Why are you here tonight? I wonder what you’d say to that?
Do you come for the music? Or the teaching? The prayers and the liturgy? The chance to catch up with folks? Have you come with a keenness to serve? Maybe it’s something completely different that I couldn’t possibly second guess like you’re keen on stained glass and the wooden pews do wonders for your back.
Well why do Christians meet together? In order to answer that question we’re going to need to grab a Bible, turn back to the book of Hebrews, perhaps unruffle our service sheet for the purposes of note taking, and see what God has to say about meeting together. Have a read back over Hebrews 10:19-25 and try to spot things we need to meet together for and things that we could do perfectly well on our own.
There are a few things we can only do individually for ourselves here. For example, drawing near to God (v22). I can pray for you. But I can't do your praying for you - can't confess your sins for you, ask forgiveness for you, and so on. The same goes for believing God's promises (v23). I can serve God's Word up to you as best I can. But only you can believe it for yourself. But then in v24-25 we come to things that are not just for the individual – these are things we can do for others - and that we need others to do for us, to help us keep going. And it’s these things that are the reasons why we meet together rather than just sitting at home watching songs of praise. The writer to the Hebrews encourages the early Christians to gather as a group in order to:
1. Consider Others 2. Meet Together 3. Encourage One Another
(1) Let Us Consider Others (v24)
“… let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.”
The writer to the Hebrews sums up the attitude we should have to meeting together in 2 words: Consider Others. Think about how you can spur others on to better Christian living.
Now that runs totally contrary to the messages we get about life from the world around us – “Think Me” the world says. Consider how you’re going to be happiest and wealthiest and most fulfilled, Mr or Ms Top of the Tree. Give good thought time to you – ‘cos you deserve it, hey and goodness knows you need it.
That’s the kind of accepted wisdom that influences our motivation when we’re considering rolling out of bed for church on a Sunday morning. Or contemplating hauling ourselves up off the sofa and out to home group midweek. “I can’t be bothered” / “I’m too busy” / “I’m too tired” / “I’ve got better things to do” / “I don’t get that much out of it anyway” / “Nobody would miss me” – ‘Cos the focus of our thinking is most naturally always me.
Which is why the writer to the Hebrews challenges us with a an attitude revolution here: “…let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.” If I can think of others rather than me before I pitch up at church then I think of the people needing welcomed, or invited back for lunch, or encouraged by my singing (or at least my willingness). If I can think of them first then I suddenly realise that it’s not a case of what I’m going to get out of it, but rather what can I put into it. OR If I look down my home group list on a Wednesday night and think of who might need a word of encouragement, a challenging nudge, an offer of practical help then to all intense and purposes I find that I can’t help but go, because I know I’ve got something to contribute.
The truth is that if any group of people come together simply expecting to have their needs met – it’s going to be a disaster. Whereas a group of people coming together where each aims to meet one another's needs will work – because everyone's needs will be met without anyone having gone looking for that.
And that consideration starts before we come. I or whoever fills this pulpit or the guys in the choir stalls providing the music are not the only ones who should prepare for this meeting. If we’re going to spur one another on while we’re here we’re going to have to think and pray about how we’re going to do that before we leave the house, AND we’re going to have to buffer in enough time to hang around at the end in order to seek those opportunities for encouragement.
So that's the first thing. Consider others. When you're on the brink of not going to whatever it is, don't think of it as ‘the service’ or ‘CYFA’ or ‘Music Group’ or ‘Focus’ – something nameless and faceless. Think of a few others who'll be there. Think of it as David and Anne, Graham and Stephen and Boris and Humperdink or whoever. Because services and CYFA and Home Group and all the rest are people. And people need considering if they’re going to be spurred on toward love and good deeds.
(2) Let Us Meet Together (v25a)
“ Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing…”
Some of these Hebrew Christians had stopped meeting together because opposition was making it hard to meet. Take a glance at Verse 32 to see what they were having to go through:
“ Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions.”
They had managed to stand firm, now the opposition was getting too much and they weren’t sure they could take it anymore. You can imagine here a community where Non-Christian family members, non-Christian friends, non-Christian authorities – basically the non-Christian world - made it very hard for them to gather round and meet together. And in that kind of situation, you'd be sorely tempted not to meet, wouldn’t you?
Now we’re not quite in the same situation – being chucked in prison was probably the last thing on your mind when you set out to get here earlier this evening, but we still find ourselves being deterred:
By Non-Christian Family: A girl who became a Christian while I was at University in Glasgow, went home during the holidays and her family so didn’t like her going to church that they used to organise Sunday lunch to coincide with the end of the service so that she had to rush home if she wanted to get fed.
By Non-Christian friends: A friend of mine in this congregation by her own admission feels embarrassed to invite colleagues at work to this church because they called it “the gay-bashing church” the last time she invited someone.
By Non-Christian Authorities: A few of our youth never make it to our Sunday groups because of the plethora of clubs that now run on Sundays and the much needed weekend jobs that won’t budge working hours.
In this country we’re not being threatened with prison for coming to church (at least not yet it isn’t), but it’s still not always easy. AND it’s not just the non-Christian world that makes it hard for us to meet, we sometimes make it hard for ourselves or hard for each other to meet.
At the end of my first year of living in Newcastle I confessed to a fellow who used to be on the staff here at JPC that I still didn’t feel very settled at the church. Quick as a flash he pinpointed my problem: “Well, Kenneth,” he said using my full name and sounding disturbingly like my mother when I’d done something wrong, “you haven’t really been here often enough to get very settled have you?” And sure enough looking back over the year I was away every second weekend through a combination of work or heartfelt longing for the glory across the border (that’s Scotland if you haven’t already figured it out).
And we can make it hard for ourselves to get to church through prioritising our job, or our social life, or maybe even our ideal home. The cottage in the country may be a dream home, but it’s a nightmare if it makes it hard to get to any church, let alone a Bible-believing church.
I know Ian Garrett always says to students that the ideal in planning future moves is to think: first, church (is there a good one in this place I'm thinking of working in?); second, house (live in a house that makes it easy to get to church); then third, work (it's fine if that's harder to get to, because you've got the strong incentive that they'll fire you if you don't). That’s why we encourage CYFA members to choose university or college courses on the basis of whether there's a good church (or good Christian Union) where you're thinking of going. And I'd encourage all of us to apply that order of priorities in any move in life. i.e. It's more important that the children are in a good Sunday school than in a good school, of greater priority that they’re in contact with weekly Bible coaching than weekly football coaching. And there are plenty of other ways of making it hard for ourselves to meet – like the London underground game. You stare dead ahead of yourself, you never make eye contact and you bolt for the door as soon as you’ve reached your destination. I know it's a catch 22 situation – you feel like legging it straight after the service because you haven’t connected with anyone; but the reason you haven’t connected with anyone is that you leg it straight away after the service.
Now that may be because we’ve failed to welcome you – And I apologise on our behalf if that's the case. For that’s where we make it hard for others to meet. By not welcoming people. A fellow called Simon Jones did a study a few years ago that unearthed the statistics that for every 10 smiling satisfied singers we find in church on a Sunday we’ll find another 5 at home who won’t come back because no one spoke to them.
And while I’m encouraged that a lot of welcoming does go on here at JPC there is always room for improvement. Not by adding more staff or recruiting a bigger welcome team – if you’re a believer here tonight YOU ARE the welcome team and need to be sharp to the responsibilities that that entails. Now you might be thinking: “well I’m up for doing that, but I never know what to say.” You’re not alone there, countless teenagers will testify to my how ridiculously embarrassing I am when I greet people who pitch up to events we put on for the youth, but I can guarantee that the first time they came it was better that they went away spoken to than not. Something is always better than nothing.
Or maybe you’re thinking: “listen, my mum always used to tell me never to speak to strangers” – OK there’s not a chance you’re thinking that, but it’s a rather good link to another useful point, which is: Don’t treat people like strangers! There is nothing worse than being greeted by someone who’s with you in body, but whose eyes are desperately seeking out someone more interesting to talk to. Our conversations have got to communicate value to people – they have to say “hey, you’re important to me, you have my undivided attention, it matters that you came out tonight, & that you’re back again on other nights.”
I was 1 of those 5 who gave up meeting with Christians during my time first year at university. I was a really young Christian, a little unsure of my faith who plucked up the guts to seek out the Christian Union group on campus. I was greeted on the door by a lad who barely seemed capable of speech. He thrust a piece of paper into my other hand that said “Welcome” on it in big bold capitals, and grunted and pointed in a way that made it clear to me that I should move on and get a seat. I sat down next to a group of people who were talking animatedly about their midweek Bible study group. The girl nearest me looked round long enough to realise I was a serious hazard and moved up one seat to get closer to her mates. At the end I approached a welcome desk under the pretext of asking for some more information, when really all I wanted was a conversation. I was given an information pack and not a conversation. I didn’t return for a whole year. A whole year wasted for want of a welcome.
Hebrews 10, Verse 25: “Let us not give up meeting together...” And let us not be the reasons why other people give up meeting, either.
So verses 24-25 are saying: don't just think ‘Me’, think, ‘Others’. Then, don't just think ‘Others’, get round to meeting with them. And once you're meeting with them, don't just be with them - encourage them.
(3) Let Us Encourage One Another (v25b)
“… but let us encourage one another - and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
i.e. the point of meeting is not for tea & coffee, or football chit chat, or to see if there will be another natty PowerPoint presentation – It's for encouragement. Which in the New Testament means specifically Christian encouragement – helping and urging and spurring others on to keep trusting the Lord and to keep living Christianly. Which is why we put the Bible at the heart of our groups – not because we think they're just ‘Bible study groups’. But because the best thing we can do for one another is to keep pointing one another to God’s promises through his Word. Which is what the writer to the Hebrews is doing here.
Just look again at the end of verse 25:
“… encourage one another - and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
The writer’s vision is dominated by the promise of a coming ‘day’. That is the day to which all history is heading – the moment when Christ returns. And that ‘day’ will bring about an end to sin and pain, and suffering and death, and an opportunity to enter into the perfect peace and wholeness that Christ has prepared for us. Until that day comes it’s always going to be hard living as a Christian in a world that only looks out for itself, but the encouragement to keep going is that the end is really worth getting to for then you can truly rest.
That’s the one thought that I find encourages folks to keep going during exams & goodness knows there’s been enough people doing exams of late to witness this phenomenon. Now you could try to encourage folks to keep going with a few exhortations like “hey, I’m sure you’ll do really well”, or “don’t worry they’re really easy”, or “wow, that’s a really pretty exam timetable – that must have taken you ages, I’m sure that will come in really handy once you get your head down over an exam paper” - BUT those promises just aren’t true. The only promise you can really cling onto at exam time is the only one that will definitely materialise – that the exams will end, the books can be put away and you will be able to relax for a ridiculously long summer holiday (or at least until the results come out).
AND when we meet as Christians we are to encourage one another not with vain hopes or wishful fancies like the promise of full health, or happiness, or marriage, or children, or children who never go off the rails – Because to say: “I’m sure it’ll be just fine” to someone about to undergo surgery, or “I’m sure there’s someone out there just for you” to someone frustrated with singleness isn’t a Bible promise it’s a false promise. It doesn’t have the same ring of certainty that “I’m sure Jesus is coming back” has to it.
So we should encourage one another with that truth rather than favoured clichés. Question is: how do we do that?
Well just to go back to the exam illustration for a minute: how does the knowledge of the impending end point of exams effect the present application of study methods?
Well it should remind you that the time now is precious because once it’s gone you can never get the time back again. So you know you shouldn’t really faff around making multicoloured exam timetables that you have to re-do every couple of hours because you didn’t factor into the timetable the fact that you were going to take 2 hours to colour in and decorate the original one.
And you recognise that it’s worth the pain of sacrificing your social life or tv watching or playstation addiction in the short term for long term benefit of a worry free summer holiday.
And in the same way we should be looking ahead to the truth of Christ’s return and encouraging one another to see this as precious time. Time that we can never have again. Time to sacrifice what doesn’t really matter in order to ensure that nothing gets in the way of the priority of being ready for the Lord’s return.
So maybe that getting ready will involve us hitching up with a fellow believer so that we can hold one another accountable for how we’re handling the struggles in our lives. Ensuring that we don’t do a verse 26 & “deliberately keep on sinning after we have received knowledge of the truth”. For we wouldn’t want verse 27 to happen and find that “the fearful expectation of judgement” falls on us because we didn’t take the help to overcome sin that God provides for us through fellow believers. To be asked ‘How is your Bible reading and praying going?’ or ‘How are you doing on sexual holiness?’ provides great incentive not only to be disciplined in those areas so that you can look someone in the eye when you answer – BUT it also provides opportunity to talk about things that encourage. To hear from one another what we’ve been learning about in quiet times or how God’s been giving us strength to stay sexually pure is much more exciting than hearing who got evicted from Big Brother or what they thought of the latest Grisham. (to which the answers are: a girl called “Kitten” and “a real page turner” if you must know).
But, maybe this getting ready for the Lord’s return is going to involve us thinking about who isn’t here tonight or who wasn’t there at CYFA this afternoon or who hasn’t been seen at home group for quite some time. And even as you think of someone (& I hope there’s already someone in your mind) the temptation is to think: ‘Well, there’s nothing that I can do about that is there? It’s none of my business whether someone else does or doesn’t come to church. I’d feel stupid trying to phone or dropping them a note or whatever!’ Well, the point is that ‘the Day’ is approaching. If someone doesn’t come or has dropped out it may mean they’re not yet a Christian – they might have had a ‘look, see’, and backed off. But where does that leave him for that ‘Day’? Unforgiven. Unreconciled to the Lord. Time is precious – help them back.
I must conclude (to quote the words of an absent friend) It is hard being a Christian while we wait for “the day”. That is why we meet together: to spur one another on & encourage one another. There is a great danger that if we don’t I will give up the race before the finishing line – that is why God has given us each other and encouraged us to meet: We are God’s provision to each other to keep us going.
Let us Consider Others Let us Meet Together Let us Encourage one another… for the going isn’t easy and “the day” is coming.
FOR FURTHER THINKING:
Finding a church: The advice here is hopefully helpful for graduating UK students or those with children – BUT What if we don’t have kids or are a student returning to a country where there aren’t any or many healthy churches?
Settling at church: How much could becoming a member of a small group or finding an area to serve in help?
Living as church: What one thing from the above notes will you commit to doing as a non-negotiable? (I.E. Considering others by praying for them for the 10-15 minutes before you come out of the house. Meeting together by making a pledge to welcome or talk to someone you don’t know each week. Encouraging others by making the effort to invite someone along). How will you practically do the 1 thing you’ve chosen?
FOR FURTHER READING:
Vaughan Roberts’ “True Worship” – if you’re wondering why there’s no mention of “worship” as a reason for meeting together then get this book from the church bookstall. It’s only little (140 pages) so you could read it in a few hours, and its only cheap (£5.99) so it won’t hurt the pocket.
Simon Jones “Struggling to Belong (What is The Church for Anyway?)” – Read this if there’s a gap between your faith in God and your faith in church.