No Change - Hebrews 13:1-8
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New years resolution number one: I must take more exercise.
New years resolution number two: I must learn to keep to time some more.
Resolution number three: I must get the garden done this year.
Well I dont know about you, but my list of new years resolutions have looked pretty much the same for years - Ive been vowing to do the garden for at least three years now. And new year resolutions reflect what we consider important. They reflect our priorities. But I wonder how many of us who would say we are Christians include amongst our resolutions a commitment to the church, a commitment to one another.
In one sense we shouldnt have to include in any list of resolutions our commitment to one another; ideally we should be so compelled by the love of Christ, so compelled by what he has done by entering our world as a baby, living amongst us, dying for us in our place so moved should we be that our entire lives, our entire being should be lived around and centred on Christ.
But at the start of the new year, and for the purists, at the start of the new millennium, I want to suggest that it is an excellent time to review our commitment to Christ and to one another. It is an excellent time to consider just how affected we our by the fact we are Gods people.
I might just add, the perhaps obvious comment that it is not as though any of us have got it entirely right. God knows that impact of these words in the letter to the Hebrews has had on me. It is not as though any of us are perfect, but we can speak and encourage one as those on the road to perfection that great day when sin will no longer ensnare and trap.
Well I do hope that you have turned with that passage from the letter to the Hebrews. Were in chapter 13 and thinking about tonight verses 1 to 8. You can see from what Ive said already that the opening verse gives us a command to that is to govern the way the recipients of the letter are to treat and to act towards one another. "Keep on loving each other as brothers."
Now it seems to me that this command, isnt as some would have, the start of a bunch of unrelated afterthoughts by the writer. Far from it. What is said here, seems to be the logical conclusion, the implications, if you like, of what has been said earlier.
Now while we dont know much about the author of the letter, it is written to first century Jewish Christians who were going through something of a difficult time. And it has at its centre a marvellous picture of Christ. The writer is concerned that the readers should understand the supremacy of Christ and the finality of his work of salvation.
Why? Because only then, only understanding just who the Lord Jesus is can they hope to endure.
So we read from verse 19 of chapter 10 the let us is:
"Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith , Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds." Which requires, as verse 25 makes clear meeting together and mutual encouragement.
No, the command to "Keep on loving each other as brothers" isnt an afterthought; its the practical outworking of enduring, of keeping going with Christ.
And it is a command that finds Christ at its heart. As Calvin puts it, we can only be Christians if we are brothers. And earlier in the letter (chapter 2:11) the writer tells us that "Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers."
Verse seven gives an example. An example, unfortunately that we dont have time to consider much today. The leaders of the people, those whose responsibility it was to teach the faith are the models of what the Hebrews writer is talking about. Leaders whose lives have been so drenched in the Word of God, that their very lives took on the character of the gospel. Copy them, says our writer. (cf. 6:9-12)
A fortune teller was gazing into a crystal ball, and said to the frog: You are going to meet a beautiful young woman. From the moment she sets eyes on you she will have an insatiable desire to know all about you. She will be compelled to get close to you youll fascinate her."
The frog enthusiastically responded: "Where am I? By the lake? At a singles club?"
No, came the fortune tellers response: "Biology class."
It would be easy to misunderstand this command, for it to be misconstrued or underrated. But we are not let off the hook as easy as we might want.
Christians are bound to each other the term brother speaks of the status all believers by no means men one with another, with Christ and before God. The love talked about here is a sacrificial love, a love that seeks the good of others.
So then, how does the loving other believers as Christ would love them express itself? Thats surely the force of this verse.
Tonight I want to suggest that this command finds expression in two ways.
The letters author starts broadly and then works inwards, and in doing so every type of relationship amongst believers is considered. First we see now we should live our public life, secondly how we should conduct our private life and then thirdly well consider the reason for it all, Christs life.
First then, our Public Life
Verse 2: "Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow-prisoners, and those who are ill-treated as if you yourselves were suffering."
Loving each other as brothers is not restricted to those we know, or those we can see.
There isnt anything particularly Christian about showing love solely and uniquely to those we know. Dont get me wrong we are to show love there too, but we should be ready to open our homes to others who are part of Gods family with us.
The experience of Abraham in Genesis 18, who did not hesitate to offer hospitality, who put himself at the disposal of three mysterious visitors is given to illustrate the point. Unknowingly Abraham found himself tending and serving angels.
And by that act of generosity and we are to follow his example Abraham found himself blessed. Its not that we are to assume is that by welcoming those unknown to us we might expect angels to come our way.
One stormy night an elderly couple entered the lobby of a small hotel and asked for a room. The clerk said they were filled, as were all the hotels in town. "But I cant send a fine couple like you out in the rain," he said. "Would you be willing to sleep in my room?" The couple hesitated, but the clerk insisted. The next morning when the man paid his bill, he said, "Youre the kind of man who should be managing the best hotel in the United States." You can see this is an American example "Someday," the man went on "Ill build you one." The clerk smiled politely.
A few years later the clerk received a letter from the elderly man, recalling that stormy night and asking him to come to New York. A round-trip ticket was enclosed. When the clerk arrived, his host took him to the corner of 5th Avenue and 34th Street, where stood a magnificent new building.
"That," explained the man, "is the hotel I have built for you to manage." The man was William Waldorf Astor, and the hotel was the original Waldorf-Astoria. The young clerk, George. Boldt, became its first manager.
Well in showing kindness, in making our homes a welcoming place for unknown brothers we shouldnt expect to be materially blessed in this world, but out of love for others we can expect the Lord Jesus to see our actions, to see our faith in action. And he has already given and provided everything for those demonstrate a love like his.
And for us the challenge is ask ourselves when did we last show hospitality to other believers, those we dont know well, those we dont know. Have we invited those who are even here with us tonight, those we dont well, those who would find themselves often only, the widow, the single person who has just arrived to take a job in the city, the international student who knows no-one, when did last extend an invite to dinner? Tell me please, if this not what this verse means.
"Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it."
But the command to keep on loving each other as brothers finds wider expression.
"Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow-prisoners, and those who are ill-treated as if you yourselves were suffering."
Our concern and love is to extend beyond those around. We are to actively seek out others who suffer one way or another for the gospel. We are called to identify with them as though we ourselves were suffering.
That is not to say that we are to get ourselves imprisoned so that we understand what prison is like, or that we rush into a war zone just so we can appreciate what it is to have bullets whizzing past our ears. Our writer makes that clear at various points of his letter.
But it does mean, in age that is apathetic and indifferent that we are to take a stand. In an age were anything goes, we should be speaking up and praying and giving of our time and yes giving of our money to support the work of the gospel. In short we should be doing whatever we can to support the work of the gospel whatever the cost to ourselves.
In Columbia, for example, missionaries and bible translators are, I understand, leaving the country. Abandoning their work. Why?
Well an e-mail I recently received said this: "Farc, the anti-government guerrilla group have just announced that all evangelical missionaries are their enemies and will now be considered legitimate targets for both kidnapping and murder."
Stories like that should drive us to our knees.
So we turn, secondly, to our Private life.
Verse 4: "Marriage should be honoured by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral. 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." So we say with confidence, "The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?"
On the face of it loving each other as brothers, as fellow believers, has little to do with sexual conduct or the greed of money loving. But I want to suggest that a sacrificial love in public, needs to be matched in private. There isnt two different standards. And in that sense the command to love other believers as family is especially important in the most intimate of all relationships, marriage. A relationship that is to be honoured by all.
There is only one correct expression of the sexual relationship, and that is marriage. The marriage bed is to be kept pure. And however, unpopular it is, and it is very counter-culture today. Bed hopping, adultery is not an acceptable way for anyone to live It is degrading, it dishonours the body and it dehumanises who we are as people. This is not sexual liberty as some would try and tell us.
Indeed some have gone as far as to say that fidelity in marriage unnecessarily limits the evolution of the species. In her book Anatomy of Love: The Mysteries of Mating, Marriage and Why we Stray, a snappy title you can see, Dr. Helen Fisher gives this somewhat evolutionary definition of why people commit adultery. Men do it "to ensure a widespread dissemination of their genetic material" while women do it as "an alternative strategy for the acquisition of resources to support herself and her young ones."
It has very little time for people as people. Not very humanising is it?
Recently I heard the replay on Viking FM of an interview with Robbie Williams. The interviewer was asking about reports and pictures that had appeared in the press that linked Robbie with an unnamed woman. Asked about the nature of the relationship Robbie Williams said that he didnt have to justify his actions he just likes sleeping with women. That all the explanation that was needed. Now while I dont want to particularly talk about Robbie Williams, he did go to quote a George Michael song, the lyrics of which went like this: sex is natural, sex is good, not everyone does it but everyone should.
Against this the Christian must scream no. It always strikes me that an offence against God and we are told that is exactly what sexual misconduct is is invariably an offence against another. Old fashioned as it is, sacrificial love, a love that puts others first, must be the way the Christian lives.
So what of money? The question that arises here is how can we love fellow believers, if we spend our time loving money. The two are simply incompatible.
And perhaps unknowingly, the atheist George Bernard Shaw would agree. He once remarked: "Money is indeed the most important thing in the world: and all sound and successful personal and national morality should have this fact for its basis. Every teacher or twaddler who denies it or suppresses it, is an enemy of life. Money controls morality "
Strong language, but only what can be expected, the logical conclusion from one who strongly denies God.
You cannot serve both money and God. As is so much the theme of Hebrews, the answer, the antidote, to loving money, is to keep coming back to Christ. " be content with what you have, because God has said, "Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.""
And when we look at Christ, how should we respond? ""The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?""
The answer of course begs us to respond nothing.
Our priorities do not centre around money. Our lives, our meaning, our purpose dont find expression in things weve bought or the size of the bank balance. Our priorities are grounded on the Lord Jesus and a commitment to his people.
One of the saddest things Ive been reminded of recently is the way in which toy makers watch the divorce rate. As divorce increases, so does spending on toys as though things, toys, are compensation for broken loving home.
Well on all these points there is always more that could be said, and I say again none of us can claim to have got it all right.
But why do we keep coming back to an unchanging message, a command that has been unyielding?
The answer, thirdly, is all to do with the Christs life.
One of those sound-bite verses of scripture, verse 8: "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever."
What a wonderful verse. There is no change in the demand placed on us, why? Because there is no change in the one who issues the demand. There has never been a time when Christ was not as he is today and how he will be in the future.
Neither the creation of the world, nor its ending at the coming judgement changes Christ; what he says goes.
The message that was spoken by those who were leaders among them, verse 7: "Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you."
Speaking the unchanging message of the unchanging Jesus Christ resulted in changed lives. That why the leaders can be exalted as examples not that they were perfect but because they demonstrated the effect of the Lord Jesus in their lives in the treatment of one another as brothers.
People, leaders and preachers may all change, but Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. And it is the finding him at the centre that is the key.
No matter what fashions or fads come our way, he will never be superseded. Despite what is said around us and whatever the world wants us to be, we must keep coming back to Jesus. Only then can we be secure.
Well this leaves each of us with a serious challenge to us to live distinctly in a world that would not and cannot love each other as brothers. It challenges our conduct and it cuts across so many of our behaviours, so many of the ways we act.
The start of the new year gives us a timely excuse to ask ourselves are we loving each other as brothers. Well well only do that by looking at the word of God, from which we find a God of no change: "Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever."
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