August 19, 2019
The Proper 16C Sermon Starters include commentary and illustration ideas for Luke 13:10-17 from the Lectionary Gospel; Jeremiah 1:4-10 from the Old Testament Lectionary; Psalm 103:1-8 from the Lectionary Psalms; and Hebrews 12:18-29 from the Lectionary Epistle.
Related Reformed confession: Lectionary Psalm: Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 56 (Lord’s Day 21)
Author: Scott Hoezee
When the truth humiliates you, you are humiliated indeed. Worse, when a truth so obvious that it can be stated in a sentence or two humiliates you, then your shame is profound. It’s one thing if a philosopher builds an elaborate argument to disprove some point you had made but it’s another thing if a simple and swift observation of the facts does you in. Sometimes it is the proverbial getting hoist with your own petard, trapped by your own words.
It reminds me of a moment in an episode of the TV show M*A*S*H in which the perpetually squirrely but somewhat dim-witted Major Burns claims (falsely) that he was not the person who had been anonymously squealing on his comrades. Through a series of verbal give-and-takes, suddenly Burns gets backed into a corner, prompting Col. Potter to ask,
“So why’d you do it?”
“I thought it was my patriotic duty.”
“I thought you said you didn’t do it,” Col. Potter rejoins.
“I thought I did, too . . .” is Burns’ sheepish final comment.
In Luke 13, Jesus is said to have humiliated his opponents. I don’t think humiliation was his main goal, however, so much as his thinking-out-loud incredulity over the fact that some people can be so incredibly obtuse and, in their obtuseness, be also so downright cruel.
Jesus routinely did things on the Sabbath that got the religious authorities hopping mad at him. And in every case Jesus took the opportunity to remind them that despite their pious intentions, they had rather significantly misunderstood the very purpose behind the Sabbath.
The Sabbath was meant to be a day of delight, rest, enjoyment. In the Hebrew Scriptures the Ten Commandments are given twice with virtually no difference between the words in Exodus 20 and the words in Deuteronomy 5. Only the commandment on the Sabbath day shows a significant variation. Whereas Exodus 20 grounds the practice in creation (“. . . for in six days the Lord God created the heavens and the earth . . .”) in Deuteronomy 5 it is grounded in redemption (“. . . remember that you were slaves in Egypt but that the Lord your God led you out of that land . . .”).
Sabbath has something to do with both creation and redemption.
On the creation side is that fact that after six days of creating according to the Genesis 1 account, the Lord God rested on the seventh day, not because he was exhausted and in need of an afternoon nap. No, what God did on the seventh day was the same thing Adam and Eve were to do on what constituted their first full day of existence: viz., revel in and delight over the creation.
On the redemption side, the Sabbath day is a reminder that God has liberated us from all that is evil and injurious to human flourishing. We take joy in remembering that God is redeeming the creation, salvaging all that evil has sullied so as to return it the glory God intended in the beginning.
The fourth commandment lists just one Sabbath caveat: no work. But over time the devout in Israel took that one injunction and ran with it. Somewhere around 613 other rules and regulations were larded on top of the fourth commandment all in an effort carefully to define work and to help people avoid even a hint of performing work on the Sabbath. What was supposed to be a day of joy in both creation and redemption became a frightening day in which people worried the whole day long they might screw up and perform a deed of work after all.
Among other things Jesus made a point in his ministry to say “No, no, no” to all that. As the Lord of creation and the Savior aiming to redeem that creation, he was in the perfect position to tell us what Sabbath was supposed to have been all along. But mostly he just illustrated the point through his own deeds, in this case healing someone. It was an act of redemption, liberating her from all that had ailed her, and it therefore tied in with the integrity of the original creation, too, in that it restored her to the kind of health and vitality God desires for all his creatures.
Creation. Redemption. Jesus had both Sabbath themes up and running at the same time (and also, both constitute the two major themes of the entire Bible!).
However, things had fallen far from any kind of a Sabbath vision such as the one Jesus possessed. It had gotten so bad that and ox or donkey had a better shot at being treated well on the Sabbath than did a human being. Since no one wanted to see an expensive piece of livestock die of dehydration on a Sabbath, someone had long ago put in a proviso to the Sabbath day regulations that untying an animal for the purpose of getting it to a watering trough was not an act of work. But since no one had thought to add a proviso or a caveat about helping a human being on the Sabbath, what Jesus did that day to this hapless woman did not meet with approval.
Without even realizing it, the authorities had granted a higher status to a donkey than to the average human being!! This was a truth hidden in plain sight but sometimes it takes a fresh set of eyes to spy that obvious truth. Enter the eyes of Jesus.
It is a sad thing when religion—however piously intended—becomes a tool to prop up the views of a few no matter who gets hurt by such efforts. The Sabbath day was all along intended to be a day of joy and creation revelry. When such a basic fact gets forgotten—and then when this gets pointed out—those of us who get caught up in it all cannot help but feel humiliated. But that is not part of what God desires for us on the Sabbath, either!
The kicker in this story is Luke’s revelation to us that what ailed this crippled woman was not your run-of-the-mill spinal disorder. This was no slipped disc or arthritic growth along the spinal canal. This condition was caused by an evil spirit sent by Satan himself. True, even had her condition been the result of a fall from a ladder two decades earlier it still would have been fitting for Jesus to heal her, Sabbath day or no. But that her situation was attributable to the forces of evil makes Jesus exorcism of the demon and the consequent healing of her physical frame all the more praiseworthy and all the more fitting a deed for a Sabbath day.
The last line of this text says that although the authorities walked away muttering into their beards over their slam-dunk humiliation the people “were delighted.”
Ahh, now that is what the Sabbath should be all about: DELIGHT!
I recently read the new book Breakfast with Einstein. Among other things it reminds us of one of Einstein’s most important insights. Before Einstein, people assumed that whatever time is, it is constant. “Time marches on,” the old saying goes, and before Einstein we assumed that time marches ever and always at the same pace. It does not matter who you are or where you are or what you are doing, you cannot affect time. If your battery is running out, then your watch may run slow but the actual time that passes around you can never slow down or speed up.
But Einstein realized that time is a truly existing dimension. Time is as real as a hunk of wood or a bouquet of flowers. And it is not constant. Time is affected by motion and position. It is relative. Einstein’s classic illustration has to do with a train. Picture yourself riding on a train. Picture another person sitting on a bench alongside the train tracks watching the train go by. Now imagine that two bolts of lightning strike the train tracks, one just behind the moving train and one just ahead of the train. To the person sitting on the bench it is clear that these two bolts of lightning struck the tracks at the exact same instant. They were simultaneous. But the person riding 60 MPH on the train would not perceive it that way.
If you were riding on the train, you would see the bolt of lightning ahead of the train before the one behind the train. At one time it was thought that this could be explained the same way you can deal with sound waves. We all know about the Doppler Effect: as a car blowing its horn passes by you, the pitch changes from higher to lower. The sound waves coming at you get scrunched up, raising the pitch. As the car pulls away from your stationary position, sounds waves get stretched out, lowering the pitch. So perhaps the same thing happens with the lightning bolts when you are on a moving train–you just get to the light waves of the one bolt quicker since you’re moving toward it (and away from the other one).
But it doesn’t work that way. The phenomenal insight of Einstein was that you cannot explain this difference in perception by fiddling with the speed of the light because the speed of light is constant. Light always goes the same speed–you cannot get light to come at you faster. So Einstein realized that what accounts for the person on the train seeing the lightning bolts differently than the person on the bench is that time is different for the person on the train. Time is relative. It can be affected by motion. Scientists have even discovered that if you take two very sensitive nuclear clocks, synchronize the time on both, and then place one at the top of a skyscraper and one at the bottom and let them tick away for a few days, it turns out the clock on the bottom runs slower because it is closer to the earth’s center of gravity than the one at the top!
Well, it took an Einstein to figure that all out but there is a sense in which the importance and impact of time is something Jews and Christians have known all along. The Bible itself lets us know that time can affect us but also that we can affect the time around us. That’s why there is such a thing as Sabbath. God took care to weave Sabbath rest right into the richly embroidered tapestry of his creation. As such, Sabbath is not just a human technique for stress reduction, it is a way to take hold of time and make it serve the cosmic purpose of glorifying God by paying attention to the rhythms God himself instituted.
Author: Stan Mast
Sometimes it feels as though the Lectionary has a mild case of Alzheimer’s, because it seems to forget that we just talked about a certain text, just a few months ago. Now here it is again in the cycle of readings.
That’s the case on this Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost, deep in the heart of Ordinary Time. Exactly 8 months ago on January 28, Jeremiah 1:4-10 was the reading for the Fourth Sunday of Epiphany. In my comments on this text then, I focused on the parallels between Jeremiah and Jesus in order to make the Epiphany connection. I refer you to those comments, which still seem legitimate and helpful.
The only new thing that I can offer today is my effort to connect this famous text to Ordinary Time. Thus, I will focus less on Jesus’ Epiphany and more on the Christian’s walk with Christ in ordinary time. The overall message is that walking with Christ can sometimes be very challenging, as it was for Jeremiah.
In fact, my preaching angle into this text is to suggest that we put ourselves in the place of Jeremiah. What God says to Jeremiah here is exactly what God says to us as we walk with Christ. I mean that, like Jeremiah, we are all called to be prophets (as well as priests and kings). I’m referring, of course, to the famous three fold office of the believer that is so central to my theological tradition.
I was raised on the Heidelberg Catechism, which explains that the title “Christ” refers to the fact that Jesus was anointed into and fulfilled the Old Testament offices of prophet, priest and king. Then the Catechism asks, “Why are you called a Christian?” Here’s the answer. “Because I am a member of Christ by faith, and thus a partaker of his anointing, that I may confess his Name, present myself a living sacrifice of thankfulness to him, and with a free and good conscience fight against sin and the devil in this life, and hereafter reign with him eternally over all creatures.” (Q and A 31 and 32) Like Christ, we are called to be prophets, priests, and kings.
As we struggle with our calling to be prophets and confess his name in the church and the world, God’s words to Jeremiah are a deep encouragement for prophets living through troubled times. The superscription of Jeremiah is not part of our reading, but it is crucial to understanding the whole book. Jeremiah had to prophesy through the last 40 years of the kingdom of Judah, a time with an ever-changing political scene, a declining spiritual and moral climate, and an increasingly challenging international environment.
Are we in the last days of our own country? It depends on which country you live in and where you stand on the political spectrum in your country. In America, you will probably answer yes to that question if you are a left wing Democrat. If you are a right wing Republican, you will probably answer that our country is only “getting great again.” But no matter how red or blue you are, everyone agrees that we live in troubled times that desperately need to hear a word from the Lord.
In our text we hear the word of the Lord for a troubled, reluctant, intimidated prophet. God’s first word to him and us immediately introduces us to the eternal plan of God that transcends our troubled times. “Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, before you were born, I set you apart. I appointed you as a prophet….” That is election language. The word “knew” really means “chose,” as in Amos 3:2. God chose and appointed Jeremiah to his work of prophecy before he was born, indeed, before he existed in any form.
Now, a careful reading of this text reveals that God is talking about election not unto salvation, but unto service, in the same way that Jesus spoke to his disciples in John 15:16. “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit….” In other texts, of course, we do hear about election unto salvation (Ephesians 1:4-7). But don’t use this text to argue about the fine points of election.
Use it, as God does here, to bolster and reassure his prophet. The message is that the rock group Kansas was wrong when they sang, “All we are is dust in the wind.” No, we are God’s beloved children firmly anchored in his sovereign love. And we are not masters of our own fate who have to make our own way in the world; we are messengers on a mission from the eternal God. We belong to him from all eternity and to all eternity, and that makes us victors in hard times, not victims of hard times.
But often we feel helpless, like victims. So we say with Jeremiah, I’m not up to the task being a prophet. “I do not know how to speak; I am only a child.” God replies that it’s not about us; it’s about God. From Abraham and Sarah to the Virgin Mary and the Apostle Paul, God’s people have always found, to their surprise, that with God nothing is impossible.
So to a verbally challenged priest (verse 1) called to be a prophet, God reinforces the call to speak. “You must go to everyone I send you to and say whatever I command you to say.” And I will give you the words to say. “Then the Lord reached out his hand and touched my mouth and said, ‘Now I have put my words in your mouth.’”
Further, to a timid youth, an awkward teenager who couldn’t imagine speaking for God to his elders and superiors, God says what he always says to his overwhelmed people. “Do not be afraid.” Then he adds what is perhaps the quintessential covenant promise, a promise that contains all other divine promises. “I am with you.” It’s the very promise that Jesus gave his disciples when he commanded them to go into all the world to make disciples of all nations. “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” So, do not be intimidated into silence by opposition from the left or the right, from atheists or Muslims, from family and enemies.
That Great Commission reminds us that, like Jeremiah, we are called to be prophets “to the nations.” The prophecy of Jeremiah is addressed first of all to his own nation, which at least formally acknowledged the sovereignty of Yahweh. But it also includes the nations around Israel, including the very one that would take Judah into exile. The word of God is not only for those who believe in the one true God. It is also and, in these New Testament times, specifically for those who do not believe.
But what a message Jeremiah had to bring. Christian prophets are commissioned to speak “everything [Jesus] commanded you.” Everything—not just the good news of salvation, but also the bad news of judgment. That’s exactly what Jeremiah was commanded to speak. God sent him to the nations, beginning with his own, with the command to “uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow, to build and to plant.” No wonder Jeremiah was seen as an unnecessarily pessimistic prophet by the smiling, upbeat prophets of his time.
Is that part of our prophetic task as well? Are we really called to speak to the nations? Most Christians take the Great Commission as more individually oriented. To make disciples of “all nations” mean to convert the individual members of nations, not to speak God’s judgment to the nations themselves as political entities. Aren’t we are supposed to call sinners to be saved? Are we really supposed to announce to nations that they are doomed? That was certainly Jeremiah’s commission. Is this text a reminder to Christians that our calling as prophets has a larger, corporate dimension?
But that raises questions about negativity. In a day when Christians are already dismissed because we seem to be against so many things, do we undercut the message of the Gospel if we speak words of judgment on the policies and practices of a nation, as Jeremiah did? Was Jeremiah’s calling unique to him in that particular time and place? In this New Testament time, living in nations that are not theocracies, should we limit our prophetic work to speaking only the Good News of Jesus death and resurrection only to individuals? Should we ignore the divine command to “uproot and tear down, to destroy and overthrow,” and focus only on building and planting?
I suspect that folks on all side of the political spectrum and in all theological camps would answer my last question with a firm “no.” On the right, people feel compelled by God’s truth to oppose things like abortion and gay marriage. On the left, people feel equally compelled by God’s truth to oppose discrimination against people on the basis of race or gender. Liberals feel they must, for God’s sake, protest the policies of President Trump, while conservatives think his defense of some Christian causes calls for support of the President.
Jeremiah’s call to prophesy to the nations includes an important corrective to our prophetic work. We must be very sure that our prophetic words are actually the words of God, not just our own party line or theological leaning. “Now I have put my words in your mouth,” said God to Jeremiah. Only those words will do God’s work of uprooting and overthrowing that will lead to building and planting. Otherwise, we will tear down and destroy for the sake of our own ideology.
That leads me to point out one more corrective in God’s call of Jeremiah. Note that God’s final words to Jeremiah in our text are “to build and to plant.” There is a place for uprooting and tearing down, but God ultimate purpose is to build and plant. He sent an utterly recalcitrant Israel into Exile, uprooting and destroying just as he threatened. But he also brought a considerably chastened, though still sinful Israel back to the Promised Land. The last word of God is not death but life, not punishment, but salvation, not judgment, but Jesus. Now, we must be careful not to become prophets who only say “what their itching ears want to hear (II Timothy 4:3 and 4).” But we must always conclude any words of condemnation and judgment with words of consolation and grace.
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him (John 3:16, 17).”
For years I have been blessed to be in a book group with ministers whose theological leanings might not always be my own. Recently, we read Richard Rohr’s Falling Upwards, which presents a “spirituality for the two halves of life.” He says that the second half of life, the mature phase of life, is more open, accepting, affirming than the first, in which we necessarily build boundaries in order to establish a firm identity.
That led to a discussion in which some ministers spoke passionately about people who have left the church because “the church seems only to be against things.” To formerly evangelical college students and to disappointed feminists and to wounded gays and to incarcerated black men, it seems that the church is only negative. Such folks, suggested some of my friends, might find Rohr’s version of a broader, more inclusive Christianity to be exactly what they need.
Maybe so, said others, but we do need to remember that salvation is only in Christ (John 3:16). And, as God said to Jeremiah, sometimes there must be some uprooting and destroying before there can be any building and planting.
Complicated, isn’t it? No wonder God said to Jeremiah, “Do not be afraid of them (whoever they may be), for I am with you and will rescue you.”
Author: Scott Hoezee
There are some pieces of music, certain poems, some scenes in movies that are so lyric, so moving, so flat out beautiful that it doesn’t matter how often you hear it, read it, or see it: it gets you every time. Psalm 103 is like that. I usually balk a bit when the Lectionary slices up readings or snatches up only a few verses. Here we get only the first 8 verses of this Hebrew poem but this time that may be enough to savor. The rest of the Psalm goes on in similar veins, going from one lyric image to the next. Given how rich Psalm 103 is, maybe these 8 verses are enough for one sitting, for one sermon.
I have been part of congregations that sometimes uses these opening verses as a response to taking the Lord’s Supper. What other response is fitting after once again experiencing fellowship with the Jesus who gave himself for us than to say “Bless the Lord, O my soul! Forget not all his benefits!” Aside from stunned silence following the sacrament, “Bless the Lord” may in fact be the most apt thing to say and to express from the heart.
Of course, this Psalm may be just lyric enough—and many of us may associate this Psalm with good things just enough—that we may miss how sweeping (and perhaps, just so, how unrealistic) the claims of these opening verses actually are. Really? God heals ALL of our diseases? He lifts us up out of EVERY pit? He ALWAYS satisfies us with good things? He works justice for ALL the oppressed? All I have to do is check this week’s announcements in the church bulletin or click on the link to open up the CNN website and I can spy readily lots of people whose diseases were not healed, who have been in the pits for years, who suffer oppression and injustice without end (even until it takes their very lives from them).
If this were not so, the one-third of the 150 Psalms in the category of “Lament Psalms” would not need to exist in the same Bible as Psalm 103. Surely there have been moments in the churches I have attended and where we used Psalm 103 as our response to the Lord’s Supper when these words have stuck in some people’s throats. As I write this, I grieve a 55-year-old cousin who died of a spread of ovarian cancer, the same kind of cancer that took her sister 18 months ago at the age of 51. We prayed awfully hard for God to heal these diseases. For whatever the reason, that did not happen. Were I to recite these words of Psalm 103 today, I would have to mentally place an asterisk by verse 3b—not quite every disease gets healed after all.
Would this be a better poem if in the place of “all” or “every” the poet had inserted instead “some” or “many” or “a few”? Would it help to insert an adverb like “often” in the lines about rescuing from pits and bringing justice to the oppressed? Granted, it would undercut the power of the lyrics and all but wouldn’t it make the psalm a better fit for our everyday reality? Wouldn’t it prevent these words from sticking in people’s throats as often as they do?
Maybe. But then, we don’t expect this from other poems or songs we like. Would we deem it an improvement on Shakespeare if his sonnet said “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art frequently more lovely and sometimes more temperate.” I mean, let’s face it: even our most ardent loves in life are not ALWAYS like a summer’s day, right? Or how about a Beatles song. Is this an improvement: “It’s been a hard day’s night and I’ve been working like a dog. But hen I get home to you, I see the things that you do, and sometimes they make me feel all right.”
No, no: we want our love songs and sonnets to be singularly rapturous, to sum up love at its very best (even though we all know that in also the healthiest of relationships such feelings actually ebb and flow a bit). Maybe Psalm 103 is like that. This expresses the best of who God is, of how God deals with the world, of how God expresses his love for his creatures. As in sonnets and love songs, we know full well it cannot always be so for now but we appreciate the poetry anyway—it is at once inspirational and aspirational. As such, it gives one hope.
But biblical psalms are neither Shakespearean inventions nor the musings of Lennon/McCartney. We believe these are the inspired words of God and that they tie in with ultimate realities. So for Psalm 103 we have to see this as more than romantic exaggeration or inspirational poetry. We have to see this as expressing also how it will finally all shake out in God’s good world. We have to believe that even at their most literal extreme, the words here about forgiving sins and healing diseases, about rescuing from pits and working justice for all the oppressed are true and will ultimately be proven to be true at the end of the cosmic day. This is where we are headed. This is more than aspirational. This is schatological and finally, therefore, true. This is how the cosmic story concludes.
So it’s ok both to find these words sticking in your throat sometimes and now and then to get swept up in the lyric promise represented by these words. We can swoon a little here now and again in knowing this is an expression of God’s dearest desires. Or in the famed words of Julian of Norwich: “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.”
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless God’s holy name. For one day, it will all be true.
The former Beatle and amazing songwriter Paul McCartney has never been much of a shrinking violet. He has never been adverse to facing criticisms head on, sometimes engaging critiques at a deep level, other times shrugging them off. A consistent knock on McCartney over the years—including even some songs he wrote when still with the Beatles—was that he was a bit saccharine, a bit syrupy, a bit overly romantic. Too many starry-eyed love song ballads, too many head-over-heels and downright silly lyrics. So with his post-Beatles band Wings, McCartney answered his critics with a song titled “Silly Love Songs.” “Some people want to fill the world with silly love songs. And what’s wrong with that, I’d like to know, cause here I go again . . . I love you . . . I love you.”
Ironically, the Silly Love Song meant to answer critics of silly love songs went on to become one of McCartney’s greatest hits of all time.
Sometimes we need over-the-top expressions of love and adoration. They sustain us. Like Psalm 103 perhaps. Because as McCartney’s song also said, when you are actually in love “It isn’t silly, it isn’t silly, love isn’t silly at all.”
No, it isn’t.
Author: Doug Bratt
My colleague Scott Hoezee, to whom (CEP Epistolary Lesson Sermon Starter, August 15, 2016) with Tom Long (Hebrews, John Knox Press, 1997) I owe a great deal for this Starter’s ideas, compares reading this morning’s text to watching a good tennis match’s extended rally. After all, spectators must constantly turn their heads to watch a good rally. They must look right, then left. Right, then left again. Serena Williams hits, then Venus returns. Serena. Venus, until one of them can’t hit a ball hit into play.
In a slightly similar way, Hebrews 12’s Preacher switches back and forth between words of solemn warning and great comfort. Warning. Comfort. Warning. Comfort. So it’s as if our heads must constantly swivel back and forth in order to read the argument the Preacher makes.
Hoezee suggests that’s because Hebrews’ readers have reached a kind of religious fork in the road. Their choice of road will, in Robert Frost’s words, “make all the difference.” Turn right: God is majestic and terrifying. Turn left: our great High Priest Jesus is wonderful and gentle. Turn right: God is a consuming fire. Turn left: Jesus is a loving Savior.
Hebrews’ Preacher wants to direct his readers to Mount Zion’s new covenant. However, he worries that they will turn toward Mount Sinai’s old covenant instead. After all, while Mount Sinai looks and sounds ominous, it’s also, in Tom Long’s words, “well-traveled, downhill most of the way, … and looks smoother. And while Zion looks and sounds far lovelier, the road to it is rockier, narrower and steeper.”
So those who proclaim this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson might compare Hebrews’ Preachers’ presentation to an advertisement that begins with a scene of frazzled parents driving rambunctious children to church. It cuts away to a scene of a sandy beach along a sparkling ocean that sun bathes in its soothing glow.
The ad’s narrator’s voice overlays those pastoral scenes with, “Forget the traffic and the tension. You aren’t in your car anymore. You’ve come to the magical island of Aruba.”
Of course, you aren’t actually in the Caribbean. You’re in something like your family room. But in your imagination you’re sitting at the beach sipping a cold beverage.
In verse 22 Hebrews’ Preacher says, “You have come to Mount Zion … the city of the living God.” Of course, the stormy, fiery and gloomy Sinai to which he alludes in verses 19 and following was in many ways a good thing. It was, after all, where God gave God’s Israelite people the law that guided them to a thankful response to God’s grace.
However, the Preacher portrays Sinai as a symbol of religion that’s run amuck because it’s separated from Christ’s saving work. After all, Hebrews 12’s Sinai is a particularly fearful place. At it God’s Israelite people begged Moses not to let God even speak to them. Its sights and sounds even reduced God’s close friend Moses to shaking in his sandals.
Religions tend to specialize in that kind of fear. They teach worshipers to fear their god or that god’s punishment. People worship false religions’ god in part because they’re afraid of what he or she will do to you if you don’t.
Yet some strands of Christianity also seem to traffic in that fear. I grew up near a small Bible college. One of its staff and students’ favorite bumper stickers read, “Read the Bible – it will scare the hell out of you.”
I once attended a wedding in a dark, old church. Its pastor chose as his wedding sermon’s text one of Paul’s warnings against sexual immorality. His fearful interpretation of it? “Since you’re going to be intimate anyway, you might as well get married. Otherwise you’ll endanger your soul.”
Of course, since God hates sin, people who gladly and stubbornly indulge in it have every reason to fear the living God. God’s judgment and Hell are as real as the hand in front of your face. Yet Hebrews’ Preacher insists that God’s adopted sons and daughters who wish to obey God don’t have to be afraid of God.
After all, we haven’t come to a fearful place. God has graciously brought God’s adopted sons and daughters to Mount Zion. Here God, not fear reigns. Zion is a place of salvation and safety where God has written our names in permanent ink. Hebrews’ Zion is a place where God’s children don’t need shake in fear in their boots or heels. There’s no doom and gloomy smokiness at Zion.
At our text’s Sinai, the laws are tough and the verdicts are harsh. At Zion, Jesus has perfectly obeyed the law for us. At Sinai there’s violence and stubborn sin’s blood. At Zion the only blood is Jesus’ blood that was poured out on his adopted brothers and sisters’ behalf.
So God’s beloved children are in the right place at Zion’s place of joy and peace. And if we’re wondering if we should head another way, Sinai’s warnings point us in the right direction. So worshipers and students can go have some of Zion’s coffee and juice, cookies and fruit, right?
But Hebrews’ Preacher isn’t quite done yet. To return to our earlier metaphor, our text’s rally continues. Just when we think the Preacher has hit a winner that lands in Zion, he hits it back to what seems like the other side of the net.
Yes, there’s a yawning chasm that’s bigger than America’s Grand Canyon between Sinai and Zion. Yet Hebrews’ Preacher insists there’s a kind of fire and shaking on both mountains. At Sinai fires and earthquakes destroyed and broke everything that was unholy.
Zion’s shaking, says Long, is like that of a museum curator who’s trying to shake the dust off an old statue. She’s trying to get rid of everything that hides the statue’s beauty. After all, at Zion, God shakes things not to destroy them, but to preserve them so that, in verse 27’s words, “what cannot be shaken may remain.” And what remains is God’s image in which God creates us that we deface, but God is restoring.
What’s more, at Zion, God’s not a wildfire that burns out of control. Instead Zion’s God is a controlled burn that purifies God’s people and destroys what is evil. This God burns away all impurity so that all that is left is pure, good and holy.
Whether this is good or bad news depends on whether we’re the dust that needs shaking off or the object that dust covers. After all, God’s children are precious in God’s sight. However, most of us have some sinful dust that at least partially obscures the image of God in us. While we need someone or something to remove that dust, if it were up to us, we’d be in deep trouble. After all, we don’t naturally mind letting a little of the dust that is sin like envy, gossip, and resentment cling to us.
Thankfully, then, we don’t come to Zion by ourselves. Jesus, our older Brother, the great High Priest, comes with us. He has completely saved us. However, Jesus, by his Spirit, also sometimes vigorously shakes off the sinful dust that we clings us.
Yet Hebrews’ Preacher insists that’s not license for God’s people to get so cozy with God that we forget the difference between creatures like us and the Creator of all. Of course, God has already put us in God’s kingdom from which not even the evil one can remove us. With us, by God’s grace through Jesus’ saving work, all is well.
Yet it’s still appropriate for those who belong to Jesus have a healthy awe and reverence of God. After all, God is, in the closing words of our text, “a consuming fire.” That may not be the kind of God we’d choose if we had a list of options or we’d be if we were God.
But our text’s holy God is the only living God in a world full of counterfeits. That God is the only hope for a groaning creation and its pained creatures. After all, that God is already in the process of destroying all that harms God’s creation and its creatures.
So on the one hand, both those who proclaim Hebrews 11 and those who hear us belong to Zion to God in life and in death as well as in body and soul. Yet on the other hand, God’s beloved people never take that for granted. Jesus has completely saved God’s beloved people by his precious blood. Yet we never assume that’s license for us to do and say what we please.
On the one hand, those who come to Zion know both how gracious and gentle Jesus is. On the other hand, we know how completely majestic, holy and awesome Jesus is. Salvation is God’s completely and free gift, but it’s one earned for us only through Jesus’ blood, sweat, tears and trip to hell.
So at Zion God’s precious children worship the Lord with joy, but also with total reverence. We sing to God with gladness, but also with a healthy dose of amazement that we can communicate with God at all.
Yet many of us prefer things to be more clear-cut. We want to know if they’re good for us or bad for us. So this morning’s text that invites us to live with a tension that may leave some uncomfortable. Is God holy or loving? Should we approach the Lord with reverence or confidence? Yes.
Few of us who seek to proclaim the Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for this Sunday can either resolve or explain how to resolve that tension. Instead, with Hebrews’ Preacher, we persistently point our hearers and ourselves to Jesus.
When his adoptive brothers and sisters look into Jesus’ fierce but loving eyes at Zion, we see something that’s perhaps similar to what Narnia’s children saw in 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 just hear his earth-shaking roar are appropriately awe-filled. They know 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.