Service Merchandise ~ September 01, 2019 ~ Hebrews 12:14-17
This letter is fascinating on a couple of levels. First, the author does not identify themselves anywhere. Neither does anyone else. So, there’s a little bit of – I don’t know – conjecture about who the author might be. The majority of scholars believe it was written by Paul. I agree. There’s a very good case to be made for that point. But there are some differences in Hebrews, in this letter, when compared to other Pauline correspondences. So, it begs the question, if Paul didn’t write it, who did? Some make a case for Luke. Luke was a traveling companion of Paul. He wrote the Acts of the Apostles, and he wrote the Gospel of Luke. He knew Paul very well, so it could have been Luke. Some also make an argument for Barnabas. Barnabas was also a traveling companion of Paul. There is even an argument to be made for Priscilla, of the Priscilla and Aquila fame, which would be fascinating. It would make this letter to the Hebrews the only book in the entire Bible written by a woman, which would have been quite a feat in quite a patriarchal society.
But, nevertheless, whether it was Paul or Priscilla or whoever, this author is presenting a case for Christ. The message is clear.
The other interesting part about this, that helps, perhaps, you understand the letter to the Hebrews – the intended audience. The intended audience for this letter was second generation Christians. See, this was written later – AD 64 – this is like 31 years after Jesus ascended into heaven. So, these people, who are addressed by this letter, were the children of those believers who first knew Jesus and the apostles firsthand. They knew that their parents grew up in homes where they were able to practice their faith without fear. See, the Jews had kind of a special dispensation, a special exception if you will, by the Roman authorities to practice their faith. They weren’t forced to worship Caesar as a god. They weren’t forced to take part in any rituals or other pagan services. As long as they paid their taxes and kept the peace, the Jews were kind of left alone. So, they were able to practice their faith with relative freedom.
However, since becoming Christians, that has all changed. Not only has the persecution of Christians since Nero been horrific, which they were dealing with that to begin with; the second generation was also beginning to be challenged by some of the teachings – that Jesus tells us we’re supposed to love our enemies, we’re supposed to pray for those who persecute us. These kinds of things, along with the idea of trying to grasp that Jesus is God to begin with, was hard for some people. And so, they began to return, to go back, to the former faith, Judaism.
Paul (or whoever) was reminding them – going forward as a Christ follower does come with some difficulties, does come with some responsibilities. Love your neighbor. Pray for those who persecute you. But understand, he says in the letter, going back comes with some pretty serious consequences as well. Please join me in the unison prayer as we prepare to study the Word of God. Let us pray.
Lord, upon the pages of this book is Your story. It is also our story. Open our eyes that we may see, our ears that we may hear, our minds that we may understand, and our hearts that they may be transformed. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Hebrews 12 beginning in verse 14, Paul writes:
Work at living in peace with
everyone, and work at living a holy life, for those who are not holy will not
see the Lord. Look after each other so that none of you fails to receive the grace
of God. Watch out that no poisonous root of bitterness grows up to trouble you,
corrupting many. Make sure that no one is immoral or godless like Esau, who
traded his birthright as the firstborn son for a single meal. You know that
afterward, when he wanted his father’s blessing, he was rejected. It was too
late for repentance, even though he begged with bitter tears.
May God bless to us the reading and understanding of His holy Word.
Now, I understand, looking back at the good old days is something we all do at one time or another. I do it. I find myself sometimes in a restaurant and I’ll reminisce – gosh, you know, I remember the day when a family came into a restaurant and sit down to eat a meal, or into Friendly’s to get an ice cream together, and they actually looked at one another and spoke to each other and conversed together instead of [looking at their phones]. I remember the good old days. I find myself falling back into that. It’s not unusual. I’m sure you all have done it as well. Especially when times are tough. At the beginning of this country, when we were fighting for our independence from England. The American Revolution at first was not going well, not at all. The hardships were extensive, and there were a number of people after a few years saying, “You know what? Let’s just go back. Let’s be British once again. Let’s submit to the King and live under his rule, because it was better than it is now.” When times are tough, there’s sometimes an instinct to look back to the good old days.
Maybe the Revolutionary War goes back too far. What about this guy? This is Benito Mussolini. Some of you may know who he is, some of you may not. Benito Mussolini was the fascist dictator of Italy prior to and during the second World War. He was brutal. He kept his people under his thumb through intimidation and violence. He was such a horrible, difficult, evil leader, Hitler actually looked up to him at first. He was a big fan and considered him a mentor. It was not fun to be an Italian citizen during the time of Benito Mussolini. But interestingly enough, after the allies win the war and patriate Italy, there was, understandably, chaos! Most of Europe had been devasted. There was chaos in Italy; it was very difficult to survive. And some people longed for – longed for! – Mussolini’s leadership. Can you believe it? Things were so difficult, they even looked back, reminisced, how it was under Mussolini. There was a saying that was popular in Italy for years, probably still is today: “When Mussolini was dictator, at least the trains ran on time!” Things were so chaotic; they couldn’t even stand at the platform and get a train on time. They longed for the days of oppression.
We tend to do that. When things are getting tough, we often retreat. That’s why I am always preaching about the right reason, the correct reason, to come to faith in Christ. We come to faith in Jesus Christ to be saved! People use that phrase all the time. I’m saved! He’s saved! She’s saved! Are you saved? Do you want to get saved? Saved! Saved from what? From eternal separation from God. Saved from eternal damnation. Saved from hell. Hell is real, it exists. We want to be saved from that fate. That’s why we have faith in Christ! Jesus, and a relationship with Him saves us from that! A lot of people come to Jesus expecting peace, joy, love, fulfillment, and lasting happiness; and when they do, they are severely disappointed when they discover that life, even after Jesus, isn’t constant peace, joy, love, happiness, and lasting fulfillment. It’s a fallen world, with fallen people. And so, for some, in the midst of that disappointment, it’s just too much, it’s too depressing.
Now, I know there are people – I do – who would rather have a pastor that preaches a more motivational life kind of a message. A life coach, a pat-you-on-the-head and send-you-on-your-way kind of a thing. Think positive! Do good! God will bless you. The more you put in the offering plate; the more God is going to bless you! There’s lots of pastors that will do that. Some of them are very successful. Some of them are very good at it; they lead big churches! “We don’t want to hear about sin, and repentance, and morality, and hell! No! We don’t want to hear about pain, and suffering, and hunger, and addiction, and violence, and racism, and all the evil in the world!” All the evil in the world that we, as Christians, according to Matthew 25, are supposed to help alleviate. We don’t want to hear about that! We want to hear a happy-go-lucky message! That is not what our itching ears want to hear! We want to hear about rainbows and unicorns and fairy dust! And lots of people will “church-shop” no differently than doctor-shop. Ever heard of doctor shopping? Often times, you’ve got people out there who will go to a different doctor until they find the diagnosis that they wanted to hear to begin with. The same with in the church! “I’m going to bounce around until I find some pastor who is going to tell me what I already want to hear.”
My job is not to lie to you. My job is to tell you the truth. This is a fallen world with fallen people in it; however, there is peace, joy, and love in this fallen world. But only because Christ is in this world. What? Jesus rose from the dead and now sits at the right hand of the Father. I know my Bible; what do you mean Christ is in this world? Well, if you know your Bible, then you know 1 Corinthians 12:27, which says:
All of you together are
Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it.
(1 Corinthians 12:27)
That’s right. There is peace, joy, and love in this fallen world only because Christ is here, because YOU are here. And that’s a heavy responsibility, is it not? To be Christ in this world? In this fallen world, where it seems like daily, weekly, we get bad news?
Unfortunately, most people want the Jesus thing that comes with forgiveness, and mercy, and eternal life, without the “I am the hands and feet of Christ in this world” part. It’s like we want the degree without going to school. We want to lose weight without dieting or exercise. We want a house without the mortgage. In fact, we want people to give us loans without working hard to have a good credit score. When we start at a job, we want to start out as CEO and not work our way up from the mailroom. It’s the truth! Many people today are Veruca Salt! Remember Veruca, from Willy Wonka? She wanted that goose that laid the golden egg, and she wanted it now! Not later – I want it now, dad! Dad tried to write a check and buy it from Willy. That’s the truth, though. We want what we want, and we want it now!
You know, there was a time, before Amazon ruled the world, before there was even a Wal-Mart, there was a place called Service Merchandise. Anybody remember Service Merchandise? Well, Service Merchandise was a department store from years ago, and I remember going into Service Merchandise one day, and I wanted to buy a Hi-Fi system. (I’ll explain to them what that is). A Hi-Fi system is one of those little cabinets that you open up the glass door, and inside is a turntable, and a cassette deck, and a tuner that helps you tune in the radio. It usually came with a couple of speakers as well. And I thought that was the cat’s pajamas! And I really wanted that stereo system! Unfortunately, I didn’t have the money; but I wanted it, and I wanted it now! You know what else I had just received? I was a brand-new married man, early on in my marriage. You know what we had just gotten? Our first credit card! Guess what I had at my house? A new Hi-Fi system! Because I wanted it and I wanted it now! And I’m sure you know how this story goes. Before you know it, I have credit card debt. And I’ve had credit card debt ever since.
The truth is, the overwhelming desire to satisfy immediate wants often leads us to make decisions we will later regret. Can you say, “Timeshare?” Some of these second-generation believers found Christianity to be too hard. It can be hard! It doesn’t often get you what you want now. Being obedient is hard! Resisting sin is hard! Living a holy life that Paul talks about is hard. It does not come naturally. We have to work at it, which is why he says, “Work at living in peace with everyone; work at living a holy life.” As we do, as we work at it, we will discover living a holy life is directly connected with living in peace. A right relationship with God leads to right relationships with fellow believers. It just does.
Now, surprise! We will not always feel loving toward all other believers. No, even pastors. Sometimes, despite my best efforts, no matter how hard I try, you will not be happy with me. Not always. No different than anyone else, I will make mistakes. I will make a decision you disagree with – just like your husband, or your wife, or your child, or your friend. It happens. It’s a fallen world full of fallen people.
It’s hard to always feel loving. I know. That’s why the Bible says we have to work at it. Because it’s work. You have to work at living in peace. When we do not, it provides fertile ground for the poisonous root of bitterness to grow inside of us, and like a cavity, begins to rot from the inside out. You’ve got to work at living a holy life. We have to work at living in peace with everyone. On top of that internal decay, when we refuse to offer love, when we refuse to offer mercy, when we refuse to offer grace, how can we expect the same from the Lord? Does not the Bible say, “You reap what you sow?” So, if we are unwilling to forgive, if we are unwilling to love, how can we expect the Lord to be willing to love us? We cannot. Jesus says in Matthew 6:
“If you forgive those who
sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you refuse to
forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins.”
Wow, that’s pretty tough. And on top of that, if the second-generation folks think that’s bad, they also know, because they’ve heard their parents tell them, that Jesus said:
“You’ve heard the law that
says, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say, love your enemies!
Pray for those who persecute you. In that way, you will be acting as true
children of your Father in heaven. For he gives his sunlight to both the evil
and the good, and he sends rain on the just and the unjust alike. If you love
only those who love you, what reward is there for that? Even corrupt tax
collectors do that much. If you are kind only to your friends, how are you
different from anyone else? Even pagans do that.”
And these second-generation Christians are going, “Man, I can’t do that! It’s too hard!” However, what happens if my sins aren’t forgiven? It says I will not see the Lord. The entire Christian faith is based upon forgiveness. That’s what that is all about. That’s what this is all about. Forgiveness. And if I can’t give it, then I cannot expect it. “But Lord, you know what he did to me! You know what she said! He doesn’t deserve forgiveness!” You are right, Adam. But neither do you, and I was still willing to give it to you.
I hate it when He does that.
Nonetheless, “I don’t care, I’m sorry Lord, I just can’t do it, it’s just too hard!” And so, some were returning back to their old faith, their old Jewish faith – a faith that is based upon works, where as long as I do more good things than bad, I’ll be all set. I can understand that. That’s easy for me to comprehend. If I work hard enough, I can be blessed, and if I do bad things, I’ll be punished, but at the end of my life, I’ll have more good things than bad things and I’ll be all set! That’s not how it works.
Esau, Paul references. Esau traded his blessing for a bowl of soup, because that’s what he wanted right now. We don’t want to be like Esau – trade our blessing of eternal life for the comfort of earning my own salvation. I don’t want this “I have to forgive to be forgiven” thing. I want to hold onto my bitterness, I want to hold onto my anger. That’s what I want, and I want it now.
But the overwhelming desire to satisfy our immediate wants can lead us to a decision we will later regret. Esau chose to trade away his birthright for a bowl of soup. He got what he wanted. Now he was begging for his father’s blessing, and it was too late. That’s exactly what Satan wants. He wants all of these second-generation Christians, and all Christians since to reject. To hold onto their bitterness, not to be graceful and merciful and loving. He wants us to be upset, he wants us to be resentful; because he knows when we are, we are trading away our salvation in Christ in order to hold onto our anger and our bitterness. And like Esau, one day we will find it will be too late. For after we draw our final breath and stand before God, at that point, it’s too late to beg for forgiveness. It’s too late to beg for mercy. At that point, we will have sealed our fate, and we will hear Jesus says these words:
“Not everyone who calls out to me, ‘Lord! Lord!’ will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Only those who actually do the will of my Father in heaven will enter. On judgment day, many will say to me, ‘Lord! Lord! We prophesied in your name and cast out demons in your name and performed many miracles in your name…”
I did lots of good stuff!
“But I will reply, ‘I never knew
you. Get away from me, you who break God’s laws.’”
God’s laws to love. God’s laws to forgive. God’s laws to offer mercy and grace. “But Lord, I do accept Jesus! I do!”
No, Adam, you have not. Not if you don’t continue to work at living in peace with everyone, to work at living a holy life. See, Christianity can be hard. Living a holy life does not come naturally. Keep working at it. Do not make a mistake you will later regret. Do not trade being obedient, resisting sin, for temporary gratification. Whatever it is, whether it’s gratification that you’ll find as a young person in the backseat in a car, or sitting too long at a bar, or thinking that you don’t have to love your neighbor or your enemy, or forgive your ex, or your friend who betrayed you. Don’t trade away your salvation to hold onto your anger and bitterness. It will destroy you from the inside, and it will destroy your chance for eternal life.
Look, it took me 25 years to climb out of a lousy credit score because of debt that I owed to now a number, a variety of stores like Service Merchandise. It was hard work! But it was worth it. Work at living in peace with everyone. Work at living a holy life. Do not walk away from your salvation. Do not walk away from a debt that has already been paid. Do not walk away from grace and forgiveness by allowing the poisonous root of bitterness to grow inside you. Your eternal salvation is at risk. Don’t do it. Remember, God forgave us. God forgave us. We must then forgive others, because I want to see the Lord, and I want all of you to see the Lord. Work at it. Would you pray with me?