This won’t be a typical sermon in some ways. As late as Thursday morning it was more-or-less business as usual. But Thursday everything changed. The scale of the response in the US changed dramatically. We felt like we needed to speak to this issue more directly. We’ll use the book of Hebrews for that.
The author of Hebrews wrote to a first-century church experiencing uncertain and difficult times. He called his epistle a brief “word of exhortation” (13:22). The insights he had for these early Christians speak loudly in our present day of uncertainty.
Their challenges were a little different from ours. They had more to do with Christian persecution. The uncertainties of our day are not yet Christian persecution. For us the uncertainty has to do with COVID-19, the Coronavirus.
It’s a disease we don’t fully understand. COVID-19 has no vaccine and won’t for some time. The details of how it spreads have many unknowns to it. Words like “social distance” and “self-quarantine” are becoming part of our vocabulary.
There is the related uncertainty of a national economy that has instantly changed. Some of our jobs just doubled in size because of COVID-19. Some of our jobs might be cut in half or lost altogether. All expectations are that this is a temporary challenge. But for many households a 2-3-month disruption can be really difficult.
And as Christians there is the uncertainty of knowing the path of obedience. It’s not obvious. When the issue is persecution the NT speaks pretty directly. But when it’s a time of contagion in a country, what does loving God and loving my neighbor look like?
The book of Hebrews speaks. It has words to Christians in uncertain times. Times where you’re tempted to give in to fear instad of faith. Times where you’re tempted to rely on human insight instead of God’s wisdom.
In their day like in ours, Christians need to know what is CERTAIN when things are UNCERTAIN. Christians need to know what is UNSHAKABLE when things are SHAKING.
What does God want his people to know in uncertain times? That’s what we want to hear from the book of Hebrews. We’ll look at four big ideas.
I. Jesus is Surpassingly Glorious
The opening of this epistle contains words powerful and true. In the best of times they’re words that ring of surpassing truth. But I think they mean even more when you read them against the backdrop of a time of pressure and difficulty. A time when you and God’s people are being stretched and pressed in ways you didn’t expect or anticipate.
So, listen to the opening words of this epistle from that perspective. Hear this church leader exhorting tired and struggling Christians to lift up their eyes to Something and Someone infinitely beyond and greater than themselves or their troubles. “Turn your eyes upon Jesus”! That’s the call of the preacher in Hebrews.
Listen to 1:1–4 in that light.
Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. 3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. (Heb 1:1–4)
This is some of the most exalted Christology in the NT. Christ here is the SON and HEIR OF ALL THINGS.
Jesus is no typical human servant of God, a fallen person who does better than most at honoring the Lord. Jesus is uniquely THE SON. He was with the Father and shared all of his glory and attributes for all of eternity prior to coming in the flesh.
After coming in the flesh and proving obedience even unto death, is also HEIR OF ALL THINGS. He has received what was promised. He alone received it because he alone was worthy. He alone is given the name that is above every name.
Jesus is presented as the one “THROUGH WHOM…HE CREATED THE WORLD.” The Father is often called the Creator but it was THROUGH THE SON that he CREATED THE WORLD. The Son likewise can be called CREATOR.
Jesus is “THE RADIANCE OF THE GLORY OF GOD.” As light and heat radiate out from the sun, so the infinite sun of the glory of God radiates out in the Son of God. The Son is God in all of his glory.
Then Jesus is “THE EXACT IMPRINT OF HIS NATURE.” Like in times past when a letter was sealed with hot wax. Then into that wax a king would take his signet ring and press it into the wax. That impression was a perfect match to his ring. It was an “exact imprint of the nature” of that ring. The author is telling us that all which is true of the divine nature of God, the essence of God, is true of the Son. There is nothing lesser in the Son.
And this Son “UPHOLDS THE UNIVERSE BY THE WORD OF HIS POWER.” It is not natural causes and the wisdom of humanity that keeps everything going. It is “THE WORD OF HIS POWER.” You, the stock market, and the planets in their orbit are all UPHELD BY THE WORD OF HIS POWER.
And this divine, unique Son of God is the one who “MADE PURIFICATION FOR SINS.” By offering his own blood as our great high priest, he achieved “PURIFICATION FOR SINS.” The guilt, shame, and filth of our sin is washed away through his blood.
That was the great work he did while on earth. Finishing that work “HE SAT DOWN AT THE RIGHT HAND OF THE MAJESTY ON HIGH,” surpassing all angels in glory and greatness. The fact he has sat down at the right hand of God means he has finished his work. He sits on a throne as King above all kings. As King right now he is directing all details in our lives. Sending his angels to do his will. Interceding for us to the Father and guaranteeing that our prayers are heard and our sins are covered.
This is the Christ we worship. This is the Son of God. But this is also held up to us as what we need to SEE IN UNCERTAIN TIMES. We need to see the surpassing glory of the Son. In troubled times, we need to turn our eyes…to Christ! It will feed our souls and sustain our faith.
The English scholar Raymond Brown explains what the author of Hebrews is doing here:
This magnificent letter to the Hebrews was written to a group of first-century Christians who were in danger of giving up….But how does one encourage such people in critical and adverse times?....As a matter of the utmost importance, he [turns] their eyes, not to themselves, hoping for sufficient inward strength, nor to their agonizing troubles, not to their persecuting contemporaries, but to Christ. No believer can cope with adversity unless Christ fills his horizons, sharpens his priorities and dominates his experience.
Raymond Brown, The Message of Hebrews
II. Crises are Times to be With God’s People, Not Alone
There is a phrase used a lot in the English translation of Hebrews. Meant to capture the community aspect of the Christian life. He says, “Let us….Let us….Let us….” Crises are a time for US and not just ME. Uncertain times are WE times, not ME times.
One of the great exhortations along these lines is right in the middle of chapter 10:
And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, 25 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. (Heb 10:24–25)
In this pilgrimage we’re on together, it’s tempting to lose steam. Get weary. “Love and good works” can feel easy one day, impossible the next. We need to be regularly stirred up.
The Greek here for our “considering” is that we “consider one another.” We think about “one another.” The verb means to “notice, observe carefully; to think about carefully, notice” (BDAG). But what we’re thinking about is what the other person needs in order to produce “love and good works.”
Part of this “considering one another” is continuing to meet together. “Not abandoning our own meetings” as one translation says (NET). Instead of retreating and staying remaining alone, we “exhort/encourage.” We parakaleō as much as we can.
The author isn’t as much talking about a single Sunday. We aren’t breaking this command if we miss a single Sunday. He’s talking about a “habit.” The Greek word here is ethos, the lifestyle or tradition or personal habit of someone. Part of being the people of God is regularly meeting together so that we grow and continue in “love and good works.” The ethos of the people of God is that they habitually meet together.
This is important for us as a church. In unique times in the life of the church it has been unable to meet together freely or easily. When the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918 hit Washington, D.C., churches and throughout the US, were eventually ordered not to meet. At that point with the epidemic dozens were dying every day in the city. Pastors met and decided it was appropriate for the sake of public safety to honor the order. In the weeks that followed the death toll diminished significantly. At that point the ethos of the people of God kicked in. God’s people are gather to consider one another resulting in love and good works. So pastors appealed to be allowed to gather once again. The city officials allowed them to meet.
A very temporary stoppage is one thing. But something long-term is different. That begins to touch on the ethos of what the people of God are, what they are to be habitually, continually.
That’s why the church always finds a way to meet together. If Christianity becomes illegal in a place then the church goes underground. It’s not the size of the gathering that determines whether it’s the church meeting together.
Christian gather together. Not to exchange recipes or jokes or life tips. But to “consider one another” and to “exhort one another.”
This is a time where it’s going to take INTENTIONALITY and CREATIVITY to fulfill this side of being the people of God. That’s not a new phenomenon.
In our day this command to not neglect to meet together needs to be informed by what we know of the CORONAVIRUS and how it spreads. Needs to be informed by where we’ve traveled and the groups we’ve been in contact with. We might need to self-isolate for the sake of others.
But even if we can’t be physically together, God’s people need to be together. Through the internet and your phone, you have the ability to connect with people even if you can’t be in the same room. This, too, is a way for us “to meet together” to stir up one another to love and good works.
Be intentional, be creative. Don’t lose touch with other Christians. Christians, don’t let others lose touch.
This is a good reminder of what the church is. The church isn’t a building. It doesn’t have an address on a Google map. A church is the people who gather. Gather to hear God’s Word. Take the Lord’s Supper. Encourage each other. Problems happen whenever we get confused on that.
C.S. Lewis spoke of this in The Screwtape Letters, the 2nd letter:
MY DEAR WORMWOOD,
….One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread but through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes I our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans….
Your affectionate uncle
C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters
How easy it is to lose sight of what the church truly is!
III. Faith Has Everything to do with Confidence in What Can’t Be Seen
One of our great challenges is how tied we are to our physical sight, physical perception. Biblical faith has everything to with a rock-solid confidence in what can’t be seen. Some things can’t be seen because they haven’t happened yet. Some things can’t be seen because they’re invisible. Faith clings to both.
Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. (Heb 11:1)
“THINGS HOPED FOR” has to do with the future. We can’t see things that haven’t happened yet. Faith is unwaivering in clinging to these. The author throughout this great chapter of faith, Hebrews 11, lifts up examples. He holds up the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob. These all died living by faith in something future, something they “HOPED FOR.”
Listen to Hebrews 11:13–16:
These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. 14 For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. 15 If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. 16 But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. (Heb 11:13–16)
Remember this truth when times are HARD. But also when times are GOOD. We have a "homeland" that isn't in this world, this realm.
Faith clings to things in the future. But faith also clings to things that are true right now but invisible: “CONVICTION OF THINGS NOT SEEN.”
The most important thing true but invisible to us is God himself. He is there. Seated on his throne. Ruling over all things. Sovereign over the good and the evil, the light and the dark, all details of all things. He is sovereign over planetary orbits and whether Target had any more hand sanitizer when we got there. He’s the King!
His throne is called a “throne of grace”—a place we can turn to find mercy and grace to help in time of need (Heb 4:16). It’s invisible to human eyes, but it’s as real as anything.
In Hebrews 13:20 Jesus is called “the Great Shepherd of the Sheep.” Yes! The Great Shepherd provides for his sheep, even when it means traveling through the valley of the shadow of death. He is the Unseen Shepherd, but he is there—The Great Shepherd of the Sheep!
At times like this, what we can see can be troubling. This week in order to think about the church’s response, I read some articles on the possible spread of the Coronavirus. The mathematical models were sobering. The implications were staggering.
One was linked from the Wall Street Journal and showed the timeline for things. It was in terms of months and not days or weeks. That’s partly why our response had to do with putting some things in place for a longer duration and not simply a “SNOW DAY.”
We do need to educate ourselves.
But, friends, feed your faith. We need to feed our faith. Read our Bibles. Think about God. Pray to God. He is there!
IV. You Belong to a Kingdom that Cannot Be Shaken
The fourth truth we need to consider for life in uncertain times has to do with the things that can be shaken. There’s a powerful image in Hebrews 12 that speaks to things that can be shaken and THINGS THAT CAN’T.
At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Yet once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” 27 This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of things that are shaken—that is, things that have been made—in order that the things that cannot be shaken may remain. 28 Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, 29 for our God is a consuming fire. (Heb 12:26–29)
This passage is using Mt. Sinai as a teaching tool. Mt. Sinai where the Lord spoke to his people Israel. He came in thunder and lightning and shook the earth and terrified the people.
That was an earthquake and thunderstorm at one spot in one part of the world. The author Hebrews uses that to speak to another earthquake coming. There is a coming day of judgment that will bring a shaking that will affect everything—every person, every country, every generation, every human institution, every bank account, every national economy, everything.
On this final day all things will be shaken “IN ORDER THAT THE THINGS THAT CANNOT BE SHAKEN MAY REMAIN.” As Christians we have received “A KINGDOM THAT CANNOT BE SHAKEN.”
Therefore let us worship God!
This is certainly a time of shaking. Things you may have thought were stable and rock-solid aren’t. And yet, let this remind us that we have a KINGDOM THAT CANNOT BE SHAKEN.
Christian, let these four truths encourage you as you go through these uncertain times:
- Jesus is Surpassingly Glorious
- Crises are Times to be With God’s People, Not Alone
- Faith Has Everything to do with Confidence in What Can’t Be Seen
- You Belong to a Kingdom that Cannot Be Shaken
And if you aren’t a Christian, use this uncertain time to deal with God. Pray for the Lord to reveal himself to you. Read the Bible and listen for his voice. Turn to Christ the King above all kings. The only King with a kingdom that cannot be shaken.