Hebrews 12:18-29 Common English Bible (CEB)
You haven’t drawn near to something that can be touched: a burning fire, darkness, shadow, a whirlwind, 19 a blast of a trumpet, and a sound of words that made the ones who heard it beg that there wouldn’t be one more word. 20 They couldn’t stand the command, If even a wild animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned. 21 The sight was so frightening that Moses said, “I’m terrified and shaking!”
22 But you have drawn near to Mount Zion, the city of the living God, heavenly Jerusalem, to countless angels in a festival gathering, 23 to the assembly of God’s firstborn children who are registered in heaven, to God the judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous who have been made perfect, 24 to Jesus the mediator of the new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks better than Abel’s blood.
25 See to it that you don’t resist the one who is speaking. If the people didn’t escape when they refused to listen to the one who warned them on earth, how will we escape if we reject the one who is warning from heaven? 26 His voice shook the earth then, but now he has made a promise: Still once more I will shake not only the earth but heaven also. 27 The words “still once more” reveal the removal of what is shaken—the things that are part of this creation—so that what isn’t shaken will remain. 28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that can’t be shaken, let’s continue to express our gratitude. With this gratitude, let’s serve in a way that is pleasing to God with respect and awe, 29 because our God really is a consuming fire.
Do you remember when you were your kids. You wanted them to make the best decisions, to choose the path that help them grow up into responsible, faithful people? I remember giving alternatives for what they could choose. I would offer two, or at the most three, alternatives, all of which were acceptable to me. The one I really wanted them to choose would get the best presentation. ‘You could go this way (hint, hint), or I suppose you could go that way.’ The tone of voice would also indicate my preference.
The “congregation” for the Preacher of Hebrews stood at a crossroads of sorts. Give up or choose a better way. The Preacher gives us a couple of images to start with.
The First image he gives is sign posts. In the famous poem by Robert Frost its last lines are: “Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” The Preacher has brought us to two roads, represented by 2 mountains. How do you choose? He wants us to get involved in the decision. In great travelogue style he seeks to “hook” us. You know how they go? The first picture is of a person stuck in traffic. The person is stressed in this hectic picture. It is a kind of “you are here” moment. Then the scene fades into the picture of a lovely lagoon. There is a boat lightly bobbing at anchor. The voice over, in a calming tone, to the background of waves lapping at the shore says, “Leave it all behind, you’ve come to the magical island of St. Thomas”. You’re not really there, but your imagination has taken you there. So, you want to go there! You are prompted to action. The Preacher wants us to take a specific road, the higher road.
A second image he offers is fire. It weaves in and out of this passage. In the West, we know fire can be horrendously destructive. Forests laid waste, structures consumed. But also, we are aware of things like the lodgepole pine. Its seeds are encased in a pitch coated pine cone where fire is only way the seeds are released. They are the first trees to repopulate a fire zone.
With those 2 images in mind, let’s see how the Preacher develops the themes and where they lead.
My title this morning is, “Two Mountains, Two Covenants, Two Fires, One Kingdom.” The Preacher starts with two mountains. He doesn’t actually name the first one, but, by its description, we know what he is talking about. In travelogue style he paints the picture of both. Sinai, the unnamed one, is the geographical site of the Ten Commandments – the giving of the Law (vv. 18-21). It represents the Old Covenant. In this case Mount Sinai has a negative connotation. The descriptors he uses are fear, darkness, don’t touch, consuming fire. This image is spelled out in Exodus 19:12-13. God is speaking to Moses. “You shall set limits for the people all around, saying, ‘Be careful not to go up the mountain or to touch the edge of it. Any who touch the mountain shall be put to death. 13 No hand shall touch them, but they shall be stoned or shot with arrows; whether animal or human being, they shall not live.’ When the trumpet sounds a long blast, they may go up on the mountain.” The reason the image is negative is that God is seen as unapproachable.
Here comes the scene change. Mount Zion appears on the screen. It is the geographical site of the Temple, but represents the New Covenant in Jesus Christ. The Preacher is describing more than a geographical place, however. The description is of the rule of God and the heavenly Jerusalem, v.22). The image evokes confidence, an invitation (to the temple), and a very different kind of fire. The Preacher uses the words, “Draw Near” which mean approach. It is invitational in its quality. Hebrews is filled with this invitation. Hebrews 4:16 says, “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” In Hebrews 7:25 it says, “This is why he can completely save those who are approaching God through him, because he always lives to speak with God for them.” And, then in 10:22, he says, “Therefore, let’s draw near with a genuine heart with the certainty that our faith gives us, since our hearts are sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies are washed with pure water.” You can see what he is doing. We are welcome in the house of God, we are welcome in God’s presence. It is a good and righteous place to be.
With the two mountains come the two covenants. The Preacher is not saying the old covenant was bad, but merely that the new covenant is so much better. In those covenants, the Old Covenant left us mortals as coming to God as perpetually unclean sinners. Sacrifices were offered over and over, yet we were never truly acceptable. Think about, as soon as the sacrifice was made, the priest was thinking about the next one he would have to make. Preparations would be under way. The New Covenant, however, puts us in the place of being fully acceptable in the covenant of forgiveness. God’s forgiveness cleans us. There is but one sacrifice, and that is Jesus. There is no need of sacrifice any more.
The people of Hebrews, standing at the crossroads, tired and worn out are now faced with the image of two fires. What does it mean? We would have expected the idyllic picture of the New Covenant to be devoid of fire. The Preacher surprises us with the image of God as he says, “…our God really is a consuming fire.” Wow! In the Old Testament, Mount Sinai’s fire was a consuming, destructive fire. A fire of judgement. Don’t touch it! But now, as the Preacher hits us with the image of fire again, where’s the hope? It is a different fire. It is an image of fire as a purifier not a destroyer. In verses 26 and 27 it says, “His voice shook the earth then, but now he has made a promise: Still once more I will shake not only the earth but heaven also. 27 The words “still once more” reveal the removal of what is shaken—the things that are part of this creation—so that what isn’t shaken will remain.” Think of it this way, you find an antique statue covered in dust. You ‘shake off the dust in order to get rid of everything that hides or defaces the beauty that was intended by the sculptor.’ In the fire image, Malachi 3:1-2 “Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear the path before me; suddenly the Lord whom you are seeking will come to his temple. The messenger of the covenant in whom you take delight is coming, says the Lord of heavenly forces. 2 Who can endure the day of his coming? Who can withstand his appearance? He is like the refiner’s fire or the cleaner’s soap.” The Preacher is saying to these tired and weary Christians, the fire of trials need not consume us. So is this good news? It depends on where you are. The question becomes, ‘What is the fire consuming?’ Is it consuming the fallen sinner? Or is it consuming the sin, and leaving the sinner ‘purified?’
God wants us to hear a couple of things: God is the same yesterday, today and always. It isn’t two different Gods in the Old Testament and New Testament. What is different is us! Are we dross, to be burned away? Or are we gold, refined by the fire? Are we nothing more than dust to be shaken off? Or are we the precious object that cannot be shaken, and is fully revealed by the purifying work of God?
In addition, God wants us to know there really is only one mountain. It is God we are approaching. Mount Sinai and Mount Zion are the same theologically. They represent God entering the world of us mortals. It is our path to God’s holy mountain that is a choice. The path marked “Mount Sinai” indicates we are on our own. It is by our own strength that we stand judgment. We tremble at the prospect of judgment. The path marked “Mount Zion,” however, contains the invitation that we travel with Jesus, who has gone before us as both priest and sacrifice, to enter the heavenly tabernacle. When difficult things arise, and we find ourselves tested to the limits, we are to “Hold fast to our confession” (4:14) and “approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (4:16). Do we daily rely on God’s grace to carry us through? Do we trust that the fires of trials ultimately strengthen and purify us? In the midst of the worst, do we approach God with confidence?
Pastor Paul Grossman