I’m not preaching tomorrow, so I’m posting this sermon from six years ago.
You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest, and the sound of a trumpet, and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that not another word be spoken to them. (For they could not endure the order that was given, ‘If even an animal touches the mountain, it shall be stoned to death.’ Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, ‘I tremble with fear.’)
The passage we read from Hebrews contrasts two ways of coming to God. The first, the one we just heard again, is the experience of the ancient Israelites: darkness, a blazing fire, gloom, tempest, fear. When the people of Israel came to Sinai, they came to a God they didn’t really know. They had to learn how to live with this God; the first step was to enter this journey with God with dread, quaking in their boots.
We, on the other hand, have a different experience. Again, in the words of the Book of Hebrews, we
…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…
The writer of the Book of Hebrews—whoever that was—is saying that we come into the presence of God surrounded by all the saints and angels of heaven. It doesn’t matter that we can’t see them. Therefore, we may come with an expectant joy.
Most of us will know Charles Wesley’s words far better. We sang them earlier:
No condemnation now I dread:
Jesus, and all in him, is mine!
Alive in him, my living Head,
and clothed in righteousness divine,
bold I approach the eternal throne,
and claim the crown, through Christ, my own.
Why is it different for us? Because we’re more theologically sophisticated? Because we’re more mature, more educated? More holy? No, none of the above. It’s different for us simply because we have been born this side of the coming of Jesus Christ. Jesus has made all the difference. Unlike our ancestors, the believers of the Old Covenant, we may come to the eternal throne with boldness.
Through Jesus Christ, we come boldly to the throne, because through Jesus Christ, we know it to be the throne of absolute and total grace.
Let’s just remember the last verse of our Hebrews reading: ‘…our God is a consuming fire’. This bit always surprises me. A consuming fire doesn’t sound like a God of grace. It sounds more like a God to be frightened of. To us, God’s throne doesn’t necessarily look like a throne of grace. Because the God who sits on this throne is a consuming fire.
I’ve heard people over the years talk about the difference between the ‘God of the Old Testament’ and the ‘God of the New Testament’. Yet it just won’t do for us to speak this way. God reveals more of himself through Jesus Christ than he did through the prophets of old; but God is the same. The so-called ‘Old Testament God’ is the ‘New Testament God’.
It won’t do to say the ‘Old Testament God’ equals fear and gloom, as though God never showed himself to be the God whose loving kindness endures for ever, to borrow a phrase from the psalms.
And it won’t do to say the ‘New Testament God’ equals love and niceness, like a kind of super Santa. The ‘New Testament God’ is a consuming fire. God’s grace consumes us like fire.
We’ve got to grasp this one truth: God’s grace will never finish its work in us until everything in us that makes us uneasy to come into God’s presence has been burned away, stripped away, removed from us. God’s grace will only be satisfied when we can boldly approach that eternal throne at each moment of our lives.
And now we’ve got to this point, we can talk about the woman in St Luke’s Gospel.
Until that very day in the synagogue, Jesus Christ was in the future for her. She’d never met him. The God she knew was the God of the darkness, a blazing fire, gloom, tempest, fear. She had an affliction, a ‘spirit of infirmity’. We don’t know what that was, but we can be certain of one thing: everyone thought she deserved it. Including the woman herself. She’d done something to bring this upon herself!
When this poor woman came to the synagogue, it must have been with a double helping of fear and gloom. She was stuck with this problem; her very spirit was discoloured and distorted by a sense of being infirm, being frail, weak, disabled, being disqualified from full inclusion as a member of the House of Israel. But whether she thought she deserved it or not, she certainly couldn’t see a way out.
She came into the synagogue. They wouldn’t have had seats; you had to stand. But I doubt that she stood in the front. She would have been stooped, positioned behind the other women, who stood separately to the men. She would have been easy to miss.
Now, Jesus was up the front that day, teaching in the synagogue. He could have been forgiven for missing her. But Jesus noticed her. He notices us, too. We may have a spirit of infirmity, of weakness of some kind, or a spirit of I’m-not-good-enough, or a spirit of I-tried-it-once-and-it-didn’t-work. We might hope to be inconspicuous. But we are noticed.
Let’s get back to our bowed-down lady. Jesus didn’t just glance at her, and keep on teaching his important stuff. No, he called her over.
Imagine the hush. What’s this teacher going to do? Will he rebuke her, since she’s a woman with a spirit of infirmity? Or will he use her as an object lesson—you too might end up like this if you don’t do what God wants! After all, remember they are approaching God with a real sense of fear and heart-darkness.
Well, we know what Jesus does; he shows her that the throne of God is a throne of grace. He heals her. Never mind that it’s the sabbath; it is God’s purpose to bring healing and wholeness to the sick and infirm. It is God’s purpose to bring light where there is darkness, life where the powers of death seem to be winning the day, freedom where people are burdened. It is God’s purpose to let peace take root in troubled spirits. God’s purpose for the whole creation is healing and wholeness and light and life and peace.
What about us? How many of us approach God with this boldness that the Letter to the Hebrews speaks of? How many of us slink into church, half hoping that we won’t be noticed? Do we fear the God who is a consuming fire? How many of us suffer under burdens that Jesus longs to lift from us? Burdens of guilt, of fear, of regret, of lack of confidence in God?
Jesus longs to lift them, and allow you and me to stand up straight as a son or daughter of God. Yet we often shrink from God rather than let him lift our burdens from our shoulders. Why? Because we get used to our burdens. We adjust to them. We get comfortable with these burdens. Our spirits become affected by them. When Jesus tries to lift them from us, we realise that they are stuck to our skin.
Was it easy for that woman to be healed? After all, when you’re ill, things get done for you. People are kind. You don’t have to take responsibility for everything. Being well means being accountable and answerable to others. It means making your own way in the world. Did she want to be well, with all the implications? Might she have preferred her spirit of infirmity? A case of better the devil you know?
Yet she could and did come be healed, because through Jesus Christ she could come boldly to the throne of God, the throne of absolute and total grace. She had fallen into the hands of the God of grace, the God who is a consuming fire.
God wants to set us free. To be set free requires that whatever is false in us is at the same time also consumed with the fire of God’s love.
Perhaps you need to speak with someone today about what keeps you bowed down. It’s not a healing service today, but let me or an elder know if you’d like to talk about the burdens that keep you bent over. Allow Jesus to release you today. Let the fire of God’s love work its way deeper into your heart today.