“Wide, Bright, Awake, and Hopeful”
13th Sunday After Pentecost (Year C - Lutheran Service Book readings)
Saturday, August 21, and Sunday, August 22, 2010
The mother was talking, but my eyes were fixed on the teenage girl’s eyes.
The mother was telling me that she wanted her daughter in the church because she wanted her daughter to know what it means to honor her parents. The mother was saying that she wanted me to teach her daughter the Ten Commandments, that’s why they had come to see me.
The mother was talking, but my eyes were fixed on the teenager’s eyes.
Her eyes were saying more than the mother could hear. Her eyes were saying, “Please don’t just tell me to honor my mother.” Her eyes were wide and narrow at the same time, bright and dim, awake and tired, hopeful and broken. She was telling me with those eyes that there was more to the story than her mother was saying. She was asking me with those eyes if there was more to the story with God. She wanted to believe that somehow there’d be love with God, but all she could hear from her mother was how God would tell her what’s what, tell her how she was wrong, tell her how to shape up. All of that kind of talk made those eyes narrow, dim, tired, and broken.
Yet, as her mother kept talking about the importance of children respecting their parents and how much trouble her daughter had caused, as her mother kept talking as if I was going to simply repeat everything she was saying, as her mother kept up her way of using God as if He was just the man of the house who would make everyone obey, as the mother kept talking, the daughter’s eyes were pleading with me, pleading really with God, pleading for something more, something beyond this routine of punishment and yelling and crushing and defeat, her eyes were pleading for love and forgiveness, her eyes were pleading to be wide, bright, awake, and hopeful.
You have not come to something that will make your eyes narrow, dim, tired, and broken. As the writer to the Hebrews says, you have not come to darkness, gloom, and storm. You have not come to God’s mountain of smoke and fire, of Law and judgment, of impending doom.
No, you have come to something which makes your eyes wide, bright, awake, and hopeful. You have come to Mount Zion, you have come to Jesus as the King of Kings, sitting on His throne full of grace and truth and mercy and love. You have come to Jesus who is the author of a new covenant, a new promise from God, a promise to make you righteous in His sight. You have come to Jesus who died for your sins on the cross, who rose from the dead to conquer death once and for all. You have come to this Gospel, this Good News, this tremendous news. You have come to news that is wide, bright, awake, and hopeful.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews is emphasizing this, this contrast between Mount Sinai where Moses received the Law and Mount Zion, the heavenly city of Jesus, the writer is emphasizing this contrast, because apparently the readers were caught up in a way of approaching God that was leaving them narrow, dim, tired, and broken. The readers, Jewish Christians, were still caught up in thinking that the way to God was through the Law, the way to approach God was through Mount Sinai, the Ten Commandments, the laws of God, and that by fulfilling all of the laws, they could possibly hope to approach God in confidence.
But that understanding of God is narrow, dim, tired, and broken. It leaves them without much confidence at all, because who truly could follow all of the laws? Who could be confident in their own actions as being good enough to approach the holy God? Who could stand in the sight of God whose very presence caused Mount Sinai to smoke with fire, whose presence caused the mountain to be filled with darkness, gloom, and storm, whose presence caused even the animals that touched the mountain to be destined for death?
Perhaps approaching the Lord through the Law seemed like the right answer since it clearly lays out what one must do. It looks like a way to make progress, the steps to be taken in order to approach God. And perhaps that’s why we’re even tempted by this same thing, tempted because it just seems easier if God would tell us what to do, the steps to take in order to be acceptable in His sight.
You know, it’s like a self-help program: What are the steps to knowing God? It’s like the headline on a magazine: “10 Steps to Improving Your Spiritual Life.” We’d like it to be that simple. We’d like to know the rules. We’d like to think we could follow those steps. We’d like to think that we could make that kind of progress.
And maybe that’s what these readers were thinking, too, the ones who read the letter to the Hebrews, these Jewish Christians were just thinking that if they followed the Law of God, that if they took the right steps, then they’d be in God’s good graces.
But the writer doesn’t leave any room for this kind of thinking. No, the writer is clear: This mountain, Mount Sinai, the mountain of the Law of God is filled with smoke and fire, darkness, gloom, and storm. You cannot possibly hope to find life and salvation through the Law. It will make your eyes narrow, dim, tired, and broken. You will not have any confidence before God, because you cannot possibly believe that you will follow the Law to God’s satisfaction. Inside, you will always have a nagging doubt, a terror at knowing that your actions aren’t good enough. Inside, you will always be struck down by that terrible mountain, struck down dead in your sin. Narrow, dim, tired, and broken. And dead.
But you have not come to that mountain, you have not come to something that makes you narrow, dim, tired, and broken. You have not come to God only through His Law. You have not been left at the foot of Mount Sinai struck down in your sins, you have not been left there to die.
You have come to something that makes you wide, bright, awake, and hopeful. You have come to the mountain of Christ, Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to the Gospel, the Good News, the forgiveness of your sins and the promise of eternal life. You have come to that which saves you from being struck down dead forever. You have come to the Savior, the Son of God, the One who revives your spirit, the One who makes you righteous in God’s sight, the One whose blood covers your sins, the One who died for your sins, the One who gives you new life according to His grace and mercy, as an undeserved gift.
You have come to God through Jesus and what He has done. You have not come to God to only find Him full of fury and fire. You have come to God and found that there is the hope of eternity, the hope of living in the heavenly city, of living in the forever city with Christ, of being righteous and holy in God’s sight, of rejoicing with the angels, of having your name written in heaven, of having a sure and certain hope in Christ, of knowing that it all depends on Him. Your life and salvation depend only on what Christ has done.
Apparently those Jewish Christians who first read this letter needed to hear this, and apparently, we still need to hear it today. God has preserved His Word, this Word in this letter, preserved it to come to us today, because we still need this Word, still need this reminder, still need this message of hope.
Because even though we’ve heard that we’re saved by the Gospel, saved by Christ and not by works, even though we know this, we’re still tempted to think that we could do this salvation thing by ourselves; that if we just follow enough of His rules then we’ll be alright; that if we’re just a good person, then we’ll go to heaven.
Doesn’t that have a way of creeping into our thinking? We help a neighbor, because that’s a good thing to do, that’s what we’re supposed to do, that’s how we make sure God is happy with us. We try to do a few good deeds a day, because then we’re on God’s good side. Doesn’t that kind of thing have a way of sneaking into our thinking?
But if we’re really honest, if we really search our hearts, this way of thinking also leave us scared, unsure, wondering what God is thinking about us, wondering if God’ll be disappointed in us, wondering if we’ve done enough. If we’re really honest, doesn’t this kind of thinking make our eyes narrow, dim, tired, and broken?
When I meet people who want to find out about God, I watch their eyes. They may have heard that God just makes a big list of rules, that God will make their lives narrow, dim, tired, and broken.
But if you watch their eyes, people are pleading for God to make them wide, bright, awake, and hopeful.
When you look at yourself in the mirror, when you think about your own spiritual life, watch your eyes. If you’re thinking that you have to approach God through all of the things you do, your eyes are bound to be narrow, dim, tired, and broken.
But you have not come to something that makes your eyes narrow, dim, tired, and broken. You have not come to a mountain of darkness, gloom, and storm.
You have come to Mount Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, the eternal city of Christ. You have come to the Gospel. You have come to forgiveness through the cross of Christ. You have come to eternal life as a gift of God. You have come to something that makes your eyes wide, bright, awake, and hopeful.
The teenage girl’s eyes were pleading for God to be someone who would make her eyes wide, bright, awake, and hopeful. Everything she heard from her mom was making her eyes narrow, dim, tired, and broken. What the girl wanted was Mount Zion, but what she was hearing was Mount Sinai. She wanted to know about salvation in Jesus, but what she was hearing was the Ten Commandments.
After listening to her mom for awhile, I interrupted and explained that being confirmed, being a part of the Church, wasn’t just about following the Ten Commandments. In fact, as much as the Ten Commandments end up guiding our lives, first they just show us that we’re sinful—we’re all sinful. None of us truly can follow all of the commandments of God. We disappoint Him all of the time. All of us disappoint God.
The teenage girl nodded with her narrow, dim, tired, and broken eyes. The mother stared, not wanting to show that this news made her eyes narrow, dim, tired, and broken, not wanting to agree that she somehow also wasn’t living up to God’s standards. Instead of admitting this, she shifted uncomfortably and tapped her daughter on the arm, saying, “See, we don’t follow God’s rules,” when really she was saying, “See, you don’t follow God’s rules.”
While the mother stayed there in that thought, unable to see her own sin, I continued the story for the sake of the teenage girl. I talked about how Jesus came to save us from our sin. He died on the cross to pay for our crimes. He rose again to conquer death so we can live again. Being a Christian isn’t about following rules; being a Christian means believing that Jesus has done everything to save us. Being a Christian means doing things out of love for God—not because we have to, not because we’re trying to make ourselves look good—but doing things as a response of love. Being a Christian means knowing that Jesus loves us, forgives us, and gives us eternal life.
The teenage girl’s eyes got wide, bright, awake, and hopeful after hearing this. They glowed—just for a moment. When she looked back at her mother, the girl’s eyes closed down again. It was hard for her to believe what I was saying; her mother had painted a very different picture of God. But when the girl looked at me, when I talked about the love of Jesus, there was that flicker—wide, bright, awake, and hopeful. And that’s what I tried to keep pointing to every time I talked with that girl.
Unfortunately, the girl and her mother drifted away from the congregation just about as quickly as they showed up. The daughter still was a challenge in many ways, and I think the mother blamed the church for not “straightening her out.”
Despite that, though, I reached out one more time when the girl was graduating from high school, dropped off a graduation present from the church, a Christian CD with a note that once again pointed to the hope we have in Jesus, because no matter what else was going on in that girl’s life, I was still praying that she’d hear the truth—the truth that God comes with Good News of forgiveness and love. I wanted her to know that she had not come to a mountain of darkness, gloom, and storm. Through Christ, she had come to a mountain of forgiveness, life, and salvation.
I pray for that girl’s eyes. I pray that they aren’t narrow, dim, tired, and broken anymore. I pray that through Christ her eyes are wide, bright, awake, and hopeful.