Next Friday, January 20th 2017, will be an auspicious day in the history of the world. The inauguration will take place of Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States. Mr Trump will become the leader of the most powerful country in the world. The schedule commences on Thursday with a wreath-laying ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery. A concert titled “Make America Great! Welcome Celebration” will then be held at the Lincoln Memorial. On Friday the inauguration ceremony will take place at the US Capitol, followed by a parade along Pennsylvania Avenue and an inaugural ball in the evening. Next Sunday, 22nd January, a National Prayer Service will be held at the Washington National Cathedral.[i] Opinion is, as you well know, deeply divided on whether the next four years will be marked by peace or war. The stakes are high.
Last week, 3,000 US troops entered Poland. It was the largest US military reinforcement of Europe in decades. More than 80 main battle tanks and hundreds of armoured vehicles have already arrived in Germany and are now being moved into eastern Europe by road and rail. The Russian Deputy Foreign Minister called the deployment a “factor destabilising European security”, a threat to the security of Russia. Poland’s Undersecretary of State for Defence said the deployment was necessary because of Russia’s “large exercises” next to its border and its “aggressive actions in our vicinity – I mean Ukraine and the illegal annexation of Crimea”.
On the other side of the world in the South China Sea, Chinese state media has told Mr Trump’s team to “prepare for war”. After the US `Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson called for a blockade of South China Sea islands, a strongly-worded English editorial in the Global Times, a Chinese state run newspaper, warned, “The US should “prepare for a military clash”. Mr Trump “had better bone up on nuclear power strategies if he wants to force a big nuclear power to withdraw from its own territories”, the paper, said.
Mr Trump’s response is clear. During an hour-long briefing on foreign affairs, three times he asked: “If we have nuclear weapons why can’t we use them?” According to the Guardian, he wants America to “greatly strengthen and expand its nuclear capability until such time as the world comes to its senses regarding nukes.” So, an auspicious week tinged with uncertainty and foreboding. How should we respond? How should we pray and act?
In the passage before us tonight we are urged to focus on five spiritual disciplines: strengthen the despondent, live in peace, pursue holiness, seek grace and avoid defilement.
- We must strengthen the despondent
“Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. “Make level paths for your feet,” so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.” (Hebrews 12:12-13)
January, with its cold weather and lack of sunlight can be a very depressing month especially when the post-Christmas credit card bills arrive. January is therefore a good month to strengthen the despondent. Using familiar language used by John the Baptist from the prophet Isaiah’s highway imagery, we are urged to take some exercise along the way – not just for ourselves but for others too. The first exhortation is quite simply: ‘Be strong and go straight. Cast away despondency and press on.’ The reference to ‘feeble arms and weak knees’ is also familiar imagery in Jewish literature, synonymous with discouragement and despair. The imagery here reminds me of John Bunyan’s, Pilgrim’s Progress. Citing Proverbs 4:26 we are urged to support those who may have become despondent (lame), and encourage them to keep going when they feel like giving up. This is not just the role of the clergy. We all have a responsibility because we are on a pilgrimage together. We must strengthen the despondent.
- We must strive for peace
“Make every effort to live in peace with everyone (Hebrews 12:14a)
Raymond Brown speculates, “A sense of rich corporate unity in the local congregation will do more to create the right atmosphere for healing than almost anything else. They must not only keep the peace; they must actively pursue it. We must literally live in peace. I am sure you have figured that peace does not come naturally or automatically just because we are Christians. That is why the devil targets Christians. He sows seeds of disunity between believers because he knows it is easier to neutralise our witness this way than through by hostility from those outside the church. This is why we must strive for peace, to ‘seek peace, and pursue it’ (Psalm 34:14; 1 Peter 3:11). This is the motivation for our new charity Peacemaker Mediators. “Wherever the Church is under-resourced, marginalized or persecuted, wherever human rights are denied or reconciliation needed.” While other charity addresses the consequences, we will seek to address the causes. To build Christ’s church, we must strengthen the despondent and strive for peace.
- We must pursue holiness
““Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.” (Hebrews 12:14b)
In our pilgrimage through life, we must not only work at living in loving harmony with one another, but also pursue personal holiness before God. The peace described here then is not finding the least line of resistance, or giving in to keep the peace. Holiness, like peace, is also a quality for which we must earnestly pursue for the whole of our lives. This is why we must strengthen the despondent, strive for peace and pursue holiness.
- We must rely on grace
“See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God” (Hebrews 12:15a)
To strive for holiness we must rely upon God’s grace. It is easy to become a Christian acknowledging God’s saving grace but then take it for granted. I need God’s grace every single day. You need God’s grace every single day too. I need his intervention, his provision, his love, his mercy and grace. Hence this solemn warning: Make sure that you rely constantly on grace. One commentator translates the verse, “See to it that you do not fall behind by ‘not keeping pace with the movement of divine grace’” Strengthen the despondent, strive for peace, pursue holiness and rely on God’s grace.
- We must avoid defilement
“and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. Even though he sought the blessing with tears, he could not change what he had done.” (Hebrews 12:15-17)
If we long to be holy, then we must resist temptation. Sin is a contagious disease. In the Jewish tradition Esau was godless and irreligious. Giving in to his hunger, he sold his birthright to Jacob. He tried in vain to reverse the decision. Though he cried to his father with tears, it was all too late; the blessing had been given to Jacob. His physical hunger meant more to him than his spiritual privileges. This is a serious pastoral warning. One commentator says ‘It was unbelief in the divine promise…, not mere sensuality, that led Esau to the irrevocable step of bartering away his birth right. No later repentance was able to undo that act.’
We too must take care lest we forfeit the promises of God and lose our inheritance. The devil will use all manner of means to waylay us on our pilgrimage, or throw us out of the race. But the Christian life is something far more than simply keeping ourselves pure. We have a pastoral responsibility for one another – for our brothers and sisters. To give warm encouragement, sensible advice, prayerful sympathy, supportive fellowship, and when necessary gentle correction. Five spiritual disciplines on our pilgrimage through life: Strengthen the despondent, strive for peace, pursue holiness, rely on God’s grace and avoid defilement. But why these five injunctions? Because of what may happen this week? Only partly. More importantly it is about who we are becoming and where we are standing. You see, the week ahead may be auspicious. Some say we are in uncharted territory. Drawing comparison with the 1930’s, others suggest history is repeating itself. It may seem like the world is falling apart, breaking up, even swallowing us up. Hebrews tells us not to look back or even look forward, but to look up and realise where you are standing. You see in Jesus Christ, as children of God, we are secure as citizens in the kingdom of God.
We belong to a spiritual kingdom
“You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.” But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” (Hebrews 12:18-22a)
There is an unmistakable contrast here between the physical old covenant and the spiritual new. The contrast is between Sinai – a physical mountain where the law was given, and Mount Zion, the spiritual mountain, the heavenly Jerusalem. Under the old covenant God’s holiness and majesty were emphasized by natural signs which accompanied his presence. Sometimes a blazing fire, at other times deep darkness. Under the old covenant there was on the infinite chasm between God and man. Two things are given special mention. First, the divine voice was overwhelming. They could not bear to hear God speaking. They implored Moses to speak to them. But in the New Covenant this voice speaks directly from heaven. If they did not escape, how much less shall we? Secondly, the divine presence was unapproachable. The people were instructed to keep away. Even if a straying animal, let alone a person, touched the mountain, it had to die.
But under the new covenant to go up is to live.
It is by ‘a new and living way’ that we enter God’s presence (10:25). We have arrived, not at the foot of an unapproachable mountain, but within the gates of a glorious city. We belong to a spiritual kingdom.
We belong to an eternal kingdom
“You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” (Hebrews 12:22-24)
This is our destiny. Yes, we look forward to the return of Jesus, the consummation of all history, but, but Hebrews here insists while the best is yet to be, we have already arrived. We have come (past tense) to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. Although we cannot see them, the angels are present in vast numbers. The faithful departed are here too, made perfect as we are through the work of Christ. Although the scene describes a joyous festival, it is a sober place, for to enter the city is to meet the judge who is God of all. Confronted with God as judge, Moses, the mediator of the old covenant, trembled with fear but, through the ministry of Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, we draw near with confidence.
Christ’s human name is introduced deliberately. We have come to Jesus, the man like us, and the man for us. His blood purifies for all sin, for all time. While Abel’s blood cried for vengeance and retribution, the blood of the Lord Jesus proclaims grace and mercy. Like the heavenly multitude, our names were enrolled in heaven. We belong to a spiritual kingdom, an eternal kingdom.
We belong to an unshakeable kingdom
“See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.” (Hebrews 12:25-29)
For the people of the 1st Century, just as much as the 21st Century, earthly troubles, as well as celestial joys, are on the immediate horizon. Where everything around them was being shaken, these believers were urged not to be afraid, but to rejoice in the secure, immovable kingdom to which they most certainly belonged. We too belong to a Kingdom that cannot be shaken.
We should indeed be alert to the momentous events unfolding in our world, but without fear. There is nothing to fear this week, whether in the auspicious inauguration of a president in the USA, in the unprecedented military build-up in Eastern Europe, in the continuing uncertainties of Brexit, volatility in the international markets, in the impact of climate change, or one of a whole host of other grounds for anxiety. Conscious of political instability, social pressures, economic hazards, religious apostasy, physical hardship and moral decay, we do not despair. Instead we are energised to live out of faith with courage and boldness secure on knowing who we are and where we reside. Our trust is in God and we are safe. For we have received a kingdom that cannot be shaken. The blazing fire of God’s holy, jealous and righteous love will never be extinguished. In the presence of that bright light all our sins are exposed. But we also rejoice that mercifully, in its refining flames, they are also consumed.
This sermon draws heavily on Raymond Brown’s brilliant commentary on Hebrews published by IVP.