Curiosity, not Certainty

In this cacophony, here’s what I’m getting:

These constant, consecutive instances of outrage over race make me feel guilty for being white, which I can’t help, no more than black people can help being black.

(I know enough about white privilege to recognize that’s not the problem, and that we white people can only think in those individual terms, instead of seeing the racist social systems in which we participate, is in large part the problem).

And despite what I know, I feel guilty helplessly. That makes me angry, which is bad, so I get defensive.

I’m seeing lots and lots of people in my circles feeling defensive about race/racism, and rightly so. Now is exactly the time to have these conversations. But I’m not seeing conversations. I’m seeing angry people, like me, anxiously publishing their defense: either, “I’m not racist!?! They’re their own problem!” or, “They’re problems are our fault! We need to do something!”

Both of these, I think, are instinctual, defensive reactions, to armor ourselves against how vulnerable this conversation makes us (white people) feel. This reaction is normal, real, human. While it is normal, it is not helpful.

Instead of armoring myself, asserting my defense, and then moving on, I want to quiet my defensiveness so I can stay curious and listen.

Am I racist?

What am I guilty of in this, if anything?

How am I unwittingly contributing to the problem of racism in our country?

What do I need to know, that I clearly don’t? Who does know?

I’m learning. And learning means listening in the vulnerability of not knowing. I can see two truths simultaneously: I am only one person in a large, complicated world; and, because I participate daily in multiple interconnected systems, I have a far bigger impact on the world than I can see. My actions (and inaction) have consequences.

I’m writing all this, not to shut down conversation, but to invite it.

I’m writing all this, because until I do, I cannot finish writing my sermon for tomorrow, about the Spirit’s authority in my life and in the church.

I’m writing all this — after not writing anything here for far too long — because I’m trying to believe that what I think about this actually matters right now, if only to me.

“God’s Rest”


Today’s Reading: Hebrews 3:7-4:11

When Christ speaks, we must listen, and obey.

We’re still only beginning our study through the letter to the Hebrews. This passage is part of the letter’s introduction. To grasp the significance of these words, remember how the letter opens:

In these last days [God] has spoken to us by His Son, whom He appointed the heir of all things, through whom also He created the world.

Hebrews 1:2

If that is true, which we hold it is, then all that follows is also true: first, that Christ is superior to angels, who are God’s divine messengers (Hebrews 1); and second, as we read last week, that Christ is superior to Moses, who was God’s greatest earthly messenger before Christ (Hebrews 3:1-6). Because Christ who became flesh is superior to angels, the writer of Hebrews exhorts us to great confidence because our Great Christ has established us as His earthly family in His name (Hebrews 2). In the same way, because Christ who became flesh is superior to Moses, the writer of Hebrews exhorts us be more faithful to Christ than the Israelites were to Moses. Our charge is clear: if God has spoken to us in these days by His own Son, Jesus Christ, then we must listen.

To that end, the writer of Hebrews gives us a sermon on Psalm 95:7: “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.” God is speaking to us in Christ. Today. By His Holy Spirit. “Do not harden your hearts.”

The writer of Hebrews, in writing to Jewish Christians, capitalizes on their ethnic-religious history for rhetorical effect, by recounting episodes of their ancestors’ many rebellions: testing God through their grumbling, disobeying him at every turn, and retreating from God’s land of promise, rather than entering it with courage.

The radical distrust and disobedience of Israel had consequences. Namely, Israel wandered 40 years in the wilderness while generations passed away without seeing God’s land of promise, without entering God’s rest.

The writer of Hebrews writes to say that the opposite is just as true. If we live in radical trust and radical obedience, we enter God’s rest.

We enter rest through radical trust, and radical obedience.

Belief and Obedience. These are the key. Belief is familiar to us. Our churches structure themselves for belief. We understand “belief” to mean our ideas about God, what our minds know and hold true. But the “belief” that the writer of Hebrews is writing about, the “belief” that his audience, the Jewish Christians, understood that they were to practice, is more than a matter of the mind. “Belief” as the Bible presents it, “belief” as God calls us to practice, is about surrendering all of who we are, trusting all of who we know God to be. This goes beyond knowing about God’s faithfulness, or His mercy, or His goodness, or His love. This deep, abiding belief is about knowing God’s faithfulness, knowing God’s mercy, knowing God’s goodness, knowing God’s steadfast love, firsthand. That kind of belief gives us the confidence to entrust ourselves to God, and know His rest.

But belief without obedience is not enough (James 1:17). As the writer of Hebrews writes, it was the disobedience of the Jews that excluded them from God’s rest. To enter and experience the same Sabbath rest that God knows as ruler of all things, we must practice radical obedience. That sounds counter-intuitive. Obedience sounds like work. Rest sounds like the opposite of work. So how does obedience bring us rest?

First, we need a greater understanding of obedience. As the writer of Hebrews presents it here, disobedience is the natural outworking of a heart hardened to God’s message of grace, and to God’s messenger, Christ Jesus. With a hard heart, the message and the Messenger are rebuffed, with no gained understanding or acceptance or change. That is why, when we hear Christ speaking God’s grace to us, we are charged repeatedly not to harden our hearts. Obedience, then, is the natural outworking of the new heart that God has put in us by His Holy Spirit. That new heart, soft and ready, hears Christ’s voice and naturally moves to do what He says, bearing the fruit of the Spirit and the harvest of righteousness.

Second, we need a greater understanding of the rest that God enjoys, the rest that God offers us. When God finished creating the heavens and the earth and all that live and move in them, God rested (Genesis 2:2). The record of the seventh day in Genesis 2 does not mention evening or morning, as on the first six days, suggesting that God’s rest persists even still. But we also know that God continues to work: upholding and sustaining all things, governing all things, and working all things for good. Scripture even goes so far as to say that God “neither slumbers nor sleeps” (Psalm 121:4). And yet, the writer of Hebrews writes as the Holy Spirit inspires him: that “there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from His” (Hebrews 4:10). God’s rest is the ongoing, abiding peace that He alone knows, because of His completion and enjoyment of what He has created good. Even now, as the world is fallen and bent toward destruction and division, God knows perfect peace and rest because He knows how this all ends: in the redemption, restoration, and reconciliation of all things in Him.

Put together, then, the good news in Christ is that God’s rest is open to us now. Certainly, we will experience the fullness of God’s divine, cosmic rest at the end of all things, when all things are made new, and our renewed selves will enjoy perfect peace with God (Revelation 14:13). But God’s rest – the same rest He enjoyed after completing the task of creation – is ours even now if we cease living our own lives our own ways for our own sakes. When we cease our work, and take up Christ’s work, we find true rest, true peace.

If you long for rest for your spirit this morning; if you find yourself “weary and heavy laden” from living on your own strength; if you feel the burden of a heart hardened by indifference or even rebellion toward God, then Jesus invites you:

“Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you’ll recover your life. I’ll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you’ll learn to live freely and lightly.”

Matthew 11:28-30, MSG

True rest is available to you: Listen to Jesus speaking to you by His Holy Spirit each moment; trust God deeply, entrusting yourself fully to His faithful care; and work to follow Christ’s commands and obey His voice. Do not harden your hearts: Hear Christ, Trust Christ, Obey Christ, “and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29).

“Christ over Moses”

The following is the manuscript for a sermon I preached in Emmanuel Reformed Church on Sunday, July 9, 2017, as part of our worship and preaching series through the New Testament Letter “To the Hebrews.”  Thank You for Reading!

Today’s Reading: Hebrews 3:1-6

Moses was God’s faithful prophet and priest in his time.

The letter to the Hebrews is an intensely Christian letter: Christ is its beginning and end, and its message throughout. And this letter is written to a Christian congregation, a small group of believers who are saved by faith through grace. But these Christians were also Jews by birth and by education and by religious upbringing, and as Jews, they have been raised to view Moses in a particular way.

As God’s chosen prophet, Moses holds the highest status in the Hebrew faith. According to Hebrew tradition, Moses received the Law – the first five books of our Old Testament – from God verbatim. Moses met with God as a friend, face to face (Exodus 33:11). After these conversations with God, Moses’ face was illuminated, radiating the glory of God (Exodus 34:29-30, 34-35; cf. 2 Corinthians 3:7-18). In the Jewish mind, Moses’ relationship with God was the most intimate, most open, most dear, that any human has had with God, after Adam and Eve fell into sin (Deuteronomy 34:10-12).

This high view of Moses was likely held by the Jewish Christians to whom this letter was written. And it is for that reason, as the letter opens and the writer of Hebrews is building his case for the absolute supremacy, centrality, and sufficiency of Jesus Christ, that the writer needs to present Moses, as important as he was, as insufficient for salvation.  Yes, Moses was faithful to his calling in his time and place. Moses was God’s prophet, and, in terms of his intimate relationship with God, Moses also functioned as God’s priest, interceding between God and His people. But the writer of this letter also sees that Moses was himself in need of salvation, the salvation that only comes to us through Christ. Moses saw a glimpse of that salvation that was to come, and was faithful to present as much of that glimpse as he was given.

Christ is our Prophet and Priest. We must look to Him.

But what Moses only glimpsed, we see fully, clearly, completely, in Christ! That is why the writer charges us to “consider Jesus.” “Consider” here doesn’t mean to evaluate Jesus according to our standards to see whether he is worthy of our attention; this “consider” doesn’t mean to weigh Jesus as one option among many, equally valid options for salvation. “Consider” here means to fix our entire attention on Jesus, and learn from what we see. It’s the same “consider” that Jesus himself uses when he says:

“Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! …

“Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith!”

Luke 12:24, 27-28

When we “consider Jesus,” we are devoting our attention to him, in such a way that we learn about the true spiritual reality he has brought us into, and how we are to enter into that reality and live more fully within it. That spiritual reality, according to Jesus, is one of complete providence, being entirely cared for by God: so we live more and more by faith, trusting in God’s care. This kind of “considering” is what James has in mind when we exhorts us to be hearers and doers:

“For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.”

James 1:23-24

James uses the same Greek word, “consider,” ironically here; as in: It would be absolute foolishness to spend time to “consider” your appearance – to fix your attention on it in a way that changes your life – only to forget what you look like when you walk away from the mirror. To “consider Jesus” as the writer of Hebrews exhorts us, we must study and meditate and ruminate on the life and work and words and identity of Jesus, and then alter our lives, our work, our words, our identity to match what we see. When we “consider” Jesus, we are to hear who Jesus is, and do what we hear.

The writer of Hebrews charges us to “consider” two specific aspects of Christ’s character. First, that he is our prophet, or Apostle, sent by God to reveal to us the truth that we could never discover by ourselves; that, second, Christ is also our high priest, who has offered himself as the perfect sacrifice for our sins, that we may receive eternal life from God. When we “consider Jesus” – especially as “our chief Prophet and Teacher, who has fully revealed to us the secret counsel and will of God concerning our redemption,” And, “our only High Priest, who by the one sacrifice of his body has redeemed us, and who continually intercedes for us before the Father” (HC Q&A 31) – we discover all we need for our salvation.

It is tempting for us, as we mature in our faith, to look for new doctrines, deeper theologies, and more complex aspects of Scripture. But we are always beginners with God, and no matter how mature we become in our faith, we are always growing up into Christ (Ephesians 4:15-16), always called to focus all our attention always on Christ (Colossians 3:1-4), specifically – as we read two weeks ago – Christ crucified.

Christ Holds us Fast. He is our Perseverance.

For this reason the writer of Hebrews encourages us this morning to “hold fast our confidence, and our boasting in hope” (Hebrews 3:6). By this perseverance in faith, we show that we are God’s household, his sons and daughters, co-heirs with Christ our prophet and priest. As I said, the letter to the Hebrews holds forth Christ at every paragraph; and in holding forth Christ, the writer calls us to persevere, to press on in faith, seeing the person and work of Jesus for us. In Christ alone is our sure salvation, such that nothing can shake us from his hand. That is our confidence.

The Reformed church has called this confidence, this assurance that is ours in Christ, “the Perseverance of the Saints.” Yes, we are called to give every effort and attention to our own perseverance in faith, holding fast to what we believe, to Him whom we confess. But even more importantly, Christ holds fast to us. This Christian life is all grace, all pure gift to us. And the same gift that saved us carries us throughout this life until we come to our goal, eternal life with God.

Article 14: God’s Use of Means in Perseverance (Canons of Dort, Point 5)

And, just as it has pleased God to begin this work of grace in us by the proclamation of the gospel, so God preserves, continues, and completes this work by the hearing and reading of the gospel, by meditation on it, by its exhortations, threats, and promises, and also by the use of the sacraments.

God holds us fast in Christ. When this life threatens, and the world seems on the brink of collapse, our hope is sure, “that He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6). We find our comfort in that promise, in that perseverance that God in Christ is working in us. But we also find our calling there as well. In the midst of fear and doubt and worry, we are to “consider Jesus,” to fix our attention more and more on His character, and His cross. We do that together every week, as we gather to worship, to hear the gospel proclaimed anew, and meditate on its truth, its exhortations, its promises, for us. We also “consider Jesus” clearly this morning in the sacrament of communion, where the real spiritual presence of Christ is shown to us once more in the bread broken and the cup poured. As we prepare to gather around Christ’s Table, let us “consider Jesus, the Apostle and High Priest of our confession, who was faithful to Him who appointed him,” and “has been counted worthy” because he “is faithful over God’s house[hold] as a son.” Receive again Christ Jesus, and hold fast to the assurance that “you yourselves like living stones are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). All this God is working in you for His honor and glory; receive this good news, and live.

“God Will See to It”

The following is the manuscript for a sermon I preached on Sunday, July 2nd, at a community worship service in Springfield, SD, celebrating the United States’ Independence Day weekend.

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it the people of old received their commendation….

“By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God.

“By faith Sarah herself received power to conceive, even when she was past the age, since she considered Him faithful who had promised. Therefore from one man, and him as good as dead, were born descendants as many as the stars of heaven and as many as the innumerable grains of sand by the seashore.

“These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for He has prepared for them a city.”

~ Hebrews 11:1, 8-16 (ESV)

The writer of Hebrews holds up faith as our great comfort in this world, as we wait for the return of our Savior, the fulfillment of our hope, and the restoration of all things. According to Hebrews 11:1, our faith is more than a set of ideas we think about God; Faith is “assurance,” “conviction.” Faith is an utter and complete trust in what has been promised us, and – more specifically – in WHO has promised. We have been promised salvation: our full and final redemption, restoration, and reconciliation to God. God Himself has promised this, and His promises are sure. So our faith is sure. For this reason, the writer of Hebrews views our faith as our citizenship in that new reality that is to come, where we and all things are redeemed, restored, and reconciled to God.

We gather here this morning, celebrating our nation’s independence, grateful to God for making us citizens of this free nation. But, even more, we rejoice in our faith that grants us citizenship in the world to come. Faith is simultaneously our belonging in a world that is not yet here, and our daily reminder that we are “strangers and exiles on the earth…seeking a homeland…a better country…a heavenly one.”

The writer of Hebrews sees this faith on display in one more story from Abraham’s life:

“By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac, and he who had received the promises was in the act of offering up his only son, of whom it was said, “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back.”

~ Hebrews 11:17-19 (ESV)

To fully consider this episode of Abraham’s life, hear it read from Genesis 22:1-14:

After all this, GOD tested Abraham. GOD said, “Abraham!”

“Yes?” answered Abraham. “I’m listening.”

He said, “Take your dear son Isaac whom you love and go to the land of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I’ll point out to you.”

Abraham got up early in the morning and saddled his donkey. He took two of his young servants and his son Isaac. He had split wood for the burnt offering. He set out for the place GOD had directed him.

On the third day he looked up and saw the place in the distance. Abraham told his two young servants, “Stay here with the donkey. The boy and I are going over there to worship; then we’ll come back to you.”

Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and gave it to Isaac his son to carry. He carried the flint and the knife. The two of them went off together.

Isaac said to Abraham his father, “Father?”

“Yes, my son.”

“We have flint and wood, but where’s the sheep for the burnt offering?”

Abraham said, “Son, GOD will see to it that there’s a sheep for the burnt offering.” And they kept on walking together.

They arrived at the place to which GOD had directed him. Abraham built an altar. He laid out the wood. Then he tied up Isaac and laid him on the wood. Abraham reached out and took the knife to kill his son.

Just then an angel of GOD called to him out of Heaven, “Abraham! Abraham!”

“Yes, I’m listening.”

“Don’t lay a hand on that boy! Don’t touch him! Now I know how fearlessly you fear GOD; you didn’t hesitate to place your son, your dear son, on the altar for me.”

Abraham looked up. He saw a ram caught by its horns in the thicket. Abraham took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son.

Abraham named that place GOD-Yireh (God-Sees-to-It). That’s where we get the saying, “On the mountain of GOD, He sees to it.”

After reading this story summarized so simply by the writer of Hebrews, as a story of Abraham’s exemplary faith in the midst of testing, it would be easy for us to read this as a simple story. It is anything but.

God has chosen Abraham to be His covenant partner, that through Abraham’s descendants God would bring a Savior for not only Abraham’s descendants, but for all humanity. God has reiterated that promise, and His covenant relationship with Abraham on a number of occasions. And that promise seemed to be fulfilled in the unlikely birth of his son Isaac, through whom God’s promise would ultimately be fulfilled. And in spite of that promise, on which all of Abraham’s faith was founded, God now asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the son of the promise.

At the heart of this story is the apparent conflict between God’s promise and God’s command. That is Abraham’s test: to trust that the God who chose him and called him and blessed him could not be his enemy, but would work all things for good. The writer of Hebrews understands that Abraham’s trust in God was so complete that he looked to God even to raise Isaac from the dead to fulfill His promise to Abraham.

Abraham’s faith in God’s goodness, God’s trustworthiness, God’s faithfulness, is profound. From the moment God speaks to Abraham, summoning him to Mt. Moriah to sacrifice his only, beloved son, through the three long days of travel he has with his son, until the moment he holds the knife over his bound son, Abraham is sure of what he hopes for, and convinced of what he cannot see: that God will make good on His word. At the same time, Abraham bears within his heart all the emotional turmoil, and the confused, fearful thoughts, of a father about to lose his child. For those of us familiar with this story, we read with the end in mind, that Isaac lives, and God provides a ram for the sacrifice – as Abraham had faith He would. But we cannot too quickly pass over the terrible burden of grief, of guilt, of anger, of fear, that Abraham bore in his heart and mind and soul and body for the three days that this test lasted.

We must ask, I think, why God would ask this of Abraham? The verses following the story give us a clue into the mind of God. After Abraham passes the test, God’s angel once again repeats God’s covenant promise to Abraham, that because Abraham was completely faithful to God – even in giving up his only son – that God would be completely faithful to Abraham, to bless Abraham with a countless multitude of descendants, and that through them, all the nations of the earth would be blessed.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us that we can see what Abraham only glimpsed! We can see, as we consider the whole Story, just how faithful God was to that promise! Yes, Abraham’s descendants grew to be one of the great ancient nations of the world, but even more important for the fulfillment of this promise, we see how — through the line of Abraham – God chose to bring into this world His only, beloved Son, Jesus Christ.

And this, I think, is the more important reason that God asked this horrific thing of Abraham. God invited Abraham to better understand the depths of His faithfulness. To be faithful to this promise, God would have to go through with the very horror from which he spared Abraham. Thousands of years after Abraham, on this same mountaintop, God would endure his own, beloved Son Jesus to be bound – not to an stone altar, but to a wooden cross – and God would sacrifice His only, beloved Son as the perfect Lamb, to take away the sins of the whole world.

Abraham was invited to Mt. Moriah to get a glimpse of the costly salvation that would come through his children. When Isaac began to see that something was missing, Abraham’s answer of faith spoke volumes: “God will see to it that there’s a sheep for the burnt offering.” God saw to it that day, sparing Isaac; and God saw to it on the cross, sacrificing His beloved Son, Jesus Christ, for you.

What is asked of us, in response, is faith. The same faith that assured and convinced Abraham that God would be faithful, and work all things for good, is the same faith that we ourselves have received. We have much to be thankful for this morning, as we gather freely to worship our faithful, compassionate, gracious God, in public, in this great country. And we are thankful for the men and women who have offered up their lives in protection and service of this country, and our freedom. But even as we celebrate our “land of the free, and the home of the brave,” let us not lose sight of our true homeland, that heavenly country for which we wait, of which we are sure, which our living Savior Jesus Christ – whom “God was able even to raise…from the dead” – has even now gone to prepare for us, of which God has laid the foundations in eternity. Our faith in Christ Jesus is our access, our belonging, our citizenship, in that eternal, heavenly country, which our faithful God has provided for us: thanks be to God!