The Rev. Paul J Cain, Jr.
A Better Word
(Proper 16C) The Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost, 22 August 2010
Immanuel Lutheran Church, Sheridan, Wyoming
In the Name of the Father and of the T Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Has our culture lost a sense of reverence? You may remember going to a sporting event in the last few years where the people in front of you didn’t put their hand over their heart during the Star Spangled Banner. Many Americans don’t even know the words. Have we lost a sense of awe? The word “Awesome!” has become more of an exclamation or even a catch-phrase. Where is the respect that most of us where taught to show to our parents, teachers, government officials, and all adults in general? To be certain, there is a tragic anniversary coming up in a couple of weeks. We remember 9-11 and how most Americans appeared to regain—at least temporarily—much of the reverence, awe, respect, and sense of holiness that seems to be lacking in every-day life. The churches were packed. Civil ceremonies were serious again—no giggling in the back row. Athletes sported the American flag on their uniforms as never before. And then what happened? We forgot. Back to business as usual. The bumper sticker “Question Authority” reigns again.
All too often, the attitudes of the world around us, the doubts in our hearts, and the problems rolling around in our own heads come with us when we walk in the church door. That’s life in a fallen world. Even if our personal or cultural distractions occupy our thoughts during the first hymn, the Lutheran service finds a way to grab our attention: We have to stand up. Not only that, the rite of Confession and Absolution reminds us of the narrow door of salvation: If You, O Lord, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand? No one could. Our help is in the name of the Lord, who made heaven and earth, including us. With Him there is forgiveness; therefore the Lord is feared. Psalm 124 and 130 to the rescue.
We are most familiar with the “being afraid or scared” kind of fear. When we confessed before that God is “feared,” we mean “fear” in a different way, “reverent awe, repentant faith, respectful thanksgiving and praise.” And so, at least for a moment, and hopefully for the rest of the service, this room becomes a sanctuary from the outside world. We are the Lord’s, here to receive His gifts, ready to learn at Jesus’ feet. That’s not to mean that what we do in this air-conditioned space has nothing to do with the rest of your week—far from it. The Lord Himself is present to forgive you for the past and prepare you for the future, nourishing you with His wisdom and forgiveness.
The original listeners to the book of Hebrews thought they had it bad. They were suffering in this world and didn’t like it. What’s new with that? Put yourself in their sandals as you listen to the writer: 4In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? “My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, nor be weary when reproved by him. 6For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, and chastises every son whom he receives.” 7It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? 8If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. 9Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. 11For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
Painful. That’s about right, isn’t it? What child understands his first spanking? So it is with divine discipline. When the spanking or other punishment is followed up with a loving hug from that same parent, law and Gospel are demonstrated in a personal way. The Lord disciplines those He loves. If He were a parent that didn’t care, He wouldn’t bother with the discipline we need. We endure discipline from parents and from our Heavenly Father not just to prove we can endure, but trusting that there is something better for us on the other side.
12Therefore lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, 13and make straight paths for your feet, so that what is lame may not be put out of joint but rather be healed. 14Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord. 15See to it that no one fails to obtain the grace of God; that no “root of bitterness” springs up and causes trouble, and by it many become defiled; 16that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. 17For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.
What the writer is saying is that Esau wanted a “do over.” The Lord forgives sins, but allows no “mulligans.” “Hit a bad [golf] shot? Take a mulligan and hit it again. Mulligans are played only when expressly agreed upon by all partners in a friendly match, and are never allowed when the official rules are being followed…” (about.com). The Lord graciously and mercifully forgives sins, but forgiveness doesn’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. It doesn’t turn back time. Sometimes the temporal consequences of our sinful actions (or inactions) mean that we must, as a forgiven sinner, still sleep in the bed we made for ourselves. Without forgiveness, there are also eternal consequences for sin. Or have we forgotten that God the Lord is a consuming fire?
18For you have not come to what may be touched, a blazing fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest 19and the sound of a trumpet and a voice whose words made the hearers beg that no further messages be spoken to them. 20For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” 21Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” 22But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, 23and 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, 24and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
A better word. Abel’s blood spoke volumes about his brother. Cain showed by his act of murder that he was not his brother’s keeper. He was his brother’s killer. That’s what the blood said. It cried out to the Lord for justice, even vengeance, which only belongs to the Lord and those to whom He entrusts it. That first murder crime scene spoke volumes, but this sermon is not an episode of CSI. We’re not about forensic science. I’m here to talk about Jesus. His sprinkled blood speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. Jesus was also an innocent victim, though innocent in a way Abel could not claim. Jesus was sinless. As a sinless, willing sacrifice sent by His Father, Jesus atoned for the sins of the whole world. He made you “at one” with God. The Blood of Jesus cries out, “It is finished. You are forgiven.” And the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses you from every sin. That is Gospel, a much better word.
Esau’s example of what we should not do should by itself teach us not to reject the Lord’s gifts and promises, but the writer continues: 25See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven. 26At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. 28Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29for our God is a consuming fire.
This is the same writer who taught the Hebrews, “Let us not neglect meeting together for worship as some are in the habit of doing.”
In his hymn on the Ten Commandments, Luther wrote, “ ‘You shall observe the worship day That peace may fill your home, and pray, And put aside the work you do, So that God may work in you.’ Have mercy, Lord!” (LSB 581:4) We’ve come full circle. “A Better Word” is Jesus’ shed blood and His righteousness given you as a covering. In Christ we come before the Lord with acceptable worship, but that doesn’t mean that “anything goes” in a service if we believe in Jesus. Our God is a consuming fire. Acceptable worship is done with reverence and awe. Reverence and awe. That’s more than just “no running in church.” What is most upsetting to me is the lack of reverence and lack of awe at worship in some places in our Synod and in the Saturday night and Sunday morning services of other church bodies in America. The focus upon entertainment, seeing the congregation as an audience and the chancel as a stage, and importing the styles and techniques of secular popular culture ignores reverence and awe and more importantly, distracts those who attend such a service from Jesus—at best. At worst, He is covered up to the extent that the congregation hears only law and may never hear the words “Jesus” or “Christ” at all. So much for reverence and awe in Christ.
The Lord disciplines you, whom He loves. We may not always understand or appreciate that, but in reverence, we realize that our Heavenly Father knows best. In holy awe consider the following: God in Christ forgives you all your sins—every single one—and welcomes you into His presence. Today, you 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, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.. Amen.
In the Name of the Father and of the T Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.