Carpe diem. As you probably know, it’s a Latin phrase usually translated “Seize the day”; I first heard it in high school when they had us watch Dead Poets Society. Which is fitting, since the line comes from one of the great dead poets, the Roman Horace, who ended one of his odes by advising, “Seize the day, trusting as little as possible in the future.” Now, Horace’s idea was “Sit back, drink your wine, and don’t hope for much,” but the insight is sound, and one which we also find in the Jewish wisdom tradition. In the Pirke’ Abot, a collection of ethical teachings included in the Talmud, we find this prodding question: “If not now, when?” The future is not yours to rely on; it’s not even yours to know. James draws on this when he says in chapter 4, “Come now, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit’—yet you don’t know what tomorrow will bring. . . . Instead you ought to say, ‘If the Lord wills, we will live, and also do this or that.’”
Now, of course, that’s not to say that you should do everything you get a chance to do; some things aren’t really opportunities, and others aren’t good ones. But when something truly good comes along, we need to pursue it. It’s easy not to do so, out of fear, or uncertainty, or doubt, or lethargy, or simply because we’re otherwise occupied—but when there’s a chance not to be missed, don’t miss it, and don’t figure you’ll be able to take it later, because later might never come. Take the opportunity. Seize the day.
That’s the core of Hebrews’ point here. The author has argued at great length that Jesus has fulfilled the purpose of the law and replaced all the priests because he has given us true salvation and opened a way for us through the curtain that separated us from the presence of God—indeed, he has become that way for us, he is the way, and he is the door—and if that’s true, then what’s the application? Jesus has opened the way for you—take advantage! You have a great high priest in whom all your sins are forgiven—don’t be afraid! You are invited to come freely into the presence of the living God—so come! Approach God! Draw near! Don’t be afraid—in Jesus you have been washed, you have been purified, you are forgiven! God has put a new heart and a new spirit within you—his Spirit—he’s renewing you from the inside out. No matter what you’ve done, God sees you in Jesus, as he’s making you to be, and he loves you. Come to him, come close to him, with full confidence and trust, for you are welcome.
This is an invitation that should give us heart and courage, and I suspect it’s one that many of us can’t hear too often. There are some folks, certainly, who are quite sure they’re just wonderful—I’ve even known a few who were rather obnoxious about it; but for those of us for whom self-doubt is a familiar companion, this is a particular blessing. It’s very reassuring to know that it’s not about self-esteem or self-worth or believing in ourselves, all of which place a great weight squarely on our shoulders; rather, it’s about believing in God and his faithfulness and the power of what Jesus has done for us, and knowing that it doesn’t matter how we feel: whether we’re up or down and whatever the Devil may be whispering in our ears, Jesus saved us, God loves us, and we are his.
Which should give us courage to hold fast to our hope in Christ, and to our open declaration of that hope—which of course we must do if we are to draw near to God through him. If we begin to lose hope, or if we become ashamed to proclaim it, then we will naturally look for alternatives, and we will not draw near to God through Christ; but we have reason to be bold, for our hope is sure and certain. We have every reason for confidence in the faithfulness of God, because we have seen it in Jesus; we have every reason to be confident that Jesus is enough, because he has already done far more than we could ever have imagined. And we have every reason to proudly proclaim our hope to all who will listen, and to keep proclaiming it even when times get hard, even when we hurt, and even when there is opposition, because Jesus has never failed us yet. He doesn’t make the road easy, but if we hang on tight to him, he always leads us through.
Of course, doing that can be easier said than done, especially if we’re trying to do it alone. The reality that underlies the power and value of Alcoholics Anonymous and other such groups—one reality, anyway—is that it’s far, far easier to stay on the right road if we have others we care about who are walking it with us; and contrariwise, we’re a lot likelier to get ourselves into trouble if we’re hanging out with others who are going wrong. We need people around us who will spur us on to grow in love and to express that love in good works, and we need to do the same for them in turn. We need, we all need, that constant encouragement and support and exhortation if we’re going to draw near to God the way we should and grow in Christ the way he wants us to.
Now, can I just say, I love the way the author puts this here? I love the NIV’s translation, too. The word we have here in the Greek is the word from which we get our English word “paroxysm,” and it usually refers to intense anger; I’ve been told that the verb form is the one that would be used of prodding an ox along, and if they’d had spurs in those days, I would imagine it would have been used for spurring a horse, too. “Poke one another with a sharp stick to love and good deeds” just isn’t something most people would think to find in the Bible, but that’s basically the idea here, and for good reason: it’s something we need to hear.
We tend to be reluctant to provoke people, we hesitate to challenge others, because we’re afraid of the reactions we’ll get; we convince ourselves it’s not important enough to deal with. Instead, we go and complain to other people, which might relieve our stress a little but otherwise just makes things worse. The reality is, though, that we all need to be challenged at times, and we all have things we need to be called on; if you see something spiritually unhealthy in my life, or someone else’s—I’m not just talking about something you find personally irritating, but something sinful—then you need to go and do a little provoking to love and good deeds. And on the flip side, if someone comes up to you and says, “I see something in your life that’s getting in the way of your relationship with God,” be provoked—but not to anger. Rather, listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit speaking through that person, and let the Spirit provoke you toward Jesus.
For this reason, Hebrews says, we need to keep meeting together. I’m sure you’ve heard people say, “I don’t need to go to church to worship God, I can worship him anywhere”; I got that one a lot in Colorado, with people insisting they could worship God better hiking in the mountains or out on the lakes than in some building. There’s truth to that—though in my experience, most folks who say that are not in fact worshiping God when they go have fun, but whatever—but it’s not really on point, for two reasons. One, worshiping God together as a part of his body is different from worshiping him when we’re by ourselves, and we need both to be healthy—if the only time you worship is here on Sunday mornings, that’s not good either. And two, our gatherings are about more than just worship and teaching, they’re about living into one another’s lives, so that we have the time and opportunity to come to know each other, and thus to be able to poke one another to love and good deeds.
I’ve talked about this before, that the Greek word we translate “fellowship” is koinonia, from the word meaning “common”; it’s a much richer word than our English “fellowship”—it means doing, sharing, owning, living in common, being involved in something together, being involved in one another’s lives. It means doing life as a body, not just as disconnected pieces who happen to get together every so often, and being there for one another—all for one and one for all, sharing one another’s sorrows, and sharing our joys, too. It’s a powerful thing, because as the author Spider Robinson put it, shared pain is lessened, shared joy increased . . . but it’s completely impossible if we’re not together, and it’s hard for you to be a part of it if you’re not here.
And without that—without that support, without that encouragement, without that provocation, without that group of people we don’t want to disappoint—it’s hard to hold fast to our confession of hope in Christ, it’s hard to keep our faith from wavering, and so it becomes hard to keep drawing near to God through Jesus. We need to be worshiping God through all of life, but what we do here, participating in the life of his people and worshiping together, is the linchpin of that; we cannot sustain a life of worship if it isn’t anchored in the corporate worship of the body of Christ.
And that ought to be a priority for us, because we’ve been given an opportunity which no one had for thousands of years, and which millions of people still don’t know they could have: the opportunity to come freely into the presence of God without fear and without condition. It’s an opportunity people have literally died for, and are continuing to die for all over the world. And for us, it’s right here for the taking. All we have to do is see it for what it is, and recognize its value; all we have to do is recognize that this is something that’s worth more than all the other things we do and all the other things that fill up our days, and grab hold of it. Grab hold of it now, while it is still called “today,” and don’t let go. Carpe diem. Seize the day.