A Sermon on Hebrews 12:18-29
A Sermon Preached by Canon Simon Butler
At some point or another in our lives, most people with a faith are likely to wonder if their Christianity
stuff is true. It may be an occasional moment of doubt, or the emergence a more sceptical outlook; it may
be the anxiety that attacks us in the early hours of a sleepless night, or the result of the witnessing of the
tragedy of the world. There are very few people who are not tempted to give up at some point, especially
in our secular culture where personal fulfilment is our god and the realm of the spirit is diminished or
ignored. The story of God, the presence of Jesus and the work of the Holy Spirit in the world can seem a
long way off. Sometimes it feels like chucking it all in is t he easy option.
That experience is not a million miles away from the people to whom the author of the Letter to the
Hebrews wrote. True, the people who got this letter weren’t tempted to atheism or agnosticism, but they
were sorely being tempted to abandon following Jesus Christ and to return to their earlier practice of preChristian Judaism. So this letter is written to encourage them not to do so. It has to be said, here, in case we are tempted to misunderstand, that for these early Christians there was no sharp divide between
Judaism and Christianity; for them following Jesus the Messiah was a sensible and logical fulfilment of
their Jewishness; a better way of understanding their temptation is the difference between being Jewish
with Jesus Christ and being Jewish without him. So what the author does throughout the letter is to
compare and contrast a Jewishness without Christ with a Jewishness with him. Time and time again, often in language and concepts that we find challenging to access (chiefly becaus e our Christian faith has for too long ignored our Jewish heritage), time and time again he compares the religious practice and
theology of pre-Christian Judaism with the much better fulfilment of Judaism in Christ. Understanding
that will help us grasp the passage this morning from Hebrews 12.
The way he does this varies but here the contrast is set up between two mountains. The first mountain is
Mount Sinai, where Moses received the law. The picture of the mountain is rather frightening – think
standing near the foot of an active volcano – fire, gloom, darkness, a tempest. Add a deep, commanding
voice, sounding like a trumpet. Be afraid, be very afraid. This is the picture of Mount Sinai, the place
where God revealed himself to Moses. It is a place of awe, fear and trepidation. As the author says
elsewhere, “it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of God.”
Compare Mount Sinai, he says, compare it to the second mountain, Mount Zion, the mountain on which
Jerusalem sits. Here we have a party – a city decorated for a fiesta, angels decked out in the finest,
countless faithful people gathered to celebrate, departed loved ones visible in the crowd, God himself in
the midst, and – at its heart, Jesus himself whose death on the cross (the writer has been talking about
this at length) is the one perfect sacrifice, so powerful that there is no need for blood to be shed in
sacrifice any more, no more price to be paid for sin. This is the image of God with Jesus Christ, diverse,
approachable, a celebration of life and community.
Which do you prefer, the writer is saying, Sinai or Zion? Zion is what you have received. This is your
inheritance and birthright as Christians. This is the place you belong. To return to Sinai, to return to just
gloom and fear and awe, what you would lose…
Briefly, one word of caution though. It would be a mistake to do what many Christians do in comparing
the Old and New Testaments by saying the Old Testament God is wrathful and to be feared, while the
New Testament God is loving and to be loved. That is too simplistic. The God of the bible remains, to this
author, a just, awesome and fearful God, but that is not all he is. The peace with God that comes from
knowing Jesus Christ, the assurance of forgiveness that depends not on repeatable sacrifices and the
community of celebration that is a vision of the church in Hebrews, these too are part of a Christian view
of God. The God of the Christians is to be feared – he is still Almighty God – but he can be approached
with confidence in his love and mercy.
But here’s the thing, and this is for all of us, not just for those who might be tempted to give up on their
faith. It’s a promise for us all, including Emilia as we bring her to baptism today, as well as for all who seek to follow Jesus Christ. Look at the blessings that faith in Christ bring. That catalogue of blessings offers us a glorious prospect for faith.
You have come…to Mount Zion and the city of the living God. In other words, you have come into the
community where God reigns and where his promises and commandments are lived out. Faith brings
citizenship of God’s kingdom.
You have come…to the heavenly Jerusalem. In other words, there is a promise of life not just in this life
but in the life to come, where the love, mercy, justice, peace and community of God find their ultimate
fulfilment. Faith brings the promise of eternal life.
You have come…to innumerable angels in festal gathering. Hebrews is big on angels. They’re God’s
helpers, who do some of the work of God. Now I must admit to finding the whole idea difficult. But, if
there is something that Hebrews and I have in common it is the idea of God’s help. So, in other words,
another blessing that faith brings is the blessing of God’s help. Someone to call on in a moment of crisis ,
an hour of need. Someone to talk to when no-one is listening. Someone to rely on when everyone else
lets you down. Faith brings the blessing of divine help.
You have come…to the assembly of the firstborn enrolled in heaven. That’s a wonderful picture of the
church. We are the assembly of the firstborn, born as St John says, not of blood, or of the will of the flesh
or of the will of man, but born of God through Jesus Christ. Faith brings the blessings of a Christian
community, others who share God’s presence and vision, others whom we belong to above and beyond
our blood family, however good or bad they have been. That’s the inheritance that faith will bring to
Emilia as well. It brings us into the community of faith.
You have come…to God the judge of all. In other words, there is an ultimate standard of justice in the
world. There is one in whom all that is wrong can be put right. There is one committed to fairness and
equity and equality in an unjust world. This is our God. Faith brings the assurance that justice – eventually – will be done.
You have come…to the spirits of the righteous made perfect. We may lose loved ones in our life, we may
experience bereavement. But the body of Christ, God’s people are not divided by death. Ultimately, in
God, there is unity among God’s people living and departed. Faith brings the assurance that our loved
ones are not ultimately separated from us.
You have come…to Jesus. All of this inheritance, all of this promise, comes from the work of Jesus on the
Cross. Christian faith is Jesus faith. That is why the promises made on Emilia’s behalf are so Christ
focused. In Christ, through trusting in his work, in his death on the cross for us all, and in the power of his
resurrection to restore us to new life and a new community, all these blessings are ours – as a gift. This is
what Christians proclaim – Jesus Christ as the way to God. He is the one who, in our moments of doubt,
despair and in the moment when we are tempted to give it all up, holds out his scarred hands and
glorious body and invites us to remember again that, in him, nothing can separate us from his promise,
from his future and from his presence.
And, armed with that assurance, we can pick ourselves up and walk again the next step in journey of faith towards God. Amen.