Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Full Assurance of Faith

Full Assurance of Faith
Hebrews 10:14-25[1]
In a recent sermon I quoted one who observed that if we cannot trust that Jesus is presently working on our behalf, the church is left with a faith that “consists of believing in an extraordinary past and an extraordinary future.”[2] In fact, that has been one of the main criticisms of the Christian faith: that we’re either stuck in a fabled past or we’re dreaming of an incredible future. It’s not too hard to look around and find various religious groups who look like they are still living in some past era. Their clothing, their culture, even their hairstyles look out of place. And on the other hand, Karl Marx was famous for saying that the Christian faith only encourages people to avoid the harsh realities of life by promising them pie in the sky by and by.[3] Either way, the claim is that Christians avoid real life in the here and the now with all its struggles and injustices and pain.
While there are some Christian teachers and preachers who could be guilty of sugar-coating our faith, I would insist that the Bible’s message does no such thing. In the first place, we follow a Savior whose life and teachings resulted in his being executed in a most appalling manner.[4] But, more than that, the Apostles and Prophets of Scripture teach us consistently that those who seek to follow God’s ways in this world will suffer for it. The reason for that is the values of “doing justly, loving mercy, and walking humbly with our God” run so directly contrary to the values of our world. And yet, suffering is never God’s last word for us. Ever!
In our lesson from Hebrews for today, I think the Scripture addresses the question of what our faith does for us in the challenges we face in our everyday lives. It assures us that “we can boldly enter heaven’s Most Holy Place” because “by his death, Jesus opened a new and life-giving way.” (Heb. 10:19-20, NLT).  Therefore we can go “right into the presence of God” (Heb. 10:22, NLT). I think the point is that God has not left us to try to find our way through the maze on our own. We have an open door to God’s grace and mercy and love any time we need it. In fact, whether we realize it or not, that open door has flooded our world and our lives with God’s grace, mercy, and love. There is no challenge we will ever have to face alone. There is no hardship or injustice or pain that we can undergo without the presence of the living God who created all the heavens and the earth right there with us, supporting us every step of the way.[5]
The letter to the Hebrews has already presented the message that Jesus died to break the power of everything that keeps us from the life God intends for us. And the Preacher of Hebrews has reminded us that Jesus became a human being in order to demonstrate that God loves us enough to enter our struggles, and his love is powerful enough to transform them into new life. And we have seen that the point of all that Jesus did is that God is working to make this new life a reality for us all: a life of freedom, peace, and beauty.
In our lesson for today, the Scripture defines that new life by taking it one step further. It tells us that Jesus also died to open the way to a relationship with God that is meaningful and fulfilling.  An important part of the biblical idea of sin is that we have broken our relationship with God by our willfulness, our resistance, our pride, and our selfishness.  But the good news is that God takes the initiative to heal that breach.  God holds no grudges against us; God does not need to be softened up toward us.  God already loves us unconditionally and irrevocably.[6] And so it is that, through Jesus, God seeks us out like a shepherd searching for a lost sheep. And once we are found, he never lets us go!
I think that’s what our Scripture lesson means when it speaks of a “new and living way” opened to us by Jesus the Christ.  It is new in that it is completely different from other ways people have taken to reach God. In this new way, there are no rituals you have to follow in order to enter God’s loving presence.[7] And this way is a “living” one in that it truly leads to a life that is new and different from the same old routine. As our Psalm for today puts it, “You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy” (Ps. 16:11). That’s the kind of new life we can have in the presence of God—right here and right now.
And the good news is that this way is open for anyone and everyone. There is no gate-keeper who has the authority to keep out those who don’t belong. There is no special password you have to learn. Jesus has already opened the way so that anyone and everyone can have the kind of relationship God has always intended for us to have—a life of lasting peace, and heart-felt joy, and love that sustains us even in our darkest moments.[8]
When we look at the sometimes harsh realities of life, we may wonder what good it does to spend our time coming to church.[9] We may wonder what real benefit there is from holding onto our faith despite the challenges we may face. I think the answer is found in our lesson for today. We have the “full assurance of faith” that God has opened the way for us to experience peace in the midst of turmoil, and joy in the midst of heartbreak, and love in the midst of hardship. We have the “full assurance of faith” that we can come right into God’s presence any time we need to, and when we do we will find God’s welcome embrace and his powerful helping hand.[10] We have the “full assurance of faith” that in everything we encounter in this life—both for better and for worse—we are surrounded and filled and sustained by the real presence of the God who will never fail us or forsake us.

[1] ©2015 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 11/15/2015 at Hickman Presbyterian Church in Hickman, NE.
[2] Fred B. Craddock, “The Letter to the Hebrews,” New Interpreters Bible XII:95.
[3] Karl Marx, Introduction to a Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right. Collected Works, v. 3, accessed at https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/critique-hpr/intro.htm . He says it this way, “Religion is the general theory of this world, …. It is the fantastic realization of the human essence since the human essence has not acquired any true reality. The struggle against religion is, therefore, indirectly the struggle against that world whose spiritual aroma is religion. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people. The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions.”
[4] Cf. Jürgen Moltmann, The Crucified God, 7: “In Christianity the cross is the test of everything which deserves to be called Christian.”
[5] Cf. Thomas G. Long, Hebrews, 104: “The undergirding structure of the Preacher’s Christology is what we have called ‘the parabola of salvation’… . Jesus the Son moves down into human history, experienced testing and suffering of every kind, and then swept back up into the heavenly places. Now the Preacher proclaims that this parabolic arc was not only the pathway that Christ traveled, it is also a pilgrim way of grace that we travel, a highway leading into the very presence of God opened up by the ministry of Jesus the great high priest.”
[6] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1:88-89: in the act of reconciliation, God “has actually taken us, embraced us, as it were surrounded us, seized us from behind and turned us back again to Himself. We are dealing with the fulfillment of the covenant. God has always kept it but man broke it. It is this breach which is healed in the sovereign act of reconciliation. God was not ready to acquiesce to the fact that while He was for us we were against him. That had to be altered, and in Jesus Christ it has in fact been altered once and for all.” Cf. also Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 87: “Jesus, as the suffering Son of man, demonstrated the power of God as prevenient love to the powerless and the outcasts.”
[7] Cf. Craddock, “Letter to the Hebrews,” NIB XII: 120: “The high priestly act of Christ's self-giving does not leave us outside, as the ancient worshipers stood anxiously awaiting the exit of the high priest, but removes all obstacles to our own access to God.”
[8] Cf. Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1:14, where he says that the message of “God with us” includes in it a “We with God,” which means that “we ourselves are directly summoned, that we are lifted up, that we are awakened to our own truest being….” Cf. similarly, ibid., 36-38, where Barth speaks of this in that it is a fulfillment of the covenant promise, “I will be your God and you will be my people,” which means that from the start “God willed to be God for [us].”
[9] Cf. Long, Hebrews, 108: “The disincentives to corporate worship are many. It seems somehow purer to worship God all alone on a deserted beach or in the still beauty of the night under a canopy of stars than in the midst of the rag-tag assembly that shows up for church. Also, we just get tired, tired in worship and tired of worship. … the weariness of worship is a deeper fatigue, a jaded sense than nothing of real significance happens here.” He says that the answer the Preacher offers is that “Things are not what they seem. What looks like leisure turns out in the end to be exhausting, and what appears to be the labor of prayer leads to ‘a safe lodging, and a holy rest, and peace at the last.’”
[10] Cf. Craddock, “Letter to the Hebrews,” NIB XII:121, where he says that our confidence, which is a major theme in the letter, “is grounded, finally, not in the strength of our grasp but in the trustworthiness, the faithfulness of the one who keeps promises.”

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