Hebrews 12 begins with an encouragement to “run the race set before us”, knowing that all those who have preceded us are cheering us on. Verses 4 to 13 suggest that at least some of the hardships we face are actually God’s discipline to make us stronger, so that we can run this race. You might think of it as spiritual “resistance training”. Verses 14 to 17 repeat the encouragement to live rightly, which means here live holy lives of peace. So we come to verses 18 to 29.
Verses 18 to 21: The Children of Israel came to Mount Sinai to receive God’s Law. This was an awesome and terrifying experience. Mount Sinai: mountain of fear.
Verses 22 to 24: In contrast, we [the readers of Hebrews, as well as we who are here this morning] have come to Mount Zion, the New [Heavenly] Jerusalem. We are invited to join those whose names are written in Heaven, saved by the blood of Christ. Mount Zion: mountain of joy.
Verses 25 to 28: Those who would not accept the Law at Mount Sinai died outside of God’s salvation. If we refuse the invitation to enter Mount Zion, the New Jerusalem, we also will die outside of God’s salvation. The shaking of our lives that we experience removes all that would keep us from God, so that we can receive God’s reign, which cannot be destroyed. So we worship God “with reverence and awe”.
Chapter 13 is the conclusion of the book of Hebrews. Coming just before the conclusion, chapter 12 reinforces the primary point of the letter: that following Jesus is the entry to the Mount Zion, the New Jerusalem. Jesus is better than Moses. Jesus is better than the angels. Jesus is better than the Law. Following Jesus is the way of life.
Hebrews was written to a group of Jewish-background followers of Jesus [probably in Rome, sometime before 70 a.d.] who were facing persecution. They wondered if their earlier path following the Law was not better than the life they are facing now as persecuted believers in Jesus. The writer shows throughout the book how Jesus is, in fact, the way to God.
In the middle of the book, chapter 6 makes it clear that anyone who tries to go back to the old covenant of the Law cannot do so. They forfeit their standing in God’s reign if they do so. Once they have given themselves to the new covenant in Jesus, they cannot go back. Instead, in the rest of the letter and in our passage this morning, the writer encourages them to continue in the way they have been walking and to follow Jesus to the end. If they do so, they receive a “kingdom that cannot be shaken”; they become part of God’s eternal reign in Heaven.
What Does This Mean for Us?
It’s one thing to see what a passage meant to its first readers; it’s quite another to see how the passage applies to us. So what does this text mean in our lives today?
This is what I hear in Hebrews 12: God’s presence is awesome and terrifying, but God is the only source of life. We are invited into God’s presence to be the inhabitants of Mount Zion—the New Jerusalem. Mount Sinai shook with the presence of God, and indeed God shakes our lives also, until everything else that we might build on is destroyed. As we sweep aside the fragments of failed foundations, we find the only foundation on which God can build in our lives, and that is Jesus Christ. Two primary thoughts from this restated summary: 1) We build on Christ alone, and 2) We receive glory beyond measure as God takes us into God’s reign (that is, Mount Zion). Or to combine them into one statement: When we build our lives on the foundation of Jesus Christ, we receive more honour and glory than we can possibly imagine.
Developing the Idea of Glory/Honour
As I said last Sunday, I am in the process of discovering the theme of shame and honour in the Scriptures. The people to whom the New Testament was written understood this perspective well; they did not have to dig into the passage to hear it. They knew immediately that God was offering them honour beyond human deserving.
I said last Sunday that we experience shame when we feel disrespected, and that shame leads us into conflict and other kinds of sin. Honour is the reverse side of shame. When we experience God’s love, we receive God’s honour and we know we are good. Out of this received sense of honour, we extend respect and love to people around us, which brings reconciled relationships, a practical outworking of God’s love in our lives. Shamed people shame people. Honoured people honour people. When God honours us, we can honour others. When we shame each other, the shame spreads.
God’s love gives us honour and glory that we could never earn. So we read: “You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. 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, … to Jesus … . Since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.”
Do you hear what we receive? We receive glory! We join the angels in joyful assembly. We join the “church of the firstborn” [where firstborn means “most honoured”]! Our names are written in Heaven! We receive the eternal kingdom of God, which can never be shaken or destroyed.
This whole idea sounds strange to our ears. We have been careful not to compliment each other too much, lest we make someone proud. Humility is important to us, and rightly so, but here God gives us honour alongside the angels and the saints of old. What is going on?
The Place of Honour for Christians
The truth is that everyone needs to feel respected and loved—that is, honoured. Every culture honours the people in their society who live by the values of that society. The question is: Who do we honour as Christians? What values do we esteem?
Last Sunday I mentioned Georges and Baker’s book, Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures. They note that another word for “honoured” is “blessed”. Hear the Beatitudes from Matthew 5 using the idea of honour and glory.
You are honoured when you are poor in spirit …
You are honoured when you mourn …
You are honoured when you are meek …
You are honoured when you hunger and thirst for righteousness,
You are honoured when you show mercy …
You are honoured when you are pure in heart …
You are honoured when you make peace …
You are honoured when you are persecuted because of righteousness …
You are honoured when people insult you, persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of your commitment to follow Jesus.
This reading does not suddenly unlock all of the secrets of the Beatitudes. We still must work out what terms like “poor in spirit”, “meek”, and “pure in heart” mean. But this reading does show us that these terms express the values of God’s reign in our lives. When we “come to Mount Zion”, these are the values that God’s reign plants in our hearts.
The Sermon on the Mount is at the heart of our values as Mennonites, so the Beatitudes above tell us what is most important in our lives. These values—such as humility [in the sense of caring for other people as much as for ourselves], peacemaking [accepting insult and shame without returning it in kind], and righteousness [discovering how to follow God fully as Jesus’ disciples]—are quite different from those of the world around us.
Consider the way political systems work. When our side wins an election, we do everything we can to undo what the other side has done. We see this clearly in the USA in the past series of presidential elections. Obama tried to undo Bush’s legacy and put his own in place; now Trump has immediately moved to dismantle Obama’s legacy. Those who lost are shamed repeatedly with the reminders that “you lost” and “elections have consequences”. The idea of building relationships with our political enemy is not part of our national consciousness. Now that I am a Canadian, I see that the same dynamics are at work in our political process. I remember when we moved to Canada 20 years ago, I met a colleague from McMaster Divinity School who was a staunch Liberal. He told me how his father had chased a Conservative canvasser from his front door, yelling at him, “I have never voted Conservative and I will never vote Conservative!” Shaming the other is a basic part of our cultural repertoire.
In contrast, we who follow Jesus do not honour the person who chases their political enemy from their front door. Rather we honour the person who embraces their political enemies and makes them their friends. We honour peacemakers. We hold to our standards of what is right, without shaming the person who disagrees with our standards.
An Example of Shame and Honour
Shame can destroy people, but it can also be used in ways that restore people to community. When we shame people in order to destroy them, we can call that “disintegrative shame”. Such shaming is bad and not worthy of God’s people. When we shame people in order to restore them [like God’s discipline in Hebrews 12, used to strengthen God’s People], we can call that “re-integrative shame”, used to help each other live rightly.
Georges and Baker give an interesting example of re-integrative shame from a school classroom in Fresno, California. One of the children in the classroom kept hitting the other children. Every effort to restore order and a good learning environment failed. Finally the teacher tried something she had heard of from her cultural studies. She gathered the children into a circle. The misbehaving child refused to join the circle. Then she asked the children to say what the misbehaving child was doing that they did not like. One after another told how he had hit them, with other children agreeing that they did not like this behaviour. Finally the misbehaving child cried out, “I’m tired of hearing you say all these bad things about me!” So the teacher asked the children another question, “What are kind things we can do to each other?” They shared their ideas, while the misbehaving child sat outside the circle.
Then the teacher brought the child into the middle of the circle and asked each one to say something positive about the child. They could pass their turn, if they couldn’t think of anything to say. At first they were confused; it is hard to go from accusing to complimenting! But a few got the idea, and the others quickly picked it up. The misbehaving child sat in the middle of the circle, basking in the glow of the class’s compliments. His behaviour for the rest of the day was much better.
You have to think through what we might be able to do with such an example. We are not an elementary school classroom, and you can’t take the example and apply it simply. But the basic idea of using shame properly [stating what it is we do not like, such as hurting other people and refusing to work together without trying to destroy the other person], and of using honour properly [building the other person up by praising them for the good that they do and for their good qualities].
What does all of this have to do with the passage we read? The truth is that we cannot extend honour to each other unless we feel valued ourselves. We cannot lift each other up unless we have been lifted up ourselves. Shamed people shame people. Honoured people honour people. Hear our text again: “You have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. 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, … to Jesus … . Since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe.”
We are part of the church of the firstborn. We are those whose names are written in heaven. God has received us! Jesus has made us his own! Every other source of personal honour will be shaken and destroyed by the hardships and problems of life. God uses our difficult times to get rid of all false foundations for our lives. What remains is the invitation to come to Mount Zion, the New Jerusalem. What remains is the one true foundation, which is Jesus Christ.
Steinbach Mennonite Church
26 February 2016
Text, Hebrews 12:18-29
The Mountain of Fear and the Mountain of Joy
18 You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; 19 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, 20 because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” 21 The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”
22 But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23 to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24 to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
25 See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? 26 At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27 The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, 29 for our “God is a consuming fire.”