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A Sermon on Hebrews 3

This is the manuscript from a message I gave at the Meadow Creek Youth Group last night.  These were the words I was supposed to say, anyway.  I’m not sure what came out.  For some reason I get really flustered when I speak there.  It’s probably because I don’t know the students very well and I can’t get a vibe on how they receive me.  Hopefully that will change as I am scheduled to teach there several times over the next few months.

Let’s play a word association game.  I’ll say something, then you call out what comes to your mind.

Don’t be a Benedict…Arnold.

The shot heard…around the world.

They went north on the Underground…Railroad.

I have a…dream.

Meribah and… ??

What, you don’t know the last one?

That’s because it is from another culture.  The first ones you knew because you are Americans.  These little phrases represent stories from our history.  These stories have woven themselves into our collective consciousness and form us into a people.  They bind us together in shared stories.

Stories are very important for a people.

A few weeks ago we celebrated a 40th anniversary as a church.  What did we do?  We invited past pastors to come and tell us our stories.

Families have stories.  Periodically our family sits around and we start telling our stories.  If anyone else were listening to the conversation they would be lost and it would be meaningless, but to us, the retelling of our shared stories binds us closer together.  It is a beautiful thing.

As we continue our study of Hebrews it is important to remember that this letter was written from within a culture that has shared stories.  It is a Jewish letter and it draws upon Jewish stories to relate meaning.

The reason you didn’t know what comes after Meribah is because that is a Hebrew story that is as significant to the Jewish people as the American stories we mentioned at the beginning.

We’ll get to it in a minute.

For now, let’s dive into this letter to the Hebrews and continue reading it together.

Last week you left off with chapter two, so tonight we pick up at the beginning with Hebrews 3:1.

Therefore…

Any time you see the word “therefore” you have to ask, “what’s it there for”?  It is a connecting word that says, “based on what I just said, the following is true.”

So, what did the letter just say?

At the end of chapter 2 we see that, not only is Jesus higher than the angels, he also became human so that he could enter into our suffering and show us the path to life.  He is not only the high priest, he was also the sacrificial lamb.

Therefore… holy brothers, who share in the heavenly calling, fix your thoughts on Jesus, the apostle and high priest whom we confess. 2 He was faithful to the one who appointed him, just as Moses was faithful in all God’s house.

Bing, bing!  Bells and whistles should be going off.  Here we run into another story.  We see a new character from the shared culture that brings with him a boat load of meaning.  Moses.  This name is fully loaded.

So, we need to take a few minutes and look at who Moses was.

First, let’s just finish reading this section of the chapter and get the big picture of what is being said about Moses.

Jesus has been found worthy of greater honor than Moses, just as the builder of a house has greater honor than the house itself. 4 For every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything. 5 Moses was faithful as a servant in all God’s house, testifying to what would be said in the future. 6 But Christ is faithful as a son over God’s house. And we are his house, if we hold on to our courage and the hope of which we boast.

Simply put, Hebrews is continuing its explanation of who Jesus is.  In chapters 1 and 2 we see that Jesus is superior to the angels.  Now we see that Jesus is also superior to Moses.

Who is this Moses guy?  What did he do, and why do I care?

I need a couple volunteers.  We are going to do a little improv theatre.  Is anybody into that?  Good.

I need you to stand right here.  You are going to be Egypt.

I need you to stand over here.  You are going to be Canaan, or the Promised Land.

Over here at Egypt.  Give me your best Egypt impression.  King Tut, funky Tut.  Good.

The most significant story of the Jewish people is the story of Moses.  I’m sure all of you know it.  It is so important that in the 90’s Dreamworks made the film Prince of Egypt.

It is very familiar, but it is very important that we stage the story once again.

The story starts with the people of Israel as slaves in Egypt.  They had been slaves here for how long?  400 years.  Think about that.  400 years.  That’s twice as long as the United States has been a nation.  That’s a long time.

What happens to a group of people when the only reality they’ve ever known is to be enslaved?  They don’t have an identity.

What was their concept of God?

The only thing they had a this point was a centuries old story about a promise that had been given to a man named Abraham.

The promise was…let’s walk over here to this character…that Abraham’s people would get to live in this land called Canaan.  God promise this land, thus, it is the Promised Land.

Then Abraham had a son, who had a son, who had 12 sons who sold their brother as a slave.  Talk about a dysfunctional family.

That’s it.  That’s the only God story these people have.

They had no idea how to be a nation, or how to take care of themselves.

So, out of love for these people, God gives them a law.  Here’s where Moses comes in.  Moses was the guy that received the law from God, gave it to the people, and then led the people from here, in Egypt, to here, the Promised Land.

The Law was very important for them.  It told them what to eat, how to clean themselves, how to get along with each other.

In that day, these laws literally saved their lives.  Moses told them, “if you follow these laws, you will live.  If you don’t, you will die.”  That wasn’t a metaphor, or talking about going to Heaven or Hell, that was very practical.  If you don’t follow these laws, disease and war will break out in the camp and destroy you.  Then what will you have?

Moses led the people.  The Law was considered the Law of Moses and it defined the Jewish people and it was really good.

Here, in Hebrews, it says that Jesus is the new Moses. Why?  What does that mean?

In the first century the Jews were scattered all over the Roman Empire.  They obviously were not moving from Egypt to Canaan anymore, so this is plainly some kind of analogy.

What is the new Egypt?  What is the new Promised Land?  And how does Jesus lead us as a new Moses?

In order to answer those questions we need to understand what had happened to the Jewish people since the time of Moses.

Over the centuries the Jews came to believe certain things about themselves.  They believed that God only loved them.  They were God’s chosen people.  He loved them and hated everyone else.

They also took on a distorted view of the Law.  They became a people fixated on the text of the Torah.  They believed the law was a universal law for all time, for all people, that never changed.  And, they believed that God only blessed the people that strictly obeyed every single aspect of the Law.

They looked like this.  Instead of playing Egypt, now I want you to play the Jews.  Cup your hands around your eyes, hunch over, and look down.  This is the posture of the Jewish people.  They had isolated and elevated themselves above everyone else.  And in their arrogance believed they had the definitive and only word of God encapsulated in the text of the Torah.

Look at this.  This is a dark place.  This is a heart condition that leads to pride, hatred, and violence.

Enter Jesus, the new Moses.  Jesus came to turn this distorted view of God upside down.  Jesus came to lead the people to a new Promised Land, the Kingdom of God.

I want you to stand with your arms open wide.

Jesus was the kind of guy who was not afraid to rattle the cages of the religious establishment.  He was not afraid to touch people that would make him unclean according to the law.  He was not afraid to heal someone on the Sabbath, which made him a lawbreaker.  He was not afraid to talk to an adulterous Samaritan woman in broad daylight.  He was not afraid to speak to a centurion and heal his child.

Jesus came to demonstrate to the Jews that God loves the whole world, not just the Jews.  And that people did not need to become Jewish and follow the Torah in order to know the love of God.  Jesus came to demonstrate to the Jews that the Word of God is not bound inside of an ancient text, to be dissected by scholars, but is the active life of interaction with the Spirit of God at work in the world.

This was the Kingdom of God that Jesus brought, and this was the journey he was taking them on as the new Moses.  He took them from here, a place of dark isolation, over to here, a place of freedom in the love of God.  Doesn’t that sound like a great journey?  Who wouldn’t want to take that journey, right?

Let’s keep reading in Hebrews 3:7-19.

So, as the Holy Spirit says,

Now the writer breaks out in song and quotes Psalm 95.

Let’s do something interesting.  I want you to stay here in Hebrews and follow along while I go back to Psalm 95 and read straight from there.  See if you notice any differences.  The writer only quotes the second half of the Psalm, so I’m going to start at the beginning and get fuller picture.  Here we go…

Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord;

let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.

2 Let us come before him with thanksgiving

and extol him with music and song.

3 For the Lord is the great God,

the great King above all gods.

4 In his hand are the depths of the earth,

and the mountain peaks belong to him.

5 The sea is his, for he made it,

and his hands formed the dry land.

6 Come, let us bow down in worship,

let us kneel before the Lord our Maker;

7 for he is our God

and we are the people of his pasture,

the flock under his care.

Today, if you hear his voice,

8 do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah,

as you did that day at Massah in the desert,

9 where your fathers tested and tried me,

though they had seen what I did.

10 For forty years I was angry with that generation;

I said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray,

and they have not known my ways.”

11 So I declared on oath in my anger,

“They shall never enter my rest.”

Meribah and Massah!  Aha! There’s the answer.  What is Meribah and Massah?

Let’s go back even further and look at Exodus 17 to find out.  Exodus 17:1-7

The whole Israelite community set out from the Desert of Sin, traveling from place to place as the Lord commanded. They camped at Rephidim, but there was no water for the people to drink. 2 So they quarreled with Moses and said, “Give us water to drink.”

Moses replied, “Why do you quarrel with me? Why do you put the Lord to the test?”

3 But the people were thirsty for water there, and they grumbled against Moses. They said, “Why did you bring us up out of Egypt to make us and our children and livestock die of thirst?”

4 Then Moses cried out to the Lord, “What am I to do with these people? They are almost ready to stone me.”

5 The Lord answered Moses, “Walk on ahead of the people. Take with you some of the elders of Israel and take in your hand the staff with which you struck the Nile, and go. 6 I will stand there before you by the rock at Horeb. Strike the rock, and water will come out of it for the people to drink.” So Moses did this in the sight of the elders of Israel. 7 And he called the place Massah and Meribah because the Israelites quarreled and because they tested the Lord saying, “Is the Lord among us or not?”

Let’s go back to our original story.

You are Egypt again.  Show me.  Good.

You are Canaan again. Show me. Good.

What happened when Moses led the people out of Egypt?  The plagues.  Huge, miraculous, earth shattering signs and wonders.  You can’t really get any bigger than what God did for them.

Wow!  If God showed up and did that for me, I’d like to think that I would have a humble and thankful attitude for the rest of my life.

But, what did the Israelites do?  They grumbled and complained.  They whined about being thirsty.    Then, as the story progresses they sent 12 spies into the Promised Land, and what did 10 of them say?  No way.  There are giants in the land (be a giant for me…nice) There is no way that God can overcome them and fulfill his promise.  The odds are too big.

And so, their hearts became hard and they wandered around for 40 years until that generation died off.  They never got to experience the Promise because of their unbelief.

Let’s read on in Hebrews 3.

12 See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. 13 But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness. 14 We have come to share in Christ if we hold firmly till the end the confidence we had at first. 15 As has just been said:

“Today, if you hear his voice,

do not harden your hearts

as you did in the rebellion.

16 Who were they who heard and rebelled? Were they not all those Moses led out of Egypt? 17 And with whom was he angry for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the desert? 18 And to whom did God swear that they would never enter his rest if not to those who disobeyedc? 19 So we see that they were not able to enter, because of their unbelief.

OK, Hebrews says, “Don’t make that mistake again.”

We understand why the Israelites blew it in this story.  They were afraid.  They saw the thirst, and became afraid of the harsh desert.  They saw the giants and became afraid of losing in battle.

Now, let’s jump to the metaphor picture.  You strike the Jewish pose.  Good.  You strike the Kingdom pose.  Good.

So, what is the problem in this picture?  Why would someone cower in fear?  Why would they have an unbelieving heart and turn away from this new Moses named Jesus?

Let’s try to understand this by painting a picture.

Let’s say you arrived home from school tomorrow afternoon and your parents told you to sit down because they have something very serious to discuss with you.

You sit down and they say, “We’ve heard about what you’ve been doing at school.  We heard that at lunch time you have been sitting at the table with “those” people.  You’ve been eating and laughing and having a good time with those Muslim kids.  With those Goth kids.  With those gay kids.”

“This has to stop.  Don’t you understand what you are doing.  The very fact that you are eating with them is putting your soul at risk.  We are seriously doubting your salvation.  Listen to us very carefully.  If you do not break off all contact with these kids, then we are going to take away your inheritance.  That means you will not go to the college you want.  You won’t get the job you want.  We are even prepared to throw you out of the house.  You’ll be like one of those couch hopper kids we read about.  Is that what you want?”

Imagine that happened to you tomorrow afternoon.  What would happen inside you on Friday at lunch?  You would be faced with a serious dilemma, wouldn’t you?

Now imagine that on Friday afternoon a special agent from the Homeland Security Agency knocked on your front door.  They came and told you that a new law had been passed that every Christian had to sign a document stating that their first and highest allegiance was to the United States of America.  If the United States government asked you to do something that violated your religious convictions and your commitment to Jesus, then you will be considered an enemy of the state and all of your rights will be revoked.  The Government will have the right to confiscate all your property, imprison you, and try you as a treasonist, punishable by death.

Would you sign the paper?

These scenarios sound outlandish to us, but the truth is that they are exactly what the Jewish Christians faced on a daily basis.

Their Jewish families were appalled by the idea that a Jew and a Gentile could sit down together and have a meal.  It was unthinkable.  And to call a Gentile a brother?  They had not been circumcised, they had not been ceremonial cleansed.  It was impossible and violated the very fabric of God’s creation.

And then the Romans demanded allegiance to the Lord and Savior Caesar.  Did you know that long before Jesus came on the scene the Romans declared the Gospel – the Good News – of Caesar.  That he, as their Lord and Savior, had brought peace on earth through the Empire?

The language of the early Jesus followers was the language of political rebellion.  They served the Lord and Saviour Jesus, who brought a Kingdom of true Peace through love and forgiveness, not oppression.

The letter of Hebrews urges these Jewish Christians to be strong.  Don’t cave into the fear.  Encourage each other to hold on.  The way of Jesus, the Kingdom of God, the loving Grace and openness of this new Age will change the world.  Don’t give up.

So, what’s the message for us?  My guess is that your parents aren’t threatening to throw you out of the house.  And, so far, the United States hasn’t revoked the freedom of religion.

It could be easy to say, “OK, now I understand this passage and there’s nothing here for me.  Let’s move on.”

Possible.  But I think there is a message here.

Let’s look at these two images again.  You guys are doing a great job, by the way.  The Jews were closed off.  They were fixated on the text of scripture.  They thought they were the only ones God loved and they had the only possible understanding of God’s ways in the world.

I think that if the letter to the Hebrews had been written to us, to the American Evangelical community, I think it would have replaced the name of Moses with the name of Paul.

In our Protestant tradition we have taken Paul’s letters and elevated them to a status that is very much the same as what the Jews did to the Torah.  We have become fixated on the letters of Paul as the only and definitive Word of God.  We isolate ourselves from the world in fear of becoming corrupted.  We look on the world in pity, believing we are the only bearers of truth.  We have drawn a line so deep in the sand that we do not know how to authentically love someone that is different than us.

It seems that Jesus wants to lead us on the same path that he was leading the Jewish Christians.  He wants to show us what the world would look like if people actually behaved according to the example he set.  Loving the unlovely.  Reaching across social barriers and stigmas and really, really loving people.

How do we do that?

Hebrews 3 gives us the two things we need to do.

First we need to fix our thoughts on Jesus.

A man walked into the kitchen and saw his wife staring at a can.  He asked what she was doing and she said, “I’m making orange juice.”

“no you’re not, you’re just staring at a can.”

“Duh, silly.  I’m just following the directions.  Look here.  It says ‘concentrate.’”

That’s what the word here means.  Concentrate.  Intensely focus on Jesus.  We need to look closely at Jesus and study his life.

We need to ask ourselves, would I be willing to risk being completely misunderstood, judged, and excommunicated from my church in order to authentically show the love of God to someone?  Am I willing to reach out to people who are different than me and show them the love of God?  Not just pass them a track and hope they get saved, but genuinely walk with them to a place of healing and wholeness?

That is the kingdom of God.

It can be scary, but it is the way of life.

We need to encourage each other to take the risk and love.

Let’s pray.


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