Rev. Jeff Chapman ~ Faith Presbyterian Church
19Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (Hebrews 10:19-25, NRSV)
This week I discovered some old cassette tapes buried in a cabinet at home. One of them was full of songs written and recorded years ago by a very good friend. So I popped it in and gave it a listen. (Yes, we still have one last working cassette tape player in our house. Unfortunately, the 8-track player finally broke last year.)
Anyway, the songs made me sad. You see, this friend has been a friend since college. We served together in ministry and were in seminary together. I remember when he wrote these songs, most of them expressions of his faith in Christ and stories of how God had worked in his life. They are good songs, not only in quality but also in their bold testimony to the faithfulness of Christ. One song in particular was a song he wrote for his family at Christmas. As the only Christian in his family he wanted to give this song to his parents and his sisters as a gift and as a way to share his faith with them. In the chorus he sings, “If you need a miracle, take a look at my life.” They did. At least one of his sisters gave her life to Christ shortly after.
The tape is full of great songs but they made me sad because my friend no longer sings them any longer. He doesn’t sing them any longer because he doesn’t believe them any longer. Some years ago, and for reasons I’m not sure I understand even today, he walked away from his faith, from Christ, from all that his music stood for. And even though we are occasionally still in touch, I am saddened because my good friend no longer shares my faith in Christ, and in that something of great value has been lost.
And I think to myself that if this could happen to a guy like that, a guy who was once so genuinely devoted to Christ, it could happen to me. And if it can happen to him or me, it could happen to anybody, anybody in my family, anybody in this church, any one of you sitting here this morning. It is a very sobering thought, that one who once walked so closely with Christ could eventually just turn and walk away.
The writer of Hebrews knew this possibility existed. This is why he includes in his letter an urgent appeal to his friends to persevere in the faith and not to fall away. In verses 19-22 he reminds them of all that they have in Christ, of all that we have in Christ. Because of Christ’s sacrifice, we can confidently come into the very presence of God. Christ’s death and resurrection have made a way back home to God and if we would have faith we don’t have to hesitate in coming home. The way is open. We can be assured that our hearts and minds have been made clean and pure before God. In Christ, we are God’s beloved. In Christ, we are God’s favored ones. In Christ, the full life of God is ours, both now and forevermore.
Having reminded us of this unspeakable treasure, the writer of Hebrews then gives us a warning. In verse 23 he writes, “Let us hold fast [then] to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” What happened to my friend can happen to any of us, and so we must keep a firm grip.
As I thought about these words this week the image of ship came to mind, a ship at sea sailing through a terrible storm. The wind and the waves and the rain are relentlessly battering against this ship, threatening to sink it and take the lives of everybody aboard. The ship will not sink, however, because storm can sink this particular ship. It is an utterly dependable ship which means that as long as the passengers hold on tight they will make it through the storm.
A few weeks ago I visited a church not far from here with some friends and when we walked into the sanctuary one of my friends pointed out the unique architecture. As she saw it, the church looked like the giant hull of a ship turned upside down with all of us inside. She was right. It did look like a ship. The fact is that many church buildings down through history have been designed like ships to serve as constant reminders to God’s people that the church is a refuge in a world which is relentlessly trying to sink our faith. As we cling to the church, however, we cannot be sunk. Remember when Jesus once said, referring to Peter who was the first leader of the church, “Upon this rock I will build my church, and [not even] the gates of hell will prevail against it.”
With this in mind, the writer to the Hebrews gives us specific instruction. In verse 25 he warns, “Do not neglect meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.” Don’t let go of the ship, in other words. Some people will. Make sure you are not one of them.
You know, it is quite popular today for people to declare that they believe in God but aren’t that thrilled with the church. People will say, “I’m a Christian, I just don’t go to church.” As many times as we hear this we must not forget that such a statement would have made absolutely no sense to the writers of the New Testament who clearly understood from Jesus that the Christian life lived in isolation is, in fact, not the Christian life. Jesus spoke ceaselessly about creating a family of brothers and sisters united in him and loving one another as much as they loved themselves. Paul spoke about the church as a body of very different parts but knit together intimately with Christ as the head.
So let me make this clear. You cannot grow and mature as a follower of Christ apart from this community or some other like it. It will not happen. It cannot happen. Christ meets us in the church, his body, to teach us, and encourage us, and challenge us, and assure us, and forgive us, and uphold us, and equip us, and ultimately transform us into his character. The church of Christ – not the building, mind you, but the people – is a ship in this storm that will not sink. That means that you and I must make sure we hold fast to this ship if we are to ride out this storm of life.
Apparently back in the day when Hebrews was written there were people who got out of the habit of going to church on Sundays. Imagine that! And they didn’t even have football as an excuse! It’s easy to do, though. You miss coming one Sunday and it feels good to sleep in. Then you miss the next Sunday, and the next. Before long you’re out of the habit. It happens all the time. And though the shift will be subtle, you begin to lose your grip. As you walk away from the church you walk away from Christ. Nobody follows Jesus alone. Apart from the ship, it’s only a matter of time until you will be lost at sea.
Now, coming to worship on Sunday morning is certainly not the only time the church gathers together. It’s the best place to start, however. What we are doing here this morning, gathering on the Lord’s Day to worship, around God’s Word and around the Lord’s Table, is the central activity of the life of the church from which all our other activities flow. So as your pastor, I fervently encourage you to make sure you are here with us when we gather on Sunday mornings. In fact, unless you are sick or out of town, you need to be here with your community in worship. And if you’re out of town, I highly encourage you to find some church community where you are and join them in their worship. Trust me, both they and you will be blessed if you do.
We each need to fervently maintain our fellowship with the community of the church. So much depends upon it. And what strikes me about this passage is that the writer challenges us not only to be concerned with maintaining our own fellowship with the church but also challenges us to be concerned for others and their connection. In verse 24 he tells us, “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” In other words, I should not only be concerned that I am staying connected to the church but I must also be concerned that you are staying connected as well.
Like it is for many of you, having dinner together is very important in our family. It’s not easy with six people who each have full and active schedules, but we work hard as a family to make sure that most nights we are sitting down together around the dinner table, even if it’s for 15 minutes squeezed in between a church meeting, soccer practice, guitar lessons, and homework and the rest of it.
It doesn’t always happen. Some nights there is an empty chair. And for me at least, there is always a sadness in that. If I get home tonight, for instance, and find out that one of my kids is off having dinner at a friends’ house, we’ll still have dinner together, the five of us, but that empty chair at the table will bring a bit of sadness, because a little something will be lost. It’s better, somehow, when all the chairs are filled. (As you can see, I’m going to be a pitiful mess when my kids start moving out and heading off to college.)
Imagine I was the one that missed dinner at my house tonight. I was expected to show up but never did. And imagine that even though I don’t show, nobody calls wondering where I am. My family just goes ahead without me, ignoring the empty chair at the table. When I miss dinner again Monday night, the same thing happens. No call. Nobody wonders. It’s as if nobody misses me. Imagine I miss 10 nights in a row and eventually my family stops setting a place for me. They don’t even expect me to show up any more. Can you imagine if such a thing happened?
Tragically, it does happen. It happens in the church. There are people who have a place in this community, people who even sit in the same pew every Sunday morning. But then one week they don’t show up. No big deal, nobody’s here every week. But then the next week their spot is empty as well. And the week after that. And you see how it happens. There’s a lot of people here, a lot of people to keep track of. And some people have kept to themselves mostly, never taking any initiative to connect much with the rest of us. And that makes it hard on us. You may notice somebody’s been missing, but you may not even know their name. So nobody calls. Nobody reaches out. Nobody checks in. In time, nobody remembers.
I chose the image of the table on purpose. Like a ship, it’s another good image for the church. It’s an image Jesus uses, in fact. When he invites us into his community, into his family, he invites us around his Table. Regularly in worship we gather, as God’s people, around this table, the Lord’s Table. Not just us, but Christ is here also to meet us as our host, to welcome us into the very community of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – and to nourish us with the very life of God.
Beyond Sunday mornings, we also meet one another and Christ around other tables. Early this past Tuesday morning I gathered with about 10 other men around a table in a local coffee shop as our Life Group met to reflect on scripture, share about our lives, and pray with and for each other. I believe Christ himself was there with us. On Tuesday night I met with a few other leaders in the church around the coffee table in my office to make plans together for the building forum we are presenting after worship this morning. I believe Christ himself was there with us. On Wednesday night I gathered with others around dinner tables just outside these doors as our Life Together course met to think about how we can grow together in the character of Christ. I believe Christ was there with us. On Friday afternoon I gathered with many of you around tables in Link Hall as we celebrated the life of our dear sister, Adeline Johnson. Once again, I believe, I know, Christ was there with us.
There are people who used to sit around these tables with us and Christ, people who do not sit around them any more. Some of them, of course, have died and some of them have moved away and we understand why they are not here but miss them nonetheless. Others of them, however, still live among us in this community but, for one reason or another, they no longer join us around this or any other table.
Again, the reasons are varied. I know people who are ashamed to come back. Some moral failure in life has left them convinced that they don’t belong. They are wrong, of course, but they don’t know that. Others aren’t here because of some conflict. Somebody did something or said something – might even have been me – that upset them and rather than seek to make amends they walked away. Others aren’t here because they don’t feel welcome. It’s rare in our church, I think, because we are generally a very hospitable group, but there are times when people have not sensed the hospitality that many of us do sense. And of course, some people are not here because they simply got out of the habit of coming. One Sunday became two became five became ten and after a while it feels almost awkward just to show up again, especially if nobody even seemed to notice you were gone in the first place.
The writer to the Hebrews encourages us to do our best not to let this happen. “Provoke one another,” he tells us. That’s an interesting word. It’s got a negative connotation. Provoke is what I did to my little brother on long car trips in the back seat when I was a kid, inching my fingers slowly towards “his side of the car”, closer and closer until he couldn’t stand it and burst. I hate to admit it, but the punishment I received for such provocation was usually worth it.
To provoke is to incite, to aggravate, to needle. And it can be negative and mean-spirited. My little brother knows that firsthand. But it can also be done out of love. Every parent knows this. Out of love, every parent I know is doing their best to provoke their children towards good behavior, and good study habits, and a healthy diet, and good friends, and wise choices. And we don’t give up. We needle our kids over and over about these things.
We are responsible for one another in the church. I am responsible for you and you are responsible for me. So in the church when your sister is discouraged, you must provoke her with encouragement. When your brother has fallen into some sinful and destructive behavior, you must provoke him with accountability. When I have come to embrace some false teaching, you must provoke me with the truth. When you are struggling with doubt, I must provoke you with faith. When we both are letting division and conflict get the best of our relationship, we must provoke each other with love.
This is not easy to do. Let’s admit it, it’s not always what we want to do. A friend of mine here told me this week that when there is conflict in her family she wants to do what many of us want to do when there is conflict in our families. She wants to just take her dinner off to her room and eat by herself. Instead, however, she forces herself to make fondue and then provokes her family to come to the dinner table with her. She chooses fondue because it’s a community meal and you can’t eat fondue without dipping into the same bowl and dripping on each other and passing food around the table. It’s a great idea. Maybe this is why the Swiss are always staying out of conflict!
When a brother or sister in this community has neglected meeting together, as is the habit of some, and has left their chair around the table empty week after week after week, whatever the reason it is incumbent on us to provoke them back into the community. They are wavering in their confession of hope, turning their backs on the one who has promised to be faithful, and we must not stand by and simply watch that happen. We must go after them. We must encourage them. We must make sure they know that we are saving them a place and that we expect it to be filled soon.
Many of you do this so well. Recently I was talking with a woman here who used to come to Faith but had gotten out of the habit. She’s back now. I asked her what led her back. She told me that she was in the grocery store one day and bumped into somebody she knew from this church because they sat in the same pew every Sunday. After catching up with one another, this other person looked at her at one point and simply said, “I have really missed seeing you and your family in church. Why don’t you come back this Sunday? I really want you to come back and join us.” That was all it took. She came back. Her seat at the table is empty no longer.
So here’s what I want you to do. Take a minute right now and think of one person you know who used to sit with us here around this Table but is no longer here with us now. Maybe he or she has not been here for some time. Maybe you know the reason, maybe you don’t.
How many of you can think of somebody, or some family? Keep that name in mind. Better yet, take a moment and write that name down in the chair that is printed on the front of the Next Step. Go ahead, take a moment and do that.
In a minute we are going to pray for these brothers and sisters. We’re going to lift them up before God and also pray for God to show us how we can provoke them back towards Him and towards his church. But before we pray, I want you consider this. When you have fallen out of touch with a good friend and have the desire to reconnect, what do you do? Usually what you do is you invite them to sit with you around some table or another. Right? You call them up and invite them to coffee, or to lunch, or to grab a beer. Only God knows how many friends have reconnected over a cup of coffee at Starbucks.
And so here’s what I want you to do. The application from today’s sermon is going to be as practical as it has ever been. I want you to pray about this one person or family God has put on your heart this morning and then I simply want to you reach out to them this week and invite them to sit around some table with you. Might be a table at your favorite coffee shop, your favorite lunch spot, your favorite pub. Might even be your own dinner table. Whatever the table, make it happen. And when you meet, simply let them know that they have been missed. You have missed them. Our community has missed them. There has been an empty seat here at Faith for too long now and that empty seat is, for us, a source of sadness. Say to them what some of you have heard me say to you, “We are saving you a spot. It really is better when you’re here.”
Will you do this one thing this week? How many of you will do this? I will as well. In fact, I’m going to call an old friend of mine who used to write fantastic songs about how God has made a miracle out of his life. If God could do it once, maybe God could do it again.
And by the way, as we go after the ones who have wandered away, provoking them, encouraging them to come back home, you and I do the very thing that Christ is forever doing. Remember, he is the shepherd who leaves the flock of ninety-nine to go off and rescue the one sheep who has gotten lost. He is the friend of sinners who invites those to his table nobody else will even consider inviting. He is the one who said about himself, “The very reason the Son of Man came to earth was to seek out and to save those who were lost.” When we go out to provoke somebody back to the Table we will meet Christ there and we will meet him there doing the very same thing we are doing.
The Next Step
A resource for Life Groups and/or personal application
Read Hebrews 10:19-25. What do you notice here? What is the writer’s main point?
Verse 23 encourages us, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” What does this mean? Have you ever wavered in the confession of your hope?
We are encouraged her not to neglect meeting together as is the habit of some. Why do you think it becomes the habit of some in the church to neglect meeting together?
Are Sunday morning worship and other gatherings of the church a habit for you? Why or why not?
If you suddenly stopped coming to church do you think people would notice and come get you?
James 5:19-20 reads, “My brothers and sisters, if anyone among you wanders from the truth and is brought back by another, you should know that whoever brings back a sinner from wandering will save the sinner’s soul from death and will cover a multitude of sins.” What is James telling us here? Is there some urgency in going after people who have wandered away?
After Sunday morning was there a person you believe God brought to mind for you to go and reconnect with? Have you?
Life Group Challenge: Think together about a group about the people who used to sit around your circle. What can you do to invite them back into the circle? Make specific plans about who will reach out to this person (these people) this coming week.