Monday, October 19, 2009

Sermon on Hebrews 4:1-13, for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, "God's Word: A Two-Edged Sword"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Have you ever experienced this situation? Two people come to church on the same Sunday, and one hears the message and leaves feeling peace and thankfulness to God, and another hears the same message and leaves feeling resentful and defiant. One hears God’s Word and finds it comforting and enlightening; another hears God’s Word and feels guilty or convicted. Or you read the Scriptures and at one point God’s wrath is burning against sin, and in another place He shows remarkable patience and forgiveness for sinners. How can the same word produce such contradictory reactions? How can the same word show God condemning sin and elsewhere forgiving it? The reading from Hebrews will be our guide as we answer those questions. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

“The Word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword…” That two-edged sword can produce just the kind of reactions I’m describing. As Revelation 1:16 makes clear, it’s Jesus who wields that two-edged sword. Without understanding this two-fold nature and two-fold action of God’s Word, we’ll continue to be hopelessly lost as to how to explain such different reactions. We’ll be puzzled when we read the Scriptures. How do we reconcile such different passages? But these things aren’t so puzzling when we realize that God’s Word comes to us both in a Word of Law, and a Word of Gospel. This is the two-fold nature and action of God’s Word. Understanding how the Word of Law and Gospel work and how they impact both believers and unbelievers will go a long way toward reading and hearing God’s Word with more understanding and insight.

Both Law and Gospel are God’s Word, but they’re very different in content, in how we know them, in the promises or threats that they make, in who they’re spoken to, or in the effects that they have on their hearers. For example, in our passage here from Hebrews, it quotes Psalm 95 where God says: “As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’” This is a clear example of God’s Word of Law. God’s responding in anger and judgment to the consistent rebellion and grumbling of the Israelites during their journey through the desert following the Exodus from Egypt. God was wrathful, and His punishment for their sin was that they wouldn’t enter into His rest.

These are strong words of Law. Why? They were given a miraculous deliverance from slavery, they were provided with food and water for their journey, they were given the promise of an inheritance in the land of Canaan. These blessings were all examples of Gospel: God’s love and kindness, His deliverance, His provision for them. But their response to all of this Gospel/good news, was to harden their hearts. Instead of gratefulness, thanksgiving, and praise to God for what He had done, they hardened their hearts in unbelief and ungratefulness. They rebelled and were disobedient.

So God’s Word of Law was addressed to the sinful, the disobedient, and to the unbelieving. It was a harsh, even startling word of rebuke against their sin, and was a call to repentance—to admit their sin and turn from it. In the same way, God’s Word of Law is addressed to us when we’re sinning. The sharp sword that “pierc[es] to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from His sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.” There’s nothing that’s hidden from God’s sight, and however well we conceal our sins, God knows them. We try to conceal them in at least two ways: either by doing them out of sight, hidden from human eyes—or by trying to conceal them in our conscience by making excuses or justifications for our sin. But the Law of God cuts through all of that, it lays bare our innermost thoughts and intentions.

Piercing to divide joints and marrow sounds painful. God’s Word of Law is painful. It doesn’t allow escape; it leaves no alternative but the death of our sin at the cross of Jesus Christ. It searches out even our thoughts and intentions, and shows them for what they are. It calls us on the carpet for our disobedience, and makes us accountable for sins of thought, word, and deed. If we continue to disobey God’s commands, the Word of Law will continue to pursue us and make us accountable for sin. It threatens the unbelieving and disobedient with punishment instead of blessing. Only at the cross can our accountability for sin be transferred from us to Jesus Christ.

There are two reasons the Israelites didn’t enter God’s promised rest. They heard the good news, BUT they didn’t benefit from it because they didn’t combine their hearing with faith. It also says that those who had once received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience. Unbelief and disobedience. So this stands as a word of warning, a Word of Law for us, that we don’t follow the same example of hardening our hearts in unbelief against God’s Word, or in disobedience to God. “Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.”

Take the lesson and learn. Hear the call. Hear the voice of God as He comes to us through the living and active Word. Trying to run or hide from the Word of God will only cause that sharp edge of the Law to dig more deeply into our joints and marrow, to cut more painfully at the sin that is wrapped around our soul. But hear this also!! The Word of God is a two-edged sword. There is the sharp edge of the Law that kills our sin, but there is also the sharp edge of the Gospel that guards and defends us against evil. This is the mighty power of Jesus’ Word to save and deliver, to conquer our sin and defeat the devil.

God’s Word of Gospel is completely different from the Word of Law. The Gospel speaks no threats to sinners, it doesn’t make demands or set conditions, but rather makes promises. It makes these promises to the people of God. And who are the people of God? Those who are sinners that have heard the Word of Law and repented of sin. All those who hear the message of the good news, and combine hearing with faith. Those who believe the Word have what it promises. The Gospel gives the answer to the hard Word of the Law. It doesn’t erase or negate God’s Law, but rather shows Jesus as the One who kept the Law for us. Jesus, the one who wields the sword of God’s Word in our defense. Jesus, who takes up the sword of God’s Word to fight and subdue our enemy the devil, and silence his accusing tongue. Not because his accusations against our sin were untrue, but rather because Jesus, the Innocent and Holy One, took those accusations upon Himself at the cross. He took all the punishment for sin upon Himself on the cross. So that all who ally themselves to Christ by faith, stand under the benefits of His Gospel. Protected by His combat. The Gospel-action of God’s Word to protect us.

The Gospel-action of God’s Word is to forgive us of our sins, to make the wounded spirit whole. For believers, we rejoice at this two-edged, living and active Word of God. We give thanks for its twin action of cutting away our sin, and also warding off the enemy. We have a mighty weapon in God’s Word, that is wielded by Christ Himself. But He also gives His Word for us to use (Eph. 6, armor of God). This living and active, sharp two-edged sword is not an Excalibur, to be kept on display stuck in a stone. It’s not a mantel piece to hang on display as a relic or piece of artwork. Rather, God’s Word is to be taken up into the hand and mouth of the Christian, wielded in battle against the spiritual forces of darkness. It’s to be our ready defense against the lies and temptations of the devil. It’s to be the saving promise of good news that creates faith in our hearts to make us the people of God, the recipients of His promises.

This reading from Hebrews especially focuses on the rest that God has promised, and how those who believe will be recipients of God’s promised rest. It shows how the promise of rest was foreshadowed by God’s establishment of a Sabbath day. The seventh day of the week, Saturday, was designated by God as a day of rest and worship. Sabbath means rest. So every Sabbath day was a small picture of the coming rest that God would give. It was again foreshadowed in a fuller way, when Moses and Joshua were leading the people to the promised land. There they would inherit the land and have rest from their years of wandering, and eventually peace from their enemies. But these were not yet God’s “rest.” It says, “For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, 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.”

Even when we take a rest from our labors, when we have a day off, a vacation or holiday—there is something still incomplete about it. We have to return to work the next day or week. Maybe we aren’t fully rested, or there’s still some unfinished task that weighs on our mind and keeps us from enjoying that rest. But there remains for us a Sabbath rest, the perfect rest of God. Jesus is the One who delivers this rest to us, when He said “Come to me you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest…rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:28-29). We begin to know that rest in this life, by the peace of sins forgiven, that comes from Jesus’ death on the cross for us. But the full and complete rest, the true rest for our souls, is in heaven. When we by faith enter into that rest that Jesus has won for us, there will be no more dissatisfaction or incompletion or worry. We will be at home with God.

On that day we’ll look back with great clarity. We’ll understand the Word of God which at times pierced us with painful intensity, as it lay bare our sinful actions and intentions, but then lifted us up with the sweetest consolation of the Gospel, when we turned to God for forgiveness. For in this life, God’s Word has a two-fold action, to condemn sin and to save. These two very different results come from God’s Word of Law and His Word of Gospel. Our reading today directs us to why God’s Word takes this two-fold action on us—why we need this living and active sword. It is simply to bring us safely into God’s rest. The Law to direct us away from unbelief and disobedience, and the Gospel directs us to faith in Jesus Christ, the One who was fully obedient to God, who brings us to our Sabbath rest. So with that Word of God living and active in our lives, leading us to always place our full confidence in Jesus Christ our Savior, let us strive to enter God’s rest. To Him be all the glory and praise forever and ever, Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

Sermon Talking Points:
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1. Why is God’s Word like a two-edged sword? Who wields it? Rev. 1:16. Cf. Ephesians 6:10-20.

2. How is the Word of God’s Law different from the Word of God’s Gospel? In who it addresses? In what it says? In the threats or promises it makes? In the results it has on those who hear it?

3. Read a passage like Psalm 95 or Hebrews 4:1-13, and see if you can identify which statements are Law and which are Gospel.

4. What two responses to God’s Word endanger our receiving of His promises and blessings? How did the Israelites fail to enter into the rest that God promised? Hebrews 4:2-6

5. How does the Word of Law affect the sinful, disobedient, or unbelieving? Rom. 2:12-29; 3:19-20

6. How does the Word of Gospel affect the repentant sinner who believes? Rom. 1:16-17; 3:21-26; 5:1-11.

7. How are all examples of “rest” in this life an incomplete picture of God’s “rest?” How does God’s two-fold Word guide and direct us to that day of eternal rest? Who secured this rest for us and how? Matt. 11:28-29

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