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From Sinai to Zion

Thomas J Parlette

“From Sinai to Zion”

Hebrews 12: 18-29

8/21/16

Rev. Lanny Peters tells a story about the time he was meeting with a class of new confirmation students and their mentors. It was a small class, three 7th grade girls and one 9th grade boy. For the first class, they met  at a pizza place for dinner. While they waited for the food, there was a time for sharing about what they hoped to get out of the confirmation class. The girls all went first, talking about wanting to know more about God and the Bible and how the church worked. Then it came time for the ninth grade boy to share his hopes and expectations.

“Well,” he said, “I’ve been looking forward to this for awhile because I have a lot of questions. Like, why does God have a split personality? Sometimes God is really kind and loving and forgiving. But then God gets all angry and wants to punish and hurt people.”

There was silence at the table for a second – then the retired church member who had been appointed to be the boy’s mentor spoke up. “Wow, that’s a great question. We are going to have some fun with this confirmation class.” And a lively discussion followed.(1)

That’s how many people experience God. They read about the God of the Old Testament – and even the God of some of the New Testament parables and of Revelation – and they experience God as the punisher-in-chief, the ultimate judge of who goes to the comfort of heaven and who goes to the fires of hell. Some people experience a vengeful God who is out to make people pay for their sins.

I remember meeting such a person in one of the first churches I served. One day at fellowship hour, an older man, a life long member and pillar of the church, stood next to me and said, “You know, Pastor, basically you’re a salesman – and you’re selling fire insurance.” I don’t completely agree, but I understand his point.

I think you could come away from this passage from Hebrews this morning wondering if God just might have a split personality. These verses begin with a lot of angry imagery, and vengeful God type language – “You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, darkness and gloom and a tempest, and the sound of trumpet, and a voice that forces people to beg that not another word be spoken. Animals will be stoned to death and Moses himself was terrified.” That doesn’t sound like a God we want to get to close to. This is the God we are introduced to at Mount Sinai – the place where Moses encountered God and received the Ten Commandments, and God led the people from a pillar of flame.

But the author of Hebrews moves our focus from the God of Sinai to the God of Zion, saying, “You have not come to the God of Sinai– you have come to the God of Zion, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem…” The author of Hebrews points out that we now know a different side of God, but it is the same God. Through Jesus, we now have a fuller understanding of God. Our God, while all powerful, is not obsessed with anger and revenge and punishment. Our God, while a consuming fire, is not out to terrorize us into faithful obedience.

Instead, the writer of Hebrews offers a different image. The curtain is pulled back to reveal that the city of God, the new Jerusalem, the throne room of heaven is not like a factory producing all the components of creation. It is not a boardroom where cosmic decisions are made. It is not the place where the road maps of human destiny are carved into stone. It is not some giant switchboard fielding calls and requests and prayers from God’s creation.(2) No, the image the writer of Hebrews uses is a party. The throne room of God is like a giant party, a festal gathering, with the angels wearing their best party clothes, and everyone in attendance singing God praises.  One day we will join the party. One day we will arrive in the new Jerusalem and participate in the singing and praising and worshipping that is going on as we speak. And that is good news!

But that leaves us with the question, what do we do in the meantime. What do we do now, right now – in this moment, on this earth.

The writer of Hebrews gives us an answer. Live a life of praise and worship now. Live a life filled with thanksgiving to God now. Live a life of gratitude to God, whose kingdom is unshakeable.

That too is good news. Because we live in a world that is often shaky. So many problems plague us – the cloud of racism still lingers, violence against innocent people and law enforcement officers alike continues with no clear answer in sight. The gap between rich and poor keeps growing everyday. All around us, even here in Rochester, there are people working jobs that don’t pay the bills, not enough food to feed their families, some searching for a suitable place to call home. It is overwhelming, it is exhausting, when we look at the needs around us. You can almost feel the earth shake under your feet. We live in a shaky world.

But Hebrews reminds us that our God, and God’s kingdom is unshakeable. “Do not refuse the one who is speaking,” says Hebrews. The voice of Heaven will shake not only the earth, but heaven as well. And we are receiving a Kingdom that cannot be shaken. And for that, we should give thanks – and for offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe – for indeed, our God is a consuming fire.

Sometimes our unshakeable God wants to shake us up a little. This image of God as a consuming fire is a common one in scripture, but it has nothing to do with punishment or fear. In describing God as a consuming fire, the biblical writers mean to point out that God purifies like fire does. God wants to burn off all that in our lives that separate us from God’s purpose.

It is said that Leonardo DaVinci once had a guest come visit while he was working on his masterpiece “The Last Supper.” The guest was particularly intrigued with two goblets on the table, especially attracted to their intricate design. After hearing his guests response to the goblets, DaVinci abruptly painted over the goblets with a quick couple of brush strokes, saying, “It is the face of Christ I want you to see – not those goblets.”(3)

Our God is a consuming fire. God wants to paint over all those things that distract us from the work of Jesus in our life. And for the writer of Hebrews, everything we do in life springs from gratitude – it all comes from a sense of thankfulness to God. Thankful that we have been given this Kingdom that cannot be shaken in this often shaky world.

Living with thankful, grateful hearts is not something that comes naturally to us. It is only by the grace of God that we can become truly grateful. Fred Craddock once said that God’s final work of grace in us is to make us gracious.(4)

Gary Carver tells a story about the time he took his three boys to visit Santa Claus, Indiana. As you might imagine, the entire city is built around a Christmas theme. There is a post office in Santa Claus, which receives many of the letters written to Santa by boys and girls from all over the country. Carver tells of asking the postmaster, “How many letters did you get last year for Santa.” And the postmaster thought for a moment and said, “Too many to count – probably over a thousand.” And then Carver asked, “And how many thank you letters did you get after Christmas?” With no hesitation at all this time, the postmaster said, “One.”(5)

Thankfulness does not come naturally for us. It is only by the grace of God that we become thankful and gracious. That is the work that is being accomplished when we gather to worship. We are practicing our thankfulness, we are developing the habit, the skill of grace. We are preparing ourselves for that day when we will join the angels in the throne room of God to offer God continual worship and praise. We are called to live our lives out of gratitude for the gift that God has given us – the gift of God’s unshakeable kingdom.

A few days ago, I got my bi-monthly copy of The Christian Century. In an article called “Rights or Gifts”, the publisher Peter Marty points out that Americans tend to value rights above everything else. There are written right there in the Constitution. He acknowledges that rights are a beautiful thing. But he cautions that when we elevate rights above all else, we run into problems. He writes: “If society is built only on the notion that we possess rights given to us at birth, why bother to express thanks? Gratitude becomes completely superfluous when life is viewed as entitlement instead of gift. Why feel gratitude or a deep sense of obligation to others if you have only received what you deserve?”(6)

That is something that the church can do. Demonstrate an approach to life that emphasizes thankfulness – that all of life is a gift, not something that we are entitled to. This gift, the gift of God’s Kingdom, it is for all people.

Marty goes on to tell a story about the theologian Henri Nouwen: “Nouwen gained an important insight while traveling in Latin America. “We people of the first world emphasize our rights. We claim our right to food, health, shelter and education. We relate to the goods of life as possessions that are ours and that need to be conquered…and defended. Although the poor in the third world do not deny that they have basic human rights, their emphasis is on the giftedness of life…The goods that come to them are experienced as free gifts of God…gifts to be grateful for and to celebrate.”(7)

The unshakeable Kingdom of God is just such a gift. A free gift of God. A gift to be grateful for, and a gift to celebrate. The writer of Hebrews reminds us that we have moved from Sinai to Zion. We have received the unshakeable Kingdom of God. So let us be thankful and worship God with reverence and awe.

May God be praised. Amen.

 

1.    Lanny Peters, Feasting on the Word, Westminster John Knox Press, 2010, p. 376, 378.

2.    Gary Carver, Search for Serendipity, CSS Publishing Inc., 2003, p. 336.

3.    Ibid…p. 337.

4.    Ibid…p. 338.

5.    Ibid… p. 338-339.

6.    Peter Marty, Christian Century, August 17th, 2016, p. 3.

7.    Ibid…p. 3.