Growing in Jesus and Our Understanding of His Work
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’ll venture to read a bit more of Michael Spencer’s essay. Here he is discussion why he believes that such a collapse is the inevitable future of the Evangelical church. He gives seven reasons. I’ll quote from the second part of point one and all of point 2:
The evangelical investment in moral, social, and political issues has depleted our resources and exposed our weaknesses. Being against gay marriage and being rhetorically pro-life will not make up for the fact that massive majorities of Evangelicals can’t articulate the Gospel with any coherence. We fell for the trap of believing in a cause more than a faith.
2. We Evangelicals have failed to pass on to our young people an orthodox form of faith that can take root and survive the secular onslaught. Ironically, the billions of dollars we’ve spent on youth ministers, Christian music, publishing, and media has produced a culture of young Christians who know next to nothing about their own faith except how they feel about it. Our young people have deep beliefs about the culture war, but do not know why they should obey scripture, the essentials of theology, or the experience of spiritual discipline and community. Coming generations of Christians are going to be monumentally ignorant and unprepared for culture-wide pressures.
Well, on this part he is dead right. Why will people be unprepared to face the future? Consider this story about a church in Alabama: [You can find this story doing a google search. I’ll add the links later.–jerry]
GOOD HOPE, Ala. – It’s one thing for a church in a big city like Dallas or Atlanta to tackle the ticklish topic of sex. It blends in with the urban scene.
It’s another thing when a small-town congregation puts up billboards with the phrase “Great sex: God’s way” on rural highways to promote a sermon series. You can’t even legally buy beer in Cullman County, and a preacher is talking about S-E-X on Sunday morning?
Daystar Church, whose congregation has grown dramatically under pastor Jerry Lawson, has run up against the sensibilities of a conservative north Alabama community with a monthlong focus on sex.
I’m telling you that this is a large part of the problem. Not just sex talk, but talk that is far more culturally determined than it is Scripturally determined. This is not to say that talking about sex in the church is bad, but it is to say that if you need your preacher to help you with sex your issues are much deeper than mere sex. I like the response of another evangelist in that area:
Evangelist Roland Belew, a self-described fundamentalist and former trucker who now preaches at a truck stop, said the whole idea goes against the teaching of New Testament apostles.
“Paul said preach the Gospel,” said Belew. “Talking about sex ain’t gonna get nobody to heaven.”
You know, it’s kind of hard to argue with that argument isn’t it?
Again, it’s not just sex talk. The church isn’t called to address secular issues. The church isn’t called to articulate an opinion about politicians. The church isn’t called to formulate an opinion about the latest trends. And preachers are certainly not called to form a focus group, conduct a survey, or stick their finger in the wind to determine what they should preach. It’s any talk that detracts from the Gospel. So we are not even called to preach a particular morality. We are called to preach Christ and those who ‘by constant use’ practice Christ will learn to discern good and evil.
So, the author Hebrews says, ‘therefore.’ In other words, since you people refuse to grow up, since you refuse to practice and use these things, since you ‘no longer [even] try to understand,’ therefore, we are going to move ahead anyhow. William Willimon describes this very thing in his book Conversations with Barth on Preaching:
The words of the sermon are not a congregationally derived Word; that Word comes from God to the church. Preachers must be willing to risk conflict, resistance, and rejection by the church in order to be faithful to the church’s peculiar vocation: joyful subservience to the Word. Preachers are to serve the Word, not to be acquiescent to the congregation. In a day when pastoral care for and caring about the needs of the congregation has virtually overwhelmed much of Christian ministry, Barth reminds us that the best and most loving service that we clergy can render to our people is utter subservience to the Word.” (245)
I have an utter disgust for the sort of preaching that is so humanly focused because it doesn’t help people mature in Christ. It keeps them stagnated, prevents them from maturing, and has them all fired up about all the wrong things. How can we possibly be thrilled and joyful in Christ when we are pointing to everything but Christ? How can we mature in Christ when we are maturing in so many other things? How can we cling to the faith we once professed when that faith is no longer taught and preached among us?
One of the most discouraging things I have ever heard was when an elder told me I needed to dumb down my sermons. I was 25! They were as dumb as it could get. Those were the words of someone was no longer even trying to understand. This is an epidemic in our culture: people just don’t want to grow up or mature; they are quite content with milk and cereal. It seems to me that once you have tasted, you want more. The other night Renee made some nice steak for dinner. I had my portion and she hers. There was once piece left on the stove. I nipped a piece. Then another. It was juicy, succulent. I had to walk away or she would have gotten no more. Once you taste, you want more.
We are not to be lazy learners. He has not a lot of happy things to say about these people. They ‘no longer tried to understand,’ they were ‘immature,’ they were ‘infants on milk.’ They were running the risk of ‘falling away’ and ‘crucifying Christ all over again.’ He says they were like land that ‘drinks the rain and produces thorns,’ in danger of ‘being cursed,’ and in the end ‘burned.’ He was telling them this so that they wouldn’t ‘become lazy,’ and thus lose hope. You see, we can become dull. If we have faith inside of us and it is not put to practice we become dull.
We must continue to move on, move ahead, move forward not for learning’s sake alone, but for our own sake. So that we will be productive and useful. So that we will be the servant with ten talents who earns ten more, or the servant with five who earns five more, and not like the servant with one talent who lives in fear of his master.
Can the Evangelical collapse be averted? I doubt it. Frankly, I think it needs to happen because then, and only then, will people realize that we are not a people who have grown up in Christ. We have remained stagnated thinking that mere numbers or political successes are indications of growth, maturity, and blessing.
However, on a local level, here, we can progress in faith. We can move forward in Christ, and for Christ’s sake. We can mature if we hold fast to what we have heard, fix our hearts and minds on Christ, hold fast to our confession, persevere and not fall short, and if we press on towards maturity in the Word. That is, if we continue to press on towards Christ.