hope for health and wholeness
in this life and beyond this life.
Imagine if these person embraced the “win-win” mentality,
the mentality that I can only truly “win” if my neighbor “wins” as well,
and that my neighbor can only truly “win” if somehow I share in that victory as well.
Imagine if these persons stopped comparing self to others, stopped judging others,
but began to uphold others, even love others sacrificially.
I wonder how the conversations would change.
I wonder how many lives, families, communities, corporations, even nations, would be transformed.
I wonder how much hope we would all feel regarding the future, hope instead of fear.
When you and I lift our eyes above our own little kingdoms, and we turn to Jesus Christ as our
sovereign, when we embrace that God is judge of world and not we ourselves,
when we accept that our only hope in this life and the life to come is the grace of Jesus Christ,
then we begin to live daily with gratitude and joy.
The conversations of our lives change, and we become different people.
When we focus upon things like love, compassion, justice, truthfulness, mutual respect,
we receive a different perspective.
The conversation changes. Gratitude arises. Reverent worship becomes a natural response.
Sometimes we all forget that every earthly kingdom will eventually be shaken.
Every earthly ruler or nation will eventually be shaken and will fall.
As Vernon Gramling aptly reminded us this week in his blog,
in human life we will find ourselves shaken. Everything we can touch will ultimately be shaken.
We cannot hold forever anything we can touch – not our bodies, not other people, not things or titles.”
If we live long enough, we will find ourselves shaken. We will find ourselves in places of grief and loss.
We will find ourselves trembling and afraid.
It is precisely in those places that we discover both a powerful and a compassionate God,
a God whose consuming fire will purge away all that is dross, and cleanse us in order to save us.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews encourages us to approach with boldness
this awesome God of power, because the good news of the gospel is that this God is for us;
this God loves and care for all of humankind.
This God is powerful, but God is not to be feared with trembling and dread.
God is to be approached with gratitude, awe and reverence.
Let us always be thankful for our earthly blessings.
Let us work hard for that which sustains our daily, temporal lives,
and not take material gifts of food and clothing and shelter and health care for granted.
But let us also live in gratitude for those gifts which cannot be shaken, those gifts that endure.
Even after everything earthly that we know and cherish has passed away,
love will remain. The ideals of liberty and justice for all will remain.
Compassion will remain. And truth will abide forever.
Rev. Dr. Todd Speed
Decatur Presbyterian Church