Monday, November 16, 2009

Sermon on Hebrews 10:11-25 for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, "Draw Near With a True Heart"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. On All Saints’ Day two weeks ago we heard this verse from the Beatitudes. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” To have access to God, to see Him, we must be pure in heart. Those words could strike fear in the heart of every sinner and shake their confidence, because who can claim to have a pure heart? But our reading today says that we do have confidence and the full assurance of faith. Today we’ll see what the Christian’s confidence is, and how it affects how we live out our Christian life. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Its common for us to say or hear someone say: “That person has a good heart.” Usually by this we mean they’re kind, generous, loving or something like that. And it’s not as though people only mean Christians when they talk this way. While this certainly can be true by our standards, that one person is nicer or more generous than the next—the real question that remains is what does it mean to have a pure heart, a true heart, by God’s standards? Are we pure in heart so that we can see God? How will we be able to draw near to God?

Well God’s standard of pure is total perfection. As if it weren’t hard enough to just keep from doing sinful actions, this standard looks even to the thoughts and intentions of our heart. Not just you shall not murder, you shall not commit adultery, you shall not steal—but Jesus shows that it goes further to the heart: you shall not hate, you shall not lust, you shall not covet. The plans and wishes to do evil are sinful in themselves, even without the actions. That has to be devastating news to anyone who’s building their own ladder up to heaven, trying to see God by their own actions or good works. You’ve climbed a ladder with cracked and broken rungs only to realize that the wall to heaven you must scale reaches miles above your tiny ladder. You’ve examined your heart and seen that you could never call it pure. Selfishness, bitterness, jealousy, rivalry, greed have all visited your heart. If a pure heart is the test, then we’ve failed.

But if that has shaken your confidence, then it’s a good thing, believe it or not! God’s Word must shake our confidence in our human works and ability, so that we will place no confidence in ourselves. Rather, we need the confidence that the writer to the Hebrews speaks about today. He says that we can have confidence to “enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that He opened for us through the curtain, that is, through His flesh.” We truly can have an unshakeable confidence about heaven and about seeing God one day. Not a confidence of our own, but a confidence in the blood of Jesus, who opened the way for us to the Father. It is through Jesus that we can have a pure heart. This is how it happens: we can draw near to God with a true heart in the full assurance of faith (that means not doubting!!) with our hearts sprinkled clean!

Our hearts are washed pure by Christ. The perfect heart that is unattainable by us is given by Him. Verse 14 says, “By a single offering He has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.” Jesus’ one-time sacrificial death cleansed us perfectly for all time. The ongoing work of our sanctification, the process of being made holy in this life, is not complete; but look again in verse 22 about what it says about our hearts! “With our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” An evil, guilty conscience is washed clean in Christ. The convicted heart that groans under God’s judgment is set free and finds in Jesus the air to breathe, the life to sustain. All the scars and wounds of past sins and hurts that weigh on our heart are sprinkled clean. The blood of Jesus washing us clean like a gentle rain. The rain of pure water that showers over us in our Baptism, washing and restoring us as clean in God’s sight. Giving us the rebirth and renewal of the Holy Spirit to continue that work of God’s change in us to reflect His love and mercy.

In baptism God places a pure heart in us, just as He promised from Old Testament times. He would sprinkle clean water on us to cleanse us from uncleanness, and put a new heart and a new spirit within us (Ezek. 36:25-26). God promised that this change of heart from a heart of stone to a heart of flesh would include the gift of His Spirit, so that we would be careful to obey God’s rules (Ezek. 36:27). Our bodies washed in the water that Jesus made pure in His baptism, our consciences cleansed to be free of guilt, we’re set on a new path of obedience in life. This new obedience is not our ground of confidence for approaching God or approaching the holy places. We have our confidence and draw near through the blood of Jesus alone.

This confidence and full assurance of faith in Christ Jesus gives rise to a second thing that we are to do, after drawing near with a true heart. We are to “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful.” Faith naturally gives birth to confession—to acknowledge or speak back to God what He has told us. While faith is the trust of God within our heart, it does not remain there, but it produces speech. Our faith can never be silent or remain forever invisible. It’s like the disciples Peter and John, who were told to never speak again in the name of Jesus, and they replied “We cannot help but speak of what we have seen and heard!” (Acts 4:20). So it is with the Christian. We cannot keep it bottled up as if there was nothing to tell, or no one to tell it to. The joy and hope of the salvation we have in Christ Jesus will naturally produce speech. We as God’s chosen priesthood of the baptized are given His speech to “proclaim the excellencies” of what He’s done (1 Peter 2:9). This is not to say that it will always come easily to us.

Our sinful nature wars against this desire to proclaim His excellencies. It wants us to be mute Christians, silent in the face of opposition or disapproval, silent when the opportunities come to witness. I’ve been guilty of this many times, when a natural opportunity to speak the goodness of God to me came up, and I failed from fear or shyness. But if we pray for God to open our mouths and if we make ourselves His willing servants by faith, then God will provide opportunities and will use us. We are called to hold fast to our confession of hope. Holding fast is the opposite of being non-committal, wishy-washy, or wavering. It’s to be firm and decided, to have confidence and certainty. But this confidence and certainty is again not born from ourselves, but from the faithfulness of Christ who promised us. The hope we have in Him is not a hope that disappoints (Rom. 5:5), but a certain hope grounded in the God who keeps His promises. He impresses this certainty in our hearts by faith.

The final thing the reader to the Hebrews calls us to do is to consider how we are to “stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Stir up, motivate, urge one another on to doing good and showing love. Don’t become complacent or inactive in your faith, but put yourself to work for the kingdom of God. In your position and calling in life there is a complete arena for you to practice love and good works with your friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, and yes even your enemies. Consider how we can stir one another up. Is there some special talent or gift that you have that you might put to work in the church or in the community? Are you a good leader? An encourager? A dutiful worker? Offer yourself to the Lord’s use.

Apparently it was already a problem in the first century church, that Christians were neglecting to meet together for worship. It was becoming a bad habit for those who believed to avoid the public assembling for worship. Today we have the same. But I’m preaching to the choir. Of course you’re already here. But many live as though gathering for worship each week was just one of many tasks on our to-do list, and one that often drops off the bottom when other priorities arise. Someone asked: “Can I be a Christian without joining the church? Answer: Yes, it is possible. It is something like being: A student who will not go to school. A soldier who will not join an army. A citizen who does not pay taxes or vote. A salesman with no customers. An explorer with no base camp. A seaman on a ship without a crew. A businessman on a deserted island. An author without readers. A tuba player without an orchestra. A parent without a family. A football player without a team. A politician who is a hermit. A scientist who does not share his findings. A bee without a hive.” I think you see the point. But to put it more biblically, it would be like a body that has an eye but no hand, a head but no feet, or an ear but no nose. What is a body with just one part?

Christians are not meant to be cut off from community with other believers. Worship is commanded in the third commandment. But even more than doing it because its commanded, we simply ought to worship for the same reason that we eat. We cannot survive without food, and so also our Christian faith will starve without God’s Word and Sacraments. It’s like cutting yourself off from the very source of health and nourishment, and expecting to survive. The communal nature of the Christian faith in the Scriptures is unmistakable. We’re called a spiritual house assembled by living stones, a holy priesthood (1 Peter 2:5), a body with members joined and articulated together (Eph. 4:19; 1 Cor. 12), members of the household of God (Eph. 2:19). We’re not meant to stand alone. The church is the primary place where we stir up one another to love and good works. It’s the place where we encourage one another and prepare for a life marked by our confession of hope. It prepares us to live in the world as confessing believers, with God’s speech on our lips and tongues. For we know the Day is drawing near. Next Sunday marks the last Sunday in our Church Year, and it’s at this time of year we especially remember the Lord’s promised return.

The expectation of His return calls us to examine how we’ve done in all this Christian life. And we’ll again see that a pure heart and a bold confession of faith are only ours by the mercy and blood of Jesus Christ, not by any success or achievement of our own. We confess our sins and turn to the only promised source of mercy. Only by what Jesus has done in dying and rising for us can we have confidence that He has opened the way for us. He descended from heaven to earth to carry us up to be with Him. So if we’re knocked off our ladders, consider it a good thing, and be glad that your confidence rests not in yourself, but in the God who’s faithful to what He’s promised. Day by day we’re readying ourselves for the final Day when Christ returns, when our hope will be realized, and we’ll enter heaven through the new and living way that is Jesus’ flesh, offered on the cross. With a heart sprinkled pure by His blood, we’ll see God. From this day on, and until that day, let us draw near to God with a True Heart. 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 must we have a pure heart to see God? Matt. 5:12. How does the Scripture describe our sinful heart? Gen. 6:5; Jer. 17:9-10; Matt. 15:18-20. What could prevent us from seeing God?

2. How does God give us the pure heart we need? How is this different from how we often speak of someone having a “good heart?” Ezek. 36:25-27.

3. How does this give the Christian confidence? Confidence of what and to do what?

4. What things might prevent us from holding fast to our confession of hope? What might cause us to waver? How do we make the bold confession? Read Acts 4; 1 Peter 2:9-12.

5. What can you do to stir others up in their love and good works? What can you offer in service yourself?

6. Why is worship an essential part of the Christian life? Is this law or gospel? What happens gradually if we remove ourselves from Christian fellowship?

7. Finally as the day of judgment approaches, where do we find our Christian confidence and certainty?

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