A sermon on Hebrews 12:18-29 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 3 April 2022
In the book of Hebrews the writer shows the stark contrast between the old and new covenants. And by stark contrast we mean a big difference. Like between young and old, or between light and dark or between good and evil.
We have already seen the big difference between the old and new covenants in the book of Hebrews. For example, how in chapter 2 we are told to pay more careful attention to the word of the gospel than to the word of the law. And how in chapter 3 we are told how Jesus is a better servant than Moses because Jesus is the Son of God. And in chapter 4 how heaven will provide a better rest than Israel found in the promised land of Canaan.
This series of stark contrasts continues in our reading from Hebrews chapter 12 in two different ways. Firstly, the heavenly Mt Zion offers a better message than Mt Sinai. And secondly, the blood of Jesus speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
The message of Mt Sinai is “keep out”. Keep away. And the writer speaks of the people of Israel’s experience with Moses at Mt Sinai in verses 18 to 21.
You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”
This mountain that was burning with fire and surrounded by darkness, gloom and storm is Mt Sinai. The Israelites arrived there, led by Moses, three months after they had escaped Egypt. Exodus chapter 19 described how the Lord ratified his covenant with the Israelites. The Lord said,
You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.
In response the Israelites promised,
We will do everything the Lord has said.
For his part, the Lord came down upon the top of the mountain. There was thunder and lightning and a thick cloud. There was a loud blast like a trumpet. Everyone in the camp trembled. The mountain was covered with smoke. When they saw what was happening, the people trembled with fear. Their words are recorded in Exodus chapter 21. They said to Moses,
Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die.
This is the experience of God in the old covenant. It is dark and fearful. It is only safe as long as God speaks to his people through his prophets and the priests represent the people towards God.
The message of the old covenant is clear. Keep away. Keep your distance. The Lord your God is a holy God. You cannot come to him on your own terms or his judgment will consume you.
But the message of the new covenant is, “Come. You are invited.” The writer describes it in Hebrews chapter 12 verses 22 to 24:
But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all people, to the spirits of righteous people made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
It speaks of a different mountain. Mt Zion, the name of the highest hill in the city of Jerusalem. But he immediately clarifies that he is not speaking of a physical, earthly location. He means the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God, not the capital of the state of Israel. It is not a place where people are told to keep away, but there are thousands and thousands of angels and just as many people in joyful assembly. It is not a mountain of dark and gloom, but the presence of God himself, not just the God of Israel, but the judge of all people. It is a vision of light and hope and happiness. It is the fulfilment of all our needs and wants. And it doesn’t keep us at arm’s length. It doesn’t warn us to keep away. But it invites us to join in and to experience it for ourselves.
Just as Jesus ate and drank with sinners, with the outcasts and moral lepers, the sick, the tax collectors and the prostitutes, so God invites us to dine with him at the banquet of heaven. It is an experience of God that is not mediated by prophets and priests, by fallible human beings, who obscure the overwhelming glory of God with their own weakness and failure. But it is an experience of God that is mediated by God himself in his Son Jesus who does not obscure the glory of God but reveals it clearly in his own humanity.
Through Jesus we are welcome. Through Jesus we are included. Through Jesus we are invited, in fact commanded to come. And we know this for a fact because his blood speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
Cain and Abel were the sons of Adam and Eve. Cain was a farmer and Abel was a shepherd. Each brought an offering to God. Cain brought some of his grain, but Abel brought the best of his flock. Abel’s offering was accepted but Cain’s was rejected. For this Cain killed his brother. The Lord said to Cain, “Where is your brother?” “I don’t know,” he replied, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” To which the Lord replied,
What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.
The blood of Abel cried out to heaven for judgment. For justice. For a just response to this terrible betrayal of trust.
But the blood of Jesus speaks a better word. The blood of Jesus cries out for forgiveness. It does not ignore the demand for justice, for on the cross the Lord Jesus satisfied all the demands of judgment, paying the price of sin in his own flesh and blood. But it is a justice that does not destroy the sinner, but transforms the sinner, wiping out their debt, washing them clean of all uncleanness, healing their wounds, making good their wrongs, filling their hearts with a love that overflows in good deeds that bring glory to God and help others.
It’s a stark contrast that creates a simple choice. Which experience of God do you want? Do you want to live under the old covenant or the new? Do you want to live under the law that commands obedience and that threatens judgment for any and all disobedience? Or do you want to live under the gospel that commands love and that promises forgiveness? That does not say, Keep away, and says, “You are invited.”
For the Jewish Christians who were the first readers of the book of Hebrews that simple choice meant remaining faithful to Jesus and resisting the temptation to abandon their faith and to return to the synagogue. For us that simple choice means that we stop trying to justify ourselves by our own morals and good deals and that we start trusting in Jesus, receiving his love and forgiveness, and loving others as we’ve been loved and forgiving as we’ve been forgiven. May the Lord bless you with the ability to see this clear difference and make the right choice.