We come today to the end of a time too brief as we unwind the text of Hebrews, as we study and pray about the message of the book, and as wel seek to understand the text and the application of the message in our lives. For this lesson, I chose my own topic, which is a delightful opportunity and also a challenge. "Communicating the Message of Hebrews in Today's World."
The title raises several questions:
What is the message of Hebrews?
What is the nature of today's world?
How bridge gap to insure communication?
Must remember that I am a preacher. I have always seen myself as a preacher. Still have trouble seeing myself as a professor. Do not always take direct route.
To answer the questions, not directly but indirectly, let us visit a text that usually runs like a refrain through any study of the book of Hebrews. The author is summarizing, concluding. A little text remains after, but this summarizes. Heb 12:1ff.
"Surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses"--one last glance over shoulder to list of people of faith that were the forefathers--in heritage and in faith--of those reading this writing. These people of faith are also our heritage. From Chapter 11 we are reminded of Adam, Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Isaac, Moses, Rahab...on and on. All of these living lives by faith before God.
As a preacher, I marvel at restraint required not to preach a little sermon on each of these. Shouldn't we be strong like Samson? Should we be willing to give up everything like Abraham, etc. etc. But here is an important point for preachers. It is not always inspiring to parade before an audience the great superheroes of faith. In fact, it may be depressing.
Listen to our sermons. The illustrations are Peter and Paul, or missionaries who endangered their lives, had feet frozen off in arctic or bodies shriveled in equatorial heat. We sit in church, we listen to these, the preacher throws in a couple of good Alexander the Great or Napoleon stories. It's too bad you can't be a Christians like that in the small town where I grew up in central Kansas. What a shame that in my little town, no one is chasing, imprisoning, or killing Christians.
It reminds me of summer camps. I remember inspiring, candlelight nights of consecration, lighting candles around the circle, "I am committed." I can give my life, I will give my life. I did not know how I would give my life. We had our dreams--rescuing someone, serving as a missionary, foreign lands, persecution.
I was sincere, have been through 50+ years of preaching. I like to call it 6 decades, soon to be 7. 60s, 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s, 10s. I will give my life, but no one warned me that it would not happen as I imagined. In battle, in war, men and women "give their lives." But most of us do not give our lives that way--rather we give our lives a little at a time, a day at a time, an event here, years of little things, one speaker calls them little checks--45c, 1.82, 2.03, 26c... Our lives are nibbled away. Lives of drinking a sip here, sip there. You one day retire. Did you notice, did anyone notice...that you gave your life, drank the cup, paid the price?
Now these heroes were not perfect. Some preachers like that kind of preaching--they like to point out the flaws of others, it is easy to take the great characters of the Bible and our time and point out flaws, show the feet of clay. Abraham lied about his wife, Jacob cheated his brother, Rachel took the old idols along just in case. We preach such sermons and everyone feels good. "Everyone has their problems." We're only human.
But that is not the purpose of Hebrews. The writer says these great people of faith lived their lives with trust in God, they endured, they were faithful. They are the cloud of witnesses, they have a testimony, they declare that God is faithful, dependable, that the promises are secure. But then the attention quickly turns to you and to me.
These are what Joyce Landorf has labeled the balcony people. They are in the balcony cheering us on, pulling us up, reminding us that the task is possible, the obstacles surmountable. But as these cheer us on in our race, we are reminded that it is now our time. These have continued on despite the odds and obstacles, and now the fatigue, the danger of falling, the difficulties are upon you and me.
Thus we are introduced to our assignment--casting off, getting rid of, shedding every impediment, every hindrance, every burden, every sin that clings too closely. Get rid of that so you can run. This is a race. Get rid of everything that holds you back. Easy to say, difficult to do. Because we love some of those things, relationships, pains, habits, this is difficult to do. But an even bigger problem arises when we do not know what they are.
We are so capable at self-deception. Illustration: preacher in a church, problems, preacher knows there is a problem, he IDs the persons causing problems, he continues, he prays "Lord remove the problem." A few months later he is gone, preoccupied all that time with the wrong thing. It is not easy to lay aside the hindrance and run with endurance.
I would like to use another word, endurance is tough. Perseverance no better. Some translate patience, but that's not what it really is. Is endurance. Stick-to-it-tiveness. Staying in there. Wish I could spruce it up, but it's get up and go, every day, day after day. You know of wonderful times when what we want to do and have to do are the same. Blissful, but most of time what we want to do and what we have to do do not coincide, and that's endurance.
This is especially problematic in a culture enamored with feeling. How did you feel about it? Well, I didn't feel like it. Why weren't you there? I didn't feel like it. I passed out scripture texts for students in class to preach. Students look at text they receive, flip through Bible, read the passage, and come to ask, "Can I have another one?" "What's wrong with that one?" Well, I read it and didn't feel anything. Well, take it home and get to feeling something because that is assignment.
I remember first time an eldership asked me to preach on a specific text. I was terrified. How do you preach on a text? I'd been to school 4 years, graduated with a degree in Bible. Many preachers are not enduring, they are taking the easy way out, preaching on whatever they feel like, not on what the church needs to hear, not on what God wants to say. Many people want the reward first, they want to feel good.
But what makes world go around, what makes the church work, what keeps everything going, is endurance. Jan rushes around, cleans house, it looks great. I ask her why? She says, "Every time I see a vacuum, I get that feeling, I am moved, I am thrilled." No. She says, you invited company, I don't want them to see house like this, get out of the way.
A professor grades papers late, a preacher is back at the office, or at the building on his day off, why. Up early, staying up late. This is not about racing pulse and throbbing heart. Preachers preach sermons with heavy hearts--daughters in trouble, sons expelled, accidents, problems. He goes to the pulpit, temples pounding, he preaches the gospel. Why? Because it is 11:00, it is Sunday, and he's the preacher here.
7:15 Sun p.m. Jan, can you drive home? Understand, she never drives, I always drive. I get home, temp is 104. I didn't know I was so sick. Endurance makes the world go round. Run with endurance, looking to Jesus. Easier to look around, easier to look at everything else. All are interested in marketing, what is popular, what do people want? there is a world of difference between what people think they want and what they need. "Looking to Jesus...."
This does not mean we just going around bragging on Jesus, saying wonderful things about God, Christ, King, Master, this and that. This is not using the name of Jesus to endorse political or personal agendas. Jesus is more than a name to pronounce in polite places. When some find Jesus, they start mentioning him often, but their lives are no different. Looking to Jesus. What does that mean? He is the model, the pioneer, the trailblazer, the forerunner. That is how we live if we understand and live out the book of Hebrews.
Do you know this Jesus? How can we communicate this superior Jesus? They bring him a leper, he touches him. They bring him babies--crying, wetting, dropping pacifiers. The disciples said, Get those kids out of here, we're trying to have kingdom here. Take them to junior kingdom. Jesus said, let them come, this is kingdom. He feeds multitudes, is compassionate to hungry, eats with sinners, with the rich, with the poor. He loves, he cares, he gives himself. He weeps over sin. He is ultimately hanged on the cross for us. This looking to Jesus is right here, and it is very hard.
He doesn't look like Messiah, "who for the joy set before him endured the cross, despised the shame, and is now set down at the right hand of God."
When we look to Jesus, we have to make majestic flip-flop. This character of God, the Son of God disappoints. The Jews thought that where Messiah is there will be no problems, now they have to see the opposite. It is precisely where we struggle--when we disappoint ourselves, when we want to quit, when we do quit, when we see our own sinful struggle--that Jesus is there, witnesses are saying it is worth it, cheering us on, there is his example, there is his way opening before us. This is life-changing faith in Christ, not just in his life, but in the life of the church.
How do we communicate the message of Hebrews in our kind of world? Throw aside the hindrances, run the race with patience, look to Jesus constantly, and follow his example. Live faithfully, love all generously, support others compassionately, speak truthfully, pray daily, and leave everything else to God! Do not quit. That is the message of Hebrews that we take to the world most effectively when we live it out in our daily lives.
[Note: Some of the illustrations and wordings reflect Fred Craddock's excellent treatment of Hebrews in the "Odyssey" series.]
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