A call to service - Hebrews 13:1-10
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
With Christmas only a week or so away, you will no doubt be looking for those last minute bargains. Or if you are anything like me, youíll be beginning to think about the dreadful task of starting your Christmas shopping. And if so then you might be tempted to go for some of this yearís best sellers. Because it seems that this year and last, the great British public have developed a taste for bizarre quirky facts. Last year one of the best selling books at Christmas time was called "Does anything eat wasps and 101 other questions." It was a book about strange questions people really want to ask and the answers scientists give in reply. This yearís best seller is called: "Why donít penguinsí feet freeze and 114 other questions." Again itís a similar theory with all sorts of odd questions being asked and answered. But it illustrates peopleís fascination with strange and beguiling facts to wow your friends with. In fact a quick trawl through the internet will reveal hundreds of sites offering all sorts of inane information such as the fact that the average penguin can jump six feet high, and the very first allied bomb dropped in the Second World War on Berlin killed Berlin zooís only elephant. All fascinating stuff!
Now today we come to the end of our sermon series in the book of Hebrews that weíve been looking at over these last few months. And as we have gone through the letter you might have been tempted at first to think that it is a letter of interesting but irrelevant facts, the sort of things to entertain you, but which have no real purpose in life. Weíve listened to chapters on the ancient Jewish priesthood; weíve had a history lesson on the people of Israelís trip round Canaan; weíve had a whole host of passages on the ancient sacrificial system of the Jews. But I hope youíve seen that actually we have not been studying a random sample of irrelevant facts. But weíve had the privilege of reading a letter from God about the sufficiency of the work of Jesus on the cross, and the exclusivity of his person. For this is a letter about Jesus. He is the final Word from God and he has completed a finished work. His is a better sacrifice. Heís a better high priest. He brings about a better promise. He has brought in a better covenant. Jesus is supreme. And therefore to move away from him is foolishness and disaster in the extreme. And ancient and modern readers alike would do well to listen and obey this message and not drift away from Jesus.
And nor has this letter been one just of highly polished theology. Itís been rigorously applied and it has been ruthlessly down to earth as the writer has shown us the consequences of straying from Jesus and giving up the race of faith, and what we must do in practice. As he says in verse 22, heís written a brief word of exhortation. Which perhaps makes us wonder what a long word might have been, but there we are! And now in his final chapter he brings the whole letter to a conclusion. And this chapter is intensely practical. And the simple reason is that the writer wants us to go away from the letter yes understanding more about our glorious Lord Jesus Christ, but also living life more faithfully and wholeheartedly in the light of the gospel he has been outlining for the previous twelve chapters. And in fact this final chapter is an explanation of the last two verses of chapter 12. Just glance back to 12 vv 28-29: "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 God is a consuming fire." And now he explains what it will mean in practice to worship God. Chapter 13 is actually about worship. And weíll find that there is virtually nothing about singing, but plenty about living. So how then should we live in the light of the wonderful truth about Jesus? How should we live as people looking forward to the unshakable kingdom we will one day inherit? Well as we press on to that future hope, we need to people who are doing four things:
1) Keep Loving in Practice (Vv 1-6)
2) Keep Trusting the Cross (Vv 9-16)
3) Keep Encouraging your Leaders (Vv 7-8, 17-19)
4) Keep Depending on Godís Grace (Vv 20-25)
1) Keep Loving in Practice (Vv 1-6)
So first then we need to keep loving in practice. And notice that this is the very first thing the writer says is the practical outworking of worship. Chapter 13 v 1 follows straight on from the end of chapter 12. Let us worship God acceptably, he says. So keep on loving each other as brothers. Thatís one of the essentials of Christian worship- love for others. For like it or not, we are part of a family which needs to take care of one another. So what will it mean in practice? Well it will mean first costly love in verses 2-3: "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 mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering." Love for others in the fellowship will mean opening up our homes in hospitality. For that is acceptable worship. Now in the context, the writer may have had in mind travelling Christian teachers who would pass through town. They would be dependant on the love and generosity of the local church congregation. But of course there are wider applications. It means being willing to use our homes for the sake of the fellowship and for othersí needs. Perhaps one of the ways we Christians mimic the worldís values is that we are too house proud. For some of us the thought of having people round is just incredibly unsettling. We donít like the thought of our space being invaded. But our homes and possessions are given to us by God on loan, on the understanding that we use them for his glory. And surely generous hospitality is part and parcel of that. Perhaps having some students round for a meal, or someone in the congregation who is in need. Or perhaps being willing to use our homes for church functions like Homegroups or other meetings. Such love is costly but its part of acceptable worship. And for these Christians too it meant supporting those in prison. Again it would have been very costly to visit Christians behind bars, associating themselves with those arrested for Christís sake. But in the fellowship of believers, says our writer, if one brother is behind bars, then we are all to a certain degree. We are to remember them as if we ourselves were suffering. Thatís how tight a community we are to be. One suffers, we all suffer. And again the applications are wider than just prison, which is rare in this country. But it may mean helping a family blighted by illness. Assisting a couple struggling with children. Supporting a person coping with bereavement. The point is we must keep on loving one another as brothers. Yes it will be costly. But that is part of acceptable worship.
But notice too that love in practice means devoted love in 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." Marriage is to be guarded and honoured. The marriage bed kept pure. For this too is acceptable worship. What happens in the bed is just as much an act of worship to God as what happens on Sunday morning. For the marriage covenant is the only appropriate place for expressing sexual desire. And notice too that all of us are involved in this guarding of the marriage covenant. "Marriage should be honoured by all!" he says. So whatever our marital status, we all need to be upholding marriage by our prayers and support.
But thereís a third aspect of love in practice and that is contented love. For worship affects the way we use our money as well. Verses 5-6: "Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ĎNever will I leave you; never will I forsake you. ĎSo we say with confidence, ĎThe Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?í" What our writer is urging us to have is contentment when it comes to money and possessions. Be content with what you have, he says. And why? Because we can be confident that God will never leave us or forsake us. God is our helper. The point is why put your confidence in your money and possessions when you have the Lord who will never leave you. Money gets spent. Possessions rust or fade away or get stolen. No, the way to lasting contentment is to put our confidence and trust in the Lord. And again that is an act of worship. Because when your confidence is in him and the bad times come, then we have the assurance that he will not let us down and leave us or forsake us.
Leo Tolstoy once wrote a story about a successful peasant farmer who was not satisfied with his lot. He wanted more of everything. One day he received a novel offer. For 1000 roubles, he could buy all the land he could walk around in a day. The only catch in the deal was that he had to be back at his starting point by sundown. Early the next morning he started out walking at a fast pace. By midday he was very tired, but he kept going, covering more and more ground. Well into the afternoon he realized that his greed had taken him far from the starting point. He quickened his pace and as the sun began to sink low in the sky, he began to run, knowing that if he did not make it back by sundown the opportunity to become an even bigger landholder would be lost. As the sun began to sink below the horizon he came within sight of the finish line. Gasping for breath, his heart pounding, he called upon every bit of strength left in his body and staggered across the line just before the sun disappeared. He immediately collapsed, blood streaming from his mouth. In a few minutes he was dead. Afterwards, his servants dug a grave. It was not much over six feet long and three feet wide. The title of Tolstoy's story was: How Much Land Does a Man Need? You see true contentment will only come when we are first content in the Lord who will never forsake us. And that really is the heart of worship. And when the heart is in place then we can keep loving in practice.
2) Keep Trusting the Cross (Vv 9-16)
But secondly as we press on to heaven we need to keep trusting the cross. For this is the second aspect of acceptable worship. Have a look at verses 9-10: "Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by ceremonial foods, which are of no value to those who eat them. We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat." Now clearly this was a congregation under pressure. They were under pressure to go back to Judaism and forfeit their salvation in Jesus. And part of it was being obsessed with food laws and rituals. But religious rituals are of no use says our writer. They are of no value. It makes no difference to your soul what you eat and drink so donít trust in religious ritual he says. Instead trust in the grace of God. For it is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace. Thatís what we need. We donít need more religion. We need more grace. And where it that to be found? Well quite simply in the cross of Jesus. For verse 10: "We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat." The altar we are to trust in is the cross. Thatís where the full and final sacrifice for sins was made. Verse 12: "And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood." The cross is the only place where sins can be forgiven and where grace can be found.
Now I guess itís extremely unlikely that many of us will be tempted to chuck in our Christian faith and turn to Judaism. But the principle of danger still exists. That is looking for grace and strength in the wrong areas instead of not trusting the cross of Christ as the only place for forgiveness and grace. For example, a big temptation for many of us is to trust in our own performance spiritually to give us assurance and confidence as Christians. So if things have been going well this week, if prayer and Bible study have been good, then things are OK. Weíre pleased with our church attendance and our service of God, and weíre confident in our relationship with God. But actually scratch beneath the surface and our confidence springs not from what God has done for us, but in what we are doing for him. We need to heed the lesson and keep trusting the cross of Christ alone for grace and forgiveness, not our performance. Or perhaps some of us are attracted to the more ritualistic side of the Christian faith. Itís important for you that you take Communion each week, that you say the creed and the prayers, that things are done properly. But again is your confidence in what is done by you or the minister, or in what God has already done for you on the cross. No, says our writer, our hearts need to be nourished by grace, his forgiveness, his mercy, not confidence in our performance. And that is actually very humbling.
Some years ago, I went abseiling. And abseiling is one of those sports that requires that you put total confidence in someone else for your safety and indeed your life. Abseiling if you donít know is when you walk down a cliff face from top to bottom whilst attached to a piece of rope. Now the hardest thing about abseiling is the very first move you make over the cliff. So you stand on the edge of the cliff with your back to the edge, and then gradually lean over the edge backwards until you are perpendicular to the cliff face. But it takes courage and absolute confidence that the other person is holding onto the other end of the rope. Because if you are obsessed with trusting yourself, you will never get down that cliff face. You have to lean right back and trust the guy at the other end of the rope.
You see being a Christian is a humbling business. It is about total trust in another person. And all too often, even in those who have been Christians many years, there is a tendency to want to do things ourselves and depend on ourselves, our way of doing things. But we just canít do it. We need to trust Godís grace and mercy. For that is the way our hearts are nourished and we can carry on. And notice that following Jesus and trusting him is no bed of roses, verse 13: "Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come." When you follow Jesus, you are heading for disgrace, for we follow a disgraced Lord. And yet we know itís worth it, because we are looking forward to an enduring city, and unshakeable kingdom, something that will last for ever. Thatís our true home. But weíll only get there if we take our eyes off ourselves and keep trusting the cross of Christ to get us there. For that is part of parcel of what is acceptable worship. So keep trusting the cross.
3) Keep Encouraging your Leaders (Vv 7-8, 17-19)
But thirdly we need to keep encouraging our leaders. For this is another aspect of worship as we head for heaven. So letís read back in verse 7: "Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever." And again in verse 17: "Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account. Obey them so that their work will be a joy, not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you. Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honourably in every way. I particularly urge you to pray so that I may be restored to you soon." Now you might think itís a bit rich a minister asking the congregation for encouragement. Why doesnít he give us some, you might say? When he gives, weíll give back. And sadly it is true that sometimes ministers and their congregations don't get on. In one church things had got so bad that the wardens arranged to meet with the minister and ask him to go. The minister, however, refused. "Iím the servant of Jesus" he said. "When Jesus tells me to go Iíll leave but until Jesus gives the word, here I stay". So he did. Week by week his congregation groaned through the services. Finally one Sunday morning the minister announced Jesus had given the word - he was finally moving to another church. And all of a sudden, the congregation rose to their feet and began to sing "What a friend we have in Jesus."
Now in any church there will be tensions and disagreements, but what is required is a loving partnership between leaders and the congregation. For we are all part of Godís body, and all fallen sinners saved by grace. And what is interesting about these verses is that actually they are a double edged sword. Because they issue a challenge to the leaders in a church and also a challenge to those being led, the congregation. For good leadership and godly congregations are a mark of genuine godly worship. So whatís the challenge then for the leaders? Well in verse 7 the writer is probably referring back to those who first brought the gospel to the Hebrew Christians. Itís possible that they have now died, and in that way the readers are urged to consider the outcome of their way of life, in others words they ran the race faithfully and made it to the end. But the challenge for any of us in leadership, whatever role we might have, is to be people whoís lives are worth considering and whose faith is something to imitate. Thatís certainly what struck me when I first read it. Christian leaders, whilst in no way perfect, are to be examples to others. And that is a great challenge to those of us in leadership whatever form that leadership takes, as a minister, a Homegroup leader, a womenís group leader, a childrenís group leader. Whatever. And notice too in verse 17 that leaders are to give an account. Jesus teaches in the gospels that those with greater responsibility will have to give an account for how they have used that responsibility. Thatís the challenge for us leaders.
But the writerís main point is to urge his readers to encourage their leaders. So in verse 17, they are to obey their leaders and submit to their authority. "They must obey them so that their work will be a joy not a burden, for that would be of no advantage to you." Now I donít think the writer is advocating a slavish obedience to everything the vicar says. Itís rather a humble submission to the authority of the minister of the gospel as he teaches the Word of God. But with that will come a healthy testing of all that is said, as what is spoken from the pulpit is measured against the plumb line of the Scriptures. So a congregation should never just accept what is said without thinking and praying it through. Otherwise, weíd become a cult. But in every church where the Word is taught faithfully, there will be a humble submission and obedience. And I can say from personal experience that nothing is more thrilling to a minister when the word is being taken and applied by a congregation. It brings great joy to a ministerís heart. And nothing brings more heartache and sadness to a ministerís heart than a constant failure to engage with the word and constant carping and criticism which is unfounded. And notice too that the leaders are dependant on their congregation for their prayers, verses 18: "Pray for us. We are sure that we have a clear conscience and desire to live honourably in every way. I particularly urge you to pray so that I may be restored to you soon." The fact is the minister needs the people and the people need the minister. It is a two way process, and none more so than in the realm of prayer. Now I know that there are many here who pray regularly for the leaders of this church and I for one am deeply grateful. For I know I could not survive were it not for Godís strength given through the prayers of his people. So keep praying. Pray for us regularly, as we seek to pray for you. And for those who donít, then please take this partnership seriously as we engage together in Godís work. For in the long race of faith, we need each other, pastor and congregation alike. So keep encouraging your leaders.
4) Keep Depending on Godís Grace (Vv 20-25)
But thereís one final challenge to hear from this letter and that is to keep depending on Godís grace. Because as we come to the end of this great letter of encouragement we may well ask how we do survive. I mean the writer has talked about the dangers of falling away, of the need to keep going, of the need to keep running the race. But does he expect us to do it in our own strength. Well no. And thatís the joy of verses 20-21 as the writer prays for his people. "May the God of peace, who through the blood of the eternal covenant brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep, equip you with everything good for doing his will, and may he work in us what is pleasing to him, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen." You see the great thing is that God does not leave us to fend for ourselves. Our great shepherd equips us with everything good for doing his will. All that we have looked at today, and all the challenges of the past twelve chapters we can do because God will enable us to do them if we allow him. He can work in us what is pleasing to him, if we submit to him. By his Spirit he will change us and he will keep us going. For Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever. He does not change like shifting shadows. He is trustworthy. And he will not forsake us. And did you notice those last four words at the very end of the letter? Grace be with you. Thatís how weíll survive. Thatís how we will keep going. The grace of God. So donít be afraid. Donít doubt. Donít worry. Instead trust in the one who has promised never to leave you or forsake. Trust in him whose grace is sufficient for every day. Do you remember how ex slave trader John Newton put it? "Amazing grace how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see." But he went on, "Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come. Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home." And that really is the message of Hebrews.
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