“God’s Rest”

THE FOLLOWING IS THE MANUSCRIPT FOR A SERMON I PREACHED IN EMMANUEL REFORMED CHURCH ON SUNDAY, JULY 16, 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 3:7-4:11

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).

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“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.

“Christ Supreme”

This is the manuscript for a sermon I preached at Emmanuel Reformed Church (Springfield, SD) on Sunday, June 18, 2017. This sermon serves as the introduction to Emmanuel Reformed’s summer/fall preaching series through the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews

Introducing Hebrews

We know very little about the the author of this letter “To the Hebrews.” We can be fairly sure that the writer isn’t Paul. Paul makes himself known in his letters. The author of Hebrews does not tell us his (or her) name. We don’t know his name, but we do know his heart. The writer of Hebrews is a pastor, one who is deeply familiar with the Old Testament, and with Jesus Christ, and with the concerns and pressures of his audience, the church he’s writing to.

The audience of this letter, “the Hebrews,” are exactly that: Jewish Christians living in and around the city of Rome during the peak of violent persecution against Christians. This is another reason we can be pretty sure the writer isn’t Paul: Paul’s calling and mission was to Gentiles, not to Jewish Christians.

Imagine a house church or small congregation of Jews who have converted to Christianity – maybe were even present in Jerusalem at Pentecost, baptized with the water and the Spirit. These Jewish Christians have the Holy Spirit within them, and a solid understanding of the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, but little else. And now they are being persecuted in Rome, racially as Jews and religiously as Christians. Ancient Rome was a pluralist society, meaning that many different cultures – and religions – were practiced and protected equally. That sounds like it should mean that Christians would have been equally safe and free to worship Jesus Christ, but we know that it wasn’t. Christians became Public Enemy Number One in Rome, and for this house church of Jewish Christians, their anxious reaction was to withdraw from the world and from each other, and potentially even to surrender their faith entirely, choosing instead to merely blend in to the world around them. This letter is written to these Christians, to encourage them in the faith and urge them to persevere.

This morning’s reading: Hebrews 1

Christ is Lord

To encourage Christians and assure their faith, the writer of Hebrews holds forth Christ. Specifically, we read here that Christ is God. According to the first verses of this letter to the Hebrews, Jesus Christ is:

  • the inheritor of all things,
  • the creator of all things, and
  • the sustainer of all things.

Christ, the Son of God, has been given all authority over all things by God the Father. That is what we mean when we confess that Christ is Lord. Christ has all authority over all of me, and over all of everything.

This confession in Christ alone is the reason that Christians were so unwelcome and untrusted in pluralist Rome: in a society that insists everyone is free to worship however and whomever they choose, where everyone is equally “tolerated,” the only intolerable person is the one who says they have the right answer for everyone. If Christ is Lord, as all of Scripture says, then Christ is Lord of all. This technically means that Christians today still hold an “intolerant” position, if the dominant alternative narrative is that there is no Truth, only many equally valid belief options. That’s the world’s best solution for human peace on human terms. The best we can do for ourselves as humans is to simply “get along;” and according to the world, the first thing that has to go – if we’re all going to “get along” – is any absolute Truth claims, any position that one person can assert over another. The irony of this pluralism, of course, is that it is itself an absolute Truth claim: “all humans must tolerate and accept all humans equally if there is to be peace; and if you disagree, we can’t tolerate or accept you.” That’s the driving story that our world is still living by.

The writer of Hebrews – Thanks be to God! – has immersed himself in a different story, a story that holds forth real, lasting, substantial peace! Jesus Christ is the full revelation of a new way, the perfect image and imprint of His Father, who is at work in the world to redeem, restore and reconcile the world to Himself.

In Rome, that story was unwelcome. The Pax Romana (“Roman Peace”) was threatened by this story of divine peace, found in the person and work of Jesus Christ. This house church was therefore under pressure to change their story: “Just say that Jesus was another angel, a created divine being. We have lots of those, and we’ll welcome another!” At the outset of this letter, the writer of Hebrews insists that Christ is far more than any angel, according to the witness of all of the Hebrew Bible; and to say otherwise is to exchange the hard truth for an easy lie. No, the writer of Hebrews offers only Christ as the foundation of our faith, and the reason for our hope.

Christ is our High Priest

In Christ we see God’s solution for peace, peace beyond human understanding. We read in verse 3 a small phrase full of meaning: “After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” Jesus Christ came as our Great High Priest to do what no human priest has ever done before: to offer one sacrifice for all people in all places at all times, that all sin might be washed away forever. Jesus Christ is also that sacrifice, offering his own sinless blood as the perfect atonement for sin, reconciling us to God the Father.

Our story offers us a peace so complete, so perfect, that no danger or threat can shake us. In Christ our Lord, we are brought into right relationship with God the Father almighty; in Christ our Lord, we are also brought into right relationship with all those who also in Christ our Lord. We are adopted as sons and daughters into a spiritual family that transcends and includes all races, all nations, all languages, all peoples. Christ has made peace – true peace – possible. The world’s best hope — apart from Christ — is “keeping the peace.” Christ actively makes peace. This peace we find in Jesus Christ is our hope for this world, and for the world to come.

And that is the main theme of this letter: the Supremacy of Christ. God has made His Son Jesus Christ first and highest over everything, that everything might be restored and renewed and reconciled in Him. We will read this throughout the book of Hebrews, but it’s laid out clearly here: Christ is first, greatest, highest, Ruler and Reconciler of all.

And with Christ, our Lord and our Savior, so highly exalted, our peace and our hope is sure. We will see throughout this Letter to the Hebrews how we are therefore called to persevere in hope, knowing that our Lord Jesus Christ is not only our Savior in the past, and our Lord for the future, but also our Priest in the present, praying even now for us at the right hand of God the Father. Thanks be to God for the precious gift of His Son for us, and for our salvation. Amen!

“Renewing the Covenant” – Ezra

This morning is the fourth and last Sunday of Advent, and we’re wrapping up our sermon series “A Priest Forever,” looking at Old Testament priests and how they point forward to Jesus Christ, our High Priest. This morning we consider Ezra, one of the last great priests before Jesus Christ’s arrival.

The books of Ezra and Nehemiah might not be too familiar to you. They’re separate books in our Bibles, but in the Hebrew Bible they are placed together. Ezra-Nehemiah tells the story of Israel’s restoration. After the appointed time in exile, God stirred the spirits of the Persian kings Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes, to give His people favor with these kings, and He did it through men like Daniel, and women like Esther. These kings allowed the Jews to return, to rebuild the city walls and the temple. As they left, God also stirred the spirits of their Babylonian neighbors, and they gave the Jews gifts of gold and silver to use in the restoration. As God’s people arrived at Jerusalem, they began to rebuild their faith first, celebrating the religious festivals again. The priests who came with them started to offer sacrifices again to restore the people’s covenant relationship with God. They rebuilt the temple together, and dedicated it with worship and sacrifice and celebration. But they needed someone to organize and lead these spiritual reforms:

[Read Nehemiah 7:5-10, 9:1-38, 10:28-29]

The Law of God

Ezra is lifted up to us as a man who loved God’s Law. He desired to study it and to obey it, and to teach others to also study it and obey it. And God’s people are in a spiritual state where they are ready and eager to be led by such a man. Ezra and the other priests are asked by the people to regularly stand in public spaces throughout Jerusalem and spend half the day or more reading from God’s Law, the Hebrew “TORAH,” the first five books of our Bible. Now, if I stood reading the first five books of the Bible, and told everyone to come, you might show up, and you would maybe stay through Genesis and Exodus, but as soon as I got to Leviticus, you’d all go home. But God’s people are so eager to hear again what God requires of them that they all come out and stand listening for hours at a time. and they are so cut to the heart by what is read to them that they spend weeks lamenting their sins, wearing rough clothing made from sackcloth and putting ashes on their heads to physically remind them of their spiritual misery.

As Christians, ones in whom the risen and living Christ dwells and delights, we have a complicated relationship with the Old Testament Law. On the one hand, we believe that the commandments and statutes and stories are God’s Word for us and for our salvation; but on the other hand, we have Christ – the Word of God made flesh – living in us through the Holy Spirit, so God’s Law is written on our hearts. That tension in us Christians living in the 21st century is what makes Ezra’s story so compelling to me. Here is a man who loves God’s Law, what many of us find to be antiquated, confusing, and constrictive. Ezra loves it so much that he desires with all his heart to study it, to do it, and to teach it. Where we find a list of meaningless rules, Ezra finds a record of God’s goodness and faithfulness.

The Love of God

The Law of God read correctly reveals to us God’s covenant faithfulness. It also reflects back to us our own faithlessness: all our sinfulness, our shortcomings, our stumblings. Knowing God is holy reminds us that we are sinful; but remembering God is faithful draws us to Him in repentance. No one loves reading Leviticus or Deuteronomy, because we get lost in the ancientness of it, confused about what it means for us in 2016. But the story that is told in those first five books – creation, covenant, deliverance, provision – shows God’s tender compassion and infinite mercy for His people precisely when we are lost in sin. That is why, when God’s people are weeping for their sins, humbling themselves before their holy God, Ezra tells them the story of God at work in their lives and the lives of their fathers and mothers, all the way back to the beginning.

Ezra simply tells them their story. God, in His love, made all things good, and made us in His image to take care of those good things, and to enjoy them with Him. We rebelled. God, in His love, made a covenant with Abraham to begin building a people for Himself through whom He would someday redeem and restore and reconcile all things to Himself. That family that God chose wasn’t perfect, and they got lost. God, in His love, went and found them – over and over again – to bring them back to Himself, so that He could work His full salvation through them someday. Ezra didn’t know how that story would end. We do! We live after Christmas, after Good Friday, after Easter Sunday! We have seen how God’s Story is fulfilled in His Son, Jesus Christ, born as a human baby into this broken, stiff-necked, peculiar family, to save the whole world from the crippling, corrupting power of sin.

That story now belongs to all of us. This isn’t just the story of one small tribe of people living in the Middle East thousands of years ago. God’s plan was to redeem, restore, and reconcile all things, so He sent His Son Jesus for all of us. This story now belongs to all of us. God’s love has reached us, here, in 2016, because His new, renewed covenant of love has been opened to include all who receive Christ Jesus as their Savior and Lord.

So when guilt and shame grab hold of you, accusing you of the sin in your lives, you need an Ezra to come and tell you the story again: God is good and faithful and loving, and He has done for you what you could not do for yourselves, so you could receive what you could not earn on your own. Sin has no power here: you are new creations in His Son Jesus Christ. Live like it. And when you see each other, or your neighbors, or your family members, stuck in their sin, be an Ezra, and tell them the story: This is who we are now because of Christ, not that dead, sin-stained shell you were; Be who you are.

The Priest of God

This is the story that Ezra and all the priests tell God’s people, to comfort them and to call them to new obedience and renewed covenant faithfulness. But notice how they tell the story. The priests weren’t talking to the people. They were talking to God. They prayed their story with God to God, to remind themselves and God that this is how the story goes. It is as if the priests are reminding God – when they need Him to be faithful and good and merciful and steadfast – that God has promised to be faithful and good and merciful and steadfast. They are calling God to be now who He has been before, and who He has promised to be always.

That is a bold prayer. That is a priestly prayer. That is the kind of prayer that Jesus Christ is offering for us all, for you, even now, before the throne of God above. When it feels like God’s not listening, or like He’s far away from you, remember: the crucified and risen Jesus Christ is standing in the throne room of heaven, holding out his nail-pierced hands to His Father, saying, “This is what We do. We save them.” And the Spirit alive in us agrees, praying with groans too deep for words. And God remembers. And we remember: God is faithful, and good, and merciful, and He keeps covenant with us, not for our sake, but because it is His desire that none should perish, but that all might be redeemed, renewed, and reconciled to Him.

Thanks be to God!