St Michael’s and St Barnabas 20th, September 2015
Readings – Hebrews 3:1-14; Mark 9:30-37
A couple of weeks ago I was talking to someone who, as a young adult, had converted from Islam to the Christian faith. He didn’t have the time to tell me the full story, but the one thing he said which has stuck in my mind ever since were the simple words: “I lost everything”. No longer did this person have a family to welcome him home. No longer did he have friends who wanted to be there for him. The moment he chose to follow Jesus his whole way of life was completely changed, and he said goodbye to absolutely everything that had gone before.
Now I cannot imagine for a moment what it must be like to make such a radical decision for Jesus. But I can imagine what immense pressure that man must have been under to change his mind. Someone renouncing Islam brings shame on the whole family and I am certain in such a situation the family would do anything to try and bring their wayward son back. And surely the son would face the very real temptation to renounce Jesus and go back to the old, familiar certainties.
Today we are resuming our sermon series in Hebrews. If you were here a few weeks back, you will recall that this letter was written to a group of Christians who had converted from a Jewish background, and who had suffered intensely for their faith. Hebrews 10:33-34 tells us they suffered insult and persecution, they had had their possessions confiscated, and others had been put in prison. And although for a while they had stood firm, a number of them were now wavering. They were growing weary, and some of them were choosing the apparently easy option of going back to where they had come from.
Now I guess none of us have faced the same kind of direct hostility. But most of us know what it is like to live with unbelieving family and friends. Sometimes there are the outright arguments as they wonder why anyone can possibly believe what you do. Sometimes there are the subtle attempts to undermine our faith by inviting us out on a Sunday morning, for example, or arranging an event to clash with a church activity. One way or another, most of us have at some time faced pressure to go back on our faith.
So what can we learn from the letter to the Hebrews about remaining true to the Lord?
So far we have seen that the unknown writer has begun by reminding his hearers exactly who Jesus is. In the opening verses of chapter 1 we have this most breathtaking portrait of Jesus who according to verses 2 and 3 is the heir of all things … the one through whom He (i.e. God) made the universe … the radiance of God’s glory… the exact representation of His being… the one sustaining all things by His powerful word. We worship someone who is greater than any human being or heavenly body. And yet the wonder and mystery of the Christian faith, as our writer goes on to say in chapter 2, is that this same Jesus who is over and above all things is also our brother and our high priest. He reigns with all majesty yet He deals with each one of us as members of His family, providing remedy for all our sin and weakness.
What an exciting vision of Jesus! It’s little wonder, then, that to these believers who were growing weary and weak in their faith chapter 3 begins with these words: Therefore, holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess. Because the best antidote for spiritual weariness is quite simply to come back to Jesus, to consider who He is, to reflect on the wonder and joy of knowing Him, to remember just what He achieved for us on the cross.
So how do we fix our thoughts on Jesus?
As I was preparing this passage, I had this picture of a large ship entering a narrow harbour. Now I’m a complete landlubber, so I hope any mariners will forgive me for what I’m about to say. But I would expect for the ship to make port safely, at least three things would have to happen. The ship would have to set the right course. The crew would need to listen to the harbour master. And everyone would need to be working as a team, carrying out their duties. No doubt you can tell me afterwards what else needs to happen, and give me the correct nautical language, but let’s run with these three particular ideas, because it seems to me they lie behind our reading this morning.
So, to begin with, set the right course.
As we have seen already the Hebrew church was under immense pressure to return to their Jewish faith. That would have involved following every aspect of the law given by Moses, including all the old rules about animal sacrifices and priesthood. It would have meant, in effect, placing Moses at the centre of their faith rather than Jesus.
Now the writer of the Hebrews is careful to acknowledge that Moses is indeed an important figure for Christians as well. Talking about Jesus in verse 2 he says: He was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all God’s house. And although we haven’t got time to go into this point, it is worth underlining the fact that the Old Testament is still important for us today, as part of Holy Scripture, and despite what some may believe, we can’t simply ditch it or leave out the parts we don’t like.
Yet the Old Testament is of course not the whole story. Because, as he goes on to say in verses 5-6, there is an essential difference between Moses and Jesus. Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house, testifying to what would be said in the future. But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house. Moses was a servant who carried out the limited task God had given him in his lifetime and then died. But when Jesus completed the task God had given Him, He was raised from the grave to new life and confirmed as the everlasting Son of God. That is why verse 5 talks about Moses in the past tense, and why verse 6 about Jesus is in the present tense. And who is it better to follow – a dead prophet or the living Lord?
You may well be asking at this point how any of this is relevant to us today. Well, from time to time I come across perfectly sincere Christians who have made someone other than Jesus the centre of their faith. They have the complete works of this or that Christian leader, and treat every public utterance that they make as gospel truth. That leader may be a well-known international figure, it may be the local vicar. Somehow their faith becomes attached to that particular person so that, for example, when the vicar moves on, that person no longer goes to church or when that particular leader is caught up in a scandal, their faith is destroyed.
It may sound obvious, but it needs saying that if we want to be the church that God calls us to be we need to put Jesus front, right and centre. Reading the whole of verse 6: But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast. Because ultimately the hope that we have, the hope that marks us out as God’s people, comes from Jesus. And churches go seriously wrong if personalities become more important than the proclamation of that hope, and the name of Jesus no longer takes its rightful place.
So we need to set the right course.
We also need to listen to the harbour master.
When I first had this picture of ship coming into port, I had the idea that the harbour master would speak to the ship over the radio. But Lynda made the point that for a large ship the harbour master would actually come on board and be alongside the crew. And that’s a helpful image, I believe, to help us understand how the Lord speaks to us today.
You see, the Bible is not a dead ancient document where if we tune in and concentrate really hard, we might just hear the voice of God crackling in the distance. It is in fact the living word of God which is addressed directly to us. Because – and this is the important point we all need to grasp – the Holy Spirit who caused the Bible to be written down in the first place is the same Holy Spirit who lives in us. So when we open up our Bible we should not be surprised to hear the Lord speaking to us, because we should be able to recognise what we read as God’s word addressed directly to us.
That’s why, when the writer to the Hebrews introduces an Old Testament quotation in verses 7-11, he quite deliberately says: So, as the Holy Spirit says … He wants them to understand that the Jewish Scriptures that they know and love are inspired by the God of the New Testament, and they can only properly be understood by keeping in touch with, and listening to the Holy Spirit. Yes, traditional interpretations have their place, and so do the learned opinion of others. But there really is no substitute for praying over what you are reading and asking the Lord to speak directly.
Of course one important reason why we sometimes don’t hear the Lord speaking to us is quite simply that we don’t really want Him to speak to us. After all, imagine what it would be like if every time you read your Bible, you heard the maker of heaven and earth speak to you! Yes, you might hear profound words of comfort and peace. But you might also hear disturbing words that challenge us and call us to repentance, and I guess none of us are that keen to be disturbed, even by the Holy Spirit.
Yet the whole point of the Old Testament quotation in verses 7-11 is to remind us precisely why we need to take heed of what the Lord is saying to us. Verses 7-11 are taken from Psalm 95 which was a psalm written to the people of Israel to remind them what happened to their ancestors when the Lord rescued them from Egypt. We looked at part of that story a few months ago when we went through the first half of Exodus. And you may recall that, despite the fact the Lord miraculously delivered them through the Red Sea, they continually grumbled and doubted the Lord’s goodness. As a result, the Lord kept them out in the desert for forty years until that whole generation died away. None of them, apart from Joshua and Caleb, ever got as far as the Promised Land, none of them entered into the rest God promised for His people.
Now to us the story of the Exodus may all seem just so much ancient history. But in fact the story was preserved and written down for future generations through the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit. So it became a warning to the Israelites at the time the psalm was written. And it also is a warning to us now. If we refuse to listen to God speaking to us, if we always tune Him out when He wants to talk with us, then the danger is, we too might end up missing out on the promises that the Lord has in store for us. We can’t just say that story was in the Old Testament and it doesn’t apply to us. It is the word of the Lord and it is addressed to us. So the question is, are we as the people of God ready to hear and obey what He is saying to us?
Or as the psalmist writes: Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts. Learn to say, Yes” to God when He speaks, not “Maybe” or “Eventually”. Because if we don’t get into the habit of hearing, the time may come when in the end we lose the ability to hear. And there is no greater tragedy for a church that stops living under the word of God. I hope I don’t have to quote any examples to make my point.
So let’s go back to our ship sailing into port. The course is set. The harbourmaster is on board. But what’s happening below decks? Well, with land in view, someone has opened a bottle of rum. Somebody else is exchanging e-mails with their girlfriend on shore. And somebody else is in their bunk, fast asleep. As you can imagine, this ship is heading for trouble and fast!
You might say that in this situation the conduct of the crew is the captain’s responsibility. But part of the discipline on board ship is, I believe, everyone making sure that orders are being followed and no-one is missing their duty.
Let’s think, therefore, a little more about working as a team.
Because the writer to the Hebrews is quite clear that the conduct of the church is everyone’s responsibility. Verse 12: See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. This isn’t a verse that’s just addressed to church leaders, or members of the pastoral team. It’s a reminder that if we are part of the people of God we are all accountable to one another. And where we see behaviour that dishonours the name of Christ, we have a duty to act out of love and address that behaviour.
Of course none of us set out to have what the writer calls a sinful, unbelieving heart. But as he makes clear in the subsequent verse, sin is deceitful. It makes following the Lord a less attractive option than following the desires of your heart. It makes the prospect of fellowship with your other believers less attractive than, say, staying in bed on Sunday morning or going down the pub. For at the end of the day, sin is subtle and sin is dangerous.
That is why the most loving way we can serve someone is to draw them back to Jesus, and in accordance with the teaching of this letter, help them fix their thoughts on
Him. Because at the end of the day our greatest concern surely must be that as many people reach port safely. And maybe that is the overall point of the passage – that as the church of God we are not simply on a journey. We are heading for a definite and clear point where one day we will be with Jesus forever.
So let’s make sure that we have our course set, with Jesus at the very centre. So let’s listen to the harbour master and allow God to speak to us through His word by the power of the Holy Spirit. And let’s make sure we work as a team, not letting sin gain a foothold, and doing all we can so that no-one is lost.
For when we take seriously all that the writer to the Hebrews is teaching us in this passage, I believe that Jesus will be seen to be so clearly among us that others too will decide to count all things loss and follow Him. And when that happens, let’s welcome them on board, let’s support them and let’s equip them also to fix their thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess.
For His name’s sake. Amen.