Back and Forward (1/22/2017)

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One evening when our oldest daughter, Katie, was in first grade, she got very upset with something which happened at home. It just so happened her class was learning about maps at school that day and she brought one home. Since she was troubled with things at home and she had a map, she decided to run away. She later told us she didn’t know how to read the map or know where it would take her. But she had a map and she was going to use it.

If we’re not careful, we’ll do the same thing as Christians. We can get upset with something that happens at church, decide we’re better off on our own and then run away from church even though we have no idea where we’re going.

We all know people who have done this. Unfortunately, many of them are still living apart from a church congregation and their walk with Jesus is either weak or nonexistent. Unless we make an effort to guard our faith, the same thing can happen to you and to me.

One way to guard against this is to look at what the book of Hebrews says. We don’t really know who wrote or who received it. The only way for us to know anything about the recipients to look at the contents of the book. It appears the letter was written to Christians who were seriously considering converting back to Judaism or, at the very least, incorporating parts of the Jewish religion into their Christian faith. The reason they were thinking about doing this was because of severe persecution.

The writer encouraged those Christians to stand firm, even if it meant the worst for them. He laid out sound theological arguments that Jesus is greater than any of the religious practices of Judaism. This was followed up by Hebrews 11, which is known as the “faith chapter.” It’s called the faith chapter because it lists people in the Old Testament who through blind faith stepped out and did great things for God. Many of these names are very familiar to us – Abel, Abraham, Moses and Rahab.

After the author lists these individuals, he discusses the works of unnamed people who lived during the Intertestamental period – the 420 years between Malachi and Matthew – who chose to be tortured, live in poverty and even die because of their faith in God.

Then in Hebrews 12:1-13, the writer brings all of this together –  Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says,

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,     and do not lose heart when he rebukes you, because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,     and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! 10 They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. 11 No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

12 Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. 13 “Make level paths for your feet,” so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.

This passage is theologically rich so there are many directions we could go with it. Today there are only two main points I’d like for us to wrestle with. The first one is that in order for us to move forward, we must honor our past. We too need to remember the great heroes mentioned in the Bible who gave everything to live out their faith. Their sacrifices kept the kingdom of God unfolding so his redemptive work could be done on earth.

We also need to remember the heroes who influenced our personal walk with Jesus. I remember my childhood Sunday school teacher, Mrs. Cornelia Pritchard. One of my fondest memories is how she reacted one summer morning in July. She announced in class that my birthday was that week. One of the other class members, a boy with whom I really didn’t see eye to eye, sang to me. “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you, you look like a monkey and you smell like one too.” Needless to say, that didn’t sit well with me. Although Mrs. Cornelia tried to teach me about Jesus, I was more concerned about letting this other boy know what I thought of him. As I reflect on that day, I remember how Mrs. Cornelia patiently corrected -and even tolerated- me while she kept the class moving along.

As brothers and sisters who attend this congregation, we also need to honor the work that earlier generations did not only to establish this congregation but also keep it moving forward so we can be here today. Praise God that currently we have enough money to not only meet our needs but also to help others. How many of you remember a time when the church was struggling financially and didn’t know how it was going to meet expenses? Currently we have many people volunteering and working hard in the various teams and ministries. Who remembers a time when there weren’t enough people to do everything that needed to be done?

Please take a few moments and reflect on the individuals in your life who were instrumental to your faith.

We understand our society is changing. As a result, congregations need to constantly evaluate how they do their ministries and outreach. Some things that worked in the past no longer work today. Nonetheless, they did work at one time. Without the work and sacrifice of those who came before us, we wouldn’t be here. So, today, we say “thank you” to those who worked so hard in the past to keep the church and our faith moving forward.

As we honor the past, we must also look ahead. Nostalgia is killing a lot of congregations. We want to fulfill our biblical mandate and share Christ’s love with others. This brings us to one more important truth in Hebrews 12. We expect difficulties and hardship as we walk into the future.

People have been opposing, persecuting and trying to stop Christians from the very beginning. This hasn’t changed. Many people right around us, including neighbors, friends and some family members, don’t like to hear the gospel. They don’t want to be bothered with Jesus.

We must not lose sight of another problem we face. Satan and his army of demons are constantly attacking us and trying to get us to lose our faith. Unfortunately, far too many people listen to his message of hate, discord, selfishness and unbelief.

We can’t quit simply because being a Christian is hard. The salvation we have in Jesus Christ is bigger than any problem or persecution that comes our way. When frustrations and difficulties arise, we have to trust God, rely on the strength of Jesus and build upon the foundations of previous generations.

Do you know how far Katie made it when she ran away from home? To the edge of our yard. The situation didn’t really create much of a problem.

It’s much more serious when people run away from the church and their faith. The consequences are eternal. Please guard your faith so it never happens to you.