Have you ever felt like giving up on your faith? In the Mission-Shaped
Church course we are currently studying at Hatfield Peverel, we looked
yesterday morning at some of the reasons why people give up on church. Some
have had bad experiences of church – perhaps of rejection or even abuse. Others
have developed objections to the Christian faith. These may be intellectual or
moral objections, or the two may even be linked.
Then there are others who have ‘accidentally’ lost contact
with church. This may be due to a house move. For some it will be about the
local church being unable to meet their needs: what if they have young children
and the church cannot offer anything for them?
But we are still here. Nevertheless we face pressures to
give up. Sometimes it is the temptation to compromise or just coast along in a
religious manner. ‘Don’t get too fanatical,’ says a voice, ‘Just go through the
motions. Make it all look good outwardly and your religious life will be
Other times they come from our wider society. ‘Nobody
believes that kind of stuff any more.’ Why not bow down to the gods of money
and possessions? ‘You deserve to put yourself first.’ ‘Isn’t it all rather
narrow-minded?’ These and many other pressures tempt us to take an easier route
in life than that which following Jesus offers.
For those who feel such temptations – and I’d be surprised
if most of us don’t, at least from time to time – the Letter to the Hebrews is
for us. It is written to a group of Christians from a Jewish background who are
being pressured into giving up their faith in Jesus and default back to Judaism.
How does the writer of this Epistle encourage his readers to stick with Christ?
In our reading he offers some resources and some responses. And although we
face different forces from our first century ancestors in the faith, the
resources and responses the writer offers them can be helpful to us, too.
Imagine you need to buy a new car. You visit a local dealer
and begin a conversation with one of the ‘sales executives’. (Funny how they’re
all executives, isn’t it?) He explains that the manufacturer has been working
on a brand new model for years. They have designed prototypes that they have
trialled on test tracks and in wind tunnels. Would you like to buy the
It sounds intriguing, even rather exclusive. But then you
notice in the sales room that the new model itself is on sale. You point this
out the sales executive. ‘Oh yes,’ he says, ‘but wouldn’t you rather buy the
prototype?’ Would you agree, or would you insist on buying the proper brand new
The writer to the Hebrews says that ditching Jesus and going
back to Judaism as his readers knew it before meeting Christ is rather like
opting for the prototype over the fully developed model. The Jewish Law is only
‘a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities’
(verse 1), he says.
But Christ is the fully developed model, the realisation. In
what sense? Because his death on the Cross completes and supersedes all the
sacrifices prescribed in the Law. If you turn your back on Christ, says the
writer, and go back to Judaism, you are going back to sacrifices that need to
be continually offered, whereas Christ’s death is the one perfect sacrifice
that doesn’t need to be repeated. And that means they don’t permanently remove
the effects and consequences of sin. Is that really what you want?
For us, it quickly becomes apparent that the temptation to
compromise and just go back to an outward show of religion is also like opting
for the prototype instead of the real thing. What can compare with the Cross of
Christ? It is only worth living by the benefits of the Cross, and with it as
our pattern for discipleship. Just looking good and behaving in a respectable
way has no transforming spiritual power at all. In fact it drains and saps us.
Let me try another analogy, though. In recent months as a
family we have changed our shopping habits. Instead of trudging around the
supermarket with two small children either to rush after down an aisle or to
strap into a trolley, we have become converts to Internet grocery shopping. It
saves us an immense amount of time and the extra cost of delivery matches or
outweighs the running costs of a car doing the round trip from home to
superstore and back.
However each week when they call, we have to keep an eye out
for one thing: the substitutions. If the supermarket’s personal shopper cannot
find the exact product we have specified, they do their best to substitute
something similar. On delivery it is then up to us to decide whether to accept
their substitution or reject it. Often we reluctantly accept the substitution,
because we need something like that. But we may send it back, as we did the
other week, when we ordered some grated cheddar cheese, only to have it
substituted with a spicy cheese that we knew the children would not like.
Similarly, when the pressure is on us from society, it is like
being asked to accept an inferior substitute. It is worth comparing the
attractions of the world with the Cross of Christ. Surely money and possessions
are more glittery and satisfactory than an obscure unqualified Palestinian
teacher and his mission which ended up with an ignominious death? Not so. The
lustre falls from possession; money ends up possessing us; but Jesus on his
Cross takes away guilt and shame, and even brings reforming power to change us
into people who will love and serve others.
Putting ourselves first sounds attractive. Let’s take it
easy, and let up a bit on all this caring for others lark. But then we see the
Cross and ask which looks more attractive, the ‘me first’ life or Christ?
Or the voice that tells us we deserve all sorts of treats.
It’s the voice of self-indulgence. Wouldn’t it just be great to keep indulging
myself day after day? We’ll just overlook the fact that all the treats would
get devalued and that I’d have to seek more and more extreme thrills in order
to be satisfied. Let’s compare it with Christ and his Cross. The Cross may be
painful and challenging, but which has the capacity turn a life around or
transform the world? It certainly isn’t self-indulgence: that threatens
individuals and the planet itself. It can’t take away sin, like the Cross can.
It only adds to it.
I spoke about ‘resources’: really, then, according to the
writer to the Hebrews, we have one supreme resource to which we turn when under
pressure to conform or compromise. And that is the Cross of Christ. Measure
pressures and temptations up against the Cross and ask whether it’s worth
taking a step back. Who wants the prototype or a poor substitute instead of the
Nothing can compare with the Cross of Christ. Yes, but what
should we positively do in the light of that? The theory is nice, but what
should we do in practice? The writer offers us three strategies:
Firstly, he says, draw near to God (verses 19-22). Don’t
stand at a distance: the consequence of the Cross is that the way is opened up
for us to draw near to God. The barriers of sin are down. We are forgiven. We
need not stay remote from God out of a sense of shame, because that shame and
its causes are healed at the Cross. It may of course be that the reason for our
shame and distance from God are that we know how badly we have let him down,
how easily we have negotiated a settlement with a world that wants to
neutralise our faith. But the supremacy of Christ and his Cross means that
compromise does not have the last word, and nor does judgement. Grace has the
last word instead. So feel free to worship, to read Scripture, to pray, to
speak and ask openly and honestly with God. The Cross is his trump card. You
need not feel afraid: his Son says you are welcome in the Father’s presence. The
antidote to feeling pulled away from God is to do the opposite, and the Cross
makes it possible.
Secondly, persevere. ‘Let us hold fast to the confession of
our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.’ (verse 23)
Keep holding on, because God is faithful. He keeps his promises.
One of the things Debbie and I work hard at with our
children is keeping our promises to them. There are times when we have made a
promise and their subsequent behaviour makes us want to break the promise. But
we try to model the importance of promise-keeping, so even if they have let us
down, if we have made an unconditional promise we keep it. (It is different if
it is a promise whose fulfilment has been made explicitly conditional upon
their good conducts.) We believe that promise-keeping is a characteristic of
God and that he is trustworthy. The best way we know for our children to grasp
the character of God is for us and others to reflect that character to them.
I offer this illustration, because I believe that one of the
circumstances in which we are tempted to compromise or give in is by believing
a lie about God. We either are tempted to believe he is capricious and unreliable,
or we are darkly encouraged to see him as one who only rewards us when we are
good. In fact he is a promise-keeping God. ‘The Lord has promised good to me,
his word my hope secures,’ wrote John Newton in ‘Amazing Grace’. Begin your
outlook not with your own oscillating attempts at faithful discipleship, but
with the cast-iron faithfulness of God. From that will flow a response of
faithfulness in return, even when you feel like jacking it all in. Let his
grace encourage you. Let his Spirit equip you.
Finally, says our writer, let’s stick together. ‘And 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, and all
the more as you see the Day approaching.’ (verses 24-25)
John Donne, the poet and clergyman (Dean of St Paul’s
Cathedral), wrote the famous words ‘No man is an island’, which would underline
the writer to the Hebrews’ call not to neglect meeting together but provoke one
another to love and good deeds. But what fascinates me is the context in which
he wrote those words. His wife Anne, the mother of his twelve children, five of
whom had died in infancy, had herself died. The Great Plague then swept through
stayed to minister to people, but then he was taken gravely ill and everyone
assumed he too would die. Often he was left to battle debilitating symptoms
alone. Whilst seriously ill, he wrote the twenty-three meditations that make up
his book ‘Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions’. The words ‘No man is an island’
appear in Meditation XVII, which is a meditation written upon hearing church
bells ring out for another funeral. So he writes: ‘If a clod be washed away by
the sea, Europe is the less … any man’s death diminishes me, because I am
involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell toils;
it toils for thee.’ (See Philip Yancey, Soul
Survivor, pp 195 – 215.)
You can’t do it alone, says Donne. We were made not to be
isolated individuals but to live in community and fellowship. What happens to
you happens to me. We need to stick together. The writer to the Hebrews says
it’s for the sake of standing firm in the face of temptation and opposition.
Don’t be an island: meet together. And when you do, spur one another on in your
life of faith as disciples of Jesus. Giving up on committed fellowship leaves
you dangerously exposed.
But note that this kind of meeting together cannot be
satisfied purely by gathering on a Sunday morning. It is difficult to build
into corporate worship the kind of spurring one another on that the writer
speaks of. On a typical Sunday we don’t have the time and opportunity to build
the sort of deep relationships that would enable us to egg one another on in
following Jesus. To put this into practice requires committed small groups
where we get to know and trust one another at a deep level. I am not one for
piling on meeting after meeting into a church programme, but I do believe the
one essential on top of Sunday worship is a cell group or class meeting or home
group or discipleship meeting. As John Wesley once said, ‘The Bible knows
nothing of the solitary Christian.’
Do you want to give up the struggle? Is fighting the good
fight draining you? Do you find society offering you alluring packages in
exchange for diluting your commitment to Jesus Christ? Then think about his
Cross. It is a poor rate of exchange to trade that for the vacuous attractions
of the world.
And make a response. Draw near to God, even – and especially
– if you have let him down. Let his faithfulness stimulate your perseverance.
And join a small group of disciples in which you can be accountable to one
another and be positively provocative: that is, provoking one another to love
and good deeds.
Let’s keep on keeping on. As Hebrews says, the great Day is
ever drawing nearer.