Many of us will have seen the film The King's Speech. It's about George VI and how he conquered his debilitating speech impediment. Lionel George Logue (1880-1953) did wonders for him, in voice production and in facing up to the challenges of public speaking. In his Christmas broadcast of 1939 the king used the words of a former missionary, M. L. Haskins (1875-1957):
"I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year, "Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown". And he replied, "Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.""
By faith we grasp the hand of God and that hand is there to lead us and to guide us into the unknown – that might be into the adventure of faith; or marriage; or career. And more immediately into the year ahead. At this time of year we look back to the year that has passed and to look forward to the year ahead. And to help us to reflect on this, I want us to look at the book of Hebrews. The writer invites us to look back – to 'yesterday' (13.8); he encourages us to make the past the present as 'today' (3.7, 13, 15; 4.7); and in the light of the past and present he anticipates the future - what I will call 'tomorrow'. For the Christian the past shapes the faith we profess today and gives us a sure hope for the future. So we have yesterday, today and tomorrow.
As Christian believers we are shaped by the Word of God and the Spirit of God. In the Old Testament we interact with the patriarchs, the priests, the prophets and the kings. In the New Testament we encounter the person and work of Christ. And by the grace of God we come to faith in Christ and are progressively made more like Jesus. We are a work in progress. As Christian believers our hope is rooted and grounded in Christ. As the writer to the book of Hebrews puts it in Hebrews 13.8:
"Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever".
On which John Calvin remarks:
"All the treasures of heavenly wisdom are included in Christ … true wisdom … [is] to fix all our thoughts on Christ alone."
I don't much like paper-chase sermons – but tonight we will move from Hebrews (in the New Testament) - back to Leviticus (in the Old Testament) and then return to Hebrews.
We don't know who wrote the book of Hebrews. Various suggestions have been made - but they are only guesses. One early Christian commentator was right when he said that "as to who actually wrote the epistle, God alone knows the truth of the matter." Although we don't know who wrote the book, we can make an intelligent guess as to when it was written and why it was written. It probably dates from within 40 years of the resurrection. That was when Christians were being persecuted for their faith. This is hinted at in Hebrews 10.32-34 where it speaks about suffering and persecution; and was addressed to those who were in prison and to those who had lost their property. The readers lived in dangerous times and they needed to be encouraged to remain true to Christ. Not to drift away but to remain faithful to him. The book of Hebrews was written for those Christians who were tempted to give up the faith they once professed. Many of the converted Jews were tempted to turn their backs on Christianity and return to Judaism. And might have included Temple priests who wanted to put the clock back.
I wonder if that speaks to you, today? Are you sometimes in danger of giving up, or rejecting your faith? After all, life is hard enough and sometimes you despair and want an easy life. It would be far easier to be like everyone else and not profess to be a Christian. You struggle with doubt and temptation. You too easily allow the world to shape your thinking and attitudes; your lifestyle and priorities. But, wait a minute … the challenge to the reader of the book of Hebrews is clear. Don't give up - but press on! Don't ignore the past but live today and tomorrow in the light of what has been.
Tonight our Old Testament reading was from the book of Leviticus. And in chapter 23 we read about seven Jewish festivals – which included the Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles. Also of the annual Day of Atonement and the weekly observance of the Sabbath. These Jewish festivals were foundational in shaping our Christian festivals. Passover and the Lord's Supper – we believe that Jesus was the true Passover lamb (1 Corinthians 5.7); and Easter Sunday - the offering of the first fruits of which Jesus was the first (1 Corinthians 15.23).
The Day of Atonement – in the Jewish calendar the most solemn day of the year – highlights for us the death of Jesus as the single (and never to be repeated) sacrifice for sin. For the Jews the weekly celebration of the Sabbath was foundational. The weekly Sabbath was to be a time for 'solemn rest' and not for work (Leviticus 23.3, 32). By implication (though not spelt out here) work was to give way for worship. The importance of the Jewish festivals came home to me when I was in Israel during the festival of Tabernacles. That was when the Jews recalled the time when God had provided for them in the wilderness. They took branches from palm trees and built shelters in which to celebrate the event. All over Israel we saw tabernacles – in gardens, in car parks and at archaeological sites. And in our hotel in Jerusalem we had breakfast in a large highly decorated tabernacle. No less significant (but much less glamorous) are the booths built in the back yards of the orthodox Jews in Gateshead!
Of course the Jewish festivals commemorated events of long ago. But for the Jews the celebrations have a contemporary significance. The past event becomes the present reality. Now isn't that also true of Christians when we celebrate the Lord's Supper? We look back to the death of Christ – we are reminded of the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. We participate in all that Jesus has done for us. Our present experience of faith in Christ is based on past events; and that reality is the foundation upon which our faith is built and which gives us a hope for the future. As Edward Mote put it:
"My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus' blood and righteousness."
One way to understand the book of Hebrews is to see it as a series of sermons. The writer expounded the Old Testament and applied it to present circumstances. This is an important principle. It's possible to preach from the Bible a series of sermons on historical events – simply as history and nothing else. But the reality is that the past relates to the present and shapes our grasp of the truth. Our faith is rooted in the past but is lived out in the present. That's why preaching must expound the text and be true to the text; and at the same time to be applied to us today. The past then becomes the present.
Turn with me to Hebrews 3 and 4 and what do you see? The footnotes give you a clue. The writer is expounding Psalm 95. And he is making it a message for 'today'. And that 'today' (by extension) includes our todays, our experiences, our convictions. In Psalm 95 we are invited to come and sing to the Lord; to come into his presence and to praise him with joy and thanksgiving. We are to worship him, to bow down before him. And why is this? Because he is our God, our creator and our redeemer. We worship him today because of what he has done for us in the past.
The writer of Hebrews reminds his readers of the Exodus experience. After they had escaped from slavery in Egypt they spent 40 years in the wilderness. There the LORD led them and fed them. And what did they do? What was their response? They hardened their hearts. They were indifferent to God's provision and protection. And what was his response? They were the recipients of his wrath and divine judgement. They would never enter the Promised Land.
Do you see what the writer to the Hebrews is saying? Back in the distant past the people had failed to listen to God. And again much later in their history. They still doubted him. They still failed to obey him. For this, their disobedience would bring certain judgment. Notice here in Hebrews 3 and 4 where the word 'today' occurs (3.7, 13, 15; 4:7). The challenge, originally made in the wilderness and later in the Promised Land, and by extension to us as well: "Today, if you hear his voice…" Hebrews 3.12:
"Take care, brothers and sisters, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God."
To whom are these words addressed? Was it to those who worshipped in the Temple? Was it to those Christians who suffered persecution? Or are these words we need to hear today?
For Christian believers the past becomes the present. The world of the Old Testament and New Testament is not simply a history lesson, a collection of Sunday school lessons, but it has a contemporary significance. Take any incident in the life of Jesus – on the Sea of Galilee, by the lakeside, hearing a story, seeing a miracle, observing his death and resurrection. It is as though we were there. Looking over the shoulders of the crowd. Denying Jesus. Passing the nails to the Roman soldiers. Weeping with Mary in the garden near the empty tomb. Hearing the words from the risen Christ. Today, in the scriptures we encounter the Lord Jesus.
I referred just now to the Lord's Supper. We look back to the death of Christ – we are reminded of the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. But it is not just a past event but a present reality. We believe that Jesus died and rose again. At the Lord's Supper we are in the presence of the risen Christ. He invites us to 'do this in remembrance of him'. He who had died is risen. So we say - Christ has died – Christ is risen. At the Lord's Supper we are reminded of his risen presence. He is our risen and reigning Lord, our ever-present Saviour who will walk with us into the year ahead. So trust him. Believe in him. Walk with him.
The writer to the Hebrews has much to say about the past and he skilfully applies the past to the present. And at the same time he speaks about the future. He was mainly concerned with helping those who were struggling over their faith and their circumstances. But he also gives us a few glimpses into the future. The most obvious is when he said (13.8):
"Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever."
In Hebrews 7 he referred to his eternal priesthood "after the order of Melchizedek" (v.17). Unlike the ministry of earthly priests, Jesus' priesthood was permanent (v.24) – and is therefore available to all who came to him – in whatever period they lived. He died once and for all. The Temple sacrifices were daily: but his sacrifice was once and for all (v.27). And what is he doing now, this ascended Christ? He is praying for you and me. In heaven (v.25):
"He always lives to make intercession for us."
Another hint of the future is illustrated by the past. The writer referred to the earthquake at Mt Sinai; and in 12.28 he referred to the spiritual kingdom that cannot be shaken. The instability of the old order is set against the stability of the new. While it is based on the past it is permanent and lasts for ever. And the writer spoke of "no lasting city, but we seek the [heavenly] city that is to come" (13.14). The significance of which will only be obvious in the future. For (11.1)…
"faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."
I have already mentioned the Lord's Supper. There we look back to the death of Christ – in the visual aids of bread and wine we are reminded of the single sacrifice for sin. We are thankful that the risen Christ is present among us. But there is another profound aspect of the Lord's Supper. It is an anticipation of his return. We do this "until he comes" again (1 Corinthians 11.26). Here at Jesmond, that is the text we see above the communion table, 'till he comes'. So when we come to the Lord's Table yes, we are looking back – but not just looking back. We are also celebrating the fact that Christ is risen from the dead and one day he will return. So in the Lord's Supper we anticipate his return. This is why many communion liturgies make the acclamation: 'Christ has died; Christ is risen, Christ will come again'.
Tomorrow we begin a new year. As we approach the unknown we need to be firmly rooted and grounded in Christ – who has come to us – who is present with us – who, one day, will return.