Monday, August 29, 2016

Sermon on Hebrews 13:1-17, for the 15th Sunday after Pentecost, "Life in Harmony with God's Design"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. This is the fourth and last week where our readings are from the end of Hebrews. Previously we’ve seen how Hebrews makes the case that Jesus is superior over all things, and that our faith is centered in Him. The closing chapters show how to run the race by faith, endure hardships, receive God’s discipline, and be encouraged by the heavenly cloud of witnesses that cheer us on. In this last chapter, the author picks up what might seem like some miscellaneous pieces of advice on how to live. They are called “exhortations”, or encouragements to continue doing what is right. Exhortations are a form of the “Law”, or commands of God—but with the difference that they’re set in the context of the new identity we’ve been given in the Gospel—the reality that Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the Law, and made us a new creation and new community in Him.
Let me explain a little more. What has or hasn’t changed about the Law of God, from Old Testament to New? It’s not that the Law is ever offered to save us, either in Old Testament or New. We cannot be saved by our good works. That is plain. It’s only by the Gospel of Jesus that we can be saved. But God calls us to obedience, in both Old and New Testaments. That hasn’t changed. But the accusations of the Law against us, and its demands have been met in Christ Jesus. The Law, presented in the NT is not necessarily easier or harder to do. It’s not that the NT commands are even new or dramatically different—although there are some major categories of laws that just no longer apply. Our reading mentions food laws, which don’t benefit those who were devoted to them. Hebrews also explains the ending of the sacrificial and ceremonial laws. But there are still many moral laws and continuing principles of God’s Word, that carry forward from the Old to the New. These “exhortations” or calls to obedience in Hebrews 13 point us to a life in harmony with God’s design. They’re not given for works righteousness or salvation, but to live in purity, and in harmony with God and with our neighbors. They’re given to show us what is good and pleasing to God.
What’s also different from the Old to the New Testament is the source and motivation of our obedience. The external system of laws in the Old Testament often worked by fear of punishment. God sought sincere obedience from the heart, but rarely found it. But made new in Christ Jesus, and having Christ atone for sin, once and for all—we need not be motivated by fear, but by the love of Christ dwelling in us, and thankfulness. We are called to an obedience led by the Holy Spirit working in our heart, not by external coercion or fear.
If we think of these NT exhortations, or calls to obedience, as God’s call to live our life in harmony with His good design, we can better reflect on the goodness and benefit of God’s design. It’s a thankful response to what Jesus has done; not a way to earning credit before God. Verse 12 tells us what Jesus did, and why: “Jesus also suffered outside the gate in order to sanctify the people through His blood.” His suffering was outside the gate of the city, at Golgotha—a place of uncleanness and shame and dishonor—where criminals were executed on a gory hill. In the OT sacrifices, the bodies of animals offered for sin were burned outside the camp. A place of death and uncleanness. Jesus joined Himself to our uncleanness and death, and took our shame upon Himself, to make us holy through His blood. His blood is the complete forgiveness of our sins.
Verse 13 continues: “Therefore let us go to him outside the camp and bear the reproach he endured.” This verse urges us to share the reproach or indignities that Christ bore, outside the camp. There is a crossroads—one path is to live in harmony with God’s design, to walk in the holiness that Christ freely gives. The other path is to forsake our purity, and live in harmony with the world.  Standing with Jesus will bring us rejection and reproach from the world. 1 John 2:15–17 echoes this: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.” The way of the world is destined to pass away. But to do the will of God, is to remain forever. Vs. 14 in Hebrews adds that same thought: “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.”
Verses 15-16 describe our response to what Jesus has done for us: “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” There is a music of our life. Will it be a sacrifice of praise in harmony with God’s Design? Or will our lives produce a music that is discordant, and clashes with God, because it belongs to the world? One is a pleasant to God, and leads to harmony in life and relationships. The way of the world, however, is destined to be judged by God, and leads to strife and disharmony in life and relationships. Choose the way of the world, and we choose the negative consequences.
But notice what has changed, from OT to New! The sacrifices we offer are no longer animals or grain offerings. But our sacrifices are praising the name of God. Doing what is good, and showing generosity to others. These are the pleasing sacrifices to God! The sacrifice for our sins has been completed once for all by Christ Jesus, on the cross. But our new sacrifices are a life of worship and praise to God. A life that lifts up a beautiful music of love and service to our neighbor, by living in harmony with God’s design—God’s love commandments.
In that context, when we review all those exhortations, we see how much they center on love, by God’s definition. “Let brotherly love continue.” This is a harmony, a peacefulness, unity, and loyalty among brothers and sisters in Christ. A love that’s expressed in good and trustworthy friendships and companionship. “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.” Hospitality here could literally be translated “love of strangers.” Our community is not to be insular and unwelcoming, but to show kindness to others. We may even experience the hidden reward of serving an angel of God, without knowing it! This recalls the experience of Abraham and his nephew Lot, who entertained angels unaware. And with this and the next exhortation, remember Jesus’ words that whatever you do for the least of these, you do for Him.
“Remember those who are in prison, as though in prison with them, and those who are mistreated, since you also are in the body.” Over 2 Million Americans are locked up in our prisons and jails. They must not be forgotten. Beyond those in our own community or family that we can visit or communicate with, there are also those around the world who are suffering for the faith, and for whom we should continue to pray and advocate. Many worthy organizations use the strength of public petitions to make legal appeals for the freedom of those who are wrongfully imprisoned for their faith, because of persecution. Prominent cases like Iranian Pastor Saed Abedini, who was released this year, or Asia Bibi, a Pakistani mother whose case is now hanging in the balance, are examples where we can even help from a great distance by advocacy and prayer.
“Let marriage be held in honor among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.” Here is an area where we face enormous pressures to conform to the world, rather than living in harmony with God’s design. It’s incredibly easy and self-satisfying to go along with the way of the world, and seek sexual gratification apart from marriage, or to be unfaithful in marriage. Our society approves this! But God’s Word does not. The call for purity here is straightforward—let the marriage bed be undefiled, for God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous. Marriage between a man and a woman is the God-intended place for sexual expression. Period. Seeking to live by God’s design in this way is especially challenging for our youth. It will certainly cause them and us to share in the “reproach of Christ”, by practicing abstinence outside of marriage, and faithfulness in it. God has built in blessings for following His order. And He forgives and restores holiness to those who confess their sins.  
“Keep your life free from love of money, and be content with what you have, for he has said, ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you.’” Money and  possessions are not evils in themselves, but it is the love of money that is sinful and corrupts us. It leads to a life without contentment, a life without satisfaction, because it chases a hunger that can never be filled, instead of seeking God’s kingdom first, and His righteousness, so all these other things can be added to us as well.
Two other exhortations in verse 7 & 17 are related: “Remember your leaders, those who spoke to you the word of God. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith…Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you.” Here it points to past and present spiritual leaders—those who spoke to us the word of God, who keep a watch over our souls, and must give an account to God. As pastors, we are charged with a special responsibility to teach God’s Word to you faithfully. 1 Timothy 4 exhorts us as pastors to “set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity…and Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching” (v. 12, 16). It is a task in which I daily struggle, but earnestly seek your prayers and joyful assistance. It is a joyful task to do, but it’s not without spiritual warfare and soul searching, for which I again seek your prayers. God has so ordered His Christian community, the church, that there should be pastors, and there should be hearers. Pray also that God raise up young men to serve in the ministry, and that young men and women would also serve His church through teaching, missionary work, and evangelism. Witnessing the church of Christ live in harmony with God’s love, is music to a pastor’s ears!
We have seen how this chapter of exhortations is grounded on the holiness of Christ Jesus. He sanctified His people through His blood. Through His holiness and the gift of His Spirit we begin walking in harmony with God’s design—begin to love as Jesus loves. In closing, I want to circle back to vs. 8-10, that points us to one more Gospel gem, in the midst of these encouragements to obedience.  Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.  Do not be led away by diverse and strange teachings, for it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods, which have not benefited those devoted to them.  We have an altar from which those who serve the tent have no right to eat.” Jesus is our unchanging Savior, in a world of volatility and change. He always remains our High Priest, our Mediator, our Redeemer. Cling to Him!
Our heart needs to be strengthened by grace, not by dietary laws. And we have an altar, which the OT priests have no right to eat. We eat at this altar, because Jesus has secured us access to God’s grace through His own blood. We eat Jesus’ body and blood, to have our hearts strengthened by His grace—to receive His forgiveness and holiness, won on the cross. Here we eat, not by right, not by ancestry, title, virtue, or honor, but by the holiness that Jesus has given to us, by joining us to Him by faith. Here we have hearts mended, forgiven, and renewed for service in His kingdom, healed by God’s grace. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points
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  1. Hebrews 13 is filled with “exhortations”, or encouragements to continue doing what is right. What are some of the qualities you would use to describe “brotherly love?” In v. 2, “hospitality” is literally, “love for strangers.” What are the visible ways we show this kind of love? What special honor might be unknowingly receive?
  2. What are we doing when we visit and help those in prison? Matthew 25:39-40. In v. 4, there are two types of sexual impurity that are indicated—sexual immorality (those who are sexually impure outside of marriage), and adultery (those who are sexually impure inside marriage—i.e. unfaithfulness). What remains as the positive and pure place for sexuality to exist? How does one stay sexually pure outside of marriage? And inside?
  3. Verse 5 echoes 1 Timothy 6:5-10. How do those verses explain the danger of the love of money? Why is money itself neutral? How can it be turned to good or evil ends? 2 Corinthians 9:6ff.
  4. In v. 8, what does the constancy and unchanging nature of Jesus contrast to in this world? Why is it such a great comfort? Not only life itself is volatile and subject to change, but also the false teachings that swirl around us (v.9) and try to mislead us. Where is our constancy? Ephesians 4:13-15
  5. Sacrifices of animals were brought for sin in the Old Testament, until what happened? V. 12; Hebrews 9:11-14. What do we share with Christ, “outside the camp” (13:13; cf. 11:26). What is the reward of this? Matthew 5:10-12.
  6. What are the sacrifices that we offer to God now, and how are they different from Old Testament sacrifices? Romans 12:1-2; Hebrews 13:15-16; 1 Peter 2:5, 9.

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