Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Blast From The Past: Sermon: Hebrews 10:19-25

Previously I've blogged old sermons from when I was just starting out preaching. This week I came across five old notebooks and in one of them was this extant sermon, fully handwritten, from a service led by SNYF (Sunday Night Youth Fellowship) in Dromore Cathedral, probably in April 2004.

What was more interesting was that it was a sermon on Hebrews, which is the book I'm currently working on for Fellowship Group and One-to-One Bible studies for the autumn term. Here it is:

This morning, the theme of our service is the church fmaily. By looking primarily at the first reading, from Hebrews, we will see some of the reasons for doing or being church, and the benefits that can come from it. There's a book out called 'Why Bother With Church?' which suggests that 1 million people left church in the 1990s, which is frightening reading.

The passage we're looking at is what I call the 'Let Us' passage. Now, we're not talking about the green thing you put in salads and sandwiches (lettuce), but about the instructions the writer gives us, when five times he says 'Let us.'

The first part of the passage is a summary of the previous chapters teaching on what Christ achieved for us, and how he fulfilled and exceeded the Jewish system of sacrifice. The most holy place was the 'Holy of Holies' in the Jewish Temple, the total presence of God's holiness, and as such, was out of bounds to most people. Only the chief priest, on one day of the year could enter that place, and only by sacrifices. But because of what Jesus did for us on the cross, the new and living way was made for us. Indeed, as Jesus gave up his spirit, 'At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom' (Matthew 27:51). Jesus, because he was the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29), has opened the way for us into the most holy place by his blood.

It is because of this, and only this, that we can therefore draw near to God, and this only through faith. Being able (confidently) to draw near to God (not just once a year as the High Priest did, but all the time) is an immense privilege, but as with anything, privileges bring responsibilities.

We must prepare ourselves spiritually to meet with God, 'having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.' This sprinkling and washing refers to the inward and outward parts of coming to faith. Inwardly, our hearts are sprinkled (with Jesus' blood), to cleanse, just as the Israelites were sprinkled with the blood of the sacrifice when the Old Covenant was confirmed (Exodus 24:8). The outward washing refers to baptism. This inner and outer cleansing is also referred to in Psalm 24: 'Who may ascend the hill of the LORD? Who may stand in his holy place? He who has clean hands and a pure heart.' (Psalm 24:3-4). As Wiersbe comments, 'The New Testament Christian must come to God with a pure heart and a clean conscience. Fellowship with God demands purity.'

The second 'Let us' follows on from the first. The writer says 'Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.' Being in the holy presence of God, by faith, we should next hold unswervingly, doggedly, firmly, to the hope we profess, that is, the hope that arises from our faith. Not that our hope arisees from having faith as such, in and of itself, but that our hope arises from who we have the faith in.

The first readers of the Epistle were Jews who had become Christians. Some were tempted to go back to Judaism, to the old ways, rather than remaining as Christians. Maybe we, sometimes, can be tempted to go back to our previous life, and to forget about our faith. But the writer urges them and us to hold on to the hope we profess (that is, that Jesus gives us eternal life, and is coming back to take us to glory with him) - because of who our faith is in, and the hope that comes from him. Why? Because he who promised is faithful.

Maybe you're thinking to yourself - how does this relate to the church family? The first two 'Let us' directions relate to us as individuals. We can only be saved by having a personal faith in Christ - as has been said, God only has children, not grandchildren. But it is because of the first two that the reason for the church emerges in the last three. As we look at these three, we will consider the following: Why do we come to church? Why do we need church? Is it not possible to be a Christian without belonging to the church?

For the writer to the Hebrews (as well as the other New Testament writers), church is not an optional extra for a believer. Christianity is not a solo sport, nor a spectator sport. While the first two 'Let us' points must be applied individually, they affect others, through the next three 'Let us' directions. Allow me to read them again...

By faith, we become a member of the body of Christ, the church. Sometimes it can be so easy to fous on our own relationship with God (the vertical relationship) that we forget about, or neglect the horizontal relationship with other believers. A Christian is not left on their own in the world against sin, the world, and the devil. God created the church, the ecclesia (called out people) to be His people, the body of Christ who are in battle together.

But why do we need the church, or in other words, why do we need other people? Surely if being a Christian is about our relationship with God, why should we come together? Surely we can read our Bibles and pray at home, on our own, so why bother coming together?

The reason we meet together is that meeting together is essential for our strength and for our Christian faith. Church is essential because it is, or should be, the place of encouragement and support, as we spur one another on towards love and good deeds.

This idea of encouragement (by encouraging one another) was also evident in the second drama, based on 1 Corinthians 12. 'If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honoured, every part rejoices with it.' Here we see the church in action, supporting one another. This interdependence, or every helping, supporting, encouraing each other is a key part of SNYF's vision, and that of the church, as expressed in Romans 1:12 'that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith.'

One thing is immediately clear - that we shouldn't come to church to see what we can get out of it for ourselves, as some people may grumble 'it's boring' or whatever. But, as Wiersbe points out, 'The emphasis here is not on what a believer gets from the assembly, but rather on what he can contribute to the assembly.' Similarly, as Paul points out, 'Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good' - or in other words, a spiritual gift isn't for the benefit of the individual only, or at all, but for what it adds to everyone else.

This encouragement, and the contributing to others is where the strength and importance of the church lies, and why the writer says, 'Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.' An image of this meeting together and the support that comes through this is that of a coal fire. I know this might be hard for some people, who only have central heating, but picture a coal fire. The fire burns well, with a lot of coal on the fire. Together, the pieces keep the fire burning. But imagine you lift one piece out (with tongs) and set it on the fireplace by itself. The heat would go out of that piece, and the burning would stop. In just the same way, we can lose our heat if we're separated from the encouragement and support of the church. It might be possible for someone to be a Christian on their own, but it is much harder.

This is all fine in theory, but may seem a bit abstract, cut off from reality. How would it work in practice? Does it happen?

One major element is that everyone has a part to play, in encouraging those around them. And for this to happen, there needs to be some interaction, some relationship between church members. Now I'm not recommending you all start talking to those around you right now, or in the middle of the prayers, but maybe before or after the formal service. It can be as simple as asking someone else how they are keeping, and listening for a reply, or letting them know quietly that you are praying for them. But support and encouragement doesn't only happen in this building on a Sunday. Wherever two or three gather in Jesus' name, there the church is gathered. This could be in one of the Fellowship groups, the Missing Link group, SNYF, Evergreens, Mothers Union, PATCH, Piecemakers, the Soup Lunch...

I know I said earlier that you should seek to give and not see what you can get from the assembly, but the plain truth is that as everyone encourages each other, everyone also benefits. There is something very special in being involved in a group where the members look out for each other - especially int he hard times, that you are sure others are thinking about you, praying for you, adn rallying round. And if this can happen in a small group, think of the impact if the 200 of us were to be fully committed to it! And remember, it isn't rocket science - it is simple everyday things yet they revolutionise the church, and can have those on the outside wanting to know what's different about us.

Because, on a very practical level, what happens in church on a Sunday should make an impact on the rest of the week - how we are on a Monday. Maybe you're the only Christian in your office or department or factory or class. The encouragement and support of being with other believers in church becomes even more vital when it comes to witnessing by the way you live your life.

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