Sermon preached by Bishop Michael Stead at St Luke's Church, Enmore, 25 August 2019
The Epistle to the Hebrews, chapter twelve paints a picture for us of the heavenly Jerusalem. It was written to a people whose faith in what God had done in the past and their hope in what God would do in the future was wavering because of the hardship they were experiencing in the present. As such, it is message that is just as relevant for us as it was for its first audience, for it is all too easy for us to so focus on the present struggles that our faith and hope get shaken. This passage says to us—do not be shaken.
The letter is called "Hebrews" because it was written to Hebrew Christians—that is, Jewish people who have recognised that Jesus is the long-promised messiah, who fulfils everything promised in the Old Testament. But, having become Christians, life got harder not easier. That was because Judaism was a recognised religion in the Roman Empire, which gave Jews the right to practice their religion. It also exempted them from the normal rules that required emperor worship.
In contrast, Christianity was not a recognised religion, and this meant that the Hebrew Christians copped it from both sides. On the one hand, they were persecuted by the State—"Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution... You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property". On the other hand, they were ostracized by their Jewish families and pressured to return to Judaism. The letter called Hebrews was written to encourage them not to give up on Jesus, and not to go back into their former practices in Judaism. Over and over again, the letter makes the point that Jesus is by far superior to anything in Judaism—a superior revelation of God, a superior sacrifice for sins, a superior High Priest, a superior Covenant between us and God.
The passage from Hebrews chapter twelve is the final picture in that sequence—Jesus gives us a superior access to God and experience of God. It does this by comparing what Jesus gives us with what happened when God drew near to his people in the Old Testament.
The first four verses in the chapter describe what happened at Mount Sinai in the time of Moses. Mount Sinai was where God gave the Ten Commandments to the people through Moses. God 'drew near' to his people... and it was an absolutely terrifying experience—"a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest". The people heard the voice of God thunder from the mountaintop, and they were so terrified they begged God not to speak to them anymore. No-one except Moses could go up the mountain—any person—even any animal—that got too close would be destroyed. When God drew near to his people in the Old Testament, you were meant to be afraid—be very, very afraid. Even Moses, who had a special relationship with the Lord, was terrified and said, "I tremble with fear."
The point of the contrast is to remind them—and us —that this is not our experience. For us, drawing near to God is not terrifying. We haven't come to Mount Sinai—we have come to 'mount Zion', that is, to God's true dwelling place in heaven. Verses 22–24 describe what this is like. It isn't a place of fear and gloom and terror—it is the place of joy and delight. Gathered around the throne are innumerable angels in 'festal gathering'. This place is where God is being truly worshiped as God.
But it is not just the angels who are engaged in this worship - this is the "assembly of the firstborn—literally, the church of the firstborn—who are enrolled in heaven".
Let's be clear—when it says "the firstborn" it is plural. This is not referring to Jesus alone; it is talking about us, about God's people across all time, both Old Testament and New Testament believers. The 'firstborn' are those who have the inheritance rights. Jesus is the One True Firstborn, but those who are joined to Christ share in the inheritance of the firstborn. If you are a Christian, then you are part of this church of the firstborn—you jointly have an inheritance in this heavenly Jerusalem. You are there in this picture, joining the angels in joyful worship before the throne. Note—we are "enrolled in heaven"—our names are written in heaven's book, guaranteeing our right of entry.
The next verse reminds us of the reason why we have this inheritance—it is because—and only because of "Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant". As I said, earlier chapters of Hebrews have already said much about how Jesus has established the this 'new covenant' through his death, and how his 'sprinkled blood' leads to the forgiveness of our sins and cleansing from all defilements, so that we can enter into the presence of our holy God. On another occasion, I would love to dwell on this in more detail. But I will focus instead on just the last part of verse twenty-four—"the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel". This is an allusion to Genesis chapter 4. When God confronts Cain over his murder of his brother, God says to him "Your brother's blood cries out to me from the ground". Figuratively, Abel's blood cried out for justice and vengeance. Abel's blood brought about Cain's curse and condemnation.
Here's the point—Jesus' blood does the opposite to the blood of Abel. His 'sprinkled blood' speaks a word—not of curse and condemnation—but of forgiveness and cleansing. 'Sprinkled blood' is an allusion to the Old Testament sacrifices, where blood was sprinkled on the altar as a sin offering. But unlike the Old Testament sacrifices, which did not take away sin and did not cleanse the conscience of the sinner, the 'sprinkled blood' really deals with our sin and all its consequences. It is because of this—and only because of this—that we can draw near to the throne of God, and be unafraid. Without Jesus, we should be just as terrified as they were at Sinai, because our God is a holy God, and impure sinners like me, and you, cannot enter into his holy presence.
Don't miss the crucial point in the passage—this confidence to draw near to God's presence is not merely what happens when we die. Notice that the passage is in the present tense, not future tense. We have come to Mount Zion. Physically, we dwell here on earth, but our spiritual home is in heaven. If you are a Christian, then spiritually you are already part of that great joyful assembly. This is what 'church' is, in its most ultimate sense—the heavenly gathering of all God's people. If you are a Christian, then right now, you are already a member of this church—you have come to Mount Zion. What we do here as we gather week by week is both an anticipation of, and a participation in, that heavenly reality. As we worship God, we join our voices to those thousands of angels in joyful praise to God. But worship is more than just our voices. Worship is an all of life response of joyful submission to God. Part of our worship is living our lives in obedience to God's voice. Hebrews is reminding us that we already belong to the worshipping community of the heavenly Jerusalem.
That means that we have to stir ourselves into action, to live appropriately as God's holy people. The punch-line of the passage is: See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven!
God calls us to live for him and not for ourselves, and that means living in holiness and righteousness. In Moses' day, that generation had refused to listen when God spoke to them, and they all died in the wilderness. Immediately prior to this passage for today, Hebrews 12 gives the counter example of Esau—"See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son."
Living for the transitory pleasures or the transitory treasures of this world is crazy, because this transitory creation is destined to pass away. Verse 26 reiterates God's promise spoken earlier through the prophet Haggai: 'Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.' This phrase, 'Yet once more,' indicates the removal of what is shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain.
God is going to shake, one final and last time, the earth and the heavens—that is, the sky and the universe beyond. When God does this, the entire cosmos that we are a part of will be no more, and what remains will be a 'kingdom that cannot be shaken'. Which kingdom are you focussed on right now? Will your inheritance be in the kingdom that cannot be shaken, or will you be clinging so tightly to this world that you will be 'shaken' along with the rest of the cosmos?
The call of this passage is to be stirred, not shaken. Stirred up to live in a life of worship and holiness and obedience, in response to what God has done for us in Jesus. The call to action comes in the final verse: Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.
It seems to me that the world around us—and the church as well—has lost that sense of reverence and awe before God. There was a time when people were fearful of the final day when we all stand before God. But the church has done a great job of communicating the truth that God is love and that God loves all people—which is true and right. But the side effect is that people look at themselves and think "What's not to love? Of course God will welcome me into his heavenly home".
Hebrew 12 says that it is only because of what the 'sprinkled blood' of Jesus has done for us that our experience of God is not the terrifying consuming fire of Mount Sinai. If anyone were crazy enough to turn their back on Jesus and following him in joyful obedience, then on that last day they will stand before God, the judge of all... on their own. That will be 100 times more terrifying that Mount Sinai. God's holiness is a consuming fire—you are either purified by it, or burned up in it.
Let us be those who approach the throne in reliance on what Jesus has done for us, and receive that kingdom that cannot be shaken. As it says in verse 28, let us offer acceptable worship to God. Worship is so much more than what we do in church for an hour on Sunday. Acceptable worship is worship that declares that God is our God, by a life lived in reverent submission to him. A life of holiness is a life of worship. A life of obedience is a life of worship. A life of thankfulness and praise is a life of worship.
Let us offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe.