Monday, October 12, 2015

Sermon on Hebrews 3:12-19, for the 20th Sunday after Pentecost, "Serious Sin and Original Confidence"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. In many churches today, the word “sin” is either missing from their vocabulary, or largely ignored. And this is from the pastors themselves. Sin is too negative—we’d rather focus only on the positive. Or talking about sin might offend us or make us feel bad about ourselves. Imagine if a doctor felt the same about diagnosing and treating diseases, or cancer! Would such a doctor be allowed to practice medicine, if he only sought to make the patient think better of themselves, while ignoring the disease and its treatment? Now who really does the diagnosing though? It’s God’s own Word that makes the diagnosis of our hearts and our lives. It’s God’s own Word that identifies sin and prescribes a cure—both to the heart of the pastor and to the hearers of God’s Word—you! But why should we take sin so seriously anyway? Isn’t it enough to focus only on the positive? Well, gloom about the problem with no word about the cure, would certainly help no one. Diagnosing the sin without pointing to Christ fails at God’s purpose.
Our Lutheran faith compels us to take the Bible’s warnings about sin as deadly serious. We must teach sin with full seriousness, so that we know the full redemption of Jesus Christ. Just like underestimating your enemy leaves you prone to defeat, so also ignoring the power of sin leaves us exposed to its seductions and charms.
Our reading in Hebrews 3 opens with this warning about sin: “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the Living God.” He is addressing believers, Christians who believe in the Living God, the Risen Lord Jesus. Why are Christians at risk of having an “evil, unbelieving heart?” Can we actually fall away from God, if we have once believed? We are at risk because Jesus warns that it’s from the heart of man, from within us, that our evil thoughts and evil actions come out. Later in Hebrews 12:1, the writer calls us to “lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us”. Sin “clings so closely”—or in other translations, “the sin that so easily entangles.” Sin is tenacious and unwilling to let go.  
Sin will not surrender easily, but hangs on to us at every turn. In one moment I think I have mastered my anger, and in the next, it boils over. In one moment I think I’ve kept my pride at bay, and in the next I slip with an arrogant boast. In one moment I’m committed to telling the truth, and in the next I fall into a little lie. Sin crops up in all areas of our life and through our desires tries to gain mastery over us. It’s like a miserable game of “whack a mole”. The arcade game might be fun, but the real life version of fighting against our own sins, is no fun at all.
Not long after Adam and Eve had first brought sin into the world, Cain became angry and jealous over his brother Abel. As anger festered in Cain’s heart, God warned him: “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.” Sin is ever crouching at our door. We let sin in, and it deceives us. It’s ready to spring on us and have us. And by our deceitful desires, we nurture and protect our pet sins, not seeing how they corrupt and weaken us.
Our reading continues the warning in Hebrews 3:13, “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” The warning is against being hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. Sin, at the bottom line, is disobedience to God. It might be intentional or unintentional, we might know we are doing it or not, but sin is still disobedience.  As sin progresses, it can quickly turn into full scale rebellion. So sin both hardens, and is deceitful. Hardening reminds us that sin grows progressively worse. The more we concede to sin, the more it begins to rule over our lives. It’s crouching at our door, desiring to have us. The deceitfulness of sin reminds us that all sin leads back to a lie.
The original lie that lead to the original sin, was when Satan tempted Eve, “Did God really say?” By trying to cast doubt on God’s Word and His instruction, the devil was deceiving Eve. “You will not surely die..” the devil purred, but “you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” The devil couldn’t lure Eve by telling her the truth about evil—that sin brings death, alienation from God, and judgment—so instead he had to cast doubt on God’s Word. Doubt of God’s Word is simply the beginnings of unbelief. “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the Living God.” The devil strikes again and again with the same lie, the same temptation to doubt God’s Word. And since sin clings so closely to us, is so deceptive and so close to what we want or think is best for us, we have to be doubly on guard against the devil and against ourselves.
But how can we do this? How do you fight an evil that is bound up within your own heart? In a lighthearted way, Dr. Seuss rhymes about life in his book, “Oh the Places You’ll Go.” In one line he says, “I'm afraid that some times you'll play lonely games too. Games you can't win 'cause you'll play against you.” In all seriousness, the fight against sin is a game we can’t win because we play it against ourselves. Only Christ can defeat sin for us and in us. To win the game against you, you must have Christ to put the old corrupt nature to death, and to raise up the new self. We share in Christ. His victory is our victory.
Did you catch the other part of the warning in our reading? “But exhort one another every day…” Something huge is implied in those words, “exhort one another.” It’s that we don’t try to “go it alone”—but rather are part of a community. To “exhort one another” there has to be someone else besides just you. Simply, we need our Christian community, our brothers and sisters in Christ. The size of that community is not what matters, as Jesus states it begins with as few as two or three.
But what does “exhort” mean anyway? It’s not a part of our usual daily vocabulary. But it is a common New Testament word. It means to make a passionate appeal to someone or for something. To entreat, to plead, even to comfort. We appeal to one another, we earnestly implore each other, to turn away from sin. We need to constantly call each other back to Jesus Christ. Only in Him can we find victory. We exhort or plead with each other not to be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. As part of this family of faith, we have a responsibility to look out for each other. We can’t shake off that duty with Cain’s old contention, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” We are brothers and sisters in Christ, and we have a duty, an obligation to care for each other and to gently but firmly call each other away from sin, when someone is overcome by weakness. We are in the battle together, against the common enemies of sin, death, and the devil—and we are wise to his schemes, and how they take advantage of our own sinful nature.
We hold each other accountable, and encourage one another side by side as we enter the battle. We exhort or rebuke when necessary, and count on other loyal brothers and sisters in Christ to do the same for us, if we should fall away or enter into sin. Belonging to a congregation is not about having a “membership card”, but it’s about joining yourself to a community of believers who confess the same faith, and among whom you can be held accountable, be encouraged and strengthened, and use your gifts and talents to serve, encourage, and strengthen others. Have each of you reflected on your own willingness to either exhort a fellow believer, or for someone to exhort you? Who would that person be for you? This deals with both our own humility, being willing to listen to someone else speak God’s Word to us, and also with our own boldness to speak the truth in love to someone. The alternative is to let them fend for themselves, continue to fall away, or become snared in the deceitfulness of sin. We have a mutual responsibility to each other in Christ Jesus.
Our exhortation, our brotherly and sisterly appeals to one another, must always point back to Jesus Christ. As our reading says, “For we share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.” Our community, our fellowship as believers, is nothing, if it is not connected to and sharing in Christ Jesus. We are companions, partakers, partners with Christ. His perfect life lived for us, His all-sufficient life, death, and resurrection for us, is for the mutual benefit of all who are in Christ Jesus. Forgiveness of sins and all of His benefits are freely shared with us.
If indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.” What is our “original confidence?” It is the certainty, the sure expectation of what we will receive if we trust in Christ. It’s “an immovable confidence of the mind which surrenders to no one.”[1] “Since He is ours—we fear no powers, not of earth nor sin nor death” (LSB 818:2). This original confidence is our faith—and the only ground on which our faith can stand unshaken is on the firm ground of Jesus Christ. The writer to the Hebrews uses this same word again in the familiar verse, Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” Faith is assurance or confidence, even though the thing hoped for is not yet seen.
In this life we toil and wrestle with sin. We battle against our heart and the lies that sin would have us believe. But we hear a clear promise from God, that whoever believes in Jesus Christ will not perish, but have eternal life. We hear the promise that if we forgive others, our heavenly Father will forgive us. Faith points us to confidence in God’s promise, that is realized for us in Christ Jesus, and which we will fully enjoy if we hold firm to the end. Faith always awaits the day when it will become sight. When the confidence that we have placed in Jesus, when the firm trust in His saving work for us, will be rewarded by eternal joy and life with Him.
Perhaps if we are honest with ourselves, even holding firm in our confidence to the end seems like a challenge to our abilities. Is my faith strong enough? Can I last? Can God really love me? These are all the wrong questions. Honesty about ourselves shouldn’t find some comfort in how strong I am, or whether or not I’ve earned God’s love—but honesty about ourselves finds comfort in Christ. Honesty about ourselves shows us that we are completely dependent on Christ. Not only to give us the beginnings of salvation—that “original confidence”—but also the completion of salvation that Jesus will “sustain us to the end, guiltless in the day of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:8). So whenever doubt threatens your faith, turn your eyes back to Jesus, and don’t look to yourselves. Take comfort in knowing that He has promised to be faithful to us, and He is always true to His Word.
So share in Christ Jesus. Don’t forget what He has done for you, so that you do not give space for sin or the devil to occupy your heart. (Psalm 103:2–3)  Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits, 3 who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases.” Share in what Christ Jesus has done for you. Receive His body and blood, shed on the cross for the forgiveness of sins. Receive His Holy Spirit, to strengthen and encourage your faith. For in these, His benefits and promises, you will stand firm to the end. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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1.      Why is it not safe to ignore sin? Why is it not safe to ignore cancer or other deadly diseases? How does God’s Word lead us to a cure?
2.      Why are Christians also susceptible to having an “evil, unbelieving heart?” Hebrews 3:12; 12:1. How do you personally wrestle against sin each day? Pray for God’s strength as you wrestle against your own specific sins.
3.      What was God’s warning to Cain about sin’s presence in his life? Genesis 4:7. What happened when Cain ignored it?
4.      How are Christians called to respond to the temptations of sin in our own lives and the lives of fellow Christians? Hebrews 3:13. What does it mean to “exhort?” In order to exhort or be exhorted, who do we need in our lives? How are we to be our “brother’s keeper?” Contrast to Genesis 4:9-10. See also Galatians 6:1-2
5.      Who gives us the victory over sin? Romans 7:24-8:2. What is our “original confidence?” Hebrews 3:14; 11:1. How can that confidence be sure and steady?
6.      Why does faith require honesty about ourselves, and our dependence on God? 1 Corinthians 1:8. Why must faith always turn our eyes and our trust away from ourselves and toward Jesus?
7.      What do we participate or share in, with Christ Jesus? What do we receive by His grace? Psalm 103:2-3

[1] Chemnitz, M., & Preus, J. A. O. (1999). Loci theologici (electronic ed., p. 496). St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House.

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