A call to worship - Hebrews 12:14-29

This is a sermon by Nathan Buttery from the morning service on 10th December 2006.

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The scene is the Olympic Games in Mexico, 1968. The marathon is the final event on the program, and the Olympic stadium is packed, and there is excitement as the first athlete, an Ethiopian runner enters the stadium. The crowd erupts as he crosses the finish line. Way back in the field is another runner, John Stephen Akwhari of Tanzania. He has been left behind long ago by the other runners. After 30 kilometres his head is throbbing, his muscles are aching and he falls to the ground. He has serious leg injuries and officials want him to retire, but he refuses. With his knee bandaged Akwhari picks himself up and hobbles the remaining 12 kilometres to the finish line wincing with every step. At 7pm, an hour after the winner has finished Akwhari enters the stadium with just a few thousand spectators watching on. It is almost dark. Akwhari moves around the track at a painstakingly slow pace, until finally he collapses over the finishing line to the rapturous applause of the spectators who are there. Filmmaker Bud Greenspan later asked him, "Why did you do this? You were in such pain, and you couldnít win." Greenspan recalls Akhwariís reaction: "He looked at me like I was crazy." "Mr. Greenspan," said Akwhari. "I donít think you understand. My country did not send me 5,000 miles to start the race. They sent me 5,000 miles to finish it."

The key in any sort of race is not how you start but how you finish. And that is especially so in the Christian life, the race of faith that the writer to the Hebrews is talking about in this chapter. Because it is possible to start out in the race of faith but to find that as the race goes on we grow tired and weary and we are tempted to give up. Perhaps just to sit by the side of the road and put our feet up or to drop out of the race altogether. Youíll remember that that was the temptation for these Hebrew Christians. Theyíd started the race at a cracking pace, putting up with persecution to a certain degree and not breaking under pressure. But as the race went on, things began to get harder. Some of them had begun to drift away and stop coming regularly to church. Others were in danger of publicly repudiating their faith and going back to their old way of life. And the writer, as a big hearted pastor, writes to them to urge them to keep going. Not to leave the race, not to give up on Jesus because in him is salvation. Only by him can we be with God in heaven. And thatís why at the beginning of the chapter the writer said in verse 1: "Therefore since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on JesusÖ" We need to keep running the race with perseverance.

But the question that we perhaps ask from time to time is this: Is this race really worth it? Is it really worth the pain and problems that come with being a Christian. Because letís face it, running the Christian race is not easy is it? Wouldnít it be better if we dropped out and ran another race. I doubt very much if Iím the only one here this morning who has had this thought from time to time! But what our writer tells us in our passage for this morning in no uncertain terms is that dropping out is not an option. Because quite simply this race is worth it. For we Christians have a terrific future to look forward to and we are part of something amazing. And if we do go back and give up we will find ourselves in an infinitely worse position than we are in now. So to help us, our writer urges us to focus on three things, three aspects of this race of faith:

1) Focus on your Training (Vv 14-17)

2) Focus on your Team (Vv 18-24)

3) Focus on the Finishing Tape (Vv 25-29)

1) Focus on your Training (Vv 14-17)

So first he says focus on your training. That is work hard at staying fit for the race. And there are two aspects of the training that are mentioned in these opening verses. First, work hard at your holiness. Verse 14: "Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many." Now our writer begins by telling us that "without holiness no-one will see the Lord." Now this is something he has clearly explained throughout the letter. For holiness is one of the key characteristics of God. Itís his moral purity, his absolute perfection, his hatred of all that is impure and wrong, his distinctiveness from all that is sinful. And as such he can not have anything to do with sinful human beings such as ourselves. We as unholy people can have nothing to do with a holy God. So how then can we know God? Thatís the key question. Well itís not by human effort, not animal sacrifices or gifts given to him by us. They cannot help. They do not satisfy Godís anger at human sin. The only way is if God himself pays the price, if he himself offers us a way to himself, a way of making us pure and holy. And that is precisely what has happened through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. We can be forgiven, we can be declared holy and free from sin. We can receive his gift of holiness. So when God looks at you and me, if we are trusting in the death of Jesus on the cross, he sees forgiven, holy people. We have been given the holiness of Jesus. We can know God, and indeed one day we will see him face to face. But in the meantime, we need to live according to the status we have been given. Make every effort to be holy, he says. Literally, pursue holiness. You are holy in status, so be holy in practice; be like the God you claim to know and worship.

Years ago, when I was at primary school, I went to a school called St. Johnís. And if you went to St. Johnís you had to wear a very distinctive bright red jacket and cap. So it was obvious that you came from St. Johnís when you were out and about. Well every so often the school would go on trips out. And every time that would happen, weíd get the same speech from the Headmaster at assembly that morning. He would say to us: "Remember boys and girls. You are children of St. Johnís. You wear the uniform. Now behave like children of St. Johnís and donít bring the schoolís name into disrepute." Now of course, none of us knew what disrepute meant, but we got the drift. We needed to behave according to who we were, children of St. Johnís.

And as people who have been declared holy by Godís gift in Jesus, so we must make every effort to be holy. In other words strive to become more like God. And notice that holiness is corporate. It affects relationships. So he says, make every effort to live at peace with all men. Our holiness is tested in relationships isnít it? So itís hard to remain patient with those who drive us up in the wall in the church. Itís hard to remain godly with those with whom we disagree. Itís hard to bite our tongues and not answer sharply when someone offends us. But this is part and parcel of running the race. We need to work hard at our holiness. And if we donít, then sin can have very serious consequences. Verse 15: "See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many." If we allow sin to fester in our hearts in whatever form, and in that sense we miss the grace of God, then bitterness can creep in and so such sin can affect others in the congregation. Sin that is not dealt with can have serious implications for a church fellowship. Maybe a creeping bitterness with another person that is not dealt with, maybe a jealousy over a position of leadership, maybe a frustration with the way things are running. Such things if not dealt with, can defile many. And sadly many of us will know from bitter experience the pain caused to many churches through such bitter roots. So we need to work hard at our holiness. And itís worth asking ourselves if we are working hard at our holiness? Is our personal holiness something that deeply concerns us? Are we making progress? Are we becoming more loving by the grace of God? Are we curbing that sharp tongue? Are we soothing that fiery temper? Because in the race of faith, our writer says that we need to work hard at our holiness.

But thereís a second aspect of our training that our writer highlights as something we need to focus on, and that is beware of compromise. And this really arises when we are not concerned for holiness as we should be, when we do not put in the hard hours of training that we should for the race. And to help us, the writer uses Esau as an example, in verses 16-17: "See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. He could bring about no change of mind, though he sought the blessing with tears." If you remember Esau was the eldest twin son of Isaac, the other twin being Jacob. And one day Esau came in from hunting and smelt some stew that Jacob had cooked. So Esau asked Jacob for a bit saying he was so hungry he would die if he did not eat. So Jacob said that he could have some only if he was willing to sell his birthright. That is only if Esau was willing to hand over the rights as firstborn son to his brother Jacob. Now it was an extraordinary thing to forfeit given what the promises and inheritance were. Since all the promises that God had given to Abraham came down the family line to the firstborn son. Esau stood in line to be the father of a great nation; to have the promised land; to have his descendants blessed forever. That was Esauís by rights! But he was willing to chuck it all in for a bowl of stew. He was willing to go for short term gain over long term spiritual blessing. And says our writer, when later he regretted it and wanted it back, he could bring about no change of mind, even though he sought the blessing with tears. The point is that although there were tears, they were tears of regret, not tears of repentance. Tears that heíd lost something, not tears acknowledging heíd done something wrong. He could bring about no change of heart.

And that says our writer is the danger of compromise. Of wanting the soft option over the long term hard graft of the Christian life. And if we choose the option of immediate satisfaction, if we allow our Christian lives to become stagnant through making the wrong choices, as these Hebrews were doing, then it will lead to being a man like Esau. A man who regretted his decision but was not genuinely repentant. What our writer is urging us to do is choose holiness over personal comfort. To choose church attendance over staying at home. To choose sacrificial giving over keeping our resources for ourselves. To choose bold evangelism over personal prestige. To make those hard choices that Jesus calls us to make every day of our lives if we follow him. But if like Esau, we choose the option of comfort in this world, of instant satisfaction in this world, of being unwilling to change then we are on the slippery slope to ignoring God and turning away from him.

I came across a story this week about a man who was invited to a fortieth anniversary reunion of his old high school. The closer the time came for the reunion, the more excited he became, thinking of all the wonderful stories he would hear about the changes and the accomplishments these old friends would tell him. Eventually the weekend came and went, and the man was picked up at the airport on the Sunday by a friend. "Well, how was the reunion?", asked the friend. "Tim," the man said, "it was one of the saddest experiences of my life." "Why, what happened?" "It wasnít so much what happened but what didnít happen. It has been forty years, forty yearsóand they havenít changed. They had simply gained weight, changed clothes, got jobs...but they hadnít really changed. And what I experienced was maybe one of the most tragic things I could ever imagine about life. For reasons I canít fully understand, it seems as though some people choose not to change." There was a long silence as they walked back to the car. On the drive home, the man turned to his friend and said: "I never, never want that to be said of me, Tim. Life is too precious, too sacred, too important. If you ever see me go stagnant like that, I hope you give me a quick, swift kick where I need itófor Jesusí sake. I hope youíll love me enough to challenge me to keep growing." And that is what our writer is saying to us in these first few verses. That we need to work hard at our holiness otherwise we are heading for spiritual stagnation which is a disaster. We need to focus on our training.

2) Focus on your Team (Vv 18-24)

But then secondly we need to focus on our team. Because the fact is we are part of something much bigger and also much better than we often think. Now what our writer does in verses 18-24 is he compares two mountains by way of illustration, Mount Sinai and Mount Zion. And in doing so he is showing that the Hebrew Christians are part of something much much better. Therefore to go back to their old way of life in Judaism would be utter folly and madness. Because Mount Sinai represents the old way, and Mount Zion represents everything that is new in Jesus. And the old is not a patch on the new. Letís have a look at what happened on Mount Sinai. Verse 18: "You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: "If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned. "The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, "I am trembling with fear."" What our writer is describing is what happened in the book of Exodus under Moses. The people had come out of slavery in Egypt and had come to Mount Sinai to worship God. But because God was a God of burning holiness, there were certain criteria that had to be followed to avoid facing death. God seemed to be distant and awesome. Approaching him was a matter of fear and terror. This mountain, says our writer, was one of darkness and gloom, danger if you like. The problem for the people then was that God could not be approached. And rightly he set up boundaries so you could not go near him. Because as sinful people if they approached God, they would die. So the closest the people got to God was the foot of a mountain. In that sense it was a distant relationship.

But now that you have become Christians, look at what you have, he says in verses 22-24 as he talks about Mount Zion: "But you have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all men, to the spirits of righteous men made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel." Now it is vital to understand that we are not dealing with a different God here. There is nothing here about the nasty God of wrath in the Old Testament and the nice God of love in the New Testament. That is a fundamental misunderstanding of the Bible. The OT is full of the love and grace of God and the NT is full of the wrath of God. In fact it may surprise you to know that it is Jesus who speaks most about judgement and hell in the Bible. No, the God of the Bible does not change between the Testaments. He is still a God of burning wrath and holiness today. And if you are in doubt, have a look at verse 29. Our writer says: "Our God is a consuming fire." The God we worship is awesome and holy and that is something we need to remember as New Testament Christians. All too often we just think God is a nice fluffy God who will forgive us willy nilly. No, he is still of God to be feared and respected in the right way. But what has changed is that God has provided us with a way of knowing him in all his perfection and holiness, through Jesus, the mediator of the new covenant in verse 24. And that means, says our writer, that we are part of something amazing. We are now part of the heavenly Jerusalem. Spiritually speaking we are in heaven, the city of the living God. We are part of that great heavenly gathering, the church of the firstborn. We have come to God, our names are written in heaven. And how can we be sure? Because we are trusting the blood of Jesus. All the no entry signs that barred us from the holy presence of God have been taken down by the blood of Jesus. We can know this awesome holy God as Father. And as a result we are part of this extraordinary gathering. We are part of something amazing, the most remarkable gathering in the universe. And one day we will be there not just spiritually as we are now, but literally, in the flesh.

But the fact is, in the rough and tumble of life, it is very easy to forget this isnít it, and like the Hebrews to be tempted to think whether itís all worth it. But when those temptations comes, what we need is the right perspective. And of course perspective is vital in any walk of life. A student once wrote home to his parents. "Dear Mum and Dad, Sorry I havenít been in touch in the last few months, but one or two things have happened in my life which I think I should tell you about. Two months ago, I decided to go off for a bit of a holiday in the Far East. The reality is that I wanted to find myself. The oppressive Middle Class regime that you have raised me in was just too much to cope with. When I first met my spiritual guide in the mountains of Tibet, he was kind and gentle. The drugs werenít too powerful and I was happy to share everything with the others around me. I soon discovered their true identity, and I too joined the fight for freedom. I soon learnt to handle my AK 47 automatic assault rifle with ease, and even had a go manning the machine gun from the back of the helicopter; that was until I fell out and broke both legs. In hospital I met this lovely nurse and we fell in love. The wedding last week was a simple affair. We didnít want to risk losing the triplets she had conceived early on. The only slight snag is that I need to pay her father off for the betrothal price of 200 cows. Thatís life in Burma for you! Still with any luck it should only take a few years, and by that time I will have served about a quarter of my prison sentence for illegal drug dealing. Actually, Mum and Dad, all the above story is a load of lies. I just wanted to get into perspective the piece of news I am about to give you. Last month I failed my final exams."

You see perspective is vital. And what you and I need to grasp with both hands is the understanding that we are part of something amazing. We are citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem. We are Godís people who spiritually speaking are in heaven. We have everything in Christ. And to be tempted to give it all up, to go back, or just to slide into mediocrity is a disaster of extreme proportions. See what youíre part of, says our writer. For these Hebrew Christians to go back to Judaism was daft in the extreme. They were chucking in grace and heaven for fear and rules and slavery. And for us to forsake our hope and salvation would be stupidity in the extreme. Now I guess none of us here would ever dream that we could do anything so daft. But the very reason for this letterís existence, is that people were slipping away. And it can and does happen today. And one of the reasons they were doing so was because they were forgetting what they were part of. So let me ask you: Do you ever feel as if what we are doing here is small and insignificant? Do you ever feel as if your Christian life is really worth it, that the struggle just goes on and on? Are you ever tempted to feel that there is so much opposition to the Christian faith and church in this country and this world, that it cannot possibly survive? Well if so what you and I need is perspective. For we are part of something remarkable that God is building. We are members of this heavenly church, the new Jerusalem. And thatís where we belong. Thatís our team.

3) Focus on the Finishing Tape (Vv 25-29)

And that brings us to our final point because our writer says that this city we are part of is actually indestructible. So he urges us thirdly to focus on the finishing tape. That is, remember your future hope. You see the present spiritual reality is that we are part of something amazing. But that is also something in the future that we will experience in physical reality. Verse 25: "See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, "Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens." The words "once more" indicate the removing of what can be shakenóthat is, created thingsóso that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our ĎGod is a consuming fire.í" What our writer is saying is that there will come a time when God will shake the universe to such a degree that everything will be destroyed. Heís talking about the end of history as we know it. There will be a time when God will bring everything to an end. So how will we survive? Well there is a part of the universe that will survive, that is in his words unshakeable. And that is Godís people, Godís kingdom. We are part of something that cannot be destroyed, that is unshakeable. That is our hope. And itís based on the word or promise of God. And that is why in the present, in the light of this amazing future hope, we need to listen to and obey Godís voice, lest we be caught out when God shakes the universe. And we need to worship God acceptably. And as weíll see next week, true worship of God is to be seen in how we relate to each other in this present world. But the point is, without that future hope, without that certainty of where we are heading, then we will not act in the present in a way which pleases God. For the future hope helps us to persevere in the present struggles. Because letís be honest the race of faith can be hard. Holiness is a battle. We are tempted to forget who we are, that we are on Godís winning team. There will be times when we want to give up and sit by the road, or even drop out altogether. But we must persevere in Godís strength, because itís dangerous to give up and there is a wonderful prize ahead of us if we keep going to the end.

So as we finish, let me read to you some words about that future hope from one of my favourite books, Pilgrimís Progress, written by John Bunyan. It is written in the form of a dream that Bunyan had, a parable of the Christian life. And the book is a story about a man called Christian who is seeking to get to the Celestial City, heaven. And along the way he faces many trials and temptations. And often he is tempted to give up. But what keeps him going is the thought of making it to his destination, the Celestial City. And the final paragraphs of the book talk about death and the hope of overcoming it and so entering heaven. This is what Bunyan wrote: "Between the travellers and the gate of the city was a deep river, dark and cold, but there was no bridge. At the sight of the river the pilgrims turned pale and silent. The two angels said: "You must go through, or you will never get to the gate." Then they accepted the inevitable. Entering the water, Christian began to sink. He cried to his good friend Hopeful: "Iím sinking in deep waterÖ" "Be of good cheer," said Hopeful. "I feel the bottom and it is good."Ö. Soon Christian found ground to stand on, and the rest of the river was shallow. So the pilgrims sped on towards the gateÖ. The pilgrims gave their certificates to the gatekeeper and were admitted into the Celestial CityÖ. Just as the gate opened to let them in, I got a glimpse of the inner glory of heaven. The whole city blazed like the Sun. The streets were paved with gold, and the clothes of those who walked the streets shone with a lightness I had never seen before. And they wore crowns as kings. And just as they began to praise God saying "Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty," the gate closed."

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