The God in Joyful Assembly

(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on June 25, 2017)

One of my standard jokes…and ask my kids, I have too many repeat jokes…one of my standard jokes whenever people ask me what I’m preaching about is to say: “God.”

But today, it’s not a joke, it’s actually true. Today I want to talk about God; about our image of God, and about drawing near to God. Today is a joyful celebration of being in the presence of God!

It’s my last chance to speak here as pastor of this church, and that pushes me to think of what is most important, what is at the heart of what is most life giving and central to my faith in Jesus Christ. And I think my heart-cry message has to do with our image of God.

I’ve tried to be faithful to speak and teach about a wide variety of topics. Since we believe ALL of life is spiritual, that means there are a whole lot of different things to talk about. I hope I’ve been faithful to cover a bunch over the years.

But of course I have my heart cries, my themes that I return to with passion over and over. And for me, as I think back, when the Spirit of God is moving most passionately in me, it’s usually to call out a vision for an image of God that is inviting, loving, and joy-filled.  What I feel most put on this earth to do is to speak about and to embody the wide open embrace of the God who has drawn near to us.

Because this is what has changed and shaped and guided my life. This is what has given me life!

This is why I chose to serve as a pastor for 27 years, why I know even without the role I am still going to be passionate about doing whatever I can to demonstrate God’s open arms of love. Bit by bit, year by year, verse by verse, person by person, I’ve watched this grow in me. I have seen that when I think of God, my fear and trembling and shame have lessened and been replaced by the absolute reality of a God who is approachable and knowable, who walks each moment of each day with me, who can be discovered sitting with arms wrapped around the unloved and displaced and oppressed.

I know our Creator God–the God who bought so much diversity and beauty into this world–I know our Creator God is real and knowable and longs to draw us into an embrace. And I want everyone…I want you to know this good God, too.

My journey has been a long one, and it is still ongoing. Because the holiness of God, the otherness of God, the beyondness of God is real as well. How do we think of all this? How do we integrate it all? It will continue to be a journey for me.

But my testimony, my experience, is that because of Jesus, our core experience of God is not fear and shame and groveling and terror. Because of Jesus, I believe our core experience of God is acceptance and joy and embrace. Because of Jesus, we have the ability to approach our Creator God and find our home.

And I firmly believe I am not making this up! I see a beautiful unifying thread describing this approachable God throughout the New Testament, through the entire bible. 

One of the most clear and most profound of those places is in the book of Hebrews. Turn with me to Hebrew 12:18-24

You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: ‘If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.’ The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, ‘I am trembling with fear.’
But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. (Hebrews 12:18-24, TNIV)

Hebrews is describing two different pictures of God’s very self. The first view of God is represented by Mt. Sinai. It’s not even named in Hebrews, but this is clearly describing the mountain where God gave Moses the law and the stone tablets with the ten commandments; it is the picture of the Jewish God of Torah, of the law, of awe and fear. Yet here in Hebrews it pales in comparison with the second picture, that of Mount Zion: the city of joy and redemption where Jesus brings us in to find our home.

Sinai and Zion; gloom and joy; death and life; Moses and Jesus; fear and embrace. These verses paint such a vividly clear picture, and there is no doubt that the author wants us to radically change how we see God. Because of how superior Jesus is, the author of Hebrews is inviting us all to a new experience of the same God who has always been. We are invited to an experience so new that the contrast in our minds, the contrast in our perception and experience of God, is as different as the contrast between Sinai and Zion.

In the original language, this is absolutely exquisite poetic writing. William Lane attempted to pull the poetry into English.

Screen Shot 2017-08-07 at 3.40.39 PM

An economy of words that paints a foreboding picture, isn’t it?

I’ve told before of a horrific recurring dream I used to have as a kid. I would have to walk on this stepping stone path. I was forced to go from stone to stone, I couldn’t leave it, couldn’t not go forward. One of the stones would be the trigger; I would step on it and hear a spring snap, and then this horrible maniacal [note: I mispronounced this in BOTH services!] laughter, and the dark sky would light up like red fire, and I knew my fate was sealed. But I had to keep going from stone to stone until it happened, until the whole thing exploded.

It was how I lived my life, with this belief that you were always going to mess up, but there was nothing to do but go forward and wait for the punishment. It was my perfectionistic, people pleasing, don’t-mess-up-life encapsulated in one horrific nightmare.

And I’ve come to realize it was a metaphor for how I viewed God, too. God was just waiting for me to mess up. Waiting to spring punishment on me. Making me keep going through the motions while I knew all along that I had failed and didn’t measure up.

This is how Hebrews portrays Sinai, how Hebrews describes how the Jewish people interacted with God in fear. Untouchable, blazing fire. Darkness, gloom, whirlwind. God’s voice so threatening that we all beg that no further thing be said.

The author of Hebrews is selectively pulling these images from Deuteronomy 4. It’s a biased selection, actually; in Deuteronomy while Sinai is awesome and fearsome, God is also clearly present…not distant as the Hebrews account seems to convey. The author of Hebrews also goes further than Deuteronomy to say that not only the people, but even Moses was “terrified and trembling”.

This is a debater’s case, a biased case to highlight the differences. I believe the truth is that God has always wanted to be known, that even Sinai was God coming to connect with humanity. But the point is well taken, isn’t it? And we in Christian circles, Christians who have never tried to live by Torah or thought of ourselves as people of Moses…even we in Christian circles have sometimes created a picture of God that is as fearsome as these seven haunting lines, haven’t we?

But with Jesus, there is a new picture, a new covenant, a new goal. Here’s how William Lane tries to express the poetry: 


Screen Shot 2017-08-07 at 3.40.51 PM

The contrast is clear and striking, when they sit side by side. Living God! Innumerable angels! A festive party! A permanent place for us in heaven, where Jesus even makes a way for us to stand before the Judge of the universe; where our spirits are transformed and made perfect! Instead of “do not touch,” it is “come on in!”

Even the blood image, which we often are confused by in our non-sacrificial culture, even the blood image has changed. In the Sinai world, Cain’s murder of Abel led to Abel’s blood crying out to God, having a “claim” on God for revenge and for justice. Blood cries out for gloom and retribution on the wrongdoers.

But Jesus’ blood cries out for us to enter the party once for all! To find a home in the very presence of our Creator God. To experience a process of being made perfect. Being changed and transformed is not something that has to happen IN ORDER to approach the mountain of God; rather, the process of transformation happens WHILE WE LIVE in God’s presence in Mount Zion.

This! This is the view of God that has captured my heart and soul, that transforms me. This is the view of God that inspires me and compels me and stirs passion within me!

George Guthrie wrote this about Hebrews 12: “Do our sermons boom and flash with the darkness of Sinai more than they sing and gather people to the festiveness of Zion?”

I’ve been trying to make them sing for quite awhile, and I don’t think I will ever stop trying. 

The first sermon I gave during seminary at Glendora Friends Church was in 1991. Here’s a snippet:

“We view God like He is a frustrated parent.

“We often see God just the way that the judge is pictured in this story.  We think God has a lot to do, doesn’t care about us at all…we think he is ready to fly off the handle at any moment. We don’t think God really cares for us.

“If you haven’t had many people care for you in your life, it is often very difficult to believe that a great big God cares for you.  You may not believe me or the Bible when we say that God really does care for you…You [may] not even let God have the chance to show you that he does care for you.  Jesus told this story to say, ‘Give God the chance!  Let him show you he cares for you!’”

Two months after I started here as Children’s pastor, in August of 1993, the theme is there. I said:

“There is hope for change. No longer is there just the law shaking its finger at us and saying ‘Do this! Don’t do that! Meet this standard!’ Instead, there is a new and real hope for change because of what Jesus has done.”

In 1996, I brought stories I had told the kids downstairs up here to this room. And one was about Genesis, about creation, about the heart of God:

“Then came the words which are so special to us, the words that were different from all the other words God had spoken thus far. Light and dark, sky and sea, plants and animals….all reflected God’s creativity and life. But now came words that were different. Words which spoke to life God’s longing desire, words which made it possible for God to know and to be known, to love and to be loved.

“Words spoken, and there we were! Something out of nothing, something which became SOMEBODIES! We reflected not only God’s creativity and life….we were made in God’s image.  Made like God. Oh, not in how we look…not even in how smart we are. But like God in this amazing sense: made with a longing to know and to be known, to love and to be loved. And the God who needed nothing and had everything, now had someone to share everything with.

“Words spoken again; not words of creation, but yet again something new. Words of blessing. Words of love. Words of sharing and relationship. And oh, did God ever know how VERY good it was!”

[Note: I skipped this example in both services, but include it here] On Easter Sunday, 2001 in Boise the theme leaps off the page again:

“Why am I a pastor? …God has made a huge difference in my life. God has made life worth living. I want to do all I can to help others experience God in that way.

“God loves you. I really mean that. He really means it too. God loves you. Is it hard for you to picture God in that way?

“Real Easter comes when we understand the love God has for us. Love that has no conditions and that cannot be stopped. Love with enough power to overcome the worst thing we can possibly imagine. Love that can change us and make us who God intended for us to be, like his son Jesus Christ.”

This is who I have long known God to be…and on my last Sunday as pastor here, I celebrate as well how my experience and conception of God’s love has grown and grown!

Our God lives in the center of a party of angels, and Jesus invites us to walk right in! And all that Jesus does for us…all that Jesus has done for us to make this possible…It’s because Jesus became human like us.

Jesus experienced our same struggles, the same weakness, the same temptation to sin. Sins are there as they were on Sinai. But because of Jesus, the message is no longer fire and terror and “do not touch”…the message is “come on in”…the message is, “Let us approach.”

What Jesus did removes the fear, removes the need for anything else. It is done. Jesus has permanently made a way for us to walk into the majesty of God.

I’ve had so many times where I’ve been conquered by my fear of how God will respond to my failures and selfishness and wrongs. I’ve sat with so many people who see their own junk and then look to God like the gloom and fire of Mount Sinai. I want to leave that behind.

But what I want to make crystal clear is that I am not just wanting to do away with the the scary picture of fear. I do not only want to destroy a negative view of God, to wipe away a condemning view of God so that we can then walk and go wherever we want to go with our lives.

Instead, I want to hold high for us all the beautiful picture of God welcoming us, inviting us to go right to the heart of the joyful, majestic assembly where God makes a home!

We leave gloom and fear behind, not to walk wherever we want; we leave the fear to fall into the embrace and enter the joy!

It’s all so that we will–to use language from Hebrews–so that we will draw near…so that we will approach God…so that we will walk with Jesus right to the center of Mount Zion where God dwells. That’s the relationship and the home we were created for! That’s where joy is–at the heart of God.

I hear God calling: “Come to me!” I hear God saying to you: “Come to me!” It is worth it, friends. It is life. It is home. Listen to Hebrews 10:19-25.

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another–and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:19-25, TNIV)

If I’ve got this last day to have the privilege of speaking up here, I’ll use it to echo these words: 

Draw near to God! Hold to hope! And let’s encourage each other and spur each other on to love and good deeds.

May you and I live in the heart of Mount Zion, in God’s very presence…now and forever!

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