Sermon preached at Crescent Springs Presbyterian Church for the Sixteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time.
If you remove the yoke from among you, the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,if you offer your food to the hungry and satisfy the needs of the afflicted, then your light shall rise in the darkness and your gloom be like the noonday. The Lord will guide you continually, and satisfy your needs in parched places, and make your bones strong; and you shall be like a watered garden, like a spring of water, whose waters never fail. Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.
If you refrain from trampling the sabbath, from pursuing your own interests on my holy day; if you call the sabbath a delight and the holy day of the Lord honorable; if you honor it, not going your own ways, serving your own interests, or pursuing your own affairs; then you shall take delight in the Lord, and I will make you ride upon the heights of the earth; I will feed you with the heritage of your ancestor Jacob, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.
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 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 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.
See that you do not refuse the one who is speaking; for if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven!
At that time his voice shook the earth; but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heaven.”This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of what is shaken–that is, created things–so that what cannot be shaken may remain. 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; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.
Remember back to my first sermon here, when I said that sometimes scripture seems fresh and familiar, and sometimes it feels ancient and strange? This is one of those days it feels ancient and strange.
We’ve been working our way through the closing chapters of the book of Hebrews, and we’ve caught most of the greatest hits already, like, ‘Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,’ and, ‘since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.’ Our passage today, though, is a little less… quotable. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any of these verses on a bookmark or confirmation present.
To the original hearers of the Book of Hebrews, this passage would not have been so unfamiliar. In fact, it’s full of themes and images they would have recognized immediately, from their knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures, what we call the Old Testament. The community we know as “the Hebrews” is fairly unique in our Bible—a group of Christians who apparently never thought twice about whether or not they had to choose between their Jewish identity and their Christian one. They simply brought all they already knew about God to bear on what they were learning about God now.
And so when their preacher talked about a mountain with blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest and a voice like a trumpet, they would have remembered immediately the story of the Israelites in the desert, and the mountain of God there–Mt. Sinai. This is the mountain Moses went up to receive the Ten Commandments from, if that jogs your memory. What our Sunday School lessons on Exodus tend to sidestep is how absolutely terrifying that mountain was. Exodus describes it like a volcano, wrapped in smoke and fire and shaking, because God was present there. The people were warned that if they got too close, they would die. Only Moses could get near the mountain, and he wasn’t too comfortable with the idea either. Still, despite the danger, Exodus tells us that the people kept trying to “break though” the smoke to see God. For the Israelites in the desert, as well as for the Hebrews, God’s holiness was not some lovely thing but powerful—more than humans could take. And yet they kept trying to see God—God was frightening and irresistible all at once.
And, as a bonus, while God might be hidden from sight, evidence of God’s presence was all too obvious—the smoke signals were a dead giveaway.
But the Hebrews, thousands of years later, had no such luck. Their preacher reminded them that they had not come to this kind of mountain—they could not see, hear, smell, touch, or feel God’s holiness in any concrete way. Perhaps the preacher is concerned that they do not fear God, but equally so, I think, the preacher is concerned that they are not seeking God. The letter to the Hebrews was written to a group of people whose faith was cooling—they had become Christians some years earlier, and had been strong and passionate about their faith then, but as the years had passed they had lost some their earlier enthusiasm. They still believed in God, sure, why not—but their heart wasn’t really in it. They had grown complacent.
And so their preacher, the writer of what we really should call the sermon to the Hebrews, is trying to rev up their faith again. He paints a picture for them of a heavenly city, ruled by God and filled with those who worship, love, and serve God, as well as Jesus himself. Now the Hebrews lived in a city themselves—a city where they had to hide in the shadows, a city where they were treated like pariahs, a city where they were kept out of business dealings and family gatherings, a city that looked on them with suspicion and contempt. And so when their preacher tells them they have come to a different kind of city—a city ruled by God—it must have sounded like something out of a dream.
Like the Hebrews, we have the cities we can see with our eyes, and the cities we want to see through the eyes of faith. And I do not mean just Cincinnati, but cities across this country and across the world, where children go hungry at night, and where people are treated like trash because of their race or faith or lack of resources or street address; where people’s homes are designated slums and torn down because they are unsightly; where garbage is tossed into rivers without a second thought; where women are beaten behind closed doors; where drugs are the most stable currency on offer. I could go on. The list of human cruelty and carelessness is depressingly long. Like much of the world, I was shocked this week by a picture of a little boy in Aleppo, a city in Syria, waiting quietly in the back of an ambulance, bloody and gray with dust. The city he sees every day is a kind of hell I cannot imagine. If he is lucky enough to grow up, I wonder what kind of city he will dream about seeing.
We can’t help but see the pain in our cities—no matter how tight we shut our eyes or scroll past the pictures on the screen. And, like the Hebrews, it is easy to get overwhelmed by it all, and let our faith fall to pieces under the weight. It is hard to hold onto the dream of a heavenly city when we cannot see it—and yet, if you’ll remember, faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. We trust that God is working to bring us all into a heavenly city—a city where love of God will spill over into loving each other, where serving God will teach us to serve each other, where no one will be considered unworthy or unimportant.
It is a beautiful dream, and yet sometimes it seems just that—a dream. A fantasy. Christian escapism, to keep us from doing anything about our cities now.
And yet the author of Hebrews did not consider the city of God to be a hypothetical; he believed God was going to make it happen. He draws a line from the Book of Haggai, of all places, to claim that God is going to shake the earth and heavens. I’ll be honest; the idea of that frightens me some days, when my life is going okay and I am lulled into a false sense of complacency. But when I really look around at the world, I cannot help but agree: the world could use a good shaking, a good sifting, a good airing out. There are things in this world that need to fall away—greed and cruelty and injustice and despair.
Just as importantly, I think back to times in my life where I have felt shaken—where I have felt confused, uncomfortable, disquieted by what I’ve seen. I remember being about six, at a Girl Scout meeting. We were told to partner up, and one of the Daisy’s looked at the lone African-American girl in the troop and said loudly: I can’t play with her. She’s black.
I had been so sheltered from racism that I didn’t have the vocabulary for what had happened. But I remember feeling shaken—a feeling that has stuck with me over the years as I have watched people of color treated callously and even cruelly. I believe it was God that shook me up that day, and showed me which way to go.
Or I can remember, ten years ago this week, a mission trip in New Orleans after hurricane Katrina. We were fixing up a high school that was set to open the following Monday. The destruction I’d seen in New Orleans had been unimaginable, but what hit me hard about this school was that its run-down state wasn’t due to the hurricane: it was due to the fact that the school was in a low-income area, and the students weren’t considered important enough to get working labs or clean courtyards or fresh coats of paint. Again, I felt shaken, and I believe that feeling was God.
We don’t talk often about God making us uncomfortable, or uneasy, the same way we don’t talk about God’s holiness being frightening, or God being a consuming fire. But I do believe that God works through our discomfort as much as our sense of peace, our anger at injustice as much as our acceptance of hardship, our pain at seeing other’s pain, as much our love of serving others. Faith means letting God shake us up when it’s needed, and being willing to walk with God through the aftermath, until we reach a more peaceful day.
Our reading from Isaiah—a scripture I first came across in New Orleans, coincidentally—talks about what it looks like to be shaken up—or rather, what needs to be shaken out of us: blaming others, speaking evil, ignoring the hungry and oppressed, selfishness. If all that is removed, Isaiah says, then “Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt; you shall raise up the foundations of many generations; you shall be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of streets to live in.”
First the breaking down, then the building up.
Remember a few weeks back when we started reading Hebrews, and I told you that in the Greek the words faith and trust are indistinguishable? This is where we have to take our trust in God, our faith in God, to a whole new level. It is one thing to trust God to love us unconditionally—and I hope that we do trust in God’s love. But it is another to trust God to shake us up, to sort through our desires, to burn away what should not be there. It is one thing to go up to God and say, “love me”—it is another to go up to God and say “I am willing to go through the pain of change, so that I may love others. I am willing to go through the discomfort of feeling shaken up inside; I am willing to see parts of me I’d rather not see, so that I may help my city—my city here that I live and work and play and serve in—more like your heavenly city.”
It takes an immense amount of trust, of faith, to let God work in us—and yet that is what we are called to do. We are not exempt from the pattern of the world—shaken and restored, shaken and restored, until at last we reach the kingdom that shall not be shaken, that shall have no need of being shaken. That is what the preacher of Hebrews promises his community: that eventually, when everything that keeps us from loving God and each other has been shaken away, we will be left with what remains: the heavenly kingdom, ruled by God’s love and filled with God’s beloved children.
This is faith 2.0: being willing to trust that God is at work in us even when what we feel is discomfort or confusion. Being willing to trust that God is at work in the world even when what we see breaks our hearts. Being willing to trust that there is another kingdom just beyond sight, but real and powerful nonetheless.
It is easy to have faith when things are pleasant. But to have faith when things are painful—that takes courage.
If you feel shaken this week by what you see or hear or feel, take a moment and pray: it is possible that God is working in you. Trust that God will bring something good from it. That’s what our faith allows us to do.
For a God that shakes us from complacency, we give thanks. Amen.