Hebrews 12.18-29 The blessings of the New Covenant 21st August 2016
This morning we are going to celebrate communion together as we do on every Sunday morning. I will say the words in the liturgy and some of the words will remind us of Jesus’ words to his disciples at the Last Supper as he passed to them the cup of wine. I will say, ‘Drink this, all of you, this is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for you for the forgiveness of sins’. Sometimes we can hear words week after week and not really think about what they mean. What is the New Covenant that Jesus is speaking of? How is it different from the Old Covenant?
This morning our reading comes from the Letter to the Hebrews. In it, the writer helps us to understand something of the difference between the Old and the New Covenants and we are going to look at it to see how it can help us understand our own relationship with God through Jesus. It will also help us to understand more of what is happening as we celebrate communion together.
A covenant is essentially an agreement-a bit like a contract but not quite. A covenant helps us to understand where we stand in a relationship. Sometimes the parties come to the covenant as equal parties as in a marriage. When a couple get married in church they make promises to each other and these promises will be at the heart of their marriage relationship. Sometimes the parties are not equal-like a covenant or treaty between a powerful and rich nation and a small poor country. At the heart of our relationship with God is a covenant. It is not an agreement between two equal parties. God is God. He sets the terms of the covenant. He invites us into the relationship with him through faith in Jesus. This morning we are going to look at how the writer of the letter to the Hebrews can help us understand the blessings we can enjoy under the New Covenant.
We are not sure exactly who wrote the Letter to the Hebrews-possibly Barnabas or possibly Apollos. Both are mentioned by the Apostle Paul in his letters. The writer of Hebrews was very familiar with the Old Testament and the Letter is addressed to Jewish Christians who were struggling with keeping going with their Christian faith.
In our bible passage this morning, the writer particularly focuses on the benefits of the New Covenant that Jesus instituted by his death on the cross.
Hebrews compares the two covenants by using the picture of two mountains. The Old Covenant is pictured as Mount Sinai and the New Covenant is pictured as Mount Zion.
Let’s start by looking at the Old Covenant.
- The Old Covenant The book of Exodus records in the Old Testament how God rescued the people of Israel from slavery in Egypt. He brought them out from slavery under the leadership of Moses into the desert of Sinai. It was there that he made a covenant with them which we now call the Old Covenant.
It’s important that we grasp that this covenant was a great blessing. God chose this motley group of people to be for him a special people. They were rescued from slavery into the freedom of relationship with him. In Exodus 19.5 God says, ‘then out of all the nations you are to be for me my treasured possession…you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ God was choosing the Israelites for a special relationship with him. His intention was that as all the other nations saw what it was like to be in relationship with the living God and what a blessing it was, they too would desire the same relationship.
Moses was invited by God to meet with him on Mount Sinai to receive the terms of the covenant. The terms would set out how the people were to order their lives in relationship with God. The terms are what we now call the Ten Commandments. God was to appear to Moses on Mount Sinai.
The writer of Hebrews focuses in our reading this morning on the terrifying nature of this theophany of God on Mount Sinai. He speaks of the mountain burning with fire, of darkness, gloom and storm. He speaks of the people being terrified by this appearance of God, so much so that the people asked that God speak to Moses and not to them.
This description of encountering God is meant to be frightening. It reminds us that God is holy. He is not the same as us. We cannot approach him just as we want to. We need a mediator.
We know too that God has made us for a relationship with him. He wants us to approach him. At Sinai God appointed Moses to be a mediator between the people and God. Nevertheless the experience was frightening. A complicated system of animal sacrifices was set up under the Old Covenant to enable imperfect and sinful people to live in relationship with God. Sacrifices were also made at the inauguration of the Old Covenant and the blood was used by Moses to sprinkle the people as part of the covenant ceremony.
Now we come to the New Covenant.
- The New Covenant Hebrews uses the picture of being on a journey or pilgrimage to Mount Zion to speak of the New Covenant.
Mount Zion is not a picture of a physical place. It is not the physical Jerusalem. Mount Zion is a community of people. Hebrews gives us joyful picture of the people who have come to faith and trust in Jesus. He pictures us being together with hosts of angels worshipping God.
- Under the Old Covenant, Moses was the mediator between the people and God. Under the New Covenant, Jesus is the mediator between us and God.
- Under the Old Covenant, the Covenant was sealed when the people were sprinkled with the blood of the animals that had been sacrificed to enable the people to approach a Holy God. Under the New Covenant, it is God’s Son Jesus who lays down his life as a sacrifice in his death on the cross. We are sprinkled by his blood. This blood both seals the covenant and washes and purifies us from our selfishness and sin. Through faith in Jesus we are made holy. We are welcomed into the presence of God. We don’t need to be afraid. We won’t be consumed by fire or judgement. God invites us to get close to him through Jesus. We do this through prayer, through worship, through listening to him speak to us through the bible.
We celebrate the blessings of the New Covenant each time we celebrate communion. After we have received communion we join together in praying the prayer of thanksgiving.
We thank you for feeding us with the body and blood of your Son Jesus Christ.
Through him we offer you our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice.
We are invited into a covenant relationship with God the Father through faith in Jesus. We receive the blessings of the covenant and in response we offer our lives to love and to serve God with all that we are. We can only do this in the power that he gives through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
We end the prayer by saying:
Send us out
In the power of your spirit
To live and work to your praise and glory
The challenge for us all is for our lives to be focused on giving God the glory and not seeking it for ourselves.