Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 21, 2016, St. Paul Lutheran Church, Wallis, Texas
Sermon Text: Hebrews 12:4-24
Sermon Theme: “The Fire of God”
(Sources: Emphasis Online Commentary; Emphasis Online Illustrations; The Westminster Dictionary of the Bible; Harper’s Bible Dictionary; original ideas; “Moses Jokes” Online; “What Really Happened at Mount Sinai,” thetorah.com; Online Bible Gateway; Believer’s Commentary; Concordia Pulpit Resources, Volume 26, Part 3, Series C)
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
The late Charlton Heston, who played Moses in The Ten Commandments, once said in an interview that there were hundreds of Moses jokes and that he had heard every one of them. So he probably heard the one I’m going to tell, but maybe you haven’t.
Three men, including Moses and Jesus, were playing golf together one day. Moses walked up to the tee, and drove a long one. The ball landed in the fairway, but rolled directly toward a water hazard. Quickly, Moses raised his club, the water parted, and the ball rolled to the other side, safe and sound.
Next, Jesus strolled up to the tee and hit a nice long one directly toward the same water hazard. It landed right in the middle of the pond and kind of hovered over the water. Jesus casually walked on the water and chipped the ball onto the green.
The third person got up and randomly whacked the ball. It headed out over the fence and into oncoming traffic on a nearby street. It bounced off a truck and hit a nearby tree. From there, it bounced onto the roof of a shack close by and rolled down into the gutter, down the drain spout, out onto the fairway and straight toward the aforementioned pond.
On the way to the pond, the ball hit a stone and bounced out over the water onto a lily pad, where it rested quietly. Suddenly, a very large bullfrog jumped up on a lily pad and snatched the ball into his mouth. Just then, an eagle swooped down and grabbed the frog and flew away. As they passed over the green, the frog squealed with fright and dropped the ball, which bounced right into the cup for a hole in one.
Looking annoyed, Moses turned to Jesus and said, “I hate playing golf with your Dad!”
This joke suggests that God often acts in what seems like strange and complicated ways.
In last Sunday’s sermon, we took a look at the letter to the Hebrews through the third verse of Chapter 12. In today’s text from Hebrews, we pick up where we left off last Sunday. If you had trouble interpreting the text, don’t feel alone; many folks do. I think that’s just another reason why we can be sure the letter wasn’t written by the Apostle Paul. Paul’s writings were very structured, analytical, and even legalistic, — he laid it out clearly and you understood it. Not true of whoever wrote Hebrews.
Last Sunday I mentioned that some Bible scholars believe Barnabas wrote the letter, and Martin Luther was convinced it was written by Apollos. Other scholars think Luke or Silas, or even Priscilla and Aquila wrote it.
We’ll never know until we get to Heaven who actually did write the letter,
but we know that Paul did not.
Martin Luther once said that one of the most problematic things about interpreting the Bible is knowing when something is to be taken literally, concretely, and when something is picture language, serving as a metaphor or a symbol. That’s what’s complicated about this letter
Verses 18 and 19 of our text say, “For you have not come to what may 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 no further messages be spoken to them.”
This passage contrasts the awesome presence of God in the Old Covenant (with Moses) with the awesome presence of the exalted Christ in Heaven in the New Covenant. Now the Jews, this letter is speaking to, would know the Five Books of Moses very well, so they would understand the reference (even though some of us may not).
The Israelites had been led from Egypt to Mount Sinai by God Himself, who appeared by day as a cloud and by night as a fire, according to Exodus 13:21. Moses went up the mountain where God instructed him to offer a covenant to the people. The Israelites agreed to the covenant even though they hadn’t heard the terms.
Exodus 19:16-19 describes the scene like this: “On the morning of the third day, there was thunder and lightning, with a thick cloud over the mountain, and a very loud trumpet blast. Everyone in the camp trembled. Then Moses led the people out of the camp to meet with God, and they stood at the foot of the mountain. Mount Sinai was covered with smoke, because the Lord descended on it in fire. The smoke billowed up violently. As the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses spoke and the voice of God answered him.”
What about this fire of God? Exodus 13:21 says God manifested His presence with the wandering Israelites in a pillar of fire by night. Leviticus 9:24 tells us that when Aaron and his sons were consecrated to the priesthood, God sent down fire to consume the sacrifices offered. In 2 Chronicles 7:1, at the dedication of the new Temple and Altar, fire came from heaven and consumed the sacrifice. Acts 2:3 describes tongues of fire above the heads of the Apostles at Pentecost, the Holy Spirit appearing as tongues of fire.
Fire is an appropriate image for God, because fire is something that we often experience as being beyond our control. Last week, a news report said that those terrible wild fires in California which burned so many acres were set by an arsonist. However, in 2000, a fire was intentionally set by National Park Service workers in what they called a “controlled burn.” Theoretically, a controlled burn is limited to a particular area for the purpose of allowing new growth to begin in that area.
The problem was the fire got out of control. The Park Service miscalculated the wind speed and direction, and the flames spread beyond their ability to contain them, destroying thousands of acres, including much of the town of Los Alamos. Only God is able to successfully accomplish a controlled burn.
Now let us back up to near the beginning of our text from Hebrews where the author quotes Proverbs, saying, “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by Him. For the Lord disciplines the one He loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” Then he adds, “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?”
We know that God loves us because He made us His sons and daughters through the blood of Christ. And from His perspective, we learn that He loves us by disciplining us.
You see, the fire of God is not a destructive fire, but instead it is a refining, a purifying fire. God’s discipline is the controlled burn of this refining fire. God’s discipline is not a sign of His disfavor, but a sign of His favor. The writer of our letter tells this congregation, made up of Jews and probably located at Rome, that they suffer not because God hates them, but because He loves them.
It needs to be pointed out that at the time the Letter to the Hebrews was written, Roman persecution was intensifying under Nero. And, unlike previous emperors, Nero was singling out “Christian” Jews; in the past, emperors lumped all Jews and all Christians as one group, the Christians just being an extreme sect of the Jews.
Now for the first time, Christians are being singled out and persecuted more severely. Consequently, the Hebrews, who were Christian Jews, were thinking it was safer to return to Judaism. Saying you were a Jew rather than a Christian could help you escape this vicious persecution. So Apollos, Barnabas, Silas, or whoever wrote the epistle was trying to convince the recipients of his letter that through suffering and hardships God was refining them.
If discipline is seen as coming from a loving Father to His dear sons or daughters, it must be good for us. It is, because it is in preparation for the heavenly Jerusalem, says verses 22-24.
These verses give us the contrast of the Old Covenant at the bottom of God’s fiery Mountain from whence He sends the Law, with Moses as its Mediator to the New Covenant of Faith with its Mediator, Jesus Christ. There is a difference between Moses as mediator of the Old Covenant and Jesus as Mediator of the new. Moses served as a mediator simply by receiving the Law from God and delivering it to the people of Israel. Christ is the Mediator of the New Covenant in a far higher sense. Christ secured the blessings of the New Covenant for the people by His death on the cross.
Law has its Mount Sinai, but faith has its Mount Zion. Law has its earthly Jerusalem, but faith has its heavenly capital above. The “city of the living God” is in heaven.
From God’s perspective, we live in the suffering of a sinful world for a very short time, after which we will live in the city of the living God, the sparkling city of gold, singing and feasting with the angels, and living in perfect holiness with Jesus! Amen.
The peace of God which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.