St Michael’s and St Barnabas 15th April 2018
Readings – John 10:11-16; Hebrews 10:11-25
So spring has arrived. The lambs are skipping in the fields. A new cricket season has started, and the weeds in the garden are growing wild. But for students up and down the land now is not one for thinking about the turning of the year, for, as many of you know well, exam season is well and truly upon us. And if being a young person wasn’t stressful enough in its own right, the next couple of months will be full of questions such as “Have I done enough?” “Will I be able to understand the exam paper?” And most importantly, “Will I make the grade?” We should never underestimate the stress our young people are facing right at this moment and we need to do all we can to support those among us working in education.
Of course the vast majority of us have finished with exams long ago. But I do sometimes wonder if they still leave their mark upon us. For example, there are many people who spend their whole lives wondering how exactly they are supposed to get into heaven. They’ve heard about God who is the maker and judge of all people, and they know that one day they will meet Him. And quite frankly, they do not know how to prepare for that day. They keep asking themselves, “Have I done enough to make the grade?” “Will God be pleased with me?” “Will He, indeed, let me in?”
Now once upon a time there was a monk in Germany who wrestled exactly with these same questions. His name was Martin Luther. He was so worried about not being ready to meet with God, he would constantly go off to confession and admit to some small or trivial sin he thought he had committed. His confessor was a very wise and patient man, but in the end even he reached the end of his patience and said, “Why don’t you go off and do something that really needs confessing – like killing your mother or father? Or committing adultery?”
Fortunately Martin Luther didn’t follow his confessor’s advice. Instead he turned to the pages of the Bible and looked again at his whole relationship with God. Did God really intend him to spend his whole life worrying whether he had done enough to earn His favour? Or was there some better way to live? So Martin began to read the Bible and to study and to pray. And as he did so, he made a profound discovery that changed his life and the lives of countless Christians afterwards.
For what he found as he studied the Scriptures was that there indeed was nothing that he could ever do through his own effort that would please God. When God came to judge him at the end of his life, there would be no good works he could plead sufficient to let him into heaven. God’s pass mark would always be 100% perfection and there was no way he could even get close to that standard.
Now at first that message seemed to Martin Luther profoundly bad news because it challenged everything he had been brought up to believe. But gradually he began to see that this bad news only paved the way for some revolutionary and life-changing good news. Because yes, although he was a sinner worthy of judgement, Jesus Christ had already come to make him right with God. Jesus had offered the perfect sacrifice for sin by dying in his place on the cross. So although he was unable to please God by his own efforts, thanks to Jesus he was nonetheless counted right and able to stand in God’s presence. He had been, to use a technical term, justified and saved from all his wrongdoing and rebellion against God.
That theme of Jesus offering the perfect sacrifice is one we also find in today’s reading from Hebrews. If you don’t know much about the book, it’s important to be aware that the main concern of the writer was to contrast the sacrifices made under the old Jewish law and the sacrifice made by Jesus on the cross. This may sound like quite dry, technical detail to us, but actually his message is profoundly relevant to us this morning. You see, under the old Jewish law you were required to keep taking offerings to the temple for the priest to sacrifice. Why? For the precise reason that, no matter how many offerings you made, you never knew whether you had done enough to please the Lord. Life was a perpetual attempt to earn God’s favour, and to keep on with religious ceremonies in order to somehow find peace with Him.
But what the writer to the Hebrews wants his audience, and indeed us, to understand, is that the sacrifice of Jesus has done away with all that need for these religious ceremonies. Jesus was and is the Son of God sent to deal with our failure and our wrongdoing once and for all. He is both the sacrifice who takes away our sin, and the priest who makes the perfect offering to God, and as such, He perfectly deals with all our failure to love and to obey God.
That is why in our reading he says in verses 11-12: Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God. There is a deliberate contrast between the Jewish priest always standing and offering sacrifices which in his heart he knows can never fully deal with sin, and Jesus who has died and risen again for us, who is now sitting at the right hand of God, because He has won the victory for us.
I hope you can see the point that the writer to the Hebrews is making. So before we go any further let’s stop and apply this teaching to ourselves by asking a simple question: Are you trying to earn God’s favour through your own effort, by trying to be good enough? Or are you trusting in Jesus and His perfect sacrifice for you upon the cross? And let’s be clear: the choice is either one or the other. I do sometimes come across Christians who with one breath say, “Yes, I believe in Jesus” but with the next also say, “I hope I’ve done enough to get into heaven”. That is to miss completely the point of Jesus dying on the cross.
How can we be sure that we can enter into the presence of God? Look at verse 19 of our same reading: the answer is by the blood of Jesus, that is by recognising He has given up His life for us. How do we gain this entry into God’s presence? Verse 20: by a new living and way created for us by Jesus tearing down the barriers between us from God. How do we know that when we enter God’s presence we will be accepted? Verse 21: since we have a great high priest. In other words, our relationship with God all depends on Jesus and His finished work for us. It does not depend on us and our attempts to please Him through own works, no matter what you may have been brought up to believe. Once you believe and trust in Jesus you are saved. Full stop. End of story.
Now I first heard and understood that good news nearly 40 years ago. But it took me years to realise a truth that, if not equally important, certainly comes a close second. You see, Jesus didn’t just die for me so I could enjoy a new relationship with God as my Heavenly Father. He died for me so I could enjoy a new relationship with my fellow believers as the church of Jesus Christ.
In John’s gospel we heard about Jesus as the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. The thing about sheep is that they are not meant to be solitary animals. A sheep that is on its own is a lost sheep. It needs to be brought back into the flock else it suffers and dies. And what is true of sheep is to a large extent also true of us as believers. According to John 10:16 Jesus died for us that there should be one flock and one shepherd – that is one church united and living under the authority of Jesus.
That is why Sunday by Sunday we declare “we have come together in the name of Christ”. We are affirming this truth for ourselves that Christ has died for us to bring us into a new relationship with God and with each other. We belong to Him; we belong to each other. So the next time the evil one whispers in your ear, “You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian”, don’t believe his lie. He wants to pick us off one by one, like the solitary sheep who gets separated from the flock. We need to resist, to stand firm, to keep meeting, so that we can together truly be the people whom Jesus has called us to be.
Now I recognise it takes time, effort and commitment to carry on attending church with our fellow believers. The writer to the Hebrews knew that. The church to whom he was writing had been persecuted. Some members were slipping back into their old habits. Some were giving into temptations like sexual immorality and love of money. And the meetings of the church were declining. You see, the time when it’s hardest to commit to church is not when you first decide to follow Jesus, when your faith is new and exciting, when you are so aware of your Father’s love. It’s later when the pressures from family and friends really start to build, when coming to church seems much less attractive than the alternatives, when perhaps the Christian faith seems less appealing than at first.
And if there are some here who are wondering if church is too much effort, then I want you to take on board what the writer to the Hebrews says in verses 22-25. He knows that the faith of his church is growing weak, but he nonetheless wants to encourage them to keep going. And I very much believe his words are meant as an encouragement for us this morning, to realise just how precious and important it is to gather in Jesus’ name, even when it requires genuine sacrifice on our behalf.
So let’s look at what he says more closely, and use them to renew our commitment to Jesus and to one another.
First of all, verse 22: let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith. As we have seen already this morning, we are those for whom Jesus the good shepherd laid his life. He has given up his very life so that we can be forgiven. He has joined us through baptism with our fellow believers into the life of His church. And our response should be one of sheer gratitude that Jesus has done all this for us. Of course, I recognise that in stress and strain of each day it is hard to keep that sense of thankfulness. We can so easily lose our focus on all that Jesus has won for us. That, then, is the initial reason why we need to come together, to remind ourselves of the basics of the faith and to hear again the story of Jesus’ great love for us.
But there’s more. Verse 23: Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. Now that word “unswervingly” is interesting. It suggests standing firm when something threatens to knock us off course. And I guess we all know what it’s like to be knocked off course in our faith by some major event in our lives. Perhaps we have the shadow of exams looming over us, or a major operation, or a decision we don’t know how to make. It’s very easy then for us to lose sight of the hope that we have been given in Jesus Christ, and to lose hold of the promises Jesus has made never to leave or forsake us.
That’s why we need to gather with our fellow Christians to be reminded of the bigger picture, and the fact that no matter what we go through nothing can separate us from the love of God. And if our circumstances are such that actually getting to church is difficult, then it seems to me essential that we ask the church to come to us. Hanging on grimly to our hope when everything else is undermining what we believe is extremely difficult if we are trying to live out our faith on our own.
This leads on to the third “let us” in verse 24: And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds. You see, if Jesus died for us to unite us as His church, then we have a responsibility to one another. If we see someone is struggling in their faith, then we have a duty to care for them and to love them, and where necessary challenge them as to where they are not living in a way that is consistent with their faith in Jesus Christ. Equally, if we come to church and we’re not in a good place, we need folk with whom we feel confident and secure to share our struggles, who will pray for us, care for us and yes, even challenge us. This may of course be difficult within the main Sunday gathering which is again another important reason why our small groups are so important, as safe spaces where we can spur one another one towards love and good deeds. So if you are not already part of a small group, then please do speak with me afterwards. They really are essential to the growth and health of our church, and I would encourage everyone wherever possible to be part of one.
But however and whenever we meet, the main thing is that we actually do so. I hope that by now you can see the importance of the fourth “let us” in verse 25: Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing. Of course I realise in many ways I have so far given an ideal picture of the church – a united body of believers, thankful for all Jesus has done, full of hope and faith and love, supporting and encouraging one another. As we all know, the reality on the ground is so often very different. Although we have been wonderfully saved by the death of Jesus on the cross, we are still sinners. We will on occasions upset one another, accidently ignore someone, say something we really shouldn’t have said.
But if we have a shared faith in Jesus Christ, our response should nonetheless to remain committed to each another. We will hold short accounts with one another, we will forgive one another and seek forgiveness when we get it wrong. We will not give up meeting together just because we do not like the tea, or the vicar has had a bad day, or the service wasn’t as we liked it. Because the way a church grows is not by everyone pretending is OK, and then leaving when they can no longer bear it. A church grows through openness and honesty, and loving one another even when it hurts, just as Jesus loved us by laying down His life for us.
All this leads to the final “let us” at the end of verse 25: let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching. What is the day that the writer to the Hebrews is talking about here? It is the day when Jesus comes back as judge of the living and the dead, when those who believe in Him are joyfully received into heaven, when all pain and sorrow and suffering will cease. It seems to me that nowadays we talk so little about that day, and we so often focus on the here and the now. But that day is approaching. And though sometimes living for Jesus and belonging to His church can seem so hard and so difficult, it really is worth it. We don’t have to live our lives wondering if we have done enough to please God and whether He will accept us at the end. We know that there is a place assured for us in heaven, and all that we do as God’s people really is of eternal significance in His sight.
And it seems to me that we need to keep sight of this perspective as we enter a new church year. Yes, we face challenges. Yes, we face struggles. We can perhaps wonder about the future of St Michael’s and St Barnabas and what lies ahead. Yet we are the body of Christ for whom Jesus the good shepherd laid down his life. We are called to belong to Him, and to another, and one day all our hard work in His name will receive its reward. So let’s keep drawing to Jesus in full assurance of our faith. Let’s hold on unswervingly to our hope. Let’s spur one another on to love and to good deeds. Let’s not give up meeting together, but let’s encourage one another. So that as we carry on meeting in Jesus’ name, others also come to rejoice in Jesus the good shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep. Amen!