Last Wednesday I made a flying visit to Ireland for my grandmother's birthday. She was 100. She got a letter from the Queen and a letter from the Irish President - the differences being that the Queen got the date wrong, and that the President enclosed a cheque for £300. Old age is clearly more profitable in Ireland. Old she may be, but Granny's a very fit 100-year old indeed: for her 95th birthday we got her a new wheel-barrow, she's still a keen gardener, still digs the allotment and can still touch her toes. It was great fun on Wednesday: she'd say goodbye to one of her elderly, arthritic guests and then turn round to you and say, 'That's Mrs Murphy, you know. Poor old soul: she's 83!' She was interviewed on national radio. She's slightly deaf, so all she told them was, 'I can't hear you - but you're a lovely man!'. And she was interviewed by one of the newspapers. They asked her, 'What has kept you going?' Her reply: 'Working hard, having no money and drinking a terrible lot of tea.' Well, if we're Christians, what will keep us going as Christians? That's the question that the letter to the Hebrews is all about. How do we keep going as Christians -not just in teenage years, when I can remember people telling me I'd grow out of it; not just at University, if we've been students; not just in the early days, but for the whole of life? That's the concern of this book called Hebrews. It was written to people who'd professed faith in the Lord Jesus. They'd begun the Christian life. And then they'd run into a wall of opposition. Look at Hebrews 10.32:
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 sympathised with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you had better and lasting possessions. So, do not throw away your confidence (Hebrews 10.32-35)
And that last little phrase tells us that, having begun, they were having second thoughts. Maybe they were considering quietly dropping out of the Christian life. Maybe some of them were already drifting away from the church they were part of. Why else do you have to write verse 25:
Let us not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing.
In their case it was hard circumstances that raised the question: would they keep going? They had it tougher than I guess most of us ever have. But I don't know, for instance, what our brothers and sisters returning to Hong Kong will experience in the coming years. And who knows what we may experience in this country in the next 20-30 years, as our culture goes 'political correctness'-mad, and as tolerance continues to tolerate everything except those who claim to have found the truth. (That, of course, is the one thing 'tolerance' will not tolerate). But it can often be the very opposite of tough times that causes people to drop out: success or promotion can be as much of a pressure to drift from the Lord as opposition to our faith. This is known as the End of Term service. And I couldn't think of a better passage than Hebrews 10 for those who'll be leaving Newcastle over the summer - some permanently, others temporarily for the summer break. Either way, the Christian supports around us are taken away - church, friends, CU (if you've been part of that). You may be going back to a non-Christian home; you may be moving onto an unknown place. What will keep you going as a Christian? But it's a live question, too, for those of us who aren't going anywhere. Plenty of us are facing big changes in life, in circumstances, in work, without having to move an inch. For many, the more settled, the more pressure, the more responsibilities, the more commitments, the more over-commitment. And our faith is submerged by other agendas in life. For us, too: how will we keep going? Granny was asked what had kept her going in physical life .Her answer: working hard, having no money and drinking a terrible lot of tea. Ask the writer to the Hebrews, 'How can we keep going in our spiritual lives?', and the answer comes in three points: first, LET US DRAW NEAR TO GOD (vv 19-22); secondly,LET US LIVE IN THE LIGHT OF THE FUTURE CERTAINTY OF HEAVEN (v 23); and thirdly, LET US MEET WITH OUT FELLOW-CHRISTIANS - TO ENCOURAGE AND TO BE ENCOURAGED ALONG THE WAY (vv 24-25). First, LET US DRAW NEAR TO GOD (vv 19-22) To keep us going, the first thing the Lord tells us to do is: to keep coming to him. Verse 19:
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, through a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart, in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience, and having our bodies washed with pure water.
What help is that in keeping going as a Christian? Well, every day of your and my Christian lives, we are going to let God down. We are going to sin. We don't want to, we seek not to. But we will. And if there's one thing which will cripple our progress as Christians it's this: doubting that our sins at every stage can be, and have been, forgiven. Probably nothing will hinder us more than a lack of assurance about our forgiveness. And some of us may be aware of that right now - one particular thing, or a whole spell of half-heartedness may be on our consciences. And that's where the writer to the Hebrews begins: 'Therefore, brothers' (v 19). The 'therefore' points back to pretty much the whole letter. It's all about Jesus. And it's all about what he achieved for us when he died on the cross and rose again from the dead. And that's all explained by going back to the Old Testament. In OT times, God had given his people a visual aid called the temple. (See Hebrews 9.1-10 for a quick summary). At the centre of it was an area called the Holy Place. And at one end of that was an area called the Most Holy Place. And the Most Holy Place symbolised the presence of God. But you couldn't see it. And you couldn't go in, Because between you and the Most Holy Place was a curtain. And the curtain stood like a 'No Entry' sign. It was a visual aid for the problem that exists between mankind and our Maker. We are sinful: we think, say and do any number of things that are against God's will. On the other hand, he is holy: he is morally perfect and uncompromising and can't stand sin in any shape or form. And that curtain in the temple basically said, 'No Entry. Stay away. Keep your distance. Don't come into my presence or I will have to judge you and condemn you for your sins.' And that curtain was a standing reminder of the problem between us and God. I am sinful (and continue to be so, even as a Christian); he is holy. The other thing about this visual aid was the system of sacrifices. Imagine I'd been a believer in those days. I'd have brought a lamb, or maybe a pigeon, to the temple. I'd have confessed my sins over it, laying my hand on its head. Then a special temple official called a priest would take the animal away. He would kill it, and take the blood into the Holy Place. And just once a year, the head official, called the high priest, was allowed to take some sacrificial blood behind that curtain into the Most Holy Place. And that part of the visual aid pointed to the solution to the problem between us and God. It pointed to the truth that a substitute can take responsibility for my sins. A substitute can face the sentence of death and separation from God after death, that I deserve. Justice can't be waived. But it can be transferred from me to a substitute. And the whole thing was just a visual aid so that when Jesus came to solve the problem, we'd understand exactly what he did, and exactly what it achieved for us. (So, since the coming of Jesus, there have been no 'holy places', no priests and no sacrifices - although some people, unfortunately, still talk and act as if there were). Think back to the crucifixion. 1 Peter 2.22 says, 'He [Jesus] committed no sin and no deceit was found in his mouth.' Then in the next breath it goes on: 'He [Jesus] himself bore our sins in his body on the tree.' (1 Peter 2.24). 1 Peter 3.18 says: 'Christ died for sins, once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.' And between them, the Gospel accounts (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) tell us that on that first Good Friday, God did two things to spell out what was happening as his Son died. They tell us that at the time of the crucifixion, 'darkness came over the whole land'. A curtain of darkness to spell out that Jesus was going through the separation from God that we deserve. And they tell us that at the time of the crucifixion, 'The curtain of the temple [the curtain that marked off the Most Holy Place, and kept us out] was torn in two from top to bottom.' It couldn't be clearer. Jesus takes responsibility for our sins, and is cut off from God. Justice has been done in the person of a substitute. So we who deserve judgement can now come near to God and find forgiveness and acceptance. The curtain is down. God is not saying to us sinners, 'No Entry. Stay away. Keep your distance.' What he's saying to us is:
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place [the presence of God] by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is his body [his body nailed to a cross for our sins], and since we have a great priest over the house of God [that is, since Jesus is alive and well in heaven and constantly willing to forgive], let us draw near to God, with a sincere heart, in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience, and having our bodies washed with pure water. (vv19-22)
And those last phrases are picture language for having our sins forgiven - having what Jesus did on the cross applied to our consciences. Having the weight lifted off our consciences as we realise and believe that the weight of judgement for all of it was carried by him. Why does the writer to the Hebrews start there? Why doesn't he just tell them to read their Bibles and pray and go to church and be disciplined in their Christian lives? Why doesn't he weigh in with a list of 'how to's - how to find a church, how to have your time of personal Bible reading and prayer ('Quiet Time', as some call it), and so on? Why start here? Because if we doubt that we are forgiven people - not just tolerated by God, not just accepted by God, but loved by God, welcomed by God - if we doubt that, we cannot live the Christian life. There's no point in you telling me to read my Bible and pray if I have no assurance at the very foundation of my relationship with God. I'll tell you the two main reasons I don't have my Quiet Time. One is lack of discipline - the late night, the alarm clock failure. The other is lack of assurance. When I lack assurance that I am forgiven and can be forgiven, I don't want to draw near to God. I shrink away. I'm slow getting round to it. I don't want like doing it. What's the solution? New Bible reading notes? Try a different time of day? No, the solution is to solve the root problem. And the root problem is doubting God. The root problem is that things are on our consciences that make us feel that the curtain is back up. But it isn't. For 2000 years since the cross, Satan has been trying to get us to believe that the curtain is still up. Well, listen to God, instead:
Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, through a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God, with a sincere heart [that is, be honest - we feel pretend with him, and we don't have to, because he's willing to forgive everything], in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience, and having our bodies washed with pure water. (vv19-22)
We cannot live for God except as a response to his all-forgiving love. If we doubt his love, or at least forget it, that will hinder us like nothing else in the Christian life. So the first thing Hebrews says to us is this: let us draw near to God. The curtain is down. And it stays down. Sin in our lives does not put it back up, although Satan will tell us it does, a hundred times a day. Sin spoils the relationship. It will never split it. So, let us draw near to God. Don't let a guilty conscience keep you away from him when what he tells us to do is precisely the opposite: bring it for cleansing. He's not saying, 'Be fearful and keep your distance' he's saying, 'Be confident and draw near - even as the sinner you are and will continue to be till your dying day.' And remember: the time we most need to do that is the time we least feel like doing it. Of course I'd say, 'Make time to read your Bible and pray' - that's the 'how-to' of drawing near. But I think most of us know the 'how to.' The root problem is why we don't. We don't draw near to God because we think of him more like an external examiner than a loving, heavenly Father. And it's often because we haven't learnt how to come back to God again and again and again to confess our sins, to ask forgiveness, to trust in the cross yet once more, and to come away with a cleansed conscience. You might like to memorise these first three verses - they've certainly rescued me many a time. You might like to get to know: 1 John 1.8-10, Romans 5.8, Psalm 32 and Psalm 51 so that you have the beginnings of an armoury to fight doubt and feed your faith in God's forgiving love. So that's the first thing: 'Let us draw near to God.' Secondly, LET US LIVE IN THE LIGHT OF THE FUTURE CERTAINTY OF HEAVEN (v 23) To keep us going, the second thing the Lord tells us is this: believe in heaven. Believe in heaven until you start to live like heaven is real, which it is. Verse 23:
Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.10.46.
The 'hope we profess' is the certainty that there is a heaven and that we are going there. (Compare Hebrews 11.1) We know there is really a heaven because we know that Jesus really came from somewhere, and really rose from the dead, and really went back somewhere, and really is somewhere now. And that somewhere is heaven. And if we have put our faith in the things of verses 19-22, we know we're going there. The curtain of judgement is down, if our trust is in the death of Jesus. God welcomes us now in prayer, and he'll welcome us then when we die. And he'll welcome us in not because we're good enough, but because he's good enough to have sent his Son to die for us. Every reason why I should not be allowed into heaven has been nailed to the cross. So God promises in Hebrews 10.17:
Their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.
Mind-blowing. So, if we do believe there's really a heaven and we do believe we're really going there, what help is that in keeping going as a Christian? Well, for one thing, however tough being a Christian may make things, the certainty of being in God's perfect world for eternity makes it worth putting up with anything in this life. Just glance down again to verses 32-34. They had it very bad. Insult. Persecution. Confiscation of property. Imprisonment. Why not jack it all in? Why not take the line of least resistance? In our non-Christian homes? In the workplaces and new friendship circles we move to? Why not just quietly forget being a Christian? Let me rephrase those questions. Let me put them from a Bible point of view: 'Why not jack heaven in, in favour of hell? Why not have the company of ultimately ruined people instead of ultimately recreated people? Why not have 30,40, 50, (whatever) years of relative ease, whatever the cost in eternity?' Those questions are too idiotic to need an answer, put that way. But the trouble is: we don't put it that way. Because, if we're honest, we hardly believe in heaven. It hardly influences our decision-making, our ambitions, our calculations, our pain thresholds, our willingness to serve the Lord in a costly way. We western Christians are desperately conformed to our secular society when it comes to this. We live largely in and for the here and now. We need to decide whether we believe in heaven. And we need to decide whether we believe we're going there. Just as we can't live the Christian life unforgiven, we can't live the Christian life without hope - that is, without the future certainty of heaven in our sights. Without the hope of heaven (v 23), we'll swerve when the going gets tough. We'll choose not to be known as Christians in new places - after all, it's easier to keep our heads down. We'll turn out to be silent Christians, no-different-from-anyone-else Christians, in other words, non-Christians. Which is why Hebrews says:
Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. (v 23)
But it's not just tough times that make us swerve off course. Good times can, too, or pursuing the ambition of good times, or simply letting the world put us under the pressure of all its pet agendas. Remember Jesus telling the Parable of the Sower (Mark 4.1-20) - the farmer sows seed; some of it sprouts but it doesn't last. It gets scorched by the sun. That's illustrating the tough times. Some of it sprouts, but it too comes to nothing because it's sown among thorns. There's competition. That's illustrating the other things, apart from tough times, that make us swerve. Jesus says:
Still other, like the seed sown among thorns, hear the word; but the worries of this life, the deceitfulness of wealth and the desires for other things come in and choke the word. (Mark 4.18-19)
Without the hope of heaven we'll swerve towards other goals than the Lord Jesus and being with him in heaven. The supreme goal will become career or family, or something like that. We can swerve towards good things, as well as to avoid tough things. But nothing is good enough that it beats heaven. And nothing is tough enough that heaven won't make it pale by comparison. I was best man to a friend a while back. We shared a room at the hotel the night before the wedding. We finally went to our beds, and settled down. Or rather I did. He tossed and turned and got up and walked around the room. About 3am I was getting close to putting the light on and suggesting a game of cards. In the morning, we were being driven to the church and through a huge yawn he said, 'Now I know how these insomniacs must feel.' To which I replied , 'Now I know how their wives must feel.' But I knew it wasn't nerves. It was anticipation. He couldn't wait for this great thing to happen to him. So imagine I'd said to him that morning, 'Oh, all this hassle of dressing up and having to give a speechdo you really want to go through with this?' Or imagine I'd said, 'Well, the weather looks good What do you fancy doing today? A few rounds of golf? Or head out for a days' walking? Or you could get married, I suppose' It's too ridiculous to imagine. Nothing would have made him swerve from getting to church to see his bride and marry her. No hassle could possibly have been big enough; no alternative could possibly have been good enough. If only our hold on the reality of heaven was that clear:
Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. (v 23)
Let's not swerve to avoid the hassles. Let's not swerve for anything however good. Because the hassles, relative to heaven, are not that big. And the good things are not that good, in the light of heaven - our greatest good of all. C.S. Lewis once said farewell to a Christian student friend of his. The student was a PhD from America and on his way back home. They had a drink together, shook hands and parted in the street. And then to the student's embarrassment, Lewis turned and bellowed down the road, 'See you in heaven, if not before.' (I tried that line out on one of our international students the other day - she looked rather alarmed). But that's right, isn't it? That's the perspective of the Bible. What happens in between is quite important, but it's not that important - compared to drawing near to God now, and being with him then. So that's the second thing: 'Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess.' Thirdly, LET US MEET WITH FELLOW-CHRISTIANS - TO ENCOURAGE AND TO BE ENCOURAGED ALONG THE WAY (vv 24-25). To keep us going, the third thing the Lord tells us is this: meet with your fellow-believers. Encourage them to keep going. And get them to encourage you to keep going. Verse 24-25:
And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds. Let us not give up meeting together as some are in the habit of doing. But let us encourage one another and all the more as you see the Day approaching [ie, the day we meet Jesus face to face].
I remember a guy in his teens on a Scripture Union camp saying to me that his Christian life was like a washing line: a few props here and there, but most of it was sag in between. I thought that was a very shrewd comment. And I guess most of us who are Christians will know exactly what he meant. The props were his Christian Union at school and the camps he came to summer by summer. Partly, he'd put his finger on a weakness in his own Christian life. He wasn't doing v19-23 on his own. He wasn't reading his Bible and praying for himself. And he realised no-one else could do that for him. No-one else could get assurance for him, or keep his eyes set on the Lord and on heaven - on the truly important things in life. He was responsible for much of the sagging. But partly, he'd put his finger on something very important. He did use some of the other props that God provides. And the vital one is: the fellowship and encouragement of other Christians. Verse 25:
Let us not give up meeting together, but let us encourage one another.10.98.
If you're moving from Newcastle, there's a booklet on the Welcome Desk called the 'Leavers' Booklet'. It's written primarily for students, but if you're moving on this summer, please do pick one up. In amongst other things it basically says: whatever you do, wherever you go, find a good church and join it. And there's help on thinking what to look for in a church, what makes a church good rather than bad, how to settle into one, how to get involved, and so on. I'm not going to spend time on that now, except to say again: wherever you go, whatever you do, find the Christians and join them. I remember a student who graduated last year. He turned up at JPC in his final term, having not rally been seen since his first year. He said to me on one occasion, 'Do you know my biggest mistake during my time in Newcastle?' I had to confess I didn't know everything. 'I dropped out of church when I came back my second year,' he aid, And that was my biggest mistake so far.' Very honest. 20/20 hindsight. Wherever you go, whatever you do, don't make it your mistake. And for those of us staying, why not write out verses 24 and 25 on a postcard and ponder on them for 5 minutes before very home group or every service we come to? The bottom line is: 'Let us not give up meeting together.' Everything conspires against that: the working day, the children, the baby-sitting, tiredness, you name it. Let's not give up meting together. But there's more: let's think about how to encourage one another. Whatever group we're involved with is the group God has given us to encourage. They are the people God has given us to spur on in the Christian life. Let's forget what we'll get out of it and take to our hearts that ministry to them. Because if we all resolve to give encouragement, we'll all end up receiving plenty - whether it's prayer or phone calls, or meals or time outside the group or whatever. And for those of us staying: let's remember, the coming four months are the ones when many new faces join us -not just students. Every one of us here is responsible for how easy they find it to join us. Not just the people in 'uniform' at the front. Not just the people with the badges. Everyone. We're all responsible for everything - from saying hello's to inviting complete strangers round for supper. As more fellow Christians arrive in Newcastle, seeking to do vv 24 and 25, we will either help or hinder them. Let me end with a well-worn story. It's told of a Scottish minister that he went to visit a man who'd drifted out of church. They sat down by an open fire and the minister said, 'We've missed you these last few months.' No reply from the rather ashamed drifter. So the minister just picked up the fire tongs, got out a glowing coal and dropped it onto the hearth. And he watched it as it cooled off from orange, to red, to grey. Then he picked it up, put it back in the fire among the other coals and waited for the colour to return. Then he simply said, 'It'd be good to see you on Sunday. And more's to the point, good for you.' And off he went.
Let us not give up meeting together, but let us encourage one another, and all the more as you see the day approaching. (v 25)
Whether you're staying or going, if you're a Christian, your fellow-Christians need you to keep them going. And you need them. So, what will keep us going as Christians? Reading the Bible? Yes. Praying? Yes. Being part of church? Yes. But the bottom line answer is this, and it's the only one that gives me confidence that I or anyone else will keep going. The bottom line is: God will keep us going as Christians. As he forgives our sins. As he strengthens us to face and come through the hassles. As he keeps us from swerving. As he surrounds us with fellow-Christians to teach and encourage us on the way. All those things - the Bible, our praying, our fellowship are the means he uses. Our responsibility is to use those means - to put ourselves where God can do his work in us. His responsibility - and his promise - is, through those means, to keep us going and bring us home. Jude 24-25:
To him who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy - to the only God our Saviour be glory, majesty, power and authority through Jesus Christ our Lord, before all ages, now and for evermore! Amen.