Living a Life of Promise
Text: Heb. 12:18-24
Proper 16, C
We hear lots of expressions in our everyday lives about promises. This person or that new product looks promising. We often talk about things being off to a promising start. We even talk about emerging weather patterns as promising or not. I would go so far as to say that the structure of our very society is built upon promises. Promises govern our everyday life. Banks give out loans on the promise that they will be paid back. People invest in trade and industry on the promise that they will get a return on their investment. Families move into new neighbourhoods and communities on the promise of a better house and neighbours, ease of life, or improved safety. People invest in education on the promise that they will learn something useful. Many people even choose a church on the promise that it will fill their needs for such things as uplifting worship, people of the same age group or social group, or convenient schedules. For good or bad, our life is a life lived by promises.
Many promises are good. Men and women promise to be faithful in marriage. Parents promise to do what is best for their children. Children promise to honour their parents’ decisions. Many promises made in business and industry are done in good faith and are followed up on. When this happens our society thrives. And so God himself calls all Christians to live lives of promise. Promises to help others in need, promises to love one another. Promises to be faithful, and hard working, and forgiving to one another. These promises are all nicely summed up in the ten commandments. These are good and healthy promises to live by: not having other gods, not killing, not stealing, not hurting others in any way. These ideas are the basis of the Christian life of promise. It is the way that we as Christians promise to live our lives: loving God first, and loving all others before ourselves.
Unfortunately, not all promises are good or healthy. Often we make promises at the expense of others. Sometimes promises are made even when there is no intention of following through with them. Outlandish and enticing promises are made to draw people to a certain point of view, or to buy a new product or service. All you have to do is take a quick look into the paper or on television and you will see dozens of people or companies making promises to attract new customers. Self-help Gurus like Oprah and Dr. Phil, psychic hot-lines, and hours upon hours of infomercials promise all kinds of remarkable things – success, wealth, fame, love, security, happiness. Watch any politician during election races: their promises are remarkably similar. But as we all have found out; most of these kinds of promises are not worth a whole lot. They very rarely give us the wealth, or success, or fame, or security they promised. They always seem to let us down.
The people to which the book of Hebrews was written knew this too. They were Jewish Christians who were struggling to survive in a harsh world. They were tempted and troubled on every side. The Jews and the Romans didn’t trust them because they were Christian. The gentile Christians didn’t trust them because they were Jews. They were under pressure from their families, friends, and government to renounce their faith and go back to the old ways. They were suffering persecution ... and all for the promises of a God who didn’t seem to care about their plight. Their world was full of empty and shallow promises. Come back to Judaism and things will be better. Renounce Jesus and your life will be easier. Many of them were ready to go back to what they knew. They were ready to trade in the promises of Jesus for those of the world around them. The writer of Hebrews uses the seven verses of our text to show them just where all these promises would lead.
He begins this passage with a vivid description of a terrifying mountain. It is of course Mount Sinai. This description is taken from Exodus 19. It is a symbol of the old ways to which the Jewish Christians were tempted to return. It was at this mountain that God gave the Jews (and us) the Ten Commandments. He did it to teach them (and us) about the reality of sin, the pervasiveness of it power in our lives. Its false promises.
He gave these Commandments as a series of promises for His people to live up to. And to impress upon the people, the importance of this message, God appeared on Mount Sinai in a terrifying and glorious manner. Exodus tells us that for six days the people camped at the base of this mountain while it was smothered in black clouds, and blazing fire, while storms boiled around its summit, and the ground shook beneath their feet. When God spoke, the sound of His voice terrified everyone, even Moses.
God came in terrible power to Mount Sinai to make a promise to His people for all time. His promise was simply this: Live according to these ten promises or you will die. God will tolerate no sin. He will consume in wrath those who don't keep their promises.
That is a promise of bad news for us. Most promises that we humans make, aren’t usually worth a whole lot. And here I’m not just talking about the promises of people trying to sell something. Even the good or well intentioned promises Christians make aren’t worth the words they are spoken with. I certainly hope that none of you throw around promises as readily, or as cheaply as some politicians do ... but even the promises that we make thoughtfully, and carefully have a way of not always working out the way we intended. Other things come up suddenly, or circumstances change, or we just simply forget, or neglect to follow through with what we promised. When we fail to keep our promises, we let others down, and we let God down. The Ten Commandments are a list of promises we could never hope to follow completely.
And yet many people try to live this way. They try to go it alone. They try to live by the Commandments, at least in part. They fall back upon the promises they have kept, making them into something more than they really are. They ignore, or choose not to see the promises they have failed to keep, making less of them than they really are. But the terrible promise of Mount Sinai remains the same. Those who try to live upon it’s stony sides will die. Those who fail to keep even one of the Commandments, even once, have broken their promise to God, and deserve all of His terrible wrath.
But the text for this morning does not end on Mount Sinai. In fact it begins by saying that as Christians we have not come to live under the shadow of such a terrible mountain at all. This passage continues from Mount Sinai to another mountain, and the promises held therein. This text takes us to the slopes Mount Zion. Physically, this was the mountain upon which Jerusalem was built, but it is also a symbol of the heavenly city of Jesus Christ, the Messiah.
The author of Hebrews tells the Jewish Christians of his day, and us this day, that this mountain, Mount Zion, is the place to which we have come in our lives. It is not a place of terrible wrath and punishment. It is a place of great joy. You could even say that it is a wonderful party town. In it is gathered all of the saints, and all of the angels; too many to count. In it is our Lord Jesus himself, ruling over all. In it everyone is made perfect, and no promises are broken. In it we are given eternal life and the blessed inheritance that God promised to us in the garden of Eden. This, the author tells us, is the promise under which we live our lives. Not the promise of Sinai, but the promise of Zion.
But how did we get from one mountain to the other? How did we get from the terrible wrath of Sinai, to the blessed city on Zion? We already know that it wasn’t because of our ability to keep our promises perfectly. There is only one path between these two mountains. It involves going over a small hill in the middle. This hill has been given the name Calvary. It is the only sure way from the promise of one, to the promise of the other. You see, it was on this little hill called Calvary that Jesus Christ, the Son of God came down to earth and breached the gap between these two mountains.
He did it by fulfilling the promises of both. The promises of God are sure, and last forever. Thus when God promised that those who sin must die, that promise could not be revoked. It didn’t have to be. Jesus came to earth and lived a perfect life of promise for us. He kept the ten commandments without even one broken promise. And after he did what we ourselves could not, he marched slowly up that little hill of Calvary, and died the death that the promise of Sinai demanded of each of us. He died in our place. He died for our broken promises.
But then He rose again from the dead. He rose and left the grave on the third day after his death. He rose again to eternal life, the promise of Mount Zion. And because he had first died for us, he now lives for us, and fulfils the promise of Zion for us. Because he lives, so too will we. Because he reigns in the heavenly city of Zion as judge and ruler, we are even now citizens under him. We are right now, on the slopes of Mount Zion, living under its promise of eternal life.
All human life is lived out under two very powerful promises of God. The first is the promise of Mount Sinai. This is the mountain that looms in front of all who trust in their own abilities. It is a mountain of terror, a mountain of desolation, a mountain of punishment and death. Beyond that mountain, however, looms an even greater one; Mount Zion. It is a mountain of hope, a mountain of joy, a mountain of life and peace. It is a mountain inhabited by God himself, and all whom he has made perfect through faith in Jesus.
It is a mountain that can only be reached through the sacrifice of Calvary. There is no other way. On Mount Sinai the ten commandments were written. These wrote off all of our deeds as evil and sinful. On Mount Zion, however, is written the Book of Life and because of Jesus, our names have been inscribed in its pages for all eternity.