Sermon, Aug. 21

This sermon is an outline rather than a full text – apologies for somewhat less ease of reading! Here is the annotated page I prepared of this text, which you can open or print. 


  1. INTRO
    1. Clergy don’t know all of Scripture well, or equally…
    2. Hebrews is one of the parts I don’t know well.
    3. When it comes around in lectionary …., I tend to wait it out. 
    4. But last time it came around, I noticed a sentence I liked & kept it to use as a Scripture to lead us from the Peace & announcements, towards the Eucharist…. 
      1. A place in Anglican worship where it is traditional for the priest to read some short piece of Scripture. 
    5. Hebrews 12:28-29 – “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe.”
      1. Printed it out, taped it to the ambo! I say it, many weeks.
    6. THIS year, when this part of Hebrews comes around – What does this mean?… 
  1. Hebrews
    1. One of the letters of the Early Church
    2. Very finely written – literary
    3. Author unknown – Pauline but not Paul
      1. Priscilla? – named leader in the early church 
    4. Thinking and writing at the interface between Judaism and emergent Christianity – describing Jesus in terms of the ritual practices of the great Temple. 
    5. Hebrews is hard to teach and preach today because of its supercessionism. That big word means the belief that the Church replaces Israel and the Jews as God’s people. 
      1. Not a new branch grafted onto God’s holy tree – Paul – but a whole new tree that has taken over the old tree’s roots. 
    6. When this was written: Christians were a minority, not much power. When Christians become the politically powerful majority, a couple of centuries later, this idea starts to become very dangerous. 
      1. Gospel story – Let’s be clear that everyone here is Jewish. And Jesus’ response here is also very Jewish. 
      2. This leader is uptight because he’s uptight, not because he’s Jewish. 
        1. Friend – kids helping in worship – “sucked all the holiness right out of the room”. 
        2. Episcopalians can get a little anxious about disrupting orderly worship, even if the disruption is life-giving. 
      3. But stories like this eventually become part of Christian thinking about Judaism as superficial and legalistic, vs. Christianity as religion of the heart. 
        1. Let me be clear: that is not a distinction that holds up to scrutiny! 
    7. We have to be careful with texts like this. What do they actually say? How have they been used? 
  1. Today’s passage… 
    1. Towards the end of the letter – 13 chapters – this is the “how to live” part, after the big theological argument. 
    2. I was starting somewhat from scratch 
    3. Discovered a really densely allusive text – Page!
  1. Working through the page… 
    1. This passage: Contrasting two mountains. First, Sinai – where Moses received the covenant, on the wilderness journey from the book of Exodus
      1. God’s presence – fire, earthquake, storm – other places in OT, too – signs of power. 
    2. Stay away from the mountain!! Exodus 19… 
      1. Sense of terror and danger in God’s presence. 
      2. Could kill you just to see God directly! 
    3. The second mountain – Zion. 
      1. Jerusalem – City of David – 1000 years ago now – becomes an idealized image of the holy City – “the heavenly Jerusalem.” (The heavenly New York…) 
    4. The gathering at/on the mountain… Sinai: people filled with dread. Here: at my first reading, a party! “Festal gathering.”
      1. WorkingPreacher – actually this is Greek political terminology – assembly, enrollment, festal gathering – this is an alternative body politic, a renewed civil society, a divine democracy. 
        1. Different from party image – but also appealing! 
        2. God the judge – could sound scary, we’ve heard a lot about God’s judgment. But maybe positive here? 
        3. Contrast to the fear and trembling of Sinai. 
    5. “Sprinkling blood” – what? 
      1. Abel – Adam and Eve’s son killed by his brother – reference to human tendency to kill each other? 
      2. Based on practices from the wilderness Tabernacle that became part of Temple worship
        1. Animal sacrifice – blood as holy, represented life force. 
        2. Sprinkling blood as act of symbolic cleansing –  
          1. Exod 24 – Moses sprinkles the people to affirm the covenant with God.
      3. Earlier in Hebrews – ch 9 – explicit contrast of these practices and Jesus’ self-sacrifice. Blood of goats & bulls can clean people superficially, but  “How much more, then, will the blood of Christ… cleanse our consciences…, so that we may serve the living God!”
      4. I hope you are starting to notice how well this author knows the OT & how skillfully they are weaving it into their writing here! 
      5. Re: supercessionism: The text wants to say that Jesus has replaced those old ritual practices. 
        1. Thing is, Judaism ALSO emphasizes that rituals aren’t enough in themselves & need to have the right heart towards God!
    1. Okay, new paragraph, and a new aspect to the contrast. God’s people at Sinai struggled to listen, obey, and trust. Wilderness stories…. Call for the Christian community to do better! 
      1. Quotation – “Yet once more  I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.” This is from the prophetic book of Haggai. (How did I find that out? Google.)
      2. Haggai – prophet during the building of the Second Temple. Minor Prophet – means we didn’t learn very much about them in seminary. 
        1. Telling the people to have confidence and trust that God will help them rebuild. 
        2. People who have been through great “shaking” – conquest, exile – next “shake” will be to your benefit! 
      3. This author’s interp – not much to do with Haggai. — “Yet once more” as pointing towards end times – everything shake-able, that is, everything earthly and tangible, will be gone, soon. 
        1. But what cannot be shaken will remain, endure. 
    2. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken… What kingdom? 
      1. This is basically the only time Hebrews uses this word. But it’s pretty clearly alluding to Jesus’s kingdom language. Examples on page – two out of MANY. 
      2. Hard to unpack briefly! An alternative reality we can choose to step into now, and also, something beyond this world that we are promised… 
    3. One more quotation – “For indeed our God is a consuming fire.” 
      1. This is the ONLY TIME this particular Gk word appears in the NT! (How do I know THAT? Google. Well: an online concordance, which is a kind of index to all the words used in the Bible.) 
      2. BUT it is used a couple of times in the Septuagint, which is a Greek version of the Hebrew Bible. It’s the version of the Old Testament that this writer would have known. 
      3. I’m almost certain this line is a direct quote from Deuteronomy 4. 
        1. Deut – one of those parts I do know relatively well – at least the gist – because I wrote a paper on it in seminary!  
          1. Moses’ last words to the people before entering the Promised Land.  
          2. Strong theme: Choose faithfulness, choose to follow God’s ways & stick with God, as you enter this new chapter, and things will go well for you. 
          3. This passage consistent with that – a reminder that faithfulness includes not messing around wiht other gods, because our God does not like that! 
      4. So while this passage begins by saying we – as Christians – aren’t like God’s people huddled in terror below Mount Sinai, it ends on this note: we should rightly feel some awe before God.
  1. So – having gone through all that – better sense of meaning – still a text I want to use liturgically? Appropriate? 
      1. “Since, then…” (or, “Therefore…”) 
        1. Here, wrapping up this argument.
        2. In worship: Everything before – readings, hymns, sermon, prayers, confession – should point us towards this realization/affirmation.
      2. Since, then, we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken… 
        1. We have to bear with the mystery of the kingdom & let those layers of meaning add up over time. 
        2. “That cannot be shaken” – don’t need context – The idea of something unshakable – appealing. 
      3. Let us give thanks – Or, Let us have grace. 
        1. Charin – which is the “char” in Eucharist. 
        2. Translated as grace and as gratitude or thanks. Scope for a whole word study there!
      1. “Let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe. 
        1. “Acceptable” –  Gk: “well-pleasing.” Translator DB Hart – worship that delights God. 
        2. LOTS of examples in the Bible (Isaiah, recently) of worship that doesn’t please God because it’s not offered with the right state of heart or mind. 
        3. So: A call to worship with gratitude and reverence. 
      2. For indeed our God is a consuming fire! This part isn’t on the paper on the ambo… but sometimes I say it anyway!
        1. God’s generosity towards us, our response of gratitude and wonder – sometimes adding that final note of God’s powerful otherness also feels important. 
        2. Worshipping at synagogue recently – how much their worship emphasizes God’s holiness. 
          1. Kabod in Hebrew – heaviness, weight. Approaching the living God is a serious matter. 
          2. We “God is love”-type Protestants can sometimes need a little reminder of that. 


Since, then, we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken,

Let us give thanks… let us have grace… 

By which we offer God well-pleasing worship, with reverence and awe… for indeed our God is a consuming fire. 

  1. Conclusion
    1. Doing this work helped me appreciate this author, their voice, their craft.  I hope for you too.
    2. Doing this work helped me go deeper into the meaning of something I say often. I hope you found some meaning too.
    3. And doing this work stirred up some of my awe, my gratitude, at being called into the presence of the Living One. At being, indeed, promised a kingdom that cannot be shaken. I hope for you too.