Pastor Chris Tweitmann
Today, we come to the end of the twelve days of Christmas, (SLIDE #1)
a special period of time established by Christians back in the Middle Ages
in order to more deeply reflect on the gift of Immanuel
– of God coming down to be with us in Jesus Christ. (SLIDE #2)
The last day of this celebratory journey in the Church is known as Epiphany.
Epiphany is a strange-sounding word. (SLIDE #3)
It is typically used when someone has a great insight or revelation.
In the Christian faith, however, (SLIDE #4) Epiphany is the designation for the day
the Magi, the wise men from the East, arrived in Bethlehem to give their gifts
to Jesus, in recognition of his birth as the King of the Jews.
Epiphany also often commemorates the baptism of Jesus, which came at the start of his ministry as an adult and revealed Him to be the Christ, the Messiah.
Epiphany, however, is not just the day at the end of the 12 days of Christmas.
Epiphany also is the name in the Church for mark the following weeks
leading up to Lent – the season when we begin to reflect on
Christ’s journey to the Cross and beyond.
Whether it is a day or a season or just a word in our vocabulary,
epiphany is about perceiving something previously unseen or unrealized.
(SLIDE #5) And as we return to our study of the letter to the Hebrews,
this is what the writer is seeking to provoke for his listeners
– a breakthrough in their understanding of what it means to follow Jesus.
So, let’s listen in & maybe, we will have an epiphany on Epiphany. (SLIDES #6 – #12)
Since this passage is clearly building off what has been previously said,
let’s review what we heard last week as we looked at the start of this chapter.
Once again, this letter is addressed to a group of primarily Jewish Christians,
who are facing ongoing persecution for their belief in Jesus as the Messiah.
To alleviate their suffering and yet still remain committed to Christ,
this community of believers is being tempted to try and fit Jesus
into a less controversial and contentious mold. (SLIDE #13)
Countering this inclination, the focus of the argument in the opening chapters
of this letter is Jesus is better – distinctively and uniquely superior to
any human prophet, any heavenly angel, & as we heard at the start of chapter 3, superior even to Moses, the central figure, the bedrock, the MAN of the Jewish faith.
Jesus is better than all the rest, because Jesus is more than a human being,
and nothing less than fully divine, God.
Jesus is not only better but the BEST because Jesus is the One who was promised,
the Messiah for whom we have been hoping and waiting.
While Moses was a faithful servant in God’s house,
Jesus is the son, the Son of God, the architect, the builder of the house.
Therefore, the writer tells us we must fix our eyes, keep our focus on Christ.
And now, in this section of the letter, to underscore this admonition,
the writer calls his listeners to remember & learn from the lessons of their past.
(SLIDE #15) He quotes track number 95 in the book of Psalms,
the playlist of Israel’s history and worship of the Lord.
This particular song reflects back on one of the more frustrating
and lamentable moments in the people’s relationship with God through Moses.
Specifically, it is the memory of the Exodus journey of freedom from slavery
in Egypt to coming to a new home in the Promised Land of Canaan.
It is the remembrance of “the time of testing in the wilderness,” as their ancestors faced the choice of whether or not to believe & trust in God’s guidance & provision.
But the people rebelled against this choice. (SLIDE #16)
Instead of opening their hearts and learning to listen and follow the Lord’s lead,
the Israelites stubbornly kept going their own way
to the point of hardening their hearts against God.
And it was this rebellion – this attitude towards God of “Prove yourself to me,”
it was this orientation of hard-heartedness, that resulted in (SLIDE #17)
an entire generation of Israelites wandering in the wilderness
for forty years until eventually they dropped dead.
Why is the writer bringing all this up now?
Childhood friend’s Mom who always expressed her parental wisdom
by referencing stories of the tragic fates of neighborhood children.
Jimmy Mueller – dived off the high board and got a cramp and drowned
because he went swimming after he ate lunch instead of waiting 30 minutes.
In much the same way, the writer of Hebrews is using
this TRUE story as a cautionary tale for his original audience.
(SLIDE #18) He wants them to see the potential parallels between
their circumstances and those of the former generation.
Like their ancestors, they are on the other side of another Exodus
– a new and better one – liberation not merely from the oppression of
a ruthless empire but freedom from the bondage of sin, death, and the devil.
The journey of those who came before them was
the road to resting, to being settled in a new, geographical homeland.
But their journey is the way to somewhere even greater
– from the way things are to the way things always were meant to be,
from the finite, broken life we settle for and into the full, abundant, & eternal life for which we were created – being settled and resting in our relationship
with our Creator, at home in perfect communion with ourselves,
with each other, and above all, with God.
And for the writer of this letter, this Christian community,
like the Israelites in the desert, stands at a crucial moment in the wilderness,
a crossroads in their journey of faith. (SLIDE #19)
In the midst of all their troubles, as they endure continued suffering,
will this community of people choose to hold on firmly to the very end or
will they turn away from the living God, allowing their hearts to be hardened?
For most of us today, at least in the Western world,
our day-to-day circumstances are not nearly as dire. Not even close.
Still, like anyone else, we live according to what we particularly experience.
And all of us have found ourselves walking in the wilderness as we follow Christ.
Everything around us that was once lush and fruitful – our work, our home life, our health, our relationships, becomes barren and lifeless.
It could be any one of these things. It could be all of these things.
Whatever it is, it’s that moment, that stretch, that season,
when our lives end up in the desert. (SLIDE #20)
Have you ever turned around twice and found yourself in the desert?
Maybe you’re walking through a wasteland right now.
Every day, as it seems like you are wading through wind and sand,
all you feel is the heat and the pressure.
And when the night comes, there is no relief.
There is only darkness and the growing fear that we are all alone.
It doesn’t take long for us to lose our sense of direction.
It doesn’t take much for us to begin to worry we are going nowhere.
This is where the rubber meets the road. (SLIDE #21)
This is when our faith – what we believe, in whom we place our trust is tested.
Our Creator, our God does not shy away from allowing us
to experience these moments, these seasons
– because these are the moments, the seasons,
when we can learn what truly matters and what does not,
when we can perceive the One, the only One we need,
the only One who can provide for us, the only One who can save us.
It’s easy to say we believe in God when God gives us
what we want when we want it,
when the Lord operates according to our timeline and our expectations.
But what we believe becomes more than talk, more than words,
more than a song we sing on a Sunday or a prayer we offer by rote before a meal, when everything doesn’t line up according to our plans,
when all the other things we often turn to for strength, for success, for resolve aren’t working anymore and God is all we have. (SLIDE #22)
It is in the desert of our lives that we discover God is faithful.
It is not when we have all things but when we have nothing,
that we come to appreciate the Lord is everything to us
– that Jesus alone has the words of eternal life,
that Christ alone is our hope and our salvation.
This is the epiphany of Epiphany. (SLIDE #23)
God in Christ is everything to us or God in Christ is nothing to us.
There is no middle ground. There is no meeting God halfway.
But we won’t learn this, we won’t realize this is the way, the truth,
and the life we are looking for, the life we’ve always wanted,
the life we were meant for, unless we choose to follow Christ
as we walk through the wilderness, unless we choose to yield to
the Lord’s guidance and direction rather than trying to go our own way.
The Israelites resisted this epiphany during their wilderness journey.
(SLIDE #24) Instead of allowing their faith to be tested and strengthened,
the Israelites tried to turn the tables by instead
putting the Lord to the test – through repeatedly demanding
more and more signs of God’s provision and care.
Something important to keep in mind here,
the Israelites hadn’t always lived in the wilderness.
It’s not as if living in the desert was all they knew.
They weren’t testing God out of ignorance
– because they didn’t know any better.
This is the Exodus generation we’re talking about. (SLIDE #25)
These are the people who were set free from their enslavement under Pharaoh
– having a front row seat to all the fireworks as one by one through the ten plagues the Lord dethroned the would-be gods of Egypt.
This is the generation saved from certain death by passing through the waters of the Red Sea while the rest of Pharaoh’s armies drowned.
These are the people who trembled before the fire and smoke of Mount Sinai
as they stood before the very presence of the Lord.
This is the generation fed by manna from heaven, their thirst satisfied by water that poured out of rocks and protected by God’s hand from would-be attackers.
It’s not from a lack of information or a lack of experience, (SLIDE #26)
that the Israelites chose to harden their hearts against the Lord.
The people chose to harden their hearts came from
a lack of applied knowledge, from their unwillingness to accept and to abide
in what God already had provided for them.
Instead of being grateful for what they had received
and continued to receive for forty years by God’s hand,
the people grumbled about what they didn’t yet have. (SLIDE #27)
Instead of learning they could trust the Lord to provide whatever they needed,
instead of abiding, relying upon and turning into their relationship with God,
the people turned away from the Lord and went astray.
They never rested. They just wandered in a constant state of fear and bitterness.
They never made it to the home in the land that God had prepared for them.
This is what the audience of this letter are on the verge of doing. (SLIDE #28)
In the midst of the struggles of their own journey
through the wilderness of their suffering and persecution,
their hunger for righteousness, their thirst for justice,
and their longing for an end to all their troubles,
this community is leaning towards walking away from Jesus.
Their doubts, their frustrations, & their impatience are getting the better of them.
(SLIDE #29) Their hearts risk being hardened, the writer of this letter warns
by sin’s deceitfulness. What exactly is the deceitfulness of sin?
Based on the example of the Exodus generation,
the deceitfulness of sin is the temptation to forget all the Lord has done for us.
It is the overriding impulse to dismiss
our knowledge of what we have given by God,
to negate what we have experienced in our relationship with the Lord
and instead to focus on what we lack, what we don’t have.
Rather than, based on prior knowledge and past experience,
choosing to believe we will be provided for,
choosing to trust will be taken care of,
we demand God prove Himself even as we question
whether or not the Lord can and will come through.
The deceitfulness of sin taunts us to reverse our relationship with the Lord,
through our words or actions, in essence declaring,
“I’m not interested or willing to put my faith and trust in you unless you prove you can deliver something that I want, that I believe I need – NOW.
Never mind, what you’ve already provided for me.
Never mind, how you’ve met me where I was before,
giving what I needed yesterday. What have you done for me lately?
I want assurances you can deliver TODAY.”
The deceitfulness of sin convinces us our faith in God is conditioned
based on the Lord providing for me – on our terms & to our level of satisfaction.
To be clear, walking through the wilderness isn’t a cakewalk.
Desert stretches in our journey of faith can be long and exhausting.
There will be times when we will hunger and thirst for more than we have.
There will be moments when the fear is real, and the doubts begin to form.
There will be voices whispering or maybe shouting at us
that we might as well as just give up and settle
or if we are going to get anywhere,
we will have to take matters into our own hands.
These is part of the journey of faith, the testing of what we believe.
Notice the specific caution the writer of this letter gives to us
is not per se against having a sinful, unbelieving heart. (SLIDE #30)
“See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you has
a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.”
Because of our brokenness, because of our sinful nature,
this is the heart we all have in relation to the Lord.
God didn’t come down to us in Christ because we believed in Him.
God came down to us in Christ because He believes in us.
While we were yet sinners, Jesus died for us.
Our broken, sinful, unbelieving hearts are a given
even as they are being transplanted by the grace of God
thanks to the work of the Cross and the Resurrection and through the Holy Spirit.
No, the specific warning is about turning away from the living God,
choosing to let go of Jesus and to let our hearts be led astray
by the deceitfulness of sin – believing God owes us, demanding Christ prove Himself to us, and until He does so, justifying our right to go our own way.
This is how we harden our hearts.
This is how we reject the heart transplant the Spirit is seeking to provide for us.
From the Exodus generation, we witness the trajectory of a hardened heart.
A hardened heart leads to wandering.
A hardened heart results in grumbling and complaining.
A hardened heart leaves us restless – bound up by fear and uncertainty.
Thankfully, the writer of this letter offers us more than a caution.
He also offers us a prescription for keeping our hearts open rather than closed, for preventing our hearts from becoming hard rather than soft.
It’s nothing earth-shattering.
In many ways, it is just the repetition of what he already has advised to do.
(SLIDE #31) It is to actively listen to God’s voice and to hold onto to Jesus.
However, the writer does add something new here
– the means by which we ensure we are hearing what God is saying to us
and the best method for not being led astray and letting go of Christ. (SLIDE #32)
By encouraging one another daily…as long as it is called “Today.”
In other words, we need to speak courage into each other’s lives
by reminding ourselves of God’s faithfulness,
by expressing gratitude for the Lord’s provision,
and by redirecting our focus away from what we lack
and towards what we have been promised,
what we can look forward to because of Jesus.
By encouraging one another daily…as long as it is called “Today.”
Part of the encouragement we must offer each other as we journey together
in following Jesus, especially through the wilderness, is to take it one step at a time.
Or as Christ taught us directly, not to get caught up in worrying about tomorrow, what will happen next, but instead to abide and to apply the knowledge and experience we have in our relationship with Jesus, the presence and empowerment of the Holy Spirit in order to make the most of today
– even if that just means holding on and not letting go of Christ.
As the calendar has turned the page yet again
and we have begun a new year, as we have started a new decade,
how’s that for a New Year’s resolution? Encouraging each other daily.
Being more encouraging in Christ
rather than spewing piss and vinegar about the state of this world
– the wilderness in which we find ourselves.
Daily spurring each other on in following Jesus more closely
instead of feeding the fear and the lie that living in peace
and getting things right is all up to us. God forbid!
Regularly reassuring each other to hold fast to Jesus,
even when we have no idea what’s going on
or why whatever is happening is happening
or how long whatever we’re going through will last or where we will end up.
How’s your heart these days? Hard or soft? Open or closed?
Are you starting to wander in the midst of the wilderness?
Maybe you just need a little encouragement – or a lot,
that you can actively trust that you are loved and not abandoned by Christ,
that no matter what you’ve done or left undone,
you are forgiven and not condemned by Jesus,
that the road of repentance also is the road to redemption.
Maybe you just need some encouragement in the eye of the storm
that while we see in part, one day we will know in full,
but what we know in part is the Lord’s promise to give us hope and a future,
that even death itself has got nothing on you or me.
The only remedy for our tendency to wander is for us
to mutually redirect ourselves to listen to the voice of the One who is true.
The only answer to our feeling of restlessness
when we can’t see where our life is headed, where exactly Jesus is leading us,
is for us to continually remind each other of where we’ve been
and how far Christ has carried us and out that knowledge, that experience,
by faith, to put our life – all of it – into Jesus’ hands. Amen.