Normally when preparing a sermon, preachers look for a theme in the lessons and then expound upon that theme. That is my usual approach but today I want to take a different tact. This passage in Hebrews before us is important for us to understand, but it can be lost by all of the imagery. So I want to take a more exegetical approach. That is where, rather than looking at an overall theme, we take the text apart, piece by piece, so that we can get into the meat of it and discover it’s message for us. Think of it today as a pulled pork sermon.
You have before you the RSV but I am going to read from the New American Standard, both because it is closest to the original Greek and so that you can have a comparison. So please look again at the lesson from Hebrews.
Verse 18. For you have not come to [a mountain] that can be touched and to a blazing fire, and to darkness and gloom and whirlwind, and to the blast of a trumpet and the sound of words which [sound was such that] those who heard begged that no further word be spoken to them.
What a dramatic image! Already some of you are wondering how the writer of Hebrews knew about the Lord of the Rings. I hate to disappoint you but that is not where he was going.
One of the themes of the Book of Hebrews is how superior the New Covenant is to the Old and this theme continues in these words. The writer is harkening us back to the time after the Exodus, in the wilderness of Sinai, when Moses went up the mountain to meet with God and to receive the Law. Listen to these incredible words that God said to Moses as he summoned him up the mountain. “…I bore you on eagles wings and brought you to myself. Now therefore if you will obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine, and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”
The Lord was offering a unique relationship with Him among all the nations. Israel would be set apart as priests to minister to God. If that was what God was offering them in the Old Covenant, and the New Covenant is infinitely better than the Old, then what is He offering to us today? We will get to that later. But first, what about the scary stuff of blazing fire and darkness and blasts of trumpets etc.? What is that all about?
Because man cannot look on God and live, God came to Moses in a thick cloud on the mountain. He told the people to wash their clothes and be ready on the third day to be consecrated or set apart for God. Until that time they were not go up the mountain or to even touch it. Why? Because God is holy and they were not. He gave them this warning to protect them, because for an unholy people to approach a Holy God, it would be like a moth flying into an open flame. The moth would perish, not out of malice or judgment, but just because the two cannot be together.
Then on the third day thunder and lightening and a thick cloud was on the mountain and a trumpet blasted to assemble the people. Exodus 19 says, “Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire.”
It puts me in mind of the scene in the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy and her companions appear before the Great Oz and they shake in their boots as he speaks to them while fire and smoke and thunder crash all around. In even a greater way the people of Israel were filled with fear and were told to stay away from God. Only Moses and the priests could approach God.
Verse 22. But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to myriads of angels, to the general assembly and church of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God, the Judge of all, and to the spirits of [the] righteous made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood, which speaks better than [the blood] of Abel.
We do not come to a Mount Sinai filled with fire and smoke and blasting trumpets where we are afraid to approach God. Under the New Covenant we come to Mount Zion and as we look around, we see angels and elders and saints and martyrs and all who have gone before us. We see Jesus who made it possible for us to be with God. So instead of the fear and dread of the Old Covenant, we realize that under the New Covenant, literally we have come to a family reunion. “Therefore with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy glorious Name, evermore praising Thee and saying, Holy, Holy, Holy…” We have come from the blood of Abel, murdered by his brother and crying out for justice, to the blood of Jesus, who gave His life to satisfy the just demands of a Holy God. He invites us to enter the Presence. No longer is God hidden in a cloud. Under the New Covenant, we see Him face to face and live.
Verse 25. See to it that you do not refuse Him who is speaking. For if those did not escape when they refused him who warned [them] on earth, much less [will] we [escape] who turn away from Him who [warns] from heaven.
It seems to be a natural tendency in us to take things to an extreme. The Lord said to Moses, “Go down and warn the people, lest they break through to the Lord to look and many of them perish.” God was going to be their God and they were going to be His people but that did not give them the right to treat God however they wanted. The relationship with Him was going to be on His terms. He did not give them license to take advantage of His grace and do whatever they wanted. Their relationship was going to include Commandments by which they kept the Covenant.
Today people hear the good news of God’s grace and they make all kinds of false assumptions. “Well if Jesus died for the sins of the whole world, then everyone is saved. So it doesn’t really matter what you believe as long as you believe something.” Or I have heard this argument. “Since I’m saved by grace and not by works, I don’t need to do anything or I can do whatever I want to do”
Whoaaaaa! Hold on there Sparkey, you’ve just made some dangerous leaps. Saying that Jesus’ sacrifice has the potential to save the whole world is not the same as saying that everyone in the world is saved. In fact Jesus said just the opposite. “Someone asked him, ‘Lord, will only a few be saved?’ He said to them, ‘Strive to enter the narrow door, for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.’” Then He goes on to speak of people standing outside where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Does any of that sound like universal salvation to you? It certainly does not to me.
I think I understand the temptation of universalism. It sounds nice and even loving to say that all roads lead to God. But it is not nice or loving if it is not true. In fact I would argue that to lie or to mislead someone about such an eternal matter is downright evil.
Or look at it another way. If I can receive salvation through meditation or praying five times a day or by doing good works, what sense can I make of the torture and death of Jesus? Why would God have put His only Son through such unimaginable anguish unless there was no other way to save us? What would it say about the wisdom or even the justice of God if you can receive eternal life either by trusting in the shed blood of Jesus to atone for your sins or by giving money to the building fund? We negate the sacrifice of Jesus when we suggest that all ways lead to the Father. So as the writer of Hebrews tells us, we had better hear Jesus warning from heaven. “Strive to enter through the narrow door.” And as you know from the Gospel of John, the door is Jesus.
Jesus’ warning also applies to those who suggest that since we are saved by grace that we can do anything we want or do nothing at all. “Strive to enter the narrow door” does not sound like carte blanche to me. Salvation is not getting a ticket punched. Jesus said, “He who endures (or perseveres) to the end will be saved.”
Verse 26. And His voice shook the earth then, but now He has promised, saying, “YET ONCE MORE I WILL SHAKE NOT ONLY THE EARTH, BUT ALSO THE HEAVEN.” This [expression], “Yet once more,” denotes the removing of those things which can be shaken, as of created things, so that those things which cannot be shaken may remain.
When Moses was on the mountain and God spoke, the earth shook. But there is a greater shaking coming and that is when Christ returns to judge the living and the dead. He comes to separate the wheat from the chaff. He separates the sheep from the goats. He comes, as I mentioned last week, to test our works with fire. Our works of wood and hay and stubble will be burned up but our works of gold and silver and precious stones will be purified by the fire and we will be rewarded.
So there really is going to be “a whole lot of shaken going on.” Judgment is coming and the things of the world will be shaken away and the things of eternity will remain. This calls us to examine our lives and see where we are spending our time and our resources and how we are utilizing our gifts. Are we putting them into things that will be shaken off like crumbs from a tablecloth or are we sowing our lives into things that will remain? What do we seek first? Where are our hearts?
Verse 28. Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe; for our God is a consuming fire.
Some of you have heard this story so please bare with me while I repeat it for those who have not. In 2003 when The Episcopal Church voted to take a direction that was contrary to Holy Scripture, I was on vacation. It was devastating to me because I knew that by taking such a stand, that this Church that I loved and had given some the best years of my life to, was in heresy and that my days with it were numbered.
While wrestling with what to do I received a call from the Bishop. He told me that he was stuck at a meeting up north and he needed for me and Beth to pick up the former Archbishop of Canterbury and his wife at the airport in Nashville and take them out to dinner. It was like asking a kid from New York if he would like to have dinner with Mickey Mantle. We had an incredible time with Lord Carey and his wife and at the end of the dinner the Archbishop leaned over and said to me. “Well father, what do you think is going to happen to the Church?” I said, “I have no idea, Your Grace, I was hoping that you would tell me. I have to step into the pulpit this week and I have no idea what to say to my flock.” He said “Tell them to keep working for the Kingdom and don’t confuse the Kingdom with the Church.” His words were a great relief to me and that is what I preached the next Sunday.
World systems like Communism fail. Empires like the Great Britian wax and wane. Christian movements like the YMCA start out strong in the faith and end up having nothing at all to do with Christianity. And as we well know, entire denominations can go from being a light on the hill to rejecting of the truth. All these are shaken. These are not where we put our hope.
But God is establishing a kingdom that cannot be shaken. He is working through His Church to build a kingdom where His will is done on earth as it is in heaven. If that were not so then Jesus would not have told us to pray that way every day of our lives. It will culminate in the new heaven and new earth and we are privileged to be a part of Him making all things new.
And our response, as Hebrews tells us, is first of all to be filled with gratitude and then to worship Him with reverence and awe. I hope that is what brings you here today. That your heart is filled with thanksgiving for Jesus reconciling you to the Father and that you are here to worship Him with reverence and awe.
We must always remember that all that goes on here is not about us. We are not to here be entertained or to experience a certain emotion or even “to get something out of the service.”
We are here to offer to Him the sacrifice of praise. We are here to offer to Him ourselves, our souls and bodies to be a reasonable sacrifice. We are here to intercede for the world saying “Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We are to commune with the Holy One; “that we may dwell in Him and He in us.”
So do yo see? YOU are the people that God spoke about to Moses. Under a new and better covenant the Church is the fulfillment of God’s desire for a treasured people, a holy nation, a kindgom of priests. YOU are that people and so the only reasonable respone we can have is to be filled with gratitude for His mercies and then to worship Him in reverence and awe. Amen.