Lord, we pray this evening that you would help us learn more about how we can keep going as Christians. In Jesus' name. Amen.
A few weeks ago, on a hot evening, I went for a run. As I got going I realised I hadn't eaten much that day. After 5 kilometres I realised I definitely hadn't drunk enough. After I finished I realised I had run too far and too fast for my current level of fitness (which in school report terms is currently about a C-). All in all, I found the experience gruellingly hard and I suffered for it the next day. Lack of preparation and poor awareness of conditions can make it hard to keep going at anything, and it's the same with faith. So this evening a question for all of us is: how are we going to keep going as Christians?
For the students among us, at the end of this term, looking forward to a long summer of dreadful British weather, this is a particularly relevant question. But it's a pressing question for all of us. None of us, however long we've been Christians, are above the need to consider it deeply, because there are times when, consciously or sub-consciously, we find it hard to keep going. Few books in the Bible speak into this more than Hebrews which urges us to (Hebrews 12.1):
"…run with endurance the race that is set before us"
So open your Bibles to Hebrews 10, and let's work through verses 19-25 together. Here we see my first point:
1. Have Confidence in Your Access to God Through Jesus
"Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God…"
In the Old Testament the tabernacle was how God's presence was felt among his people and it was where they would go to make sacrifices for their sins. Inside the Tabernacle a curtain separated the most holy place – and this was a restricted area (only the High Priest could enter once a year). Why? Because of sin. Sin creates barriers and the biggest barrier is between us and God. For the Jewish people access to God was hard. There was a lack of intimacy, of depth and of accessibility in their relationship with God – because their sin meant they couldn't fully enter his presence. And sin always remained a problem for them. So look back to Hebrews 10.11, which says:
"And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins."
When the people gave sacrifices with a sincere heart they were forgiven but that didn't mean they were permanently in the clear with God. The priest's role, in verse 11, is one of daily service, because sacrifices for sin were constantly needed. The people of Israel could never feel like they were finally and fully forgiven by God. The image in verses 19-21 is that this old, inadequate, system was blown apart by God sending his son Jesus. This new access was achieved (v.19) by the blood of Jesus - by his flesh alone we have a new, intimate, relationship with God. Unlike the animals sacrificed, Jesus knew all about sin - he was tempted, yet did not sin. Therefore, he was uniquely placed as a perfect sacrifice to take the punishment of death we deserve. And this was the final and full sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins. Back in Hebrews 10.12 we read:
"But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God."
That barrier of restricted access has been destroyed once and for all and Jesus sits in victory, as a conquering King over sin. In our access to God, Jesus is our great priest. The priesthood facilitated access to God. Now Jesus is the way into God's presence and we can have confidence he will be able to keep us there.
And in this chapter the writer of Hebrews is saying 'look you don't need to keep making sacrifices, because the final sacrifice was Christ'. Yes, our sin remains a battle and we need to keep confessing sin before God to acknowledge our continual need of him. But there's nothing more to do but have confidence in Christ.
It's human nature to want to contribute something to help us feel more confident. But our confidence to enter the holy places is through the blood of Jesus alone - and in response the writer of Hebrews gives us three commands to follow. And we'd do well to listen carefully this evening, because I believe they are vital in helping us keep going as Christians. And real confidence leads to action.
2. So… Draw Near to God
So, secondly, since we have confidence to enter the holy places and since we have a great priest in Jesus we are encouraged to draw near to God. Verse 22:
"let us draw near 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."
This is the language of 'seize the opportunity' and 'make the most' of the relationship we have with God in a wholehearted way. This is of course a challenge for our personal prayer lives and time in God's word. But it includes much more than that, we are to draw near in every aspect of individual and corporate worship, including our worship in church. Do you seek to draw near to God in our services, making the prayers, the songs, the word of God your own?
For the students here about to go off for summer, or older CYFA members preparing to leave home for the first time, or any of us who face a summer with less Christian support, you need to ask: 'how am I doing now in my relationship with God? Will I be able to keep going with less Christian support for a while?'
The point is, we should, but moreover we can always draw near to God. And we can do so with a true heart. That's a picture of loyalty to, or trust in, God's promises. It's also a picture of sincerity. So we can sincerely trust that through Christ we have full assurance that we will continue to live in relationship with God.
But often the problem is guilt. God is at work in us, through his Spirit. Yet at times our moral compass remains skewed and we're still liable to drift off course, and then feel crippled with guilt stemming from what's happened.
A member of our family here recently gave me a season ticket, just to use for one game – Newcastle's last of the season. (All my Christmases came at once!) Anyway, I had this ticket which gave me free access to a great seat at St James' Park. So I wandered in, found my seat, and as the minutes ticked by the regular season ticket holders arrived. Lovely Geordie gentlemen as they were, they were sure I was an imposter in the wrong seat – and of course, incredibly politely, with delicacy and poise, they asked me just who I was and what on earth I was doing there. And truth be told I felt a little guilty – why was I here? On this incredible final game against last season's champions Chelsea? How could I belong in this environment? After all I'm not the season ticket holder, as much as I love this city, I'm not a proud local and worst of all… I actually support Manchester United!
The truth is I did belong because all the requirements of access were met by the free gift of the ticket. No matter what discomfort, or guilt, or uncertainty I felt.
That's far from a perfect analogy. For a start, even the most diehard Newcastle fans here would have to admit that, while it may at times seem close, St James' Park is not the heavenly presence of God! The point is our guilt can cause us to question our assurance. I know through conversations with many of you that we don't always feel forgiven, instead we feel guilty. And guilt paralyses us - we feel like we don't belong in God's presence, so we keep him at arm's length and our faith suffers.
Right regret of sin is appropriate. But, when it comes to prolonged guilt we must remember we can draw near, and stay near to God, because verse 20 shows us that our "hearts are sprinkled clean" and our "bodies washed with pure water".
I think these phrases are Old Testament imagery for purity rituals necessary for priestly service, like we saw in our reading from Leviticus. And once again, this is the language of a completed work – by faith in Christ this is who we are before God. We can draw near to God because, if we trust in Christ, our sins are forgiven in God's sight.
And that's true the first time, or the thousandth time we come to God and ask for forgiveness. To God no sin is too big, or too complicated, or too frequent. So we must not let our guilt torment us telling us that we can't go to God again with that again, or our feelings define us by not feeling forgiven.
In Christ we have full assurance that we are forgiven. Look to him, not your feelings. Always. No matter what, we can draw near to our loving God and stay near. This summer may this truth be one which really keeps us going.
3. So… Hold Fast to the Hope of Christ
Thirdly, we are to hold fast to the hope of Christ. Verse 23:
"Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful."
We are urged to hold fast because it is easy to be shaken and to want to let go. The Christian life is full of pressures, struggles and temptations that can cause us to hesitate, or waver.
Take the summer… for some of us this involves a slower pace to life, even for a short period. Routine goes out the window and each day, or week, can look different meaning spiritual disciplines can be harder to prioritise. For students, summer often means absence from your Christian reference points such as Focus, CU or maybe a good church where you feel settled. I've spoken to several of you in the past few weeks about the difficulty of having non-Christian family and few, or no, Christian friends at home. All dangers of the coming months that can cause us to waver.
We are all called to live for Jesus in a world that rejects him, and as a result can reject us. We struggle with the unwanted and painful situations life seems to place us in. We struggle to put God first, as other things distract us or seem more important – whether it's the trivialities of, say television, or great things like family and friends.
In the midst of such dangers and temptations to waver, how desperately we need to hold fast to our hope. Hope for the Christian is trust in God's promises – all that we've looked at this evening. But ultimately, hope for the Christian is hope in heaven – the destination for every Christian. And we need to remember this because often we waver when we think 'this is all there is' and we forget where we are going. C.S. Lewis says:
"Most of us find it very difficult to want 'Heaven' at all – except in so far as 'Heaven' means meeting again our friends who have died. One reason for this difficulty is that we have not been trained: our whole education tends to fix our minds on this world. Another reason is that when the real want for heaven is present in us, we do not recognise it. Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world".
(C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity)
Friends, to keep going in faith, to hold fast without wavering, we need to remember the hope of heaven. Because all the struggles and sacrifices of this life for Christ are in the context of one-day living in eternity with God.
Heaven is often described as 'unimaginable'. And I know why, because in once sense because it will be 'beyond our imagination'. But heaven isn't 'unimaginable'. God's word tells us what it will be like. Think of your struggles, pains, fears and worries of life – in heaven they won't be there. Think of all that's good, pure and right – in heaven they'll be better. But the best thing of all will be that God will rule as King and we'll fully experience that. This friends, is what we long for that cannot be had in this world and where – verse 21 – God faithfully promises to get us to. So trusting in that we can say: 'Do not waver. Hold fast to the hope of Christ.'
4. So… Encourage Each Other
Finally, we are told to encourage each other. Verses 24-25:
"And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near."
Much of the Christian life involves us helping one another in our faith. Each one of these commands has been addressed to us, but none more so than this urge to encouragement. We are to consider how to "stir up one another to love and good works". We don't consider automatically. Encouragement can be seen as something which is organic, something that happens naturally and easily. Of course, much of it is like that. But encouragement here is said to need intentional time, thought and effort – all that comes with consideration. Much without it won't happen. And this is a particularly potent reminder to us, a relatively big church, that we need to be active in working hard at this with God's help. So some questions we would do well to ask are: Who needs our encouragement? When will I give it?
And, how will I do it? And the answer to that is in verse 24. We are to "stir up one another to love and good works". To stir up is not timid language, rather wholehearted passion. We want to encourage one another in love for fellow believers and for the world around us. And that is to be expressed in good works – which means serving the world and the church and living a holy life for God. It means different things, at different times, for different people depending on their needs and situations. So consider this evening what it will look like for you. And consider how open, and accessible you're making yourself to be encouraged by others – because we all need to give and receive encouragement.
Students, for you this will look like keeping in touch with your Focus group this summer. It will mean finding out how they're doing in their faith, with their particular struggles, how you can be praying for them and asking how they're getting on perhaps at Christian conferences or camps – all to help one another keep God at the top of the agenda. For those of you older guys in CYFA, about to face the change of leaving school, how will you be encouraging one another in the new challenges that lie ahead come September? Like: a new pattern to life, further study or work, or moving away and finding a new church.
The original readers of Hebrews needed encouragement because they actively felt discouraged in their faith. That's why, in verse 25, some seem to be neglecting to meet together. That's a reminder for all of us that, where we can, we must prioritise meeting together as Christians. Even despite life's ups and downs. A while back one of you was telling me how your friend was experiencing a difficult time, and was struggling to come along to church and their small group. And some advice they were given was 'keep coming – this is when you need it most'. And that's 100% true. We need encouragement from one another to keep going. The natural temptation in struggles of whatever shape or size is to retreat. Sometimes even talking about what is going on is incredibly hard and takes time, and we need to cut each other slack in that. But staying away from church is a bad sign – and my experience is that it's always been bad for faith.
We need to encourage one another. Because, verse 25, "the Day [is] drawing near". That is Jesus' return to save, rule and judge. And that could happen at any time, so we must heed these calls to action.
How we need to be prepared in order to run the race set before us. Through Jesus we can have confidence in our access to God. Through him we can draw near to God, hold fast to the hope of Christ and encourage one another. And the sum of it all is that if these things characterise our Christian lives, with God's help, we will keep going. Let's pray…
Father, despite the different situations you have placed each of us in, we all face dangers and temptations which could cause us to waver in our faith. You know what they are for each of us. Help us to be better at encouraging one another in the Lord Jesus. Above all, please would you keep us going in faith by confidently trusting Christ and holding fast to the hope of heaven. In Jesus' name. Amen.