In reading this passage, it felt a bit like translating another language. I don’t ever remember reading these verses before...I’m sure I have, but they didn’t stick in my mind.
We often hear people say that they can speak “conversational Spanish”...just enough to get by. Maybe there is such a thing, too, as “conversational Bible.” Just enough to get an overall message. From that, we probably all read “let us be thankful” or “offer to God worship” and get the message that God’s pretty awesome. But what if we don’t want just “conversational Bible”....what if we want to make sure nothing is lost in translation.
So, let’s translate a few things…the biggest one to tackle:
…. “you have not come to a place that can be touched” and “you have come to Mt Zion”
What are these places he is referring to and why can’t they be touched?
The author of Hebrews is actually describing two different stages in the life and evolution of God’s people. He’s talking about a movement of faith. To do it, he first references a “place than can be touched” - this was Mt. Sinai. It’s where the Israelites (the people of God in the Hebrew Scriptures) went to receive the Ten Commandments. It was a physical place - that could be touched. Though, if you read back over the Scripture describing that experience, you’ll see it was pretty treacherous - with its fire and wind and trumpet sounds.
Fast forward to Mt. Zion, the named used as a metaphorical representation of the city of the living God...where the heavenly messengers are innumerable... The place in faith where the believers are now is not a tangible.
Yes, they are meeting as community in people’s homes. Yes, they are likely partaking in early forms of communion. Yes, there was a hill where Jesus died. All of that is tangible, but living a life of faith now is not determined by tangible things like sacrifices. Living a life of faith now is released from that - it is only determined by a person’s spiritual, unseen connection with God, grown through study, service, prayer, and the like.
The people have moved from Mt. Sinai to Mt. Zion.
A phrase I was encouraged to repeat (by my therapist) is “different, not wrong.” (Mainly I needed to hear this in reference to ways of living or certain mindsets.) I was reminded of this phrase when reading Timothy Adkins-Jones (workingpreacher.org) reflection on this passage because he reminds us that though Mt. Sinai was “a treacherous and dangerous mountain, [it] was a place where God’s people received God’s word...It was a holy place even though it was a difficult place.”
Yes, we would like for all encounters with God to be full of good, warm, cozy thoughts and feelings, but we have to admit that many times the overall experience is different - we often learn and hear from God in difficult places.
The two “mountains”...Sinai or Zion...are different, not wrong. The author of Hebrews wants us to see from where we have come in our faith and to where we are going - again, creating that bridge from past to present to future.
Another couple phrases to translate:
….”the One who is speaking” and ”you have come to Jesus...his blood speaks greater than Abel’s”
Well, the One who is speaking is Jesus and God. Jesus isn’t physically present here; this letter is written after his death and resurrection. The author is saying that, in this heavenly city of the living God, we are wise to not turn away from the teachings that come from heaven. These new teachings - from the life of Jesus - give us this new covenant - a new way of living (one without sacrifices, for instance).
These teachings are marked by Jesus’ death, which is where the reference to blood comes in. For the author to reference Abel, he is telling a story from the Hebrew Scriptures - a story from their past. Like with the movement from Mt. Sinai to Mt. Zion, the author is again highlighting the importance of movement forward in faith - an evolution of the life of faith.
In this evolution, God shakes some things up. (I’m not going to lie, since Wednesday, I have been singing Taylor Swift’s song “Shake It Off” over and over. It was your homework on Facebook, if you saw that!)
The Scripture says “those things that remain cannot be shaken.” Over the centuries, God has shook up (shaken up? shaked?) the way we worship the Lord. But God’s unshakeable teachings remain. 1 Corinthians 13 says that what remains always is “Faith, hope, and love.” Those things are not shaken. Through the experiences of Mt. Sinai, through the murder of Abel, through the killing of Jesus, through the destruction of the old temple and the building of Christ’s community, the teachings of Jesus are not shaken out. Faith, hope, and love remain.
Similar to gold mining, where you have a sifter and shake it to find the gold...when this world is shaken, the gold we find lies in our faith in Jesus. It’s where we find repentance and forgiveness. It’s where we find mercy and love. It’s where we find compassion and understanding. It’s where we find boldness and advocacy. Those are the gold nuggets.
As you are growing in your faith and spirituality (no matter your age!), what can you shake out of it? For example, one of the lines in T.Swift’s chorus is “haters gonna hate.” Where can you shake hate out of your life?
When you sift through your life (thinking through how you spend your time, who you spend your time with, where you spend money, etc), what do want to remain? What can we cling to (have faith in) that is unshakeable (with all the things in this world that feel shakeable)?
Adkins-Jones states “Though Jesus serves as the mediator of the New Covenant, the author [of Hebrews] does not want to diminish our need to respect God’s grandeur and magnificence.”
How, when we our sifting through and shaking out, can we keep our spiritual focus on God’s grandeur? How can we focus in on what matters?
How will you let that grandeur impact your day to day living?
-call more friends
-use less plastic
-vote differently in elections
-change work habits
As we sift through these thoughts for our individual lives and our congregational life, my hope is that whatever remains, it represents faith, hope, and love. Let’s shake everything else off!
Scripture: Hebrews 12:18-29