St Michael’s and St Barnabas 30th August 2015
Readings – Hebrews 1:1-9; Mark 9:2-13
Two weeks ago a missionary friend came to stay. I can’t publicly reveal many details about what he does, but 25 years ago there were barely a handful of Christians in the country where he works. Today there are tens of thousands, all of them eager to reach out beyond their borders with the good news of Jesus Christ.
Recently we had the latest prayer letter from our missionary link, the Bishop of Paraguay. In it the bishop mentioned visiting a remote area of the country to open a new church and confirm no less than 120 believers – all this in a region renowned for its spirit worship and shamanism.
And although in this country we may worry about the state of the church, we must not forget that its present size and influence is to a large extent due to extraordinary periods of revival in the past – the 18th century awakening under John and Charles Wesley; the Victorian evangelical movement of the 1850s and 1860s; the Billy Graham crusades from the 1950s up to the 1980s.
That’s why I am as a minister passionate about church growth. Because I believe church growth like this is possible and it is possible here. That’s why I invest so much time in running things like Christianity Explored, and the Wednesday evening group at the vicarage, and in baptism preparation. We have a God who can do more than we can possibly ask or imagine, and we need to do all we can to be ready for when His Spirit moves in power.
But at the same time I am realistic. At the moment this country is to a large degree hard, barren ground for the gospel. Many churches find it a struggle to keep going, and many people who used to walk with the Lord seem to do so no more. So while this morning I would love to carry on talking about church growth, today I want to look at the other side of the coin, and consider the reasons why people seem to give up walking with the Lord.
The first, and perhaps most obvious reason, is quite simply sin.
Here is a young woman who is completely on fire for the Lord, and wants to serve Him with all her heart. But then she meets Mr Right and suddenly he becomes the object of her affections. The greatest thing in her life becomes pleasing him and doing what he wants, and soon any thought of Christian service is pushed right out of her mind.
Or here is someone who has just volunteered to become church treasurer. He seems to be good with figures and know how to do the accounts. But soon he finds it hard to resist the temptation that comes with handling other people’s money. Maybe he has a few debts to pay; maybe he wants the holiday of his dreams. Of course he never meant to break the eighth commandment, it just happened. But one way or another sin took a hold, and neither the young woman nor the treasurer are walking with the Lord any more. They have simply fallen by the wayside.
Then there’s the obstacle of spiritual opposition. When, for example, you have family and friends who find your faith ridiculous and use every opportunity to challenge your belief: when you are in a workplace where you are singled out on account of your Christian principles. Yes, it’s very easy for ministers to preach about putting on your spiritual armour or making a stand for your faith, but when you are own in such a challenging environment it can be so hard to remain loyal to the Lord.
And – although we don’t talk about this problem very much – there is the general issue of sheer weariness. This often overtakes folk who have apparently been strong believers for many years. Gradually, bit by bit, prayer becomes more a duty and a chore than a privilege and a delight. The daily discipline of reading the Bible becomes more a question of turning the pages than listening to the living Lord. And as for church, well, the opportunities to serve have long since turned into a burden, and a job that simply needs to be done. So in the end the churchwarden simply stops coming to church; the homegroup leader leaves her Bible up on the shelf, unread; the Sunday school teacher stops saying his prayers day by day. The Christian faith is, as far as they’re concerned, all too much effort, especially when there seem to be so many more enjoyable and worthwhile things they could be doing instead.
Now I don’t know exactly where you stand with the Lord this morning. But the chances are, there are at least one or two people here today who are struggling with their faith precisely for the reasons I’ve just outlined. You’re being tempted by sin, or you’re facing opposition, or you’re just generally feeling ground down in your faith. And if that’s the case for you this morning, then let me suggest a couple of things that you need to do.
The first is to make some time to see me, or another trusted Christian friend, to talk through the issues you are facing and to help you find strength in the Lord. No-one should face challenges to their faith on their own, and if being part of a church means anything, it means that as the body of Christ we should be there for one another to support and strengthen each other.
And the second thing you should do is to come back over the next few weeks as we go through the book of Hebrews. Because when you read between the lines, it would seem that the church being addressed in this letter was facing precisely the kind of issues I have just outlined.
So on the issue of sin, the author warns:
4 Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. 5 Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” (Hebrews 13:4-5)
On the issue of opposition:
32 Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering.
33 Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. 34 You sympathised with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. 35 So do not throw away your confidence; it will be richly rewarded. (Hebrews 10:32-35)
On the issue of weariness:
23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:23-25)
The whole point of the letter to the Hebrews is that it was written to people facing tough times, to people who were under pressure, to people who felt like giving up. How do we know this? Well, take a moment to look at the start of our passage this morning, at Hebrews 1:1 …
Now whenever I sit down and write a down letter, I find it’s usually a good idea to give my name, and to clearly identify who I am writing the letter to. So at the top there’s my address and my contact details, and underneath I begin with the words: Dear Fred, and probably at the bottom write Fred’s address as well. It was a habit drilled into me at school and really it’s just common sense.
But what’s odd about the letter to the Hebrews is that we have absolutely no idea who wrote it. There have been many theories over the past two thousand years, but we still are no clearer as to its author. In the scholarly world, the short odds are on Apollos, but it could have been Barnabas, it could have Paul, it could have been Priscilla, it could have been anybody really. As the early church father Origen once said: But who wrote the epistle, God alone knows.
We also don’t really know who the letter was written to, although as we shall see in a moment we have some general clues as to the sort of people they were like. The only personal information we have in the entire letter right at the end in chapter 13, verses 23-24:
23 I want you to know that our brother Timothy has been released. If he arrives soon, I will come with him to see you. 24 Greet all your leaders and all God’s people. Those from Italy send you their greetings.
But that doesn’t take us much further forward. So why all the secrecy? The answer surely has to be that this letter was written when it was dangerous to be identified as a Christian. We’ve already seen that previously this church was publicly exposed to insult and persecution and it seems the danger was not over just yet. That’s why any personal information is missing from this letter, so that if it should fall into the wrong hands, no-one would be publicly exposed. It’s the sort of strategy still used by Christians around the world today, in a situation where no communications are safe and the security forces are watching your every move.
It’s not really surprising that in such an environment the church of the Hebrews was growing weak in its faith. It can sometimes be very easy to admire the faith and resilience of Christians who are being persecuted, but constant danger is a drain on your spiritual resources. You can fall prey to sin; you can be ground down by sheer weariness. It can seem so much easier just to put your head down and to conform like anyone else.
You see, when you stop going on with the Lord, the general rule is that you start going on with the world around you. For us in the West, that might mean: no longer coming along to church on a Sunday; or adopting the same attitude to human sexuality as anyone else; or putting a comfortable style of living as your top priority in your life.
For the church of the Hebrews going along with the world around you meant something very different. Although we know remarkably little about them, one thing we can be sure of; their background was thoroughly Jewish. That is why the book is called the letter to the Hebrews. It is written to people who had come from an environment in which the Old Testament had supreme authority. It is full of Old Testament quotations, as even just a glance at the first chapter becomes clear. It contains detailed arguments about key Biblical figures such as Melchizedek and Moses, and a thorough analysis of the finer points of the law.
And this is where the letter of the Hebrews becomes strange and difficult for us. It calls back to a world in which:
- animal sacrifices were made for sin.
- these animal sacrifices were made by a high priest.
- the high priest had to prove his descent from the tribe of Levi.
- the sacrifices had to be carried out according to the law of Moses.
- angels were venerated as the heavenly beings who brought the law to Moses.
So what possible relevance does this letter have for us today?
I believe there are two things we can learn. First of all, we can learn from the method of this anonymous author and the way he calls the church back to living faith. He doesn’t start with where he would like them to be, rather he starts with where they are at. He uses the language and the arguments that the believers themselves were using to take them back to Jesus.
So as we go through the letter we shall see that he argues:
- Jesus is the perfect sacrifice for sin who sacrificed for their sins (that is, the sins of the people) once for all when he offered himself. (Hebrews 7:27)
- Jesus is the great high priest who has gone through the heavens. (Hebrews 4:14)
- Jesus has become a high priest for ever, in the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 6:20)
- Jesus has been found worthy of greater honour than Moses (Hebrews 3:3)
- Jesus is as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs (Hebrews 1:4)
All that might seem very obscure to us, but all the writer to the Hebrews is doing is using those parts of the Scripture that speak to this particular group of Christians. Now we ourselves may not be faced with people tempted to return to the Old Testament system of sacrifice, but we still need to know how to address the very real challenges that people are encountering in their faith. When people are struggling with sin or facing opposition or feeling weary, nothing moves them to exit more quickly than a church that simply fails to understand the issues involved, or to address them in a way everyone can understand. We can learn so much from this anonymous author who spoke so clearly from Scripture and yet was able to communicate so directly and so powerfully under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.
And this leads us, secondly and more importantly, to the actual message of the book. Because what this anonymous author teaches us is that to draw people back to the Christian faith you need first and foremost to draw them back to Jesus – but not in the Sunday School way of saying, “Jesus is the answer. Now what’s the question?” Rather step by step, point by point, he sets out how Jesus offers the perfect sacrifice for every sin, an enduring hope for those who are oppressed, and a sure and certain rest for those who are weak and weary.
This is why, finally, he begins the book of the Hebrews in the way that he does. Right from the very outset of his letter he wants to present his hearers with a fresh vision of Jesus and remind them exactly who this Jesus is.
So let’s take a moment to listen again and reflect on these words from Hebrews 1:1-4:
1 In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.4 So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.
That’s quite a vision of Jesus, isn’t it?
- Jesus, the one through whom God speaks to us (verse 2)
- Jesus, the one who reflects God’s glory (verse 2)
- Jesus, the one who represents God’s being to us (verse 3)
- Jesus, the one who sustains all things (verse 3)
- Jesus, the one who has provided purification for sins (verse 3)
- Jesus, the one who is seated at the right hand of the Father (verse 3)
- Jesus, the one who is superior to every heavenly being (verse 4)
Now I began today by sharing just a few examples of how the church has grown both in this country and across the world. In every case church growth in one place looks very different from that in another place. God works in extraordinarily diverse ways amongst the most extraordinarily diverse groups of people and we can never predict quite what He is going to do.
But there is one thing every account of church growth has in common, and that is a fresh vision of Jesus, a new appreciation of who He is and what He has done for us. My hope and prayer is that as we go through the book of Hebrews not just one or two people here today will gain that same vision, but every single one of us. Let us have a new and larger understanding of Jesus. Let us all come back to Him with worship and adoration. And above all let us allow Him to reign among us and do His work, so He may be truly glorified through His people. So as a church we grow to His praise and His glory, for His name’s sake. Amen.
Read Hebrews 2:1 as you pray …
We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.