There is something beautiful about the sheer openness and barrenness of January. It is a month of barren fields, frozen ground, leafless trees and a calendar free of holidays. It signals a return to the normalcy of life. Of course that austereness can be oppressive; without any “special days,” holiday parties or weekend at the shore we are forced to face what life is about. The emptiness can be beautiful if the life that is left is meaningful. The emptiness can be distressing if the life that is left is, well, empty. So what is life all about? What makes a life well-lived beside the sheer grinding busyness of our cluttered culture?
This week we wrap up our series on Hebrews as the author tries to focus his congregation on what being a Christian is all about. But asking this question will actually lead us into a new series about how to live the life we have. We will focus on the most important commandments Jesus gave and ask what it looks like today. But first, the book of Hebrews, chapter 12:
The mountain of religion, secular or theistic, keeps God at bay and us in fear.
Transition: The writer is closing his message and once again tries to pull them back from their apathy, drifting and fear. Specifically they are pre-occupied with returning to Judaism. They don’t want to be Jewish followers of Jesus. They want to return to ethnic, law-centered, old covenant Judaism. The writer reminds them that being a child of God in Christ is different than what they want to return to. They want to be Jewish because there is no harassment and because that way they fit in with the culture. What the writer tells them can be applied to our own desire to conform to our culture.
He describes approaching God in the OT as scary and distant . Being a follower of Jesus is not like coming to Mt Sinai. Mt Sinai is the mountain where God met with Moses and gave him the ten commandments, wrote with his own finger on tablets of stone. It was a big deal, an exalted moment. But what was it really like to be there?
Mount Sinai: it’s not like climbing this mountain
18 You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; 19 to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, 20 because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.”[Exodus 19:12,13] 21 The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”[Deut 9:19]
He uses the scene at Mt Sinai where God gives the ten commandments as a picture of the old covenant. Judaism that does not lead to the Messiah Jesus is just a religion: noble, filled with truth about God, but a religion nonetheless. God is distant and scary. It is not because their picture of God is wrong but because it is true. God is holy and powerful and just. But the people are not holy or righteous so no one can stand in God’s presence. Notice the command about the animals – they would be killed even if they wandered onto the mountain. This is different than guidelines for the White House.
Even Moses was trembling with fear.
Transition: He uses this picture of the mountain because it is what they were drawn to. But we could do the same with whatever we are tempted to turn to rather than follow Jesus as a disciple. In our contemporary American culture we are tempted to worship at the mountain of success.
Being a Christian is not like climbing the mountain of success. The mountain of success is just as scary as Mount Sinai. You cannot see the top. You live in fear of rejection; your goal is far off and you see people discarded every day. You are not sure what is required of you or if the rules for success will change when you get further up the mountain.
Illustration: Early in Tom Brady’s career, when he had only won one Super Bowl (or perhaps after he had won the second,) Terry Bradshaw, himself a four time Super Bowl winning QB, hoped that Brady would quit. It was not that he thought Brady was washed up or that he feared another man would accumulate four Super Bowl rings. Bradshaw was making the point that Brady didn’t owe anyone anything. If he wanted to retire now and ride into the sunset to live the rest of his life, that would be fine. He doesn’t need to climb the world’s mountain of success. Bradshaw knew only too well, that when you get to the top of the mountain, the only thing you find is more mountain. He knew that Brady would face people who wanted him to win another Super Bowl, each year. It will never be enough.
Illustration: Now to say that Tom Brady should be willing to walk away is not to say he should not care about his job. You can care about your job, you can do it with excellence without climbing the world’s mountain. In this sense it not about what you do, but about why you do it. This really came home to me when I read an interview with Tony Hale. He is an actor and producer, known for Arrested Development (2003), Stranger Than Fiction (2006) and The Heat. Last year he won and Emmy for his work as a supporting actor in VEEP.
When asked in a Christianity Today interview what he would say to young people, particularly Christians about going into acting he shared:
First, examine your motivations for why you want to get into the business. It’s only natural for those who want to get into entertainment to start off wanting to be famous or be recognized or be wealthy. But then, rather than judging yourself for having those thoughts, simply be aware of and honest about them. Hope that one day those motivations can morph into a more pure desire: loving to entertain and loving the art of acting. If you can start being honest about those things when you’re young, and not shame yourself for having them but simply surrender them to God,
Transition: Tony Hale is telling us that acting is his job, not his God. He can surrender his deep desire to be famous to God because he is not climbing the mountain of fame and other people’s opinions. He is on a different journey. It is the journey the author describes in the next paragraph. Look at the difference in the language the writer uses to describe the Christian Journey.
The city of Zion represents the joy of being in God’s kingdom both now and forever.
You have come to Mt Zion, the city of God the heavenly Jerusalem:
22 But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23 to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
Mt Zion was the place where God dwells. Jerusalem was sometimes called Mt Zion because of the Temple, but a moment’s reflection reminds us that Jerusalem is meant to be a picture of heaven. When you receive forgiveness from God through Christ and become a follower of Jesus you have become part of the worshipping community described in this passage.
The Heavenly Jerusalem is the city of the Living God located not in Palestine but in the presence of God we call heaven.
You come to thousands of angels in joyful assembly. This word “joyful assembly” was used in secular Greco-Roman culture to describe events like the Olympics. It was a joyful celebration not one filled with fear or doom as Mt Sinai was described.
You have come to the Church of the firstborn, the gathering of those who have the status of God’s children through Jesus. This is an established act — their names are written in heaven.
God is in the center of it all and he is the JUDGE. Around him are the righteous who are made perfect. Remember that God is just as scary and holy and exalted as he was on the mountain of Sinai. The difference is that the people around the mountain have been made perfect so they are not scared in the presence of his holiness. They have been made perfect by the blood of Jesus, who like a high priest, has sprinkled it for the forgiveness of our sins. Jesus is the new covenant, the new agreement between God and people. We confess our sins, he puts his death against the punishment we deserve and we are accepted as his children.
The church is all of us. The spirits made perfect are those who have gone before us into God’s presence, those who no longer struggle with opposition, with illness, with sin. They have been made perfect. Even now they are there. That is what awaits us and welcomes us as forgiven followers of Jesus the Messiah.
No fear. No doubt. Only joy and forgiveness and worship.
Why would you go back to that striving? Why would you continue looking for something else? Why would you go back and worship those who judge you and discard you? Why would you go back to empty religion where God is far off, to dead routines and empty rituals when he offers you a journey with himself when he welcomes you to his presence through Christ right now?
Transition: And yet we are always tempted to forget what awaits us; we are tempted to forget who we are as his children because the world around us seeks to form us in its own struggling competitive, empty image.
Our present and our future are so great we should be moved to obedience and worship – which are the same thing.
If God has given us all these things and made us his own children, why would you refuse to listen to him? Why would you turn your backs on this story to find your identity in another?
God shook the mountain when he revealed himself to the nation of Israel but one day he will shake the whole world. Like turning over a dolls house so that only those things fixed to the walls and floor stay, God will shake the world and only his Kingdom will be left.
The fame of today and the wealth of tomorrow, that will not last. Love will last, but glory of the red carpet of Oscar night will not. Every star on that night will end up in the “Memoriam” section. Beauty will last but the empty amusement which consumes so much of our time, the need to keep up with everyone else, will not last. And forgiveness will last, but arrogance and a stubborn need justify ourselves will not.
So let us worship God as the one who should be feared, but has welcomed us.
28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, 29 for our “God is a consuming fire.”[Deut 4:24]
Notice how he says “be thankful and so worship God.” When are hearts are full of gratitude everything we do is an act of worship. When we realize that our God is the judge of all the earth who should exclude us but does not, we are led to worship. And that worship transforms us.
So let us worship God as the one who could destroy us but instead has forgiven us. Let us praise the name of Jesus who could have rejected us and instead took our place and died for us. Our God is a consuming fire, but his is a fire that fills us with the Holy Spirit and does not consume us but transforms us so that everything is now worship.