A sermon on Hebrews 12:14-17 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 27 March 2022
Our message today is called, “Some of the things that hinder.” This title comes from Hebrews chapter 12 verse 1 that we looked at last week.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.
In the early part of chapter 12 the writer imagines that the Christian life is like a race. Last week I called it the race of faith. The Christian life is like a race because it has a beginning in trusting Jesus, it has an end when we die if Jesus does not return first, and it requires effort and perseverance to keep going, but it offers the prize of eternal life to all those who successfully complete it.
Life is full of obstacles, suffering, disappointment – the race is a marathon, not a sprint, or like the steeplechase – and it is hard to maintain our faith. It is hard to keep going. It is easy to give up, because many people do.
But the fact is that some of those obstacles, some of the things that make the Christian life hard, come from inside us. They are “the things that hinder and the sin that so easily entangles”. By the things we do and the choices we make we make it hard for ourselves to keep a close walk with Jesus and a genuine and fervent love for God. Like someone trying to run in a suit or carrying an unnecessary burden. The writer urges us to throw these things off, to get rid of them, to unburden ourselves of these things that are holding us back, because we are better off without them.
I believe that in verses 14 to 17, our reading this morning from Hebrews chapter 12, the writer mentions or is referring to some of these things that hinder us. Some of the sins that entangle us. The things that offer us some small temporary earthly gain in exchange for an eternal heavenly loss.
Make every effort – he says in verse 14 – to live in peace with all people.
We all hate war. We are all troubled, and angry and disgusted by Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine. We want Mr Putin to change his mind or we want his own people to rise up against him and to throw him out of power. But sadly we tolerate strife in our own lives. And sometimes we contribute to it with our selfishness or our judgmental spirit or our love of gossip or our habit of making up reasons why people do things when we don’t know all the facts or our arrogance that believes we have all the answers or our unwillingness to work with others if we are not in control or our insistence that others would be better off if they followed our advice.
“Make every effort”, he says, because although peace is often desirable, you wouldn’t think it by the way people carry on. Peace is something we need to pursue, to chase after, because it is not always close to hand and at our beck and call. And, to be honest, we can’t control how other people will react. We can be as gentle as doves and others will just keep on stirring up the drama. All we can do is take responsibility for our own choices and our own actions. As the apostle Paul says in Romans chapter 12,
If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.
Our Lord Jesus was a man of peace. He gave himself to bring us peace, peace with God, peace with ourselves, peace with each other. And he calls us to be people of peace.
Make every effort – the writer says in Hebrews chapter 12 – to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.
Above all other things, the Lord is holy. It describes everything that makes him God in his almighty, inconceivable and eternal glory. But his holiness is most clearly seen in his love. His love for us. The love for which he made us. The love which he commands from us. For us mere mortals to be holy means to be single-mindedly devoted to the Lord and to reflect his love in our love for him and for others.
What do the commandments ask of us? To love God with all our heart and to love our neighbour as ourselves. What did the prophet Micah say was what the Lord required? Not sacrifice, not rivers of blood, but “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with our God”.
This is holiness. Without this we will not see the Lord, for without this love for him and for each other, we do not really want to see the Lord. With our unholiness we oppose everything that is good and right and true. With our unholiness we tear down what God is building and we wound what God is healing. It is hard, yes, we must make every effort. But holiness is not something optional. The Lord Jesus gave himself for our holiness, that we might be consecrated to God and belong to him with all our heart and that we might reflect his love with our love.
Without this, we will not see him. We may think we are running in the race of faith but without holiness we are running in the wrong direction.
The writer says in verse 15,
See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many.
This bitter root is resentment. For the fact remains that none of us are perfect. Sometimes we hurt others and sometimes we are hurt by others. In this kind of environment we need to be quick to apologise, eager to make amends, and sincere in forgiving. Because hurt pride and unacknowledged injustice create fertile ground for resentment to germinate and grow and once it takes root it is harder to get rid of than couch grass in the garden.
Don’t miss the grace of God that sacrificed so much for your forgiveness and holiness. Take responsibility for resolving your broken relationships, because even when you are only 50% to blame for the problem, you are still 100% responsible for the solution. And don’t let your resentment overflow to recruit others to your cause to fight your battles for you, because that would defile many. Stop the fight, before it becomes a war.
In verse 16 he writes,
See that no one is sexually immoral.
You would think that the way some Christians carried on that the sexual sins are the worst of all, the only unforgiveable sins. That a man can beat his wife and abuse his children and cheat his customers as long as he does not get caught cheating on his wife. A young woman who becomes pregnant unexpectedly doesn’t need to be judged and ostracised by the community. What she needs is to be loved and cared for, for her welfare and for that of her child.
Sexual sins are not the worst sins because there are no worst sins. The most minor sins are still a slap in the face of our heavenly Father and a deep wound in his purpose for the world. And that is why sexual purity is so important. Because it is the surest sign of a person’s maturity that they can harness their desires and pleasures for good rather than evil and for the glory of God and not for our temporary satisfaction.
Sexual purity tests all our virtues. It tests whether we love what is good and what is best. It tests our faithfulness to our spouses and to our neighbours. It tests our self-control, whether we can master our urges or are mastered by them. It tests our hope in a future eternal blessing rather than an instant, temporary pleasure. That’s why even if it isn’t the most important thing, sexual purity is still an important thing. See to it that none of you are sexually immoral.
… godless like Esau who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son.
Now what Jacob did was wrong. Nothing I say is meant to minimise his wrong against his brother. But what Esau did was just as wrong. He came home from the hunt hungry. Famished he said, meaning starving, as if he was going to die. His brother Jacob was cooking some stew, lentil stew, which have to be some of the most useless vegetables ever. When Esau wanted some of the stew, Jacob offered it to him in exchange for his birthright. Which would have been like me offering you one dollar for your priceless ring handed down to you from your mother and from her mother and from her mother before her. You would only accept my dollar if you thought your family heirloom was worth less. Esau thought his birthright was worth less than a bowl of stew. Worth less than his instant gratification, when with a bit of patience and a bit of self-respect he could have cooked his own stew and satisfied his hunger and kept his birthright. Why would he have despised his birthright? I can only imagine that it was because he thought it wasn’t worth anything compared to what he could gain for himself by his own effort.
And what was that birthright? What was his inheritance as the eldest son? It was the promise of God given to Abraham and confirmed to Isaac that the land of Canaan would belong to their descendants and they would be a great nation. Esau considered the future promise of God worth less than a bowl of stew today. This is his godlessness.
It is the same self-sufficiency that motivates many people’s choices today. That the promise of something tomorrow is worthless compared to what I need today. And that all my needs can be met by buying them with the money I earn from my job, and if I need it and can’t afford it then the government should provide it for free. It is the godlessness that worships the almighty dollar and that sacrifices eternity for the sake of our instant gratification.
And it is the same godlessness that can infect God’s people. I call it functional atheism. We are functionally atheists when we say we believe in God, but God plays no part in our choices and actions. We do what we want. We plan all the steps to achieve our goals. In our meetings we may even pray that God would bless our decisions and desires without seeking his will or subjecting all our plans to his desires.
We are not atheists. We believe in God. We sing his praise. We even pray to him. We say we do everything for him. But his presence in his life often makes no significant difference. Our choices and actions would be exactly the same if we did not believe in him. This behaviour contradicts all the fine things we say we believe and it cripples our witness to our neighbours because it only confirms them in their unbelief. If Christian people are no different, who would want to be one?
This godlessness did no good for Esau. Later he certainly regretted his actions. He sought his birthright with tears. He wished he had made different choices. But he did not add to his regret any genuine remorse or true repentance that takes full responsibility and throws itself at the mercy of God in order to be restored.
And this godlessness will do no good for us or for our church or for our walk with Christ or for our witness to our neighbours. We must replace our functional atheism with some genuine Christianity. We must throw off these things that hinder us. Let us show ourselves to be followers of the man of peace, by becoming people of peace. Let us be holy as our Lord was holy and gave himself for our holiness. Let us root out every bitter root of resentment by being quick to forgive and even quicker to apologise. Let us devote ourselves to sexual purity, not because sexual sins are the worst but because they are as bad as any other. And let us not be godless, but let all we do and think and say reflect the purposes and plans of God revealed in our Lord Jesus.