Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Hebrews 12: The Joy Spread Out

Hebrews 12: The Joy Spread Out

Vineyard Church of Milan


Invitation to turn to Hebrews 12…

Just finished with the hall of faith from Hebrews 11 last week, the men and women of old who gave the future a big kiss, and even though they didn’t get to experience it in its fullness, they got to play a part in welcoming it, in preparing a way for what God has done and is doing in Jesus. Their faith made them famous, speaks to us even now, and joins them to us and the new creation work God is doing in our world even today. Their faith is what lay underneath their hopes, it’s what gave them the confidence to take great risks for the sake of joining God in his forward movement in the world. And even though their lives were a mixed bag in terms of hitting the mark for God’s best desires for them, their faith put them in good standing with him, gave God great pleasure, opened up the door for the life of the heavens to flow into their lives.

As a way of helping us get a sense of why the author of Hebrews took us on that trip down memory lane, and where he or she is taking us today in chapter 12, let’s look at the scenes based on Hebrews 11 & 12 from a film that won two academy awards last year and generated a RottenTomatoes score of 98%...

[Scenes from Up where Carl looks through old picture book, & sees Russell take off on a rescue mission, and empties out his house to join him in the adventure…]


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, 2fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.

If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, the lives of those who have gone before us tell us that even when we seem to be surrounded in darkness, God is up to something glorious in the world, something worth leaving everything else behind to join him in. And that the best way to move forward is to catch a glimpse of Jesus, and keep him in view before us, and do everything that makes sense to do with Jesus in view.

Who is this great cloud of witnesses? And what are they witnessing?

The word for witness in Greek is martyr, and that word is used repeatedly in the previous chapter, Hebrews 11, in reference to these famous men and women of faith. Which means the great cloud of witnesses is those men and women, and all who have lived by faith like them.

And it’s tempting to imagine that they are gathered around watching us, cheering us on. Which, when the going gets tough, would be an encouraging thought, would it not? And for all I know, they may well be.

But that doesn’t seem to be the sense of this passage. And it’s not an idea specifically supported elsewhere in scripture.

No, these witnesses are called witnesses because they are bearing witness to something they have seen. And what they have seen isn’t us. It’s something else, something we long to see too.

Remember, they had faith to act because they saw what was promised and welcomed it from a distance. They are witnesses of what was promised. Even though they didn’t receive it, they saw it. And their lives of faith tell us about what they saw.

They have witnessed the coming kingdom, God’s good future ahead of us. Fully present in Jesus. When the darkness presses in around us, that’s what we need someone to bear witness to. When the going gets tough. When the temptations get strong to stop pressing forward with God’s good purposes in the world. When discouragement is knocking at our door. When a longing for comfort or convenience or ease threatens to make our feet slip from the new creation path. We need someone to say, no, look ahead – it’s there, it’s coming, it’s good, it’s glorious, there is life and joy and peace and freedom and wonder in the kingdom of God, and the kingdom is near, the kingdom is here, the kingdom is at hand. I’ve seen her, I’ve welcomed her, her lips have brushed against mine, and she tastes like honey.

Since this great cloud of witnesses has seen it, and risked everything on it, and since they surround us, our faith stands on their faith. They point us to it, helping us open our eyes to the coming Kingdom, God’s good future ahead of us, and already present among us.

Therefore, …what? Therefore run. Run into it, with perseverance, and joy. Strip down. The clothing you wear to impress, protect, hide – discard it, lay it aside (see Abraham and his father’s household…ending up in tents). The passing pleasures of missing the mark (sin – “hamartia” – tragic flaw, missing the mark) (see Moses in Egypt, leaving the Pharoah’s court behind) – they will entangle your feet, so lay them aside (see Israel in the wilderness, the desire to go back to Egypt – sin always produces fear, what we need for this adventure is faith.). Whatever is behind you, whatever you have worn to make it in the world you’ve been in – you don’t need it anymore. You don’t need it where you are going, and it will only slow you as you join God’s forward movement in the world, movement into deeper, more intimate relationship. You have a new city ahead of you, a new world, new rewards.

Let us run with endurance. Set off knowing it’s going to be a long race, one that takes perseverance, patience. That there are likely to be moments where you want to give up. That the landscape will change along the way. That it’s more about finishing than beating anyone else.

Fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame…

Like Abraham, Jesus left his Father’s household for the joy set before him. Like Moses, Jesus left the privilege of the King’s household for the joy set before him. He treated those otherwise good things as weight that encumbered. As “hamartia” that entangled. He laid them aside to run.

Like the Father in the famous parable Jesus told… hiking up his clothes to run to the prodigal son. For the joy set before him…

Let’s hold our horses for a moment, though. The joy was set before Jesus, spread out in front of him. But it’s not as if he was surrounded by it yet, immersed in it. He could see it and welcome it from a distance. But between him and the distance set before him, there was still a distance. And surely Jesus felt that distance as much as he felt that joy… (lazarus, “get behind me satan”, Jerusalem, garden of Gestemene…)

But back to the joy. What is the joy set before Jesus? The kingdom of God is the joy set before him. The city Hebrews will speak of later, filled with God’s kids and the feasting and music and dancing of all things set right. The better country… (elaborate)

But it was ahead of him, down a difficult road.

Jesus saw that joy, and he had the faith to endure the cross without shame. Naked. Unencumbered…(royal robes taken off) No shame – no missing the mark… (Remember David and Goliath…? 1 Samuel 17: David telling the soldiers not to “lose heart.” Getting rid of Saul’s encumbering armor? Seeing God’s good future, filled with faith, hitting the mark…)

41Meanwhile, the Philistine, with his shield bearer in front of him, kept coming closer to David. 42He looked David over and saw that he was little more than a boy, glowing with health and handsome, and he despised him. 43He said to David, “Am I a dog, that you come at me with sticks?” And the Philistine cursed David by his gods. 44“Come here,” he said, “and I’ll give your flesh to the birds and the wild animals!”

45David said to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. 46This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. 47All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the Lord saves; for the battle is the Lord’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”

48As the Philistine moved closer to attack him, David ran quickly toward the battle line to meet him. 49Reaching into his bag and taking out a stone, he slung it and struck the Philistine on the forehead. The stone sank into his forehead, and he fell facedown on the ground.

50So David triumphed over the Philistine with a sling and a stone; without a sword in his hand he struck down the Philistine and killed him.

51David ran and stood over him. He took hold of the Philistine’s sword and drew it from the sheath. After he killed him, he cut off his head with the sword.

When the Philistines saw that their hero was dead, they turned and ran. 52Then the men of Israel and Judah surged forward with a shout and pursued the Philistines to the entrance of Gath and to the gates of Ekron. Their dead were strewn along the Shaaraim road to Gath and Ekron. 53When the Israelites returned from chasing the Philistines, they plundered their camp.

54David took the Philistine’s head and brought it to Jerusalem; he put the Philistine’s weapons in his own tent.

Is that not Jesus’ story? Is not Death’s head on a platter in the heavenly Jerusalem? Are not the enemy’s weapons buried forever in his tomb?

Except by faith, we can’t see it but through a glass darkly – the kingdom, the city, the better country. But we can see Jesus. We can fix our eyes on him. In the witness of the scriptures. In the testimony of our brothers and sisters. In our brothers and sisters. In the broken body and the shed blood of the communion meal. By his manifest presence through the Holy Spirit. By personal encounter with him in the place of prayer where the heavens and the earth intersect and the veil is torn. Let’s fix our eyes on him. That’s what we need to run this race. To join with God’s forward movement in the world.


Practical Tips:

1. Ditch your armor so you can run. Identify 1 thing you use to protect yourself from risk, to keep yourself comfortable, to avoid being vulnerable, and ditch it so that you can join God’s forward movement into deeper relationship with him or with those in this hurting world.

2. Face your fear. It can lead you to your sin – the missing of the mark in your life - that threatens to entangle you. So that you can ditch it too, and run forward not backwards.

3. Let Hebrews light up John. Read John 16 to 20 and think about it in the light of Hebrews 12.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Faith: What Lies Ahead

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 02/13/2011

Read and briefly comment as necessary along the way…

4By faith Abel brought God a better offering than Cain did. By faith he was commended as righteous, when God spoke well of his offerings. And by faith Abel still speaks, even though he is dead.

5By faith Enoch was taken from this life, so that he did not experience death: “He could not be found, because God had taken him away.” For before he was taken, he was commended as one who pleased God. 6And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.

7By faith Noah, when warned about things not yet seen, in holy fear built an ark to save his family. By his faith he condemned the world and became heir of the righteousness that is in keeping with faith.

8By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going. 9By faith he made his home in the promised land like a stranger in a foreign country; he lived in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise. 10For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God. 11And by faith even Sarah, who was past childbearing age, was enabled to bear children because she considered him faithful who had made the promise. 12And so from this one man, and he as good as dead, came descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as countless as the sand on the seashore.

13All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

17By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.” 19Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death.

20By faith Isaac blessed Jacob and Esau in regard to their future.

21By faith Jacob, when he was dying, blessed each of Joseph’s sons, and worshiped as he leaned on the top of his staff.

22By faith Joseph, when his end was near, spoke about the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt and gave instructions concerning the burial of his bones.

23By faith Moses’ parents hid him for three months after he was born, because they saw he was no ordinary child, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.

24By faith Moses, when he had grown up, refused to be known as the son of Pharaoh’s daughter. 25He chose to be mistreated along with the people of God rather than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin. 26He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward. 27By faith he left Egypt, not fearing the king’s anger; he persevered because he saw him who is invisible. 28By faith he kept the Passover and the application of blood, so that the destroyer of the firstborn would not touch the firstborn of Israel.

29By faith the people passed through the Red Sea as on dry land; but when the Egyptians tried to do so, they were drowned.

30By faith the walls of Jericho fell, after the army had marched around them for seven days.

31By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.

32And what more shall I say? I do not have time to tell about Gideon, Barak, Samson and Jephthah, about David and Samuel and the prophets, 33who through faith conquered kingdoms, administered justice, and gained what was promised; who shut the mouths of lions, 34quenched the fury of the flames, and escaped the edge of the sword; whose weakness was turned to strength; and who became powerful in battle and routed foreign armies. 35Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. 36Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. 37They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated— 38the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground.

39These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. 40God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

Hebrews 11v4-40


The faith pictured here is one form of action after another, trusting step after trusting step towards an unrealized future. The best stuff available burned up for God. Looking for God. Building a boat. Packing up and moving out. Having sex with your hundred year old husband. And on and on. Every example of faith the sort of thing you could capture on video and upload to youtube.

Consider what’s been going on in Egypt. Some among us may have had some faith that the protests in Egypt would overthrow their dictator. As in, perhaps we had a feeling of confidence that it would work. But that’s not the kind of faith on display in Hebrews. Hebrews is highlighting the kind of faith demonstrated by the people who walked out into the streets despite the fact that they may have been shot or killed or jailed or teargased because they could see a different future for their country, and they wanted to go out there and greet it, welcome it, usher it in. [comment on pictures…]

We’ve been talking about how Hebrews is presenting us with a way of joining with God’s forward movement to heal and restore and redeem and repair this broken world that is very personal. That it involves trusting Jesus in the way we might trust another human being, that it involves relationship. Give and take, asking, listening, going and doing. More than just following a well-established rulebook, but rather following a living person into uncharted territory.

All of which can seem very mystical. And it is. It will be experienced differently by every one of us. There’s no formula to it. It takes risk, and discomfort, and lots and lots of not quite getting it right, or not being completely sure, and doubt, and all forms of prayer.

But the twin truth is that what this kind of relationship with God produces is very concrete actions. Actions that find their footing in this mysterious thing called faith. And when you get right down to it, the thing that binds the children of God together from age to age, and culture to culture, nation to nation, language to language, is very simply, faith. What did Abel and Abraham and Rahab and Sampson have in common with each other in their understanding of God and the rules for right living? Probably not a whole lot. But they each had, in their own way, personal encounter with God that gave birth to faith that was the basis for concrete actions that allowed them to be a part of God’s forward movement in the world. And this is what they are famous for, cheered on for. This is what pleases God about them, sets them in right standing before him. This is what opens the door in their lives connecting them to the source of life in the universe, in such a way that their deaths are not the end of them, but in fact are an entrance for them into what Hebrews will later call “the great cloud of witnesses.” Their faith is what joins them to us who are experiencing the beginnings of the thing that they were looking forward to their whole lives and to the Messiah in whom resurrection life is already a fully realized reality.

They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth.

One of the extraordinary things about faith is this: it empowers us to act today in light of God’s good future tomorrow. And when we do, we participate in that good future’s coming. We see it and act, and the action itself welcomes that which is coming.

Greek word for welcome: aspazomai, meaning literally to draw to one’s self. (a salutation was made not merely by a slight gesture and a few words, but generally by embracing and kissing, a journey was retarded frequently by saluting) [The Future needs a big kiss…]

This is true of every faith empowered action.

Abraham hears God say, “Leave your father’s home and follow me to a land that I will show you.” He sees (through a glass very darkly, no doubt) the thing God is leading him to. What this passage calls the city whose architect and builder is God. And so he goes, in light of what he sees. A great risk – except that in light of what he sees, it isn’t really, is it? Perhaps all he can see of that city is the God who will build it, but he trusts the one who calls him, so he goes… And it is his very going that is the first step in that city being built. All he ever experiences of it is some tents and a son who will supposedly be the father of many more inhabitants of that city. But without faith, he never goes. And without going, the promised thing must wait until another with faith joins in. He sees, he acts, and in so acting he draws towards himself the thing he sees.

Rahab sees these Israelite spies trapped inside Jericho, and she sees that the city will fall to their God. Perhaps she sees something of their God in them. Perhaps she sees something of a better city coming. We don’t know what she sees. But we see her faith filled action. She offers to help the spies escape. A great risk – except that in light of what she sees, it isn’t really, is it? And it’s her faith-empowered action that opens the door to God doing what God was promising to do. She sees, she acts, and in so acting she draws toward herself the thing she sees.

It is the same with us, and the faith we share in common with them. God whispers something to us through his Spirit, or through the spirit inspired words of the scriptures, or through the spirit empowered words of a brother or sister in Christ, and in our mystical, trusting relationship with Jesus we find the faith that is present in us as a gift resonating with it, and we are enabled to see God’s good future. Or at the very least to trust what we are hearing, that somehow, someway it is tangled up in God’s good future. And we act. And that very action is the thing that welcomes, that draws towards ourselves the thing we see by faith.

[Meeting Ronni…(it is Valentine’s day tomorrow, after all!)…]

Team going to Haiti. Addict going to AA. Skeptic making a confession of faith. Single woman adopting a child. Volunteer signing up for youth ministry. Church planter going to church planting boot camp. Asking for prayer. Moving to Milan. Forgiving someone who wrongs you. Praying blessing on your enemy. Serving the poor. Caring for the sick. Visiting the prisoner. Joining your voice with others in praise even though you are down and out. Living more simply than you have to so you can give more generously. And on and on.

39These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. 40God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.

What had been promised is nothing less than new creation. And none of these men or women of old received that. What does it mean that God had planned something better for us, then? Have we received new creation? Yes, indeed, the beginnings of it.

Jesus, who we will talk about more next week, by faith went to his death on the cross. And he received a resurrection body. The first bona fide new creation matter in existence to appear in this time-space continuum. Jesus, the messiah who Abel and Abraham and all the rest were ultimately placing their faith in as they, through their actions, trusted YHWH. Jesus, the true remnant of Israel, fully faithful and full of faith in YHWH, has received what is promised and is now seated at the right hand of God, Lord of his church. The church that is his body – a concrete material expression of his resurrection body – here on the earth. Broken old creation containers of his resurrection life, dying to itself in order that he might live in us. And he is directing us, leading us, empowering us through his Spirit to live lives of faith in him, and as we do he is inaugurating the kingdom of God among us. In faith-empowered actions we are welcoming it. Drawing it to ourselves.

Practical Tips:

1. Say “Yes” to God’s whispers to you. In the most literal sense. “Yes.” Out loud. To something he’s inviting you to do. It’s not much of an action. But it’s more than nothing. And it will participate in more of the kingdom coming. [kids obeying…] (Note to people who’ve already done that by writing me…)

2. Don’t be blinded by the dark. Sometimes these present troubles can act to blind us to the reality of God’s good future and we act out of that blindness. God is calling us to act out of our faith-seeing. Think about people in your life with whom it is hard to know how to act because of the brokenness of this world. (someone sick, addicted, in a funk, angry or cold towards you, dazed and confused, etc.) Act towards them as if you could see that God’s kingdom was one day going to come in fullness to them. [“knowing” I was going to marry Ronni story…] Apply this to your work, your family, your neighborhood, your team, your ministry, the things God has called you to. We don’t know with absolute certainty the particular future of any particular person or situation, of course. But we know Jesus, and his resurrection body, and if he has his way, really that’s enough, isn’t it? So let’s, in faith, be part of him having his way. (give examples..?)

3. Unearth some faith. Ask people in your faith community what role faith has played in them being where they are today, doing what they are doing. What they’ve seen, heard, trusted. What they’ve done as a result. Let their faith and faith empowered actions build your faith.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Faith: What Lies Beneath

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 02/06/2011


What then is faith? It is what gives assurance to our hopes; it is what gives us conviction about things we can’t see. It is what the men and women of old were famous for. It is by faith that we understand that the worlds were formed by God’s word; in other words, that the visible world was not made from visible things.

Hebrews 11v1-3 (N.T. Wright)

To the author of Hebrews, Jesus is at the center of God’s forward movement in the world, and there is one thing we need to join with God in that forward movement. That one thing is faith.

Faith. Such a simple word. And such a simple thing, really. But what is it exactly? And why is it so important? And what is our relationship to it? How does it fit in to this whole idea of a stage 4 relationship with God that we talked about last week?

[Jack story…he’s never seen the water, but he knows that it’s there because of the trust he has in what his dad has told him…this is faith in action...the assurance he has, the conviction he has comes from something itself invisible but real – faith in his dad.]

We, like the Hebrews to whom this letter was originally written, are in a world of hurt. To set out and continue on the adventure with Jesus in seeing healing and repair and restoration come to this broken world, and into our broken lives means entering, with him, even more deeply into that world of hurt. It means, sometimes, diving into relationships with people who are hurting, or into situations that are uncomfortable, or risky, or even dangerous… It means, sometimes, embarking on projects that might be met with frustration or opposition or only small amounts of progress after large amounts of investment… It means, sometimes, mining into the darkness within our own hearts and lives and families, unearthing the ugly stuff for Jesus to shine his light on it and redeem it, knowing that it might be really painful along the way to peace. There is always the temptation to play it safe, to go back into whatever seems like a less risky way of life. Even if it is ultimately less powerful and potent than plunging forward. As we’ve talked about, the author of Hebrews is encouraging us to resist that temptation, set aside those fears, and dive into the forward movement of God that brings salvation.

We just need one primary tool for the adventure. Faith. Because, remember,

The medium is the message now. Jesus himself is the message. How do we receive a message that is a person? By faith in that person. The message is not a set of rules that we can diligently follow. The message is a person we must follow. And that person is taking us into only vaguely charted territory. The only way forward is faith in him.

Because, remember,

The forward movement of God is into deeper relationship and greater risk. That is where the power of love that overcomes death is unleashed. And the only way into deeper relationship and greater risk is faith. Which is why John Wimber always used to say, faith is spelled R.I.S.K.

Because, remember,

The forward movement of God is from a rules-based relationship with God to a mystical one where it’s all about a personal relationship with him, where the message of God, Jesus himself, dwells in us through his Holy Spirit. And what is at the center of every life-giving relationship? Faith. (Have a little faith in me…)

So let’s talk about what Hebrews 11 begins to teach us about faith.


What then is faith? It is what gives assurance to our hopes; it is what gives us conviction about things we can’t see.

The word for assurance is “hypostasis” – the thing put under, the substructure, the foundation. Faith what lies beneath our hopes to hold them up, to keep them from collapsing.

Not all hopes have such a foundation, do they?

Let’s take, for example, a hope that before the service is over, $1,000,000 will fall out of the sky. That hope, in me, has no foundation. Which doesn’t mean it can’t happen. But it does mean I’m not likely to take any action based on that hope.

But some hopes have something strong underneath them, something called faith. Sometimes they have a little of it, sometimes a lot. The more there is, the more you can push off of it into God’s good future.

Take a hope like my hope that I won’t get injured playing basketball. That’s a relatively unfounded hope. I wouldn’t bet anyone a million dollars on that hope being fulfilled. In fact, my history tells me the opposite, my present doesn’t provide any encouragement, and I have no personal assurances from God on that score. You’d be wise to take a short position on that hope. But I do have enough faith in my body, and in the good purposes of God in my life, to step out on the court every Saturday without debilitating fear. Just enough faith, and joy comes – even though it’s sometimes mixed with pain.

Take my hope to catch these quarters off my elbow…[catch quarters off elbow]. I didn’t just try to believe really hard that I would, and then I did. That faith in my ability to do that came from my 40 year relationship with my body, and with my specific experiences of seeing my body do that very thing. Was it a lock? No. My body could have failed me. Was it enough of a foundation to risk looking a fool and losing money? Yes.

Or take something a little more “spiritual.” I’ve had a headache for many years now. I have a hope that it will be healed. Underneath that hope is faith. Faith that God made me, that God loves me, that God desires freedom for me, that God has the power to do it when the time is right. That faith is a very mystical thing, though, isn’t it? You may or may not share it with me. You may or may not think it a wise thing to have. And where does it come from? A wide variety of sources that may or may not be convincing to you, but for me have conspired to deposit faith as a gift in me, a faith that I have decided to persevere in. The witness of the scriptures about God’s goodness and the promise of the resurrection of Jesus. Personal encounters with Jesus in prayer that have served to increase my faith. The encouragement of others who love me out of their own personal encounters with Jesus and understanding of the world informed by the God revealed in scripture. A gut feeling I’ve had from time to time that felt “right.” Faith. Will it happen today or tomorrow? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t have any specific faith for that. Will it happen before I die? I have a growing faith about that. A foundation that seems to be getting stronger, that seems to bear the weight of my hope. Will it happen one day – at the very least, in my resurrection body? Yes, I would bet my life and any number of millions on that. In fact, if any healing does invade my present before that day comes, I know the day of resurrection is the day in which that healing was born.

Faith is that strong thing that lies underneath our hopes – all of our hopes that revolve around Jesus and his promises about God’s kingdom. It comes from our relationship with him, our history with him, the witness of others, gut feelings, a whole set of sources. But when we embrace it, receive it, walk in it, look for it, it’s what we find at the bottom of all of our true hopes. It’s the thing, that when it’s there, empowers us to take risks on it.

It is also, according to Hebrews, what gives us conviction [elenchos: the proof, the evidence] about things we can’t see.


We spend money and energy serving those in need with food, and clothing, and time and relationship and love. We forgive those who wrong us. We love our enemies. We bear one another’s burdens. We pray for the sick. We generously give money. We do everything we do as Jesus’ followers not being able to see right here and right now exactly what will come of it. We do it all in hopes that it will be part of what God is doing to set things right in the world.

If anyone were to press us, or doubts were to assail us - as to whether or not any of it is worth it - what proof would we have that it will be? In the moment before any of those actions, all we have is faith. Something inside of us (a gift, deposited by God, that we decide to embrace) that bears witness to the future reality on which we are basing our present actions. The very existence of faith is the primary evidence that tells us that the future coming kingdom of God is coming. [someone tithing for 15 years – a year and a half worth of salary: has it paid off? Should you continue…?]

[Crisis of faith – “Why don’t you talk to me about it?” God was speaking to the faith that was in me.]

Yes, this is mystical stuff. It’s O.K. Like it or not, we are mystically wired. Why do we ever trust anyone? Usually because we discover that we already trust them. And usually we trust them because at some point we decided to trust them. Yet every time we act on that trust, it’s never without risk. And this is what opens the door to the life of God in our world.

It’s what the men and women of old were famous for.

(root is martyr…)

Faith is the part of their lives that keeps speaking to us, getting our attention. Next week we will look at some of their lives, and the faith on display that provides encouragement to us to persevere in our faith. But for today, just notice this: Faith is the thing that gets all the press in a person’s life over time; faith is the thing that speaks words we need to hear. Not accomplishments. Not failures. Not sins. Not victories. Not wealth or success. Not even great writings or speeches. Faith.

What will your life say to your children or grandchildren or great grandchildren, to your neighbors, your friends, your classmates, your co-workers? Your faith is what will make you famous. Everything else is vapor and will blow away. But your faith is the part of you that is connected in eternity to the kingdom of God that will not pass away. Your faith is the thing that opens a channel between the present and the future coming kingdom of God. The thing that will carry you on into eternal life in the future, and the thing that carries eternal life into you today.

It is by faith we understand [perceive] that the worlds were prepared by God’s word; in other words, that the visible world was not made from visible things.

Faith is the thing that lets us perceive something true about the world we see around us, that cannot be perceived otherwise. (not speaking about a primitive understanding of natural phenomena, but rather this strong thing underneath our hopes that this isn’t all an accident – not the natural world, not our experiences…)

The author is taking us deep down the rabbit hole here. If our faith tells us there is something we can’t see (God’s word) that gave rise to everything we can see around us, then it follows that another thing we can’t see (faith itself) cooperates with God’s word to bring into being that which is coming. [making some sense of all of Jesus’ statements about “your faith has made you well…”]

The author of Hebrews knows that by inviting us to join in the forward movement of God’s kingdom through personal faith in Jesus, he or she is inviting us into something that seems so unsolid, so uncertain, so hard to get our arms around that we might be terrified to take the next step. So it’s important for us to know that we don’t need to be unsure about our footing in this adventure. The firm ground beneath our feet was given its very substance by the invisible voice of God. So we can have confidence to plunge into God’s good future with invisible faith as our only firm foundation.

There is one other reason, I believe, that the author of Hebrews brings up this idea of our universe being God’s creation. And that is that our faith in the future coming Kingdom, our faith that God is in the process of setting everything right, comes from our confidence that God loves his creation. That he made our world, and he made us, and so he’s invested in us. That he will go to any length to fix what has gone wrong, and make his creation new again because this isn’t all an accident. We are here because he spoke us into being, and he will with his word set things right again and also with his word make us new again, just as he has with Jesus.

Hebrews will bring us back to Jesus again in the next chapter, but for now it wants to remind us of the very thing Jesus based his life on: this invisible faith. Jesus healed through faith, cast out demons through faith, loved the marginalized and outcast through faith, faced death through faith. No one else could see what Jesus was seeing by faith. No one else knew the strong thing underneath Jesus’ hope of the kingdom of God. Jesus faced opposition from all sides, the most withering kind of opposition. Yet his faith prevailed against it all, even against death. This faith, Hebrews tells us, is the same faith we share in as we press into the forward movement of God. The same faith being offered to us as a gift. Let us embrace it, choose it, persevere in it. It will not fail us, as it did not fail Jesus, as it has not failed all those famous men and women of old, whom we will speak more of next week.


Practical tips…

1. Do a 1 day faith inventory to see how much of your life is already based on faith of one variety or another… You may say, most of those are just calculated risks. Bingo. So is faith in God. It’s just that sometimes the stakes are higher, and the evidence less visible.

2. Ask God for more faith. (Way better than trying to have more faith.) His answer may not come in the form of a feeling (strike that / probably won’t). He will probably ask you to do something that requires you to trust him. And then you will have to find out if he answered your prayer or not by deciding to trust him or not. My bet? You’ll be able to trust him in a way that previously you weren’t able to. Because he gave you the faith you needed. (example: faith to heal…)

3. Use it or lose it. Give expression (voice, action) to the faith you discover in you. It seems to be like a muscle; exercise will make it grow. And it will be like a barking dog at night – it gets all the other dogs barking. Why does this work? Faith seems to multiply like rabbits. (caution: don’t fake your faith to impress others or to try to get some kind of result – that will only multiply other fake faith, and that can come crashing down and smother the real thing under it’s weight.)

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Hebrews: The Fourth Stage

sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 01/30/2011

Jesus makes all of us uncomfortable, one way or another.

For some of us, he’s like the ultimate Alpha Male. Surrender or fry in hell. And so if we get to the bottom, we’ll surrender, since we’ve already arrived in hell. But as long as things are kind of o.k., we’ll keep on keeping on, we’re doing just fine for ourselves, thank you very much. To those of us in this place, the book of Hebrews says that it’s not about Jesus winning and us losing, it’s about how Jesus won by losing so that he can help us win, too, when we inevitably find ourselves lost.

For others of us, Jesus is the ultimate example who gets everything right all the time, and we know we should too, but we’re killing ourselves trying to do it. We figure that the reason our lives aren’t as awesome as his is because we just can’t quite cut it. To us, Hebrews says that our life doesn’t get better when we do everything we think we are supposed to do, but rather when we do the one thing Jesus is inviting us to do, even if doing that one thing calls into question everything we think we know.

For still others of us, Jesus is the one shining light in the garbage pit of religion that we’ve left behind because of the stench…we think he’s perhaps the coolest cat we’ve ever come across, but there’s no way in hell we’re joining up if it means we have to be like the doped up cattle who follow him. And so when we think about him, there’s an uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. To us, Hebrews says that although Jesus may be in that garbage pit of religion we’ve left behind, it’s not the place he’s most at home either. And that if we start looking forward instead of backwards, we might find that he’s offering to save us from the new garbage pit that’s been forming unnoticed around our ankles.

And finally, for others, Jesus is everything for them, but gosh there is such mystery about actually knowing him and following him, and sometimes we just wish it were simpler. That someone would just say do this, and we could do this, and everything would fall into place. To us, Hebrews says, persevere, have faith. We haven’t missed some secret key – the mystery and uncertainty are to be embraced and enjoyed, because at their center is a new kind of life.

Those of you still exploring faith in Jesus are probably in the first group (the who’s going to be in charge of my life, me or the man upstairs group) or the third group (the don’t want to be caught dead with those religious freaks, but wouldn’t mind having a latte with Jesus group). I have friends and family who are there with you. And I especially have a lot of empathy for those of you in group 3, the group that’s left religion behind but still are intrigued by Jesus. Those of you who identify yourselves as Christians are probably in the second group or the fourth group. I grew up mainly identifying with those in group 2 – man, Jesus is a tough act to follow! And I think in more recent years, I need to hear what Hebrews says to group 4man, this faith business just isn’t as cut and dried as I’d like it to be. Today’s message, I hope, will speak to all of us at some level.

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. 4So he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs… (Hebrews 1)

We must pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. 2For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, 3how shall we escape if we ignore so great a salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. 4God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. (Hebrews 2)

The big idea in Hebrews is that there is an older way of connection to God through the law (given to people by the “angels”) that may feel safer and more secure through its familiarity and widespread acceptance, but that actually it’s just not enough. That God has come with a new message, a new way, in Jesus. And this new way is as better than the old way as Jesus is better than the angels. It may feel riskier and less certain, but the truth is, it’s the only way that truly brings life, that brings salvation. And at the center of this new way is a person, Jesus. And to follow Jesus, at its very heart, means to have a personal relationship with him. Which is a very mystical thing, is it not? Not familiar. No. (not, at least, when it comes to how we are accustomed to dealing with God.) Not comfortable. No. Not easy. No.

But powerful. Yes. And transformative.

You get the sense of it in “pay careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.” You can always go back to the written law, look it up. Figure out if you are following it faithfully. But not to a personal voice, not to the stories of a people inspired by the Holy Spirit. Jesus didn’t leave a new law code written down, a new ten commandments. He left witnesses to his life and words and ministry. He left his holy spirit. Yes, there’s a book – the scriptures – but Jesus himself says, You study the Scriptures diligently because you think that in them you possess eternal life. These are the very Scriptures that testify about me, yet you refuse to come to me to have life. The life doesn’t come from the written stuff – it comes from him, the medium that is the message. This is mystical stuff.

And how do we have confidence to rely on him and the message that he is? Not by punishment for disobedience. That’s the way the old thing worked.

2For since the message spoken through angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment…

Break the law, suffer the consequences, message received. But this new thing?

This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. 4God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.

This new thing is proven by signs, wonders, miracles, the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is so personal. Powerful, yeah. Transformative, yeah. But not exactly straightforward. This is mystical stuff.

Before we continue our exploration of this aspect of Hebrews, I’d like to push the pause button and introduce you to a 4 stage theory of human emotional and spiritual development, first proposed by M. Scott Peck in his book, “Further Along the Road Less Traveled” and expounded on in really helpful ways by Dave Schmelzer, pastor of the Greater Boston Vineyard, in his book, “Not the Religious Type.” We’ll get back to Hebrews in a few minutes, and see how this all ties together.

Stage 1: Pecks first stage – I’ll call it the criminal stage – corresponds to the toddler years. Toddlers are cute and loving, but in the broader sense, they don’t care about you. They can’t. That’s not the stage they are at. As they are throwing a tantrum over a toy they’ve been denied, toddlers rarely stop themselves to say, “But you know, this isn’t the most important thing in the world, and I haven’t once asked how you’re doing, Daddy. Has it been a good day?” (from “Not the Religious Type”)

Without boundaries, when we are in stage 1, we try to take whatever we desire. Our lives are, in a sense, ruled by our unchecked desires. Might makes right, right? [that car is mine! Give it to me!]

Stage 2: We might call stage 2 rules-based. This would correspond to age six or seven. Now you care what Mommy and Daddy think, what they want, what the rules are.

Feeling very out of sorts when rules are being broken by others; tattling; correcting parents for not following their own rules; not always following the rules perfectly, but when caught, finding some defense within a grid of rules… [hey! You crossed a double yellow line!]

Stage 3: [Play Ferris Bueller clip…] Could be described as rebellious. This corresponds to the teen years. At this stage, the healthy kid begins to question the rules she has been taught in stage 2. Why are they the be-all and end-all? What’s behind these rules. Often the answers the teen gets are not convincing, particularly if the world around her is stage 2. Then she’s most likely to hear, “Quit being such a smart aleck!” and not much more. This often hardens the teen into stage 3, and the wars begin between her and all things stage 2. (from “Not the Religious Type”)

The arrogance of stage 3 vs. stage 2, squares vs. cool people, etc.; it feels a lot like stage 1 to an observer, but internally it’s not about desire as much as it’s about identity. (I may not know who I am yet, but I know I am not you, so I will act differently than you, and see how it feels.) [cars are freedom and self-expression…]

Stage 4: What stage 3 people usually don’t realize is that there is a stage 4, that there actually are answers to the questions they’ve been asking. You might call this the mystical stage. Here, one suddenly realizes that most of the things we were taught in stage 2 are, in fact, true, but in a much richer and more mysterious sense than we would have, or could have, imagined. (from “Not the Religious Type”)

[Cars are something we have a much more mystical relationship with as mature adults…we relate to them in a very integrated way, consistent with our settled identity, following the rules that are appropriate for the circumstances, disregarding some sometimes (pregnant wife giving birth, for example), recognizing the connectedness between us, our cars, others, the environment, etc…]

Or from a more spiritual side: So let’s take this spiritual truism from the biblical tradition: “Believe in the Lord Jesus and you will be saved.” Stage 2 reads this as: Okay, as of 3 p.m. I did believe in Jesus, so I can take it to the bank that I’m going to heaven, whatever happens. I believe!

Stage 4 on the other hand, might well say: Wow that’s one profound statement. I think I believe, but what does believe actually mean? Am I believing now? What might that look like? And saved. Saved in some meaningful sense now, or just saved after I die? Paul, after all, says a little later on in the Bible that what matters isn’t any outward religious thing we do (circumcision, for example) but a transformed life, a life that’s being saved. Is my life being transformed by my belief? (Or perhaps it’s not the belief that’s transforming me but Jesus himself, in some sort of direct, mystical sense.) Wow! How?

You can see that stage 4 (mystical) is a stage filled with uncertainty to the same degree that stage 2 (rules-based) is, by definition, filled with certainty. Or, to put it differently, stage 4 is about questions; stage 2 is about answers. In this way of thinking, stage 2 looks at truth from the outside, as if it were a book that can and must be mastered. Stage 4 looks at truth from smack-dab in the middle of it, as if truth is everywhere and will take a lifetime just to begin to traverse (which is the joy of it.) (from “Not the Religious Type”)

Ok, getting back to Hebrews. What does all of this have to do with the angels and Jesus?

Well, isn’t it the case that the angels provided a stage 2 kind of connection to God, a connection that required a stage 2 kind of faith, and produced a stage 2 kind of life? The law gave rules to follow. The faith that was required was a faith in those rules – which was, ultimately, of course, a faith in the one who gave the rules, but less directly. And it provided a life that was a significant improvement over a stage 1 kind of life. The criminal stage is chaotic, uncertain, full of hurt and pain, a little like hell on earth. Imagine a developing nation ruled by warlords, and compare that to the kind of life that comes in a country ruled by the rule of law, especially good law. Imagine growing up in a dysfunctional family, and then experiencing the order and stability of the Von Trapp family from the sound of music. Much better life.

But according to Hebrews, not enough.

According to Hebrews, what we need for real salvation is relationship with God that is deeper, more direct, more personal. We need the kind of power and transformation that a stage 4 spirituality provides.

And what we have said is even more clear if another priest like Melchizedek appears, 16one who has become a priest [someone who connects us to God] not on the basis of a regulation as to his ancestry but on the basis of the power of an indestructible life... (Hebrews 7)

18The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless 19(for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God... (Hebrews 7)

6But in fact the ministry Jesus has received is as superior to theirs as the covenant of which he is mediator is superior to the old one, since the new covenant is established on better promises.

7For if there had been nothing wrong with that first covenant, no place would have been sought for another…

10This is the covenant I will establish with the house of Israel

after that time, declares the Lord.

I will put my laws in their minds

and write them on their hearts.

I will be their God,

and they will be my people.

11No longer will they teach their neighbors,

or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’

because they will all know me,

from the least of them to the greatest.

13By calling this covenant “new,” he has made the first one obsolete; and what is obsolete and outdated will soon disappear. (Hebrews 8)

The forward movement of God is from stage 2 to stage 4. From rules-based to mystical. “I will put the laws in their minds and write them on their hearts; I will be there God, and they will be my people…they will all know me.” This is what stage 2 has always been pointing towards, but is always unable to fully deliver. Just as good parents are teaching their children to obey the rules; not so that they are always obeying the rules, but so that they can grow into loving, mature adults who live intuitively and naturally the kind of lives the parents have been training them – with the aid of artificial boundaries - to live.

The kingdom of God Jesus is announcing over and over is a rule and reign of God that is expressed in the transformed hearts of people who have embraced his good news, people who live from the inside out, not the outside in. This is why the Pharisees can’t stand Jesus so often – they are the ultimate example of people at stage 2, and Jesus is the first fully stage 4 person in the history of the universe. “I and the Father are one,” Jesus says. “I only do what I see my Father doing.” Now that’s mystical, isn’t it?

Not a letter or an iota is dropped from the law, Jesus says, and at the same time, he says, “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.” In other words, stage 2 is meant to be a blessing to people, and point the way to stage 4, but we were not made ultimately for stage 2.

Listen to this from Hebrews 5:

11We have much to say about this, but it is hard to make it clear to you because you no longer try to understand. 12In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again. You need milk, not solid food! 13Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness [Jesus teaching about a righteousness that comes from God, apart from the law…to which the law and the prophets testify]. 14But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.

Remember this exchange between Thomas and Jesus shortly before Jesus went to the cross?

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me… 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. 4You know the way to the place where I am going.”

5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going, so how can we know the way?”

6Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you really know me, you will know my Father as well…” (John 15)

Thomas wanted milk. He wanted a clear, easy to digest, straightforward stage 2 explanation of the steps to take to go where Jesus was going. Jesus had stage 4 solid food to offer. “I’m the way…no one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well…” Talk about mystical. And uncomfortable. And not that easy. But powerful and transformative.

Historically, churches have been great stage 2 institutions. We’ve been good at helping people know the rules that lead to a better life than a stage 1 life. But we’ve been not nearly as good at helping people dive into the forward movement of God that really produces the true life of the kingdom in stage 4. And this is especially the case with people who’ve moved on to stage 3 in their lives, who’ve questioned the rules and found the explanations not very satisfying. Who are searching for identity and unaware that there is anything more from God than what stage 2 religious experience offers.

We want to be a community where Jesus is our center, not a set of behaviors or a book of rules. Muslims believe that the Qur’an is the final and most perfect revelation of God, and sometimes it’s tempting to treat the Bible the same way. Hebrews tells us that the final and most perfect revelation of God is not words in a book, but the Word made flesh. The Bible is our book. But it’s not our center. Our center is the Son. The radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being. Jesus of Nazareth, crucified and risen from the dead, now seated at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.

We want to be a church that is helping one another connect with him, fall in love with him, be transformed by him, live lives led by his Spirit. Together, we follow the way of Jesus, and create breathing room to help the disfavored find favor, the discounted count, the disconnected connect. Starting here. Wherever here is for you. Yes, this may take leap of faith after leap of faith. But it’s worth the effort and uncertainty. Because in the resurrected Jesus we see the power of an indestructible life, and that’s the life Jesus is leading us into as we follow him, with fear and trembling and joy and expectation and a spectacularly wholesome sense of adventure.

Practical Tip:

1. Resolve to accept the unfamiliarity and discomfort and unease that comes in the quest to connect with God personally through Jesus…(everyone one of us will do that differently, like each kid in a family connect with their parents differently…). Maybe pray, every day this week:

Group 1: “Jesus, I’ll put my life in your hands if you can show me I’ll be in good hands.”

Group 2: “Jesus, I’m not satisfied with just knowing the right things to do. I want to know you.”

Group 3: “Jesus, show me that there is more to you than I’ve seen so far.”

Group 4: “Jesus, I’m willing to lose everything – even my faith – as long as I don’t lose you.”

Resources: Not the Religious Type, by Dave Schmelzer