Wouldn’t you know it? The first week I have been gone in fifteen months, we get a reading in Hebrews that leaves me wondering which sermon I should be preaching. This is one of those days, were I there, where I would preach a sermon at 8am and pay close attention to the conversations and questions afterward. I joke with 8am attendees sometimes that they are preaching guinea pigs. If a sermon really falls flat or misses questions they want answered, I can adjust and do a better job of feeding those who come at 10:15am. The evangelist in me wanted to preach about the word spoken in blood. We are reminded that Christ’s blood speaks a better word than Abel’s blood in this passage. I also thought I had a good idea for a sermon focusing on the message of the one who speaks and the consequence of our answers. But, as we have been focusing more on our own relationship with God through Christ, what some of us consider discipleship, I thought I would focus on the attitude called for by God in this passage.
When you begin to consider settling into the presence of God, what is your attitude? By that, I mean, when you begin to pray, when you begin to gather in worship, when you begin to participate in a ministry to which you are certain He has called you, how do you feel? Are you anxious? Do you dread it? Would your attitude be better described as “oh, joy, here we go again, ho hum,” in a way that sounds like Eeyore? Are you excited? Are you expectant? Do you feel it is a waste of your time? Does your heart sing because this is that for which you were made? And in this question, be honest as you reflect. Ask God to let you see how you feel when you approach Him. If you find that you are usually in one state of mind but can think of other isolated incidences where you were not yourself, that is ok, too. We fool ourselves if we do not think that our circumstances affect our attitude in everything, including our intimate experiences with God. I know that I have whined to God on more than one or two occasions when I entered into prayer. I have had that feeling of dread when the preacher got started and I realized the Liturgy of the Word was about to get tedious. I have felt frustration as I began anointing for healing, again, or entering into a pastoral counseling opportunity knowing that the individual or individuals present are not going to listen. But I have also felt that peace of beginning a worship service in the midst of suffering and the expectation of God acting in the midst of a healing prayer. I ask about our attitudes because they teach us a lot about how we view, how we perceive our relationship with God.
Certainly, that was part of what the author of Hebrews had in mind when he or she brought up the Sinai Theophany and compared it to the present age. The people of Israel rightly feared God in their encounters with Him. Never mind that the “fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” echoes throughout the Bible. Think about the nature, if you will, of God. Keep in mind, I will be speaking in words; we will, however, be grappling with the One who is beyond our understanding, absent His revelation and Incarnation. God is holy. We are not. When he comes into the presence of evil, because He is all powerful, evil is destroyed. It’s not that God is consciously zapping that which He perceives to be evil. He is the very antithesis of evil. He puts no more effort or thought into ridding evil from His presence than you and I do breathing or blinking. He really is that light shining in a dark place. Can we ever search darkness when we are holding a light? No, wherever we go with the light, the darkness fades. Similarly, wherever God goes, evil is destroyed.
The people of Israel realized that truth first hand. They experienced the presence of God unmediated. His voice sounded like the loudest trumpet and terrified them. His visage, echoing off Moses face, scared them into requiring that Moses wore a veil. Even Moses, the lawgiver, was frightened to approach God and then more frightened to be His chosen vessel of grace to Israel. They knew His presence in a way that you and I do not. They covered their ears because of His voice. They experienced His cloud of fire leading them at night and shading them at day. When they thirsted and complained, He provided water. When they hungered and complained, He provided meat. And when the superpower of the day had them penned in facing utter destruction, He parted the waters and destroyed the army of Egypt. Experiencing all of that, how many of them refused Him? How many accepted His offer and made their way to the Promised Land? We know that Joshua did. Israel wandered the desert for so long to allow all those who refused to trust Him to die.
For all their experience of God, however, the author reminds us that we live in a time after the ultimate fulfillment of God’s promises in Christ. That holiness which terrifies us as sinners has been removed. Because of the person and work of Christ, we have been imputed with His righteousness. We might say we wear the same garments as a result of His gift of grace. As such, we can hear His voice and not be afraid. His very presence will not destroy us. We can approach His throne, in the presence of the joyful angels, as confident first-born heirs, inheritors of all that is His. And we know this is all true, every word of it, because of the Resurrection of Christ. Were He a liar or blasphemer, God never would have given Him that kind of honor. Instead, because the Son trusted the Father’s will and faced the cross and tomb, He has been honored in ways you and I cannot yet imagine! We will, because He has promised. But His promises so far exceed our expectations as His grace exceeds our propensity to do evil in His site. And what we inherit, as first-born children, is permanent. Our inheritance can never be taken away. Ever.
So, knowing all that, how is your attitude when you enter into the presence of God? As I said earlier, our circumstances do affect us as we begin worship or prayer or works in His name, but do they after we have begun our worship, prayer, or work? Part of why we gather in worship or pray or do works of mercy in His name is to remind ourselves and others that He is with us, no matter the circumstances we face. Whether we are a priest losing his first child to college even as he is charged with the care of 154 souls, a grandmother struggling hard to draw a loved one into relationship with God, a man struggling to put food on a table, a person struggling with the effects of disease or drug combinations, an individual seeking to meet this “Jesus” whom so many claim as Lord, a parent genuinely worried about our children in schools, we are called into prayer, works of mercy, and especially worship to remind ourselves of His promises and of His power to keep His promises.
The same Lord who shook the mountain of Sinai, who destroyed Egypt’s army, who provided food and drink in the desert, who gave the Promised Land to the descendants of Abraham, who establish David as king, and who raised our Lord Jesus from the dead has promised you and me a glorious, unshakable inheritance. He has claimed you and me as firstborn son or firstborn daughter. He cheers our successes. He roots for us to choose to follow His ways and His decrees. When we stumble, He scoops us up and nurtures us. When we sin and repent, He forgives. And then He pats us on the behind and reminds us that we each have work to do in His plan. Most importantly, nothing need ever come between Him and us. His Son has already paid the price for our sins; all we have to do is repent. And even if death reaches out its hand to claim us, still we cannot be separated from Him. As firstborn inheritors we are promised a new body and an unshakable place in His eternal kingdom.
Now, given all that, how should your attitude be? Should not your prayer life be that intimate moment when you speak and listen to your Father? Should not works of mercy be all about drawing others into His saving embrace and, thereby, increasing the number of firstborn brothers and firstborn sisters in your family. Should not worship become that expectant time where you remind yourself of the saving works He has done and of His promises to you? Better still, should not worship and prayer and works of mercy be filled will reverence and awe, as our author reminds us? And, this is the hard part this week, if, in discernment, you discover that you do not like worship, pray, or works, what is it or who is it you are placing above God? Of course, there can be no hard part without the Good News. Even if you find yourself a bit misled, even if you find yourself in full out rebellion against God, all He requires is that you repent and start afresh today. It really is that simple. He really loves you and me that much!