Saturday, 21 August 2010

12th Sunday after Trinity - Entering God's Presence

Hebrews 12:18-29
You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. (For they could not endure the order that was given, ‘If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.’ Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.’) But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and 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, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

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! At 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.’ This phrase ‘Yet once more’ indicates the removal of what is shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. 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; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.

Luke 13:10-17
Jesus Heals a Crippled Woman
Now he was teaching in one of the synagogues on the sabbath. And just then there appeared a woman with a spirit that had crippled her for eighteen years. She was bent over and was quite unable to stand up straight. When Jesus saw her, he called her over and said, ‘Woman, you are set free from your ailment.’ When he laid his hands on her, immediately she stood up straight and began praising God. But the leader of the synagogue, indignant because Jesus had cured on the sabbath, kept saying to the crowd, ‘There are six days on which work ought to be done; come on those days and be cured, and not on the sabbath day.’ But the Lord answered him and said, ‘You hypocrites! Does not each of you on the sabbath untie his ox or his donkey from the manger, and lead it away to give it water? And ought not this woman, a daughter of Abraham whom Satan bound for eighteen long years, be set free from this bondage on the sabbath day?’ When he said this, all his opponents were put to shame; and the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things that he was doing.

The Statistics are alarming. Despite some churches bucking the trend and growing, overall in this country, the numbers attending church are reducing and that the church is struggling. Why? Is it because we were not keeping pace with the culture of the world in which we live, and what should we do about it? And what worries us most, the haemorrhaging of numbers that the church has seen in the last two generations or the general loss of faith?

The reason I mention all this is because of the reading from the letter to the Hebrews today which was also written to address a difficult time in the life of a church. Now let me be quite clear that there are a huge amount of unknowns surrounding this letter. We don’t know who wrote it, but we do know with almost absolute certainty that it was not written by St. Paul.

The style and use of language is all wrong throughout the book, and although a number of suggestions have been made, such as Apollos, Silvanus, Luke and Priscilla, we really have no idea except that whoever wrote it spoke much better Greek than any of the other New Testament authors.

Likewise, we don’t even know who the letter was sent to. It isn’t actually addressed ‘To the Hebrews’; that’s simply a title that a later person gave it when they were probably as much in the dark about the intended recipients as we are.

The probable reason for the title is that the book draws very heavily on Old Testament theology, so we think it was sent to a church made up of Jewish Christians who were on the verge of giving up their Christian beliefs and returning wholesale to their Jewish roots.

So its reason for existence is helpful to us because it seems to have been written to address a massive loss in self-confidence, much as we seem to be facing in the church today. The situation he is addressing is one of falling numbers and exhaustion in the face of persecution and struggle, and whilst we’re not exactly persecuted in this country, the rest of it sounds familiar.

His solution seems quite radical. In our context, with a similar outlook, much of the effort in revitalising dwindling or struggling congregations has been through reinventing the culture of the church service, so that we have services that are more in keeping with the culture of our time. I agree with that principle, but Hebrews makes me wonder if it goes far enough. You see for the writer, his solution was all about theology!

I suspect that one of the reasons we don’t read this book very much is because of that theological depth combined with a need to know something about the Old Testament, a foundation that so many of us have neglected, and so I would like to commend it to you as a book you should read from start to finish. But I do find it interesting and challenging that, faced with a church in difficulty, his solution was to teach them more about what they believed in.

And that brings us to the reading itself in which the writer offers his readers two choices. The first choice we are offered is to approach God on Mount Sinai. This is all Old Testament imagery. Many of you have said to me over the years that it seems amazing the way in which we seem to see two different sides to God in the Bible.

In the Old Testament God seems to be angry, fearful and distant. We seem to be exposed to his raw power more often than not, and the experience is not necessarily comforting. The writer’s suggestion is that on the first mountain what we see is God as revealed through Torah, the law. God is exposed in all his radical holiness and humanity trembles because of its sin.

God is so very holy that no one may approach because no one can cope with that much raw power and perfection in our current state. Even Moses, who shared such an intimate relationship with God, was scared to approach. The truth is, this is truly how God is. On our own we simply cannot approach him because of his power, glory and holiness, and our weakness and infirmity.

Remember that I said that this letter is likely to have been written to Jewish Christians, who were struggling and contemplating returning to their Jewish roots? The imagery that the writer is using indicates his message to be this: ‘Look, if you return to trying to reach God through the Law, Torah, this is the face of God that you must cope with because you will never be good enough. Torah was intended by God to reveal our shortcomings, not to set us free.’

That’s really the theological principle that underpins the whole New Testament. The Law binds us by revealing to us that we cannot be perfect because we cannot keep it. God’s intention has been to teach humanity that it cannot make itself good enough.

The writer then turns his readers’ attention to a second mountain, Mount Zion. Here we find a celebration taking place. It’s a festival and the angels are having a party in the presence of the firstborn, that is the new believers. Here the people are in the presence of the living God and enjoying it, not terrified of it. The contrast with the first mountain is stark, but why the difference? It’s all there in the theology of this verse:

“and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”

Abel, if you remember, was murdered by his brother, Cain. In Genesis 4:10 God speaks to Cain and says, ‘Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground.” On the first mountain there is blood shed which is the blood of animal sacrifices that cannot take away sin. Abel’s blood reminds us of justice that cannot be fulfilled.

But on the second mountain there is the blood of Christ which is the blood of the new covenant, the blood which takes away sin. The first mountain shows us that we can never be good enough to be in God’s holy presence, yet on the second mountain we are able to be with him because Christ’s blood is from the final sacrifice, the one that truly made us pure in the sight of God.

It’s not easy to understand because in some ways we would like a kind of scientific description of why it is we can be in God’s presence through Christ’s blood. After all, we’re just as guilty as people who sinned under the law! What changed? The answer is that God offers us grace through Christ. He chooses to see us, and let us see him, through the lens of his Son.

Do you remember the total eclipse a few years back and how we were warned not to look at the sun directly, but to use a piece of specially smoked glass? In some ways it’s like that. In our imperfection Christ acts like a piece of smoked glass to keep us safe in the presence of the Father. We can’t look at him directly, but we can look at him through Jesus, and he at us.

This is one of those places where we have to recognise the uniqueness of Christ as opposed to other worldly religions. Through whatever shape or form we try; be it meditation, praying a prerequisite number of times a day, fasting, pilgrimage, crystals, magic, you name it; whatever we want to try, if we want to dwell safely and joyfully in the presence of God we can only be in that place through Jesus.

The stark choice the writer is offering is between trying to be good enough to fulfil the law under the old covenant, or accepting that we can never keep the law and instead finding forgiveness in Christ and therefore being welcomed into God’s presence. He is telling his readers that they are already on the second mountain, Mount Zion, and are in the presence of God through Christ.

But, he says, if they go back to trying to live under the Law, then they will have to return to the Mount Sinai Old Testament way of reaching God, which is to say they will not be able to stand in his presence as they now do.

What then does this reading have to teach us? Well in many ways it’s quite disturbing because it strips away any sense of self-importance or achievements in becoming righteous. The truth remains the same for us as it was for those who received the letter: There is nothing, absolutely nothing whatsoever that any of us can do to be good enough to enter the presence of God.

Our only entry into God’s presence is via Christ and the free-gift of grace that he offers us. We are invited in through Jesus, but we have not even earned the invitation. This passage should be about us humbly acknowledging that we can only enter God’s presence through the grace he offers in Christ. We need to take this on board because it is only when we recognise this that we begin to live lives of gratitude to God for what he has done for us.

And we do need to enter that place, because the writer finishes this section with an apocalyptic warning about what is to come, that God is going to shake the heavens and the earth, so that only that which is a part of his kingdom may survive.

I think this passage is actually quite Old Testament in its imagery, even if the message is very New Testament. Ultimately it warns us not to take lightly that which we believe, but that we should be stirred to worship in reverence and awe. Theology can sometimes be very heavy, and maybe we prefer our message to be light and easy to take.

Yet here we find reminders of grace and warnings of what the future holds and a question as to how we will respond. So how will we respond?


Think back of the last week and think of all the good things you have done. Have you helped someone? Have you sent money to Pakistan? Have you kept your temper in a situation when you might normally have lost it?

Now think back over the last month, and do the same thing. What good things have you accomplished? Be honest with yourself because no one is listening in to your thoughts. If you think you were good, be honest about it.

What has your life been like? Has the direction been towards doing good works and serving others? Or at least have you tried to be a good person?

Now imagine that God is here in person, and his awesome majesty so fills this church that the building begins to shake. Become aware of his awesome perfection and terrifying purity and holiness. Ask yourself now how good those works that you did seem in comparison with that. You cannot bear to look at him because he’s brighter than the sun, so bright is his glory.

Here, indeed, is the power behind the universe. Are your so called good works good enough to bring you into his presence? Or do you fear dissolution because of the power you are confronted with.

Now, from the side of the church, picture Jesus walking across in front of you. And he stands so that he is directly between you and the Father. The shaking stops. The noise of majesty is quietened and you realise you can look up. And although Jesus is standing in front of you, what seems to happen is that you can see through him to the Father standing behind him.

And the Father is smiling at you, because he is looking at you through the perfection of Jesus, God and human, and you are not being judged on whether your works are good enough, but are able to be treated as being as perfect as Jesus is, even though you’re not.

This is how we come into the presence of God. The Father is smiling at you, his child, because he sees you, and loves you and desires you to be in his presence. So let that be the inspiration for us to live good lives for others, not to buy grace, but to respond to it.

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