Monday, August 22, 2016

Sermon on Hebrews 12:4-24, for the 14th Sunday after Pentecost, "Disciplined to Receive His holiness"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The Olympics always feature dramatic stories of the struggle, perseverance, and the hard-fought victories of athletes, and the hardships and intense training that preceded their competition for the gold medal. The attention focused on the athletes is intense; often they are flattered with praise—but just as quickly they can bear the brunt of criticism, suspicion, or doubt, for their failures inside and outside of the game. Every athlete faces the specter of discouragement and the temptation to quit, when the road gets tough. The stakes are high, with the whole world competing, only once every four years, and with only 3 medals to be captured in each event
Last week Pastor Roschke drew on the imagery of the “race” that we are running “by faith” as Christians. How “Team Emmanuel” is being cheered on by the cloud of witnesses in heaven, who are encouraging us as we run the race, with eyes fixed on Jesus. Just like in the Olympics, we too can face discouragement and feel the temptation to quit. Chapter 11 of Hebrews recounted many examples of struggle and perseverance by faith. But the stakes are even higher in this race by faith—because it’s not a trophy or gold medal that’s on the line, but our eternal salvation. Vs. 15 urges us to make sure that “no one fails to obtain the grace of God.” Hebrews chapter 12:4-24 continues the race metaphor, to address our struggles here on earth, and how God uses them to train and shape us, and focusing us yet again on the final goal or prize.
One of the standard things a coach does in training an athlete, is to toughen them for competition. When the athlete starts to complain of weariness or aching muscles and body, the coach might downplay it, and charge them to push on through. A friend of mine used to say the pain you feel from exercising or healing from an injury is the feeling of “weakness leaving your body.” So also, Hebrews 12:4 reminds us, “in your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” Jesus shed His blood in the struggle against the sin of the world. Many Christian martyrs also shed their blood, dying for their faith. The author puts our struggle into perspective against these, and warns against our tendency to over-exaggerate our sufferings. It’s a little challenge to “toughen up”.
The word for struggle, is the root for antagonize, in the Greek. This must be our mindset towards sin—that it’s an antagonistic struggle. This helps us understand the pain of God’s discipline. There’s a spiritual war going on within us, between the new spiritual nature, working by the Holy Spirit, and on the other hand, our old sinful nature and the work of the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh. These are permanently antagonistic forces in this life. A Christian can never “make friends” with his sin; she can never “cave into” indulging her sin. We must necessarily war against our sin by repentance.
Our reading gives an example of failed responses to sin, in verse 16-17.  It says see to it.. “that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal. For you know that afterward, when he desired to inherit the blessing, he was rejected, for he found no chance to repent, though he sought it with tears.” Esau’s failed response to his sin, was that he never truly repented of his sin; he only wept for what he lost. Esau despised the spiritual gift of his birthright, in exchange for a petty meal. He counted the things of God to be of no value, but the things of his flesh to be of first importance. His sorrow was not genuine, and so Esau was “unholy.” In this same category, we’re warned against sexual immorality. Hebrews 13:4 states it clearly: “Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.” Caving in to our sin, including sexual sin, is another surrender to un-holiness, and risks losing the grace of God.
So we see that sin is not a mere “weakness” that must be driven out by the pain of discipline. Sin is an active force that inclines or steers our feet toward death. Sin has to be put to death, drowned in the waters of baptism and repentance, so that the new person can be raised to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. And this is where God’s discipline plays into our life. Verses 5-11 speak especially about God disciplining us. We experience discipline as hardship, difficulty, resistance, and failure. And just as an athlete exercises and lifts weights to strengthen their body against resistance, so also God uses His discipline to treat us as sons—His adopted children—to strengthen us spiritually against sin and towards holiness. If sin actively steers our feet toward death, God’s holiness steers our feet toward life.
In verse 13, it tells us to make “straight paths for your feet.” This word for “paths” is literally a “wheel track” or rut. We can think of sin as forming deeply worn “ruts” in our life—sinful habits and patterns of behavior that are hard to break. A sharp tongue, a lustful eye, a quick temper, a cruel streak, a greedy hand, a lazy or selfish attitude. When a wheel is rolling in a rut, it easily falls to the bottom, and returns to the bottom. But it takes great leverage and force to push it out of the rut, and to keep it from rolling back in. Likewise, sinful habits are easy to return to and hard to break. But make a “straight wheel track or path for your feet so that what is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed.” Sin leads to dislocations and injuries, but walking in the straight path leads to healing. How do we make a straight path for our feet? The Psalms are full of invitations to walk on the right path. “Your Word is a Lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105). God’s Word illuminates the straight path. God will instruct sinners and the humble in His paths (Psalm 25). “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths” (Proverbs 3:5-6). Walking in the straight paths of the Lord leads to a new, well worn, straight and familiar path for our feet. Like Pastor reminded last week, it requires constant hearing of God’s Word to sustain and keep faith alive and well.
Discipline always seems unpleasant to us—it’s not joyful at the time, but painful. It may even cause us to feel discouraged or ready to give up. But listen to what Pastor Bo Giertz writes about the discipline described in these verses:
This word discipline, that the Bible uses here also means ‘guidance of children,’ “bringing up”. In other words, it can be an expression of God’s love and His kind consideration for us if He takes something from us that we’re fond of or blocks a path we want to follow. When we fail at our job, when we’re criticized and run into unpleasant things, when sickness comes when we least expect it, or we have financial problems to wrestle with, it’s always wise to fold our hands and ask: Lord, is there something You want to teach me out of this?

What we are to learn from the Lord’s discipline may not always be apparent to us in life, and we can’t expect to discern a particular “lesson” out of each and every experience of hardship in life. But in a broad sense, we can always expect that God will always teach us the necessity of humility and repentance, and reliance on Him, rather than ourselves. And, that God’s will is ultimately best, even though it may be nearly impossible for us to see and understand how, in particular situations.
Again and again he reminds us why we endure all this discipline. Because God loves us, He’s treating us as sons, and doing what is good for us. He’s producing the peaceful fruit of righteousness in us. And the end goal of our competition and training—the “gold medal”, if you will: “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.” To see the Lord! This is our great reward. In order to see the Lord, God must work His holiness in us. That’s why He disciplines us. So that we may “share in His holiness” (v. 10). Since sin cannot stand in the presence of God, we must be purified of all sin before we can see the Lord.
The last, glorious verses of the reading, verses 18-24 focus on this. Two different mountains are described. One of them is terrifying, dark and gloomy, with fire and the dread of judgment hanging over it, and the raw majesty and power of God on blazing display—Mount Sinai. Where the 10 Commandments were given. Even Moses, the great servant of God, trembled with fear to encounter God this way. But the latter verses describe the second mountain—the One we approach right here in worship. A mountain that is resplendent with countless bright angels in festive celebration, with the saints who have died and gone before us—cheering on Team Emmanuel; and God Himself, Judge of all. This mountain is the heavenly Mount Zion—the mountain on which Jesus stands, as the Firstborn from the dead, the Author of Life, the champion and victor over all—the Perfecter of our faith.
This mountain does not terrify us with the dread judgment of our sin, but here we encounter Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel. Jesus is our mediator—the One who comes between God and man, and reconciles us from the divide of our sins. By His death, Jesus nailed the accusations of our guilt to His cross, and fulfilled all of God’s legal demands. By His death, Jesus satisfied all of God’s wrath and judgment against our sins, so that His wrath would be turned away from us forever. And so Jesus mediates a new covenant. Not the old covenant of law that we broke and our forefathers failed to keep—the covenant of the 10 Commandments, made on Mount Sinai. But the new covenant in His blood, poured out for the forgiveness of your sins. A covenant is a contract, a sacred agreement, or promise—and God has made the sacred promise to forgive us our sins, because of the blood of Jesus shed on the cross. He binds Himself to that covenant. He sprinkles His blood on us for cleansing, in the waters of Holy Baptism. Today in the Lord’s Supper you will participate in that new covenant in His blood, shed for the forgiveness of your sins. You will receive the forgiveness He won on the cross.
And His blood speaks. What does it speak? A better word than the blood of Abel. Abel was the first man to be murdered; by his own brother Cain. God told Cain that Abel’s blood cried out from the ground for vengeance, for this great horror of innocent bloodshed. Vengeance was the word Abel’s blood spoke. And Jesus too, was murdered—an innocent man put to death. But His blood, poured out on the cross, does not cry out for vengeance. It does not demand that justice be exacted from those who put Him to death. Pardon! Is the word His blood speaks! Forgiveness! Jesus’ blood declares God’s amnesty toward us—peace for those who did not earn or deserve it. A declaration of innocence, for those who lay down their sin. Holiness bestowed on us to cleanse us from our sin, so that God can make us, the “spirits of the righteous, made perfect.” This is the better word that Jesus’ blood speaks for us!
We have received a great salvation from the Lord! This is why we are disciplined—for our own good, and to receive His holiness. Rejoice and thank Him, and endure it patiently, until the reward is fully ours! In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. In Hebrews 12:4, the word translated “struggle against”, is the word root for antagonism. How does this describe what our attitude and action toward sin should be? What point is he making, by stating that we have not yet shed our blood? Who is he comparing us to? Hebrews 11:1-12:3
  2. How does discipline seem or feel to us? Contrary to our feelings, what does discipline from God actually mean? Hebrews 12:6-7, 10-11.
  3. Earthly parents are to model God’s love and discipline. What does it mean in verse 10 that our earthly fathers disciplined us “as it seemed best to them”? What is different about the discipline of our heavenly Father? Vs. 10-11. When is it especially hard for us to believe and understand that God’s will is best? See Matthew 26:39, 42.
  4. In verse 11, the author uses a word for “training” that is the word root for gymnasium. How does the athlete use physical resistance and repetition to strengthen the body (v. 12-13) and compete better?
  5. Verse 13 says that we need to make “straight paths” for our feet—using a word that means wheel track. How is sin like a crooked “rut” that a wheel creates over time. What is hard to do when your wheels are stuck in a rut? Sin is easy to fall back into, like a familiar habit or pattern. How do we form a new, straight wheel track (or path) for our feet? Psalm 1:1-2, 6; 18:21, 30, 32; 25:4, 8-12; Psalm 119:105; Proverbs 3:6.
  6. Vs 11 and 14 state that peacefulness with one another is a fruit of the Spirit, and part of the Spirit’s work of making us holy. What evidence or experience do you see or have, that shows that sin destroys peace? How does one “sow peace” into situations that might be bound for discord or strife? Contrast Zechariah 8:12-13 and Proverbs 6:12-19.
  7. What two mountains are contrasted in Hebrews 11:18-24? Why are they different, and who stands on the second? What’s He do for us? Vs 23-24

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