Follow the Leader

(Leviticus 16:27-28; Hebrews 13:7-25)

The author of Hebrews has a high view of the importance of church leadership; but he doesn’t argue it in the ways we’re used to seeing. He doesn’t say, obey your leaders because they’re well-trained, or because they’re good motivators, or because they’re successful. Instead, he says, remember the leaders who have gone before, the ones who first taught you the truth about Jesus—the ones who you know ran the race faithfully all the way across the finish line without stopping or turning away; since they proved faithful to the end, they are the example you should imitate. As for your current leaders, he says, obey them because they’re going to have to give an account of the way they’ve served you as your shepherds, and if you give them flak and trouble, you make that hard for them. It’s almost more a matter of taking pity on them than anything.

And in between these two statements, Hebrews comes back once more, inevitably, to Jesus. Remember your leaders, obey your leaders, why? Because they point you to Jesus. Be led by those who are following Jesus well, because he’s ultimately the one whom we’re supposed to be following; good leaders are those who help us do that better. Even the best of leaders are temporary, but Jesus Christ is the same yesterday—when he made sacrifice for all our sin—today—when he sits at the right hand of the Father as our great high priest, bringing our prayers to the throne of grace—and forever—whatever may come, to the ultimate end when he will bring us home to sit at his side. Jesus does not change and he does not fail us, and so we should hold fast to his unchanging truth; he will do new things among us, but he is the same God who does them, and what he does and says tomorrow will never contradict what he has done and said all the way along.

Of course, given the enduring human belief in the new and improved, there are always people coming along trying to convince us they have a better idea, as there were back then as well; and those better ideas always seem to take our attention away from Jesus and point us instead to earthly things and earthly behaviors. Sometimes they’re about behavior control, forbidding certain things and demanding we do others in just the right way; other times they purport to be all about freedom, inviting us to seek satisfaction and fulfillment in the things of this world. Either way, they lead us to put too much value and importance on things that are fleeting, instead of the things of God, who is eternal.

This can only be to our detriment, and so the author says, “Don’t fall for that. You can’t nourish your spiritual life with rules about food, but only with the grace of Jesus.” As the British NT scholar F. F. Bruce put it, “rules about food, imposed by external authority, have never helped people to maintain a closer walk with God.” (And if this talk about food seems unrelated to life nowadays, just consider how many diet books and programs there are out there, and what we call the people who create them: gurus. Modern folks may spiritualize food differently than the ancients did, but people very much still do it.) We need Christ at the center, nothing else.

To emphasize this, Hebrews goes back to the language and imagery of the sacrifices one more time. With the regular sin offerings through the year, after the animal was sacrificed and the best part given to God, the priests ate the rest. On the Day of Atonement, however, when the great sacrifices were offered for the sins of the high priest and of the people, those animals were not eaten—they were burned outside the camp, or the city. Such sacrifices had nothing to do with food—and neither does the sacrifice of Christ, the once-for-all sacrifice that was the reality of which those sacrifices were but a shadow. No outward conformity to rules about food—or anything else—can ever save us, can ever make us pure enough to please God; only Jesus can do that, by his grace.

Now, living by grace doesn’t come naturally to us; even more, societies and governments find it problematic because once you stop believing you can find salvation in obedience to law, you become a lot harder to manipulate and control. It’s telling, Hebrews argues, that Jesus was sacrificed outside the city, outside the walls that enclosed civilization with its rules and structures and orders; he was killed out there with the criminals and the rejects and the wild animals, with those whom law and custom declared unfit and unwelcome. If we’re going to follow Jesus, that’s where we have to go—to the place of rejection and reproach, laying down the approval of others to walk with him.

And here we get this marvelous allusion to Abraham. If you remember chapter 11, Hebrews tells us that Abraham followed God without even knowing where he was going, turning his back on his city and everything that went with it for life spent in tents, because “he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.” So too, Hebrews says, we need to recognize that here we have no lasting city; we too are called to live in tents, looking forward to the city that God is laying down on foundations that will endure forever. We need to give up our kingdom-building, to give up pursuing the things of this world and measuring our life by how we do; we need to set aside the approval of others and stop letting it guide our decisions; we need to understand that our call is to follow Jesus, and while Jesus may well give us a really nice tent to live in for a while, it’s still just a tent, and it’s not his goal for us. We need to hold all good things lightly except the love of God and the approval of Christ, because everything else passes away, and everything else will fade in time.

Living this way takes grace, and it takes the Holy Spirit; it takes help, which is why the Spirit gives us leaders. Unfortunately, leaders like this aren’t all that common, which is one reason why the church is so prone to go off the rails. Whatever you may think of her politics, the most startling and profound moment I’ve seen in our country in recent years was when Gov. Sarah Palin declared, “Politically speaking, if I die, I die.” That’s not the kind of language we’re used to from our leaders—for most of them, their own political survival and their own continued importance is the center of their existence. To be sure, Gov. Palin was quoting one of her favorite books of the Bible, the words of Queen Esther to Mordecai in chapter 4 of her book, as she prepares to go to the king to plead for the salvation of the Jews; but then, Esther was a pretty uncommon person herself. Leaders who are willing to lead at their own risk, at their own expense, rather than playing it safe by telling people what they want to hear just aren’t all that easy to find.

Of course, whose fault is that? If we only follow people who lead us where we already know we want to go—if we vote out the truth-tellers, fire the prophets for making us uncomfortable, and generally make it clear that we are going to set the parameters within which we will consent to be led, then what kind of leaders are we going to get? We’re going to get the careerists, the trimmers, the spinners—the ones who tell us whatever we want to hear while they feather their own nests behind our backs. That’s why we get the government we deserve; it’s also what keeps so many of our churches earthbound. We won’t get truth that way, which means we won’t be led in the way of Christ.

Our criterion for leaders should be that they are people committed to following Christ wherever he may lead, speaking his truth even when it’s unwanted, showing his love even when it’s uncomfortable. Everything else is gravy; that’s the main thing. It’s not even that they need to look holy—sometimes the people who look holiest are just the best liars; sometimes people who clearly struggle with sin can help us the most as we struggle with ours. We’ll never completely overcome sin in this life, after all—the key is that we keep fighting it and keep seeking to put it to death, even when we don’t want to, even when we aren’t wildly successful. We need to find people who do that and are committed to keep doing it because their deepest passion is to know Christ, to love Christ, to serve Christ, to follow Christ, to be like Christ—and follow them, even when it’s not our way. Indeed, especially when it’s not our way, because it’s not about our way. It’s about Jesus’ way.

A closing word to those whom God has called to lead, and those whom he is calling: be ready for the nails. If the essence of Christian leadership is “Follow me as I follow Christ”—and it is—and if the way of Christ leads to the cross, then we should expect to get nailed to the wall sometimes. Unlike Jesus, none of us are perfect, so sometimes we have it coming; like him, we’re a target, so sometimes we don’t. Either way, if we’re serious about this following Jesus thing, what else should we expect? The key is that when we feel the nails, we need to respond with humility and grace—with repentance and honesty, when we have sinned—and above all, with love. It’s only as we model that that we can ever lead the church to do the same. Leadership in the church is not a privilege or a right, it’s a form of serving the church, which means suffering for the church—and it will hurt at times, mark me well. Hebrews is right, the church making you groan does them no good, but they’ll do it anyway. But as Hebrews says of Jesus, for the joy set before him Jesus endured the cross—and there is deep joy in this; if God has called you to a place of leadership, whatever else may come, the joy is more than worth it.

The Life of the Kingdom

(Psalm 118:5-7; Hebrews 13:1-6)

The great irony of this passage is that we’ve worked our way through Hebrews, with all its resounding affirmations of the unique supremacy of Christ and its unyielding insistence that we are not and cannot be saved by obedience to law, but only through the atoning sacrifice of our Lord Jesus—and then we get here, and if we’re not careful, old habits kick in and we read it as law. We’re so used to thinking of life in terms of following commands in order to earn rewards that if we don’t stop and catch ourselves, we’ll see this and be right back to law; we’ll read this as things we have to do to earn God’s pleasure, just as if the first twelve chapters of this book had nothing to do with it. Even for my part, I should know better, but if I don’t stop and think, I’ll preach it that way.

Which isn’t good, because there are things here we need to learn that we won’t learn if we do that—and not just about grace, but about law. We were talking about this in our small group last Wednesday, with respect to the Sermon on the Mount, because Christ does come as the lawgiver; it’s something Matthew emphasizes. Jesus firmly dec-lares that he hasn’t come to get rid of the law, but to fulfill it, and Matthew is structured to present Jesus as the new and greater Moses. Hebrews, of course, does something similar, arguing that Jesus is superior to Moses. Our Lord is far from indifferent to what we do or how we do it; those who claim the name and authority of Jesus to throw out biblical commands they don’t like clearly don’t understand him, or the holiness of God.

What we need to understand, though, is that Christ is a lawgiver in a profoundly different sense from any human lawgiver, or even from Moses in the giving of the divine law. Human laws are about compelling outward obedience; they don’t go any further than that. Indeed, they really shouldn’t, given human limitations. In the hands of an all-knowing God who is love, however, it’s a very different matter. He doesn’t simply want us to acquire a certain code of behavior—he’s on about something far better and far greater for us, nothing less than our total redemption and re-creation; and so he comes to us as lawgiver, yes, but rather than giving us behavioral standards which we have to meet in order to earn rewards, he gives us the perfect law—the law of love, the law of liberty.

Now, these phrases are biblical—James uses the latter a couple times, and he and Paul both say that love is the fulfilling of the law—but they fit strangely with how we think of law, and we aren’t quite sure what to make of them. The problem is, we’ve missed the first lesson: what we think is freedom isn’t. We learn, in this world, to define freedom as doing whatever we want; we understand law as defining the limits of our freedom, restricting our freedom in this area and protecting it in that one by restricting the freedom of others. We see it as a balancing act, and something of a zero-sum game, that all really boils down to one question: how much are we going to be allowed to do?

The Bible comes along and says no, this is all wrong. Doing whatever we want isn’t freedom at all, it’s slavery—slavery to our desires, to our whims, to the sin that has rooted itself so deeply and so insidiously in our hearts. It is the ability to give in to our desires, to let them rule our lives and dictate our actions; it is the corresponding inability to rise above them, to go beyond them, and thus to become more than just the sum of our appetites. It is the soft slavery of the patient tyrant—and as the Bible shows us, there is a tyrant here indeed, for the desires that rule us are not truly our own, nor are they truly oriented toward our own good; we are being manipulated by our ancient enemy, the Father of Lies, who is perfectly willing that people should never realize that they are in fact puppets on his strings so long as they continue to be puppets. Such do our desires make of us, as long as our main concern is whether or not we can do what we want to do.

Which it usually is, most of the time; not that we’re all completely selfish or trying to get our own way at any cost, but this way of thinking is just how we naturally frame our decisions and our opportunities. Out of this comes our basic understanding of law as something which restrains us, something which compels us to act against what we want to do. Even when we think that restraint is a good thing, whether for us individually or for our society, we still understand it in those essentially negative terms; we see laws as existing to prevent us from satisfying our desires, and thus forcing us to act against our nature. They are external objects which serve as instruments of coercion.

If we stop and think, though, we realize that this isn’t the only kind of law we know about. We also acknowledge and respect physical laws, such as the law of gravity, which are very different. The law of gravity isn’t something externally imposed on us, or on other objects—it’s simply the way things work; it’s not a law created to control the behavior of people or things, it’s a law we recognize that describes our behavior. If I hold this pencil in mid-air and let go, it drops, and that was every bit as true before anyone ever came up with the word “gravity” as it is now. It’s just what naturally happens; it’s a law of internal reality. The law of love is much the same, though in a different way: if we are full of true love, which is the love of God our creator, how will we naturally behave? If our lives are governed by love for God and for other people, what will they look like? Put another way, if the love of God sets us free from slavery to our desires, what will we seek instead, and how will we act? This is the perfect law, the law of liberty.

And it’s what this passage is about, because it’s all about love—specifically, keeping our love rightly ordered. It’s about love for those who belong to us—our family, our friends, our brothers and sisters in Christ—which calls us to seek their good, even (or perhaps especially) when it costs us something. More, it’s about love that goes beyond that circle to those in need, especially those who are strangers among us and have no one on whom they can depend; whether we know them or not, God does, and he loves them, and he calls us to share his love with them and meet their needs. It’s about not pretending sexual desire is love, or using that pretense to justify immoral behavior. Our society loves to do that, and many marriages have been defiled and destroyed as a result; we need to understand that love must sometimes oppose desire, and put it to death, if love is to be true and stay true. We won’t necessarily make friends by saying that, but it’s the truth, and sometimes love requires us to say it.

And finally, it’s about loving God rather than money. This might seem disconnected, but it really isn’t; it’s another area in which we can easily let love for God come in second, and it’s one which helps us to see that part of the problem here is trust. “Keep your life free from love of money,” why? Because God has promised to take care of us. So much of what drives us to the pursuit of pleasure, to the accumulation of wealth—or to hoarding wealth in an effort to make sure we always have enough—is the fear that if we don’t, we’ll lose out. We don’t trust God to provide what we need or give us what’s best for us if we aren’t striving to make that happen; this fear and mistrust chokes out joy and pushes us to seek things instead of God, the gifts ahead of the giver. But the author knows that God’s perfect love casts out fear, as 1 John 4 says, and so he reminds us that we have every reason to trust God.

Rock Solid

(Exodus 19:16-20, Haggai 2:5b-9; Hebrews 12:12-29)

As we’ve noted over the course of this series, the author of Hebrews is concerned that his readers are losing heart and thinking about giving up—they’re taking some hits for their faith in Christ, and they’re starting to get discouraged and wonder if they should just turn and walk away. To fight this, the author spends the bulk of the letter pointing them to Christ, showing them how great and good Jesus is; the main thing he wants them to understand is that they should put all their faith and hope and trust in Christ because no one and nothing else even comes close to deserving it. That’s one of the best things about this book, because that’s the point we all need to understand: whoever or whatever else we might value, wherever else we might put our trust, Jesus is better, and Jesus is worthier, and it doesn’t even begin to be close.

At the same time, though, while that’s the most important thing that needs to be said, it isn’t the only thing that needs to be said, because human beings are very good at being short-sighted. Left to our own devices, we tend to focus on what’s right in front of us, at the expense of the bigger perspective—and so if what’s right in front of us is painful and uncomfortable, we start looking for ways to get out of it or avoid it. Some people, then, are going to look at this and say, “OK, so Jesus is best. Fine. But if I can get something 70% as good as Jesus for 20% of the suffering, that might be a better deal”—and to some, that argument will seem to make a lot of sense. That’s why we have chapters 10-12 of Hebrews, to make the point that avoiding suffering isn’t really a good thing; in particular, that’s why the author uses the language of athletic competition to argue that trials and suffering are part of the discipline God uses to train us and build us up so that we will be spiritually fit to live well, and to have the endurance to keep living well all the way through life.

“Therefore,” Hebrews says in verse 12, you need to run the race differently than you’ve been running it to this point. Where the world teaches us to live to maximize pleasure and minimize pain, as followers of Christ, we have a different goal, and pursuing that goal requires us to value pleasure and pain differently. When trials come, when we face opposition for telling people truths they don’t want to hear, we must not lose heart or see them as things to avoid; rather, we need to recognize them as opportunities to serve God and grow in faith, and rise to the challenge rather than shy from it. And in a world that values the undisciplined and unquestioning pursuit of sensual pleasure—in our popular culture of a thousand Esaus, happily trading their spiritual birthright as children of God for sex, drugs, and rock and roll—we need, as a community of faith, to stand against that. More and more, our culture insists that sexual desire in particular should never be restrained—that physical desire is identity is destiny; it’s appealing, on the surface, to go along with that and indulge our appetites, whereas if you tell someone that never mind how powerfully they want to do something, it’s still wrong, you will be attacked. But we have to call people to holiness anyway, because those who live like Esau will ultimately derail themselves like Esau.

The key thing here is understanding that there’s something better coming. It’s not that God doesn’t like pleasure—God created pleasure, of every type, as part of making us and our world good. Nor does he like for us to struggle, and suffer, and grieve; all these things came into this world as a result of human sin and rebellion, not because they were part of his plan. But God doesn’t want us wasting our time on cheap, empty pleasures when he’s offering us infinite joy. If you knew you were having your favorite dinner tonight with your dearest friends and family, would you sit down this afternoon and stuff yourself with cheap Halloween candy? And yet spiritually speaking, that’s what we do, time after time. As C. S. Lewis said, our problem isn’t that we care too much about pleasure, it’s that we settle for too little; we’re far too easily pleased.

That’s the point of this interesting comparison between Mt. Sinai and the giving of the Law, on the one hand, and Mt. Zion, the city of the living God to which we are gathered in Jesus, on the other—a comparison which introduces the final warning of the book, a warning which sort of summarizes all the others. The first people to hear the book of Hebrews were thinking about going back to Judaism—back, if you will, to Mt. Sinai—and the author reminds them of how little that really accomplished. It was a necessary part of God’s plan, yes, but it couldn’t bridge the distance between God and his people; they didn’t stand before the mountain with joy, they were terrified. Even Moses, who spoke with God as a friend, was afraid. What Jesus offers us is far better—life made perfect in the city of God, with that distance removed and no need for fear; he offers far more than they, or anyone, could ever have thought to ask for before he came.

The question is, even though Jesus offers a gift far better than the Law is capable of giving—something far beyond any human ability to make or earn—why are those early Jewish Christians tempted to go back to Sinai anyway? And why are we so easily tempted to our own forms of legalism, to put our faith in our own little imitations of Sinai? It’s so easy for us to put our trust in money, to seek long-term security in our investments and let the laws of money and income rule our decisions; or to hope in our family, to love them more than God and put our hope for the future in marriage and children and grandchildren; or in our résumé, our education, our career, our traditions, or any of a hundred other human things that cannot save us. Why do we do that?

In part, it’s because Mt. Sinai can be touched. Because you know exactly what you’re looking at and exactly where you stand, and you don’t need faith to know it. Because once you’ve decided to accept the standards, you’re in control of what you do and how well you do it. As such, you can interpret those standards, and what you need to do to meet them, to suit yourself—to allow you to maximize pleasure and minimize pain.

In the short term, that might seem like a decent bargain; in the long term, it’s a disaster, for if we do that, we’re putting our faith and hope in things that will not last. At Sinai, God’s voice shook the earth; the time will come when he will shake the earth again, and the heavens, and all the nations, and nothing that can be shaken will survive. This isn’t arbitrary or unreasonable; our God is a consuming fire—his goodness and holiness and glory are so great that nothing that is not of him, no one who is not of him, can possibly survive in his presence. When he calls all the world to judgment, the mere sound of his voice will be enough to shake and shatter everything that is merely human, and the light of his glory alone will burn it like sawdust; and those who have put their faith and their hope in human effort, human laws, human religion, will see all that supports them and all they have trusted swept away, shaken and fallen and turned to ash. It’s a particularly salutary reminder on the eve of another Election Day, when many are looking forward to changing our government pretty significantly; by all means, go vote, but put not your trust in politicians, in mortal people who cannot save. In the end, no human institution will endure, only the kingdom of God.

All things human are shaky, and all things merely human will fall; those who seek them and build their lives on them will fall with them. We sometimes wonder why God doesn’t “show himself,” by which we usually mean do this thing we want or give us this thing we want; all too often, it’s because what we really want is something we can put our faith in instead of him, something we can see and touch—and that something would only be temporary. Time passes, things fade, and the joys of the past only ever slide farther and farther away from us. As natural as it is for us to want to put our trust and our hope in things and people we can see and touch, we need something more; we need something that will endure, a kingdom that cannot be shaken, a foundation for our lives that is rock-solid, no matter what this world might do. And our reason for worship, our reason to keep running and not lose heart, our reason to bow before God with reverence and awe and astonished gratitude, is that in Jesus, by his gift and his grace, that’s exactly what we’ve been given. Because of him, the kingdom of God is ours, no matter what.

The Path of Discipline

(Proverbs 3:11-12; Hebrews 12:3-17)

The reason we don’t get this passage is that we think “discipline” is spelled p-u-n-i-s-h-m-e-n-t. We see the word “sin,” and we know that sin is bad, and we know—or think we do—that discipline means punishment, and we put those two things together and bang! we think we have it all figured out. We think this passage is all about God spanking us when we’re naughty, and that’s all we need to understand about it; and that’s just not true. Our translations don’t help us with that, but the biggest problem is our mental reflex; and so we need to stop, take a step back, and read a bit more carefully.

The first thing we need to remember is the context of this passage. If you look at the first two verses of Hebrews 12, and if you were here last week you remember we talked about this, the author tells us to run the race of faith with perseverance, with endurance—to run it all the way to the end, all the way through the finish line. He tells us we need to let go of the good things that have taken too large a place in our lives—they have become excess weight that slows us down as we run—and that we need to throw off the sin that distracts us into looking away from Jesus and running off the road; and then in verse 3, he says that we need to think about Jesus “so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” We didn’t talk about this last week, but this is also athletic language—these were terms that were used of runners who crossed the finish line and then collapsed from exhaustion. The author’s concern is that his fellow Jewish Christians not do the same before they’ve ever finished the race. He doesn’t want them—or, by extension, us—giving up and giving in when there’s still more to go and more to do.

It’s in this context, and with this concern, that the author does two things. First, he shifts the athletic metaphor from running to boxing, because he’s shifting his focus from the internal struggle against our own sin to the external struggle against the forces of sin around us; he’s concerned, as we’ve seen, that his readers will give up the faith because of external pressure and opposition, and so he wants them to understand that that opposition is also part of their struggle against sin, and also something in which they need to persevere, to keep going and keep fighting, rather than giving up. Part of following Christ is that it sets you against the power of evil, which is very strong in this world—and that means that the more faithfully and the more energetically you follow Christ, the more you will face resistance and the more you will be attacked. Indeed, the author reminds his readers—and it’s something we should also remember—that they haven’t really seen much trouble yet; Jesus died on the cross for them and never gave up, while they haven’t faced anything anywhere near that bad. Should they leave him over so little?

Second, it’s here that Hebrews starts talking about discipline; and we need to realize that while punishment for wrongdoing is part of the meaning of this word, it’s far from all of it. The Greek word here is one from which we derive some of our technical educational terms, and it’s as much about training and instruction as it is about punishment—in fact, it’s related both to one of the words for “child” and to the word for “teacher.” It’s a word that encompasses all the things that are necessary to train and prepare and equip a child to grow up into an adult who is mature, well-rounded, knowledgeable, wise, and generally capable of living a good and productive life in society. As such, this word fits right in with the athletic metaphor in this passage—the discipline that is in view here is the training and coaching that is necessary for athletes to compete well and win.

With this, then, we have a new thought introduced—and a profoundly important one. To this point, as the author has addressed the struggles and pains of the life of faith, his focus has been on telling his readers that it’s worth enduring them because there are joys and pleasures coming that will make them worth it in the end. Now, he goes beyond that to make the point that as unpleasant as the struggle against sin may be—and this is true both for the struggle against sin in our own lives and for the things we suffer as a result of the sinful brokenness of the world—as unpleasant as that may be, there is good in our suffering. It’s not just something that’s bad and we have to get through it, but God is actively at work in our trials and our pains, in the times when we’re attacked and the times when others hurt us, in our temptations and our struggles with sin; in all those times and all those situations, God is at work in us for our good.

In other words, the bad things in life aren’t obstacles to God’s plan for us, they aren’t necessarily signs that we’re outside his will, they aren’t evidence that we don’t have enough faith, and they aren’t even times we just have to grit our teeth and get through in order to get the blessings God has for us; they are, as strange as this may sound, part of the work God is doing in us to bless us. They are part of his discipline—he’s using them to make us the people he created us to be. Training is painful at times, if it’s effective, because in order to be effective it has to push us past the point where we’re comfortable. One of the reasons I’ve been out of shape most of my life is that I have always found exercise quite unpleasant; now I’m in a position where, for a couple reasons, I’m forced to exercise, and I’m starting to learn for the first time that the pain and the discomfort actually have a good side—they are part of a greater blessing.

What I’m starting to figure out when it comes to physical discipline is something I already knew to be true in other areas of life: in our sin-sick world, there is no growth without pain. It just doesn’t happen. To seek to avoid pain is to stunt ourselves—physically, emotionally, relationally, spiritually—and ultimately only to ensure greater, more hopeless pain in the end. This is not to say, of course, that pain is always good for us; to intentionally seek out pain for ourselves would likely do us worse than trying to avoid all pain. But as Christians, we have the remarkable assurance that the pains and struggles and temptations we face are ones which God has allowed for our discipline—that we may have the endurance we need, as James says, to run the race of faith all the way through the finish line; and that as Hebrews says, we may share in the holiness and righteousness of our perfectly good and perfectly loving Father God.

Therefore, Hebrews says—and we’ll look more at this next week—take heart. Don’t be listless, don’t give in to fatigue, but gather your resolve and recommit yourself to running the race; run hard, and run straight for the goal (that’s what the phrase “make level paths for your feet” means). You can do it, because God is enabling you to do it—it’s by his power, not yours; in our own strength, this would be too much for us, but God has placed his Spirit in our hearts and what he asks, his Holy Spirit makes possible. Take courage and run hard, not just for yourself but for those around you—so that those who are weaker and those who are wounded may find healing, and so that no sin will grow up within the community to defile it and turn it away from God. It is for this, too, that God is disciplining you, so that he may work through you to guide and strengthen others.

Let me close with an illustration. When Sara was in junior high, she and her best friend did the 10-mile Crop Walk. They’d done it before, and usually took about three and a half hours. This time, as they were starting off, they noticed a woman ahead of them wearing headphones who was walking at a good, steady pace, and decided to match her. They followed her the whole way, about 20 yards behind, and finished the walk in two and a half hours. When they were done, they went up to her and thanked her for the help she’d given them; she was of course quite surprised, since she hadn’t known they were there. For her, it was just another day’s walk, the result of a settled discipline of walking most days; but for them, her discipline had enabled them to go beyond anything they’d ever done before, or known they could do. Hebrews challenges us to accept the Lord’s discipline as a sign of his love for us, because it trains us and builds up our endurance to run the race of faith well; but how we run isn’t just about us, because we don’t run this race alone—and you never know who might be following you.

Run with Endurance

(Psalm 110:1-4; Hebrews 11:39-12:6)

Through the ages, Hebrews 11 reminds us, God has raised up men and women to love him and praise his name, and he has called them to live by faith. The details have changed—Abraham was called to leave his entire world and travel someplace else; Moses was called to lead his people out of slavery and be the man through whom God would give his people law; David was called to rule the people in accordance with that law; the prophets were called to challenge and rebuke the people, including the kings of their times, for the ways in which they were misusing and disobeying that law—but the central command has always been the same: base your entire life on the belief that God is who he says he is and that he’s faithful to do what he says he will do.

Generation after generation lived and died on that basis, waiting for God to keep his promise to send the Messiah; and then Jesus came and accomplished our salvation, and then he left again, promising to return—and since then, generation after generation have lived and died waiting for him to keep that promise. All of them received part of God’s blessing, but none fully received it in this world; and yet, they did not lose heart, but stayed true to him, running the race of faith all the way to the end. Abraham and Moses, the apostle Paul and John the evangelist, Augustine and the Cappadocians, Martin Luther and John Calvin, William Carey and Hudson Taylor, and the heroes of faith of our own lives—all of them did what they did, not because they had some confirmation or some experience we lacked, but simply by faith, because they trusted that what God had promised, he would be completely faithful to do.

And therefore, Hebrews says, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us do the same. The point here is not that all these people are watching us, but that they are witnesses in the legal sense: they testify with their lives that the race of faith is one that we can win, because God gives us the power to do so, and that crossing that finish line is truly a victory. As the singer-songwriter Carolyn Arends put it in her song “Great Cloud of Witnesses,” we hear them telling us, “Don’t quit,” because “the finish is worth every inch of the road.” They bear witness to us that God is indeed faithful, and we will never regret putting all our trust in him and giving him everything we have. The only thing we will ever regret, in the end, is failing to do so.

Therefore, the author says, let’s commit to this; and he specifies two things we need to do. One, we need to shed all our excess weight, everything that burdens us and slows us down as we try to run. He’s not talking about sin here, that’s the next clause. Instead, what is this? It’s too much of a good thing. You can think of this like the Oregon Trail, travelers setting out with all sorts of furniture that they had to abandon in order to make it through the mountains before winter closed the passes; or you can think of it in terms of physical fitness, of weight that comes from eating more food than our bodies need for energy. Either way, the point is clear: these are things which aren’t wrong, they’re good things, but which come to have too big a place in our lives—they use up energy and attention and trust and love which should go only to God. For me, one of the issues this way I had to address back in seminary was baseball. It’s a marvelously good thing, but it was sucking away time from my classwork, from ministry, from Sara, from time spent in prayer and Scripture—it was, spiritually speaking, excess weight. I had to cut back for the sake of my health; and, over time, I did.

Beyond that, of course, you have things which are wrong in and of themselves; and here we have a bit of uncertainty in the text. Most texts of Hebrews have the word the NIV translates “entangles,” but that word takes some fiddling to make sense of it; for my part, I go with the minority who follow the oldest text we have of Hebrews, which reads this way: “let us throw off . . . every sin that so easily distracts us.” Not only is it the oldest, it vividly captures the reality that if you want to win a race, you have to stay on the course. You can’t let yourself be distracted and tempted into running off the road and chasing after something else—if you do that, you’re going to lose. That’s what sin does to us. We run the race of faith by keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the one who marked out the course for us—he is the author, the pioneer, of our faith, the one who blazed the trail and is leading us home to the Father—and the only way to stay on course is to keep our eyes fixed on him; and sin is always trying to catch our eye, to get us to look at anyone or anything else, so that instead of following Jesus, we’ll run off the road.

In other words, then, we need to look at the good things in our lives and figure out which ones are too much of a good thing, which ones are slowing us down spiritually because they’re too important to us, and let go of them; and we need to throw off sin because it doesn’t just slow us down, it steers us off the road entirely and sends us off in the wrong direction. And of course, both these things are much easier said than done, and nothing we’ll do perfectly in this life; but these are tasks to which we need to be committed if we are to run this race all the way through to the end. That’s what it’s about. You can run a brilliant race 95% of the way, but if you give up and don’t run the last 5%, you lose. The story is told that when Napoleon was asked why he and his armies lost at Waterloo, he answered, “The British fought five minutes longer.” I don’t know if it’s true, but it’s something that could be said of a lot of battles, and a lot of athletic contests. The race goes not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, but often, they go to the one that keeps running, keeps fighting, keeps striving five minutes longer.

That’s not easy to do; but in this as in all things, our ultimate model is Jesus. However rough you may have it, Hebrews says, look at Jesus, who had it a whole lot worse, but for the joy set before him, he endured the cross. He took the pain and the agony, and though others looked at him on the cross and saw only shame and disgrace, he rejected that—he knew it for a victory, because he accepted it in obedience to the saving and reconciling will of his Father in heaven. He took the worst this world could hit him with, and he didn’t try to avoid it, he just went right on through it. And in so doing, he opened the way for us—he became the way for us—so that all we have to do is keep looking to him, keep watching him, and follow.

Not By Sight

(Hebrews 11:3-40)

“By faith Abel . . .” “By faith Enoch . . .” “By faith Noah . . .” “By faith Abra-ham . . .” “By faith Sarah . . .” “By faith Isaac . . .” “By faith Jacob . . .” “By faith Joseph . . .” “By faith Moses . . .” “By faith Rahab . . .” And on and on goes this chapter people have called the honor roll of faith; it’s a long passage with a lot of stories, and in-deed time would fail me to deal with all of them—but for all that, and for all the lessons we could draw from this chapter, it’s a long passage with one single main point, and it’s the same point we considered last week: faith in Christ is worth keeping. The life of faith is absolutely worth living.

As part of that, it’s worth noting that the author of Hebrews doesn’t just tell happy stories. Indeed, he doesn’t mostly tell happy stories. The first person named is Abel, who was murdered by his brother; and at the last, we get a list of all sorts of horrible things that God’s faithful ones have suffered over the years. In between, of course, we get heroic figures like Abraham and Moses, but even there, we see a definite emphasis on the trials of life—with Abraham, we don’t just get his journey by faith to the Promised Land, we see him trading in a city for tents, and the author reminds us of the time when God tested him by commanding him to sacrifice his son Isaac. When the author talks about Moses, he emphasizes the tyrannical anger of Pharaoh and the mistreatment of the Israelites. Hebrews gives us the power of God and the victory of faith, yes, but it also tells us clearly not to expect that victory to be easy, or the road to be smooth. Unblinkingly, it tells us we’re going to have hard times.

That’s not so much the way we tend to do business these days. There are a lot of big churches and ministries and movements out there that are built on telling happy stories of faith. This person had faith and God healed their incurable cancer, and that person had faith and God gave them success in business, and that couple over there had faith and God freed their son from addiction and turned his life around, and if you have faith, you’ll see everything start to go right just like they did. And you know, as a sales pitch, it’s a remarkably effective way to get people in the door. But it has two problems. First, it’s right back to the old pagan idea of religion as a contract with the gods—you do this to please your god, and your god has to give you something you want in return—and that’s not what Christian faith is about. And second, what about those of us who don’t see all that good stuff happen? What happens if you buy into the idea and you don’t get better—or your spouse doesn’t—or your business fails, or your children keep going astray? What then? Well, either you blame it on yourself—something must be wrong with your faith—and so you work harder to try to earn that reward, or else you conclude you’ve been sold a bill of goods, and you walk away from the whole thing.

The fact of the matter is, God does bless some people in those kinds of ways, but not everyone, by any means; some people he blesses in other ways. And even those who do see miraculous healing and amazing financial success still have their temptations and their struggles—life still isn’t easy, it’s just differently hard. Hebrews isn’t interested in trying to sell us on faith by telling us faith will give us the life we’ve always wanted; rather, it’s trying to show us that God has something even better for us—something which is worth the trials and suffering and difficult times that come as part of the package.

That, I think, is why we also have the emphasis on the amazing things God did through these people. No, he didn’t protect them from pain or always give them the successes they would have hoped for—but look what he gave them instead! They won victories they could never have imagined and received blessings beyond any human power to give—and more than that, they had the honor to be included in God’s plan for the redemption and transformation of the world. Part of the reason God doesn’t always give us what we want is that unlike us, he doesn’t have to think that small; he can do far more.

At the same time, though, the blessings God gives us and the things he accomplishes through us are not to be our reason for faith, but rewards for it—and not the main rewards, but little reassurances along the way. Hebrews underscores the fact that these people were living toward something they would never see in their earthly lives—they lived in faith and they died in faith, still waiting and hoping for God to keep his greatest promise. They lived between the promise and the fulfillment, looking forward to—well, us: to the coming of Christ, the gift of his Holy Spirit, and the church; the meaning and significance of their lives depended on something beyond them, something still to come. And though our circumstances are different, in this they are an example for us, because we too live between: we live in the time between the beginning of the fulfillment of the promise and its conclusion, between the first coming of Christ and his return, when the kingdom of God is breaking into this world but has not yet been fully realized. Which means, to live in this time, we too must live by faith, looking forward to a time when we will all fully receive what has been promised.

Stand Firm

(Habakkuk 2:2-4; Hebrews 10:32-11:2)

As he did in chapter 6, so the author of Hebrews follows his warning in chapter 10 with a reassurance to his people: no, you aren’t going to fall away from God, you aren’t going to abandon Christ. You need to take this seriously, he tells them, you need to understand the consequences of rejecting Christ—he is the only hope of salvation, and if you turn your back on him, there is no other way to God—but you and I, he says, “we aren’t the people who shrink back and are destroyed; we’re among the people who have faith and preserve their souls.”

We might compare Hebrews’ warning to standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon. There’s a railing there, you don’t need to be afraid that you’re going to fall in and die—but you need to understand that if you climb over the railing to look over the edge, you may very well fall in, and if you do fall in, you’re going to die. As long as you understand that and take that seriously, you’ll be fine. The purpose of the warning there is to give us a proper fear of the canyon; and the purpose of the warning in Hebrews is to give us a proper fear of the Lord, which the Bible says is the beginning of wisdom. We don’t need to be afraid that God wants to hurt us, or enjoys punishing us, or isn’t really good or wise or faithful; but we need to understand that he is God and we aren’t, and that choosing to be his enemy would be a really bad idea.

As such, Hebrews combines this reassurance with one last section of argument; and where the book up to this point has been pretty deep water in a lot of places and has taken some time and effort for us to understand, here it really gets very clear, very simple—not that the water’s necessarily that much shallower, but it’s very clear, you can see all the way to the bottom. The point the author is making through this next part of the book is a very basic one. He’s told his readers they’ve been given a great gift in Christ, and he’s made it clear to them that Jesus is the only way—but they’re under a lot of pressure to go back to Judaism, it’s not easy for them to stand firm and keep the faith, an they have to be wondering if it’s worth taking the heat, even with everything he’s said to this point; and so he tells them, yes, it’s worth it. As hard as the world can try to make it, keeping the faith is worth it, and more than worth it.

Interestingly, the author starts by telling them they should already know this from their own experience. He doesn’t appeal to the Old Testament here—we’ll get to that next week—nor does he go back to the deep theological arguments; instead, he just says, “Remember.” Remember your own story. Remember when you first came to faith in Christ—the world gave you a hard ride. They insulted you because of Christ, they persecuted you, they made you the butt of their jokes, they convicted you of crimes you hadn’t committed and confiscated your property—and when they moved on to give your friends in the church the same treatment, you stood with those friends and supported them, even when they were thrown in jail. You didn’t lose heart then, he says; instead, you rejoiced, because you understood that you were suffering because of Christ, who suffered for you so that you might have life. You had that confidence in Christ then; don’t throw it away now. Be patient, stand firm, hang in there, and hold fast to Christ—you will not regret it.

Now, that can be hard counsel, those days, weeks, months, when we just don’t see it; but Hebrews says—and he’s working from the Greek version1 here, which is why it looks different—remember the prophet. Remember Habakkuk, who called out to God to ask, “How long, O Lord, will you let evil and violence continue?” And what did God say in response? God said, “My deliverer is coming; it may seem slow, but he’s coming, and he won’t delay. But my righteous one will live by faith.”

The righteous will live by faith. Paul picked that verse up in Romans 1; Martin Luther found it there and started the Reformation. For Paul in Romans, and for Luther, the emphasis is on living by faith as opposed to living by the law, and that’s in view here, too; but more than that, it’s about living by faith that God will provide, that he will vindicate us, that he will get us where we need to go, that he will make everything right, as opposed to living by faith in ourselves and what we can see and touch and hold and put in the bank.

Just look how he defines faith: faith is the assurance of the things for which we hope, and the conviction that even though we don’t see them, they’re really there and truly real. That first word, “assurance,” is an interesting one, because it was the word that was used of the title deed to a piece of property; Hebrews doesn’t develop that image, but it helps us see just how strong this word is. Where the world often thinks of faith as something irrational, a blind insistence that things are better than they look—even a willful refusal to accept reality—Hebrews says no: faith is our God-given assurance that he will keep his promise and give us all good things, because that faith is in fact the first of those good things; it’s the title deed that tells us for sure that the whole house is ours.

And this, Hebrews says, is what the ancients were commended for. We don’t tend to get this; we tend to think of Old Testament religion as being all about law, earning salvation by doing this and not doing that, but it’s really not true. The law had its purpose before Christ came, but as Hebrews points out—and as Paul says many times in his letters—the people of the Old Testament weren’t saved by law any more than we were; they lived by faith in God, and depended on his grace and mercy, just as much as we do.

In fact, as strange as it may sound to us, they actually had to live by faith in God even more than we do, because they had not yet seen how God would keep his great promises to them; they hadn’t seen Jesus, because he hadn’t come yet. They just had to trust that somehow, someway, God would do what he’d said he was going to do. Those who lost faith went off to worship the gods of the nations around them; those who stayed faithful to worship God and God alone did so not because it was what “worked” or because it was obviously the practical thing to do, but because they believed God. That’s what God wanted from them; that’s what he wants from all of us.

Living by faith isn’t easy; it means, as Michael Card put it, to be guided by a hand we cannot hold, and to trust in a way we cannot see, and that’s not comfortable. It means looking beyond the measurables—not basing our decisions on what we can afford or what seems practical or what we know will work, but on prayer, listening for God’s leading, and the desire to do what will please him. It means taking risks, knowing that if God doesn’t come through, we’re going to fail. And it means setting out against the prevailing winds of our culture, being willing to challenge people and tell them what they don’t want to hear—graciously, yes, lovingly, yes, but without compromise and without apology—even when we know they’re going to judge us harshly for it.

This is not a blueprint for an easy, comfortable, “successful” life; often, it’s just the opposite. It defies common sense, because common sense is rooted in conventional wisdom, and living by faith is anything but. But it’s worth it, because this is what Jesus wants from us: to live in such a way that if he doesn’t take care of us, we will fall, to live in such a way that he’s our only hope—because the truth is, he is our only hope. We just need to believe it, and live like we believe it. It’s not easy, but it’s worth it, and more than worth it; there is no better way to live, because there is no foundation more sure than the promise of God, and no better place to be than in his presence.

1 In his NICNT commentary on Hebrews, F. F. Bruce translated the Septuagint of Hab. 2:3-4 this way:

Because the vision is yet for an appointed time,
and it will appear at length and not in vain:
if he is late, wait for him;
because he will surely come, he will not delay.
If he draws back, my soul has no pleasure in him,
but my righteous one will live by faith.

Hold Fast

(Deuteronomy 32:35-38; Hebrews 10:26-31)

Back this summer, when I was beginning this series on Hebrews, I told you that this book, in my judgment, is built on a repeating three-part structure: first the author makes an argument—for instance, in the first chapter, that Christ is superior to the angels—then he applies that argument, and then he warns you what the consequences will be if you reject Christ. The overall arc of the author’s thought is built mostly out of these three-part blocks of argument, application, warning. There’s an inserted section of reassurance that makes up much of chapter 6, and then chapter 13 is the conclusion, but they are the exceptions.

We haven’t seen that for a while, though, since the fifth section of the author’s argument, dealing with the high-priestly ministry of Christ, is so long and so loaded with stuff that we spent a number of weeks working through it. He spends considerable time and effort making his case that Jesus has replaced the priests and priesthood of the law, that his sacrifice has finally made true salvation possible—something the law could not do—and so he is now the only high priest we have, and the only one we need.

Then last week, we saw why Hebrews spends so much time and energy on that argument when we reached its application, which I really think is the emotional center of this book. Everything before it builds to it, and the last major section is there to support it. Remember, this epistle is written to Jewish Christians who are under pressure to abandon Jesus and return to Jerusalem, and so the author is arguing in various ways to help them resist that temptation; but though he uses warnings and he uses all kinds of comparisons, this is the thing he really wants to capture their hearts: in Jesus—in Jesus!—they have been forgiven, they have been cleansed, they have received all the blessings they’ve ever longed for that the law could never give them, and they have an open invitation to come into the very presence of God whenever they want. He wants them to understand the gift they’ve been given and take advantage of it; he wants them to resist the pressure to turn away, and instead to draw near to God—and draw near to his people, the church.

As the author understands, though, this gift has consequences—as indeed any gift does; just as the blessings of the law in Deuteronomy were accompanied by the curses that would come if the people disobeyed—you can find that in chapter 28—so the appeal in this chapter is followed by a warning of what happens to those who reject God. This warning here builds on the argument he made in the last warning, the other really severe one in Hebrews, back in chapter 6; in fact, it essentially picks up where that one left off.

This is important to bear in mind, because as we saw back in July, Hebrews isn’t talking about sin in general, as if any sin at all will result in our damnation; that wouldn’t fit in any way with the rest of the book. Rather, the author is talking about a specific sin, the sin of apostasy, which he describes here as “to go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth”; as I said this summer, “this is the sin of those who are a part of the church—who have heard the gospel, who have seen its goodness and experienced its power, who have participated in its communion—and then have wilfully turned their back on it and chosen another way.” It’s the sin of choosing, deliberately, intentionally, and with malice aforethought, to reject Jesus, turn away from him altogether, and wholeheartedly follow another god and another master.

In chapter 6, Hebrews declares that anyone who does this cannot be saved—it is impossible to bring them back to repentance—and that assertion is repeated here: if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there is no longer any sacrifice for sin. This connects back to verse 18, which says that now that Christ’s sacrifice has superseded the sacrifices of the law, now that God has put his spirit within us and written his law on our hearts, now that our sins have been forgiven, no further sacrifice for sin is necessary or possible—and thus, no further sacrifice for sin is available. The path to God through the law was open until Jesus came, and now that Jesus has come, it’s closed; the sacrifice of Christ is once for all, it’s final, and there is no other way open to God. He is the way; he is the way, the only way. To choose absolute rejection of Jesus is to choose absolute rejection of salvation.

That said, the author goes on in chapter 6 to say that his hearers have not fallen away from Christ, and won’t, because God is faithful and their faith is real. He’s confident they will escape the danger of apostasy because God won’t let go of them—but he still wants them to understand that danger and take it very seriously, because the Bible doesn’t promise that everyone we think is a Christian will be saved. Salvation is a work of God that we cannot undo, and so it’s impossible to “lose” our salvation, because God never lets go of his saints—but who are the saints? The saints are those who hold fast to Christ, who keep pursuing him even when the road is rough. The evidence of our salvation is our endurance, the ongoing faithfulness of God echoed and reflected in our own lives. And so Hebrews tells us not to get too impressed with ourselves, and not to take ourselves for granted; God is faithful, but we still need to keep running, to keep pressing on, to stay in the race, because we haven’t crossed the finish line yet.

Now, though the author is talking about one particular sin here, it’s important to realize just how seriously he takes sin in general—far more seriously, I suspect, than any of us do. Sure, we take some sins seriously—the ones that repel us, that offend us, that are characteristic of people we don’t like or respect; and there are no doubt some sins in our own lives that we really don’t like seeing in ourselves, and we take those seriously as well. In general, though, I think most of us think of ourselves most of the time as good people; we don’t agonize over our sin much, or see it as something over which we ought to agonize. We aren’t captured by the reality that our hearts are idolatrous, unfaithful, forever prone to wander off and pursue other loves besides our Lord and Savior; which means we aren’t captured by the greatness of God’s grace. Jesus tells Simon the Pharisee, regarding the woman who anointed his feet with perfume, “She has been forgiven much, so she loves much; the one who has been forgiven little, loves little.” We have all been forgiven much, and are being forgiven much—but we often don’t really feel that.

That, I think, is one reason why it’s so easy for those of us who see ourselves as good, moral people of sound character and judgment to slide away from grace and into legalism of one form or another. As I’ve said many times, the enemy is always trying to get us to do that, it’s something against which all of us need to be always on our guard—the old line that the price of freedom is eternal vigilance really applies here. The more we feel the seriousness of our sin, though, the less of a temptation this is, because the more clearly we see how far short of God’s holiness we fall, the more we feel our need for grace and the less we’ll believe that we can be good by our own effort. By contrast, if we don’t think our own sin is really all that bad, then we’ll tend to feel that we don’t really need all that much grace—we can be most of the way good enough on our own; and if that’s the case, then other people ought to be able to do it too. It’s easy to get to feeling like talking about grace is a cop out, that it’s taking sin lightly—when in truth we are the ones taking sin lightly, and especially our own, and thus taking grace lightly as well.

It might seem strange to be talking about grace when we’re looking at this passage; we don’t think of warnings as being full of grace, we think of them in terms of law and judgment and punishment. In truth, though, this is very much about grace. You see, when we think about sin—if we think about sin—we tend to think about actions, things we do and don’t do. Maybe we think about sinful thoughts. We focus on the symptoms, and those tend to be what we work on. It’s much like the way we think about our physical health—we see something we want to change, we get a pill or we exercise or whatever we believe will make that one problem better. We see the symptom or symptoms as the problem. That’s law-based thinking—and if we make visible progress on the symptom we’ve focused on, then we think we’re succeeding and that the course of treatment—the law we’re following—is working; and if it works, you keep doing it.

The reality here is that God doesn’t think that way, and he doesn’t work that way. He cares about our behavior, yes, but what he’s really concerned about is the root of the problem, which is the desire deep in our hearts to not serve him, or at least to not do so on his terms. There are many temptations we face, and all of them turn us away from God to some degree, but the truly fatal one isn’t any of the ones we think of; the truly fatal temptation is the temptation to believe that we can deal with all the others well enough on our own. It’s the temptation to reject grace because we don’t think we need it, to live by law because we think we can do it—that’s the one that turns us 180° away from God. What Hebrews is essentially telling us here is that anything we do can be forgiven by God’s grace, because of the infinite sacrifice offered by Christ on the cross—but if we reject that forgiveness and try to earn it for ourselves, we reject salvation.

Draw Near

(Ezekiel 36:24-28; Hebrews 10:19-25)

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.

Shadow and Reality

(Psalm 40:1-8, Jeremiah 31:31-34; Hebrews 10:1-18)

I’m no movie buff (that would be David Kavanaugh), but you don’t have to be a film-school geek to know that the story of the year in the world of cinema is Christopher Nolan’s Inception. If you haven’t heard about it, it’s a movie about a man who makes his living, with his associates, going into other people’s dreams in order to steal information from their minds—or in this case, to plant an idea in someone’s mind—with dreams within dreams that have a powerful effect on events in the real world.

Or is it? There are those who argue that in fact, none of it is real, that what seems to be the real world in the movie is actually just another dream. After all, when you’re playing with the whole question of dream vs. reality, and when you have someone with the ability to create realities within the world of dreams, how can you tell when the playing stops? And does it matter? If this is what you perceive as reality, if it’s real for you, is it really important if that perception doesn’t exist outside your own head?

This all reminds me of the big news in film eleven years ago: The Matrix. This was another movie that played with the question of whether the real world is actually real, though from a very different angle and in a very different way. At the time, people were calling the Wachowskis geniuses, and I’m not sure the movie’s stood the test of time quite that well—partly because the sequels disappointed people—but even if nothing else endures, I think people will long remember the scene where Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus stands before Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, and offers him the choice between the red pill and the blue pill. “You take the blue pill,” Morpheus says, “the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.” Of course, if Neo takes the blue pill, no movie, so he takes the red pill and wakes up to find out that the world he thought was real is actually a virtual reality created by machines that have enslaved the human race to power themselves. As you can see, it’s not exactly a lighthearted comedy. But the idea that there’s a deeper reality behind what we see resonated with many, many people.

Of course, it wasn’t a new idea; as Professor Kirke said more than once in the Chronicles of Narnia, “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato,” and not just in Plato, either. It’s an intuition rooted deep in the human soul—and for good reason, because the world we see is not all there is. Of course, as we’ve noted, human beings tend to overreact and overcorrect, and so you get the Buddhist idea that this world is just an illusion, and you get the old heresy of Gnosticism that says that only spirit is important, that our bodies and what we do with them don’t matter; that’s going way too far. The Scriptures tell us that everything matters because God made it, and made us as part of it, and so nothing about this world is to be put down or disregarded as unimportant. But there is a greater reality than what we can perceive with our senses, for which God is preparing us, toward which we’re being led—which is, ultimately, the full experience of the presence of God, who is the source of all reality and the maker of all that is. There are greater joys and greater goods than this world can give us, and greater possibilities than we can imagine; in God, the future is not limited by the past, and what can be is more than what has been.

This is profoundly good, not least because it means that in God, this is true of us as well; God has more for us than just more of the same. He’s at work in us making us new, from the inside-out. But that means that this thing that we’re on about with God, and that God’s on about with us, is a lot bigger than most people think. A lot of people like religion, and many who don’t will tell you that they like spirituality instead, and if you ask them why and what they mean by that, they’ll talk about finding meaning and purpose and significance, about becoming better people, about satisfaction and comfort, about wisdom for life and coping in hard times, and other ideas of that sort; you’ll get a laundry list of ways in which religion is just like Coke—things go better with it. These are good things, and blessings God does give us; but they aren’t what gospel religion is about. They aren’t the purpose, they aren’t the point. Any religion that’s focused on blessings and winning us benefits isn’t God’s thing—it’s too small for God. It’s a shadow religion, and God is calling us beyond that to something better, deeper, more true.

As we come to the end of this long central section of Hebrews—as the author wraps up his argument for the superiority of Christ and his priesthood over the high priests in Jerusalem, and thus for the superiority of Jesus-worship and Jesus-religion over Judaism—this is the truth he’s underscoring. He’s not saying anything new in this section, just summarizing the points he’s made so far: animal sacrifices could never be enough, could never bring salvation; the best the priests could do was only temporary, and so had to be repeated over and over and over; the law was just a shadow and a copy, not the reality; God wants to change our hearts, not just control our behavior; a greater sacrifice was necessary, one that could purify our hearts, not just our bodies, and thus make true salvation possible; Christ offered that sacrifice once and for all. These are all things we’ve talked about as we’ve gone through the last three chapters. But in pulling them together in this way, the author makes the fundamental appeal clear: the law is the shadow; Jesus is the reality. Come to the reality. Come be made new.

Come be made new. That really is the bottom line; that’s what God’s on about, and nothing less. Even the law, which was given by God to prepare the way for the coming of Christ, is by itself only a shadow, not able to accomplish God’s full purpose; and if that’s the case, how much more must we say this about any religion that isn’t all about Jesus? We all want life to go better—we want things like long, happy marriages and children who turn out well and healing when we’re sick and successful careers and prosperous retirements, and there’s nothing wrong with any of those, nothing wrong with asking God for them; they’re all blessings that he may give us if we serve him and follow him faithfully. But they aren’t why God saved us. He didn’t send Jesus to be tortured to death so that we could live happy, comfortable lives protected from the agony of the world. He’s on about something a lot bigger—and a lot better, in the end.

And so James declares, “Consider it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance”; and if you were here last fall, you know what was going on the morning I preached on that passage. You remember the agony of the Sonntags as someone appeared to be stalking them and threatening their lives, and it turned out Joel had made up the whole thing. Consider that all joy? And the pain of the world marches on. I gave Tom Abbitt a hug yesterday after Cathy’s memorial service, and I grieve with him; it is deeply wrong that she’s dead of cancer at 49, with their youngest still in high school. We don’t want that, we want to avoid it—we want a god who offers us a road around the valley of the shadow of death; and so there are no end of religions promising that sort of god. But in the end, that god and that road are illusions, and we all know that valley, all too well.

This world is deeply wrong, it’s broken at the core, and God does not and will not shield us from the pain; and shadow religion can’t deal with that. It has no answer for pain, except to insist that those who suffer must have brought it on themselves—they didn’t obey well enough, or they didn’t have enough faith. Shadow religion can’t deal with our sin, except to tell us to just work harder. It can’t deal with the fact that the world is wrong, because it has no power to make things new. Only Christ can do that, and only his gospel can give us hope. Only he can say to us, “Your sins are forgiven”; only he can tell us that our pain and our sorrow are not for nothing, and are not forever. He doesn’t lead us around the valley of the shadow of death, but he does lead us through it, walking with us every step of the way—and assuring us with every step that he knows where he’s going, because he’s been this way before, and this is the way that leads home.