Hebrews 12: 18-29 Would We but Listen
The last few weeks have been very difficult and tragic for many people in many parts of our country (including Death Valley) who have experience flooding and fires. I cannot imagine how horrible it must feel to have a wall of fire or fast-rising water headed your way. Thankfully many were able to escape with their lives. Sadly, some did not.
How can we prepare for this? I am sure many of the people caught up in these disasters never imagined they would be in such a situation. The uncertainty about our world, our lives, is that circumstances and situations can change almost in an instant.
Some of the people in the path of advancing threats almost had to be forced to move. There are all kinds of stories about those who almost waited too long. It is a strange thing about human nature. We tend to deny the danger. We think we have the time. We can find ourselves in serious trouble when we discover we don’t.
The passage today is a concise, complete, compressed collection of the realities human beings have faced, are facing, and will most certainly face in the future. The writer is speaking specifically to those connected to the history and heritage of the Hebrew people, the chosen of God, who have encountered the incredible revelation of Jesus of Nazareth. If only they would have listened.
The writer, through the presence of God’s Spirit, is also speaking to us. If only we would listen.
The writer begins with a contrast. A contrast of two views of God. The writer uses locations to make a point. One location comes from the past. The writer speaks about when the chosen people had been liberated as slaves in Egypt and had come to the mountain where God was waiting.
This was an encounter with fear. Fear of a God who they believed was a punishing God. A God of laws and restrictions. Listen again to what the Scripture says, “The sight was so frightening that Moses said, “I’m terrified and shaking!” (Heb. 12:21 CEB)
This is the view of God many people still have today, a God of laws and judgment. A God who restricts and confines. A God who says no, a God of the past. So many people just turn this God off. They know better. They don’t need this kind of God, so they create their own.
The other viewpoint of the nature of God the writer gives begins in verse 22. This is the place of the promise. This is an encounter with acceptance. This is a place where the focus is not on what was but what can be. The people again come to this place as slaves who have been liberated, but the liberation is not from taskmasters but from the hopelessness of sin. This is the place, the writer tells us, we can come to Jesus.
It is as if the writer is striving to bring the readers of the text to a fork in the road, telling us where each path leads. One to a place of fear, the other to a place of faith.
Why does the writer do this? First, the writer knows which is the true nature of God. The writer knows God is a God of caring, of helping, a God who loves us because the writer knows Jesus. The writer wants the reader to understand just how important the revelation of God is to us. The writer also wants to warn us.
Warn us? That sounds a lot like fear. No, it sounds a lot like care and compassion. It sounds like love.
The warnings God gives to humanity are not more a threat any more than a sign warning you of a bridge out is a threat or a sign warning against high voltage is a threat. If a person chose to ignore the warning, whose fault is it?
Look at verse 25. Here the writer brings back the past. He reminds us that this world is a cause-effect world. There are natural laws that have consequences when broken and there are spiritual laws that have consequences. We are warned. Not because God is mean, but because God is loving.
Throughout the Old Testament, when people chose the wrong path, God would send individuals called prophets to warn them. The Scripture if full of accounts of the consequence of the human response.
God does not enjoy human suffering. God finds no pleasure even in the death of evil people. God does not want any human being to perish. As we are told in the letter written by Jesus’s disciple Peter, “God is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish but all to change their hearts and lives.” (2 Pet. 3:9 CEB) This is God’s hope. This is what God wants. This is how God loves.
What about all those verses about God’s anger? Yes, God does get angry. Yes, there is a limit to how far God will tolerate the things human beings do. Sometimes God does let us bear the consequences of this fallen world. But this is not God the kind of relationship God wants to have with us.
Jesus came to reveal the relationship God wants. Jesus came to reveal the servant nature of God. God made this world for us. God made us able to love and be loved by God. But this world has a limited time.
As the writer of Hebrews warns, God shook the Earth to its foundations before and God will do so again. This life is limited. This life will end. This life is our chance if we would but listen.
God does not negotiate. God does not make deals. God makes promises. God makes covenants. God does what God says will be done.
In 1889, on May 31, the Johnstown Flood killed 2,209 people. The flood was caused by the catastrophic failure of the South Fork Dam on the Little Conemaugh River 14 miles upstream from Johnstown, Penn. What is so sad about this disaster was that twice the telegraph office sent warnings to Johnstown explaining the critical nature of the eroding dam. But the warnings were not passed to the authorities in town, as there had been many false alarms in the past of the South Fork Dam not holding against flooding that no one believed it would happen. The great wave measured 35-40 feet high and hit Johnstown at 40 miles per hour.
99 entire families died, including 396 children. 124 women and 198 men were left widowed. More than 750 victims were never identified.
The tragedy could have been avoided. If only the warning would have been heeded. If they would have but listened.
God will not destroy this world with a flood. This is a promise God has made. The next shaking will be with fire. This is not a message of fear, not a threat, but a certainty because God does what God says.
We need to pay attention. We need to prepare. We need to take our spiritual state seriously. Verse 28 is a vision of hope, but also a reminder of who it is that gives us this word. Our God deserves our respect, our awe, but even more our gratitude, our service, and all our love. Our God is a consuming fire. Would we but listen!