Monday, September 02, 2013

SERMON: God builds a kingdom that cannot be shaken

Hebrews 12.18-end
25 August 2013
All Saint's, Cottenham

It was AD 79, and the sky was burning. Stones and ash flew into the air. They soared over 20 miles straight up. Every second, 1.5 million more tons of ‘molten rock and pulverized pumice’ were added, and the fall-out over the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum was devastating. Mount Vesuvius exploded, ‘releasing a hundred thousand times the thermal energy’ of Hiroshima. Over 16,000 people died. It was so devastating that only two extant letters recount the explosion. Despite the horror of 79, and despite the fact that Vesuvius is the ‘only volcano on the European mainland to have erupted within the last hundred years,’ over 3 million people still live nearby. ‘It is the most densely populated volcanic region in the world.’ (heavily borrowed from Wikipedia,, 2013-08-19).


Thousands of years earlier, the people of Israel trembled before another mountain. The author to the Hebrews describes it vividly: blazing fire, darkness, gloom, tempest, the sound of a trumpet, a voice that came from the mountain causing everyone’s knees to buckle, which caused them to beg it to be silent. The mountain was Sinai. It was the mountain that Moses climbed to receive the Law. He entered into God’s presence, out of the sight of the people, and stayed there for 40 days and 40 nights, being instructed, being given the Law on tablets of stone.

And the sight was terrifying. The people had no leader. The mountain looked like it would erupt at any moment, and Moses had commanded that no one should touch the mountain. For, it was holy, set apart. To refuse this command would be to refuse the God who gave it through Moses. The people were receiving the Law from God, a great gift. But they were receiving it from God, their judge. The earth shook with his judgment. ‘Indeed,’ the author to the Hebrews writes, ‘so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear”’ (12.21). For those at the foot of the mountain, nothing was stable. Nothing was sound. All they could see was the sky alight with fire. They were afraid.


Fear is a valuable human emotion. Now, most of us don’t like to be afraid, but fear does protect us from things that might hurt us. In fact, it’s the potential for harm that triggers fear in the first place. I personally have a hard time with edges. I can nudge myself near them slowly, but it takes a lot of willpower. The sensation makes me want to freeze in place, or take several steps back from the edge.

Fear is valuable. It protects us from things that might hurt us. And if fear is generally valuable then when the Bible talks about the fear of God, what does that mean? In short, to fear God means to treat God with the respect that God deserves. Right now, off the coast of Cape Cod in the United States, there is an infestation of great white sharks. They are there to feed on the exploding seal population. The locals have learned to treat the sharks with respect, to keep their distance, to know their limits, and to not go out dressed like seals. To fear the shark is to respect it.

Against the God who made Mt Sinai smoke, we are like ants. So small compared to someone so big. If God were against us, he could crush us at any moment. When we think about God, it is right to be afraid. Our God is a fearsome God, one who must be treated with respect.


To the people huddled in fear at the base of Mt Sinai, the author to the Hebrews writes, ‘You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest … but you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God’ (12.18, 22a). ‘Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks…’ (12.28). God builds a kingdom that cannot be shaken.

And what a different picture this kingdom is to Mount Sinai. Those at Sinai stood under God’s judgment, but those who come to Mount Zion see something different. As Hebrews says, they come to ‘the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven’ (12.22-23). There is no anxiety here. There is joy and celebration and homecoming.

Why do they see these things? Because, Hebrews says, they also come ‘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’ (12.23-24). Those who gather at Mount Zion gather because God did judge the world. He did make it shake with terror that Good Friday as Jesus hung upon the cross. And Jesus’ blood, which speaks a better word than Abel’s, speaks for us. It is part of God’s new covenant with the world, a new covenant which will see the ‘spirits of the righteous made perfect’ (12.23).


Looking back at the author to the Hebrews’ language in this passage, what strikes me is the joyful description of those who gather at Mount Zion. I’m tempted to see it as a description of heaven, a description of the life to come. It is, in a way. Those are all things we believe we will see at the Resurrection of the Dead. But, wait. The author says, ‘But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God’ (12.22). This is past tense. This is something available to people now.

This passage presents us with a choice. We start out at the base of Mount Sinai, trembling in fear. That fear might be the rightful fear of a just God. It might also be all kinds of other fears that plague us. But, the Scripture invites us on a journey. It says we don’t have to live outside the mountain of God’s judgement. We don’t have to live in constant dread of an explosion that would pour down fire and brimstone on us. We can come to the mountain of God’s love, where innumerable angels dance with joy. And the mountain of God’s love is the mountain upon which three crosses stand. It is the mountain out of which Jesus exploded that first Easter Sunday. It is the mountain at which we gather with joy each Sunday to climb together.

It is no mistake that every Sunday we join the angels and archangels and all the company of heaven in proclaiming, ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts.’ This is our calling. This is our duty and our joy. Our God is a consuming fire, burning away all that keeps us from being the people he wants us to be. As we climb the mountain together, we are part of the spirits of the righteous being made perfect.

The Scripture gives us a choice. Will we climb Mount Zion, or will we continue in fear at the base of Mount Sinai? It is up to you. Heed the voice that calls from heaven, and give your life to Jesus Christ in faith. The party the angels are throwing is always a ‘welcome home’ party. Brothers and sisters, welcome home.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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