Lectionary Sermon for Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost

Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16

I have a t-shirt that has lettering that reads, “Believe there is good.” However, there is a second message in which the white colored letters spell out, “Be the good.”

In a conversation with a rich young man who had sought out Jesus, the young man calls Jesus, “Good teacher.” Jesus answered, “Why do you call Me good?” Then Jesus states, “No one is good but One– God. (Mk. 10:18 CSB) Only God is truly good. Therefore, to be good, we need to do what God considers important. The writer of Hebrews gives us some insights on what these good things are and how we can offer God an offering of good.

First, the writer tells us to, “Let brotherly love continue.” If there is one thing that defines the Christian faith it is that God loves us, and God expects us to love each other. When we love (not lust, not like, or not a sense of pleasure that comes from our will, but a commitment, connection, and confidence in the way God loves) we come closest to God. This growth in love, and this maturity in our relationship with the Lord is the greatest good we can be involved in.

Loving as God loves is a very difficult thing to do. Why is it so hard? It is hard because our nature tends to pervert love to the way we want rather than the way God intends. We tend to use love as a tool for getting what we want. We use love as a means of control and possession. This is not love. Jesus gives us the best definition of love in the incarnation and in the crucifixion. Here are four verses of Scripture I believe head us in the right direction of “the good.”

This is how we have come to know love: He laid down His life for us. We should also lay down our lives for our brothers. (1 Jn. 3:16 CSB)

Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. (Jn. 15:13 ESV)

For if, while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, then how much more, having been reconciled, will we be saved by His life! (Rom. 5:10 CSB)

So what should we do?

“But I say to you who listen: Love your enemies, do what is good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you. (Lk. 6:27-28 CSB)

This is an offering of good.

Next, we are told by the writer, “Don’t neglect to show hospitality, for by doing this some have welcomed angels as guests without knowing it. Remember the prisoners, as though you were in prison with them, and the mistreated, as though you yourselves were suffering bodily.” This too is an opportunity to bring to God an offering of good.

What is the greatest commandment? Jesus was asked this and said, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt. 22:37-39 CSB)

Hospitality is about loving other people. It is about seeking to be a community, a gathering, by opening our doors and tables, sometimes a place to sleep, with those we are fortunate enough to begin building the trust, compassion, transparency, care, and support needed for the relationship to grow in depth and understanding. Hospitality can create God moments in our lives. And as for prisoners, I feel certain the writer was referring to those in physical prisons. It was not safe to be a first-century Christian.

However, I have been physically incarcerated, and I can assure you that such a physical incident was not pleasant. And while it was unpleasant, I have experienced some other prisons of the soul, conscious, circumstances, and situations of my own making and those made by others that were far worse in comparison. What these situations did was to guide me to understand my need of community, of contact, of a connection that assures me I am not forgotten.

And, again, hospitality offers us an opportunity and confirms the reality of being able to commune with angels unaware. What an honor and humbling such an experience would be. How much better if those angels would reveal to God our love for others because of our love for God?

Would this not be a true offering of good to God?

The next offering listed is a controversial one, “Marriage must be respected by all, and the marriage bed kept undefiled, because God will judge immoral people and adulterers.” These words do not mix with the message our culture sends out about sex and marriage. The culture views marriage as a simple contract and looks at sex as “whatever you want goes.” Marriage is not often viewed as a lifelong commitment, but as a consumer option that can be returned if dissatisfied. Again, we see a perversion of love leading to a state of temptation and deception. In my forty years of pastoral ministry, the worse pain and suffering I saw people in was in people who were going through marital conflicts in which an affair had been discovered or people whose spouse had left them without notice.

I have also watched marriages that were living hell for one or both partners. Even though these marriages had a commitment to say together through better and worse, there was the worse without any better. The institution of marriage was a gift from God that has social, legal, and hopefully romantic aspects. It is the first stand against the powers and principalities of this world. It is two people helping each other physically, emotionally, and spiritually. The last, spirituality, being the one most neglected. God gave us marriage as a means of joining with God in the only ongoing aspect of creation, the creation of humans’ souls. Marriage should be the base for a healthy environment to bring new life into the world.

When we seek to honor what God has given, to understand the commitment that is required as well as the mindset and spiritual endurance and patience, we submit to God’s authority and design. When we seek to love our mates with all our hearts and souls, and they seek to do the same for us, God is honored as well.

Out of a solid, committed, loving marriage, we give God an offering of good.

Now another difficult task. The writer of Hebrews, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, says to us, “Your life should be free from the love of money. Be satisfied with what you have, for He Himself has said, I will never leave you or forsake you. Therefore, we may boldly say: The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me?”

I have learned what it is like to be poor. I do truly pray for my daily bread. I am too old for a church to call me, to physically damaged to do physical work for more than a short period of time. I cannot find a job. I have little retirement and less than $5k in savings. But I must tell you I am happier now than at any other time in my life. I must depend on God and “Where God guides, God provides.” (Isa. 58:11) I am finding deep satisfaction in what I have. And, for the first time in my life, I am beginning to like and love myself.

I deeply love my wife. I also deeply love to do things for her. I love to cook for her, care for her when she is sick, and just finding things I hope will make her happy. I cannot verbally express just how much joy this brings me.

It is hard for many human beings, especially in our culture, to understand just how much joy we bring to God by letting God be God to us. God knows how money can hurt us. God knows how money can corrupt us. God knows just how easily we can be deceived, deluded, damaged, depraved, and dark we can become. God seeks to protect us, rescue us, strengthen us, and preserve us. To allow God to be God to us is to give God an offering of good.

And then, we read, “Remember your leaders who have spoken God’s word to you. As you carefully observe the outcome of their lives, imitate their faith.”

Please, please, be careful of who your leaders are. First and foremost, as was just stated, “Let God be God.” Let the Holy Spirit guide you in discerning the good, the perceived good, and the bad. Remember, “Beware of false prophets who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravaging wolves. (Matt. 7:15 CSB)

Do not put your trust in men, or women, without first comparing their acts and lives to that of Jesus. Are they loving, caring, humble, serving, quick to forgive, and not judge? Does their lifestyle show a dependence on God or on money? It is not hard to tell if you are willing to let the Holy Spirit rather than some other spirit be your guide. To do so will place one in the right place to offer an offering of good to God.

 To conclude, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever.” Love does not change. Thankfully we can. These are verses needing contemplation. Hopefully, they will lead us to say, “Therefore, through Him let us continually offer up to God a sacrifice of praise, that is, the fruit of our lips that confess His name. Don’t neglect to do what is good and to share, for God is pleased with such sacrifices. (Heb. 13:15-16 CSB)

Lectionary Sermon for Eleventh Sunday after Pentecost

Hebrews 12: 18-29    Would We but Listen

The last few weeks have been very difficult and tragic for many people in many parts of our country (including Death Valley) who have experience flooding and fires. I cannot imagine how horrible it must feel to have a wall of fire or fast-rising water headed your way.  Thankfully many were able to escape with their lives.  Sadly, some did not. 

How can we prepare for this? I am sure many of the people caught up in these disasters never imagined they would be in such a situation.  The uncertainty about our world, our lives, is that circumstances and situations can change almost in an instant.

Some of the people in the path of advancing threats almost had to be forced to move.  There are all kinds of stories about those who almost waited too long.  It is a strange thing about human nature.  We tend to deny the danger.  We think we have the time.  We can find ourselves in serious trouble when we discover we don’t.

The passage today is a concise, complete, compressed collection of the realities human beings have faced, are facing, and will most certainly face in the future.  The writer is speaking specifically to those connected to the history and heritage of the Hebrew people, the chosen of God, who have encountered the incredible revelation of Jesus of Nazareth.  If only they would have listened.

The writer, through the presence of God’s Spirit, is also speaking to us.  If only we would listen.

The writer begins with a contrast.  A contrast of two views of God.  The writer uses locations to make a point.  One location comes from the past.  The writer speaks about when the chosen people had been liberated as slaves in Egypt and had come to the mountain where God was waiting. 

This was an encounter with fear.  Fear of a God who they believed was a punishing God.  A God of laws and restrictions. Listen again to what the Scripture says, “The sight was so frightening that Moses said, “I’m terrified and shaking!” (Heb. 12:21 CEB) 

This is the view of God many people still have today, a God of laws and judgment.  A God who restricts and confines.  A God who says no, a God of the past.  So many people just turn this God off.  They know better.  They don’t need this kind of God, so they create their own.

The other viewpoint of the nature of God the writer gives begins in verse 22.  This is the place of the promise.  This is an encounter with acceptance.  This is a place where the focus is not on what was but what can be.  The people again come to this place as slaves who have been liberated, but the liberation is not from taskmasters but from the hopelessness of sin.  This is the place, the writer tells us, we can come to Jesus.

It is as if the writer is striving to bring the readers of the text to a fork in the road, telling us where each path leads.  One to a place of fear, the other to a place of faith. 

Why does the writer do this?  First, the writer knows which is the true nature of God.  The writer knows God is a God of caring, of helping, a God who loves us because the writer knows Jesus.  The writer wants the reader to understand just how important the revelation of God is to us.  The writer also wants to warn us.

Warn us?  That sounds a lot like fear.  No, it sounds a lot like care and compassion.  It sounds like love. 

The warnings God gives to humanity are not more a threat any more than a sign warning you of a bridge out is a threat or a sign warning against high voltage is a threat.  If a person chose to ignore the warning, whose fault is it?

Look at verse 25.  Here the writer brings back the past.  He reminds us that this world is a cause-effect world.  There are natural laws that have consequences when broken and there are spiritual laws that have consequences.  We are warned. Not because God is mean, but because God is loving.

Throughout the Old Testament, when people chose the wrong path, God would send individuals called prophets to warn them.  The Scripture if full of accounts of the consequence of the human response.

God does not enjoy human suffering.  God finds no pleasure even in the death of evil people.  God does not want any human being to perish.  As we are told in the letter written by Jesus’s disciple Peter, “God is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish but all to change their hearts and lives.” (2 Pet. 3:9 CEB) This is God’s hope. This is what God wants. This is how God loves.

What about all those verses about God’s anger?  Yes, God does get angry.  Yes, there is a limit to how far God will tolerate the things human beings do.  Sometimes God does let us bear the consequences of this fallen world.  But this is not God the kind of relationship God wants to have with us.

Jesus came to reveal the relationship God wants.  Jesus came to reveal the servant nature of God.  God made this world for us.  God made us able to love and be loved by God.  But this world has a limited time. 

As the writer of Hebrews warns, God shook the Earth to its foundations before and God will do so again.  This life is limited.  This life will end.  This life is our chance if we would but listen. 

God does not negotiate.  God does not make deals.  God makes promises.  God makes covenants.  God does what God says will be done.

In 1889, on May 31, the Johnstown Flood killed 2,209 people.  The flood was caused by the catastrophic failure of the South Fork Dam on the Little Conemaugh River 14 miles upstream from Johnstown, Penn. What is so sad about this disaster was that twice the telegraph office sent warnings to Johnstown explaining the critical nature of the eroding dam. But the warnings were not passed to the authorities in town, as there had been many false alarms in the past of the South Fork Dam not holding against flooding that no one believed it would happen.  The great wave measured 35-40 feet high and hit Johnstown at 40 miles per hour.

99 entire families died, including 396 children. 124 women and 198 men were left widowed. More than 750 victims were never identified.

The tragedy could have been avoided.  If only the warning would have been heeded.  If they would have but listened. 

God will not destroy this world with a flood.  This is a promise God has made.  The next shaking will be with fire.  This is not a message of fear, not a threat, but a certainty because God does what God says. 

We need to pay attention.  We need to prepare.  We need to take our spiritual state seriously.  Verse 28 is a vision of hope, but also a reminder of who it is that gives us this word.  Our God deserves our respect, our awe, but even more our gratitude, our service, and all our love.  Our God is a consuming fire.  Would we but listen!