Here are the headlines of today’s sermon:
Keeping Sabbath is one of the holy habits that we are following as one principle of total stewardship.
However, it can be an excuse not to minister to others.
When we make rules about how and when we provide help then we are in danger of getting stuck in the form and losing sight of the substance.
Keeping Sabbath is also a justice issue because there are many in our community living on such low wages that they have to juggle several jobs and cannot take Sabbath time.
Good. That’s not the sermon I want to preach today but we needed to get it out of the way.
(In order to understand the rest of this you'll need to look at Hebrews 12:18-29 )
I’m rather more interested by the second reading, the one from Hebrews. Reading that is a little like parachuting into an alien landscape with no map and a compass whose needle just spins. So let’s start by getting some orientation.
It is generally thought that the Letter to the Hebrews was written in the second half of the first century, but no-one knows who wrote it. Its intended audience were probably Christians in Italy. The author combines scriptural exposition with exhorting his or her readers to move towards Christ and to endure the world which challenges their commitment. The letter has been described as a ‘masterpiece of Christian homiletics’.
We have this morning parachuted into part of the final section where Sinai and the Heavenly Jerusalem are being compared. The author is referring to the experience of the People of Israel, especially as described in Deuteronomy Chapters 4 and 9, and comparing it with the hope of Christians.
So lets do a flash back to Deuteronomy Chapter 4. Moses is giving his great farewell speech. He reminds the people of the time when they gathered at the foot of the mountain and the mountain burned with fire, cloud and thick darkness. Out of this fire and cloud came the voice of Yahweh giving them the Ten Commandments. Moses reminds the people that though they heard God they didn’t see any form and that they must never make what they think is a likeness of God and worship it. This would be just like making an idol and their God is a jealous God who is like a consuming fire. In Chapter 9 the story is remembered differently – while Moses is up on the mountain receiving the law from God, the people make a golden calf – which was a common symbol of the Canaanite deities. Yahweh was furious and Moses had to beg for the Israelites’ lives from that same jealous God.
Back to Hebrews. The writer has taken both versions of this story and embellished them a little – making it an awesome scene of fire, smoke and danger. But he goes on to say that this is not the reality of the readers. They are not at the foot of a physical mountain which can be touched, even though it must not be touched on pain of death.
They are, instead, at ‘Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem’. This is an image, a picture of the end times, what is known in jargon as ‘eschatological’. Mount Zion in Jerusalem was considered to be the place of God’s presence. The heavenly Jerusalem was an image that was frequently used in apocalyptic writing – Revelation talks of the beautiful city coming down from heaven. Christians have, in the imagery of the writer to the Hebrews, come to the heavenly court where those who have been made perfect are gathered in the presence of God. Jesus is also there in his role as Mediator – the one who makes it possible for us to be in God’s presence. When Abel was killed by Cain his blood called for retribution, but Jesus’ sprinkled blood sealed the new covenant which takes away calls for retribution for our sin and instead brings grace.
Then there’s an abrupt change in the text as the writer turns from exposition to exhortation. Possibly those who did not escape having refused God, is a reference back to the possibility of death as a result of touching the mountain. At that time God’s voice shook the earth, but ultimately everything will be shaken until it exists no more, leaving only that which cannot be shaken. Those are the abiding realities. It is the reign of God which cannot be shaken. The passage ends with an echo of Moses’ reminder not to worship false idols – our God is a consuming fire.
So now we have our bearings in this passage, what are we to make of it?
I think that we have lost a great deal in our understanding of Christianity. In an attempt to make it more palatable, more understandable and therefore we hope acceptable, we have created a very pale and insipid religion. On the one hand we have made it about ethics – about how to be a good person – in some cases codes of behavior become the deciding factor about whether someone is ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the church. On the other hand we talk about having a relationship with God – what a friend we have in Jesus, all our sins and griefs to bear – as if Jesus is there purely for our convenience.
This passage from Hebrews talks about the awe that God inspires. Our hope is that we too will come to Mount Zion, the Holy City, the heavenly court where the saints and angelic host worship the living God. But the writer doesn’t put it in the future tense. ‘You have come to Mount Zion’ she says, and so I say to you, “You have come to Mount Zion” and being 21st century Americans you say ‘Where is it?’
There were many people in the 1970s who thought that they were in communication with beings from outer space. When the planets were correctly aligned, some friends of mine came from the East Coast to Mt Shasta in a group led by a psychic to greet a flying saucer. At the appointed time the psychic declared the saucer had arrived and took them on a guided tour. They saw nothing, heard nothing, felt nothing. As they were getting into bed that night they turned to each other and said, “I think we’ve been had”.
We can’t see, hear or feel the heavenly court gathered at Mount Zion and being the rational creatures that we are, we don’t think about it. It doesn’t exist for us. But it does exist in our liturgy. In a few minutes I will say or sing ‘joining our voices with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven who forever sing this hymn’. That’s a reference to the heavenly court - when we sing the Sanctus we are joining our voices with those singing on Mt Zion. This is our future reality but it is already ours. Like when you buy a stove and you say ‘I’ve got a new stove’ but you may have to wait several days until it’s delivered. You have it but it just isn’t in your kitchen yet.
We are the people who have been perfected, completed, healed, made who God intended them to be, who are gathered in the heavenly court in New Jerusalem singing “Holy, holy, holy” but we are also the very imperfect people who continue to sin even when we know we’re doing it.
Our God is a jealous God. Our God is a consuming fire. It is difficult for us to understand God as jealous because we believe jealousy to be sinful and how can God have sin at the core of Godself? There isn’t a word for fiercely possessively loving and yet able to allow freedom. That’s God’s kind of jealousy. We are free just as God is free. But God loves us with such passion that she doesn’t just watch quietly when we wander off and make other things more important than our relationship with him.
All sin is a form of idolatry because it is making something more important than God – even when you are just coveting your neighbor’s Lexus that is making a car more important than God’s command not to covet anything your neighbor has. Moses warned the people of Israel that they should not make idols because ‘our God is a consuming fire’.
God is fire that burns in our souls. As we commit ourselves to the path of discipleship, as we commit ourselves to living a holy life, so that fire burns away the dross. I looked ‘dross’ up in the dictionary because I’ve only ever heard it used in this context. It means the scum that forms on the top of molten metal or any kind of waste material. Dross is everything that gets in the way of us being perfected – made whole, completed. Dross is what drives us to get therapy. Dross is our illusions of who we are. Dross is everything we think of when we confess our sins. Dross is stuff we aren’t even aware of, but God is.
God is a consuming fire. We are worshipping in the heavenly court with the angels and archangels and all those who have gone before us and already stand in that great assembly worshipping God. We are included in the new covenant sealed by the blood of the divine lamb. This is the language of image and symbol. This is the language of our reality. This is why we need to include music and art in our community life, because they show us other aspects of God. They deepen our perspective and help us to connect with spirit with our bodies and our souls not just our minds.
God is a consuming fire. Not a teddy bear that we take to bed at night to keep us feeling safe, not just a friend, all our sins and griefs to bear, but a demanding, challenging, all-consuming fire.
As we continue our worship this morning let us remember that we are joining with the company of heaven in worship of the God who is fire.