A sermon on Hebrews 3 and 4 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 13 February 2022
Have you ever experienced a moment of perfect rest? Perhaps after the best night’s sleep you’ve had in ages. Perhaps on a holiday at the beach or at a resort. Perhaps at the completion of a job well done.
I like paddling our kayak upstream. We might go up about a kilometre and I love that moment of stopping and the kayak’s momentum stops and the river current slowly turns us around and it’s like the whole world stops for a few brief moments. It is a short but sweet moment of complete rest.
We live in a busy and restless age. Everything is go, go, go. Some people are almost afraid of letting go and stopping, as if they are spending their whole life running away from the nightmares that haunt them.
But God has made us for something better. He made us to bless us, to simply enjoy his presence. And one word that the Bible uses to express this blessing for which God has made us is rest. God himself rested on the seventh day of creation and blessed it so that we may enjoy his rest. In the Ten Commandments God commanded us to stop our labour on the seventh day and to rest in his presence. When God rescued the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt he promised them rest in the land of Canaan, which meant safety from their enemies and security in the land’s prosperity. When Jesus spoke of the blessing of his kingdom, one word he used to describe it is rest. He said,
Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.
And the book of Revelation describes the blessing of eternal life like this:
Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on. They will rest from their labour, for their deeds will follow them.
The promise of God is rest from our struggle, rest from our pain, rest from our grief. Sadly, some people can’t stop their ceaseless activity, but God’s promise to us is rest.
The writer to the Hebrews wanted his readers to understand this promise and to enjoy it. But he was concerned that one thing stood between his readers and the rest that God had promised them in Christ. Themselves – their own fears and their own doubts. Their own unbelief. For if the Christian life is like a race, it is not a sprint, but a marathon. Or perhaps like a steeplechase. A long race with obstacles to overcome. After all, his readers were Hebrews. Converted Jews. And for following Jesus they had been thrown out of their families and excluded from the synagogue. Their only help and support came from the Spirit of God and from their church family. But under the pump of temptation and persecution it would be easy for them to give up, to stumble at the hurdles of life, to give up the race of faith and fail to finish, to abandon Christ and so to fall short of the rest that God promises in Christ.
To stop them from making this mistake, the writer told his readers to learn from the example of the Israelites, and basically, not to be like them. I mean, you have to admit that the Israelites that Moses led out of Egypt had a lot going for them. They had been slaves for the king, constructing his great building projects. But the Lord had performed his wonders through Moses. He had turned the water of the river Nile to blood. He had brought plagues of frogs and flies and gnats and locusts and hail. He had made the sun go dark and turned the day into night. Moses had parted the water of the Red Sea and they had walked through it on dry land. The Lord provided them with water and food, the manna and the quail. He brought them to Mt Sinai and revealed himself in thunder and lightning. And he had given them his law and he had promised to give them the land of Canaan.
They were only months away from claiming that promise given to their ancestor Abraham so many years before. They were so close they could almost touch it. And they had seen what the Lord could do. I mean, what could possibly go wrong?
And yet, forty years later only two of them crossed the Jordan river into Canaan. The Israelites had been full to the brim with potential. They had seen what God could do and there was no hurdle in front of them that was stronger than him. An inheritance lay before them that would bless their children and their descendants for generations. But most of them fell short of it. All but two of them. They grumbled against God. They refused to believe him. They did not keep his commandments. They worshiped other gods. For one reason or another they failed to achieve the goal for which they had been rescued out of Egypt.
The writer concludes:
they were not able to enter God’s rest, because of their unbelief.
They serve as an example to us. A bad example. And in Hebrews chapter 3 and 4, the writer’s message to his readers and to us is not to be like them. We too have been saved from a kind of slavery. A slavery to sin. A slavery to fear. Jesus died on the cross and was raised to life to save us. We have passed through the waters of baptism and we have fed on the Bread of Life of God’s Word. We too have seen what God has done, in Jesus and in our own lives. We too have been called to obedience, to the new commandment to love each other as Christ loved us. And we too are on a journey to a promised land of rest, God’s kingdom of eternal blessing where there will be no crying or pain and God will wipe away every tear.
If we want to complete that journey to God’s eternal kingdom, we need what the Israelites lacked in the wilderness. We need faith. Hebrews chapter verse 12 says
See to it, brothers and sisters, that none of you have a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God.
The danger, the writer names here, is sin manifesting as unbelief that does not trust God’s motives, that does not believe in his power, that is unwilling to put his will into practice, that does not follow where he leads, that turns away at the first sign of trouble. As the writer says again in chapter 4,
Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it. For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith.
Or to put it round the other way, We who have believed enter that rest. But we who have believed, who have faith, who trust in Christ for salvation and trust him enough to put that faith into practice so that we follow him day by day, day after day, from this day to the last day. And in this way we heed the warning of Psalm 95.
Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.
Today, not tomorrow. Not next year. Not when you get around to it. But today, if you hear his voice. God’s voice, speaking to you through his Bible, speaking to you maybe through the sermon as the preacher explains God’s word in today’s words. If you hear God’s voice speaking to you, don’t harden your hearts against it so that you don’t believe what he says, so that you don’t care about what he promises, so that you ignore his commandments, so that you refuse to change. Don’t harden your hearts so that the Word of God cannot penetrate into the place where you make your decisions, and from where you get the motivation to do what you do. Don’t harden your hearts in unbelief, like those who start with Jesus but cannot finish because they don’t want to. Soften your hearts with faith. The faith that listens to what God says and believes it and obeys it. The faith that is loving and gentle and kind and yet does not compromise on what is good and right and true, so that it ultimately enjoys God’s perfect rest.
Because it would be a shame to spoil a perfect night’s sleep because you drank coffee too late. It would be a shame to ruin the perfect holiday because you worried too much about what you would wear at the beach. And it would be a shame to miss out on the perfect rest of the kingdom of God because you lacked faith when you heard his voice. Hear him. Trust him. Believe him. Obey him. Follow him through all the hurdles of life day by day, day after day, from this day to your last day so that you enjoy your perfect rest in him.