We have had two weeks where the lectionary has offered us selections from the long chapter where various figures from the history of Israel are cited as examples of faith (11:1–12:2). “By faith, Abel … … by faith, Enoch … … by faith, Noah … … by faith, Abraham … … by faith, Isaac … … by faith, Jacob … … by faith, Joseph … … by faith, Moses … … by faith, the people … … by faith, Rahab [at last, a woman!] … … and what more should I say? for time would fail me to tell … …” All by faith.
That sequence culminated in the affirmation that this long list of faithful people is brought to a head by the faith of Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:2). All the faithful testimonies of these predecessors are gathered up by Jesus and “perfected” in his role as the chosen high priest, offering himself as the ultimate sacrificial victim, to effect atonement for the sins of the people. (See the links at the end of this post for how this point of view of worked out through this book.)
The anonymous writer continues to expound on how he understands what Jesus has effected; through submission to the discipline of God (12:3–6), Jesus is able to make available “the peaceful fruit of righteousness” (12:11) for people,of faith to enjoy and appreciate. Such readers (or hearers) are encouraged to “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet” (12:12–13), and to “pursue peace with everyone, and the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (12:14).
The section of Hebrews now offered for this coming Sunday grapples further with how that holiness might be accessed and lived by people of faith in the time of the writer—and by extension, by us, in our time. In doing this, three key words are used: in coming to Jesus, they have come to a joyful gathering, and they have also come to the justice of God which is made manifest in that gathering (12:22–24).
Here’s a sermon that I have preached at a number of places over the years, when this passage appears in the lectionary. (Yes, I confess to being a sermon-recycler!)
As the author addresses the implicit the question, “what have you come to?”, he declares, you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering (12:22). The implication is that by gathering to worship, believers come to a kind of Mount Zion, on the high place, at the high point of the week, when the saints of God, the angels in festive dress, gather together to celebrate and to encounter the living God.
This is the place where we come to renew our friendship with God; where we encounter the living God. The words which long ago were written to an unknown group of people, called simply the Hebrews, addressing them with exhortation, might well apply equally to us, as well. Come, and meet with God.
So what does that mean, in practice, for us?
You have come to the joyful assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven. The first reason for joining in worship is to share with others in a celebration of JOY.
If you read this verse in the original Greek, you will find a word that is translated as assembly, or perhaps as gathering. The Greek word translated in this way is ekklesia – the word that is often translated as church, the Greek word from which get ecclesial, referring to churchly matters.
So, in the mind of the anonymous author of this word of exhortation to the Hebrews, there is a close link between coming to church, and entering into an experience of joy. That is because joy was a central element in the faith of Israel, and joy is a central aspect of the Christian faith.
The theme of joy is one that we regularly find in the Bible. Make a joyful noise to the Lord, is an exhortation that we find in a number of the Psalms. Restore unto me the joy of your salvation, is a line in another familiar psalm. The joy of the whole earth is Mount Zion, the ancient Jewish pilgrims would sing, according to another psalm.
Later in the Biblical story, when Jesus was born, we learn that an angel appeared to the shepherds, and said to them, I bring you good news of great joy. The birth of this child was seen as a joyful event – as is the birth of each and every child, surely. But the birth of this child was a particularly joyful event, because he would be regarded as the Saviour of the world.
Jesus, as an adult, told a story of the man who discovered a hidden treasure when he was digging in his field. The discovery of God’s kingdom is filled with just as much joy as there was in the heart of that man, when he found that treasure. Joy is a theme that runs right through the stories of the Bible.
But let’s backtrack to the words of the angel, when he spoke to the shepherds: don’t be afraid, for I have good news for you, which will bring great joy to the people. Sometimes the response to the Gospel can be one of fear. The shepherds were afraid of the angel, just as the people of Israel had been filled with fear when Moses had gone up to the top of Mount Zion, to speak with God. Fear runs throughout the story of the people of Israel, a constant companion alongside joy; fear of God, fear of God’s otherness, God’s strangeness, God’s holiness; fear of God’s might and power.
Now, fear is not necessarily a completely negative element; in fact, in the way that the Bible uses the term, fear can be a very positive quality.
Fear can mean a sense of awe; an attitude of reverence and adoration of the one who is greater than all of us. Yet fear, that positive acknowledgement of God, can turn sour; it can become plain, sheer unadulterated fright; it can mean being so petrified of the other person that you cannot utter a word.
The people of Israel had, at times, imagined God to be so remote that they were unable to speak to him, except through Moses, who had to make careful preparations and then climb all the way to the top of the mountain, to meet with God; or later, only through the High Priest, who had an appointment to meet with God just once each year, on the Day of Atonement, and even then, in private, right inside the Temple, in the Holy of Holies. It was, ultimately, a form of fear which drove this meticulous and careful system of engagement between God and the people of Israel.
It is in the book of Hebrews, that an alternate message to this is proclaimed; for in Hebrews, we are told, Jesus takes on the role of that High Priest, but he enables us to meet God face-to-face, to speak directly with God. Jesus is our priest and mediator, according to this long “word of exhortation” to the Hebrews. And so, the fear which turns to dread and fright, is replaced by a fear which produces adoration and awe; a fear which is transformed in to joy.
But where does this joy come from? Our passage offers us some clues.
Joy comes from the knowledge that we are God’s firstborn. The firstborn occupy a special place, for God; the firstborn are those chosen for salvation. This ranking of being first comes, not from the order of our physical birth, but from our birth into relationship with God. Once we enter into a fullness of relationship with God, we are all regarded as being firstborn daughters or sons.
And God has chosen to save the firstborn. The story is told about when the people of Israel were in captivity in Egypt, at a time when Pharaoh determined to kill all the newborn sons of the Hebrew people; but the story takes a twist, as all the firstborn sons of Egypt were then killed. The firstborn sons of the Hebrews had been saved; God had passed over the houses marked by blood, as they were Israelite houses. Moses, then, decreed that all the firstborn males were to be dedicated to God in a special way.
This story, the account of the first Passover, has become a pattern for how it is with God; as we signify our obedience to God, and place our trust in God, as we become one of those whom God has chosen and saved, so we are dedicated as firstborn; we become a living, walking, breathing sign of the goodness of God; we ourselves become occasion for joy!
And further, according to Hebrews 12, we are given joy from the knowledge that our names are written in heaven. That is another way of saying that God has acted for us; God has saved us and granted us a new quality of life. So, we have an assurance from this action undertaken by God; our names are written in heaven, and we are joyful.
You have come … to God, who is judge of all human beings, and to the spirits of righteous people made perfect. There is a second reason for coming to worship God.
The writer of our passage is no heavenly-eyed mystic who has lost touch with reality; he is no charismatic character who has been taken in the Spirit to the seventh heave; no, he is a realist, who understands that it is fine to preach joy and celebration, but not to the exclusion of other aspects of the faith.
We might well ask, how can we be so full of joy in a world in which so nay people know nothing of joy at all? What right do we have to be joyous, when people die tragically in unexpected accidents, when millions are starving for want of food, when thousands are tortured and oppressed unjustly, when stories of terror and uprisings and mistreatment appear daily on our news? Is the Christian faith out of touch with these dreadful realities of life in our times?
The answer from this passage of Hebrews is clear: no! The writer suggests that there is more involve in coming to church than just an expression of joy. We have come … to God, who is judge of all human beings; to God, the JUDGE, who raises before us a standard of justice and righteousness.
We have come to join in common cause with God who judges on the basis of loving and righteous standards. This is in line with what I read in the Basis of Union, which declares that we are followers of Jesus, and that in Jesus, God made a representative beginning of a new order of righteousness and love. It is righteousness and love which is at the heart of God, and it is righteousness and love which is at the centre of the work that Jesus undertakes.
By gathering in worship, we are saying yes to the God of justice, we are standing as a light in the darkness of the world. In worship, we consider and pray for the peoples of the world, praying for the Gospel to be made manifest in situations of injustice. In our prayers, we yearn to shine the light of righteousness and love on situations of oppression and inequity.
By coming to worship the God who is our judge, we are stating that we are committed to living, ourselves, in accordance with his standard of gracious righteousness, of loving justice. In our prayers, we reach out, far beyond our own immediate circle, to encompass those far from us who are in need of God’s justice in their situation today.
So, when we come to worship, we do not enter into this building in order to retreat from the world in which we live; we do not lay aside all the concerns and involvements of our own lives; but we enter into the presence of God, now fully alert to the needs of God’s people, now fully aware of the hurts of so many people, and trusting in our relationship with God, that it will encourage us and enable us to live in accordance with the justice of God.
God is a just judge, whose will is to ensure that the new order of righteousness and love is brought to fruition in our own lives, in our own situation, in our own times.
And finally: you have come … to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than does the blood of Abel.
There is a third reason for coming to worship God; it is here that we meet Jesus face-to-face. Jesus is the one who offers a direct and immediate connection with God. Jesus. In the terms of the book of Hebrews, is both our priest and our mediator.
Jesus is the one who offers us JOY, bring us into relationship with God. Jesus is the one who reminds us, again and again, that when we come to God in joy, we are called into relationship with one who is JUST. Through the life and death of Jesus, God grants us the gifts of joy and of justice. The author of this passage draws on a well-known pattern of actions to describe how this happens. In the world of the first century, for the Jewish people, the daily pattern of sacrifices taking place in the forecourt of the Temple in Jerusalem, reminded the people of the justice of God, and of the joy which God offers.
In Hebrews 12, we read that it is the sprinkled blood of Jesus which enables us to draw near to God. In the shedding of his blood, Jesus demonstrated that, in the purposes of God, death is not a futile thing. There is a reason and a purpose in our living; there is a firm hope for us, beyond the grave. On the cross, the blood of Jesus was shed for everyone; Jesus submitted to the powers of sin, he gave up the dominion over his life, he shed his blood and died. Yet the story goes on. The shed blood does not lie, impotent, on the ground. Just like the blood of Abel, there is power in the blood of Jesus. When Abel had been slain by Cain, his blood cried out of the injustice which had been committed.
When Jesus was slain by the Romans, there was injustice once again; his blood signified not only the offering of his life, given up in death, but also the possibilities that his sacrificed life offered to all who followed after him. The shed blood had within it the life power of Jesus; that is how the ancient Israelites understood the power of shed blood, for according to Leviticus 17, the life of the flesh is in the blood; and I have given it to you for making atonement for your lives on the altar; for, as life, it is the blood that makes atonement.
So all the language about the blood of Jesus in Hebrews, and in traditional theology, is founded on this understanding. The life power of Jesus was inherent in his blood; when that blood was shed in his death, his life power was released into the world in order to make atonement; and that life was made manifest in the resurrection which followed in three days.
So, we can see how the argument is developed in this book that the sprinkled blood of Jesus is the source of our joy, for it assures us that God is in charge, that there is hope beyond this life, that the obedience of sacrifice will be vindicated through the gift of new life. And the sprinkled blood of Jesus is the basis for our seeking after justice, for the resurrected Jesus was the firstfruits of the new creation, the representative beginning of a new order of righteousness and love. God acts to remove the destructive power of sin, and to establish a new, just, order in society.
And so, we come to worship today, seeking to celebrate in JOY, and to pray and work for JUSTICE, because these things have been sought for by JESUS himself. He calls us to join him in the new society of joy and justice; he bids us be with him on the mountain of God, where joy reigns supreme over fear; where justice is seen and enacted; where we can be with Jesus, our priest and mediator, the risen Lord, source of joy, the one who sits at the right hand of the Father to rule in justice.