Grace Presbyterian Church
August 21, 2016, Pentecost 14C
Faith: A Matter of Awe
There are moments in scripture that are so beautiful we can never forget them. Psalm 23 retains popularity across generations at least in part because its poetry and imagery are so utterly beautiful, and many of the psalms are of similar poetic beauty. The first verses of John 14 – “I am the way, the truth, and the life…” are similarly poetic and memorable. You probably can recall examples that stand out to you.
And then there are passages that are … less poetic, less beautiful, generally less appealing. Between the books of Joshua, Judges, the Samuels, Kings, and Chronicles, there are enough bloody and horrifying battles to keep Hollywood working overtime for years. The crucifixion accounts in the gospels are, aside from the theological significance of the event and the resurrection that follows, gruesome to read. And I’m just going to let you go look up Psalm 137:8-9 for yourselves.
Today’s reading from Hebrews sits in an uneasy place between those two extremes. From a scene of terror and fear, the preacher pivots to one of great hope and beauty, and the result can be a bit of whiplash for the reader or hearer. Part of the challenge is that the Hebrews preacher is trying to draw a contrast in order to make his (or her?) point, and we may need to drop back and do a little bit of context to understand what is going on here.
Our Hebrews preacher paints a picture of two mountains, one of which is Sinai, the mountain up which Moses ascended to commune with God and receive the Law back in Exodus. In this case the preacher is choosing to remind those hearing or reading of the particular terror of the scene, though not by name, in the opening verses of today’s reading. Blazing fire, tempest, darkness, gloom, and the thunderings of the voice of God so terrible that the Hebrew people begged in great fear not to have to hear it again, and which even Moses found terrifying. By contrast, the preacher paints a portrait of Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, “the city of the living God” with a lot less terrifying scene than the one painted above – angels in “festal gathering,” the “assembly of the firstborn” – those claimed in redemption by Christ – the spirits of the righteous and none other than Jesus. The image is beautiful, inviting, welcoming – anything but the terrifying scene painted at Sinai.
Now as a pastor in the United States of the 21st century, there is no good reason for me to try to promote the Christian faith, to advocate on behalf of Christian scripture, to support the Christian church by denigrating or running down any other religion. Christianity has had close to two thousand years to establish itself just fine, and it remains as much an “establishment” religion in the United States as ever, despite what certain unscrupulous politicians or preachers might tell you. If the only way I can speak for the Christian faith is by slandering or denigrating another religion, I’m in the wrong business and should probably go back to teaching music history.
The situation was quite different, however, at the end of the first century, the time at which this epistle-cum-sermon was written. Some years after the death of the apostle Paul, the fledgling movement of “followers of The Way,” as they were sometimes called, was facing difficulties both within the Roman Empire and within the Jewish synagogues of which many Christian communities were still a part. While Christians were not yet facing the worst persecution the Romans could offer, they were facing greater ostracism and criticism than in the past, due to their unwillingness to go along with the civic rituals of emperor-adoration expected of residents of the empire.
In the meantime, while in some parts of the empire the Christ-followers were organizing themselves into separate communities and churches, this wasn’t the case everywhere. And in those cases where Christians remained in the synagogue, the conflict between those who claimed Jesus as Messiah and those who did not was by now becoming intolerable and irreparable.
In that situation, a word of encouragement to the fledgling group of Christ-followers just starting to face real difficulty was needed, and if it took the form of a contrast between their old world and their new, the Hebrews preacher decided, so be it.
Even so, though, even in the midst of a word of encouragement, this preacher can’t resist a word (or two) of warning.
What does it mean, though, to “refuse the one who is speaking”? And what’s this about things shaking?
Note how verse 25 continues after that initial statement. The Hebrew people back in Exodus eventually rebelled against God and the leadership of Moses, thereby “rejecting” or refusing “the one who warned them on earth” – that is, from Mount Sinai. For that rejection, that generation of the Hebrew people were condemned to wander in the wilderness for those forty years. If that was the fate of those Hebrew people, what then the fate if this latter group of Christ-followers should refuse the God who “warns from heaven.” To refuse the grace of God extended from Zion, the “city of the living God,” the Christ-followers would place themselves in a far more precarious position.
But still, what would it be to “refuse grace”? We might find some help in Jesus’s parable of the wedding banquet in Matthew 22. The meat of the story is familiar; the invited guests do not come, so the king charges his servants to go out and bring in everybody from the streets, and the banquet was full. But towards the end of the story, the king comes upon a guest with no wedding robe, and when the man refuses to answer, he is thrown “into the outer darkness” bringing the parable to a strange close.
Sounds harsh, admittedly. But it helps to understand one thing about wedding customs of Jesus’s time. For those who were invited to the wedding, the host of the wedding was obligated to provide a special robe to wear for the event. So there was no reason for the man to have no wedding robe, other than refusing the gift given by the wedding host.
For us, “refusing grace” might be something like, for example, deciding you don’t really have any sins that need forgiving. Deciding that the grace of Christian community, like the church, is not something you really need. Those kinds of direct refusal of the gifts of grace given by God through Christ are what the Hebrews preacher warns against.
Finally, in wrapping up this thought, the Hebrews preacher provides counsel on how to respond to God, the one who gives those graces, who welcomes us to the heavenly Jerusalem, who shakes away the impermanent so that only the unshakeable remains. As we learn what it means to receive that unshakeable kingdom, the preacher reminds us, we return our gratitude by “an acceptable worship, with reverence and awe.” Here it’s useful to be reminded of the difference between fear and awe. Fear, as this passage associates with the rather terrifying scene on Sinai, is not how we are meant to approach God in Christ, really. But laying aside fear does not equal rash “buddying up” to God, it doesn’t mean Jesus is your boyfriend, and it doesn’t mean slacking off in the living out of our lives in Christ’s church in God’s world. God is still God, and we still aren’t, and we’d do well to remember that.
God is still, after all, a “consuming fire,” as the preacher lastly reminds us. Think of the “refiner’s fire” from the Old Testament, as set by Handel in the oratorio Messiah. Even as we are redeemed by God in Christ, we “aren’t there yet”; there is still sanctification to be accomplished, “being made holy” to be done in our lives. None of us who is even paying a little bit of attention in faith thinks we have got it down pat, do we? We are not perfected, and we know that. That work is ongoing in us, the burning away of those elements that drag us down into sin. And that is work that is only accomplished by the direct encounter with the refining, purifying, consuming fire that is God, a God worthy of awe.
The Hebrews preacher is packing a lot into this sermon climax, and it can be difficult to untangle. But our place is not to live in fear and terror of God. Instead, we come before God in a worship that offers praise, responds to God’s word, and does not forget that God is majestic and powerful and worthy of our reverence, as well as our trust and our obedience.
For a God worthy of reverence and awe, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal):
#35 Praise Ye the Lord, the Almighty
#813 God, My Help and Hiding Place
#405 Praise God for This Holy Ground
#442 Just As I Am, Without One Plea
Credit: agnusday.org. Awe, yes, but not fear.