Sunday, August 19, 2012

Persevering Through Faith

Texts:    Psalm 16; Hebrews 10:19-25, 35-39; 11:1-6; 12:1-3

   HERE'S SOMETHING SHOCKING: I didn't watch much of the Olympics.  It's not that I didn't care, it's just that I don't have a working TV since the government switched everything to digital.  But even without being glued to the screen, I was aware of the accomplishments of our U.S. team and the other athletes who competed.  Talk about drive and determination!  Talk about pushing through against all odds and reaching the goal!  Those athletes were perfect illustrations of what it means to persevere.

    "Perseverance."  We don't use that word much in everyday speech, but it's an excellence principle for life.  It means to keep on keeping on.  To never give up.  To maintain confidence and  "just do it," despite all the obstacles in the way.  The entire Letter to the Hebrews is about perseverance, about focussing singlemindedly on one goal and not letting anything get in the way of our achieving it.  This goal is beyond anything earthly or temporal; no, set before us is the glory and joy of the heavenly kingdom of Jesus Christ our Lord, which we will enter fully when He comes again at the last day.  Reaching that goal involves living every day as witnesses to the grace of Jesus Christ, in our behavior, in our decisions, in how we treat one another, in what we say about who Jesus is and His will for the world.  It's like being an Olympic athlete in training to win the gold.  Focus. Dedication.  Perseverance.

    But bad things happen in this life.  We run into opposition when we confess Jesus Christ as the only Lord.  Often it's uncomfortable and inconvenient to live the Christian life God has marked out for us.  It can be damaging, even dangerous.  Does God really expect us to keep standing on His word and following Christ in situations like that?  Is it all up to us to grit our teeth and keep going?  Or has He Himself provided us a way for us to stay the course and persevere?  The Letter to the Hebrews gives the answer to this last question as a resounding Yes.   God has provided a way, and we need to take it, if we want to receive the reward He has promised.

    This letter was originally written for 1st century Jewish Christians who were shaking in their confidence in Christ.  Trouble and persecution were tempting them to give up on Jesus as their Messiah and Lord.  Why not go back to Judaism?  After all, the Jews were protected under Roman  law.  As a Jew you got a special religious exemption: you didn't have to worship Caesar; you were free to practice your religion according to the books of Moses.  Why take on more difficulty?   Wasn't the Old Covenant good enough after all?  Why not decide Jesus was just one more of the prophets, and live in peace?

    The writer spends the first nine and a half chapters demonstrating that the Old Covenant was not good enough; in fact, God had given it only to lead up to the New Covenant in Jesus Christ.  The prophets were not good enough-- they were sent to speak of Him.  Angels were not good enough-- they are Christ's servants and our servants for His sake.  Moses and the Law were not good enough-- Jesus God's Son is the true Builder of God's house.  Keeping the seventh-day Sabbath was not good enough-- Jesus alone is our true Sabbath rest and He's what the Sabbath observance was all about.  The animal sacrifices in the Tabernacle and Temple were not good enough-- the blood of bulls and goats could not permanently cover sins, that was done only by the blood of the sinless Lamb of God shed on the cross.  The whole priesthood in the line of Aaron was not good enough-- it took a unique, eternal High Priest in the order of Melchizedek to offer the one true and perfect sacrifice of atonement, even Jesus Christ our Mediator.  None of these Old Testament types and shadows were sufficient to save the Jews or anybody from their sins.  Only Jesus Christ the righteous one was worthy and able to do what we needed to present us holy and righteous before the face of almighty God.   We really need a Savior, and He's the Savior we need.  That was true for those Hebrew Christians and it's true for us today. 

    Do you believe that?  I hope and pray so, for everything that follows is based on the facts of who this Jesus is and what He has done.

     So in chapter 10, verse 19, our writer draws the logical conclusion.  He begins, "Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus . . . " Every Jew would know what the writer was referring to.  The Most Holy Place, or as the King James Version puts it, the Holy of Holies, was that room in the Tabernacle and later, in the Jerusalem Temple, where the Ark of the Covenant was housed.  The High Priest (and only the High Priest) would enter it only once a year, on the Day of Atonement, to obtain forgiveness for the sins of the people.  But the Most Holy Place spoken of here is not anything on earth, it is the very throne room of God.  And now it's not the blood of an animal that justifies entry, but the blood of Jesus.  And now it's not only the High Priest who is allowed to come into the presence of God, it's all of us whom the blood of Christ has covered.  Formerly, it was a fearsome thing even for the High Priest to enter the Holy of Holies; now we all can have confidence to come before our Lord and God, because Jesus Himself is our great priest over the house of God.  Because of who He is and what He has done, we have every reason to persevere in devotion and service to Him until we taste the wonders of His kingdom. 

    Understand this!  The goal and meaning of human life is blissful fellowship with the God who created us.  Our sin got in the way, but by the blood of Christ we can walk right in to the presence of God and trust that His forgiveness is ours!  Unfortunately we don't have time this morning to explore all the rich Old Covenant imagery the author presents to us.  But see these words he uses.  In verse 22 he urges us because of Christ to draw near to God in full assurance of faith.  In verse 23 he encourages us to hold unswervingly to the hope we profess.  Verse 24 incites us to spur one another on toward love and good deeds.  All these words hammer home the message that we can keep moving on in the Christian life, and we keep moving on because we can trust in Jesus who has saved us.  So don't give up!  Keep on keeping on as the Day of Jesus' return approaches!  Persevere!

    We did not read verses 26-31; they warn us against turning our backs on Christ as if His death meant nothing.  Verses 32-34 reminded the Hebrews how God had enabled them to stand strong in the face of earlier persecution and should remind us that what we have done for His sake once, He will enable us to do again.

    So in light of all this (as we pick up in verse 35), let us not throw away our confidence.   "You need to persevere so that when you have done the will of God you will receive what he has promised" (verse 36).

    But let's be clear about this word "confidence."  If we don't watch it, we might think it's some feeling or effort we make in ourselves.  Like telling somebody to keep their chin up.  No.  It's not ourselves or our cheerful attitude we confide in, it's Jesus Christ whose blood enables us to enter the Most Holy Place of the throne room of God.  He's the One we can trust, He's the One in whom and through whom all God's promises to us will be fulfilled.

    And here's some essential encouragement: The time of struggle and trial will not be forever.  The day is coming when Jesus will return as the righteous Judge of the world, and all things will be put right.  Meanwhile (as the writer quotes the prophet Habakkuk in verse 38), God's righteous one-- that's you, who have been cleansed by the blood of Christ-- will live by faith.  By faith we do not shrink back and stop trusting Jesus; for to do so is the deserve destruction.  No, by God's grace we are those who believe-- who keep on believing-- and are saved.

    Faith is the key to our perseverance.  But what is this faith?  Ask people these days, and you'd think it was some kind of force.  Or again, something we ourselves gin up.  But the writer won't let us come away with this false impression.  No, he spends the entirety of chapter 11 giving us illustrations of what faith in God is.  We read only a few of those examples this morning, and what I want us to look at is this: That in every case faith means identifying God as trustworthy and living our lives based on that fact, even when the evidence of His reliability is not immediately before our eyes.

    "Faith," says 11:1, "is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see."  Our hope is in the return of Christ and the joy we will share in Him in His kingdom.  Is this a fantasy we've made up in our heads?  No!  We can be sure of it, because we have good and reliable evidence of the power of Jesus Christ, first and foremost in His resurrection from the dead.  It really happened.  Even though we didn't witness it ourselves, we can still trust in His promise to raise us, because He kept His promise that He Himself would rise from the dead.

    Again (verse 3), by faith we understand and confess that God made the universe by command of His word.  We have confidence in His nature and His power, that He was able to make everything we see and touch and enjoy out of nothing. 

    Then in verse 6, we read "Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him."  That should be obvious, right?  After all, why bother to please a being whom you don't believe to exist?  And why try to please a being who doesn't care about being pleased?

    The odd thing is, there are people who think they can be good without God.  They have some vague idea of what is Just or Right, but they refuse to identify that with Him who is just and righteous.  So in the end they are left to their own human conceptions of what is good.  But there is no true good in this world without it being anchored to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Faith has an object and a goal, and that goal is the triune God.

    And so, after the great account of the Old Testament saints who lived and died trusting in God and His promises, we come to chapter 12.  If we didn't understand before what perseverance means, if we were in any doubt about the object and focus of our faith, the writer makes it clear here.  "Let us fix our eyes on Jesus," he writes in verse 2, "the author and perfecter of our faith."  Jesus is the goal we run towards and He's the One who enables us to run at all.

    Something about verse 1, however: The "great cloud of witnesses" mentioned here.  Are they sitting in the heavenly stands cheering us on as we run the race marked out for us?  No.  The cloud of witnesses are those who, like the saints of chapter 11, lived and died testifying to the greatness and faithfulness of Jesus Christ.  They are the martyrs, if you will, who ran their races before us and won the crown of life that is promised also to us if we persevere.

    And we can persevere, for we run trusting in Jesus Christ and what He has accomplished for us.  Our faith itself is His doing-- He is its author-- He originated it and established it in us.  He is its perfecter-- He will bring it and us to the final goal of eternal life in Him.

    And He'll do this is in spite of the difficulties and disasters of this life.  For see what Jesus Himself endured: The cross, with its pain, shame, and degradation.  But He kept His eyes on the goal of pleasing God and the joy that would bring.  He is now enthroned as Victor in the great race.  Sure, we will have opposition from sinful men.  What do we expect, when we consider how they treated our Lord?  So let's not grow weary or lose heart.

    When I was a kid in elementary school, I'd walk home through the grounds of a nearby private girls' high school.  One day I picked up a strip of paper, maybe 3" x 12", an art class calligraphy exercise it was, and on it was lettered the motto, "Never lose sight of your goal, and it won't lose sight of you."  To a 5th grader this seemed very profound, and I took it home and taped it to my bedroom wall.  It stayed there for years, till I got to thinking, "Wait a minute, how can a goal keep sight of me or not, either way?"  After all, a goal is only a concept, not a person.

    But when it comes to persevering in the Christian life, this motto is very true.  For our goal is a Person.  Our goal, our object, the course we run and the One who keeps us running our course, are all Jesus Christ our living and victorious Lord.  We can trust in Him, all our confidence and assurance are in Him, and through faith in Him, we will persevere.

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