Wednesday, January 30, 2013


Hebrews 12:18-29

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. —Hebrews 12:28

12:18 You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, 19and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. 20 (For they could not endure the order that was given, "If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death." 21Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, "I tremble with fear.") 22But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

25 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! 26At that time his voice shook the earth; but now he has promised, "Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven." 27This phrase, "Yet once more," indicates the removal of what is shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. 28Therefore, 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; 29for indeed our God is a consuming fire.



Before weather apps, the weather channel, or weather satellites, people had no warning when violent storms approached. Thunder storms, tornados, even hurricanes, struck with little or no warning. People were terrified and felt vulnerable.

Many people feel this way about God. While they love God, they feel vulnerable to this powerful and seemingly sometimes vengeful God. They are terrified of making the wrong move for fear that they might land as "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God," as early American preacher Jonathan Edwards put it. Ancient peoples were terrified of God. The people in Exodus could not imagine that anyone would be so close as to see God face to face. Even Moses was riddled with fear (Heb. 12:21).

"Fear sells," we hear. It does: We work to have the right body and the best car because we're afraid that we won't be well regarded if we don't. We buy insurance and extended warranties because we're fearful that something might break or go wrong. We spring into hysteria when there is a safety recall on foods or toys or cars. Fear has also been used to "sell" Christianity. While fear could "sell" us on the need to be in a relationship with Christ, the writer of Hebrews does not use this tactic. God could indeed be a terrifying presence. "But," he says, "this is not your experience."


So what is our experience? The writer of Hebrews speaks of two places of covenant, but he uses them as representatives of the old and new covenants. He wants us to realize that there is a world of difference between these covenants.

In the Old Testament, Mount Sinai was the place where the law was given. Though the thought of it inspired fear, it was regarded favorably within the Scriptures. Yet the writer of Hebrews is using it to reflect of the negative implications of the old covenant. In his eyes, Sinai is the place where we became interested in rule keeping. Sinai is the place of fear, where we come, terrified, to stand before our God. The people are frozen with fear that God might speak directly to them, and they believe that they might actually die if God were to speak to them.

Things are different with the new covenant. People don't come terror stricken to Mt. Zion as they did at Mt. Sinai. Instead, they approach it excitedly and with the expectation of good things. In Ps. 137 we read that Zion was a place that people loved—and they wept when they were away from it. "Zion" has come to represent a number of things, including Solomon's temple and the promised land.

The writer of Hebrews wants to make sure we know which mountain to set our sights on. As our travel agent, he's going to sell us on all the things that Mt. Zion has to offer us. When we walk the path to Zion, we can expect to see three major things: the new Jerusalem, the angels in joyful assembly, and God's chosen people.

Certainly, we'd book our tickets for Zion, right? What would possess us to set out for the bleak, terror-fraught Sinai? Only one thing: familiarity. We know the rules, just as our ancestors knew the rules. Our culture likes things that are black and white, without a lot of "gray area." The grace offered to us in Christ sometimes feels a little too easy. It seems a little ambiguous. It doesn't ask us to "do" much of anything, whereas rules tell us exactly what is expected. The author of Hebrews wants to make sure we understand that if we decide to go against his "travel advice," we'll never know the joy of Zion. We cannot be worried both about saving ourselves and about experiencing life lived in the presence of God's grace.


We read in Paul's letter to the Ephesians, "For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not of your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works" (Eph. 2:8-9).

While we understand that, at least on some level, it's hard for us to hear because our society tells us that we must earn everything we get. The Message paraphrases v. 25 this way; "Don't turn a deaf ear to these gracious words." This is one of several warnings not to reject God's offer of salvation, which is exactly what happens when we are caught up in the rule-keeping furor of Mt. Sinai.

For the writer of Hebrews, the solution is clear: choose grace, and worship with a thankful heart because we've been set free from the bondage of rule keeping. We have no reason to approach God in terror. Though we may think we understand this message while we're living, we still tend to fear the coming judgment. The truth is that we want to believe that God will judge us. How awful would it be to discover in the end that God didn't care about how we treat one another or how we lived our lives! We don't want a doting grandparent for God but a God who takes our sin seriously and works to help us escape the tyranny of it.

God does take our sin seriously. Just because we're Zion people doesn't mean that we'll escape the shaking of the earth (12:26). When God gave the earth a good shakedown before, it brought about major destruction. It was a testimony to the wrath of an angry God. The earth will again shake, but for the children of God, these experiences will not be terrifying. Singer/songwriter David LaMotte has a song titled "Crawl Inside." LaMotte had a friend who was filled with such negativity and guilt that it kept her from enjoying life. His heart broke for his friend, and he wanted her to see her worth and to get rid of the junk that was weighing her down. In the song, he sets up a metaphor of crawling inside her head and doing some serious housecleaning. In the same way, God is going to shake the world to get rid of the things that make us less than we were created to be.

The people of the new covenant will experience God's judgment just as our ancestors did. What changes for us is that Christ made the sacrifice of his life so that we might stand before God as beloved children. Christ's death means that we have been forgiven. This is a hard idea for us to grasp. Often when we forgive someone, we may choose to let go of someone's offense, but the relationship is forever altered. God's forgiveness is completely different. Because Christ has paid for the cost of our sins, it is as if we've never sinned in the first place. How can we best respond to this gift?

Writer Anne Lamott says she has only two types of prayers: "Help me! Help me! Help me!" and "Thank you! Thank you! Thank You!" Perhaps as the truth of God's life-changing grace sinks into our hearts, the latter of these prayers will be the only words we need. The way that we can best respond to Christ's sacrifice is in humbled gratitude.


What efforts have you made to "live in peace with all"? What has that experience been like?

How would you describe your spiritual life? Do you go along more with a "spirituality of grace" or a "spirituality of the law?"

How does the understanding of the grace that is offered to you help alleviate your fears about dying?

What places have been Mt. Sinai for you, where God has seemed to be a terrifying presence? What places have been Mt. Zion, where you've seen God as a joy-filled welcome? What have you learned from each of these types of experiences?


Holy God, teach us what it is to live in light of your grace, allowing our gratitude to touch every aspect of our lives. Let us draw close to you, knowing that we are indeed your beloved children. Let us come to meet you with joy in our hearts, because there is no reason for us to come with fear. Shatter our fear-flooded hearts as we learn that your love is the only reality about which we need to be concerned. Amen.


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