Monday, October 19, 2015

Sermon on Hebrews 4:1-16, for the 21st Sunday after Pentecost, "The Living Word of God"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today’s reading from Hebrews speaks of the power and authority of God’s Word, and also how it is received in faith, or not received, in unbelief and rebellion. The power of God’s Word and the centrality of faith were two of the driving forces behind the Reformation of the Christian church, begun by Martin Luther. 500 years ago, the Word of God had largely fallen into obscurity. Despite the fact that almost everyone considered themselves Christians, knowledge of what the Bible taught was abysmally poor. For the average person, obstacles to hearing and understanding God’s Word included illiteracy, because few could read; a poorly educated clergy, who were to teach God’s Word; and a language barrier, because the few available copies of the Bible were not written in their native language. For all these reasons, the Word of God and it’s living power was hindered from working on people’s hearts. Faith was a dimly burning wick.
Today, we have unprecedented access to God’s Word and resources to study it—some better than others. Consider some facts reported by Wycliff Bible translators. Over 500 languages have the complete Bible translated into them. More than 1,300 languages have the NT plus other portions of Scripture. 2,300 languages have active translation work happening. Still 1,800 languages need translation work to begin, and those languages represent about 180 million people who need to hear God’s Word in their native language. The vast majority of the world has access to God’s Word and it’s living and active power, but many still need to hear. But given the incredible access we have to God’s Word, there is every reason for God’s Word to be actively working in our hearts, if we will hear God’s voice and listen.
But we face obstacles today to hear God’s Word, just as in Luther’s day. They are not the same illiteracy, language barrier, and accessibility obstacles faced 500 years ago—but they are obstacles of our own. While many people can read, they choose not to—even though we can now also listen through audio Bibles. We face the obstacle of the incredible, unlimited number of distractions that pull us away from hearing God’s voice, or reading His Word. Everything from the hectic lives we lead, to the world of technology and entertainment, leaves God’s Word squeezed out—even though Jesus clearly taught this is the “one thing needful.” Not in America, but in many countries around the world, an additional obstacle to hearing God’s Word is the lack of religious freedom—the opportunity to freely hear, believe, and practice one’s faith.
But the greatest obstacle to hearing God’s Word, and the oldest, is the obstacle that links together the ancient Israelites, following Moses and Joshua to the promised land, described in our reading—and links them with the people of Luther’s day, and our day as well—the obstacle of sin-hardened hearts. King David spoke his warning in the Psalms, “Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.” The warning stands true through all time, and shows the biggest obstacle to God’s Word reaching us is when sin and disobedience harden our own hearts. Our reading from Hebrews shows that God had prepared a rest for His people, but that they would not receive it, because they did not have faith. “Good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened.”
This verse shows us that the Good News, the Gospel and promises of God, are given for all people. Jesus openly preached His message of salvation to Jews and Gentiles alike, and His death on the cross and resurrection accomplish the salvation of all people. But it also shows that there are two categories of people—those who were not benefitted or helped by the message they heard, because they didn’t believe it—and those who are benefitted, because they had faith when they listened. God’s Word and promises are universal—for everyone. For God so loved the world, that He sent His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life. Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for our sins only, but for the sins of the whole world. Jesus didn’t die for a few, He died for all. But not everyone wants to or is willing to believe this. So often God’s gift is rejected, returned, denied or ignored. It doesn’t benefit those who aren’t united by faith. Faith is essential to benefitting from God’s gift.
But our reading also shows that God’s Word is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” A living and active Word is the opposite of dead and useless. It is the very living power of God, able to transform and change hearts and souls. Human words can be empty, they can be powerless and lifeless—but God’s Word cannot. It is a living message that does not fail to accomplish what God intends it to do. God’s Word itself creates faith in the hearts of those who hear it. But the action of God’s Word can certainly be distressing and unsettling to its intended recipients—us! God’s Word can be distressing and unsettling to us in our sinful human condition. With sin, doubt, disobedience and unbelief present in our heart and flesh, the Word of God comes like a piercing sword, cutting right through us. With surgical precision, God’s Word cuts to the heart, it lays open our thoughts and intentions. When our intentions and motives for doing something are evil and shaped by sin, God’s Word exposes it. If we are trying to sort out our own actions and thoughts, to know what is right or wrong, God’s Word gives that Light.
“No creature is hidden from His sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.” Because no one can hide from God, and we are all exposed and accountable to Him, God’s Word strikes fear in our hearts. That sword pierces deep. It makes us fear death, and causes us to dread our judgment. I am accountable to God—it reminds us. I have sinned before the Holy and Almighty God—it intones. The wages of sin is death. But the gift of God is eternal life. At the other end of that sword, is the One who wields it—Jesus Christ. And He wields that sword of God’s Word, to put our old sinful nature to death on His cross, but then, with surgical precision, to transplant in us a new heart. Those who are “pricked in their hearts” by the Word of God, and who sorrow over their sins, and cry out for God’s mercy—have the very salvation that God’s Word promises. Jesus, who wields the sword of God’s Word, wields it to kill and to make alive. To kill the sin, and to make alive the new person in Christ Jesus. It’s unfortunate that our reading in Hebrews 4, stops at verse 13.
After describing in verse 13 how we are naked and exposed before God, to whom we must give our account, it goes on in the last verses of the chapter to say this: “14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Jesus wields God’s Word, not as our enemy, but as our great high priest. One who came to stand in our place, and knows our every weakness—yet remained without sin. As our High Priest, He stands in our place, interceding for us, dying for us, taking our place under the condemnation of God’s Word. And what He has accomplished for us shows that we need not fear this living and active Word of God—we need not fear that sharpest two-edged sword—but we can listen and have it pierce through to our hearts, with the knowledge that God is working great good. We can surrender to Jesus who is our great High Priest.
What has Jesus done, and what great good does His Word bring? He gives us confident access to God’s grace and mercy. Confident is without fear or doubt. It’s a certain faith that knows we will receive what God in His unbreakable promises has said. As sinners we die to ourselves in Christ Jesus, and we find in Him our help in time of need. We have confidence that Jesus has forgiven our sins, so that we can stand before the throne of grace forgiven. The sword of God’s living Word kills and it makes alive. It leads us to grace, and it leads to rest. God’s eternal and greater rest—the rest that was greater than what the Israelites experienced when they settled into the Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey. The rest that is promised to those who hear God’s Word and are united by faith, is the rest of eternal life. The rest where we are at eternal peace with God, because our sins are forgiven, and evil is no more.
God’s Word declares to us what God has done. It works on our hearts to prepare them and to create faith. And that faith trusts confidently in what Jesus has done as our great High Priest. With faith, and faith in Jesus Christ alone, we can enter into His eternal rest. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

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