A sermon on Hebrews 13 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 10 April 2022
I want to read to you from an article I found in the Sydney Morning Herald. It’s about a church in the hills district of Sydney called Hillsong.
In Sydney’s bible belt, an evangelical church with political muscle is attracting thousands of supporters. It’s a quiet Sunday evening in Sydney’s north-west. There are few cars on the road and even fewer people in sight. But a large building in Baulkham is heaving with people. Old people, young people and everyone in between are singing, dancing, jumping and praying.
This is Hillsong Church, one of the most conspicuous of the contemporary pentecostal and evangelical churches whose collective growth is fast outstripping that of the more traditional denominations. The music is loud and catchy. The pastor is charismatic and commanding. And the congregation is lapping it up. They pray for the new converts. They pray for the year 12 students present who will sit their HSC exams the next day. And when it comes time for the offering, parishioners are reminded they can pay by cash, cheque or credit card.
Senior lecturer in religion at the University of Sydney Dr Carole Cusack says Hillsong’s style of worship is more attuned to secular values in the community. “It’s part of the re-branding of Christianity as fashionable, trendy, not dowdy,” she says. The church is known not just for its style of Christian worship, but for its links to the growing influence of the “religious right” in the Liberal Party. Prime Minister John Howard opened Hillsong’s Baulkham Hills convention centre in October and Treasurer Peter Costello spoke to thousands at the SuperDome conference this year.
John Howard? Peter Costello? Those are names from long ago, aren’t they? Because this article wasn’t written this week. It wasn’t written this year. It was written in 2004. But what is the article trying to prove? What’s the story? Where’s the news? The news isn’t that churches don’t pay tax or lodge their income with the ATO. The news is that people, even in Sydney, are finding God and the godless know it alls of the Sydney Morning Herald don’t like it.
Church is meant to be old and irrelevant. Church isn’t supposed to talk the language that young people understand. Church isn’t supposed to draw attention to itself and look trendy. Church is meant to dress in cardigans and sensible shoes. Church is meant to be respectable, so the rest of the world can go on ignoring it.
Well, folks, the news is that the Christian church is not respectable. It wasn’t in the beginning. And it was never meant to be. Instead, its message of Christ crucified is meant to make waves that ripple through every community, every family, every individual it reaches.
Look at how it all began. You know that the Nazis of the twentieth century hated the Jews. They killed millions of them. You may not know, however, that the Romans of the first century hated the Jews just as much. Jews were different. They looked different. They ate different. They probably smelled different. What’s worse, they didn’t join in with the public festivals to honour the gods. Everyone else did. The Egyptians did. The Ethiopians did. Even the Calathumpians joined in to offer a prayer to Jupiter and a sacrifice to Caesar. That’s what religion was for. It was the glue that held society together. That made life tolerable, enjoyable, respectable.
But the Jews didn’t join in. They thought, get this, they thought that their God was the only one. Can you imagine how arrogant and stupid that sounded to the people of their day? That kind of attitude could threaten the whole fabric of society.
Only two things saved the Jews from a holocaust, two things that meant that they were at least tolerated. Firstly, they were a recognised race of people. They had a country. They had their own laws and customs. To the Romans they were foreigners and barbarians. But they were legitimate. They were a conquered people, but the Romans wanted them to be happy enough not to make trouble.
Secondly, they were ancient. Their history and customs were hundreds of years older than the society of Greece or Rome. When the Romans were still in nappies, culturally speaking, the Jews were old masters. They had a credibility that money couldn’t buy. So while around the Jews raged a storm of hatred and hostility and prejudice they were safe within their own community. The Jewish synagogue in whatever part of the Roman empire it stood was like a shelter from the storm of hatred that raged outside.
And so the Jews were tolerated, even grudgingly respected, but never liked. Yes, they were antisocial. Their very existence threatened the Roman empire. But at least they weren’t doing it on purpose. They had been brought up that way and didn’t know any better.
It was out into this storm of hatred outside the synagogue that the Lord Jesus sent his disciples to announce to the world, not just the Jews, but the Greeks and the Romans as well that the Jewish Messiah had come and been rejected by his people and condemned under their ancient traditions and crucified by Roman law, but proven right when God raised him from the dead. They proclaimed Jesus as Lord and offered life and forgiveness in his name. A few believed, though more than you’d expect. But among the rest of the community, the Christian message went down like the Titanic.
In the eye of the Romans, the Christians had every disadvantage of the Jews, but none of the advantages. Like the Jews, the Christians didn’t join in. Like the Jews, they thought their God was the only one and no one else’s god counted for everything. They undermined the very fabric of society. They wouldn’t even offer sacrifice to Caesar. But worse, they weren’t even a recognised race of people. They weren’t born a Christian, like you were born a Roman or a Greek. It was something people chose to be. And they didn’t have the credibility of an ancient tradition to give them the right. They were recent, new-fangled.
To the Romans there was only one possible, reasonable conclusion. The Christians were being antisocial on purpose. And their precious Saviour had been condemned by his own peoples’ laws. Caesar’s man himself, Pontius Pilate, had sentenced him to death. How dare they say that this man, this criminal, was the king of the world.
You can understand, then, why the Christians were treated like the terrorists of their day. Their possessions were confiscated. They were put in prison. Their leaders were executed. And any Jew who became a Christian was cast out of the community as a traitor. The law of Rome and the Law of Moses had condemned Jesus to death. They had pronounced their curse on Christ, and anyone who chose his side, could share his fate.
For a Jew, to become a Christian meant opening the door of the shelter of the synagogue and walking out into the storm. And to stay a Christian meant resisting the temptation to run back inside.
That’s what it means in many countries today for a Moslem to become a Christian. Disinherited by his family. Cast out of his community. What about our own community? Oh, it’s easy being brought up a Christian. Might seem a little kooky, a bit daggy hanging around church. But what would it cost to make a conscious, grown up decision to become a Christian, to leave your old life behind to follow Jesus? What would it cost us if we left the shelter of our comfortable and respectable lives and actually went out and made a difference for Christ? If we all actually lived by the teaching of Christ, putting the code of Hebrews 13 into practice. Loving each other. Being hospitable to strangers. Not just letting people you know into your lovely home, but people you don’t know. Remembering those in prison. Keeping the marriage bed pure. Keeping your life free from the love of money. Remembering your leaders. Obeying your leaders. Making their work a joy instead of criticising them behind their back. Imagine the ripple effect on respectable old Corowa as scores of lives start being changed by the transforming power of God’s Holy Spirit. A respectable church can safely be ignored. But imagine being part of a church that couldn’t be ignored. Imagine the storm we would stir up.
But why would anyone take such a risk for Jesus? Why would anyone leave the shelter of the holy huddle to step out into the storm for him. Because, says the writer to the Hebrews, that’s what Jesus did for you. He says so in chapter 13. Look, right there from verse 11.
The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.
The reference is to the sacrifices under the ancient Jewish law. The animals for the sin offering were slaughtered in the temple. Their blood was drained. It was holy. The blood contained the life of the beast. It was carried into the temple and offered before the altar to purify the worshippers. But the carcass drained of blood was defiled. Its presence risked polluting the whole community. So it was taken outside the camp, outside the city, to be burned, and those who saw to it, washed and purified themselves before being welcomed back.
That’s what Jesus did for us. No martyr’s death was good enough for him. A martyr dies a hero. A martyr dies in glory. A martyr dies and people chant, “God is great.” His tomb becomes a holy shrine. His death makes a point. It makes a statement. But it cannot save. And so, to be God’s perfect sacrifice, to give his life as an offering for sin, to wash us clean of the curse of God’s holy law that stands upon us for breaking it every day of our lives, Jesus had to be accursed. His blood is pure. It can wash clean the filthiest heart, make white the blackest soul. But he was cursed. The civil and religious leaders condemned and sentenced him according to their laws. The soldiers took him outside the city gate to the place of execution and nailed him up. The holy city of Jerusalem cast him out and turned its back on him. He died a slave’s death, a traitor’s death, and the word of God against him was clear, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.”
But his curse was mine. His curse was yours. So the sentence of death took him, but it couldn’t keep him. He rose to life on Easter Day. Jesus is the crucified Lord, the risen Saviour, and his blood is pure to wash away our sins. And so the writer says,
Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore.
As if to mean, “Leave your holy huddle and face to storm. Take the curse for him who took the curse for you. Leave this earthly house of brick and mortar for a home prepared in heaven for you.”
Because the church isn’t meant to be a shelter from the storm, where we stick together so the world won’t pick on us, or where we can win some respectability to help us in our business and personal lives. Church is where we draw strength to face the storm for Christ. Imagine the impact of one solitary life brave enough to go out to Jesus. Imagine the ripples of change they would cause in all their relationships as their life is changed by the transforming power of the Spirit of Christ. Imagine the waves of grace that would swell from ten, fifty, a hundred lives surrendered to Christ, prepared to face the storm and do his will. A respectable church can safely be ignored. But imagine a church that couldn’t be ignored, a lightning rod attracting the prejudice and hate of the world, and the grace and truth of God in Jesus Christ.
Surrender to that grace and truth. Let us make a difference in our world by living for Christ, putting into practice all his teaching. Let us leave our holy huddle and face the storm for him who faced the storm for us.