sermon notes from the Vineyard Church of Milan 02/27/2011
4In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. 5And have you completely forgotten this word of encouragement that addresses you as children? It says,
“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,6because the Lord disciplines those he loves,and he chastens everyone he accepts as his child.”
7Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children. For what children are not disciplined by their father? 8If you are not disciplined—and everyone undergoes discipline—then you are not legitimate children at all. 9Moreover, we have all had parents who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of spirits and live! 10Our parents disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. 11No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.
12Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. 13“Make level paths for your feet,” so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.
14Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord. 15See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. 16See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. 17Afterward, as you know, when he wanted to inherit this blessing, he was rejected. Even though he sought the blessing with tears, he could not change what he had done.
18You have not come to a mountain that can be touched and that is burning with fire; to darkness, gloom and storm; 19to a trumpet blast or to such a voice speaking words that those who heard it begged that no further word be spoken to them, 20because they could not bear what was commanded: “If even an animal touches the mountain, it must be stoned to death.” 21The sight was so terrifying that Moses said, “I am trembling with fear.”
22But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
Running underneath this whole passage is a powerful truth. For the student of Jesus, in light of Jesus’ good news of the kingdom, life is an exercise in receiving gifts from God’s hand (and then going on from there). Jesus is a gift to us, and so we receive him, and we run with him to receive all the gifts that he is showing us the Father is pouring out on the face of the earth. Our brothers and sisters are gifts, and so we receive them, and we run with them to receive all of the gifts that they are showing us the Father is pouring out on the face of the earth. Our enemies are gifts, and so we receive them, and we run together with them. Now, and because Jesus is risen from the dead, and exalted to the right hand of God, when he is our Lord, Life is gift, and blessings of every sort are gift, and even discipline is gift if it’s from the Father, and even redemptive suffering is gift, if it joins us to our savior in his suffering. And so we receive the gift, and we run. Our new lives in Christ have begun as a gift, and so we run freely, as those for whom it is true that everything we have is gift we have received. We run freely, as those for whom it is true that more gift than we can possibly imagine awaits us. We are free to risk, because what we are risking is gift that we were given in the first place. And we are free to risk, because even if we should lose everything, what awaits us is a gift beyond even the gift we lost.
This truth is at the heart of why the passage says “God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.” Discipline is the tool we use to teach our children how to live so that they will thrive in the world they are entering as they grow up, is it not? They take something unauthorized, and we discipline them so that they will trust us to give to them what they need when they need it, and even to give them more than that, plenty to enjoy. They try to manipulate with tantrums and charm and deception, and we discipline them to teach them that they don’t need those tools in relationship with them – we love them and will provide for them out of that love. They get bitter and pout and complain, and we discipline them to teach them to control the storm that rages in them, because that storm will run their lives if they let it, and because that storm is stirred up by an ill-informed understanding of what is theirs by right, and what is gift. [Colin example…?]
As you may remember, the big theme in Hebrews is encouragement for us to join in the forward movement of God. Regardless of the risk, to run, like Jesus, with Jesus, the race set before us. The race that takes us out of comfort and safety and into deeper, more personal, more intimate, more vulnerable relationship with God. And with one another. And with the hurt and brokenness of this world. Because of the joy set before us. Because, through faith, we can see God’s good future ahead of us. Because, through faith, we see the heavenly Jerusalem. Because we have confidence in the promises of God’s kingdom, enough confidence that we welcome the beautiful reality of his rule and reign into the present every time we are faithful to Jesus, every time we forgive, and love our enemies, and pray for healing, and offer thanks in difficulty, and give generously, and sacrifice selflessly, and worship wholeheartedly, and pour ourselves out without demanding anything in return.
Here, towards the end of the letter, the author is holding twin realities in hand, offering them both to us as encouragement.
Reality 1: the race is hard, and that’s good, not bad. The hardness does not mean you are running the race in vain, or running the wrong race. Just the opposite! You are beloved children of a Father who is training to run this race so that you can know the joy set before you. The discipline you are experiencing is love, not punishment. So be encouraged. Go after it. Fix your eyes on Jesus, don’t give up!
Reality 2: every step of this race is gets its energy and power from the place the race started, and by the place the race ends. Mount Zion, the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. It is a place of joy, of love – not of fear. And since we are sent on our way by love and with joy, and since we are heading, with joy, towards love, every footstep can be different.
Background: Two mountains, Sinai vs. Zion. Love at a distance, leaving room for fear, vs. Perfect love, which drives out fear.
Israel is set free from slavery in Egypt, receives the law at Sinai, and from there enters the promised land. All of which was a good thing, but ultimately not enough. Ultimately something pointing towards something better that was coming in Jesus. And the response of the Israelites to Sinai was fear and trembling, which God used to ultimately work his purposes, but which was not enough to open the door to new creation. And fear gets in the way of running this current race of joining in the forward movement of God. [stage 2…]
Now, we have been set free by Jesus from slavery to sin, and we have received his Holy Spirit in Jerusalem, on Mount Zion – the upper room an open doorway to the Heavenly Jerusalem, the place of God’s dwelling that will be joined to the earth when the Kingdom of God comes in its fullness, God come close in love made complete in Jesus. And now we are running the race that leads to that new promised land, not a land to be taken by sword, but by forgiveness. This race leaves from a place where perfect love has driven out fear, and leads to a place where fear serves no purpose, so we can run this race generously, with no fear. [stage 4…]
We are not used to a life founded on love, on receiving, on gift. We are used to a life founded on fear, on taking, on something owed to us. What happens when life is founded on fear, taking, something owed to us? We become aggressive, manipulative, bitter.
Think about the garden of Eden. The whole garden provided as gift. But we feared we were missing something. Something that should have been ours by right. So we took. And the peace was broken. Death entered. Shame. Fear. Cain killed his brother Abel, and Abel’s blood cried out from the ground. What did it cry out for? For vengeance. Something had been taken from him, and the blood draining from his fallen body wanted someone to take it back. All of our training is how to live in a world where we must take what we can, and where we must defend what we have from others who want to take from us. It is a world full of fears. Fears that someone will take from us. Fears that drive us to take for ourselves. Fears that leave us bitter.
Apart from the work of God in our lives through the gospel, our whole orientation to the world around us is fundamentally corrupted by the desire to take. It leads us to have expectations and demands, and when those expectations and demands are not met, we go off the rails of love. Everybody owes us something. We want something from everybody. Respect, maybe. Attention. Consideration. Loyalty. Favor. Support. Ego stroking. A whole host of practical things. And when we inevitably don’t get it, we have one of two sinful responses. Response 1 is that we try to take it, either through coercion or manipulation. We get aggressive, show our power, leverage the other’s weakness. Or we try guilt trips, or the silent treatment, or passive aggressive behaviors.
The problem with all of this is that it’s rooted in fear, not love, so it chokes out the life we are meant to receive from God and one another as a holy gift. No matter what God or your spouse or your kids or your friends or your neighbors or co-workers give you, if you take it from them as something you are owed instead of receiving it as a gift, the love is stripped from it. If you take it through coercion or manipulation, the love is stripped from it. And with the love stripped from it, it has no capacity to give you true life. And it won’t, therefore, be enough. So you will demand more. And take more. [examples…] Or, if you can’t get any more, or you give up on the possibility of getting what you need from them, you are in danger of response 2.
And response 2 is that we get bitter, and out of our bitterness, the relationship sours.
That’s what the root of bitterness is all about that this passage warns us to avoid. What is bitterness but our response when we fail to take what we think belongs to us, or when someone takes something from us, or when we think someone has been unjustly given more than we have? We are afraid that our perceived lack will, in the end, cost us something that matters, that we will lose out because we do not have what we are supposed to have. And so we are bitter.
That is not how life works in God’s good future, in the kingdom of God, in the new creation, when life is founded on love. What happens when life is founded on love, joy, gift? We become generous, free, risk-takers. The life of faith is the life of a person who receives everything and takes nothing, because everything good is a gift, and the giver of the gifts loves us and is not stingy with his gifts. The life of faith is the life of a person who recognizes that all that they have is a gift to be generously given away to others for the sake of God’s kingdom. For the sake of being like the giver. For the sake of demonstrating that the giver can be depended on. For the sake of opening the universe’s door to the gifts that have been stored up since the dawn of time. Because the gifts come from love, and the joy in them can only be unlocked when they are received as gifts, but never when they are taken as something owed.
“See to it that no one falls short of the grace of God…that no one is sexually immoral, or profane like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son…”
The race is all about the grace of God, the gifts freely given to his beloved children. Notice this exhortation about sexual immorality right here in the middle – so many forms of sexual immorality are about taking something that hasn’t been given as a gift; so much of having one’s sexuality consecrated to God is about receiving from God as good gift what he has given you, and giving yourself freely to that gift. That’s why there is this comment about Esau, the eldest son of Isaac, who had the gift of the birthright in his hand as a gift, and let it go to take a single meal he desperately wanted.
Every taking robs from you the possibility of truly enjoying a gift – tapping into the kind of joy that comes from the heavenly Jerusalem. When we take anything or anyone as ours instead of receiving as a gift given in love, even a good thing loses its power to bring life and joy.
Money, for example…take any amount and it won’t be enough. So you strive for more. And more. And more. And it is never enough. But receive any amount as a gift from God, and it is always more than enough…
Any relationship, for example…take something from the person as a demand, and you will always be left wanting more – and therefore becoming aggressive, or manipulative, or bitter. But receive what is given as a gift, seeking to give what you are called to give in love, and whatever is received as gift will be a container of joy. [we see this in parents of children with great difficulties so often, do we not? And how often is just the opposite the case in parents of children with great possibilities…?]
The life of the kingdom of God is all about enjoying the grace of God so that we are free to run, and risk, and give, knowing that the gifts will never run out.
This is why the author of Hebrews fixes our eyes on Jesus. He is the one who came to take nothing from us, who received everyone his Father gave to him as gift, who risked everything and gave away everything for the joy set before him, and who now has become our joy, the gift given to us that frees us to never need take from anyone, anywhere, ever again. His blood does not cry out “vengeance!”, but rather, “forgiveness!” Forgiveness to all of us who have taken from him. Forgiveness to all who have taken from us. Because this is the age of grace, of gift, of the kingdom of God.
This is why the author of Hebrews fixes our eyes on Mount Zion, the city of God, the future coming Kingdom that has already come near in Jesus. We need not be concerned with any outcomes with respect to our relationships with others, with respect to our work in this world, with respect to our service to God. The ultimate outcome is already in view,
You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, 23to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, 24to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.
All that remains for us is to fix our eyes on Jesus, receive the gifts of grace abounding around us, and run, and receive, and run, and receive, and run, and receive, and while we run, give generously, forgive, risk, join God’s forward movement in the world without fear, full of faith.
Practical tips (to be done 1 step at a time):
1. Find the pain. Identify a painful relationship or role. Maybe look for one that sometimes inclines you to bitterness. Your spouse? Child? Parent? Friend? Work situation? Ministry?
2. Note the gain. Identify what you feel entitled to from that relationship or role, or if not entitled to, what you were hoping to gain from it, or want to get out of it; those things you are tempted to find a way to get from it, whether through aggression or subtler manipulation. Recognize that some of the pain you feel in that relationship or role comes from not getting what you “should” get out of it. Writing these things down may be helpful.
3. Trade the gain for the gift. Resolve to receive the person or people in that relationship, or the challenges and struggles of that role, as a gift. A gift to be received with joy, regardless of its current capacity for blessing. (Remember, Jesus received us as we were, with joy, as gift – even when we brought him, mainly, death.)
4. Lace up your shoes. Recognize that all of those things you have written down are already secured for you in Zion, from which your journey has begun, and to which your race is leading you. And that the one standing between you and them (mediating them) is Jesus, no one else. And that he will ensure you have what you need, when you need it, because he loves you. So run, and receive, and run, and receive, and while you run, give generously, forgive, risk, join God’s forward movement in the world without fear, full of faith.