St Bartholomew’s, Granite City—Hebrews 12:18–29
One of the attributes of God is that God does not change. In a universe full of change, God is the one constant, a fixed point. We can depend on God to be who God is, to be consistent with his own nature. But the way human beings speak about God changes all the time. Sometimes we talk about God as distant, severe, a Supreme Being who provokes us to fear and trembling. At other times, we imagine God as nearby, a kind and merciful Grandfather figure.
Perhaps you’ve heard of a famous sermon given by the New England Puritan preacher Jonathan Edwards in the early 1700s. It’s known by the title Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Edwards paints such a vivid picture of eternal damnation that you can feel the flames of Hell beginning to singe the hair on your arms! And then, by contrast, there the lyrics of “praise choruses” in the “Contemporary Christian Music” genre that have led some critics to sarcastically summarize them as “Jesus is my boyfriend.”
Or, if you’re looking for contrasting ways of describing God, spend some time with the Psalms. They are all over the map with regard to whether God is frightening or benevolent, angry or loving.
So … how are we supposed to approach God? Should we be kind of casual about it, like the grown child who walks through the front door of his parents’ home at 1am, raids the refrigerator, and plops down on the couch to watch a movie without giving a second thought to his sleeping parents? Or … should we come into God’s presence like the subjects of the Mongolian Khans, who entered the throne room with their heads bowed, never looked the ruler in the eye, and exited walking backwards so as to not turn their backs on the sovereign?
The answer, as you might imagine, lies somewhere between those two poles. But, if we take our cue from the twelfth chapter of the Epistle to the Hebrews, we’re going to find ourselves wanting to more closely imitate the behavior of the Mongols than that of the casual and presumptuous adult child. God is so utterly awesome that it makes sense for us to approach him with grateful trepidation, with confident fear, with humble trembling. Listen to the text of our reading:
For you have not come to what may 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 no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”
So, Moses is trembling with fear, and for good reason. If you’re paying attention, that description has to give you goosebumps. But what’s truly terrifying is that this description is of what the reader is not facing—“You have not come to what may be touched” etc. etc. So, what have we come to?
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.
Now, this is less immediately terrifying than the description of Moses going up Mt Sinai, but it is certainly still immensely humbling. It puts us in our place! Heavenly Jerusalem … innumerable angels … God, the judge of all … sprinkled blood—it’s all pretty darn impressive!
And then the author wraps it up with this:
Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our God is a consuming fire.
Whenever you’re reading the Bible and you see the word “therefore,” that’s when you know to start really paying attention; that’s when the super-important stuff shows up. Therefore … what? Therefore let us be grateful. Gratitude is the foundation of our approach to God. We are grateful to God that he has given us a “kingdom that cannot be shaken.” But then there’s more. “Let us offer to God acceptable worship.” And what constitutes acceptable worship? Well, the author tells us. “Let us offer acceptable worship with reverence and awe.” Reverence and awe. Why? Because “our God is a consuming fire.” Now we see where Jonathan Edwards got part of his inspiration!
This is why traditional Christian worship is full of symbolic objects, symbolic actions, and symbolic postures, all of which point to the sacredness of what we’re doing and the holiness of God. When we’re in church, we see and use material objects that we don’t see and use anywhere else. We speak words that we don’t speak anywhere else. We do things with our bodies that we don’t do anywhere else. Even in a small church with a small congregation like at St Bartholomew’s, there’s nothing “casual” about what we’re doing. We 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.” We have come to invoke the Holy Spirit of God on our humble gifts of bread and wine, that they may become the very Body and Blood of his crucified and risen Son, given to us for the salvation of our souls, as we ourselves are given for the life of the world.
Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.