Reading Hebrews – Community of Faith
Our readings today reek of darkness and despair at first glance. Daniel talked about the end times, of trials and tribulations like none that have been seen before. The beginning of our reading in psalm there is a cry for God to preserve the writer. Hebrews makes us fear falling into the hands of the living God. And even Jesus in our Mark passage is talking about terrible events of the end days. All of this takes me back to a scary place that i remember so well as a child. I wonder if any of you can relate to my childhood feelings of being overwhelmed by fear, guilt and shame. Scared to death of dying and going to hell.
I should back up here and give a quick backdrop to my own fears and the war that was raging in my mind as a child. When my parents got married, neither of them were followers of Jesus. Shortly before my birth they came to know the Lord and had become what could best be described in the day as Jesus freaks. I mean that in the best way. They were passionate about Jesus and making him known to everyone they met. It is truly a miraculous story and one that I will be eternally grateful of because of the overall impact it has had on their lives and my own. It breaks my parents heart to hear me talk about how I perceived my younger years growing up in our house but I guess I only have what my perceived reality was at that age. I was, to put it in a positive light, a pretty active child. I was always doing things I should not have done and like a good parent does, there were consequences for my behaviors. I remember being spanked on a daily basis and thinking what a miracle is was to make it through a day without one. When I learned in Sunday school that we were born sinful, I had no problem understanding that truth.
Around the same time, we went to some patriotic show in the local theatre in town called America You Are To Young To Die. It must have been around 1980 or so and it had to do with nuclear missiles and how we were all going to die in the next 30 minutes. I vividly remember a baby sized coffin in front of the stage that was there to signify the death of America and all the innocent people including all the women and children. Now remember, this is my memory as a 5 year old at the time so I am not sure how accurate any of this is.
All of this to set the stage for the fact that as a really little kid, I would lie in bed every night terrified that I would not live to see the next day. Even more terrifying to me was dying in my sleep and waking up in Hell. I would literally lie in bed trying to remember everything I had done wrong over the course of the day to ask Jesus to forgive me so that I would not go to Hell that night. The weight of the fear was paralyzing.
When I hear the readings for today, I am taken back to that little boy lying in his bed sweating over my impending death and eternal burning.
As we have been going through Hebrews over the past several weeks, we come to Hebrews chapter 10 and 11 this morning and is the perfect remedy for what I was petrified of as a child. I desperately needed to hear it 40 years ago and realize that I need it just as badly today than I did then.
Hebrews 10, before we reach the passage this morning about how we should fear falling into the hands of the living God speaks of the incredible gift of being relieved from the life and lie I was living as a 5 year old boy, the practice of returning day in and day out to the temple to make sacrifices for the atonement of my sins.
Does anyone here this morning feel you are in this cycle with God? Trying hard everyday to be better than the day before. Making promises to God to not be as critical with your wife and kids as you have been, only to blow it again and have to start over with the process of asking for forgiveness to God and your family. Hebrews 10 spells out for us that our high priest (Jesus) offered himself to God as a single sacrifice for sins, good for all time…and when sins have been forgiven, there is no need to offer any more sacrifices.
Listen to the writer in Heb. 10
10:11 And every priest stands day after day at his service, offering again and again the same sacrifices that can never take away sins.
10:12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, “he sat down at the right hand of God,”
10:13 and since then has been waiting “until his enemies would be made a footstool for his feet.”
10:14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.
10:15 And the Holy Spirit also testifies to us, for after saying,
10:16 “This is the covenant that I will make with them after those days, says the Lord: I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds,”
10:17 he also adds, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more.”
10:18 Where there is forgiveness of these, there is no longer any offering for sin.
10:19 Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus,
10:20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh),
10:21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God,
10:22 let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.
I remember vividly the night I heard this good news. The truth is I had heard it all along, but this one night I feel like the light switch came on and I finally HEARD it clearly. Scripture talks about eyes and ears being opened and that is exactly what happened to me. I understood for the first time that night that God wanted to be in a relationship with me. That He had created me for that relationship and that he had made a way for me to come back to Him through Jesus.
And here was the best news for me, I didn’t have to clean myself up first! Just like Jesus touching the leper before he healed him, He came to me in my filth and reached out to me! I literally felt a physical weight lifted from my shoulders when this truth was finally revealed to me.
Do you remember when you first heard this good news? I wish we could pause right here and go around the room and hear everyone’s story of where you were when you first believed.
In fact, the author of Hebrews, in a sense, commands us to do just that in verse 24 where he says Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works. And let us not neglect our meeting together as some people do but encourage one another especially now that the day of his return is drawing near.
Our family hosted some of our friends from Spain several weeks ago and it was so good for our soul to hear what God was doing in and through them in Spain. How he was leading them to so many people who are in desperate need of inner healing and ways that God was radically transforming lives. How many of us (me included) are in the rhythm of living groundhogs day over and over again and not tuning our hearts to hear and see what God is doing around us?
I was listening to an NPR analysis of the recent election the other day and one of the reporters was talking about the vote in the suburbs in which he was included and he said, I moved to the suburbs for the boring life. I want it. I want to go to work, come home, eat dinner, put my kids to bed and do it all again the next day. This is what I want. Boring and predictable. I wanted to shout out loud, NO! This is not what I want!
I think we were created for more than a boring, predictable, isolated life.
We need each other to continue to encourage us on to love and good deeds. We need to know that we are part of a larger story and that God is still living and active in our world and in people around us.
I have talked with more and more people recently who have told me that they don’t go to a physical church any more that they just read books and listen to sermons online. They are done with the church as an institution and are tired of being disappointed by the people that inhabit the building. In many ways, it is hard to blame folks for leaving church all together. We hear so many stories that make our skin crawl that have to do with church.
I saw this week an article about a church who many of you may be familiar with who is starting a new location. I am going to let you listen the audio of his big reveal on this that I listened to earlier this week: AUDIO CLIP
Well, this is one option for us… There are actually too many things to comment on here, but I just want to emphasize one thing in particular from this and that is how important the author of Hebrews thinks it is for us to meet together physically. I will mention one thing that amazes me about the clip we just heard and that is the absurdity of the “meeting in the lobby for a tactile experience” the pastor talks about. What in the world…
My organization was a part of a large regional discussion this week on the opioid crisis in our region. It was basically getting anyone and everyone around the table from every imaginable sector to brainstorm on how we can intervene. The keynote speaker of the day was the author of Dreamland; the true tale of America’s Opioid Epidemic, Sam Quinones. After he explained the history of the epidemic he started talking about what he considered one of the main causes and cures for it. It all boiled down to one word. Community. He talked about the absolute necessity of having stable and consistent relationships through things like neighborhoods and social gatherings. He stressed the nature of addiction leading to isolation and many things that come along with that which all lead to death basically. Many of us in this room can identify with this as you have struggled with your own addictions and isolation.
In an unrelated study I recently heard about, psychologists studied rats who were addicted to powerful opioids and the difference in two groups for those taken off the drugs “cold turkey” to see the effects. One group was taken off and put in isolation. If I remember correctly, almost all of those died almost immediately from complications due to the stress of coming off the drugs. The other addicts were introduced into a community of other rats and although they still experienced some of the withdrawal symptoms, they all recovered at a pretty rapid rate.
So why do I mention these two secular cases this morning? I hope it is pretty obvious. I can think of no better opportunity to model community than as a church. And I would go further than that within our own little congregation here. We have the incredible opportunity to know each other and walk with each other intimately because we are relatively small. In fact, I think the author of Hebrews was probably writing to groups more our size. The church he was writing to was in the middle of extreme persecution. They were a small and nimble group and the warnings we read this morning in chapter 10 were in response to the necessity of the followers of Jesus to stick together and stand up for their faith for the very survival of the Jesus movement.
So here is my question to us as a congregation this morning. How are we as a church family and community fulfilling the challenge of the author of Hebrews? Are we living like these are the last days? Are we in the habit of meeting together on a regular basis? Are we encouraging each other on towards love and good deeds? How can we do this? Are we willing to do this? The problem is this opens us up to messiness in our own lives and the lives of those we are in community with. There is a danger to this call. It means inconveniences of doing things, going places and giving up things we might not want to give up. I don’t have the answers to these questions per se, but I think they are worth talking about–maybe over lunch after the service.
Finally, I want to wrap up today with a brief comment on Hebrews 11 and the great Hall of Faith–A chapter that you could literally spend a year talking about if you were to go through the stories of all the great examples of the people of faith listed out there.
I read a book several years ago by Mike Yaconelli called Messy Spirituality and it changed the way I looked at not only bible stories but about faith in general. In his book he goes through many of the great men and women of the faith and basically talks about how messy they are and the amazing fact that God chose to use them and the bible even holds them up as models for us.
Here are some messy characteristics of a few of the folks listed in Heb. 12
- Adulterers–several of those
- A Prostitute
- A Drunk
- Incestuous relationship
To name a few…
The author of Hebrews doesn’t cover these flaws up but points out in verse 34 that their weakness was turned into strength. He goes on to say that All of these people earned a good reputation because of their faith,
I want to insert a parenthesis here to emphasize my purpose for being a Debbie Downer and pointing out the flaws in the beautiful exposition on these pillars in our faith. I do it to say, Look! God uses them and He uses us in spite of our weaknesses. And we can go even further according to Hebrews and say that He even USES our weaknesses and turns them into strength! As we dive into community as I mentioned a minute ago, we enter into the mess of each other’s lives. I am continually amazed that as I do this with some of my friends on a weekly basis (that is being real with each other about what is going on in our lives–behind the curtain so to speak) I realize that I am not alone on this journey. I am not the only one who struggles with certain issues. As I share and as I listen to the strengths and weaknesses of my brothers and sisters on this journey, I am encouraged and strengthened instead of the natural progression of becoming more and more isolated by the guilt and shame of my own sin, guilt and shame.
End Parentheses and continue with Hebrews 11:
yet none of them received all that God had promised. Now get this last part: For God had something better in mind for US, so that they would not reach perfection without us. NT Wright commentary here: Heb. page 146
Wow! So how are we doing this morning at modeling and living out the community of Jesus followers that these pillars of the faith were hoping for? At the end of the day, for these in the “hall of faith”, they still had to return to the temple over and over again to make atonement for their sins. We, on the other hand, are able to gather together to remind each other of the truth that it has been taken care of once and for all. Without this encouragement, I would argue that for most of us, living in isolation, we would not be able to live fully in the freedom that is in Jesus Christ.
Here is what I want you to hear from this homily this morning: a quick bullet point summary of my meanderings:
- You are free!
- You no longer have to carry the guilt, shame, and burden of your sin, past, present or future. Jesus has taken care of that once and for all by his life, his death, and his resurrection.
- Because of this, we have access to God and relationship with Him that was impossible before
- We need community to help remind us of these truths and to encourage towards love and good deeds.
- Hebrews 11 shows us among other things that God chooses to use us and our weaknesses and points out through the example of the pillars of our faith what an incredible time we live in and what an opportunity and responsibility we have now that what they had hoped for is now a reality for us.
- This call to worship and to live in community is costly and we need help figuring out how to do this. Just some quick practical things here that we have available to us during the week are the Monday reading group, the men’s group on Friday morning and probably other things that I am not even aware of.
And this is where we now find ourselves in the order of worship, Saying out loud who and what we believe in, The Scripture says in Heb 10: Let us hold fast to the undeviating hope of our creed. And after the creed we join together in community to go into the very throne room of God to intercede on behalf of our brothers and sisters and then we have the privilege to partake in the remembrance of the end of the system of constant sacrifices that could never fully pay for our sins; a system of sacrifice that only reminded us of how bad we really were; what a relief and joy to come to the table to remember our great high priest who offered himself to God as a single sacrifice for sins, good for all time.