September 19, 2021. Hebrews 3:7-19 Matthew 21:28-32
No turning back!
The Comrades marathon is an ultramarathon event in South Africa. It is promoted as the “Ultimate Human Race”. This epic race attracts more than 20, 000 runners. You have 12 hours to complete the distance of about 55 miles. Millions watch it every year. One of the most dramatic features of this spectacle is that the mayor at the finish-line faces away from the finishing athletes. His eyes are fixed on a ticking clock. As the cutoff time of 12 hours approach, you see runners pushing themselves to their limit. They want to finish before the 12 hour cut-off time. 5-4-3-2-1, the mayor fires a gun, and the race is over. Every year a few runners are within a few feet of the finishing line – but they fail to make the cut-off time. Everyone feels for them, they often fall down in agony, in tears, and disappointment.
The Book of Hebrews is a book of faith. The author of the Hebrews book is concerned about people with in the congregation who are not going to reach the finishing line. He warns them to keep their faith, to persevere in order to reach the finishing line.
He compares the church with the ancient people of Israel in the wilderness. You know what happened: With a mighty act God rescued the Israelite from slavery in Egypt and went before them through the wilderness to the Promised Land.
In Hebrews 3:8 he says: “…do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion as on the day of testing in the wilderness….”. In verses 16-19 he states: “Now who were they who heard and yet were rebellious? Was it not all those who left Egypt under the leadership of Moses? But with whom was he angry forty years? Was it not those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, if not to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief?”
By reminding the congregation about the outcome of ancient Israel’s disobedience, he is warning them that they should not harden their hearts. If they hardened their hearts as ancient Israel, the same fate would befall them: They will not enter the Promised Land!
The problem apparently was that some of them became tired, or distracted, and they lost their faith and they wanted to turn back – to the metaphorical Egypt. And now he is warning them and admonishing them not to turn back. Israel is now an example of disobedience.
Some scholars argue that the book of Hebrews is in fact a sermon. The author’s main concern is that some of the flock may stay behind and may fall out of grace. His concern is that, in spite of an enthusiastic start of their journey, they become tired, disillusioned, and slow to continue. And then they will fall out of grace.
The author is not worried about the majority of the congregation. He knows that they will continue, they will remain faithful and enthusiastic. However, his concern is about a few individuals. People with the same faith, same convictions, friends within the congregation. They now have lost interest, they got tired of the journey and they became disillusioned, and now they are falling behind.
Ancient Israel in the wilderness did the same. When they were uncertain about their future, when they struggled with the heat and dangers of the wilderness, and when they had to go on day in, and day out, year in and year out, decade after decade, they wondered: “Is this worth it”. They took their eyes of God’s promises, they were questioning God’s words. And when this happened they thought: “Maybe Egypt was not so bad after all. In Egypt we had food, we had homes, we knew what to expect. Look at us! No-one knows what is going on. We have no idea of where we will be tomorrow.”
The author is saying: You want to go back to Egypt because you think it was better there? And he concludes: This is sin!
The Greek word Kreitton appears no less than 13 times in the book. And the word means “better”. Time and again the author reminds them that it is better now than what it was. “We are confident of better things (6:9), “…a better hope,” (7:19), “a better covenant” (7:22), “…better promises” (8:6), “…better sacrifices” (9:23), “…something better and more lasting (10:34), they desire a better country – a heavenly one.” (11:16), “God had provided something better” (11:40) and “…to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel” (12:24).
His conclusion is: “It is worth holding onto your faith. It is better to continue, to persevere. Don’t give up!” The author thus wants to encourage and comfort them by saying: “It is not always easy. There are challenges. You may sometimes wonder if it is worth, and you will have your doubts. However, it is better to hold on! It is worth it!”
We too are asking this question every day: “Is it worth it?” You see we have many options: We always have to choose between options. This one or that one – which one is better. Is this one worth it or is it not?
Business leaders weighing different options often do so by what is called a decision-making process. This process is a series of steps taken to determine the best option or course of action to meet their needs. They ask questions like: “Is this action better than that one? Is this one worth it?”
This is true in our faith as well. Is it worth it to continue? Is it worth it to love my neighbor or not? Is it worth it to forgive someone who harmed me? Behind every single decision I make, there is the question whether I will benefit or lose, whether I will have the last say or not, whether I will serve or be served. Will I be criticized if I speak out against injustice, or will I lose friends if I stay true to my Christian convictions?
You see the question is always: Is it worth it to be a Christian? Isn’t it easier, better, more convenient, more fun, more advantageous, and safer to choose another path, to turn around?
And let’s face it: Because there are always tempting options that may seem to be better, or options that may make more sense, it is not always clear what to do. Then doubt sets in and we find ourselves in our own metaphorical wilderness – just like ancient Israel. That is when we become spiritually tired, fatigued, we lose our enthusiasm, and little joy remains. We forget how it was when we first came to believe. We become lukewarm. Our faith in Christ then does not provide what we once felt.
We still use Christian language, we celebrate communion, and participate in religious activities, but we lack enthusiasm. And then we ask: “Is it worth it? is it worth getting up early to go to church? Is it worth is to spend valuable time to study the Bible? Is it worth it to volunteer? Is it worth it?
Some have already answered that question by saying no it is not! It is not worth staying involved at church. It is not worth it to show patience if someone disagrees. It is not worth to stay gentle and kind if my point of view is challenged. Statistics in the USA inform us that many have stopped going to church.
The author of Hebrews has an interesting definition of sin. He does not define sin as other authors in the Bible. Sin is not a few missteps or the failure of doing a good deed. For him sin is when one falls away from Christ and the church. Sin is to turn back, to long for what was, to leave your place at Christ’s table. Sin is when you, who once belonged to the body of Christ, turns away. In terms of the OT image, it is to turn back to Egypt instead of to persevere until you arrive in the Promised Land. Sin is thus a choice – to move away from Christ and his Church.
And one does so by making small choices, one after the other, until they collectively become a habit that you eventually cannot break or want to break! It becomes a lifestyle! So, sin, according to this book is to slowly but surely move away from Christ and his church!
Why is it so important for the author to spell this out? Well, it has to do with his vision of the future, his expectation about the promises of God. When one loses this vision of the future, you lose your wonder of God. You lose the awesomeness of the Gospel. You stop dreaming about the new heaven and new earth. You don’t keep your eyes on Jesus, the Christ. Instead, you focus only on the now and what matters here. And then your faith does not seem worth it any more. Then you drift away.
It is almost as if, over time, your eyesight weakens, slowly so that you at first don’t notice it. You see your vision as normal.
Esau serves as an example: “See to it that no-one becomes like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal.” He sold his future, that is God’s promises. God’s blessings were tied up in his future. And yet for a single meal, he departs from God’s blessings. It is almost as if the author still cannot believe the shortsighted action of Esau – for a single meal!
Esau selling his inheritance was the final action of a process that had started long before. He became so used to his inheritance that he did not see it as special anymore. There were other things that seemed better to Esau – a single meal! And before he knew it, he lost his future!
A common sight at the Comrades marathon finishing line, is athletes helping each other to cross the finishing line in time. They would even drag the fellow athlete over the line.
The book of Hebrews says it is not just up to us as individuals to keep our focus. “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called today, so that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sins. For you have become partners of Christ, if only we hold our first confidence firm to the end.” (3:12-13). We are responsible for each other! In essence he is saying: keep an eye on each other, help each other, be there for one another! We are all in this together!
You have done a remarkable job of keeping an eye out for each other during the last 18 months. You emailed, sent cards, zoomed, and dropped of gift packages to show you care and to be there for each other. I thank God for you!
There is more work to be done though. We are not there yet. We have not yet arrived at the Promises Land. We still have work to do!
Let us keep our eyes on Christ and on each other. Let us remind each other that the promises of God is better. Let us keep the faith and encourage one another so that no one wants to turn back. Let us persevere! Our faith in Christ is worth it! Amen.