Let Us Go On
Listen: Click to listen
(to save a file simply right click the link and select 'Save Target As...' or 'Save Link As...')
I had something I thought I wanted to share with you this morning, but I’m not sure if I should do it. I’m not sure that you’re ready to handle it. It might be a little too advanced for you.
The preacher to the Hebrews is about to get into the big image for Christ that’s operative in his sermon. He’s already made a couple of mentions of Christ as our great high priest. From 5:8 we read “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizidek.”
Before he gets into this though, the preacher wants to say something about what it means to follow Christ. The thing about following Christ is, it’s not some quick fix. We’re very much into the instant solution in today’s world. Obtaining information quickly. Having people responding to our messages quickly. Seeing how quickly we can get however many “likes” or clicks. The idea that business success can be arrived at by attending a one day seminar! The preacher to the Hebrews is reminding his congregation that following Christ is not like that. Following Christ means learning about Christ. Christ himself learned obedience through what he suffered. Having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.
So there are these two things operating in the Christian life – learning and being perfected. This is what we know as discipleship or spiritual formation. Being a disciple of Christ – being a learner or pupil of Christ means being made complete – being made into the image of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. This is a lifelong process! Why did the preacher to the Hebrews feel that this was important to let his congregation know? What is the importance of this for us at Blythwood today? Let us turn to our text this morning and see what God has to say to our hearts. Let us pray.
We’re getting into some heavy stuff now. I’m glad that the kids are gone because this stuff is not for the kids. I’m going to do my best to explain it, though I’m not sure you’re ready for it. In his book on Hebrews Tom Long compares it to a teacher who tries to get the classes attention – a kind of reverse psychology to which the congregation would respond “What do you mean we’re too dull to get this?” This group of people who he’s preaching to have been following Christ for some time. You might think the preacher is using hyperbole here to get their attention or you might think that they actually are really dull! Either way the point is the same. This whole Christ-following project in which we’re engaged is one of learning. We’re not meant to stay like spiritual children. Being able to stay the course and press on and insure that our ships are coming safely into port is going to require that we get beyond the water-wing stage, which would surely mean us drifting away.
Becoming more than children means being teachers. This doesn’t mean that we’re all called to teach a Sunday School class or lead a Bible study necessarily. It means that we’re all called to be people from whom others can learn about God. By our actions. By our words. Everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. Kids don’t get stuff. They need to be taught that the world doesn’t revolve around them. Some people take a long time to learn that. J They cling to their possessions. They need to be taught to share. They need to be taught that it’s not acceptable to have tantrums and throw or break things and storm out of the room. We need to learn that we need to get beyond the child stage in a community of faith. We need to get beyond the stage where we throw a temper tantrum and get angry with each other because we don’t agree with the colour of the carpet. We need to get beyond the stage where we might storm out because we don’t get to play drums every Sunday or say things like “This is my Sunday School picnic!” because we’re the head organizer or feel possessive about anything because none of this is really ours. It’s all a gift. We need to learn these things. They don’t come naturally. Kids need to be taught to share don’t they? We need to learn that all of our ministry is a sharing. A sharing in what God is doing. A sharing together.
Why is this important? Why is it important to strive for maturity in Christ? Because there are things in life that will test us. Solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil. We need to be in training and practicing to distinguish what is of God – to distinguish where God is in the many and diverse situations we find ourselves in life. We will experience pain and suffering and loss. Our faith will be tested. We’ll suffer for our faith. There’s a church near where I live and their sign says “Stop suffering”. I think I know what they might mean but we’re never promised that we won’t suffer for our faith. Quite the opposite in fact. This is a problem that I have when we look at writings such as this or the Gospel of John. They were written to faith communities who were suffering for following Christ. They were being ostracized. Kicked out of trade guilds. The congregation here had suffered, not to the point of shedding blood, but they had suffered. I don’t find myself suffering for my faith. I don’t even encounter derision, at least not to my face. We were talking about this in our Wednesday Bible group and one of our friends told me “Use this time as a time of preparation for when suffering comes.” How wise! Train your faculties so we can distinguish good from evil, blessings from curses, what is of God from what is not of God.
How do we do this? Go on together. They didn’t call following Christ “The Way” for nothing. The image came from Judaism. The law that is found in the written and oral Torah is called the Halakha. It comes from the word halakh which means way or path. The halakh. How’s the way going for you? How’s your halakh? It’s a big image in the Bible. Your word is a light to my path. We’re wayfarers. As one writer puts it, “… we are travelers who are heading for a destination we do not altogether know, but following the road toward it in trust. The wayfarer has to live in the awkward, unrehearsed new encounter of each moment, always incomplete, never quite satisfying, because time is not a possession, and not a home. It is the way to fulfillment.” Encounters may be unrehearsed but we can be in training for them. We can be practicing for them. We do this together along the way and we do this in Christ. Our fulfillment.
Our goal. This is the word that’s been translated “perfection” here. Our goal. Our completeness. Becoming like Christ. Being formed in the image of Christ. So far this word has been used twice by the preacher to describe Christ. The preacher now turns this toward us. The goal that we’re moving toward. We call it spiritual formation or discipleship. Paul described it like this “And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another, for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.” The preacher to the Hebrews tells them “We will do this, if God permits.” I have to think this is a little tongue in cheek – of course God will permit this if we ask him to and if we come to God with hearts that say “Seek his face! Your face O Lord do I seek.” There is not one question that God won’t transform us if we ask and seek and knock. It seems that somewhere Jesus commanded us to do this after all!
Because the Christ following life is more than just getting out of Egypt. Being freed. It’s about moving together through the wilderness. It’s about being transformed by this and entering the rest. It’s about getting a foretaste of the rest in the meantime. It’s about moving beyond repentance from dead works (from empty religious observance) to faith, from baptism, from laying on of hands, resurrection of the dead and final judgement. Those things are all important and we do them and believe them and teach them and proclaim them. The moving toward perfection though is key. And we will do this, if God permits. Do we want to do this?
Because if we’re not moving forward in this life we’re drifting. It’s like the shark. Do you know if the shark stops swimming he sinks? We’re like Christian sharks, except without the biting people. Because we don’t want to fall away. Falling away is serious. We don’t want to sink. “For it is impossible to restore again to repentance those who have once been enlightened, and have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, since on their own they are crucifying again the Son of God and are holding him up to contempt.” What is going on here?
Let me tell you first what is not going on. This is not about post-baptismal or Christ following sinning. I heard of a youth leader once who told the kids “Every time you sin it’s like you are punching Jesus in the face!” It’s not to scare us. It’s not to prove one way or another the answer to the question “Can a follower of Christ lose his or her salvation?” Who could ever make that call? We don’t get to make the call as to who makes heaven or hell do we? We trust God’s mercy though don’t we? A friend of ours here was talking about when her sister died. A woman who could never have been described as having fallen away. She prayed for her sister, that God would cover her with His righteousness. What a great prayer! We trust in God’s mercy. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, God said. We don’t make that call.
This was written in a time of persecution. It was written when people were falling away because they felt their lives would be easier or better. People fall away for various reasons. I think the preacher is stressing the seriousness of it. It’s impossible to bring someone to repentance who has fallen away. We’ve known that right? We can’t do it. No matter how much cajoling or inviting or changing the worship music we do. Falling away in the face of persecution is a body blow to the church, as Barclay puts it. God has created us to bear fruit for him. We talk about remaining, resting, abiding in the vine.
Why don’t we do this? I’ve been reading about one of the seven deadly sins we don’t talk about much. Acedia. It’s usually translated sloth. It’s not just about laziness though. At its heart it’s a resistance to the demands of God’s love. The transforming demands of God’s love. It’s everywhere. I’ll be talking about it more I think. It can manifest itself in no activity or in frenetic activity that keeps us distracted. It can result in us leaving churches, vocations, marriages, because we resist the transforming demands of love and living and existing in loving relationships. It’s been said that the cure is prayer and psalmody. Pray. Read the Psalms. Pray the Psalms. I email a daily reading that contains three Psalms, let me know if you’d like to receive it.
“It’s a serious thing to fall away!” thunders the preacher. He doesn’t leave them there though. Look, I know what you’re like. Have you ever said this to a teenager? Maybe a bit of a wayward one? Or have you ever had it said to yourself? “Look, I know you’re not a bad kid. You’re a good kid.” Even though we speak in this way, beloved, we are confident of better things in your case, things that belong to salvation. I know you. We’ve been talking about being children vs. growing in maturity and falling away vs. holding fast to the faith but I know you. We’re confident. I know you want these things too. God will not overlook your work. I know what you did for Poh Gek when she was diagnosed with cancer. I saw how Jennie wanted to come to church the last weeks of her life and how her family brought her here from NYG every week. I know the boards you serve on. I know what you’ve done for Ernie. I know the time you’ve devoted to our summer camp in Lawrence Heights. I know the Saturday nights you’ve given up to be in our church basement from November to March for Out Of The Cold. I could go on and on and on. There’s a lot that I don’t know about too. I know that!
We’re confident of better things. We want each one of us to show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope to the very end. We want a good beginning, middle and end. We want to hold fast together. We don’t want to become sluggish. This doesn’t mean intellectually sluggish because none of this depends on the strength of our intellect. We want hearts that continue to say “Seek his face.” We want to say continually “Your face O Lord do I seek.” To be imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. To be a part of that crowd standing behind Jesus as he stands before God and declares “Here am I and the children whom God has given me.” To be like Abraham. Like Moses. Like Mildred Goulding. Like countless people here today I could name but who are so humble they wouldn’t even want me to name them. I know you. I’m confident. We have a Great High Priest who’s holding onto us, who’s praying for us, who’s travelling along with us, and who’s waiting for us. May God make the knowledge of these things ever more true in our hearts as He continues to form us in the image of His Son, through the power of His Holy Spirit. Amen.