“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.

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“Victory From God”

This is a sermon I preached at Emmanuel Reformed Church in Springfield, SD on Sunday, May 21, 2017.

This morning’s reading:

Exodus 17:8-16

Our new life in Christ sets us against the grain of the world.

In Christ’s resurrection from the dead, we are given sure proof of God’s great victory over sin and death, and of our freedom from everything in us that is bent towards sin and death. We are free, journeying to freedom.

But our enemy wants us back. The grave will not give back its dead without a fight. Our past selves will strive to keep their hold on us. The Amalekites were devoted to the destruction of God’s people, Israel. In the same way, there are forces at work in this world that resent and resist the freedom that God has given us! The grain of this world – that God created good – has become warped toward death in rebellion against its Creator. When Christ willingly offered himself up to death, and then conquered that death in his resurrection, we became new creations with Christ, set against the grain of this fallen world. The very grain of the world resists us as we journey into freedom in Christ, along with the more aggressive rebellion of our own sinful selves still kicking and screaming to exert themselves, and of “[our] adversary, the devil,” who “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

Take heart, Easter People: “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world” (1 John 4:4). Israel had faced the wrath of the Egyptians and the terror of the Red Sea, impossible hunger and incredible thirst in the vast wilderness, and now the attack of an ages-old enemy. And God gave them the victory.

The victory that is ours in Christ’s death and resurrection is ours now, but we know that our enemies are still at work. God defeats the Amalekites here, but the Amalekites continue to attack and torment the Israelites for generations. Christ’s hand is on the throne, and He reigns absolutely, but the enemies of sin, self, and the devil are not yet fully defeated. And so we are called to battle.

God’s victory frees us to be vulnerable with each other in His presence.

When God calls His people to fight, he calls Moses to the top of a nearby hill to pray, interceding for Israel with arms outstretched. We saw last week how God invited Moses to make himself vulnerable, exposing himself to the anger of the Israelites, and God did the same, making Himself vulnerable and open to Moses; and the Israelites were saved. We see the same thing this morning: Moses vulnerably displays his physical weakness in this challenging posture of prayer. And when he can no longer hold his arms up himself, he asks for help. And in this simple act of vulnerable prayer, the Israelites are saved.

It is one thing to practice being fully vulnerable to God in our prayers when we are alone; it is another thing altogether to practice being fully vulnerable to God in prayer with others.

We resist and reject vulnerability as a people, and consequently, we are more anxious, more alone, and more addicted than any other generation ever. We experience the world as more terrifying, more divided, and more hostile every day, and our natural reaction is to defend ourselves, or to numb ourselves, or to close ourselves off. But God has already conquered the world in Christ. God calls us, then, to live into that victory against the grain of this world, against the grain of our own sinful selves, and to experience the reality of His complete victory in the most unexpected, surprising way. Rather than barricade ourselves in our homes or our church, and take up arms against the world, God calls us out of our self-made security, and invites us to be vulnerable with each other in His presence. That’s what we see Moses doing here; and, even more, that’s what we see Jesus doing his whole life with us on earth.

If Christ is truly alive, and if Christ is true to his word that he is with us where two or three are gathered (Matthew 18:20), then any time we are with each other, we are in the presence of the Risen Christ, who knows our whole hearts. When we hide from each other, or posture with each other, or close ourselves off from each other, we also close ourselves off from Christ. This must not be. When you pray with others – the church, a small group, your family, a few close friends, or as a couple – you enter into the presence of the Risen Christ together. That same Christ has died to set you free, and has risen from the dead as a guarantee of your complete freedom from sin and shame. When we pray together with that victory of Christ in our hearts and minds, our prayers take on a new quality. We can pray boldly, with courage and confidence, without fear or doubt or reservations. We can also pray with quiet humility, recognizing that Christ is on the throne, and we are not; we do not know best what we need, and we do not know best what others need, but God who knows us and loves us does, and we can humbly bring ourselves and each other into Christ’s presence, trusting that God will continue to take care of all our needs according to His great wisdom and power.

As we practice this kind of prayer, our hearts and lives change from the inside out. The more we become aware of the power of Christ’s Spirit within us, praying always on our behalf, and the more we join our spirits with Christ’s Spirit in that kind of quiet, confident, vulnerable prayer together, the more we will become the new people that Christ is calling us and leading us to become: a people for his own possession, a people who reflect his presence and purpose to the fallen, groaning world, and a people of priests, bringing not only ourselves into God’s presence, but others as well, others who need to experience the God’s power to redeem, restore, and reconcile all things to Himself through Christ.

Therefore:

Be prepared. You’re up against far more than you can handle on your own. Take all the help you can get, every weapon God has issued, so that when it’s all over but the shouting you’ll still be on your feet. Truth, righteousness, peace, faith, and salvation are more than words. Learn how to apply them. You’ll need them throughout your life. God’s Word is an indispensable weapon. In the same way, prayer is essential in this ongoing warfare. Pray hard and long. Pray for your brothers and sisters. Keep your eyes open. Keep each other’s spirits up so that no one falls behind or drops out.

Ephesians 6:13-18, The Message

“Water from the Rock”

This is a sermon I preached at Emmanuel Reformed Church in Springfield, SD on Sunday, May 14, 2017. Though I preached this on Mother’s Day, this is not a sermon specifically for mothers; that being said, I pray mothers will find “good news” in this passage of Scripture, and this sermon.

This morning’s reading:

Exodus 17:1-7

When Christ our Lord was raised from death, and walked out of His tomb in glory, a new kind of life was revealed on this earth: a life that was dazzling in its purity, and impervious to death and fatigue. And, grace upon grace!, this newness of life that we see in the Risen Christ has been shared with us, made accessible to us, as we live in Christ. It’s the simplest prayer we pray when we begin our life-long journey in Christ, that we ask the Risen Lord Jesus into our hearts. And through His Holy Spirit, Christ answers, and His impossible Life takes up residence within us.

At that moment that Christ began to abide in you through His Holy Spirit, God began to accomplish His mission in your life – to redeem, restore, and reconcile you (and all things) to Himself. At that moment, you also began to abide in Christ, as He led you out of our own personal Egypts, your slavery to the stain of sin, the tyranny of the devil, and the patterns of this world.

And it may be, then, that, like the Israelites, who had experienced that same kind of deliverance from evil and slavery at the hands of our faithful and powerful God, we find newness of life to be mostly difficult. The Israelites were literally starting over: they had only what they could carry with them as they journeyed through a barren and challenging wilderness, following daily the real presence of God on earth, a pillar of fire and cloud, with whom they could communicate through their God-appointed intermediary, Moses. If you examine your experience of this new life in Christ, it maybe hasn’t felt like perfect peace and rest; maybe you’ve found that new life in Christ has felt more like dry, weary wandering in harsh landscapes of God’s distant silence. Many Christians today might say as much. For that reason, I think it’s true what G. K. Chesterton wrote:

“The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

But if you have tried, if you have truly set out on this journey toward the goal – the complete salvation that awaits us in the Risen Christ when He returns, and we shall finally and fully be made like Him: fully human, perfectly reflecting God’s glory, completely reconciled to God and to each other – then hear Israel’s story at the Rock, where God poured Himself out to His people in extravagant, self-giving love, as your peace and your encouragement this morning.

God leads us to dry, desolate places to bring us to Himself.

God leads His chosen, beloved people to a place where there is no water, once again placing them in an impossible situation — beyond what they can bear — in order to see whether or not they will look to Him, for whom all things are possible. We see that they do not. Rather than learn from their past experiences in the wilderness and come to God in faith, they do what they always do when they get anxious: they complain. They blame Moses of poor leadership. And this time, they go so far as to threaten to stone Moses if he does not make water appear in the desert.

Of course, when we find ourselves in impossible circumstances, we also tend to react in predictable patterns, and those patterns are rarely patient, reasonable, or constructive. The experiences of Israel are recorded here for us as a negative example: see what these people did, and do differently! Instead of reacting anxiously and angrily and violently to impossible circumstances, choose to respond differently. We can read this story and shake our heads, because we can see that the Israelites obviously should have prayed. God’s presence was plainly visible to them in the cloud; why did they not simply ask God for what they needed? He had already provided for them in the wilderness; why would they not have the faith to trust Him to provide for them again? But if we rebuke the Israelites for their little faith, then we must also rebuke ourselves. As we journey together on this difficult, dry journey into new life in Christ, how often do we find ourselves in our own impossible circumstances, and react in the same faithless patterns? Do we not also do everything we can in our own power first, complaining and blaming all the while, and only think to pray as a last resort?

The test of faith we find here in this story is to structure our lives, now that they have been renewed in the resurrection of Christ Jesus, to anticipate the obstacles ahead of us on this new life journey – the temptations and difficulties and burdens that we know we will face – and to endure those dry places with prayerful perseverance.

Prayer is our first and greatest resource in our new life.

God answers the needs of the Israelites dramatically. Where Moses is afraid of the people’s violent anger against him, God calls Moses to make himself vulnerable, and expose himself to their anger by walking calmly before the people, showing them what radical faith looks like. And God does the same! He tells Moses that He will stand on the Rock, so that when Moses strikes it with his staff, it will be God Himself who is struck, and He will pour Himself out to provide for the needs of His people. This is a shocking picture of prayer. God invites us to come to Him, making ourselves vulnerable, exposing our need and our insufficiency and our fear; and God promises to meet us in prayer with that same vulnerability, making Himself open to all of who we are: our anger, our doubt, our fear, our accusations. God is not threatened or afraid of your emotions; He stands ready to meet with you in your need. And He will answer your every need out of His own infinite riches.

The journey into Christ-likeness is not guaranteed to be easy. Quite the opposite. You are being invited to live an impossibly good life in a world that is committed to destroying itself. If you agree, and you set out on this journey anew each morning, you will experience dry places of want surrounded by people who are satisfying themselves on the things of this world; you will experience lonely places surrounded by people who seem to experiencing connection and belonging in the broken systems of this world; you will experience vulnerable places of exposure surrounded by people making themselves seem strong and successful and impervious to danger. And in those dry, lonely, vulnerable places, God is with you, abiding in you through His Holy Spirit, and He invites you to abide in Him, and He will satisfy your soul.

If it is true of you that “The Christian ideal” – the Risen Christ Himself – “has not been tried,” because “It has been found difficult;” then I can only say that it is the difficult things in this life that are most worth doing. I offer you, as encouragement and exhortation, the testimony of the Apostle Paul:

“But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith — that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers [and sisters], I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. 

Philippians 3:7-14

Brothers and sisters, “press on toward the goal” – the promised land of resurrection from the dead in the coming kingdom of the Risen Christ Jesus. Press on, drawing your life from the Rock, who is Christ (1 Corinthians 10:4). As you do – abiding in Christ as Christ abides in you, the dry and desperate world will see and know that the Risen and reigning Lord is truly among us.