The magnitude 8.1 earthquake in Mexico, which left nearly 100 dead and thousands homeless, has largely gone unnoticed in our country in the aftermath of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma, and it is hard for most of us to imagine what it would be like to live through a deadly one like Mexico’s. Fortunately, while earthquakes are not especially rare here, the ones that do happen are pretty tame. You might remember, though, that there was a magnitude 5 tremblor in eastern Ohio in January, 1986. The epicenter was in Lake County near the Perry nuclear plant, but its effects were felt here and as far away as Illinois.
I remember it happening but not much about how it felt. The one that really shook me up was one we experienced on vacation on the island of St. Kitts. I woke up suddenly one morning, not quite sure what had awakened me, until I realized the bed was shaking and the all the pictures on the wall were vibrating and the dishes in the kitchenette were clattering.
The quake only lasted a few moments, and we later found out that, for the locals, it was pretty much a non-event. But for us it was—literally and figuratively—quite unsettling. We had taken for granted that the building we were in and the ground beneath it were perfectly solid. The earthquake (mild as it may have been) brought home the fact that what we think is solid and reliable often is not. The letter to the Hebrews describes the one thing that is unshakeable—Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, the kingdom of God.
There is a lot of debate about the letter to the Hebrews. We’re not sure who wrote it. For a long time, it was considered one of Paul’s letters; the King James Version titles it that way. But, it is so different from Paul’s other letters that it has long been suspected that Paul did not write it himself. Even the King James Version adds a note at the end that Timothy actually wrote it down in Rome, and it may not have been composed by Paul at all. What we do know is that it was written by someone who was well-versed in the Greek language and in Judaism, and who knew well and cared greatly for the community he’s writing to.
We’re not sure when it was written. An ancient theologian named Clement of Rome quoted it in one of his own writings around the year 95, so it was before that. Other clues in the letter suggest that it was written by someone in the generation following the apostles. So, it’s generally assumed that it was written between the years 60 and 95.
We’re not sure to whom or where it was sent, although Rome seems like a pretty likely destination. But one thing we do know: it was written to a group of Christians, and it was intended to be read by a church in crisis, facing a changing world. The writer had spent time with his readers—long enough to know about their early faith experiences. They had been baptized and fully instructed; some had even become teachers. They were well-versed in the tenets of their faith and also in the Greek version of the Old Testament. But their faith was teetering: they had become lackadaisical about coming together in worship, and their commitment seemed to be fading. They seemed to be in danger of falling away from the faith they confessed in the One they called Lord. They hadn’t crumbled yet. There was still time to shore up the weakening walls, but the writer warns them not to lose their hold on the saving faith they had been given.
What was at the root of this unsteadiness? It may have been that the delay in Christ’s return had left them feeling dejected and discouraged. The world around them made life uncertain and even dangerous. They had felt the effects of persecution in various ways. Some of their members had been imprisoned. Some had had their belongings seized. Some had been tortured. Many had experienced hostility, shame, and dishonor, which in that society could be the deciding factor in whether you were able to make a living or not. The church may have longed for stability—the stability of the legal, political, and religious protections that had been granted to Jews in the past and the stability of the long and established religious traditions of Judaism. Their enthusiasm for their faith may have become wobbly because the ground beneath them had shifted.
The ground beneath our feet seems to shift on a daily basis. We look around at the world, and little seems stable anymore. What we thought were enduring values and institutions seem anything but. Our trust in our elected representatives has eroded, and the basic rules of civility and courtesy we had drilled into us as children no longer seem to apply. The integrity of our elective process has been called into question. Schools, even good ones like our own, no longer seem to be the safe havens they once were. The old ways of doing and thinking and relating to one another are shifting—in many ways appropriately so. But the very fact of their changing leaves us uncertain about whether we are right to hold our ground or wrong in the face of needed change. We seem to be standing on very shaky ground.
We may not be persecuted for our faith as the Hebrews of the letter were, or as many Christians in parts of the world are today. But the Church certainly doesn’t hold the place it once did in the world. When I was growing up in New Phila., it was assumed that you would sign up for Christian education class during school, and in the third grade Miss F. prayed and read to us from a Bible storybook every morning. Everyone I knew except for the one Jewish family in town identified themselves Christian. What “being a Christian” meant to them, I don’t know. But the assumption was that that was what you were.
Businesses were closed on Sundays. No school activities were scheduled on Sundays, and certainly no softball tournaments, soccer tournaments, volleyball tournaments, dance competitions, and so on. Whether you actually went to church or not, the assumption was that Sundays were for church. In the past, if someone told you they attended church regularly, that meant they came at least three weeks a month. Now, people call themselves regular church attenders if they come once a month, or even less.
Our culture was pervaded by a Christian identity, if not by true Christian faith, and those of other faiths or no faith just kept their heads down as best they could. Now we live side by side with people who do not claim Jesus: only about 70% of people in the U.S. identify themselves as Christians, and almost 23% claim no religion at all. The ground beneath Christendom has definitely shifted.
Unlike the Church of the Hebrews, the Church today has had the benefit of a couple thousand years to get used to the idea that Christ may not come again during our lifetime (although we certainly should be living as people anticipating that he will). But, when we look around at the world today, we may wonder where God is in it.
When we hear of ethnic cleansing of Muslims in Myanmar, persecution of Christians in Africa and the Middle East, and demonstrations of hatred against Jews, blacks, and immigrants in our own country, we may well wonder, where is the God of Love? When the nations of the world engage in verbal sparring that escalates the threat of nuclear war, we may well wonder, where is the Prince of Peace? When disregard for the poor, hostility toward the stranger, and neglect of the sick become acceptable options for public policy, we may well ask, where is the Kingdom we look for? Christians today may share the weariness of the ancient Hebrews as they waited for Christ’s return, and we may feel our own faith wobbling as the ground shakes with political, social, and religious change.
Onto this unsteady ground walked the writer of our letter. It is not a comforting, hand-holding letter. It is one that reminds and challenges his readers—reminds them of who they are and what they believe, and challenges them to hold fast to it. He builds a careful argument, frequently relying on Old Testament scripture, to remind his readers of the foundations of their faith: that God has spoken through the Son, that Jesus offered us a new covenant of salvation and freedom through his sacrifice of himself for us, and that he is a high priest who continues to intercede for us. The writer carefully describes the faith of the Old Testament heroes, which we admire and cherish, but which could not secure for them the great inheritance which we have been promised.
Because, the letter writer says, they could only know God as a God who was remote from them, whose presence was known in fire, and clouds of darkness and gloom, through violent wind and trumpet blasts. They could know God only as One whom they dared not try to look at or touch—a being so fearsome that even animals that wandered onto God’s territory would be stoned to death.
But, this is not the case for the Hebrews—or for us. They have not come to a faith in an inaccessible God but to a God of community—of a kingdom where God dwells called Mt. Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem. By faith the Hebrews have been welcomed into this kingdom with all its inhabitants: celebrating angels, those who have gone before them in life and on to perfection in death, even God the judge of all and Jesus the mediator of the new covenant. And, unlike the unsteady earthly kingdom the Hebrews see around them, the divine kingdom they have received is unshakeable.
The letter writer warns his readers not to let go of this unshakeable gift. He reminds them that God has promised that the world and all the earthly things in it will be shaken once again, at Christ’s return. All that they are suffering now will be removed. None of the things that the world treasures—none of the things that impatience and social pressure may have tempted the Hebrews to place their trust in—will remain. All will be shaken; all earthly things will be removed. There is only one place to stand that is unshakable, and that is the ground of their faith in Jesus Christ.
We have been invited on to that same unshakeable ground. We have been given the same gift of citizenship in Zion, the city of God. A place has been secured for us within that cloud of witnesses. And where we are tempted, by the changing social and political and religious realities around us, to place our trust elsewhere, to become lax in our worship of God, to become casual in our approach to this Jesus who gives us nothing less than life, we are reminded, too, not to refuse the gift but to respond with reverence and awe and grateful worship.
We need to live as people who know we are on firm, unshakeable ground. This doesn’t mean that we can’t have questions and even doubts as we deal with the world around us and grapple with the challenges it poses to our faith. It doesn’t mean that our understanding of what it means to be faithful in our world today can’t change or mature or grow. It doesn’t mean that we assume our answers to the world’s problems are cast in stone, because we remember that even stones can be cast down by an earthquake.
What it does mean is that we live as people who know that we can absolutely count on Jesus’ care for us. It means that we can go into the world to serve and to share our faith with an unshakeable confidence that God is with us, even when it is hard to see God’s face. What it does mean is that when the world around us begins to shake, we will not be shaken, because we have a secure hold on what is unshakeable.
The world needs this from us. The world today is so shaky, I think people in general are filled with anxiety about the unreliable ground beneath them. They try to shore up their lives by working longer or partying harder. They buy stuff to allay their fear that what they have won’t be able to keep them safe. They either plant their feet on a political or social position, determined never to be moved, or they reject any meaningful structure for their lives, thinking that if they stay flexible enough, they won’t break.
They get caught up in a frenzy of adoration for stars in sports and entertainment and politics, and then are devastated when those idols prove to be unreliable. They seek hundreds of “friends” and affirmations on social media, because they fear that no relationship is lasting. We may find ourselves among them: modern Hebrews whose faith needs bolstering.
People are searching for something or someone in this changeable world that provides real safety and security—something and someone they can rely on absolutely. And here we are—a place called Zion, sharing the very name of what they are seeking: the unshakeable kingdom of God. We have the opportunity, and the ability, and I would say the responsibility, to offer the world—the community of Whitehouse—a way to the place where they can experience what we have found—God who loves us, Jesus who died and rose for us, forgiving our sins and making us new, and the power of the Holy Spirit dwelling in us every day.
We have received the gift the world is yearning for. We know what it feels like to struggle through difficult times with an absolutely steadfast God to hold on to. We know what it’s like to wrestle with the hard questions the world poses, confident that the Holy Spirit is with us in our questioning. We know what it feels like to have Jesus as our companion every day. We know what it feels like to rely on Jesus’ promise that one day he will return and shake the world again, so that what cannot be shaken—joy and peace and love—will be all that remains. And, we know what it feels like to respond to this gift by gathering as a family to worship God with gratitude and awe and reverence.
We know what it feels like to walk on unshakeable ground, and the people outside our doors need this unshakeable gift. They need to know what it is, and they need to know how to claim it for themselves. And the wonderful thing about this place called Zion, is they can find it here. They can find it through us. They can find it through the service we offer and the stories we tell. They can find it by observing how following Jesus makes a difference in our lives—how it brings us peace and joy and a calm assurance that we are loved with an unshakeable love beyond all imagining. This is what the people outside our doors want and need, and they can find it here, through us.
Earthquakes happen, and buildings crumble. Society changes, and long-standing institutions and ideas and values seem less reliable than they once did. We meet challenges in our lives, and our faith may sway a little. But in those times, like the Hebrews, we take shelter in the promise of eternal life in God’s unshakeable kingdom, now and forever, through Jesus our Lord. And we can invite others to share it with us in this place called Zion. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young