Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.Hebrews 10:24-25
I have preached on this passage from Hebrews (Hebrews 10:11-25) several times in my ministry. And every time I have preached on it, I have addressed the concern that people have in our day and age, of waning church attendance. This time around will be no exception.
This concern, and this challenge, is seemingly as old as time. Going all the way back to when this letter was written two thousand years ago, there has always been a concern about people neglecting to meet together for worship. But there is one new wrinkle for me, this time around. I actually don’t know who is neglecting to meet together for worship, and who is not. There are faithful, active church members who are worshiping with their families at home, meeting together around a television or computer to worship online. There are others who are reading this sermon online, and having private devotions. But nonetheless, there are no doubt others who have fallen out of the habit of worship, who are doing what the author of Hebrews says, “neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some.” They are the ones that may need to be provoked “to love and good deeds,” as this passage suggests.
But before I address all of that, I want to simply remind us that these concerns that we may have always been there. And I suspect they always will. In fact, I want to tell you about the exact moment when I knew that this was always going to be a concern.
I was teaching confirmation at my last church, close to twenty years ago now, on a Saturday morning, when I told the confirmands that it was really important for them to be in worship the next day. I can’t recall why, but I vividly recall three of those students coming up to me afterwards and telling me that they had a soccer tournament with their travel team and they would not be able to be in worship that Sunday morning. I reminded them of how important it was, and encouraged them to talk to their coach about it, and that he would surely understand. They said that they would talk to him, but they didn’t think he would change his mind. After all, they told me, he was a Lutheran pastor.
Yes, that was when I realized that the changes in our world were not going to be easily resolved, that they were probably here to stay. But, again, these problems are not exactly new.
Wisdom from St. Augustine
Sometime ago, I came across a memorable passage from a sermon on St. Augustine, who was a famous preacher and theologian from all the way back to the fourth century. Back then, travel league teams and tournaments was not anything that he or his congregation had to worry about. But you know what they did have to deal with? The gladiator games in Rome, which often took place on Sunday mornings. Here is a passage from one of his sermons that I just love:
An ordinary day it may be on the church calendar, but it’s also right in the middle of the December gladiatorial schedule. It’s no wonder, then, that the church is only half full. The rest of you must be in the amphitheater, looking more for entertainment than salvation. I could say – “They’ve given themselves to games of the Flesh, as it were, but have yet to pay attention to games of the Truth!” – but I won’t. Ah well, for their salvation as much as for ours, let’s pray to God without distractions of any kind.
A sermon from the year 391. Clearly the Bible was right in saying that there is nothing new under the sun! And if St. Augustine and his congregation faced those challenges all the way in the fourth century, why should we be surprised these days?
As I said, this is a challenge that the author of our second reading, the Letter to the Hebrews, addresses. So, what does he have to say about this? How might we provoke one another to love and good deeds, and encourage one another to meet together in worship? What wisdom might our second reading offer us today?
Since We Have Confidence to Enter the Sanctuary
Let’s start near the beginning of today’s passage, where we are told that Christ has “offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins.” We start, in other words, with Christ. Which this letter to the Hebrews starts with, ends with, and is filled with throughout. Think of how this letter begins:
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son … He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being. (Hebrews 1:1-4)
And so, this author tells us, we should always look to Jesus, “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” He is the “anchor of our souls.” The “great shepherd of the sheep.” He is “the same yesterday, today, and always.” And he is seated at the right hand of God, to come back to today’s passage, ready to hear our cries for help.
So, the first thing that we should do, if we are concerned about the decline of church attendance, or about any other problem facing our church or world, is to look to our great shepherd. Not to ourselves. We cannot solve this problem ourselves. We must look to Christ.
And this particular passage details for us what this means. He lifts up three ways to look to Christ, and it shouldn’t be a surprise that these three ways can be summed up with the words, faith, hope, and love.
Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus …
Let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith …
Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.
And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds. (Hebrews 10:19-24)
What we must do, now and always, is to approach Christ in faith, to hold fast to our hope, and to provoke one another to love. Faith, hope, and love. Three timeless, essential qualities of our Christian life. Let’s dig a little deeper into each of these.
Let Us Approach in Faith
Faith is the first. “Since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith.”
The first thing to do, always, with whatever we are concerned about, is to approach Christ in faith. This means two things to me. First, that God is still in control. We can trust God to lead us through whatever challenge we are facing, if we obey God and walk in faith. And second, whenever our faith wavers, or a challenge seems overwhelming, we should spend more time in prayer. How can we obey God if we don’t pray to God? And how can we trust God if we don’t spend time listening to God? Since we have confidence through Jesus Christ, we should approach him with a true heart in full assurance of faith. Trust, and pray.
Hold Fast to Hope
But let’s not stop there. Because, next, we are invited to “hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.”
We live in a world where it is all too easy to get discouraged, and to lose hope. As Jesus warns us in today’s gospel reading (Mark 13:1-8), there will be: “wars and rumors of wars. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs.”
It is easy to get discouraged. But Jesus also tells us in this gospel reading not to be alarmed. We should hold fast to our hope. And not just any hope. The sure and certain hope of the gospel. The hope that is described in the Letter to the Hebrews as “a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul.”
And I love that picture of hope: an anchor of the soul. We may feel at times like we’re on a little boat in the middle of the ocean, but as Christians we have this wonderful anchor to cling to, the “sure and steadfast anchor of the soul,” and it’s called hope.
It’s probably one of the things that most differentiates Christians from non-Christians. We all live in the same world. We are all confronted by the same bad news each day, the same problems and crises. But the difference is that we as Christians don’t lose hope. Because we believe that God cares about our world, that God will not abandon us, and that Jesus, at God’s right hand, is always ready to help us when we call on him. This is our anchor in the storm. This is our hope. The hope that we must always be ready to defend.
Provoke to Love
And then finally, along with faith and hope, the author of Hebrews reminds us of the centrality of love. “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.”
We are to provoke one another to love, to stir each other up to love. How? By meeting together, and by encouraging one another. We live in a world that can be pretty discouraging.We need encouragement. We need each other. Isn’t that why the author of Hebrews asks all who read or hear these words to meet together? To encourage one another? And that is why we are worshiping today, isn’t it? To be encouraged. To be provoked to love. To be reminded of our hope. And to turn to God in faith.
We look to Christ, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, whose love for us is boundless, and who offers a sure and steadfast hope that can be the anchor in the storm. We are here to join with generations of Christians in being reminded that our God is always faithful. And that through Jesus, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever, God always keeps his promises.
This ancient letter, written to a church that was a little weary, a little discouraged, has much to say to us today. And this ancient letter also offers a beautiful blessing to its readers, which I would close my sermon with today:
May the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (Hebrews 13:20-21)