“The Journey to Perfection”Dr. Russ Dean Hebrews 12:18-29 Year C - Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost
In the spring, sudden storm on the upper reaches of the world’s highest mountain trapped some of the best climbers in the world, and the slopes of Mt. Everest are littered with more bodies. In 1921 the British explorer, George Mallory, made the first extensive attempt on the summit which the “Sherpa people of northern Nepal refer to… as Chomolungma, [which is] Tibetan for “Goddess Mother of the World” (“Mt. Everest,” http://encarta.msn.com).
Three expeditions later, he disappeared just 800 feet below the 29,035-foot summit. The first successful summit was achieved in 1953 when Tenzing Norgay, a Nepalese Sherpa and Sir Edmund Hillary made the ascent. By the mid-1990s over 4000 people had braved the dangers of storm and ice, each one following Mallory’s reasoning, simply “Because it is there” (www.mnteverest.net).
Jon Krakauer’s book Into Thin Air is a chilling account of the disaster of 1996. Perhaps the most poignant moment of the tragedy occurred when veteran climber Rob Hall radioed to his base camp that he had ascended too late in the afternoon and he and the climbers he was guiding were now out of oxygen and out of energy.
The members of his expedition were unable to coax him down from the mountain. Though they would never see him again, they were able to patch Hall’s radio into a telephone connection to his wife in New Zealand. In their final conversation, they chose a name for the unborn child that she carried. His final words to her, and to his friends, was a simple, “Hey, look, don’t worry too much about me”(www.mnteverest.net).
The assault on Everest has become a highly commercialized venture, with challengers paying more than $60,000 for their chance at glory, which takes several-months to even attempt. Of the thousands who fly to the Himalayas with a goal of reaching the peak, because of the many hazards which are encountered on the way to the base of the summit, and due to temperamental weather conditions, only a small percentage actually have opportunity to ascend the dangerous “Hillary Step” and claim their fame.
And for what? Jon Krakauer says when he finally reached the top of the world, “…I just couldn’t summon the energy to care” (www.mnteverest.net). Since Mallory’s first climb, of those who have attempted the final ascent, nearly one out of four has died.
There is good reason that before the Western world became enamored with this conquest, the people of Nepal revered the mountain as a god. The mountain is dangerous, and an aura of mystery shrouds the majestic height. Buddhist shrines still pay homage to the great “Goddess Mother,” and climbers leave prayer flags and other trinkets, seeking her peace as they begin their frightful journey.
The writer of the book of Hebrews speaks of Mount Sinai with the same kind of fear and awe and mystery that Everest evokes: “You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest…”
His words evoke the memory of the Israelite experience on that mountain, during their Exodus from Egypt. Those days on the mountain were filled with awe. So afraid were they of the voice of God that they begged, “not another word be spoken”. Even Moses, who had received the Law and had spoken with God on the mountain, said, “I tremble with fear.”
In his letter or treatise to the people, the writer now uses the experience of Sinai as a metaphor for the old covenant, the way of life and relationship to God, before knowing Jesus Christ. God was a mountain of fear. The God of the Old Law was a God who could not be approached–A God who could never be appeased.
But, the writer says, you have not come to that mountain. You, who have come to know God in Christ, now have a new destination. A new journey. A new summit. “You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God.”
For nine years I worked at the state Royal Ambassador Camp in South Carolina. McCall camp is located in the shadow of Sassafras Mountain, South Carolina’s highest peak at 3,560 feet. The sounds on that mountain are quite different from the sounds of Everest on the other side of the world.
The sound of McCall is the sound of life. The mountain itself teems with nature: Cicadas screech through the trees, Bullfrogs croak in the lake, owls hoot out their song in darkness. And by day, the fall of water down winding streams and the occasional chill of a rattler’s warning are reminders that life surrounds us, in glory and wonder. But the real sound of the life of that mountain comes from the two-legged species, called “Boy!”
I will never forget the first day of the camping season one early June morning. The staff had gathered for a final pre-camp prayer, and in the stillness of that moment a door opened in the parking lot, the shout of a boy echoed through the camp, and innocent laughter followed close behind. That was all the prayer and all the “Amen” we needed. (Which means: “Let it be so!”) Laughter and life–to this “you have come!”
These are the sounds of Mount Zion. These are the sounds of the people of God, in “festal gathering.” Let us shout. Let us sing. Let us laugh and cry, and let us live this life together, with God in our midst.
As I read these words, their sheer poetic power washed over me and yet one word of description called for my attention. The word is “perfect.” Among that which calls us to this great mountain is “the spirits of the righteous—made perfect.”
The writer of Hebrews is deeply invested in “perfection.” In fact, it is the goal of that mountaintop life. In his thirteen chapters the writer uses the word, or one of its derivatives, no less than twelve times (cf. 2.10; 5.8-9; 6.1; 7.11,19, 28; 9.9,11; 10-1; 11.40; 12.23; 10.14). He writes to encourage Christian believers: hold firm to the faith, even in persecution, and above all, do not “neglect so great a salvation” (Hebrews 2.3).
What is the goal of salvation? To experience the mountain. And what is that experience? It is to experience perfection. He states this clearly: “Therefore let us go on toward perfection” (Hebrews 6.1).
Jesus’ own command to his disciples to “be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5.48), has been a stumbling block for many. For perfection is not one of the attributes which most are comfortable claiming. John Claypool says that perfection is often viewed as a requirement that God needs in order to be able to love us.
But he reminds us that in Greek grammar, the imperative and the imperfect constructions of this word are spelled exactly alike. A better translation might be, “you will be perfect.” “Perfection is more a gift than a demand. Perfection is the great consequence of God’s creation. It is what God wants to do. What God is utterly, utterly capable of” (Dr. John Claypool at Mountain Brook Baptist Church, Lent 1999–his Greek grammar insight was gleaned from C. S. Lewis).
The Latin from which our word “perfection” comes means “complete, entire, full-grown. To those who originally heard it, the word would convey ‘mature’ rather than what we mean today by ‘perfect’” (Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace, p.56). So how do we come to this mountain? How do we “mature” in faith?
Here we can learn from those who fearlessly (if not foolishly) set their sights on Everest. The journey toward perfection involves much preparation. The journey is slow. The journey requires long periods of rest, simply to acclimate to each new altitude. The journey is fearful and difficult. As the Apostle Paul reminds us, salvation is a work of fear and trembling (Philippians 2.12).
The writer makes it clear that even Jesus’ own “perfection” was progressive. In three places he suggests this, perhaps most clearly in the fifth chapter: “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect (through his suffering), he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (5.8-9, cf. also 2.10, 7.28).
This is part of the growth in “wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor” of which the Gospel speaks (Luke 2.52). So, perfection, our own perfection, is progressive. We must trust that God is indeed trustworthy, and that the work of God will one day be finished in us (Philippians 1.6).
Perfection is also communal. In chapter eleven, the writer enumerates a biblical “Hall of Fame” of the faithful, but he concludes by suggesting that their promises were not fulfilled, in order that we might share in their work. “Apart from us,” he says, “they would not be made perfect.” As Amy suggested last week, your work is connected, through past and future to the ongoing work of God in the world. Our perfection is realized with the help of many who went before and many who will come after.
Perfection is a mountain on which we celebrate the utter goodness of God. Yet the writer adds a word of warning. Perfection also comes through the purifying work of God. Eugene
Peterson translates the final verses of this passage this way: “For God is not an indifferent bystander. [God is] actively cleaning house, torching all that needs to burn, and [God] won’t quit until it’s all cleansed. God… is Fire!” (The Message, p. 479).
Perfection in us, then, is God’s fearful work. It is celebrated on the Mountain of Zion, but it knows the respect and awe and reverence of the God of Sinai.
I heard the story of a young seminarian who was deeply impressed by one of his professor’s dedicated life. He wanted to learn more about this man’s private spirituality–how was he so nearly “perfect”? One night, he crept up to a bedroom window to eavesdrop on the man’s bedside prayer. As the old man knelt slowly beside the bed, he said simply “Good night.”
The prayer that ends the church’s liturgical day is this: “May the Lord grant us a peaceful night, and a perfect death” (quoted by Kathleen Norris, Amazing Grace, p. 57).
May it be so! Amen.
About the author:
Dr. Russ Dean, Co-Pastor, Park Road Baptist Church, Charlotte, NC. is a native Clinton, SC. He is a graduate of Clinton High School, Furman University, the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, and he earned the Doctor of Ministry degree from the Beeson Divinity School of Samford University.
After serving in associate roles at First Baptist, Clemson, SC and Mountain Brook Baptist in Birmingham, AL, Russ and his wife, Amy Jacks Dean, became the Co-Pastors of the Park Road Baptist Church in Charlotte, NC, in 2000. Together, they share all of the duties of the pastoral responsibilities.
Russ is a regular, contributing editor for “Baptist News Global” and for “The Clinton Chronicle,” and he maintains a blog through his church’s website, offering commentary on theological and current issues. His upcoming book, “Finding a New Way Home: The Unlikely Path of a Reluctant Baptist Renegade” will be published by Nurturing Faith.
Russ has been actively involved in ecumenical and interfaith work. He has served on the Governing Board of the North Carolina Council of Churches and served two terms, including two years as the president, of Mecklenburg Ministries. In 2013 he was recognized by Mecklenburg Ministries, sharing the Bridge-Builder Award with Dr. Rodney Sadler for their efforts in race relations.
He currently serves as the President of the board of the Counseling Center at Charlotte and as Vice President of the board of the Educational Center. He has served as co-chair of the Racial and Economic Justice sub-committee of Charlotte’s Clergy Coalition for Social Justice.
Russ and Amy have two boys, Jackson and Bennett, and their favorite past times involve watching their boys on a baseball field or a concert hall. When he is not with his sons or in the office Russ enjoys slalom and barefoot water skiing, woodworking, camping, and playing and writing music.
Scripture and Music:
A Mighty Fortress Is Our God
We’re Marching to Zion
Glorious Things of Thee Are Spoken
Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me
O Master Let Me Walk with Thee
Lord, Speak to Me That I May Speak
Be Not Afraid (Mendelssohn or Craig Courtney)
A Mighty Fortress (Gordon Young)
God Is Our Refuge (Allen Pote)
Lord of the Dance (John Ferguson)
Majesty (Jack Hayford)
Here I Am, Lord (Daniel Schutte)
Here I Am, Lord
Lord of the Dance
I Heard About A Man
Be Not Afraid