This Sermon was delivered at St Mary the Virgin’s, Diss at the 10:30 Eucharist on the 4th of November 2018. Reading: Hebrews 12:18-24.
May I speak in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We often say that the Scriptures are rich, filled with layers of meaning to be untangled, explored and enjoyed. Yet sometimes we come across short passages which are exuberantly overflowing with references and significance. In these passages, it’s as if an entire universe of meaning has been crystalised and distilled down to a single, passionately crafted moment. If we are feeling brave we might open the ears of our hearts to hear a glimpse of the glory of God, and allow it to nourish our very souls.
Our passage from Hebrews this morning is one such passage. It’s a passage which gives us a glimpse into our hope which sustains our faith, even through the most difficult of times.
It sets up a striking contrast between two mountains, two experiences of God; that is, of two covenants.
The first is Sinai, the mountain where God gave the Law to the Israelites through Moses. This, we are reminded, is not the mountain which we have come to. In Exodus, it is the montain which the Israelites gathered at the foot and where they saw a blazing fire in the midst of intense gloom and darkness. There was a tempest which thundered about them, filled with the sound of a trumpet. In was in this moment that they heard the voice of God himself, a voice which was filled with the immense Holiness and Power of God which is beyond our understanding. They begged that he not speak to them directly, for they were afraid that they would die. “Speak to Moses instead”, they begged. “Let him mediate for us so that we might live”.
For them the voice of God was overwhelming. For them his presence on the mountain was unapproachable. God was King. God was Awesome. But the reality of the Holiness of God was too much for the nature of sinful, mortal human people to endure.
This, in our passage from Hebrews, is Mount Sinai; the birthplace of the covenant of the Law. Yet this is not where we have come to.
We have come to a second mountain, a different experience of relating with God; one grounded in the eternal promise of the new covenant.
“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.”
This is the poetry of faith apprehending the divine reality into which we are all invited. No more are we to be held back by fear, unable to approach the presence of God. No, we walk as pilgrims up the winding mountain paths into the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. As we ascend we find ourselves surrounded by countless angels; no longer outfitted for war but dressed in festival clothing to celebrate and worship God. This vision doesn’t just see the heavenly worship of God, it sees us surrounded by the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven as they gather around God, the judge of all.
Make no mistake, God here is still King, he is still Awe-inspiring. More than this, he is the judge of all. However while before, his judgement of our sinfulness made the Israelites afraid that they would die, now his judgement is framed in such a way as to suggest that he himself will make us, the righteous, perfect in his sight. We don’t have to, indeed cannot, perfect ourselves. The deposit of faith secures our righteousness and the Holy Spirit in us will perfect us and lead us into eternal life.
Fear has dissolved into intimacy; God is no longer just the God of his people, but God with his people.
This brings us to the pinnacle of this scene, to the summit of Mount Zion; to Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood which speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
We often say Jesus Christ, as if Christ were his surname rather than a title; the greek word for anointed, referring to the Messiah – the anointed one of God. His title, Christ, is important because it testifies to who he is and what he has done. But we would do well to remember that no one else could have done what he did.
It is the person Jesus who is the mediator of the new covenant, and his sprinkled blood which speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
Why are we suddenly talking about the blood of Abel?
We’ve got the heavenly city, the living presence of God surrounded by angels – angels!- and all the saints. Why are we skipping over all of that to think about Abel’s blood?
We’re thinking about Abel’s blood because today the church celebrates All Saints, a time when the church prays that ‘God in his infinite love and mercy [may] bring the whole church, living and departed in the Lord Jesus, to a joyful resurrection and the fulfilment of his eternal kingdom’.
It’s a time when we remember that we who are part of the church today are part not just of a church which is spread across the world, but also of a church spread throughout time; we remember that we are, in Christ, brothers and sisters with those in the church through all ages – some of whom departed centuries ago, while others have left us in more recent times. Tonight the church shall commemorate those whom we miss and grieve, and all are most welcome to come and join us in remembering them before the Lord who loves dearly all that he has made.
Samuel, why are you talking about Abel’s blood?
Because Abel, the second son of Adam, was the first person in the bible to die; murdered by his older brother Cain. It may have been through Adam and Eve’s disobedience that sin first entered the world, but Abel was the first casualty, the first fatality, of the human inability to conquer sin independently. Genesis writes that Abel’s blood cried out to God from the ground, and so the ground which received his blood would curse Cain who had killed him, no longer giving him crop to live off. Cain’s response is that such a curse is to be hidden from the face of God.
By remembering Abel’s blood we remember the dreadful consequence of living in a fallen, entropic reality; that life inevitably passes into death. More than this, we recognise and admit that often that the death of someone close to us can leave us feeling as if God has been hidden from us. Even Martha, sister of Lazarus, said to Jesus – “Lord if you had been here my brother would not have died”. Oh, how we can relate to that. The blood of Abel represents the painful finality we encounter whenever we read the news, hear the pain of our communities, or face within our own families.
When death seems to be the final word, often we find that there are no words which will do our feelings justice, or make us feel better.
But there is a better word than the blood of Abel.
The blood of Abel was a sign of the first casualty of sin, and a curse upon his brother.
The blood of Jesus, though, atoned for sin, and by embracing death led to the empty tomb; a sign that death’s grasping hand was too weak to restrain his love. Jesus, once raised by the will of the Father, lives. Actually and truly lives, in a body like ours yet threatened no more by old age and death. Living, he lives as the new covenant; an eternally prevailing promise and blessing to all who will believe in his name.
We know the word which is spoken by death. We have heard it and we know its dirge.
But there is a better word, the word which is spoken by Jesus. The one who spoke creation into being, speaks life out of death and invites us to enter the city of the living God; the heavenly Jerusalem where we shall be surrounded not just by angels but by all the saints who are made holy by the blood of Jesus.
Hebrews 12, in this one short passage, has presented us with two mountains, two experiences of relating to God. One finds his presence intimidating, the other inviting; unashamedly promising the hope of life to a world all too familiar with death.
In a short while, we shall be invited to come and receive the Eucharist, eating the bread and drinking the wine which are for us the body and blood of Jesus – believing that they are a better word than the blood of Abel.
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