29th October 2016
Sermon by Revd Dr Max Champion, Pentecost 14, 21st August 2016
Lessons: Jeremiah 4:1-10; Psalm 71:1-6; Lk 12:32-34; Hebrews 12:12-29
‘You have come to Mt Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem’ (So) See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God.’ (Heb 12:22&15)
Hebrews pictures the Christian life as a long march towards the city of God. Along the way there are many distractions. People become weary and despondent. Complacency, resentment, dissension and unholy behaviour threaten harmony. They need to be reminded of the grand adventure to which they have been called and the glorious destination that awaits them.
In this passage they are warned against ‘becoming like Esau, an immoral and godless person, who sold his birthright for a single meal … and found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears’ (vv. 16&17).
Why pick on Esau? Surely, it’s unfair to single-out a bloke who was robbed of his birthright by his scheming brother! (Gen 25-27) Recall the story! Jacob, the younger son, took advantage of Esau and their father Isaac. When Esau, after a hard day’s hunting, returned home famished, Jacob exchanged a meal for his birthright. (Gen 25:29-34) Then, with the connivance of his mother Rebekah, he dressed in Esau’s clothes and wore ‘kid gloves’ to fool his blind father into conferring a blessing reserved for the ‘first born’ son which ultimately gave him authority over nations. (Gen 27)
Why, then, is Esau singled-out for special rebuke? Why not Jacob or other dodgy characters in the annals of the Israel?
Remember. This tale of family intrigue, which is worthy of a modern soap opera but more authentic than 'Reality TV,' is told as part of a much larger family history. It is the story of a flawed people who are called to be righteous and merciful as they go on a long journey to the Promised Land in response to God's grace.
In this history, Jacob is remembered as a flawed figure who, nevertheless, accepted the calling to lead the flawed people of God along the path. Esau, though, is remembered as a flawed figure who turned his back on God.
Perhaps it was the fact that he married a couple of pagan Hittite women who ‘made life bitter for Isaac and Rebekah? (Gen 26:34&35) That would explain why Christians are warned against causing bitterness and trouble (v15&16a). Perhaps it was his gluttonous appetite? (Gen 25:29f)
Why is he singled-out? His short-comings seem relatively insignificant.
The answer is found in his flippant attitude. He exchanged the privilege of grace for a single meal to instantly satisfy his appetite. He didn’t see beyond his short-term needs to the long-term adventure in which he would have played a key role. He is only concerned about himself. ‘I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?’ (v32) The storyteller sums it up perfectly: ‘Thus Esau despised his birthright.’ (v34c)
Hebrews uses the example of Esau because some of his fellow-travellers on the journey of faith had let themselves get side-tracked by personal wrangles and resentment (vv14&15). Some were back-tracking to a fearful, legalistic form of religion (associated with the Mosaic law) (vv18-21). Some had turned their backs on the grace revealed in the cross of Christ (v24). Many were despondent about the future and wallowing in self-pity, unable to see beyond their immediate concerns to the joy of their present calling and future destination (vv12&13).
The basic problem was that, like Esau, they had become complacent about the blessings of grace (v25)! Belonging to the church had become routine. There were disagreements but on the whole the old-time
religion felt pretty comfortable. Faith in God had become humdrum. No-one expected God to require anything of them. They had forgotten what an incredible adventure they had been called to share and the glorious hope that awaited them.
Hebrews jolts them out of their lethargy. He reminds them that, in the old covenant (on Mt Sinai) God’s holy and righteous will had been disclosed in such awesome ways (vv 18-21) and that the new covenant (on Mt Zion) had fulfilled ancient promises in such an incredible and unexpected manner.
He tells them to stop plodding along the track as if there is nothing to look forward to and nothing to enjoy on the way. The ‘city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem’, toward which you are marching, is a place of great joy where ‘countless angels gather for the festivities,’ where the ‘assembly of the first born’ (who, like Jacob, receive the blessing of grace) are ‘enrolled’ and where the faith of brave pilgrims is ‘perfected.’
Here we come to the heart of the matter! Pilgrims will be able to rejoice forever because God has promised to right wrongs. They can be confident in the ‘heavenly Jerusalem’ toward which they are marching only because the splendour of God’s grace has already been revealed through the mediation of his Son Jesus (vv 22-24) - the ‘first born Son of God,’ the truly human Jesus, whose crucified love took place in the ‘earthly Jerusalem.’
The brief reference to the crucifixion in v24 helps us understand the difficult doctrine of the atonement (touched on here). The sprinkled blood’ (also 9:19ff) contrasts with a very different kind of bloodshed.
Where the shed blood of Abel by Cain (Gen 4) is symptomatic of vengeance that scars our journey through history, the shed blood of Jesus atones for the sins of humanity. This ‘better word’ (v24b) speaks of ‘costly, life-giving grace’ that is without parallel in history. Where we, in our sin and weakness, contribute to human suffering and bloodshed, Jesus suffers evil and sheds his blood on our behalf to reconcile us to God.
News of this unsurpassable act of love, which we have done nothing to earn (and which is hard to put into words) is worth celebrating in the spirit of joy depicted by Hebrews in ‘the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God’ (v22). Because God’s reconciling grace has already been displayed in Jesus’ life-giving death (past), the festivities that await pilgrims at the end of their long journey (future) may be enjoyed now (present).
This pleasure is not to be kept for ourselves. Pilgrims are instructed to ‘See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God’ (v15). Encourage and chastise each other - the despondent (vv12&13), troublemakers (vv15&16), the complacent (vv16&17; 18-21). God is to be enjoyed, but not taken lightly.
Hebrews speaks to us as we join the pilgrimage on the long road to the ‘heavenly city.’ We must guard against taking God's grace for granted. The pilgrim people – among whom we are numbered but not because of our faith or good works – have been called to be a community of hope to celebrate the magnificence of God’s grace to unworthy people, like us, which has been embodied in Jesus' crucified love. We are invited to rejoice in the Gospel of grace and to encourage one another in faith, love and hope.
Failure to do so has serious consequences. The ‘living God,’ whose costly, self-giving love has been uniquely displayed on the bloody Cross , will not be mocked – by those who cause bloodshed on earth (v24) or by those who are complacent about Christ's sacrificial grace.
In any event, God’s eternal purposes will not be thwarted. Be assured, says Hebrews, that God will put things right. Be glad that, although ‘heaven and earth will be shaken to their foundations’ (vv25-27), you may glorify the God of unsurpassable grace and look forward to the glorious consummation of history promised in Christ.
Rev. Dr Max Champion is the convenor of the ACC's Theology and Ecumenical Relationships