Evening Prayer, St. Luke's Chapel, Teusler Hall
May 20, 2012
The Letter to the Hebrews is actually not a letter but a sermon. It was written to be preached in worship. The preacher is addressing a first-century Christian community, a relatively tiny group of believers living in a very big society.
These are people for whom being Christian, living as followers of Christ, has been pretty rough at times. It's cost them. Some members have lost their homes and businesses. Some have gone to prison. Most of them are subject to verbal abuse and ridicule. If nothing else, they get the cold shoulder from most of their non-Christian neighbors.
So there's all sorts of hardship coming from the surrounding society. Being a Christian definitely doesn't win any popularity contests. And it could even bring you loss or harm.
But there's also the hardship that comes just from trying to follow the teachings of Jesus. A few verses back, the preacher is getting at this: "Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holy living without which no one will see the Lord" (Hebrews 12:14).
"Holy living" doesn't mean going up to a mountaintop and fasting for twenty years. That might even be easier, since there's nobody else around to interfere with your holiness!
No, holy living is much more down-to-earth, day-to-day, messy. Striving to get along with everyone, even the jerks! Trying to forgive people who have wronged you. Trying to be considerate and patient with people you meet. Not joining in gossip or bad-mouthing anyone. Giving sexual immorality a wide berth. Using your money and talents to the glory of God. Living simply and not self-indulgently. Taking care of community members who need help. Trying to have some kind of prayer life. Coming together regularly in worship.
Some of those listening to this sermon are genuinely trying to walk the walk. But others are feeling the strain, and are starting to fall away. They're tired of being different, tired of not being accepted or understood. They're tired of trying to live lifestyles that are so out of step with the rest of the world. Frankly, it's a pain in the neck to follow Christ.
The preacher has just mentioned Esau, Jacob's brother, who "sold his birthright for a single meal" (Hebrews 12:16). In other words, Esau missed his chance at eternal blessing just to satisfy his immediate hunger.
We face the same temptation: Of settling for what's easy, what's NOT a pain in the neck, settling for what the rest of the world is doing—and thereby missing our chance at eternal blessing.
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If the March 11 earthquake taught us anything, it taught us that everything in this world can be shaken.
On that day, all the things we normally think we can rely on were gone in an instant. As people in Tohoku left the house that morning, they assumed that they would see their loved ones again. That they would have a bed to sleep in that night. That they would have a car to drive. That there would be gasoline for the car. We all thought we'd be able to use our cell phones. That the train would come, and come on time. That there'd be food in the supermarket. That if you had money, somehow things would work out.
But it turns out that the things all of us normally take for granted are actually very unreliable. One small shift in the earth's crust and—bang, suddenly everything changes. Everything is shaken.
It's the same thing, on a smaller scale, in the hospital. People are going about their normal, everyday lives, when suddenly, with a single word from the doctor, everything is shaken. The whole world comes crashing down.
What happened after March 11, and what I see happening so often in the hospital, is that when everything gets shaken up people realize, maybe for the first time, what we can truly rely on.
And we're surprised to find out that it's mostly the things we can't see that turn out to be the most reliable. Things like courage. Kindness. Hope. Love.
And the most reliable thing, the most rock-solid thing in the whole world is the love of God. No earthquake, no tsunami, no bad news from the doctor, no illness, no even death itself can shake the love God has for us.
The preacher in Hebrews is urging us to hold fast to that love, to let the love of God be both the foundation of our lives and the destination of our lives.
He is speaking so urgently because it is possible for us to refuse God's love. It is a terrifying truth that we can, by our lives, show that God's love means nothing to us. We can live as if God were not there. (Not so many people go around saying "God's love means nothing to me." But lots of us do say that very thing by the way we live our lives.)
The Israelites in Moses' day turned away from God. They showed that His love was, in fact, meaningless to them. They refused His love by refusing to listen to His word of grace. By their own free choice, they wandered for forty years in the wilderness. They died without reaching the promised land of rest.
That option is open to us. We can refuse God's love. We can live our own way, and spend our lives wandering in the wilderness, never really knowing rest.
But if by grace we say "Yes!" to God's love—then nothing can take away from us the blessing that God longs for us to enjoy. Christ on the cross defeated all the forces in the world that would try to rob us of this blessing. So God's eternal blessing is assured—if we just keep on walking by faith on the path towards it.
Even now, we often get glimpses and foretastes of God's eternal blessing. If life with Christ isn't always easy or comfortable, if it makes us different from others, if it's a pain in the neck at times, it also has its rewards. It brings unshakeable peace.
And it is the only thing that can really satisfy the deep longings of the human heart.
But the glimpses and foretastes we enjoy now pale in comparison with the great joy that we will know when we arrive at our true home, "the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem" (Hebrews 12:22).
There, it's going to be a great, unending festival. We will join the angels in singing. And every hardship we faced, every small sacrifice we made, every small act of obedience to Christ, will become a source of delight to us. We will never tire of giving thanks to God, who through the shed blood of His Son made us His friends again, and who by His Holy Spirit gave us the strength and the wisdom to follow the path that brought us home.
"Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe " (Hebrews 12:28-29).