“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).

Advertisements

“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!