A SERMON FOR Proper 16 Year C
Copyright © 2007 Nathan L. Bostian
Based on Hebrews 12:18-29 and Luke 13:22-30
Copyright © 2007 Nathan L. Bostian
Based on Hebrews 12:18-29 and Luke 13:22-30
As I stand here, I can't help but grin because of the situation. Here I am on the first Sunday back after a summer break, and I am nervous about getting Canterbury going again. Lots of things to get done. Tons of new people to meet, including many of you.
And there you are. You are beginning a new school year with tons of courses, and a to-do list a mile long. For some of you it is your first time away from home. For others it may your first time to walk into an Episcopal worship service.
And I am supposed to preach a welcome sermon. A sermon to help you get acclimated to your new semester, and hopefully to your new family of faith away from home.
And to do that, I must use the Bible readings appointed for today from our lectionary. For those of you who do not know: The lectionary is a cycle of Bible readings for every Sunday, designed to help the Church read through most of the Bible every three years.
In many ways, it is great. It keeps me from preaching from on my five favorite Bible passages every week. It makes the Church listen to, and struggle through, all that God's Word has to say.
But, then there are days like today. In any sermon, particularly a welcome sermon, there are three types of Bible texts you DON'T want to preach on:
First, you don't want texts that have obscure Old Testament references that you have to explain.
Second, you don't want texts that are complex and difficult to read.
Third, you don't want texts that scare the hell out of people.
CONGRATULATIONS! We hit the jackpot with all three!
So, instead of a fluffy non-descript message that tells you all what you probably knew already… How about we tackle this obscure, difficult, and scary passage, and see if we can make some sense out of it?
I know that is a challenging assignment: But I figure that if you could make it into SMU, you are up to the task!
We start with our passage from Hebrews. The first thing you need to know about Hebrews, is that it was written to Hebrews. It is a letter written by an un-named Jew- possibly even by a Jewish woman named Priscilla- to other Jews in an attempt to convince them to follow Jesus as their Messiah.
Thus it uses a whole lot of images and stories from the Hebrew Bible- what we call the Old Testament- to convey the importance of who Jesus is, and what He did for humanity.
Just like we might speak in the language of our culture to make sense of Jesus- by comparing Him to Aslan from Narnia, or Harry Potter, or Neo in the Matrix- so also they used the language of Moses and the prophets to make sense of Jesus.
The writer of Hebrews- I am going to assume she was a woman because I like that theory- she begins in verse 18 by talking about the mountain of "blazing fire" that Moses received the Ten Commandments on.
You know the mountain: Vast and terrible. On top, Charleton Heston with a white beard hangs out with God, who writes the Ten Commandments on two slabs of rock. Then Charleton- AKA Moses- takes those slabs down the mountain with his rippling biceps and gives them to the Nation of Israel. For Moses, its just another day at the office, right?
Wrong. Moses was terrified. The Jews were terrified. Like wet-your-pants terrified. God was awesome and vast and spoke with a voice that would split you in two.
Now, I get in lots of conversations with people who either reject God's existence, or are on-the-fence about the Supreme Being. And one of the frequent requests I hear from them is this: "If God would just SHOW Himself in power and might, THEN I would believe."
But they don't know what they are asking. God HAS done just that very thing on this "terrible mountain". Sure, everybody at the bottom of the mountain believed, but out of fear, not out of love. And belief out of fear never works in the long run.
It didn't work in the Jewish Story either. While Moses was on the mountain, they made idols to worship. While they were traveling to the "promised land" they rejected the God who led them. And when they made it to the promised land, it got worse.
Belief based on fear- whether fear of the muzzle of a gun, or fear of the flames of hell- doesn't stay belief for long. It becomes bland indifference. It doesn't work.
In fact, a great many of the Stories we read in the Hebrew Bible are illustrations of what DOESN'T work. But it isn't because God is on a learning curve, and needs to experiment before he gets it right.
It is because God knows that we need to know what doesn't work, and often we need to experience failure before we will appreciate what DOES work. Think about it. Most of us have a bad habit of having to learn "the hard way".
We continually deny what we know is right, and do what we know doesn’t work. We think if we just manipulate things a little better, or use people a little more, or get really wasted this time, it will all turn out better. And it may for a while. And then it bites us in the butt. It never works long-term.
And we promise we will never do it again. Until next time…
But God wants to get us out of the loop of failing over and over. God wants to move us past what doesn't work, into His abundant life. He wants to fill us with His Love, a Love that overcomes all our fears.
So after God shows us terror doesn't work, He arrives in our world in a totally different way. A way you never could have guessed in a million years. He arrives not in power and glory and terrible thunder.
Instead, He arrives powerless, in tattered clothes, in the cry of a baby. God empties Godself and becomes one of us in Jesus Christ. And in Jesus, God pours Himself out, and invites us to become one with Him in Love.
In fact, this Love is the reason why God is called "a consuming fire" in verse 29. This is because when you love someone with your whole heart, you can't just Love them a little. Love consumes you. It becomes a fire burning within. And that is how God feels about you: He is consumed with Love for you, and longs for you to become consumed with Love for Him and His children.
When we become one with God through Jesus, we become part of His Body, which we call the Church. The Church is not a place, it is a people: A people who Love God through Jesus Christ… A people who live to share that Love with everyone… A people who are the real hands and feet of Jesus reaching into a hurting world.
In verse 22 the author uses Hebrew images to describe this new reality we have come to in Christ: She calls it "Mount Zion" (which is where the Temple was built); "The city of the living God" (which is Jerusalem, where the Temple resided); "The heavenly Jerusalem" (reminding us that Jerusalem is not something that can be pinned down on a map, but a spiritual reality beyond the physical city).
The author says that this "Zion-City-Jerusalem" reality is what we have come to. But what does that mean? Does it mean heaven, as in a place we go to after we die? NO, because the author says that we are there NOW. We don't have to die to get there.
Instead, we have come to "the assembly of the firstborn". This gathering of people may be "enrolled in heaven", but they live now on Earth. This assembly is the Church: The Body of Christ, the community who lives in communion with the God of Love.
The Church has a unique way of describing this God of Love. We describe God as a communion of three Persons eternally sharing in one other: God the Father, God the Spirit, and God the Son. And the author says we have come to communion with all three:
In verse 23, she says we have come to "God the judge of all". The idea of "judge" carries baggage for us. We tend to think of a judge as someone who imprisons us and declares us guilty forever. But Jews would have heard "judge" in a completely different way.
When the Jews heard "judge" they thought of the Book of Judges, and the heroic "judges" that God raised up to deliver his people from oppression. While we tend to think of a judge as an oppressor, they thought of judge as a deliverer: Someone who judged oppression and defeated it.
She is saying that we have come to our God and Father, who judges all of our sins and addictions and oppressions, so that He can deliver us from them all, and bring us into His Love forever.
She goes on to say that we have come to "the spirits of the righteous made perfect". This refers to the work of God's Spirit within the spirits of those in Christ's Body.
Within our spirits, God's Spirit does two things. First, the spirit makes us "righteous". This is not "self-righteous", as in "I-am-a-super-religious-holier-than-thou-zealot-who-is-better-than-you". Rather, righteous means to be "made right", or "put in a right relationship".
It means to straighten out our lives, from the inside out. That's what
God's Spirit does in the spirits of God's children: The Spirit straightens us out, so we can have right relationships with God, others, and ourselves.
The second thing God's Spirit does in our spirits is "perfect" us. This doesn't mean perfection as in "flawless hair, rock hard abs, and a glowing smile". This means perfect in Love. It means being able to love others the way God loves us: completely and unconditionally.
So, when the author says we have come "to the spirits of the righteous made perfect", it means we have come to the community where God's Spirit is at work, straightening out lives and enabling us to love like God loves.
Finally, she tells us that we have come to "to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel."
A "mediator" is someone who stands between two alienated parties and brings them back together. Jesus- God the Son- is the one who stands between us and God.
The problem is that we have fallen from God's Love. We don't love God or others the way we should. We walk past people who we should help, we hate people we should forgive. And we forget God all the time. I do it. You do it. It alienates us from God, and from the very reason He gave us life.
So Jesus stands between us and God. He mediates for us. He leaves the Spiritual realm and becomes one of us, to enter fully into our lives, and go through everything we go through.
And when I say go through everything, I mean everything. All of the suffering. All of the pain. All of the frustration and humiliation. Even death. God loves us so much that in Christ, He went through our death and died for us, so He could defeat death forever by His resurrection.
This is why His blood "speaks a better word" than the blood of Abel. You remember Abel, right? Genesis chapter four. Two brothers: Cain and Abel. Cain gets jealous of Abel and can't have what Abel has, so Cain kills Abel in cold blood.
Abel is the first of billions of people murdered by human greed. And all of their blood cries out "Useless! Useless! Why did we die???"
But through the resurrection, Jesus' blood speaks a "better word". His blood cries out "By my death I have destroyed death, so that everyone might come within the embrace of God's Love!"
Jesus is the mediator who holds our hand, and holds God's hand, and brings us back together. And THIS is the God who we have come to: Not a God of terror, but a God who enters into our lives as Father, Son, and Spirit to share all He is with us.
This God is the only One in Whom we find the meaning of life. This God is the only One who has the power to deliver us from our selfishness and hopelessness. And this is the reason why the author warns us not to "refuse the one who is speaking".
To refuse Him is to refuse our very self. It is like saying we can live without Him who is life, or love others while denying Him who is love. It is a contradiction, and we can only live in a contradiction so long before it is shaken away.
Perhaps this is why today's Scriptures about judgment are so scary to us. Christ is not arbitrary in describing the consequences of denying God. He is describing natural consequences. For if we deny Him who is joy and purpose, we will eventually be shaken by our own misery and meaninglessness.
And so, we enter into yet another year at college. For some it is your first. For others it is your last. But one thing is for sure. It will shake you. It will challenge you. It will topple your illusions.
As you are shaken, may you cling to Christ who is your unshakable foundation. As Jesus says, may you "strive" to enter into His reality and His salvation. And in Canterbury House may you find a community who will help you strive for Christ, and live upon His unshakeable Love. Amen+
And now, let us affirm together our unshakable faith in an unshakable God through the words of the Nicene Creed…