Hebrews 11:17-22 – Faith Forward

Sacrifice of Abraham by He Qi

By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.

By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future.

By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.

By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions concerning the burial of his bones. (New International Version)

Life requires faith.

To keep going, to endure and persevere, demands sustained faith over the course of a lifetime.

Faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. (Hebrews 11:1)

The biblical character, Abraham, let faith shape his actions. He obeyed God’s call on his life and left his home country to go somewhere he knew nothing about. And he did it with no GPS and no AAA tour books.

Even thought Abraham had a good life in his home city of Ur, he left, believing there was something better ahead.

After reaching the land which God led them to, Abraham, age 100 and his wife, Sarah, age 90, became parents. It happened because of faith. The two of them believed God’s promise of a child, even though it was biologically impossible.

Abraham kept his faith over the long haul of his life. He did it by looking ahead to the eternal city. Because Abraham had looked ahead on this earth and stepped out in faith, he was able to clearly discern that all his faith eggs were not in the earthly basket.

Against all odds, Abraham was convinced God was good for his promises and knew what he was doing.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart,
And lean not on your own understanding;
In all your ways acknowledge Him,
And He shall direct your paths.

Proverbs 3:5-6, NKJV

Isaac was the miracle child, the promised son born to Abraham and Sarah in their old age. One day, God came along and gave Abraham a very strange command: Take your son, the child of the promise, and go to the mountain and sacrifice him there. (Genesis 22:1-19)

“Huh? What the @#$&*!!” we might say. But it only seems perplexing and weird to us. Abraham listened and obeyed. He simply went about the business of saddling up the donkey, chopping some wood for the sacrifice, and took his only son with him on the journey to the mountain – with no questions or talk back to God.

While you and I might try and figure out if we really heard God or not, Abraham had a history of faith with God. He knew God’s voice as well as he knew his own. Abraham was well down the road of relationship with the God he served.

Today’s New Testament lesson gives us an insight into Abraham’s thought process, a line of thinking consistent with a person who has a regular habit of talking with God. Abraham was willing to follow through with sacrificing his beloved son because he was sure that God could raise people to life. Abraham believed death would not have the last word.

Abraham did not try and figure out God’s mind. He didn’t get into a debate with God about the contradiction of ethics he was being asked to do. He just obeyed. Abraham reasoned that it didn’t matter if Isaac were killed because God could raise him from death. This, of course, is not what happened. It was all a test of faith. Abraham knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is the Lord who provides.

You and I rarely know why we are facing the unwanted circumstances we are enduring. We don’t always know what in the world God is thinking. Yet, like Abraham, if we have a spiritual history of walking with God and hearing the Lord’s voice, we don’t hesitate to respond. We are convinced God will provide.

Obedience for the follower of Christ is not a burden but a privilege, even when we are being tested beyond our seeming emotional ability to do it.

Grant, O God, that we may never lose our way through self-will, and so end up in the far countries of the soul. May we never abandon the struggle, but endure to the end, and so be saved. May we never drop out of the race but press forward to the goal of our high calling. May we never choose the cheap and temporary path but let go of all but you. May we never take the easy way and never forget that sweat is the price of all things, and that without the cross, there cannot be the crown.

So, keep us and strengthen us by your grace so that no disobedience, weakness, or failure may stop us from entering into the blessedness which awaits those who are faithful in all the changes and chances of life, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Hebrews 12:3-13 – Interpret Your Circumstances Wisely

“The Kingdom Comes” by Bangladeshi artist Nikhil Halder, 1978

Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as a father addresses his son? It says,

“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
    and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
because the Lord disciplines the one he loves,
    and he chastens everyone he accepts as his son.”

Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate, not true sons and daughters at all. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us, and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! They disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

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. (New International Version)

Missed expectations often result in discouragement, even depression.

If we expect God to continually bless us with unending positive circumstances, we will, sooner or later, be confused and/or frustrated when life goes sideways.

The ancient Jewish Christians, for whom today’s New Testament lesson was addressed, faced opposition. Not only did they encounter the hardship of being Jews living in a Gentile world, but they also had to experience the difficulty of being Christians in a Jewish community.

Its one thing to put up with adversity for a few days or weeks. It is quite another thing altogether to deal with hard circumstances day after day, week after week, month after month, even year after year.

Where is God in all this negativity? When are the earthly blessings going to come? What the heck is going on here? Why are my prayers bouncing off the church ceiling?

Over time, the believers began to lose their joy. They started getting discouraged. The Jewish Christians, after beginning well in their faith, gradually slid into misinterpreting their circumstances as God being mean to them. Things got so bad, they even entertained the notion of returning to Judaism and leaving Christianity behind.

Their faith was shrinking.

However, their plight was very much seen by God. In fact, God was the One orchestrating the situations, as difficult as they were.

It is not our lack of resources, the disrespect, or the difficult people around us who are the problem. The issue is our interpretation of those events and persons.

The author of Hebrews invited the struggling believers to take a different interpretation of their hardship: They were experiencing divine discipline.

We are all responsible for our own children. As parents, we discipline them (ideally) for their own good. We know it will hurt temporarily. Yet, in the long run, the discipline will work out.

In fact, we understand this with all kinds of things. Everyday, people submit themselves to getting cut open, poked, prodded, and tested by doctors, surgeons, and healthcare workers because we know there needs to be temporary pain for permanent healing to occur.

It is the rare child who grows up without any discipline and becomes a productive citizen of society. It is the exceptional person who knows nothing of medical interventions for health and healing. And so, it is extremely unlikely that a Christian will experience holiness, righteousness, and live wisely in the world apart from some gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, and mind-bending circumstances for which they neither saw coming, nor ever asked for.

So, when the divine baseball bat whacks us upside the head, how will we interpret it?

Discipline is education by correction. God is the Father, treating us as family, as children who need to learn the ways of grace. God is the Divine Coach, exhorting us to work, run the laps, put in the reps, and reach beyond what we think we can do – knowing all along what our true capabilities are.

Godliness comes through discipline, training, and plain old fashioned hard work. Unless there is the suffering which comes through trials to our faith, Christianity is only a theory.

Before I suffered, I took the wrong way,
    but now I do what you say.
You are good and you do good.
    Teach me your statutes!
The arrogant cover me with their lies,
    but I guard your precepts with all my heart.
Their hearts are unfeeling, like blubber,
    but I rejoice in your Instruction.
My suffering was good for me,
    because through it I learned your statutes. (Psalm 119:67-71, CEB)

The appropriate response to difficult and adverse circumstances is to view them as God’s gracious guidance and correction. Rightly interpreting our life events gives us renewed resolve for the Christian marathon.

Endurance and perseverance are needed. Keeping good running form, consistent spiritual exercise, and maintaining liturgical rhythms, all help us face the adversity with energy, focus, and strength.

Christianity isn’t a matter of doing more. It is a way of life – a continuous evaluation of beliefs and thinking, addressing the shadows of the heart, and listening to the compassion deep in our gut.

Don’t give up. Keep going.

Be safe. Be strong. Be smart. Be spiritual. We are all in this together.

Thanks be to you, Lord Jesus Christ, for all the benefits which you have given us; for all the pain and insults you have borne for us. O most merciful redeemer, friend and brother, may we know you more clearly, love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly day by day. Amen.

John 15:16-25 – On Facing Hatred

 The Face of the Savior by Noehani Harsono

You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit—fruit that will last—and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you. This is my command: Love each other.

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin. Whoever hates me hates my Father as well. If I had not done among them the works no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin. As it is, they have seen, and yet they have hated both me and my Father. But this is to fulfill what is written in their Law: ‘They hated me without reason.’” (New International Version)

In his earthly ministry, Jesus suffered on this earth. He was hated, persecuted, and killed. Although Christians readily recognize this, somehow we still seem surprised when, following Jesus, there are people who downright dislike us. 

Yet, Jesus clearly and unequivocally stated that we ought to expect persecution. Emotional, psychological, verbal, and even physical abuse can and does occur against God’s people who seek to follow the words and ways of Jesus. 

There was a time in the first few centuries of the church that becoming a martyr for one’s faith was welcomed. It was considered a privilege to imitate Christ in his suffering and death.  Even many modern day Christian martyrs around the globe have estimated martyrdom as an opportunity to experience solidarity with their Savior.

God has generously granted you the privilege, not only of believing in Christ but also of suffering for Christ’s sake. (Philippians 1:29, CEB)

This kind of thinking may sound quite strange to Westerners who tend toward the notion that, if we do everything with excellence and effectiveness, then there will be no reason for persecution and suffering. 

However, the Christian reality is that Jesus promised his devout followers that there will indeed be those who seethe with hatred toward us. We are not above our Master. If he suffered, we will, as well.

So, the question is not whether we can or ought to avoid suffering. Rather, our consideration needs to be how we will respond to the inevitable persecution of verbal violence, physical violence, or both – not to mention the various forms of discrimination, abuse, and oppression we might face.

“They gave our Master a crown of thorns. Why do we hope for a crown of roses?”

Martin Luther

First off, there is no honor for any Christian suffering because of one’s own stupidity or obnoxiousness. If we face persecution because we have initially made others suffer through our bullhorn presentations of the gospel, or metaphorically clubbing groups of people with oversized King James Version Bibles, then whatever consequences come are of our own making and have nothing to do with being united with Christ.

And second, paying no attention to the real human needs of people locked in poverty or dismissing the body as secondary to the soul is a gross misrepresentation of Christ – not to mention the sheer ignoring of multiple books in Holy Scripture which point to caring about such things.

If, however, we endure abuse because of being humble, merciful, gentle, pure in heart, and an unflinching peacemaker amid conflict, then we can enjoy the smile of heaven. If we communicate good news with grace and compassion, seeking love-laced words of truth, along with genuine acts of mercy – and then are repaid with unmerciful oppression from prideful persons – then we understand the type of hate Jesus faced.

We gladly suffer, because we know that suffering helps us to endure. And endurance builds character, which gives us a hope. (Romans 5:3-4, CEV)

The genuine article withstands the test of adversity. It doesn’t fall apart in the vigorous agitation of the first washing. People who oppose Christians with persecuting words and actions need to discover an authentic believer who is ready and willing to absorb the hatred, repackage it as love, and along with the gospel of grace, gift it back to the persecutors as an offering to God.

Experiencing the hatred of others is not the worst thing which could ever happen. Knowing Jesus better is of utmost value – even if, at times, comes through the worst of circumstances.

God, who shows you his kindness and who has called you through Christ Jesus to his eternal glory, will restore you, strengthen you, make you strong, and support you as you suffer for a little while. (1 Peter 5:10, GW)

Almighty God, thank you for sending your Son, the Lord Jesus, on my behalf.  Just as he suffered for me, I willingly suffer for him, since his infinite grace has delivered me from sin, death, and hell.  I only ask to be found faithful at the end of the age when he returns to judge the living and the dead.  Amen.

1 Thessalonians 5:1-11 – Encourage One Another

Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.

But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness. So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be awake and sober. For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. (New International Version)

The believers in Thessalonica were discouraged.

Jesus said before his ascension to heaven that he would return…. Christ is still a no show.

So, the Thessalonians, not knowing exactly when Jesus would come back, were finding they needed patience and perseverance. They needed to avoid discouragement so as to not lose hope. They needed to be built up in their faith so they could live each day, even a lifetime (if that is what it took) continuing in love without giving up.

After all, it can be stressful not knowing a future time schedule. We simply do not know when Jesus is returning. Until that time happens, we are not to sit on our hands waiting, but are to be active, encouraging one another and building one another up. 

This present moment is not the time for bitterness and complaining, because it just does not help us to persevere. The church is to be a community of mutual support for one another. The world can be a tough, unfriendly, and lonely place. It’s easy to get hurt.

The word “encourage” is a beautiful word (Greek: παρακαλέω and English transliteration: parakaleo). It is actually two words smashed together (compound word) to communicate a wonderful truth. ‘Para’ means to come alongside. This word is found in many of our English words (i.e., parachute, paramedic, etc.). The other half of the word, kaleo, means ‘to call out,’ that is, to exhort or tell someone to do something. 

When we put those two words together, parakaleo means to exhort someone to do something by coming alongside them and helping them to do it. Therefore, we do the dual work of saying helpful words and backing it up with helpful actions.

The phrase “build each other up,” is, in many translations, “edify.” The word literally means to build a house. The Apostle Paul was saying to the church that, just as a builder takes great pains to carefully construct a house over a stretch of time, so we in the church are in the business of constructing souls. 

We must engage in the tedious and patient work of building up the faith of one another. Not everything goes according to plan when you actually are in the building process; there are unforeseen delays and issues and problems which cause the builder to be creative, and other times to just have to submit to the wait and not become upset or discouraged about it.

You must encourage one another each day. And you must keep on while there is still a time that can be called “today.” If you don’t, then sin may fool some of you and make you stubborn.

Hebrews 3:13, CEV

When it comes to community and faith, we are not to give up when things don’t go as we think they should, or as planned. In stressful situations, we are not to tear-down one another, nor look at people as objects to be “fixed” when they don’t perform, or do, or say, what we want them to. 

Everyone needs a continual stream of encouragement to keep going so that we do not lose heart or lose hope. If we are in the habit of only pointing out things to others we don’t like, or consistently feel the need to correct people, then we really must say at least five encouraging things for every single complaint. 

Saint John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople in the fourth century, said to his congregation concerning encouragement: 

“Do you see how everywhere Paul puts the health of the community into the hands of each individual?  Encourage one another and build each other up. Do not then cast all of the burden on your teachers, and do not cast everything on those who have authority over you. You are able to edify one another…. If you are willing, you will have more success with one another than we (pastors) can have. You have been with one another a longer time and know more about one another’s affairs. You are not ignorant of one another’s failings and have more freedom of speech, love, and intimacy. You have more ability than we do to reprove and exhort. I am only one person. You are many. You will be able to be teachers to one another.”

St. John Chrysostom

He also exhorted his fellow clergy:

“Edify one another and in this way we will have the satisfaction of seeing the church grow in strength, and you will enjoy more abundant favor from above through the great care you show for your members. God does not wish Christians to be concerned only for themselves but also to edify others, not simply through their teaching but also through their behavior and the way they live. After all, nothing is such an attraction to the way of truth as an upright life – in other words, people pay less attention to what we say than to what we do.”

St. John Chrysostom

We encourage and edify one another with Christ who is both our example and our substitute. Jesus is our example of leaving the comfort of heaven and coming alongside us in our human condition; he lived the holy life we could not live, and so, is our substitute. 

Jesus came alongside us and taught us how to live by showing the way of love and taking care of the sin issue once for all. After rising from the dead and ascending to heaven, we now have the hope that Christ will return.  Then we will no longer have to deal with the world, the flesh, and the devil dogging us at every turn, seeking to discourage us. 

The three indispensable elements of the Christian life are faith, hope, and love. We need all three in order to be encouraged and built up. We need a close, personal, and intimate faith in the person and work of the Lord Jesus.  We need a faith that is continually being tested and strengthened so that it stands the variety of challenges that this life has for us. 

We need biblical hope, a confident expectation that God will make good on all his promises to us. We will not try and hold God accountable to things never promised but will get to know the Scriptures to such a degree that our desires are in line with God’s desires. 

We need love. Love is to be the air that we breathe. Love is to be so common and routine for us that we put it on every day just as we put on our clothes. We need to love one another by encouraging each other through meeting needs. Love each other enough to say what needs to be said, and back it up with help so that they will not become discouraged but will persevere and keep going.

The Holy Spirit of God is referred to by Jesus as the Paraclete – the noun form of our word for encouragement.  The Spirit is the one who comes alongside us and teaches us all things by helping us. The Spirit’s work is to sanctify us and make us holy. 

God does not shout commands from heaven; the Lord comes alongside us by means of the Spirit to help us live the Christian life. And that is how believers are to function – pointing one another to Christ, exhorting and helping and edifying each other until the Lord Jesus comes again. 

Will you participate with the Spirit in this work of encouragement?

Lord Jesus, as the great Day of your return approaches, help us to speak your words of life and hope and healing to those who need them the most. Help us to bring your hands of mercy to bear in tangible and timely ways. Put before us names and faces who need the encouragement you alone can bring. Amen.