The Road Taken
| Hebrews 12:18-29
||Sun, August 22, 2004
|Perhaps you know Robert Frost’s memorable poem “The Road Not Taken.” It begins, “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood, and sorry I could not travel both.” In the book of Hebrews the author’s congregation is not in a yellow wood—they are in a spiritual desert—but they have come to a place where two roads diverge, and, like the traveler in Frost’s poem, the road they choose to take will make “all the difference.”
The sign post pointing down one fork reads, “To Mt. Sinai,” and the sign pointing down the other fork reads, “To Mt. Zion.” Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion are metaphors for the old and new covenants that God made with his people. The author of Hebrews uses this metaphor to contrast a life of obedience to the law from a life of grace.
Before we continue with that thought let me give you a little background into the book of Hebrews. The unknown author of this book was writing primarily to Jewish-Christians whose faith and practice were weakening. One of the issues they faced was a temptation to return to Jewish ritual practices with all the demands they entailed because they were used to relating to God in this way. Performing the religious duties of their tradition gave them a feeling of security, a sense that they were doing something to become right with God.
Throughout Hebrews, the author works hard to persuade them that they don’t have to do anything more than to put their faith in Christ Jesus, because Jesus had already accomplished what needed to be done. He had brought them into right relationship with God. Throughout the book the author emphasizes that relating to God through Christ and the New Covenant is superior to the old way of relating to God through the Law and the Old Covenant.
The author shows us the nature and meaning of Christ’s actions by explaining that Jesus is superior to the angels (1:4), superior to Moses (3:3), and superior to the high priest in the Old Testament (7:19-22). Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross is also superior to the daily sacrifices of bulls and goats that were required under the Old Covenant (9:11-10:18).
Now the author comes to the point in his message where he asks the people of this congregation, “Which way do you want to go? The way of the law or the way of grace?” The author puts this question to them using a strategy that travel agents use today in order to persuade them to take the Mt. Zion road.
He does this by getting them to imagine they are already at Mt. Zion. You’ve seen the commercials haven’t you, those that open with a scene of a stressed out man or woman driving in rush hour traffic on a hot day with the gas tank almost empty. Suddenly the scene changes to show a lovely sandy beach with eagles soaring in the sky, sailboats moored in a beautiful harbor, kayakers paddling in the water as the sun sets.
Then a narrator’s voice says, “Forget the traffic and tension, forget the phones and hectic schedule. You’re not at home anymore. .You have come to the magical Sunshine Coast” or Hawaii, or some other wonderful place. Of course you’re not actually there, you’re in your living room watching it on TV. But in your imagination you’re already strolling the beaches and listening to the crashing waves, and this scene whets your appetite to go there.
In the book of Hebrews, the author starts with the road he hopes they won’t take. Referring to what the Israelites experienced on Mt. Sinai long ago, the author writes, “You new covenant believers who have put your faith in Christ, you have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, darkness, gloom, and storm, the sound of a trumpet and a terrifying voice.
It’s not that Mt. Sinai was a bad place. In fact, Mt. Sinai was a good place because it was where God gave Israel the Old Covenant, The Law that guided the people to walk in the way of God. The law gave God’s children insight into the way of living in the presence of the God who had blessed them, redeemed them, and called them his own. But Mt. Sinai was also a place of great fear because it was there that Israel came into contact with the holiness of God, the terror of God, the unapproachability of God, and God’s radical demands.
It was at Mt. Sinai that Israel clearly became aware of the boundaries between God and them… and they wanted that separation. When the people of Israel heard God’s voice, they begged God not to speak directly to them. Instead they urged Moses to be the mediator. Moses would speak to God on Israel’s behalf and then speak to Israel on God’s behalf (Deut. 5:23-27). At times, even Moses shook with fear.
But suddenly the author changes the scene. Relief comes when the author proclaims that they have not come to Mt. Sinai, but rather to Mt. Zion. The Good News is that they do not have to be old covenant believers standing with dread at the foot of Mt. Sinai while it blazed with fire, black clouds and deep darkness. Rather they can be new covenant believers who have come to Mt. Zion, the city of the living God.
They can now come to the place where they may boldly and confidently approach God through Jesus Christ, the new mediator. The contrast between Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion is like day and night.
Instead of fire, darkness, gloom, storms, loud trumpets, and a disembodied voice, the new covenant people find an atmosphere that is bright, festive and joyful. At Mt. Zion there’s a welcome for everyone.
Instead of finding Moses serving as the mediator, they now find Jesus serving as the new mediator between God and the people.
What are the features of this remarkable place? Let’s look at vv. 22-24:
First, Mt. Zion, also called the heavenly city of Jerusalem, is the place where God lives and rules. Though God can never be confined to a particular place, the author points out that at Mt. Zion, God is not only present but accessible to God’s people.
Second, Mt. Zion is the place where countless joyous angels and sons and daughters of God are gathered. Picture it, united in God’s mountain are the angels, the faithful men, women and children of God, and Jesus himself. There’s an atmosphere of warmth, openness, acceptance, and relationship. It’s like coming home to the place where you know you belong.
Third, Mt. Zion is the place where God is Judge and where God’s people have already been given the verdict: not guilty. At Mt. Sinai the laws are tough, the judgments are harsh, and everyone has to do some time in order to live up to what the law requires. But those who enter Mt. Zion have passed through the gateway of Jesus—the Mediator and Great High Priest. Jesus, the One who was judged, and the One who has done our time, now stands at the gateway of Mt. Zion, pronouncing his people not guilty.
Fourth, Mt. Zion is the place where the blood of Jesus speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
Hebrews 11:4 says that by faith, Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain. But Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, where his own blood was spilled, accomplished what Abel’s sacrifice of a lamb could not. Jesus’ sacrifice accomplished redemption, reconciliation, salvation, and adoption into God’s family for all who draw near to God through Jesus.
You see, Jesus’ sacrifice demonstrates God’s supreme love, forgiveness, and grace -- all of which speak a better word than Abel’s sacrifice.
At Mt. Zion there is true worship of God all day, every day. And the best part is that we can leave our “pledge-of-duty cards “ and guilty consciences behind, because we no longer live by the rules of “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not.” Rather we have been invited to live by the law of grace that summons us to worship, faithful service, and gratefulness.
Now that the author has painted the pictures of Mt. Sinai and Mt. Zion clearly in our imaginations, we’re ready to make our travel plans. We’ve chosen of course, to journey to Mt. Zion. Seems pretty clear that’s the only way to go. All that’s left to do is reserve our tickets and get on board the train. What more could we want? But then the author says to us, “Hold on! Not so fast! Read the fine print before you go. There’s another side of Mt. Zion that you must know about.”
One warning sounds clearly from this author's megaphone: See to it that you don’t refuse God.
Look at verses 25-26, “See to it that you do not refuse the one who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused the one who warned them on earth, how much less will we escape if we reject the one who warns from heaven! At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, ‘Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens’”.
This God, whose voice shook the earth at Sinai when he gave Israel the Old Covenant,
This God, who swore that those who broke the covenant would not enter his rest (3:7-11),
This God, who promised that he would one day establish a new covenant with the house of Israel
This God is the same God, who continues to speak to the new covenant community through Jesus.
This God warns us not to disregard his message.
So you see the God of Sinai and the God of Zion are one and the same. There hasn’t been a change in management, or in mountains for that matter, but there is a new covenant arrangement!
God, through his servant-writer, warns us not to reject Jesus and the salvation he offers, nor all the blessings of the new covenant, because when God once again shakes the earth, the only thing that will endure will be God, God’s Kingdom, and all who have put their faith in the faithfulness of God.
With this warning, the author seeks to hold in tension on the one hand, the gift of God’s grace and on the other hand God’s call to obey him and live holy lives.
Yes, God is gracious and God is a “consuming fire” - God is a fire that refines and purifies and preserves the righteous and God is a fire that burns up “all causes of sin and evildoers” (Matt. 13:4-43).
So what should we do? Look at verse 28. Since God has promised that we are receiving an unshakable kingdom through Christ, the author encourages us to give thanks to God. When we receive a gift, the proper response is “thank you.”
We can’t help but give thanks when we recognize that this incredible inheritance of God’s kingdom is ours not through our own efforts. It’s ours, not by following the law, rather it is ours through the grace of our Savior Jesus Christ, whose suffering love and sacrifice on the cross makes it possible.
I wonder if the question God really poses to his people is not: “Which way do you want to go today, Mt. Sinai or Mt. Zion?”, but rather, “With whom do you want to go?”
If you decide to go the Mt. Sinai road you’ll be traveling on your own, on your own strength, seeking to do the oughts, shoulds, and musts of serving God. It’s an exhausting journey traveling alone on this route, because try as me might, the law exposes us all as failures, and it does nothing to prevent it. This road leads to guilt or shame when we realize we aren’t measuring up to God’s standards. It can also lead to pride, competing for recognition, judgmental attitudes, or a lack of forgiveness. Sadly, in the end, we find that we’re worshipping and serving God out of a sense of duty and obligation, rather than from love.
But if you choose to travel the road to Mt. Zion, you’ll be traveling with Jesus, following him to the place where God’s dwells. .. the unshakable kingdom. You’ll be following Jesus, the One who has blessed us, redeemed us, and calls us his own. .. the One who calls us to follow him wherever he may lead, whether to death or resurrection. When we travel with Jesus we also journey in the company of the faithful on the road of freedom and grace.
Christian author Frederick Buechner in his book, Wishful Thinking, writes this about grace and traveling this grace-filled road:
“There’s no way to earn grace or deserve it or bring it about any more than you deserve the taste of raspberries and cream or earn good looks or bring about your own birth… A crucial eccentricity of the Christian faith is the assertion that people are saved by grace. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. There’s nothing you have to do. The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you (on the road). Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you.”
When you’re on the road with Jesus you can’t help but give thanks to God for his amazing grace. Your gratefulness, with reverence and awe, will be the offering that God will truly and joyfully accept. Take this road, for this is the road that makes all the difference.