Pastor Chris Tweitmann
The anticipation of the big day is but a memory. (SLIDE #1)
The gifts have all been unwrapped. We’ve fulfilled all our family traditions.
(SLIDE #2) All that remains is for the tree to be taken down,
and all the decorations to be put away.
For most of us, Christmas ends on December 25th
and it’s the return back to normal life. But not so fast. (SLIDE #3)
What most people don’t acknowledge are the 12 days of Christmas.
These aren’t just words in a song.
This is actually a space of time set apart within the Church,
established back in the Middle Ages to stop us from moving on so fast
from this holy season and instead to keep celebrating Christmas,
to continue to ponder the stunning reality of who has been born unto us.
(SLIDE #4) As we continue our study of the book of Hebrews, the writer of this letter,
has the same goal in view – of keeping our attention on Jesus.
The original recipients of this letter were a Hellenistic Jewish Christian community facing increased persecution and therefore being both pressured and tempted to embrace a diminished, less contentious view of who Jesus is.
The primary goal of the writer of this letter is to encourage them
not to lose sight of but instead to “fix their eyes” on the
absolute distinctiveness and superiority of Jesus Christ.
In the first two chapters, the focus has been specifically on the Incarnation
– the very centerpiece and reason for our observance of Christmas. (SLIDE #5)
In chapter one, it is argued Jesus is more than, better than, any human prophet
or any heavenly angel because Jesus is the Son of God, God incarnate,
that is, made flesh, God come down to earth to be with us in Jesus Christ.
In chapter two, the implications of the Incarnation
what God does for us in Jesus Christ – are laid out.
Jesus comes as our brother in arms to be the pioneer of our salvation
– leading us into the kind of life we were meant for,
of becoming the best version of ourselves – all we created to be.
Jesus blazes this trail for us by serving as our liberator from sin, death & the devil,
as well as our high priest, our cleaner, in terms of both the stain and
the consequence of our shared disobedience, our rejection and rebellion
against our Creator and his will for our lives.
And now, keeping all this in mind, the writer kicks off a new thought with chap 3.
(SLIDES #6 – #9)
Continuing along the theme of the distinctiveness of Christ,
the writer asserts Jesus is greater than Moses. (SLIDE #10)
For a primarily Jewish community, Moses was the ultimate human authority.
Through his life and ministry as one called by the Lord,
Moses was the figure of the Law, the Torah, as God gave it to His people.
However, the writer is not being dismissive of the significance of Moses here.
What is being asserted is Moses merely set the stage for the One
whose life and ministry would deliver the fulfillment of the Law.
The writer is declaring Jesus is the One Moses anticipated. (SLIDE #11)
Jesus, Himself, in one of his many heated encounters with the Pharisees, said
the same thing when He argued He was the One whom Moses wrote about.
There’s no need to choose sides here because it’s all been pointing to Jesus.
While Moses is affirmed as a true and faithful servant in God’s house,
Jesus has been revealed to be God’s Son, the One who oversees God’s house.
(SLIDE #12) This image of building a house is a new one in this letter
but a common visual reference throughout the Bible
for describing our relationship with God.
Perhaps the most memorable example of its usage being
at the end of the Sermon on the Mount as Jesus concluded
His message by offering contrasting images of (SLIDE #13)
a house built on the sand versus a house built on the rock.
According to Jesus, the house built on the rock reflects a life
constructed upon the foundation of one’s relationship,
one’s discipleship, one’s following of Christ
whereas the house built on the sand reflects a life
built or established upon something or someone else – a different base.
Now, most of us hear that parable told by Jesus and walk away thinking
this house construction, this building project is on us.
Meaning, Christ has given us all the materials we need
through His life, His death, and His resurrection.
Christ has provided us with the blueprint and the work instructions
– by following His example and His teachings.
And the call for us is to build our lives upon the foundation of Jesus accordingly.
However, what the writer offers us here is an important and critical clarification to our understanding of HOW and BY WHOM
the house God has in mind is to be built. Were we listening carefully? (SLIDE #14)
Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses,
just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself.
For every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything…
…And we are his house,
if indeed we hold firmly to our confidence and the hope in which we glory.
We don’t build the house of the Lord. God builds the house.
God came down in Christ to build His house – to make His home among His children.
Truth be told, this is not a new revelation.
It is the fulfillment of a promise going all the way back to Moses.
In order to fully appreciate the insight of this passage,
let’s briefly view the history and misconceptions of this promise by God.
After their exodus from slavery in Egypt and before the Israelites
began their journey towards the land the Lord had set apart for them
long ago through Abraham, they made a stop at Mount Sinai.
At Mount Sinai, the people encountered the presence of God
through the manifestations of smoke and fire as well as
the voice of the Lord coming from the rumbling of the mountain.
After a shaky start to their relationship, God assures the Israelites,
through Moses, that His presence will not remain on the mountain
but that He, the Lord, will go with them to the Promised Land. (SLIDE #15)
God reveals to Moses that a portable temple known as “the tabernacle”
or “tent of meeting” — will house His presence on their journey.
Chapter after chapter describes the exact instructions
for constructing this tabernacle.
At the inaugural dedication of the tabernacle
and only there – God’s glory fills the tent.
God gives His people a visual aid that He is WITH and FOR them.
As they camp along their journey the tabernacle is always erected
right in the middle of the tribes and clans of Israel.
This is to reflect that the Lord’s presence is not just to be perceived
in their midst but rather to be understood as occupying the center of their lives.
The key takeaway is not about the building; but about the relationship.
In other words, it is not the tabernacle per se that distinguishes Israel
from all the other nations of the world; it is the Lord’s presence
with and for them – dwelling among them – that makes them stand apart.
Still, we are not the first to miss this – to get caught up in the building
to believe we have to build the house of the Lord.
450 years after God gave the Israelites
the schematics for the portable housing of the tabernacle, the people are now finally settled and unified in the Promised Land under King David.
With the best of intentions, David desires to honor God by building
a more permanent structure – an actual house for God, a temple for the Lord.
The Lord, however, negates this request.
If we remember this story, God basically tells David, (SLIDE #16)
“I never asked you or anyone else to build me a house.
I am not a God who seeks to be contained or rooted to one place.
I am the God who is on the move, that the portable, mobile tent,
I designed and occupied was not for my benefit or comfort
but as an assurance for your ancestors and as a visible sign to the nations.”
Despite all this, the Lord agrees to dwell with Israel in a temple
– a temple constructed not by David, but by his son, Solomon. (SLIDE #17)
Through the design plans revealed by God to David,
King Solomon constructs this Temple in Jerusalem and dedicates it accordingly.
When Solomon finishes praying, once again, as before,
back in the time of Moses, fire came down from heaven
and the glory of the LORD filled the Temple.
Once again, the Temple in Jerusalem became the hub of Israel’s life & witness.
Once again, the Lord offered His people a constant visible sign
of being with and for them.
Once again, the people became more focused on the building,
the presence of the Temple rather than the relationship
– the presence of the Lord among them.
Several hundred years later (about 600 B.C.), everything falls apart
from the people’s neglect of their relationship with the Lord –
from their disregard & outright rebellion against God’s direction for their lives.
The people, however, never saw it coming, never believed it possible,
because the Temple was still standing.
First, the Kingdom of Israel split in two.
Then, the two kingdoms of Judah and Israel fell
as God allowed first the Assyrians and then the Babylonians
to take the Israelites away from the Promised Land into exile.
Jerusalem is ransacked and the Temple is demolished.
However, in the midst of Israel’s exile, prophets sent from the Lord
tell the Israelites they will once again be restored to their land
and enjoy the presence of God in their midst.
Sure enough, 70 years later, through God’s miraculous provision,
the Israelites return to their homeland.
From the people’s vantage point,
their first order of business is to rebuild the Temple,
the symbol and dwelling place of God’s presence. (SLIDE #18)
With few resources, the Israelites do so.
Once completed, however, the rebuilt Temple is but a shadow of what it once was.
When they dedicate the new Temple just as Solomon did, nothing happens.
No cloud. No glory. No filling with God’s presence. Nothing.
This disappointment is countered by additional messages from the Lord
through the prophets that seek to clarify both the people’s expectations
and to refocus their understanding.
Through prophets like Joel, the Lord pointed to another, future dwelling still to come.
Again, this was not a new revelation.
It was pointing back to something God had promised way back when to David, something that got lost in all the excitement for the first Temple.
If we look back at when David wanted to build a temple for the Lord,
besides accommodating David’s request, God promised something even better, even more extraordinary.
Instead of David building anything for the Lord, the Lord told David, (SLIDE #19)
“I am going to build YOU a house – a house that will last forever.”
Rooted in this promise to David, the prophets after the exile
speak of a future temple that would eventually be built,
even more glorious than the one Solomon had constructed.
What God was going to build through the coming of the Messiah
and the filling of the Holy Spirit, would be a house for all nations,
a house with many rooms with room enough for all,
prepared for all God’s children, a house that would never fall.
Fast forward a few centuries to Jesus. The Messiah had come. (SLIDE #20)
Jesus is crucified and resurrected. And with His victorious ascension to heaven,
the Holy Spirit descended on Jesus’ original disciples at Pentecost.
(SLIDE #21) Through the story of Acts – the Acts of the Holy Spirit,
we witness the disciples picking up right where Jesus left off.
As they speak with the power of God’s word, as people are being healed,
as many – both Jew and Gentile – are believing and following Jesus
and being filled with the Holy Spirit – the Spirit of Christ,
it soon becomes apparent, God’s presence is once again among His children
but in a way more dramatic than ever experienced in the history of God’s people.
While the presence of God among His people becomes undeniable,
many Jews, like the original recipients of this letter, probably wondered:
What about the Temple? If Jesus was the Messiah, why is there no new temple?
Truth be told, most Jews during the time of Jesus, still perceived that temple
— the one God promised to build to be the 2nd Temple that was constructed
to replace (& further enhanced by Herod the Great) the original Temple of old.
But Jesus Himself never validated this perception. In fact, he rejected it. (SLIDE #22)
This is one of the reasons so many rejected Jesus and even sought his death.
No, Jesus consistently pointed to something different,
something God the Father was building through Him.
This is one of the more significant implications of the Incarnation
– of God coming down to be with us as a human being. (SLIDE #23)
As John puts it in the first chapter of his Gospel,
“the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us.”
With the coming of Christ, God was done with housing His presence in
physical structures crafted by humankind – buildings made of wood, stone, or brick.
With the coming of Christ, God made His home, His presence,
within human flesh and bone.
But Jesus only served as the cornerstone of what God sought to build
– the anchor point – the head, the foundation around and upon
which everything else would be built.
The rest of the house, the new Temple, God promised to build, first to David,
and then through the prophets, would be built out of people.
Through the giving and filling of the Holy Spirit,
those who belong to and follow Christ were to become the new Temple.
The radical continuation of the Incarnation is not just God WITH us and FOR us, through being in the person of Jesus Christ,
but God’s presence dwelling WITHIN us – Christ in us through the Holy Spirit.
This is what the first followers of Jesus came to understand
about their own identity. (SLIDE #24)
Hence, we have writers in NT like Paul or Peter or the writer of this letter speaking of us being “living stones” of “a house not made with human hands,”
– of “being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit”
—of “recognizing that our body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within us.”
Beloved, we are not the builders of the house of the Lord. (SLIDE #25)
We are the house that the Lord has promised to build, the house Jesus is building.
We do not build houses or temples for God.
Jesus showed us quite clearly that those kind of building projects have ended.
In negating the significance of the Temple in Jerusalem,
Jesus invalidated all religious strongholds that humanity builds.
No, Jesus is crafting us, through our bodies, through our lives,
into the house of the Lord.
We cannot cause God’s house to grow and come together,
we only can yield to the building work the Lord is doing both in and through us.
There’s nothing we can do to build this temple
for we are the building materials – the living stones – becoming by
the grace of God, the dwelling place of the Lord, where Jesus can be found.
Or what is otherwise known as the Church.
The implications of this insight are many.
First, contrary to how we often speak and act in regard to the Church,
the Church is not a voluntary organization.
We do not choose to join or participate in the Church.
We are chosen by the Holy Spirit to become, to be a part of the Church.
But being the Church isn’t a part of our lives and then there’s everything else.
Being the Church is what our lives in Christ are all about.
We truly are a part of something larger than ourselves.
Everything God is doing in and through our lives is part of
His promised building project – creating a home where He, the Lord, can reside, crafting a dwelling place, where He, the Lord, can be seen and found by others.
Despite how many Christians functionally live today,
there is no biblical vision of belonging to Jesus, of following Christ,
and not being connected to the Church.
However, the insight of this passage, reinforces what God is constructing
is not a physical, nuts and bolts, edifice, but a relationship
– a community of faith, a large, diverse, complex, varied company of people bound together by the Word and the Spirit and unified in Christ.
What makes us the Church is not an address.
What makes us the Church is not acquiring property
that we occupy and keep well equipped and maintained.
What makes us the Church is not possessing a strong budget,
offering large, quality programs, or being really friendly and sociable.
What makes us the Church is not even holding regular worship services
that are numerous and well attended.
All this is the stuff we try to build for God. But it’s not about that.
It’s about what the Lord is building in and through us.
What makes us the Church is the Word of God, the movement of the Spirit,
working upon us, building us up to be sent and to go out into the world
just like Jesus.
Following Him, following Christ is how Jesus builds His Church.
Not the gathering and the staying but the going to and the serving of others.
The call is what makes us the Church.
Not the call to go to heaven, that’s not what makes us the Church.
We are not managers or gate keepers of a religious organization.
No, as the writer expresses it, (SLIDE #26)
we as “brothers and sisters share in the heavenly calling”
– the call from heaven, to reflect heaven, to reflect the goodness of Jesus
into the lives of others, that’s what makes us the Church.
Does the last verse of this passage undercut all of this? (SLIDE #27)
Does the “if” used here imply that our status as part of the house
Jesus is constructing is somehow conditional – that it is about
our building work for Christ rather than Jesus’ building work in and through us?
No, this building project does not ride on us – on our work, on our effort.
We are not the builders. God alone is the builder of all things.
And biblically, we are repeatedly given assurance all that God builds is good
and every good work God begins He will bring to completion in Christ Jesus.
This is not a conditional statement as much as it is a logical observance.
Home is where our heart is. Home is wherever we lay our head.
Where we reside is where we are living. A house divided against itself cannot stand.
The work of building the house belongs to Jesus. (SLIDE #28)
But we have to choose to live at home – to daily yield, to regular repent
and submit to the work Jesus is doing in and through us.
God is building the house of our lives
and after the Lord begins a good work, the Lord keeps going.
But are we living at home? Who is building our home?
Are we inviting competing builders to work on this one house?
Another way of expressing this is to ask,
what or whom am I choosing for my formation?
Are we even aware of the “accidental formation”
that can happen in our lives if we don’t pay attention or just go with the flow?
What or whom builds our thoughts about politics?
A particular news network or party line, or the teachings and character of Christ?
What or whom builds our attitude towards power, sex, and money?
Whatever feels good or whatever we want or the witness and example of Jesus?
What or whom builds our practices for running a business,
for being an employee, for being a citizen and or a neighborhood?
Is it what we feel we deserve or have decided is our level of responsibility
or is it the standard of love and grace modeled and set by Jesus?
What or whom builds our beliefs about what it means to be successful?
Is what we value or aim for being shaped by selfish pride or vain ambition?
Are we being driven by a need to achieve validation or to gain the approval
of others? Or are we living out of confidence in who we are in Christ?
What or what builds our actions in terms of how we treat others,
especially those whom we dislike or with whom we disagree?
Is it the impulse and justification of our culture of outrage and retaliation,
of getting them better than they got you, or is it the mercy and forgiveness
of God in Christ extended to us when we were still enemies and not friends?
Invited or uninvited, acknowledged or unacknowledged, we all have builders.
Who are we inviting to build, allowing to build our lives?
We are not the builders, but we must continue to live at home in the house
the Lord is building because all we have going for us is Jesus.
If Jesus isn’t the One building our lives, then our lives will fall apart.
If Jesus isn’t the One building the Church,
then our witness for Christ and His Kingdom will be in vain and worse, false.
Christmas is not yet over but we are starting to put everything away.
Let’s just make sure we are not ever putting away Jesus.
For God didn’t come down in Christ just for a quick visit, a brief chat,
or the annual family get together.
God came down in Christ to tear down the walls between us,
the obstacles that divide us from Him, from ourselves, and from each other.
God came down in Christ to rebuild and renovate
our fractured lives, our broken world into something magnificent
– stronger than death and reflecting the glory of a love
– His love that cannot be conquered.
God came down in Christ to move into the neighborhood, to take up residence in our lives by building His house, His home not only with us but in us. Amen.