Archive for March, 2009
The Love of God in Christ
“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”
“But Paul’s vision of God’s love, rising here like the sun on a clear summer’s morning, shines through all the detail that has gone before…God’s love has done everything we could need, everything we shall need. As Paul continued to explore the meaning of the reconciliation that has taken place between God and human beings, he delves down deep into the depths of what God had to do to bring it about….When we look at Jesus, the Messiah, we are looking at the one who embodies God’s own love, God’s love-in-action.” (NT Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans, pt 1 chapters 1-8, 86)
Paul has spent a great deal of space telling the world, telling the church at Rome, telling anyone who would listen exactly how terrible is the predicament of man. It is bad. One might say that if it was bad in Paul’s day, it might be worse now. I doubt it. All bad such as Paul is speaking of is relative to the age. That’s not to say bad is relative, it is to say that the nature of the depravity is relative to the age. I agree with many who think that there is something terribly amiss in this world, in our culture, and in the church in general. I am not so pessimistic to think it is beyond redemption-in fact, I think that might have something to do with Jesus and why he came in the first place.
That’s what I love about Romans 5:6-11. If one were to read Romans and suddenly stop at the end of Romans 4, one might be left despairing and hopeless although, to be sure, Paul has dropped hints and given us glimpses of the beauty of what God has been planning for humanity such as chapter 3:23-24: “…for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” And perhaps also this in chapter 5:1-2: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into the grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God.” But these hints in these places are hints. Here in Romans 5:6-11, Paul blows the lid off the whole thing: Here’s what God did despite all that I have written about in the previous paragraphs! And we are stunned. We are stupefied. We are knocked down; thrown for a loop. Our entire world is shattered by these few sentences concerning God and his actions.
How can we not be bowled over by such statements? How can any single one of us, any of us, read such passages of Scripture as this and think that it means anything but what it says at face value? In the midst of all the wrath, in the midst of all the sin, in the midst of all the hate we have for God, in the midst of all the pride and boasting, in the midst of all the immorality, lying tongues, open grave throats, in the midst of all the convoluted ways we have chosen to live precisely because of our free-will-there is God. There is God! Standing at the dawn with his arms opened wide welcoming home all those who lived in the manner Paul described in chapter 1 is the God who loves. There is God! I don’t know about you, but when I read how God demonstrates his love (which leads me to understand how he really, truly feels about me) I am stunned into silence, humbled, humiliated; wrecked.
At just the right time God did the most inconceivable thing: No eye had seen, no ear had heard, no one could even imagine what God had planned for us; many still find it impossible to believe. Yet God was not even willing just to say ‘I love you.’ For God it was not enough to give lip-service to his great love for us: He demonstrated it. He made it visible. He made it concrete. He put his love on display for all to see. He so loved the world that he didn’t bother to ask anything of us. He so loved the world that he sent, essentially, himself. Paul will later express this love as such: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all-how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (8:31-32)
Have any of us plumbed the depths of love this God has for his rebellious children?
For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Ephesians)
Is it possible to read Romans 5:6-11 and be anything but overwhelmed? Is it possible to read these verses and be anything but destroyed, thrown down, overwhelmed, unraveled, and undone? Is it possible to consider that God loves us quite in spite of ourselves and be anything but humiliated and humbled? And so Paul can rightly ask in these verses: If God loved us this much while we were yet sinners, then ‘how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life?’ Or if God demonstrated his love for us while we were yet rebellious, then how much more ‘having been justified by his blood, shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!’
I’ve been thinking about these verses because it seems to me that this God is rather amazing. Paul hasn’t written, in these particular verses, about the pride of men. He has written about how utterly confounding is this God who loves and forgives and heals and justifies and resurrects despite the worst man has to offer. “You see at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.”
So there it is again: Hope! Forgiveness! Healing! The love of God towards a people who are decidedly against him. He continues, time and time again, to astound us and reverse all our conceptions of himself. We hate, and he loves us. We run away, he chases after us. We curse, he blesses us. We sin, he forgives us. We deny he exists, he shows Himself in Jesus. We kill him, he Resurrects! We can’t really make out this God can we? We cannot really, truly comprehend a God who goes out of his way to make himself real to us, who so desires that we be his people and that he be our God that he will be crucified to make the point and to make it possible, who is so wildly in love with us that he himself will deal with our sins instead of asking us to. He makes a way where no way exists. He creates a people where none is. He extends mercy where there is none.
I’ve been thinking about this God who loves us quite in spite of ourselves. I’ve been thinking about this God who loves us. I’ve been thinking about this God who thought it necessary to demonstrate his love to us, and did so in the flesh; in Jesus. If there is anything that dispels pride in humans, it is this amazing God who loves; the God of grace. This is the God we need to preach and share and adore. This is the God who saved us in Christ.
The best irony there is is that God loves us. In spite of all the worst that Paul wrote we are, in spite of all the devastation we manage to conjure up because of sin, in spite of our creative habit of inventing new ways to die and kill and run away from God-in spite of it all: He still loves us. The Hound of Heaven dogs our every step and won’t relent; pressing in on every side.
Dare we imagine a God, dare we submit to a God-this God of the Bible, fully come in Jesus Christ? Dare we love such a God who dared to love us?
Soli Deo Gloria!
“For all have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God…” Paul to the Romans, chapter 3, verse 23
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life…” John the Apostle, chapter the third, 16th verse.
Today, my attention was drawn to this post at a certain ‘that which is not to be named’ blog. It is a serious blog post. It is seriously depressing. And it is seriously stupid. (I’m sorry if you had the unfortunate ‘pleasure’ of reading it. I wish I didn’t have to link to it, but you may need context for my words.)
There I said it: It is stupid. I’m sorry. I feel badly about writing it, but there is simply no other way to express my outrage and heart-brokenness.
I know that is harsh and mean and if anyone from ‘that side’ bothers to comment on this post they will most certainly point out that I ‘missed the point’ or that I am ‘ignorant of the facts’ or that I am ‘a stupid non-Christian who is so unconcerned about abortion and the plight of the unborn that I ought to be defrocked (even though I was never frocked to begin with) and run out of the church to the tune of tar, feathers, pitchforks, torches and labeled anathema.’ To be sure, ‘they’ will probably point out that Jesus does not approve of what I am about to write in this post because Jesus hates abortion.
There I said it: The post is stupid.
I am willing to run the risk that I might be labeled by others in order to point out the sheer stupidity of the post mentioned above.
Did I mention the post is stupid? It has been a long, long time since I read something so incredibly insensitive at a blog claiming to be a voice for the Kingdom of God. I’m sorry. I’m desperately trying to be objective and compassionate. Can’t. Can’t. Can’t. I have read the post four or five times now trying, searching, scanning for hope and I just cannot find it. The most hope we can expect out of this post is that we might enjoy some ‘hauntingly beautiful hymn-like‘ music. If an expectant single-mother or a suddenly pregnant husband and wife swimming in debt is debating her/their pregnancy right now read that post, she/they would be left despairing and hopeless; feeling nothing but condemnation.
There is nothing about the Gospel. Nothing about the hope of Christ. Nothing about the penal substitutionary atonement death of Jesus. Nothing about forgiveness of sins. Nothing about grace. Nothing about repentance. Nothing about the new heavens and new earth. Nothing about resurrection. For someone who writes so passionately, so wonderfully about the damnable offense that is abortion, I just cannot believe that there is no mention of hope for forgiveness. No mention of reconciliation. No mention of peace in Christ. No reconciliation. No ransom. No redemption. No substitution. Just condemnation. *Shakes head.*
For someone who so frequently castigates preachers and churches and bloggers for not including a (the) message of the Gospel, I cannot believe the best there is to offer in that particular post is that we might get some good music out of it at the end of the day. No mention whatsoever of how people who have had abortions can be forgiven and changed by the work of Christ Jesus. (As if a purely moralized America is equivalent to the Kingdom of God.)
I’d like to begin by noting a few things for the careful reader of this blog. You may not agree entirely, but I’ll bet we are close. What I’d like to do, is offer the invitation here, at Life Under the Blue Sky, that was not offered at SOL. I begin, however, elsewhere:
- It is wrong to steal.
- It is wrong to have gay sex.
- It is wrong to lie.
- It is wrong to cheat.
- It is wrong to fornicate.
- It is wrong to commit adultery.
- It is wrong to be racist.
- It is wrong to get drunk.
- It is wrong to be arrogant.
- It is wrong to be prideful.
- It is wrong to be gluttonous.
- It is wrong to murder.
- It is wrong to get an abortion.
- It is wrong to lust.
- It is wrong to lie about the preacher.
- It is wrong to gossip.
- It is wrong to abuse your spouse or children.
- It is wrong to worship idols.
- It is wrong kidnap.
- It is wrong to disobey your parents.
- It is wrong to swindle.
- It is wrong to be greedy.
- It is wrong to rape.
Yes. Yes. I could go on and on and on. I agree with the post at SOL: Abortion is a heinous, despicable, vile, disgusting offense. I don’t know anyone here who disagrees with that assessment. Those things mentioned above are wrong; they are sin, abortion included.
But it is not the unforgivable sin. Never has been. Never will be. In the crazy economy of the kingdom of God, a person could have 490 abortions in one day and repent and God, in his mercy and grace, would forgive that person because of Jesus Christ. I mean, why wouldn’t he since he expects us to do nothing less? I don’t think God expects people to do things that he himself isn’t willing to do. Thus, forgiveness.
Abortion is not an unforgivable sin.
None of the things I mentioned is the or an unforgivable sin.
Friends, we have ample evidence in our world of all the things that are wrong with us and all the things we do badly and all the sin we have committed and all the idols we have worshiped and all the judgment we have invited into our lives and all the times we have crucified Christ all over again and again and again…
We have sufficient testimony to all the grievous destruction that our sin has wrought upon this earth.
We have enough people pointing out the sin that plagues the United States of America and Russia and England and Brazil and Antarctica and, well, you get the point.
Jesus did not tell us to go around moralizing did he? (This is not rhetorical.)
I’m not even sure he told us to go around pointing out sin, although, when the Gospel is properly preached I think that sin will necessarily be a part of the discussion. After all, it is terribly difficult to call folks to repentance if some mention of sin has not happened.
Jesus did tell us to go and preach the good news, the Gospel. “…He gave them power and authority to drive out demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick…So they set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the Good News and healing people everywhere” (Luke 9:12, 6).
We have good news! We are told to preach good news! Where’s the Good News in the SOL post? A musical legacy? For one who spends a lot of time criticizing the lack of Gospel in churches and pulpits, the post is decidedly barren of any hope and Gospel. Shall we merely criticize and condemn those who have had abortions or shall we offer them the hope of Christ Crucified and Resurrected?
Is there any hope for those who were the subject of the SOL post?
I hate to write this post, but the bottom line is that I have decided that I will make it my life’s ambition to teach the grace of God every chance I get. I want to find 100,000 ways to say: God forgives you in and because of Jesus Christ. I hate writing this post because some might conclude that I am not opposed to abortion, but that would be to miss my point. I am very opposed to abortion, but I also realize that people sin and that it was the sick, weak, broken, hurting, desperate sinners, like me, whom Christ came to save, redeem, ransom, and atone for.
Jesus didn’t come to condemn; why do we think he has assigned us that role?
The author of the SOL post did a great job pointing out a great sin, but the problem with the post is simple: She gave us a great picture of a moralized America where everyone plays in an orchestra or knits flags and worships at the throne of conservative politicians. It’s a powerful picture, but it is not necessarily one Christ has drawn. It is a terrible problem, but there was no solution offered. What’s the point of ranting about the problem when there is no solution offered at all?
She didn’t give us a picture of the Kingdom of God. She gave us a picture of her moralized America where there is condemnation for every perpetrator and no hope whatsoever.
The author would have us condemn all who have had abortions and reject them as mere weak Americans who lack courage and are interested only in their bank balance and credit card statements. Christ would welcome them into his kingdom as the very ones he came to save precisely because they are greedy, murderous, and lack the intestinal fortitude to be self-controlled–because they are sinners! Well, of course they are. That’s normally what happens when people do not know or have rejected Christ.
So here I offer what the author of Slice did not offer: Hope. If you have ever had an abortion or over-spent on your credit cards, if you have filed bankruptcy because you have no self-control, if you are a coward, if you are hopeless and think you are running on empty, if you have no where to go and you think you are out of options–there’s hope. There’s grace. There’s forgiveness of your sins. Christ has payed the price for your sins. There’s Good News! Christ has not rejected you. There’s still hope! There’s still a message of peace and forgiveness to you because of Jesus. Christ will take away your guilt. Christ will heal your wounds. Christ will save you from the hopeless, endless cycle of condemnation and death.
You can join us, all us sinners here, all us imperfect, unkempt, undone, depressed, forgiven-by-God sinners here. We welcome you to join in the story that Christ is writing and has written. We welcome you to taste and see that His Grace is Good. We welcome you to be forgiven in the Name of Jesus.
“…and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ.” The same Paul, to the same Romans, chapter 3, verse 24.
“…For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” the same John the Apostle, the same third chapter, the 17th verse.
This is a podcast of the sermon I preached this past Sunday evening from Hebrews 10:19-25. It is the fourth part of a series I am preaching through Hebrews. I have been posting the manuscript links here and I will publish this manuscript too and also upload it to my box.net. Here are the links to the first three sermons:
Sermon one is: Listening to and Thinking about Jesus
Sermon two is: Resting in and Holding Fast to Faith
Sermon three is: Growing in Jesus and our Understanding of His Work
Sermon four is: Drawing, Holding, Considering Because of Jesus
Download Podcast here: Hebrews 10:19-25
Or us the inline player below:
Sunday, March 22, 2009 (PM)
The Imperatives of Hebrews, 4
The Book of Hebrews
I suggested to you last week that chapter 5:11 through chapter 6:12 was a parenthesis. That is, the author interrupted his argument about the superiority of Jesus’ high priesthood which began in chapter 4:14 (which actually began in 2:17 & 3:1) and reminded us yet again about the need to persevere in the faith.
In last week’s imperative, he said that we need to grow up in the faith-we need to grow up in the Word of God. Paul said similar things to the Church in Corinth; things we looked at this morning. A little maturity will go a long way towards Christian unity. This was the interruption in the book of Hebrews 5:11ff. Grow up!
Now he brings it back around to his earlier discussion on the High Priesthood of Jesus. And this discussion is not a short discussion. And the author is not willing to spare a single detail of this conversation-however hard or complicated it might be for the babes on milk to understand. Thus there is a lull, so to speak, in his imperatives from 6:13-10:18. When the author is all done, we sense a deep breath before he finally utters, “Therefore…”
This high priesthood of Jesus carries with it powerful consequences to all who know of it and are blessed enough to participate in it. When we begin engaging in the 90 Days with Jesus in May, we will explore deeply this priesthood because I think it is probably one of the more unexplored aspects of the Christian faith. Still, we can say this much: Everything said in Hebrews 10:19-25 is predicated on the substantial idea of Jesus’ high priesthood being sufficient, and, what’s more, on the idea that he is not only He the High Priest over the House, but He is also the sacrifice that was offered. Both aspects are important when considering what he says in this sixth ‘therefore.’
As one commentator notes:
As Paul often does, the writer of Hebrews exhorts his readers on the basis of the doctrine he has made so clear. Because the great teachings he has set forth are true, it follows that those who profess them should live in a manner befitting them. There are resemblances between the exhortation in this paragraph and that in 4:14-16. But we must not forget that the intervening discussion has made clear what Christ’s high priestly work has done for his people. On the basis of Christ’s sacrifice, the writer exhorts his readers to make the utmost use of the blessing that has been won for them.
So, again, the great teaching he has made clear is the High Priestly work of Christ and the perfection of the sacrifice He offered. So, imperative section number 6:
6. The sixth marker is found in Hebrews 10:19-25: “Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another-and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Now, as you heard, and as you can see, he actually includes within this ‘therefore’ three distinct imperatives that we should be concerned about because Christ has opened up a ‘new and living way for us’. I don’t think it would be unhelpful at this point to visit the book of Leviticus, chapter 16, and see exactly what all this entails-this ‘entrance’:
1 The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they approached the LORD. 2 The LORD said to Moses: “Tell your brother Aaron not to come whenever he chooses into the Most Holy Place behind the curtain in front of the atonement cover on the ark, or else he will die, because I appear in the cloud over the atonement cover.
3 “This is how Aaron is to enter the sanctuary area: with a young bull for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering. 4 He is to put on the sacred linen tunic, with linen undergarments next to his body; he is to tie the linen sash around him and put on the linen turban. These are sacred garments; so he must bathe himself with water before he puts them on. 5 From the Israelite community he is to take two male goats for a sin offering and a ram for a burnt offering.
6 “Aaron is to offer the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household. 7 Then he is to take the two goats and present them before the LORD at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. 8 He is to cast lots for the two goats-one lot for the LORD and the other for the scapegoat. 9 Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the LORD and sacrifice it for a sin offering. 10 But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the LORD to be used for making atonement by sending it into the desert as a scapegoat.
11 “Aaron shall bring the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household, and he is to slaughter the bull for his own sin offering. 12 He is to take a censer full of burning coals from the altar before the LORD and two handfuls of finely ground fragrant incense and take them behind the curtain. 13 He is to put the incense on the fire before the LORD, and the smoke of the incense will conceal the atonement cover above the Testimony, so that he will not die. 14 He is to take some of the bull’s blood and with his finger sprinkle it on the front of the atonement cover; then he shall sprinkle some of it with his finger seven times before the atonement cover.
15 “He shall then slaughter the goat for the sin offering for the people and take its blood behind the curtain and do with it as he did with the bull’s blood: He shall sprinkle it on the atonement cover and in front of it. 16 In this way he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been. He is to do the same for the Tent of Meeting, which is among them in the midst of their uncleanness. 17 No one is to be in the Tent of Meeting from the time Aaron goes in to make atonement in the Most Holy Place until he comes out, having made atonement for himself, his household and the whole community of Israel.
18 “Then he shall come out to the altar that is before the LORD and make atonement for it. He shall take some of the bull’s blood and some of the goat’s blood and put it on all the horns of the altar. 19 He shall sprinkle some of the blood on it with his finger seven times to cleanse it and to consecrate it from the uncleanness of the Israelites.
20 “When Aaron has finished making atonement for the Most Holy Place, the Tent of Meeting and the altar, he shall bring forward the live goat. 21 He is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites-all their sins-and put them on the goat’s head. He shall send the goat away into the desert in the care of a man appointed for the task. 22 The goat will carry on itself all their sins to a solitary place; and the man shall release it in the desert.
23 “Then Aaron is to go into the Tent of Meeting and take off the linen garments he put on before he entered the Most Holy Place, and he is to leave them there. 24 He shall bathe himself with water in a holy place and put on his regular garments. Then he shall come out and sacrifice the burnt offering for himself and the burnt offering for the people, to make atonement for himself and for the people. 25 He shall also burn the fat of the sin offering on the altar.
26 “The man who releases the goat as a scapegoat must wash his clothes and bathe himself with water; afterward he may come into the camp. 27 The bull and the goat for the sin offerings, whose blood was brought into the Most Holy Place to make atonement, must be taken outside the camp; their hides, flesh and offal are to be burned up. 28 The man who burns them must wash his clothes and bathe himself with water; afterward he may come into the camp.
29 “This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: On the tenth day of the seventh month you must deny yourselves and not do any work-whether native-born or an alien living among you- 30 because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the LORD, you will be clean from all your sins. 31 It is a sabbath of rest, and you must deny yourselves; it is a lasting ordinance. 32 The priest who is anointed and ordained to succeed his father as high priest is to make atonement. He is to put on the sacred linen garments 33 and make atonement for the Most Holy Place, for the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and for the priests and all the people of the community.
34 “This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites.” And it was done, as the LORD commanded Moses.
So you can see what a terribly complicated situation this was. Jesus not only simplified this matter of entering in, but he also opened it up for people outside the priestly caste and people outside the Jewish population.
33At the sixth hour darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour. 34And at the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?”-which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
35When some of those standing near heard this, they said, “Listen, he’s calling Elijah.” 36One man ran, filled a sponge with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to take him down,” he said.
37With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. 38The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. 39And when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” 40Some women were watching from a distance. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome. 41In Galilee these women had followed him and cared for his needs. Many other women who had come up with him to Jerusalem were also there.
This is what he is talking about: Jesus, at his death, opened things up for people. Those who enter the temple, the part opened up for us, enter in as priests (‘let us hold unswervingly to what we profess’), as companions (‘let us consider how’), and as people who have the right and authority to commune with the living God, that is, worshipers (‘let us draw near’). It is in this context then that the author of Hebrews offers up his imperatives in verses 19-25. Let’s look at each one briefly.
First, he says, “Therefore…let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having had our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.” This is the authority to commune with the living God. Jesus has opened up the way, and he has clothed us with the proper wedding clothes. I happen to think here he is talking about baptism in some way. We might debate over the issue of baptism a great deal, but the Scripture seems fairly consistent in its presentation of the important things that happen at baptism.
So we can draw near to God. The work of Jesus at the cross makes worshiping such a God even possible. There is a cost. Jesus paid it. So we should draw near. Get close. Get to know. Worship. Offer ourselves up to him. He is not for us to fear in the sense that we stay away. We come before him in sincerity because he knows we don’t have to fake it. We come before him with assurance. What I wonder, for those who have not experienced the outward sign of baptism is: Can they have the full assurance? If it is merely an outward symbol of an inward work, can we be certain of the inward work if we have not experienced the outward symbol?
Second, he says, “Therefore…let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess for he who promised us is faithful.” We have hope. We have hope precisely because hope does not depend on us. Somewhere in all the mix is a mustard seed of faith that the story we have believed and the Messiah we have followed is true. Frankly, sometimes that’s all we have; sometimes less. But there it is: hope does not lie within us. If it did, it would be destroyed in a minute. Our hope, Peter says, is stored up for us in heaven; it is precious; it is resurrection hope in Christ; it can never perish, spoil, or fade; it is protected by God’s power (1 Peter 1:3-5). Praise God.
Our hope depends upon the one who is faithful and therein is our hope. Again, it is important to remember that our hope is not in a dream, or an idea, or a concept, or a religion or anything of the sort. The author of Hebrews says that we have hope because he who promised it is faithful. He is faithful. We hold unswervingly to the hope we profess. This is the same thing he said back in 4:14: “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.” Profess is also confess or announce to declare. As priests, we have a confession to make; we announce to others this hope. We must hold unswervingly to this hope.
Third, he says, “Therefore…let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another-and all the more as you see the day approaching.” The danger, of course, is in trying to hold on to this course alone. As I have been emphasizing in our Sunday morning messages from Corinthians, we are best served and best when we are together. So we must encourage one another which means that this is a responsibility for everyone in the body towards everyone in the body. These are words we ought to be sharing with one another constantly. But I think it is critically important that these words rest not on a single person, but that the responsibility falls to all of us.
If this is but the responsibility of one person the words can grow weak, the person can grow weary, the warning can be wasted. I think if I am reading this correctly and all of us have been invited into the priestly class, then all of us have a confession to make, a worship to offer, and encouragement to give. How can we do this? Well, it means we have to talk to one another, share with one another, be involved in one another’s lives. We have to love one another enough to care about them. We have to know enough about one another to do the spurring. Frankly, as I have said elsewhere, some people have more access to others than some others do. We all must share in this responsibility so that people know they are loved and cared about and that people are concerned for them. We are companions on this journey. We move at the rate of everyone, neither speeding ahead nor lagging behind. We journey together.
Let us draw near is an exhortation to worship, fellowship, communion, confidence, faith, and trust. We enter as worshipers.
Let us hold fast is an exhortation to our priestly responsibilities inside our confession. Our confession is not something we keep secret. We enter as priests.
Let us encourage one another is an exhortation to fellowship, communion, companionship, and love. We enter as companions.
The profoundest part of these verses is that they are even possible. But Jesus had made it so. We no longer exist in solitude, we no longer live in isolation, we no longer walk alone.
The profoundest part of these verses is surely that Jesus’ work does not compel us laziness and complacency, but rather to work and energy and fellowship. We are together.
We are called together in a fellowship in God’s presence. He has opened the way for us not to enter singly, on our own, but together; as one. We come before him together. We draw near together. We hold fast together. We encourage one another together. We. Together.
Soli Deo Gloria!
I’d like to share a thought or two on the subject of Christian Unity. I am a preacher by calling, and as such, lately, I have been preaching a series of sermons to my congregation on this ever so strange idea of Christian Unity or as I prefer to call it, essential oneness. I have been preaching this series of sermons because my congregation has been going through some difficult times lately and we needed to be reminded of what Scripture says about our oneness in Christ.
It’s no small thing for a church to be one in heart, mind, and ambition. If you think about what Christ did when he brought us together it is really quite remarkable. He pulls people together who are different races (although we all belong to the human race), people of different colors, people of different nationalities, people from different religious backgrounds, people from differing social backgrounds (‘rich’ and ‘poor’), men, woman, young, old–the list could go on–and he throws us all into one great big bag that he calls ‘church’ and says: “Find a way to make it work.” Find a way to make it work?!? Seriously? Seriously.
Jesus knew, knows, what he is doing; doesn’t he? I mean, no two people come into the church with the same history or motivation or even theological ideas. For that matter, no two people ever even retain those original theological ideas. As few as 10 years ago, I would never have considered an Anglican preacher to be among my best of friends–simply because of theological ideas. You know what, today I can; and I am glad for it. The problem we have, I think, is that we in the church are far too concerned about the baggage that people carry with them after they become Christians. We sort of seem to think they ought to drop it all right away and get on board the Jesus train. When it takes longer, we get frustrated, irritated, angry, and begin to lack patience; love might slip.
That is, we think that people need to be remade into our image. You know what I mean, right?
That’s when problems creep into the church–when we forget to love. So we believe things like this:
- Those people who are not maturing at the same rate as I am are bothersome.
- Those people who are not thinking like I am theologically are weaklings.
- Those people who do not see things the way I see them are troublemakers.
We think that anyone who is not ‘like me’ is, clearly, not a Christian at all. Or worse. You know what the problem with all this is? We are not being remade in the image of other human beings! That’s the glory of it all! I don’t have to stack up against other humans, because they are not the template; they are not the standard; they are not the goal. Jesus is. Paul wrote in Colossians 3 that we are being recreated in the image of our creator who is Jesus. And none of us is there yet. We are all still on the way. Only those who fail to recognize this ‘on-the-wayness’ lack the courage to be patient with others. Those who think all baggage must be left at the door are those who do not believe Jesus came to ‘save the sick’ and the ‘sinners.’ We might sing ‘just as I am’ but there are a lot people who don’t believe it for a minute. They think it is something more like ‘you better get the way I want you or even Jesus won’t help you.’
So, then, what does all this have to do with unity in the body of Christ? Well, consider these words from Paul’s pen to the Ephesian church:
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. 8This is why it says:
“When he ascended on high,
he led captives in his train
and gave gifts to men.”
(What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? 10He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) 11It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. 15Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. 16From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
Be patient with others. Be humble–they may be more advanced than you think. Work at unity in the body. It won’t be easy: work at it. And here’s the thing, if we have a proper view of ourselves (humility) and a proper view of others (patience and bearing with them) then working at unity in the body will be our goal. But if we are not working at maintaining peace, then are we working at war? Even a casual indifference (not working towards unity) is an example of not working at maintaining unity in the body. We must work at unity in the Body of Christ. Work. We cannot afford to not work for peace in the Body because if we don’t work at it war will break out among us.
Growing up is the goal: the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Along with self-sacrificing efforts at unity comes maturity in Christ as we are patient with one another and understand that God has apportioned his grace to us. Unity in the body and maturity in the individual somehow go hand in hand. Then there’s that grace word again! It’s so intrusive isn’t it? So how do we ‘make it work’?
It’s not complicated. He says three times: Bear with one another in Love. Speak the truth in Love. Build up the Body in Love. Do you think we can overstate the case for how much we must love in the Body of Christ? Do we have enough room to love? Can we humble ourselves and love? For the sake of the essential oneness of the Body of Christ can we love one another? Can we recognize that all of us are ‘on the way’ and none of us has arrived?
It’s that love thing. It’s that grace thing. It’s that patience thing. It’s that humility thing. Paul wants us to grow up, yes, but he is saying to the people that growing up takes time. It is the goal. It is the point. But it is not accomplished overnight. And it is not done in isolation. Maturity is an ‘all’ issue. We work together in unity so that we might worked together for maturity. We do it! We won’t become mature on our own. We need each other and this is why we are patient, speak the truth in love, bear with one another, think of ourselves in humility, understand that grace has been poured out in Christ, he gave us teachers and preachers and prophets, and this is why we should make every effort to maintain peace in the Spirit.
Do you really think for a minute that people can grow up and mature in Christ when there is fighting and arguing and carrying-on happening in the church? Do you think God will tolerate new babies living in a hostile place, in an environment of warfare? I don’t think so. How can people who persist in immaturity think for a minute that God is going to entrust them with babies who need to grow up in their faith? Not. Gonna. Happen.
So we must work at unity in the Body of Christ for the sake of our maturity. Christians need an environment where healthy interaction can take place and folks can grow up in their faith–into the Head who is Christ. Love will go a long, long way towards this goal. If we truly desire unity in the Body of Christ, love is the place we must start. Apart from patient, humble, bearing-with-one-another love–maturity is not likely to happen.
Soli Deo Gloria!
This is the third in a series of preliminary sermons I have preached from the book of Hebrews during Lent. You can download the manuscripts at my box.net (I have provided the links.) I will be preaching through the entire book starting in May 2009.
Sermon one is: Listening to and Thinking about Jesus
Sermon two is: Resting in and Holding Fast to Faith
Sermon three is: Growing in Jesus and our Understanding of His Work
Sunday, March 15, 2009 (PM)
The Imperatives of Hebrews, 3
The Book of Hebrews
This past Wednesday evening we talked for a few minutes about Matthew 24-25 and Jesus’ long answer to the disciples question, ‘when will it happen, what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?’ So the disciples essentially asked three questions.
When will ‘it’ happen is the first question they ask. By this I assume the ‘it’ refers to the statement Jesus made ‘Truly I tell you, not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.’
The other two questions they ask seemingly come out of nowhere and yet, for some reason, the disciples must have associated the ‘it’ with the ‘coming’ and the ‘end.’ And it certainly appears that Jesus was not averse to answering all three questions as if they were related to one another even if we happen to be somewhat confused about why they would associate the ‘coming’ and the ‘end’ with the ‘it.’
Well, I’m revisiting that conversation from Wednesday evening so that I can bring up an article that I also made more than a passing reference to. In his essay The Coming Evangelical Collapse [you can find this by searching at Christian Science Monitor–jerry] blogger Michael Spencer wrote:
We are on the verge – within 10 years – of a major collapse of evangelical Christianity. This breakdown will follow the deterioration of the mainline Protestant world and it will fundamentally alter the religious and cultural environment in the West.
Within two generations, evangelicalism will be a house deserted of half its occupants. (Between 25 and 35 percent of Americans today are Evangelicals.) In the “Protestant” 20th century, Evangelicals flourished. But they will soon be living in a very secular and religiously antagonistic 21st century.
This collapse will herald the arrival of an anti-Christian chapter of the post-Christian West. Intolerance of Christianity will rise to levels many of us have not believed possible in our lifetimes, and public policy will become hostile toward evangelical Christianity, seeing it as the opponent of the common good.
Millions of Evangelicals will quit. Thousands of ministries will end. Christian media will be reduced, if not eliminated. Many Christian schools will go into rapid decline. I’m convinced the grace and mission of God will reach to the ends of the earth. But the end of evangelicalism as we know it is close.
I have a friend who is skeptical of Mr Spencer’s claims. I think I told you Wednesday that I don’t particularly care one way or another about the collapse of a major, in my opinion defunct and corrupt political institution; I do care about the local church.
Then yesterday I got a couple of books in the mail. I glanced through the first couple pages of one book because the forward is written by my hero Eugene Peterson. When he writes, I read. He wrote, then, in the book Christianity Beyond Belief: Following Jesus for the Sake of Others, words very similar to those of Mr Spencer:
We live in a country that is becoming less and less Christian by the day. People who make a living compiling statistics on these kinds of things tell us that we have an epidemic of people leaving the church. Recently I was told that one of these pollsters has concluded that nonbelievers are the fastest growing ‘faith’ group in America. The alarm has been sounded and panic is widespread. There is considerable finger-pointing at the failure of the church to stanch the hemorrhage of membership. (9)
We can deduce, from these two readings, that there is a significant problem with the church in America. Frankly, I think the damage is done and there is very little that can be done to stop the bleeding on a national level. With some giving us ten years and others suggesting that it has already come upon us, who knows what the next step really is.
Here is where the book of Hebrews, I believe, makes strong inroads into the wound that we have undoubtedly been the cause of. I shudder to think what the church would be like if the Gospel hadn’t been so watered down in a previous generation. But the very thing that the church thought was its measure of success, was actually its very undoing. Thus it seems the church thought it could afford to scale back on the things that the Gospel seems to suggest we most certainly cannot afford to scale back on-such things as, Gospel content, the faith once delivered, core doctrines, and foundational beliefs.
But I submit to you that we have allowed certain aspects to become so watered down and we have paid such close attention to those who would undo the Gospel with skepticism and lies that we have no foundation upon which to stand. This is why I am fond of saying that once Genesis 1:1 is done away with, nothing else really matters. Genesis 1:1 is foundational. You can say, Genesis through Deuteronomy is the Bible and everything else is commentary. But you get my point, once we have reduced the stories to mere local myth, upon what will we stand?
Into this the author of Hebrews has insisted on an allegiance to those very stories ‘we have heard’ in order to prevent the very thing that Spencer and Peterson (among others) warn us of. If we fail to listen, fail to pay attention, fail to hold on to the faith we once confessed, we will drift away; slowly, but surely. Or we will ‘fall short’ of the intended and expected goal. And how, in chapter 6, as we encounter our 5th ‘imperative’, we see that the results might be even more disastrous.
5. The fifth marker found along the way is in chapter 6, verse 1: “Therefore, let us move beyond the elementary teachings about Christ and be taken forward to maturity…”
Well, the first thing that stands out to me about this passage is that if there are ‘elementary teachings’ there must be elementary teachers. It seems to me that there must have been teachers in the church who were content to continue wrangling over the same foundational teachings over and over again. Well, don’t misunderstand, I think it is terribly important for there to be foundational teachings in the church. I also believe we should revisit those teachings periodically in order that we don’t forget (‘listen to’) what we have been taught. But I also think it incredibly naïve to think we can stay in those places. Why? Because then we never mature.
And so the author here says something like this: You are babes. You are stuck on milk and cereal. You need to be teachers now, but in fact you are still itty-bittys when it comes to the faith. I can’t even begin to teach you about meat, and righteousness, and the High Priesthood of Jesus Christ. You haven’t constantly trained yourselves in the Word so as to be able to sufficiently tell the difference between good and evil. Listen to The Message translation of chapter 5:11-6:3:
I have a lot more to say about this, but it is hard to get it across to you since you’ve picked up this bad habit of not listening. By this time you ought to be teachers yourselves, yet here I find you need someone to sit down with you and go over the basics on God again, starting from square one-baby’s milk, when you should have been on solid food long ago! Milk is for beginners, inexperienced in God’s ways; solid food is for the mature, who have some practice in telling right from wrong.
1-3So come on, let’s leave the preschool fingerpainting exercises on Christ and get on with the grand work of art. Grow up in Christ. The basic foundational truths are in place: turning your back on “salvation by self-help” and turning in trust toward God; baptismal instructions; laying on of hands; resurrection of the dead; eternal judgment. God helping us, we’ll stay true to all that. But there’s so much more. Let’s get on with it!
The gist of what the author of Hebrews is saying is this: We need to grow up in Christ and to do this we must progress in our learning and understanding of the work that He did. What happens if we don’t grow up? Look at verse 6: “…and who have fallen away, to be brought back to repentance. To their loss they are crucifying the Son of God all over again and subjecting him to public disgrace.:” Now I’m not going to unpack all that because for now it is enough to say that the person who refuses to grow up will eventually ‘fall away.’ This is no mere ‘drifting away.’ This could mean ‘to commit apostasy.’ It is, at minimum, a radical departure from the faith.
I have been noticing for a while that a series of sermons I posted here, The Church in Exile: The Book of Daniel, has been getting a lot of hits and downloads at my box.net account. This inspired me to share with you a lengthy series of sermons I did (18 in total, but I’m missing one) that coincided with a series of devotionals I posted here (90 Days with Jesus: John). I have also posted the Bible school lessons that went with this series as well. Here, then, are the sermons linked to my box.net account and free for download. Thanks for stopping by. jerry
The Sermon Schedule: John’s Gospel
1. The Word Became Flesh, and Dwelt Among us, John 1:1-18
2. Behold Jesus, John 1:19-51
3. The One From Above, John 3:22-36
4. Difficulty of Believing in Jesus, John 6:1-71
5. From Whence Comes a Prophet?, John 7:1-52
6. The Children of Abraham, John 8:31-59
7. On Restoring and Taking Sight, John 9:1-41
8. Jesus, the Good Shepherd, John 10:1-42
9. The Death of Jesus in His Own Words, John 12:20-36
10. A New Command He Gave Us, John 13:1-38
11. While We Anticipate His Return, John 14:1-31
12. Very Simply Put: Stay There, John 15:1-16:4
13. Resting in His Victory, John 16:5-33
14. The Priorities of Jesus in His High Priestly Prayer, John 17:1-26
15. Not Him! Give us Barabbas! John 18:1-40
16. Jesus is Crucified, John 19:1-42
17. Jesus is Resurrected, John 20:1-31
18. Jesus’ Mission Clarified, John 21:1-25
(I am currently missing the sermon on John 20. Once it has been retyped and saved, I will add it.)
If the links stop working or are wrong, please tell me via email or as a comment in the comment thread. These are here to help with illustrative material, exegetical points, and homiletical ideas. I don’t care how you use them, short of publishing them as your own, and you should do your own exegetical work. I wrote these three years ago so some illustrations might be dated and some of the exegesis I might disown now–I have learned quite a lot since I originally preached these. 🙂 Nevertheless, I think they might help you and if they do, I praise God alone. Please, however, these are not meant to replace your own diligence in the study.
I have posted new prayer thoughts and homiletical points at A Pastor’s Prayer Journal. Here’s an excerpt:
I have studied through Mark in depth five or six times and taught it in various situations at least four or five times. It is my favorite Gospel of the four perhaps because of it’s quick pace, literary value, and brutal honesty. The Gospel itself is marked (no pun) by the constant use of a small Greek phrase ‘kai euthus’, which means something like ‘and then’ or ‘immediately’ or ‘at once.’ The NIV, as do most translations, I noticed translates it differently so as to give the Gospel ‘flavor’ (although it appears that the NASB is fairly consistent in its use of ‘immediately’). This creates a sense of urgency in the Gospel as if Mark were always in a hurry to get us from one point to the next, never content to leave us lingering too long at one scene. In the overall picture, we know where Mark is in a hurry to get us and by the time we get to the crucifixion the pace has slowed (in my judgment) considerably. He wants us to drink deeply at this point.
The thoughts are from Mark 1 and 2.
“Let me say one last word. The scandal of Christianity exists as a scandal only so long as we are full of ourselves. To believe in the cross of Christ no scandal for those who have seen how perverted is their own wisdom, the wisdom of natural man. It is the very corrective for this perversion of our sight, it makes us look straight again, who by sin have become cross-eyed. The foolishness of the gospel is divine wisdom to all those who have been healed of the perversion which consists in making man’s reason and goodness the judge of all truth, that perversion which places man instead of God in the centre of the universe. The gospel is identical with the healing of this perversion, which in its depth and real significance is diabolical. It is the victory of God’s light over the powers of darkness.”
Emil Brunner, The Scandal of Christianity, p 115 (4th printing, 1978)
There’s been a lot of hubbub lately because one of the most successful and popular and theologically proper bands of our generation released a new record. That band is, of course, U2. I confess that I haven’t listened to the new record yet, but I hope at some point to listen to it. Frankly, I’m still listening to the last record (How to Dismantle and Atomic Bomb) and discovering some of the pictures Bono created on it.
Anyhow, all the hoopla caused me to break out some old-school U2 the other day and rock out a little bit. Honestly, I enjoy the listening experience and even more the unraveling Bono’s lyrics. One of my favorite records of all U2’s work is the Zooropa project. I heard a story once, perhaps it is a bit apocryphal, that the music was written so quickly (I believe during the Achtung Baby! tour) that in concerts they at times had the lyrics written on paper. I don’t know if its true or not, but it sounds kind of U2ish.
In particular, I like the song The Wanderer which was written by Bono and sung by Johnny Cash. Here’s part of the lyrics:
I went drifting
Through the capitals of tin
Where men can’t walk
Or freely talk
And sons turn their fathers in
I stopped outside a church house
Where the citizens like to sit
They say they want the kingdom
But they don’t want God in it.
Well, that makes pretty good sense, doesn’t it? I got to thinking: What sort of Kingdom have I hoped for? Do you ever really consider the Kingdom? When you think of Kingdom it is impossible to not think of Jesus, so when you think of Kingdom do you include a New Testament picture of Jesus? Have you ever thought about the things Jesus said and did? I mean, have you ever really thought about the manner in which God in the Flesh participated in this life, waged war against the power-brokers, and began the process of redemption?
We cannot have the Kingdom apart from the God who inhabits and creates the Kingdom. “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrated” (1 Corinthians 1:19). That’s the substance of the Kingdom. And this Jesus? He went around upsetting people, calling them names (like ‘whitewashed tombs’ and ‘dogs’ or ‘rocky’ or ‘boanerges’), and throwing people into mass hysteria (“Hosanna!” one day; “Crucify!” the next). He didn’t seem to care too much about the sanctity of holy days (like Sabbath) or the holiness of sanctified places (like the temple).
He wrecked the pig-economy of the people in the Decapolis in order to save one man who had been written off as dead by the entire community. He slept during a storm while his followers worked at the oars. He made a whole bunch of wine at the very outset of his ministry (!). He even went so far as to defy Roman law by resurrecting from the dead. He hung around with ruffians and hookers. “The whores all seem to love him, and the drunks propose a toast” (Rich Mullins). And what’s worse than all this? Well, read the Sermon on the Mount. This Kingdom we are called to is one that will not survive apart from God. At the same time, we are not free to create a Kingdom in the image of any other God than the one who created it. Jesus is not for wimps. Mark Buchanan wrote the book: Your God is too Safe. He’s right.
Anyone who hung around Jesus was, at any moment, in mortal danger. He is the one who said ‘the Spirit blows wherever it wants to blow and you cannot control it.’ Jesus chose to demonstrate a reckless abandon for the things we hold so precious. “I thank you God I am not like that fellow over there. I do all the right things, at the times, and in the right ways.” “God have mercy on me a sinner.” Do you remember which one went home justified that day? We like rules because they help us control others; we enforce them because they give us power over others. Jesus poured out grace on all rule-breakers. We are not fond of grace. He had the nerve to forgive a man hanging on the cross next to him and, as many are fond of pointing out, that man had not even been baptized. Jesus–who can hold on to the Jesus of the New Testament?
They say they want the kingdom, but they don’t want God in it.
Of course we don’t want God in it. If God acts anything like Jesus (*smile*), then we would be thoroughly uncomfortable, totally out of sorts, totally beside ourselves with anger that such a God would act so undignified, so gracious towards those who flout the rules, so loving towards those whom we despise. Of course we want the kingdom. Of course we don’t want God in it.
“Don’t things get dangerous only if and because God is?”–Karl Barth, in a letter to his brother Peter, 1932 as quoted by William Willimon, Conversations with Barth on Preaching, 197
Of course we don’t want God in the kingdom.
During Lent, I am preaching a series of sermons on the essential unity and oneness of the church, forged in the cross of Christ. I will be providing excerpts of those sermons here and also links back to my box.net account where they might downloaded in full. The sermons are drawn from 1 Corinthians. These sermons are born also out of the experiences of my current congregation and include historical references to the Restoration Movement church of which I am a member. The congregation is also reading a book called Together Again by Bob Russell and Rick Atchley. Thanks for stopping by. May you be blessed in the Lord’s Word. I will update this post each week. jerry
1. A Common Plea, 1 Corinthians 1:10-17
The problem is easily identifiable. People. People were the problem at Corinth. Their quarrels and schisms were nothing more than power plays, power grabs. They were the human attempts to accomplish something in the church that could not be accomplished by the means of power. Paul lays this out for the reader in verses 10-12. People were elevating other people over other people. It became a matter of territory, a war cry of ‘my guy is better than your guy’ or ‘my guy has more authority than your guy’ or, worse, ‘I was baptized by a guy who is far superior than the guy who baptized you.’ Paul is quick to the draw: Such an attitude in the church is wrong.
There were people who were trying to construct a church community on the basis of externals. In this case they were trying to build upon the idea that baptism by one person was more important than baptism by another. What ended up happening? Well, what happened was certainly not the betterment of the church, the growth of the church, the expansion of the kingdom, or the filling up of the cross. All these external building blocks did was contribute fuel to the quarreling and divisions that were and had formed in the congregation.
What we see here is a stark, cold reality. There will be times when we have issues in the church that cause us discomfort and pain. There will be times in the body when we, let’s not sugarcoat it: There will be times when we fight. There will be times when we simply do not get along. The apostle wisely confronts the issue right out of the box: I hear there are divisions among you. This shall not be because quarrels and divisions never get the church or those involved what they think they want or what they hope: power.
2. A Common Savior, 1 Corinthians 1:18-2:5
You and I, we have this in common. We are bound together under the weakness of a foolish message, a foolish word. This is what he is saying here. One group looks for signs and wonders; another group looks for wisdom; but all that we have to offer is what God gave us: Christ Jesus crucified. This word is a stumbling block to some; it is foolishness to others; but this is all we have. We cannot preach or proclaim something we have not been given. (And as a side note, I would say that we need not offer anything else. The Gospel has more than enough to offend everyone.)
And this is the confounding part of our message: It is not our message. It is God’s message. It is his word to us and this is why Paul cannot speak of anything else: He has nothing else to say. This message goes out to the world and it draws in all the misfits and losers. “Think of what you were when you were called.” We were called. We were called. Then it says this: “God chose…” God did! Thank God that he did the choosing! He chose all the weak, broken, battered, un-things. He chose the despised things and gathered them all up and together he did this: “Because of Him you are in Christ Jesus.”
And this is the message: It is the same for everyone. We preach Christ crucified because we cannot preach anything else. We are bound together in this common Word, by this common Savior. We preach Christ crucified and some will stumble, others will scoff, but all will be called. But we have only one message to proclaim
3. A Common Truth, 1 Corinthians 2:6-16
Apart from the Spirit of God there is no communication between Gospel and human. Apart from the Spirit of God there is no growth into maturity. Without the Spirit of God the very truth we claim to have in common is incomprehensible. But for all this, Paul writes, ‘we have the mind of Christ.’ We. We. We have the mind of Christ. The Spirit Paul said earlier who searches the mind of God and reveals his thoughts to us is in us and has revealed to us the mind of Christ. This is the Spirit in us. In We.
Is it any wonder that the apostle is frustrated with this church? Paul writes that we have the very mind of God, revealed to us by the Holy Spirit of God, the deepest mysteries of the heavens are ours in Christ, it is the power unto salvation…and we? We are bound together in Christ and by His Spirit. Those who love God are those who have been brought into fellowship and who have received the wisdom of God as revealed in the cross of Christ…and we? Those who have submitted and acted unto the obedience of the message spoken have understood the deep things of God, have heard things spoken that the wisest and most advanced among the human race cannot fathom, are those who are among the wisest fools on the planet…and we?
“There are quarrels among you.”
And do you think the apostle was disappointed? And do you think God is?
4. A Common Gospel, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11
Third, see the grace of the Gospel (8-9). The grace of the Gospel is that it may accept us as we are, but it doesn’t leave us that way. This is what he said in the sixth chapter: “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders 10nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” Yes we might sing ‘Just as I am’ but our song of triumph is something more like, ‘He’s changing me.’ Takes us from persecutors of the church and makes us into promoters of the church.
5. A Common Mission, 1 Corinthians 3:1-23
Why would nations want to flow to a place that is ravaged by the same problems that men in the flesh are ravaged by? We can go anywhere for quarrels and jealousy and division. Where can people go for unity, oneness, and brotherhood?
We are the temple of God which means that we are the habitation of the Holy Trinity—the essence and completeness and perfection of Unity and essential oneness. So when we are jealous and when we quarrel do we seriously consider God among us? God in us? And when we are jealous and quarrel and follow mere men do we consider how we are destroying God’s temple? What do you think it means that we ‘destroy’ the temple of God?
God’s temple is holy. We are the temple. We are holy. How can God make other holy people, add to his holy temple, when we are acting in a manner that is contrary to a holy God? God’s spirit lives in us so how can we act and live and behave in a manner that is contrary to the Spirit of God? The temple is the very place where the Oneness of God is on display before the world. What does the world think when they see a divided temple, a divided church? A divided God?
6. A Common Bond, Ephesians 4:1-16
Fifth, again Paul states that the purpose behind such gifts is that the church might grow up into Christ. This is really the only sort of maturity that is required or necessary or the goal. He writes, “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is Christ.” You see, our goal is Christ. He is the goal of the unity we are preserving, he is the maturity of the unity we are preserving. We are not growing up into some man made idea of what it means to be one and unified and united and whole. We are growing up into a Spirit driven, grace provided, Christ called, humanly preserved unity and oneness.
Soli Deo Gloria!
Sunday, March 8, 2009 (PM)
The Imperatives of Hebrews, 2
The Book of Hebrews
[These sermons are also available for download at my box.net account.–jerry]
Last week [here], we began some preliminary explorations of the book of Hebrews, in preparation for the 90 Days with Jesus which will start in May. Our preparation for the 90 Days comes in the form of exploring what I have dubbed the ‘imperatives’ of Hebrews. They are imperatives I think only to the extent that we are willing and ready to listen to the God who spoke. (1:1-2) These imperatives come at fairly regularly placed intervals in the book of Hebrews as if to remind us constantly to be looking back, opening our ears, softening our hearts. “Today if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.”
So these imperatives are God’s word to us. They are his promises. They are his voice speaking to us and we have to learn how to quiet ourselves and listen. We must pay attention to what he is saying. William Willimon notes:
Contrary to [the] contemporary stress on spiritual practices, [we] are reminded that the church is created and sustained through the proclamation of the Word, not through practices or the formation of allegedly Christian character. The church must rise anew, in each generation, among those who have head, not simply among those who have been inculcated and indoctrinated. The Word is forever tearing down and rebuilding the church, disrupting, confusing, killing in order to raise us from the dead. (Conversations with Barth on Preaching, 230)
So we listen. And the Word does its work inside of us. We don’t know exactly how it works just as we don’t know exactly where the seed will land once it is scattered. Yet we continue to listen for God’s voice. Sometimes it is clear, audible and majestic. Other times we have to discern it. But there it is, speaking to us in Christ.
So last week, we tuned into the first of these several imperative gestures. The first being that we need to ‘pay close attention to what we have heard so that we don’t drift away.’ I note, not in mere passing, that these imperatives are always spoken out of and to a community. ‘We’ and ‘us’ dominate these sentences. I also note that they are given to us with an intention. That is, we do not just ‘pay attention’ for the sake of paying attention. Nor, I might add, do we pay attention to just old thing we like. On the contrary, we ‘pay attention’ in order that we will not drift away. Paying attention serves a purpose in our lives. And we pay attention in this case to ‘what we heard’. What have we heard? We have heard the God who spoke to us and speaks to us in Jesus. It is probably also not insignificant that he says ‘what you heard.’ There is an emphasis on the importance of the proclaimed, spoken, audible word.
Second, we were concerned with ‘keeping our thoughts fixed on Jesus our apostle and high priest.’ What we hear is the Christ speaking to us and instructing us, praying for us, leading us and directing us. What we fix our thoughts on corresponds to what we have heard with our ears and with our eyes. We fix our thoughts on the one sent to us, the sacrifice, and the High priest, the one who offers the sacrifice. When we fix our thoughts on Christ our mind clears and is refreshed. And his person is so dominant and attractive that we can scarcely find room within for competing lords and gods. In other words, if your thoughts are fixed on Christ, how can there be room for any other thinking?
So, let’s examine a couple more of these ‘imperatives’ this evening. The first is found at the head of chapter 4, verse 1:
3. The third marker along this journey is found in 4:1: “Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it.”
This is explained thus:
“The author argues that the purposes of God are not frustrated because Israel of old disobeyed him and failed to enter the rest he had promised his people. The promise remains. If the ancient Israel did not enter God’s rest, then someone else will, namely the Christians. But this should not lead to complacency. If the Israelites of an earlier day, with all their advantages, failed to enter the rest, Christians ought not to think there will be automatic acceptance for them. They must take care lest they, too, fail to enter the blessing.” (Expositor’s Bible Commentary, online source)
The promise still stands. That is, it is hasn’t been fulfilled completely yet. This means we have to press on. The Promise itself still holds, which suggests that its fulfillment might be a time off yet: There is still room for entry by those outside, and there is still room for failure for those inside.
But what does the author here mean by ‘rest’? Does the author here mean long lazy days of relaxation and peace and tranquility by the lake? Or perhaps does he have something a bit more expansive in mind? Three specific ideas come to mind as we reflect on the Old Testament promises of Rest. There is certainly the idea of Sabbath rest which we learned about early on in the history of Israel. God himself took Sabbath and commanded his people to do so as well. Sabbath is a powerful idea and practice in Scripture. There might also be the idea of ‘rest from enemies’ that God promised to Israel. But the author in Hebrews is building on Psalm 95 and the idea of rest found there. The Psalm reads:
1 Come, let us sing for joy to the LORD;
let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
2 Let us come before him with thanksgiving
and extol him with music and song.
3 For the LORD is the great God,
the great King above all gods.
4 In his hand are the depths of the earth,
and the mountain peaks belong to him.
5 The sea is his, for he made it,
and his hands formed the dry land.
6 Come, let us bow down in worship,
let us kneel before the LORD our Maker;
7 for he is our God
and we are the people of his pasture,
the flock under his care.
Today, if you hear his voice,
8 do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah,
as you did that day at Massah in the desert,
9 where your fathers tested and tried me,
though they had seen what I did.
10 For forty years I was angry with that generation;
I said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray,
and they have not known my ways.”
11 So I declared on oath in my anger,
“They shall never enter my rest.”
Now the author of Hebrews brings this into a new generation. First it was spoken to Joshua and Caleb’s generation as Israel wandered in the desert. Then the author of Psalm 95 recites it for his own generation. The author of Hebrews quotes it for his own generation. And now you and I are hearing it in our time: If you, the flock under his care, today, hear his voice, do not harden your hearts. And it was their hardness of heart that prevented them from entering into the rest of God: “They shall never enter my rest.” The rest he is speaking of his rest. These are people who did not know God’s ways, whose hearts went astray, who tested God, who hardened their hearts and quarreled, who tried God-even though they had seen what he did-these are the ones prevented from entering his rest. The author of Hebrews brings this into his own situation. What we wonder is this: Will our generation be the generation who will finally enter his rest? Will we listen to his voice or will we harden our hearts?
“For we also have had the good news proclaimed to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because they did not share the faith of those who obeyed.” The author of Hebrews is saying to us: Don’t fall short of it. Don’t fall short of the rest of God because you have all the advantages, everything is in your favor, all the cards are stacked for you and there is no reason why you should fall short. Whatever this ‘rest’ is, it is God’s rest, and I don’t happen to believe that God desires to say to this generation, ‘you shall never enter my rest.’ He’s talking about obedience as if there is a sort of disobedience that will prevent us from partaking of his rest. This rest is not from Moses, David, or Joshua-it is a far more comprehensive and less mundane promise of Rest that still stands. And he concludes with what would be a fourth marker: “Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience” (v 11). He thus comes full circle. The promise of rest is somewhat contingent upon our perseverance in towards it. Stopping short because of disobedience will not nullify the Promise, but it will prevent our participation.
He says three times: Don’t harden your hearts if you hear his voice. He also says three times, “they shall never enter my rest” (11, 4:3, 5). Again, listen and obey so that you can enter.
4. The fourth marker is found in 4:14: “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.”
I think a new section was started in verse 12 of the previous chapter. There, after a short exposition of the rest we hope to inherit, the author of Hebrews breaks out with this even shorter doxological type of statement concerning the Word of God and God’s judgment:
“For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to diving soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
Therefore, he writes, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. What is the connection between the ‘there’ and the ‘fore’ in this marker? Andrew Murray chose to emphasize the word ‘have’. We ‘have’ a great high priest. He notes, we ‘have a great high priest. You own Him; He is yours, your very own, wholly yours. You may use Him with all He is and has. You can trust Him for all you need, know and claim Him as indeed your great High Priest, to bring you to God.” (184) Well, I don’t like the word ‘you’ and ‘yours’ because the author of Hebrews uses the word ‘we.’ But Murray’s point is taken. We are not so much in possession of Christ as he is in possession of us and we have access to Him.
Twice previously the author has also used the words ‘hold firmly.’ In 3:6 he wrote, “But Christ is faithful as the Son of God’s house. And we are his house, if indeed, we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory.” And in 3:14 he has also written, “We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold firmly till the end our original conviction.” Now, “Let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.” It’s no longer a matter of ‘if’ we hold firmly, but a command: Hold Firmly.
The short and long of it is this: He has gone through the heavens, he has finished the work, nothing escapes his eye of judgment, everything is laid bare-why give up? No one can take away from what Christ has already accomplished. He knows the struggles, he knows the weaknesses, he knows those who cause trouble-why give up? Why turn your back on what you know to be a finished work? And here again we are confronted by this living Word of God-this God who speaks. He has spoken his word into our lives, into our community, into our world. It cuts deep and rips us in two. It causes a schism within ourselves. There’s part of us that wars against his judgment and there’s part of us that struggles onward. We are quite divided beings.
And he says: Press on! Don’t be so quick to let go of what you know inside is true.
So what is the confession we made? Back in 3:1 he uses the same word, “…fix your thoughts on Jesus, whom we confess as our apostle and high priest.” Now here, “…hold firmly to the faith we confess.” What we are confessing is a high priest who has finished the work that needed to be finished. We confess Jesus who gives us the promised rest that Joshua could not. He softens hearts that Moses could not. We confess Jesus who is God’s Word to us. We confess Jesus, our high priest, who is able to understand our weaknesses. So again, we are not confessing some wimp. We have confessed this Jesus, this Son of God who is faithful over God’s house (3:5).
This is a call, if you will, to consider deeply who it is who calls us into being. This is a call to consider wisely if we will follow and consider carefully before bailing out on such a confession. The confession we make is no small thing in light of who we are confessing. Frankly, I don’t think we make enough emphasis on this confession. Our confessions are cheaply constructed and probably not carefully thought out. Perhaps if we put a little more thought into whom we have confessed we would not be so quick to jump ship or to fail when we struggle or when things get rough. We have confessed one who is ‘able to help those who are being tempted.’ Since he can, perhaps we should.
It seems to me that these markers we have focused on this evening are about persevering in the right way. Much of the effort that we make when it comes to persevering is silly because it has as its focus or goal something elusive and primitive. But we in Christ are not called to something primitive and elusive, nor something mundane and trivial. We are called to faith in the living Son of God who understands us too well because he has been made like us.
So there is a right kind of perseverance that will not fall short and there is a kind of perseverance that will miserably fail. I think if we are persevering for merely earthly objectives then we are certainly bound over to failure. Earthly objectives can be met, often without much struggle at all. But the true objective, who is living, is Christ Jesus. He is our goal. Indeed, the writer says, “We have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold firmly to the end our original convictions.”
Before us will be all sorts of stumbling blocks and hazards and chicanes. But these things I have said to you tonight are book-ended. In 2:18: “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” And again in 4:16: “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Here we see the great objective. Persevere! Cling to the faith confessed! Cling to Jesus! He is not about to fail you because he has already succeeded and won where the world has already and continually fails. Don’t give up. Stay the course!
If we are being torn down, ripped apart, it is only that He might put us back together, that He might Resurrect us according to his own will. This is God’s word to us.
Thoughts for Second Sunday in Lent, March 8, 2009
I’m preaching a series of sermons from 1 Corinthians to the church I serve during Lent. We are focusing on the essential and necessary oneness of the church that was forged in the crucifixion of Jesus. Part of the goal of these sermons is to introduce the congregation to some of the history of the so-called Restoration Movement while exploring the basis of our oneness in Christ. ‘We’ have a long history and I thought it would be appropriate to share some of that wonderful history that is so often overlooked when official church history is discussed.
Back in the day, there was a small publication that existed simply called The Plea. It was published in Tennessee by a Christian church and edited by Fred W Smith. I’d like to share a quote with you from the August 1951 editorial. He wrote:
“The Christian world is divided, not simply into congregations of believers for mutual benefit and service, but torn and rent by parties, factions, and schisms which claim exclusive rights to the promises of sacred Scripture. This is the ‘falling away’ which the Apostle Paul referred to in his epistles. (Fred W Smith, The Plea, August 1951, volume 7, #6. p 2)
The Restoration Movement was born out of a desire for Christians of all denominational stripes to recognize that unity has already been forged for us by Christ and that we need to but recognize and maintain it. The ‘founders’ of the movement came from Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist and other denominations. Some were Pentecostal, some were not. Some believed in instrumental music, some did not. Some practiced infant baptism, some did not. Some believe in mission societies, some did not. Some believed in conventions, some did not. Some believed in weekly communion, some did not. Sometimes they got along and worked hard at being one. Other times they failed and became two.
For the most part, I think the Restoration Movement has been a failure, at least in practice. Instead of bringing together the denominations it has, sadly, created yet two or three or four or five or more denominations (depending upon how you count the various churches who claim as their heritage the work of Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Barton W Stone among others). Nevertheless, the ideal still prevails and should be recognized for what it is: A call to recognize what Christ has already declared in Scripture to be true. If we failed in practice, perhaps we haven’t failed in theory. Perhaps the theory is still a good idea. We may not forge it, but we can at least recognize and honor it.
Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:3-6, NIV)
Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, 3being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6, NASB)
So what is our goal? Are we as the people whom Christ has called walking in a manner consistent with our calling? Are we walking with humility, gentleness, patience? Are we showing tolerance in love for one another? Are we making it our ambition, as people of Christ, to preserve or maintain that unity that has been forged for us in Christ and worked out in the Spirit? Are we making it our goal to live in peace with one another? Seriously? We really need to ask ourselves these questions continually.
Are we wise enough to recognize that no matter how many different denominations we create, no matter how many theological systems we construct (all theology is a matter of opinion anyhow), no matter how many blogs we write (each one no doubt claiming exclusive rights (and rightness!) to the interpretation and proclamation of God’s truth!), no matter how much we fight and argue about who is right and who is wrong–at the end of the day: There is ONE body. We cannot change this. Christ has declared it to be so and nothing we can do will alter that declaration. There is ONE body. It is unfortunate that this Biblical fact causes so much upheaval among people. It is even more unfortunate that some have made it their life’s ambition to narrow this field as much as they can and cause as much division as they can in whatever way they can. Our goal, thus, should not be causing so much division that the expanse of the church is narrowed. Our goal should be recognizing and maintaining what Christ Jesus forged in his own blood.
That Body includes people that do not think like I do. That Body includes Democrats and Republicans and maybe even some Libertarians (I jest). That Body includes people who do not take communion every week like I do. That Body includes people who do not believe in a literal 6-Day creation like I do. That Body includes people who immerse as the first act of obedience instead of, as I do, the last act of conversion. That Body includes people who are monergistic and not synergistic like me. That Body includes Calvinists and Arminians and Calminians and Arminiasts. That Body includes pre-millenialists like John MacArthur and amillenialists like me and maybe even post-millenialists and pan-millenialists. That Body includes so-called Emergent types like Rob Bell and so-called hyper-Calvinsts like Mark Driscoll. Believe it or not, that Body even includes some Baptists, Lutherans. Methodists, Catholics, Nazarenes, Church of Christ, Anglicans, and Eastern Orthodox (and others; many others). And so on and so forth. My point is that who can number the Body but Christ? Whose job is it but Christ’s?
Then I heard the number of those who were sealed: 144,000 from all the tribes of Israel. (Revelation 7:4)
After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. (Revelation 7:9)
What he heard and saw corresponded in some way. He heard a perfect number; he saw a massive heap. And yet:
And they cried out in a loud voice:
“Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:10)
They sang together. They worshiped the Lamb as One! Do you see? Do you understand? They had one thing in common and it was Christ Jesus!
Practically speaking, the Restoration Movement was doomed before it started. Who, to be sure, could ever decide what is opinion enough for there to be liberty and what is essential enough for there to be unity? ‘We’ were stumped in those two places before we ever got to the ‘in all things love’ part. Still, I think there is hope and we are not outwitted just yet and I don’t think that our un-oneness has caused the Lord great consternation or upheaval. Could just be that our un-oneness exists also for his glory.
Maybe this is why he specifically told us to Love one another. Maybe this is why he said we are saved by grace. Alone.
“Christianity also is not intolerant because anyone can believe, regardless of race, gender, or social status. No one is excluded. Christianity is the most inclusive and exclusive of all religions. Anyone can believe, but it is only by faith in Jesus Christ that a person is saved. It is that glorious message of salvation through Christ alone that should be our banner and that which unites us. Jesus said, ‘If I be lifted up, I will draw all men to me.” Let our churches [and, I might add, our blogs] be known, then, for their strong and unwavering message about the crucified Christ, the very Son of God.” (Bob Russell & Rick Atchley, Together Again, 53)
Sunday, March 1, 2009 (PM)
The Imperatives of Hebrews
The Book of Hebrews
“In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. 3The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. 4So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.”
“The book of Hebrews offers us, quite simply, Jesus. It offers us the Jesus who is there to help because he’s one of us, and has trodden the path before us. It offers us the Jesus who has inaugurated the new covenant, bringing to its fulfillment the age-old plan of God. And it offers us, above all, Jesus the final sacrifice; the one who has done for us what we could not do for ourselves, who has lived our life and died our death, and now ever lives to make intercession for us.” (NT Wright, Following Jesus, 10)
The book of Hebrews begins by reminding us that God spoke, both in the past in various ways and with various means, and in the present in Christ Jesus. This is not an odd way to begin a book that has so many things to say about the finality of God’s voice in Jesus. In these last days, God has spoken to us. He has raised his voice above the din and clutter of noise that is all the other voices so easily heard, and clamoring to be hear, and He spoke. To us.
I am here stuck in the same awe that renowned theologian Karl Barth was stuck in: God spoke to us. Us! He desired that we hear his voice. He desired, and desires, that we engage him in active listening and active speaking. God’s word to us is not mere monologue: we pray, and sing, and worship in any variety of ways. William Willimon notes, “Who is the human being? Someone who is ‘summoned by this Word.’ Our great, God-given dignity is that God wants to talk to us. God speaks to us and what God says is, ‘I will be your God and you will be my people.’” (166) The essence of our existence is that God took initiative and spoke to us!
But Willimon makes another point too, and perhaps an even more important point about what we hear, what our task is as hearers, and our role as speakers:
“Knowledge of God is always in Barth linked to the call of God, communication and disclosure are always linked to commission and call, and revelation divinely given is linked to obedient human response. Our challenge, as preachers, is not to master God’s word but rather to develop the skills to listen to God without despising God for speaking to us. The God of the Bible who speaks is the God who commands and one wonders if many of our hermeneutical and homiletical strategies are designed to manage that command. For Barth, every single verse of scripture is a potential act of vocation. The question to be put to any of God’s three forms of proclamation is never simply, ‘Do I understand?’ or certainly not, ‘Do I agree?’ but rather, ‘How am I being called to change and commit through this word?’” (165)
So the book of Hebrews, as we call it, begins here with “God spoke.” This is the most radical thing God can do and did. He spoke to us in Jesus, his Son. Everything else flows from here and everything else said in the book only makes sense when we accept that God has spoken, in these last days, through his son. We have to get into our heads first who spoke and and how (in the Son) then we can get into our heads what he spoke and then we can try to understand why he spoke it. I think at some level, though, we hear his commands (‘what he spoke’) merely for what they are. They are words with a certain emphasis placed on them, perhaps an imperative, but as a command we are to act out under his watch they are perhaps nonsensical.
Radical Christianity, radical Scripture, Radical God is not for anyone and everyone. It is for those called together by this Son who is the exact character of God in the flesh. And Hebrews offers no apologies for taking such a radical approach to lived out faith. I’m not suggesting that only a few are invited. I think the invitation is wide open to any and all who hear and obey. What I am suggesting is that as we read through the book of Hebrews we hear the voice of God saying to us: Buckle up. It’s not going to be an easy go of things. You will be challenged at every step to turn back and quit. That is where I would like to break into this letter tonight and show you several major stops along the path that is Hebrews.
This book is filled with some of the most profound theology and Old Testament biblical exegesis in the entire canon. However, along the way, the author periodically stops and looks back in order that he might point forward. The call is radical: radical indeed. He speaks for a moment or two on some important issue, and that issue is always the superiority of Jesus or the better nature of the Jesus work, and then he challenges the reader. He marks off these challenges with the word ‘therefore’. There are eleven of these markers found in Hebrews. Let’s begin.
1. The first marker is found in chapter 2:1: “We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.”
What must we pay attention to? God spoke. We have to pay attention to what we hear from Christ who now speaks to us in these last days. He who has ears to hear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. Fact is, we cannot afford to not pay attention. There are many, many voices clamoring for our attention. The basis of our listening and paying attention is that Jesus is ‘superior angels’ and has ‘inherited a name that is superior.’ Therefore, we must pay attention. He warns us here that if we do not pay attention we will ‘drift away.’ We will be like a boat that has lost its tether and floats off out into the ocean where it can be tossed about by every wind and wave and storm that comes up.