Worship with Reverence and Awe (Hebrews 12:18-29)
The original hearers of Hebrews were at a crossroads. They left everything to follow Jesus and suffered great losses. But now they were like the Israelites who left Egypt - in the middle of the desert, wondering if they really could inherit the land God promised; wondering if the land God promised was worth it; wondering if the Egypt behind them was better. Would they persevere and inherit the promises, or would unbelief and despair take over? So the writer of Hebrews writes to these Christians to show them how superior Jesus Christ is. In chapter 12 he encourages them to not ignore Jesus who warns us from heaven of the coming judgment. There will only be safety in his kingdom. Because of this, he says in Hebrews 12:28–29 (ESV), “Therefore 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, for our God is a consuming fire.” Reverence: a deep respect for someone. Awe: a reverential respect mixed with fear or wonder. Does this describe our lives? Does it describe what we do when see God’s hand today? Do we offer to God worship with reverence and awe?
Even when you are focused on what is happening, it’s impossible to miss the many people here who are intensely focused on what is happening. Introvert or extrovert, expressive or reserved - the reverence and awe of your heart is evident. Do you ever find it challenging to offer God that kind of focus and reverence? I have found this at times. Sometimes I have difficulty getting my mind and soul connected. Sometimes it’s because of a physical-mind problem. Maybe I’m tired or not feeling well. Or maybe I’m distracted by someone else. I will say, it’s challenging to focus if people around us aren’t really engaged: no singing, no Bible, staring at the ceiling, passing notes, checking their phones, or playing games on tablets. That is distracting and discouraging. But, if I’m honest, a lack of awe and reverence can more often a spiritual problem. I’m not seeing or thinking of things right.
What causes this difference? For someone to worship with reverence, awe, and fear, and someone to not do this - to be casual and thoughtless? The paragraphs before this text are meant to motivate this kind of worship, so let’s consider: what is lacking if we aren’t worshipping God acceptably? Notice Hebrews 12:18-24.
1. We aren’t seeing the grandeur of the mountain we have come to (12:18-24)
Hebrews 12:18–24 (ESV), “For you have not come to what may 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 no further messages be spoken to them. For they could not endure the order that was given, “If even a beast touches the mountain, it shall be stoned.” Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses said, “I tremble with fear.” But 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.”
- Earlier, the Hebrew writer encouraged us to boldly enter the Most Holy Place through the blood of Jesus. But as we approach God, we need to remember now that we have not come to Mt. Sinai - which was an awesome and terrifying place. If anyone touched it, they were stoned. We are approaching a “next level” mountain - Mt. Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem.
- As he describes this heavenly mountain-city, he says we have come to innumerable angels, to the assembly of all who are enrolled in heaven, to God and to Jesus. For all the talk that goes on about how this building isn’t sacred, sometimes I forget to recognize that our lives are played out before a sacred assembly. Wherever worship is offered - whether here or elsewhere - we are standing on sacred ground with an innumerable host.
- And here’s the logic of his point: in the past, if we were at anything lesser - a lesser mountain - we would have been stoned just for being there. If access was not allowed to Mt. Sinai and we have actually been given access to a far greater mountain, what kind of respect should we have for the grandeur of where we are and what we are doing?
- Some sci-fi movies and shows will explore the idea of another realm that is actually located within our own realm. Some characters are given the ability to see the full scope of reality taking place all around them.
- We cannot fully see or touch this heavenly city yet. John tells us in Revelation 21 that one day it will come out of heaven. But the writer tells us we have access to it now. And though we cannot see them, there are innumerable creatures giving God glory and honor alongside us this morning. John gives us a picture of this in Revelation 5:11–14 (ESV), “Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.”
- All we see and hear this morning are around 180 other people - so it might seem to our eyes and ears that we have come to some weird, backwater group of radicals. But we can’t hear or see the full scope of reality behind this layer - everybody who is anybody is whole-heartedly giving glory to the one on the throne and to the Lamb.
- To worship with awe and live our lives with reverence, we need to learn to see the grandeur of the unseen assembly we are gathered with this morning and the assembly before whom we are living our lives every day.
2. We aren’t remembering that everything will be shaken (12:25-28)
Hebrews 12:25–28 (ESV), “See 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. At 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.” This 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. Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken…”
- When Moses warned Israel from earth, people did not escape punishment when they ignored him. So the writer says we really shouldn’t ignore Jesus now - for he is warning us from heaven. What is the warning? God will shake both the earth and the heavens. This quotation is taken from Haggai 2. The returnees were rebuilding the temple and the temple was nothing in comparison to the previous temple’s glory. But God promised that he would very soon shake heaven and earth so that the treasures of the nations would cause the glory of the temple to be even greater than in Solomon’s day.
- God did shake some things up and a remnant brought treasure with Ezra to beautify the temple. But it was plain to anyone with eyes to see it that this did not happen in its fullness - the temple didn’t surpass its former glory. Herod’s improvements on the temple at Jerusalem didn’t complete God’s temple project either. At Sinai, the earth shook. In the future, heaven and earth will be shaken so that God’s temple will surpass the glory of the previous temple in a truer, more permanent, more glorious way.
- In that day, everything that has been made will be removed. Do we live - do we worship - with the perspective that everything we see, everything that so often distracts us and catches our eyes, will one day be removed? Are we living as if that will one day be a historical reality in our world?
- It’s easy to lose sight of this in our prosperity. We can feel like there’s nothing wrong in the world. “God’s kingdom and temple projects are done. Nothing needs to be shaken. We are good, we are happy!” The problem with forgetting about the coming judgment is it can cause us to be so short-sighted. What we see seems permanent. The promise of God’s unshakeable kingdom has less value. And then we don’t worship God with awe and deep thankfulness for his kingdom.
- Think about this alongside Hebrews 13:5-6, “Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you or forsake you.’ So we can confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper; I will not fear; what can man do to me?” Think of everything God has given us. Now think about all the possible things that could happen to it. Take comfort: it doesn’t matter what happens to our money or stuff because no matter what happens, we have a far better, permanent possession in God’s kingdom. We don’t have to fear what we may lose. This will be burned up in the end anyway. We have a kingdom that cannot be shaken. We have security - if only we will hold onto it.
- To worship acceptably with awe, we must remember that everything will be burned up, but remember the amazing protection God has given us in his unshakeable kingdom.
3. We aren’t seeing God as a consuming fire (12:28-29)
Hebrews 12:28–29 (ESV), “Therefore 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, for our God is a consuming fire.”
- “Our God is a consuming fire…” This is why we need to be concerned that our worship is acceptable to God - full of reverence and awe. Do we see God in this light? I heard another preacher (Matt Chandler of the Village Church in Dallas) speak on this subject and I thought his illustration was helpful. I used it here four years ago. Has anyone heard of fainting goats? There is actually a type of goat that - when it is startled - its muscles stiffen and it falls over and remains still for a few seconds. It “faints.” If you are a child at heart like me, then you understand my desire to find one of these and start messing around with it. This is what happens when we see something as docile and do not have awe or respect for it. We play around with it.
- Do we perceive God in this light? Approach him casually? Play around? Maybe, we can treat him like a fainting goat, not a consuming fire. We can’t worship God acceptably if this is our picture of him.
- The description of the sixth seal in Revelation can help us see that one day everything will be shaken and how our God is a consuming fire. [Slow] Revelation 6:12–17 (NLT-SE), “I watched as the Lamb broke the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake. The sun became as dark as black cloth, and the moon became as red as blood. Then the stars of the sky fell to the earth like green figs falling from a tree shaken by a strong wind. The sky was rolled up like a scroll, and all of the mountains and islands were moved from their places. Then everyone—the kings of the earth, the rulers, the generals, the wealthy, the powerful, and every slave and free person—all hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains. And they cried to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb. For the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to survive?”” Imagine what it would be like to have this terror come upon you. The sky above you is rolled up. The ground underneath you is shifting. And you are weeping in terror - not because of everything you are losing - but because you can see the face of the one on the throne. All you can think is: I need to hide.
- Isaiah describes the sinners in Zion as having a similar feeling after experiencing God’s judgment. Isaiah 33:14 (ESV), “The sinners in Zion are afraid; trembling has seized the godless: “Who among us can dwell with the consuming fire? Who among us can dwell with everlasting burnings?”” This is precisely what God wanted his judgment to do - to cause sinners to fear him and to ask the all important question: who can dwell with this God who is a consuming fire? Can you?
- Who can dwell with the consuming fire? Notice Isaiah’s response. Isaiah 33:15 (NIV11), “Those who walk righteously and speak what is right, who reject gain from extortion and keep their hands from accepting bribes, who stop their ears against plots of murder and shut their eyes against contemplating evil…” The one who has so much awe and reverence for God that they hate even hearing or seeing evil, that’s the one who can dwell with the consuming fire. This same contrast is present in Revelation — sinners hide from the face of the one on the throne, but those who have washed their robes clean welcome the shining of his face upon their city.
Worshipping with reverence and awe can be so challenging right now because this is not the attitude of everyone around us. The Hebrew writer wouldn’t have told us to worship in this way if it came naturally to us. But it is a must. Notice Isaiah’s encouragement to those who will fear God and purify themselves now.
Isaiah 33:17–20 (NIV11), “Your eyes will see the king in his beauty and view a land that stretches afar… Look on Zion, the city of our festivals; your eyes will see Jerusalem, a peaceful abode, a tent that will not be moved; its stakes will never be pulled up, nor any of its ropes broken.”
One day the king will come and there will be an opportunity to live in Zion, the city of God the living God. The only way the coming of our king and the sight of his face will be a comfort to us in that day is if we have reverential respect full of awe and wonder for him now. In that day, there will be no room in the assembly for people who are not in awe of our king. And there shouldn’t be any room for a lack of reverence among us either. Let us offer him our lives and our worship in an acceptable way - then we will see the king in his beauty.