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If I were going to get another tattoo (or technically more than one), I think I would get something like HOLD FAST between my knuckles. I like this command a lot. It goes back to seafaring people, however, and while I might be descended from seafaring people, the sea is not really my thing (like the ancient Israelites, I have a healthy respect for and slight fear of the sea). Also, I fear it might make me look more menacing than I already look (or can look at least). It’s also been done a lot. So to my dear wife and to my dear mother, not to worry.
The idea is appealing though, even if I see the message only in my imagination. Hold fast. Press on. “A call to perseverance” is how this section of the sermon the Hebrews is titled in our NRSV Bibles. It’s an important message for any time, and I think it’s of particular importance as we go through these couple of weeks before Advent – which is in and of itself a time of waiting and holding on to hope. The present reality and the future hope for the follower of Christ is the same (in that kind of already and not yet existence in which we live – and as Christians we need to be able to hold onto two things that are seemingly paradoxical yet at the same time both true). The reality and the hope for the follower of Christ is “God with us.” The call on our lives from today’s text is to persevere in this reality and in this hope and to persevere together.
I think it’s important as we’re coming out of almost two years of the reality of a pandemic. I don’t know what this has meant for all of our lives when it comes to how we’re holding fast. I don’t know what it will mean as we are slowly starting to resume worship in person again. “Don’t get too used to it” is what a dear father in the faith told me when I was talking about how used we have become to online worship. We’ll endeavour to continue it, God helping us, and I know it has its place in terms of reaching people and enabling people to participate in worship together who can’t be in church on a Sunday for whatever reason. We’re looking at the importance of holding on together and the importance of the worship that we do together. This is not simply me hectoring you or speaking out of my own professional interest. It goes much deeper than that. It’s a serious thing and we want to take God’s word seriously. Let’s ask for God’s help as we look at part of this ancient sermon and ask God to speak to our hearts from it today.
This message was written primarily for followers of Christ. We call it the letter to the Hebrews but it’s really more like the sermon to the Hebrews (and you thought some of my sermons were long!). It’s a sermon directed toward a group of people who had come to faith in Christ from within the group of people from which Christ himself came (which was pretty much everybody in the earliest church). So this message is primarily for Christians. If you’re not a follower of Christ, stop listening and skip to the song after the sermon. If you’re not a follower of Christ I pray your heart will be stirred and there’ll be something for you here too.
Here’s the background to this part of the sermon to the Hebrews. The writer has just finished a long section on what Jesus has done. This is the thing about Christian fill in the blank – whether we’re talking about Christian forgiveness, mercy, worship, justice, compassion, love. The question is “What makes it distinctly Christian?” I was in a conversation recently about reconciliation and the question came up “What makes Christian reconciliation different from other kinds of reconciliation?” What makes Christian compassion “Christian” as you don’t have to follow Christ to be compassionate. Christians aren’t the only ones who teach and practice compassion. The answer is almost too simple (yet at the same time the most profound thing in the world). The answer is in the question itself. Christ! The way of God’s love, mercy, compassion, justice, all of life as worship, has been opened up for us in Christ who took on the human condition. These are not things we need to conjure up with ourselves, but the way to them (and to God) has been made in Christ. Before we say anything about how we as followers of Christ are called to believe, be, or respond, we start with Christ. Here’s how Tom Long summarizes Hebrews 6-10: “Jesus the Son moved down into human history, experienced testing and suffering of every kind, and then swept back up into the heavenly places. Now the Preacher proclaims that the parabolic arc was not only the pathway that Christ traveled. It is also a pilgrim way of grace that we travel, a highway leading into the very presence of God opened up by the mystery of Jesus the great high priest.”
This image of the life of faith as being on a journey is widespread. The Pilgrim’s Progress was John Bunyan’s allegorical story of a man coming to faith in Christ and journeying. It’s an image that goes back to the people of Israel journeying toward the land of promise. It’s reflected in songs like “Wayfaring Stranger.” I call our praise team here “Nora Webster and the Wayfarers,” at least in my head (the same place I see HOLD FAST). It’s a good image. We journey along together (and we’ll come back to this in a while).
The other thing here that bears some explanation is this talk of a curtain and a great high priest. While the people of Israel made their way through the wilderness on their way to the land of promise, the presence of God traveled with them in a tent. It’s not that God was contained in this tent but it was where God lived with them if you like. Moses would meet with God in the tent, and it was aptly called the Tent of Meeting. Years later Solomon would build a Temple in Jerusalem where the presence of God lived. You can imagine the consternation when it was destroyed. A second Temple was later constructed (we heard about that recently) and added to by Herod the Great (so-called because he was great at building, not so great at being a decent human being). The place where God dwelled was called the Holy of Holies and was separated by a curtain. Once a year, the high priest (the only one allowed in there) would enter the Holy of Holies. You’ll remember that one of the details we have surrounding Jesus’ death is that, at the time of Jesus’ death, the curtain was torn in two.
I’m going to lay another image on you and it’s one that’s very big for me right now, has been big for me for some time, and likely will be for some time to come (if not all my life). This is an icon by Russian iconographer Andrei Rublev. It’s called “The Trinity” (or “The Hospitality of Abraham” after a story in Genesis 18 where Abraham welcomes three strangers and in so doing encounters God). In Jesus, the way has been made for anyone to be welcomed at this table. To be welcomed at God’s table is to participate or to share in the divine life of the Trinity – of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It is to be caught up in the eternal love of Father, Son, and Spirit. It is to be at home with God. To be at home with God in a way now, and to look forward to being at home with God one day in fullness.
We need these kinds of images to help us get our hearts around what is meant when we say “God with us” or “Being at home with God.” An author named Jonathan Kozol wrote a book some years ago called Amazing Grace. It’s a book about the lives of people living in the South Bronx – at the time the poorest urban neighbourhood in the US. One of them is a child named Anthony. Twelve years of age. A child who saw more violence in 12 years than anyone should see in a lifetime. Anthony would use the phrase “Kingdom of God.” One day, Jonathan Kozol asked Anthony what he meant when he said “Kingdom of God.” This is what Anthony had written in a notebook he had entitled “God’s Kingdom”: “No violence will be in heaven. There will be no guns or drugs or IRS. You won’t have to pay taxes. You’ll recognize all the children who died when they were little. Jesus will be good to them and play with them. At night he’ll come and visit at your house.”
The way has been opened to us – mercy has been shown; forgiveness has been granted. What makes Christian worship Christian? The truth is that we have been invited to this table with our hearts sprinkled clean and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us approach with pure true hearts in full assurance of faith in the one who, in His mercy, accomplished for us what we could never accomplish for ourselves. We come with empty hands, needing to bring nothing more than hearts which acknowledge our need for God. How many times do we get an invitation to dinner and the first things we ask is “What can I bring?” “Nothing in my hands I bring,” goes the hymn, “Simply to thy cross I cling.” Let us approach with empty hands, carrying nothing more than hearts that acknowledge our need for him. It is in this way that our worship together is Christian – rooted in Christ. It is in the mercy of Christ that we are reassured of God’s acceptance.
Reassured and holding fast to the confession of our hope without wavering. Like hope is a strong rope that we’re hanging onto, connecting us with God and connecting us with one another. We are called to do this together. Children understand this well and may God make us like children in our understanding of this truth. We are called to walk this pilgrim way together. There’s a book called All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten which contains these lines – “Live a balanced life learn some and think some and draw and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some. Take a nap every afternoon. When you go out into the world, watch out for traffic, hold hands, and stick together.” We hold onto hope together, reminding each other of God’s promises, being reminded of God’s promises when we worship together. Someone has said “Holding to the confession is not a matter of grim determination (to which I would add “individual”), but of active and mutual commitment and upbuilding.” Let us remind one another that while we don’t yet see God’s promises in their fullness, that God gives us hearts to see God’s image in everyone we encounter; in the faces of the hungry, the sick, the prisoner; in the faces of one another.
So let us consider one another. Let us pay attention to one another. Let us consider how we might stir each other up to love and good works – to love and acts of love.
May God so stir our hearts. May God open the eyes of our hearts to see what is going on when we worship together. If the eyes of our hearts were not stirred we might see very little reason to worship together on a Sunday morning. Does anything ever really happen when we worship together? There is likely better drama to be found on Netflix, we might say. There is a friendlier greeting at the place we go to for brunch, we might say (depending on your church). There’s better music to be found elsewhere, we might say (depending on our church). We’re tired and worship can be tiresome, we might say. Sleeping in will provide a better Sabbath rest, we might say. I like to talk about the unseen thing, which I’ll get back to in a few moments, but it’s important too to remember things we see which are proven to be not as they seem. Sometimes the things we take to be leisure provide no rest at all. They leave us feeling drained, empty.
What might we see if God were to open the eyes of our hearts? Might we see that in entering the sanctuary through the way that has been opened for us through the curtain, in entering the sanctuary together, in worship together, that we are joining our worship with the ongoing heavenly worship that is happening around the throne of God. We are joining our worship with the voices crying out “Holy, holy holy, is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come!”. Our prayers are joined to the prayers of the saints that have gone before us. Our prayers are joined with the prayers of the Holy Spirit our advocate. Through God’s word, we are hearing the voice of the one who sits on the throne saying “I am the Alpha and the Omega” – the first and the last.
This is what is happening when we worship together, whether we are worshiping in a building with one another or whether we are the only one in our household worshiping in front of a screen.
In both situations, God is with us.
Someone has said this of corporate worship – “the Lord is with us, or we are pathetic fools.” The Lord is with us or we are like T.S. Elliots “Hollow Men” – “We are the hollow men/We are the stuffed men/Leaning together/Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!/ Our dried voices, when/ We whisper together/ Are quiet and meaningless”
Here is the wonderful truth, beloved sisters and brother. God is with us! May God open the eyes of our hearts to see God with us. Our cry is not ‘“Alas!” Our cry is “Amen!” Even if our voices are dry or cracked with age, they are neither quiet nor meaningless. I was back at Christie Gardens LTC facility recently. The chaplain there, John Duyck, has local clergy come in each Wednesday to lead two services and I was glad to be back after such a long time. At each 30 minute service, there were around 16-20 residents with varying levels of cognitive ability. We sang together, accompanied by a dear volunteer who had forgotten her reading glasses and was having trouble reading the music. We heard God’s word together, heard it interpreted together, prayed together, blessed one another. At the end of the second service, the dear piano player started “God Be With You Till We Meet Again.” One of the residents started singing before anyone else (“Enough with the intro” she no doubt thought) and started singing alone in a dear, quavering voice “God be with you till you meet again/By His counsels guide, uphold you.” I joined in and so did everyone else who could. Those voices were in no way quiet or meaningless. We were blessing each other. We were praying for each other. God was with us. Without eyes of faith, we might look on such a scene as a nice thing for the residents to do, or a nice way to reminisce over some songs. With the eyes of our heart opened, we see such worship as being joined to the heavenly worship which is without end.
What a wonderful hope is ours dear friends. Let us hold fast to it, and let us hold fast to it together in the days, weeks, and months to come. Amen