Hebrews 12:14-29; Psalm 103:1-8
Nate and I recently spent time in the Canadian Rocky Mountains. The landscape is staggeringly beautiful. Expanses of sheer, sharp mountains, turquoise lakes, acres and acres of pine trees, aspen trees, and larch trees. We hiked most days and found ourselves climbing steeply through fields of alpine wildflowers and heather. When we would get to the top of a mountain or to a mountain pass, all of a sudden, we would be surrounded by views of more mountains, by vistas of glaciers and icefields and forests. I found myself repeating, “This is so amazing.”
At the same time, we were constantly aware of the danger that comes with such wild beauty. At high altitude, the weather can change quickly. Sometimes, you can’t see what clouds are on the other side of a mountain pass or peak. When you summit, you may be met with spectacular views and ominous clouds that are soon accompanied by driving wind, chilling rain, and lightning. Without a waterproof jacket, a map, and some wisdom, you could easily get cold and lost and/or struck by lightning.
The Canadian Rockies are one of the largest concentrations of glaciers, layers of ice that are thousands of year old. These vast expanses of glacier ice contain both visible and invisible crevices; walking without the help of an expert might mean that you fall into a deep crack and quickly succumb to hypothermia. The region’s pristine turquoise waters are often icy cold, since the snow pack melts off in June and the lakes and rivers are often fed by glaciers. The magnificent glaciers, lakes, and rivers can each hold threats.
Even if you are just trying to enjoy the serene beauty of the forest, if you don’t make enough noise, you could stumble upon a grizzly bear and partake in an unexpected confrontation. Quite a few trailheads have signs warning hikers and visitors, “You are in Bear Country!” The wilds of the Canadian Rockies bring both joy and nourishment to the soul; but the wonder and rejoicing need to be accompanied by the sober realities of ferocious weather, chilly rivers, icy crevices, and grizzly bears.
Rejoicing accompanied by warning. A sober message followed by encouragement. While studying for this sermon, I learned that this happens throughout the book of Hebrews. There is an interplay of warning and encouragement. At least four other warnings can be found before chapter 12. Each is followed by words of encouragement, words about the great salvation, blessings, and rest that come to us through Christ Jesus. In today’s passage, we go from warning to encouragement, and back to a brief warning.
The author of Hebrews (whose exact identity is unclear) gives the early Christians three messages, which are relevant for us today in our own journeys of following Jesus. Message number one: Watch out, that you don’t make rash and foolish mistakes that will affect your faith and your life! Message number 2: At the same time, remember which mountain you are on. Remember that you come to God through Jesus the Messiah, that you come reconciled to God through Christ. Message number 3: Our God is a consuming fire. Don’t let God’s grace be a reason that you neglect God’s call for holiness in your life; remember that God is in the process of purifying your heart.
Typically, I bike to church each Sunday and most places in the city. Nate does as well, and one morning that he was coming to preach, an unwise motorist carelessly pushed open a car door as he was going past. It could have ended in tragedy, but it ended mostly with some scuffs.
Biking is a fantastic mode of transportation, it is eco-friendly and provides exercise. But despite the benefits, you can’t brashly bike down a road expecting that cars alongside you will see you or that the people in the parked cars remember you are there. Awareness of the dangers—and the wisdom to act accordingly—are key to being safe when biking. You don’t want to be the person for whom everyone cringes: biking recklessly, running lights when there is heavy traffic, not signaling, and not wearing a helmet.
In today’s passage, the author of Hebrews basically says, “Don’t be that guy.” “That guy” is a man named Esau (Hebrews 12:16). Esau was the son of Isaac, brother of Jacob. The God of Israel in the Old Testament is often referred to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Not the God of Esau.
We need to back up to the book of Genesis briefly (25:29-34; 27:30-40), during the time of the patriarchs of Israel. Isaac and Rebekah have two twin sons, Esau and Jacob. Esau comes out first, with Jacob holding onto his heel. Esau, being firstborn just by a few minutes, is culturally given more rights and status. Esau becomes a hunter; Jacob kind of handles the affairs around home. One time, Esau comes back from a hunting trip “famished,” just when Jacob has cooked a terrific lentil stew. Jacob trades the food for Esau’s birthright and inheritance; Esau treats it pretty flippantly and doesn’t really think about weighing his appetite over his future.
Flash forward to when their father is dying—their parents don’t know about this oath. Through some deception by Jacob and his mom, Isaac gives all of the blessing to Jacob. Esau is left with basically nothing and is unable to escape the consequences of a rash decision several years before.
Let’s reread verses 14 to 17: “Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no root of bitterness springs up and causes trouble, and through it many become defiled. See to it that no one becomes like Esau, an immoral and godless person, who sold his birthright for a single meal. You know that later, when he wanted to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, even though he sought the blessing with tears.”
While we likely won’t exchange our inheritance for a bowl of lentil soup, there are modern lessons to learn from Esau. We don’t often think of the gravity of our actions. Sometimes we put a lot of thought into our words and our actions; other times, we fly off at the mouth. “Ehh, you know, I’m just saying crap.” We flippantly behave in ways that are not good for our own health or our spiritual well-being.
The author of Hebrews is telling us to watch out—don’t act rashly because your actions have consequences. Pursue peace (right relationships) and holiness (integrity, honesty, generosity, patience, kindness, and more). Watch out for bitterness and things to come up between you and others in the church. Watch out for things that divide and things that lead you astray from God. Watch out for high standards in your most intimate relationship; don’t treat sex as something to throw around when it belongs in a covenantal relationship.
Watch out—because you don’t know how your actions and words can lead to unforeseeable consequences. When we act rashly, we can act foolishly and both we and the faith community can suffer from our actions. Harsh words can lead to enmity, can lead to tearing a family or a church apart. A lack of integrity in something small can lead to lack of integrity in something much, much bigger like corruption and scandal. Flirting with a colleague may seem harmless but can lead to an affair and the loss of your spouse. Gossip and slander can lead to damaged relationships or, in a workplace setting, to losing your job. Each action and decision we make, even the smallest ones that may seem fleeting or unimportant, can have life-long or even eternal repercussions. Words can’t be unspoken. You can’t unsleep with someone. You can’t undo a lie. Stains on your record of integrity can be impossible to remove. The message to the early church and to us is “Watch out, and don’t be like Esau!”
Remember which Mountain We Are On
We are urged to use caution in our words and our actions. At the same time, we are to remember what we have received in Christ Jesus. While we see a warning and an exhortation for peace and holiness, we are also challenged to remember, as the author in Hebrews puts it, “which mountain we are on.” Verses 18-24 read, “You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word could be spoken to them. (For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.”) But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous judge made perfect, and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.”
Now there is a lot of context here, like with the mention of Esau earlier, that the original audience would have known but we need to be good students of the Old Testament to understand. The author is talking about the book of Exodus, when the Israelites had left Egypt, were in the desert of Sinai, and when Moses received the Law on Mount Sinai. At that point, God was revealed in a way that stressed the holiness of God and required ceremonial holiness of God’s followers, the people of Israel. People had to be ritually clean and the community risked disease and death when they disobeyed God or did not enter God’s presence appropriately cleansed. It was wonderful to be freed from slavery in Egypt—but also terrifying; who did the Israelites sign themselves up to follow?
The author of Hebrews draws a distinction between two mountains: Mount Sinai and Mount Zion. Mount Zion is Jerusalem, a whole new framework of interactions, a new covenant in Jesus. The Hebrew Scriptures, the early encounters with Yahweh, the Mosaic Law—those all laid the foundation—but reconciliation to God through Jesus was the ultimate goal. Jesus is the Righteous One, the perfect human, in whose death and resurrection, we are made holy. We have a mediator who brings us into God’s grace, and cleanses the sin that clings so closely to our hearts, thoughts, words, and actions. In another reference to the Hebrew scriptures, we read that Jesus’ blood speaks louder to God than Abel’s blood. The blood of Abel, murdered by his brother Cain, cried out to God, loudly declaring Cain’s guilt. The blood of Jesus, on the other hand, speaks a better word—a word where the cycle of sin and guilt is broken and where humans are reconciled to God.
So while the author of Hebrews says, “Watch out!” There is also a message to remember the grace and forgiveness and reconciliation we have in Christ Jesus. Watch out; but if we mess up, Jesus is our faithful mediator of the new covenant. We will likely still need to deal with the earthly consequences of our rash actions or words, but we can’t undo the reconciliation that we have in Christ Jesus. We are marching to Zion, to the heavenly city where Jesus reigns.
God is a Consuming Fire
The message to the Hebrews is, “Watch out!” and also, “Remember which mountain you are on!” And the author of Hebrews follows these two lessons with a third: don’t forget that God is a consuming fire.
In the United States, 90% of forest fires are caused by humans, compared with about two-thirds in Canada. Forest fires can be devastating, as the town of Fort McMurray saw earlier this year and as California sees quite regularly. Yet forest fires can also provide a crucial opportunity for ecosystem renewal. Natural forest fires are one of the ways that boreal forests are renewed and sustained. By releasing nutrients and stimulating new growth, forest fires can allow boreal ecosystems to thrive; certain species of trees require the heat of a forest fire in order for their pinecones to open and germinate (Natural Resources Canada, 2016).
It sounds very alarming to read that our God is a consuming fire. It stands appositional to the grace and mountain of rejoicing mentioned earlier. But what the author of Hebrews is saying is, don’t let God’s grace be a reason that you neglect God’s call for holiness in your life; remember that God is in the process of purifying your heart. God is a consuming fire.
The consuming fire is one that can remove the debris that is choking out new life. God’s consuming fire can foster renewal. God is in the business of shaking away the things that are superfluous and unnecessary, in order to let unshakeable—the eternal and the holy and the good—remain. The Creator seeks to purify us, purify this world, so that love, truth, and beauty might remain. And since we are receiving the Kingdom of God, we are called to live our lives in ways that honor God. The author of Hebrews urges the early church to heed God’s call (part paraphrase): See that you don’t refuse the One who is holding you accountable and transforming you! God deserves your devotion and commitment. And while you are being transformed, “give thanks… [and] offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe, for indeed our God is a consuming fire” (12:29).
Sisters and brothers, we are called to watch out—our words and actions can have long-lasting consequences for us, for the church, and for others. We are called to remember what mountain we are on: a mountain of grace, Mount Zion, a mountain where we are reconciled to God. We are called to worship God with reverence and awe, and to remember that our God is a consuming fire. Our life in this world is a story of God bringing renewal and reconciliation. The grace that we receive requires reverence and awe, and dedication to the One who reconciles and redeems, who purifies, forgives, and transforms. This consuming fire can be difficult and painful, but can lead to stronger faith, a brighter witness, and healthier relationships in the church.
Is God is calling you to “watch out,” saying, don’t be like Esau? What rash and foolish words or deeds put you at risk of following in Esau’s footsteps, making irreparable damage to your relationships, to the church, or to your integrity? Pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.
Do you need to be reminded that we are people of Mount Zion? God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and rich in unfailing love. We have a mediator in Jesus through whom we can boldly enter the presence of God, expecting grace, mercy, and forgiveness.
We are all going through a process of refining; God is calling all of us to offer acceptable worship with reverence and awe. May we grow deeper in love, mercy, forgiveness, and holiness, through our God who is a consuming fire. AMEN.