Hebrews 12:3-11 – Preaching from ChristChurch London’s Sunday Service
What’s happening this summer is that we are being built together as a pioneering team. And so, we’re doing a series of talks on the characteristics of pioneers. God has called us to pioneer something. To pioneer a new church in the heart of London that touches heaven and changes earth, to quote the words of a song we sometimes sing.
We want to equip and train people to do four things:
• To Love God
• To Love one Another
• To Love those who don’t know Jesus yet
• And to go to the Nations
And if we do those four things effectively I’m sure we will make an impact. But, guess what? – Making an impact upon this city, will involve a few challenges along the way.
It is not going to be easy. Church Planting is not easy.
When I was at school I was told that Mathematics was easy. I once had a maths teacher called Gordon McGinn, and Mr. McGinn just couldn’t understand why I found maths so difficult. He once made me stand up in front of the whole class and he asked me: “Holloway, how come you are so thick?” I replied: “I don’t know sir, I don’t know why I’m so thick.” And then he made the following statement: “Holloway, Maths O Level is as easy as falling off a log.”
O levels, by the way, if you’re wondering, are the equivalent of modern A levels. Or so I’m told.
I want to say that planting Christ Church Central London is not going to be as easy as falling off a log, and so I’ve been asked to talk to you this afternoon about “keeping going when life is hard.”
And we’re going to look at the Book of Hebrews, chapter 12, starting at verse 2
I once heard a fantastic sermon entitled: “Have you thought of giving up lately?” I want to say, first of all, that these Hebrew Christians were thinking of giving up. Oh yes, the initial whoosh of becoming a Christian had been exciting enough. They’d felt the goosebumps, and they’d made big decisions. They’d made a clean break with Judaism, but now a few years down the line, swimming against the tide was becoming very hard work.
After all, you know where you are with Judaism. You’ve got lots of visible, tangible realities. You’ve got a temple, a big physical thing slap bang in the middle of Jerusalem, you’ve got visible sacrifices, a full blown sacrificial system that addresses the problem of sin, you’ve got priests who are middle men between you and God.
But now they’d become Christians. And in Christianity, it’s all invisible. You’ve got an invisible Jesus. You can’t see him. He’s resurrected, he’s ascended. You haven’t got a visible temple, visible priests, visible sacrifices. In Christianity, you haven’t got all the bells and whistles that you have in Judaism. And so if you’re a Hebrew Christian, surrounded by Hebrews who haven’t become Christians, it’s tough.
What’s more these Jewish Christians were getting persecuted.
And so whoever is writing this letter to these Hebrew Christians is basically saying, “Don’t quit! Hold on! Don’t go back to Judaism! Don’t give up on Christianity. You’ve got a much better deal as a Christian. The New Covenant is miles better than the old. Look, instead of loads of animal sacrifices which accomplish nothing, you’ve got the once and for all sacrifice of Jesus which totally solves the problem of sin forever, you’ve got something better than a temple of bricks and mortar, you’ve got eternal life. Jesus is superior to angels, human priests and animal sacrifices. Jesus is alive and he’s awesome.
And so, in verse 2 of chapter 12 he says:
2 Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus. I’m sure you’ll agree with me that so many of the problems we fall into in the Christian life, we get into because we disobey this verse. We get ourselves into a pickle because we don’t fix our eyes on Jesus, instead we fix our eyes on our circumstances and we start to worry. We become fearful. And before too long, you’re doing the normal Christian thing telling anyone who asks that you’re fine, whereas actually inside you’re worried about something. You’re thinking: “what if this, what if that?”
But when we fix our eyes on Jesus, we see that Jesus knows all about our circumstances but he isn’t worried. He thinks it’s all under his control. This verse shows us that Jesus is NOT pacing around in heaven worrying about what will happen to us. No, this verse says that Jesus has sat down at the right hand of God. And that is symbolic of the fact that the work of salvation is now completed. “It is finished!” Do those words sound familiar?
When you fix your eyes on Jesus seated at the right hand of God, you’re reminding yourself that “It’s finished.” The struggle is over. You’re no longer separated from God, you’re no longer facing eternity without God. You’re now going to heaven when you die. So why worry? Jesus isn’t worried. He knows that all your sin past, present and future is now forgiven, because of what he did for you on the cross.
Let me try and illustrate if I can. I’m now going to try and compare and contrast the finished work of Christ in Hebrews 12:2 with Stephen Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan.
In the film, we have the story of Private James Ryan, of the US army, who’s parachuted into France during the allied invasion of Europe in 1944.
First we discover that all three of James Ryan’s brothers have been killed in action on the same day.
Then the US army decides to try and save Ryan’s mother further sorrow by finding her remaining son. Problem is, no-one knows exactly where in occupied France he is. Tom Hanks and his small company of 10 men are given the task of finding Ryan and bringing him back alive.
But of course, there’s a war on, and one by one, Hanks’ men get killed trying to save Private Ryan. And some of Hanks’ men start to resent the mission. “Is he really worth dying for?” They ask themselves. As they’re searching for him, one of them says: “He’d better cure some disease or something.”
When they do eventually find Ryan, who’s played by Matt Damon, they find he’s part of a tiny regiment holding a crucial bridge, that the Nazis are trying to capture.
And so as the battle starts, Hanks is literally shielding Private Ryan. He’s trying to make sure Ryan will surivive. Then as a German tank rolls towards the bridge, someone shoots at Private Ryan, but Hanks takes the bullet. Hanks’ character saves Private Ryan, who goes on to live to a good old age. Hanks didn’t have to die, but he chose to. His death guaranteed Private Ryan’s freedom.
And that’s a bit like what Jesus did for you. You were facing death, but Jesus came and took your place. And in the same way Tom Hanks saves Matt Damon’s life. So if you can cope with the analogy, Tom Hanks is the Christ figure in Saving Private Ryan.
But that’s where the parallels end, because at this point in the film, we see how superior, to use a buzz-word from the book of Hebrews, how superior Jesus’ sacrifice is to anything Hollywood can come up with.
Because Tom Hanks’ love turns out to be conditional. In the film, Hanks turns out to be frustrated that he’s had to die to save Ryan.
In the film, as Hanks lies dying, he turns to Matt Damon and says “Earn this!” and then dies. Tom Hanks thinks Private Ryan should earn his salvation.
Well, allied planes then unexpectedly arrive and destroy the tanks. Private Ryan survives and the war is won.
We then jump immediately to 1997 and Private Ryan is now a grand-father visiting Tom Hanks’ grave in Normandy. And Ryan says to Hanks’ grave: “Every day I think about what you said to me that day on the bridge. I’ve tried to live my life the best I could. I hope that was enough. I hope at least in your eyes, I’ve earned what you did for me.”
Then he turns to his wife: “Tell me I’ve lived a good life. Tell me I’m a good man.”
And then the film ends. It’s a desperate moment. Private Ryan as an old age pensioner has no way of knowing whether he’s been good enough. He can’t be sure. The last thing Tom Hanks said to him was “Earn this!” The film ends with Private Ryan not knowing whether he’s been good enough. Not knowing whether he’s earned his salvation or not.
I want to say this afternoon that there is a massive difference between Saving Private Ryan and Jesus saving you, and it’s this. No one’s asking you to earn your salvation. You just receive it.
It’s just a free gift.
You cannot earn God’s approval. In fact, God tells us off for trying. The Bible says, don’t try and be worthy of the gift of heaven and eternal life, you’re not – just receive a free gift.
You can’t earn God’s acceptance. The Bible’s message is that nothing you can do will ever make God love you any more or any less. He loves you anyway, and eternal life is a free gift to you. There’s nothing lacking in your salvation. You’re as saved now as you’re ever going to be. In fact you’re as holy as you’re ever going to be. You’re as acceptable now as you’re ever going to be. And that’s why Jesus has sat down.
The rest of this verse says that Jesus, saw past the temporary suffering involved in the mission, because he was focused on the end of the story. And so for the joy set before him, Jesus endured the cross. From Jesus point of view, it’s worth running onto the guns on Omaha Beach. It’s worth dodging the flak. It’s worth going to seek and save one lost person, in order that they might be saved. For Jesus it’s a joy, for the joy set before him, he endured the cross.
The suffering of the cross was real enough, but Jesus had that bigger perspective. It’s worth it. If I die I can get Jenna, I can get David, I can get Rhys. I can sit down at my father’s right hand and know that it’s mission accomplished.
He’s finished his work.
I was thinking about this once when I was a student at university, and I thought “what’s the worst thing that can happen to me?” probably an early untimely death, but if I die, I’m going to heaven, and without realizing it, I just raised my hands. I was walking along the street with my hands up in the air. This verse does sort of put all our worries in perspective doesn’t it.
3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
It’s possible to grow weary and lose heart. For most of us here today the danger is not that we’ll end up going crazy with some sort of binge sinning. The danger for us is that over a long period of time, we grow weary and lose heart. What causes Christians to grow weary and lose heart?
I suggest 5 things:
2. Unfulfilled promises
3. The mysterious
And I’ll comment on some of these things in just a moment. But first let’s just look at the next verse.
HEB 12:4 In your struggle against sin, you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.
I used to have this verse on my wall at university.
When I first got saved in the 1980s, you could buy Christian posters with cute little kittens with a text underneath that says, “God is love,” or something. But I wanted Hebrews 12:4, and I couldn’t find a fluffy kitten who’d remind me that in my struggle against sin, I have not yet resisted to the point of shedding my blood, so I just wrote the verse out with a massive marker pen and stuck it on my wall.
Because this puts it all in perspective. I know of Christians in Pakistan who’ve been held at gunpoint being given this choice: “burn your bible or get shot.” Terrible atrocities are being committed against Christian women in Sudan, if I described them, the whole atmosphere in this room would change. Today there are Christians so desperate not to sin that they’re prepared to shed their blood. People in 2004 are being martyred for their faith in Christ.
I read the reports in a Christian newspaper called Evangelicals Now, just to remind myself. However hard the Christian life may seem to me, by comparison, I’m facing nothing.
And now we get to the main point of this passage:
5 And you have forgotten that word of encouragement that addresses you as sons:
“My son, do not make light of the Lord’s discipline,
and do not lose heart when he rebukes you,
6 because the Lord disciplines those he loves, and he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.”
7 Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons. For what son is not disciplined by his father? 8 If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. 9 Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! 10 Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. 11 No 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.
Now although the process of being disciplined by the Lord is painful, actually when God directly intervenes, in a perverse sort of way, it’s also encouraging. Because when God directly intervenes and speaks to us, we think: “Aha! God does know all about me, God is intimately involved in my life. If he didn’t care about me, he wouldn’t bother to rebuke me.”
But the problem is that most of the time God disciplines us he doesn’t do it directly, he uses people. And that throws us. We don’t like it coming from them.
What I’m trying to say is this . . .
If God wants to rebuke or discipline me and one day as I’m walking down the street, and he chooses to do it by parting the clouds and a stone tablet comes out of heaven and then an unseen hand writes a message on it, I’m convinced that this really is God rebuking or disciplining me, but, God tends not to do it that way, he tends to use people
And so if you’ve not thought this through ahead of time, when someone sits you down and wants to have a little chat with you about things, and they start saying things about you that you don’t want to hear, and, more importantly things that you disagree with, if you’re not careful friend, you start thinking:
“And who do you think you are?”
And that’s a problem. There are two equally bad reactions to discipline in verse 5
1. One is to rebel as if it’s a personal thing between you and the person disciplining you, in other words you make light of the Lord’s discipline, dismissing what the person has said by focusing on the faults of the person disciplining you.
2. Or, you lose heart. This is equally rebellious, you make out that the person has wounded you, and that you are entitled therefore to recovery time. You can go off in a sulk which you try and justify because you feel hurt.
But either way we fall into THE trap that this passage warns us against. We forget that discipline is good news. We forget the word of encouragement in this chapter of Scripture. We forget the positive purpose and potentially positive result of discipline. This discipline is probably exactly what we need to make our God-given dreams come true. It’s often the best thing that could possibly happen to us.
But when it comes, we forget Hebrews 12 and we’re shocked. We think discipline is bad news.
Now actually any discussion here of discipline is somewhat hypothetical, because many Christians never invite anyone speak into their lives in the first place. Can I ask you: “Have you invited anyone to speak into your life?”
Some years ago I made myself accountable to someone who asks me 14 questions, which are designed to help me forward. I dread it every time, but it really helps me.
Let me just say that discipline is totally un-cool. Many Christians pay lip service to it, but they don’t ever go in for it. They never say to anyone: “I want you to comment on anything you see in me, or on anything you see in my flat, or on anything I say. Just go for it.”
Can I ask you: “Have you made yourself accountable to anyone? Have you asked anyone to speak into the faults you have which you are aware of, let alone the one’s you’re not?”
But there’s something even more important in this passage, and it’s verse 7, which says “endure hardship as discipline.”
You see whether or not you ever experience discipline, the fact is everyone here has and will experience hardship, and how we react to hardship is crucial.
Because, my friends, and this really is a key, if you and I can endure hardship as if it has some spiritual purpose, then as a church we could really make some progress.
I find that I fail to spot the spiritual dimension of hardship. I think it’s just what Shakespeare called “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.” If we’re not careful, we’re just cheesed off by hardship. We think it’s just random. We fail to see that God can use hardship to perfect our character.
When everything’s going my way and coming up roses, I learn little about being a disciple of Jesus, it’s when things are going badly that I’m thrown on God. I find that I learn much more in adversity than I do when everything’s going well.
God wants us to endure hardship as if it were discipline, even though it’s not.
Now let me just apply this principle to us planting this church in Central London.
What’s hard about working in London and being part of this church-plant?
1. Maybe you’re having a tough time at work.
In all the years I worked as a sports journalist here in London, one of the things I found hard was that I was totally on my own as a Christian.
I worked in newspapers, radio and TV and I never met another Christian who was doing the same job as me.
Maybe you’re here today and you’re enjoying it, but you know tomorrow you’ll be back in that office, and the atmosphere’s just a little bit different.
I started off at News International, just beyond Tower Bridge, which is where Rupert Murdock produces The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun, The News of the World, and when I was there, Today.
One day, I was in the lift going up to the canteen in the main building, and the doors opened, and there before me, I could hardly believe my eyes, on the noticeboard was a battered old piece of paper which said: “News International Christian Union.”
“No way,” I thought to myself.
At this point I’m literally a few yards from the place where at The Sun, they scan in the page 3 photos onto the page of tomorrow’s paper, and here we have an advert for “News International Christian Union.”
“This”, I think to myself, “I have got to see.”
There’s a contact name and number. I’ll never forget the surname was “Gibbs” and so I rang this number, “oh, no he doesn’t work here any more, try this number, and it took me weeks to find this guy, and then eventually I got through to him, and he said, “come up and see me,”
And he directed me right up to the top of Wapping, and it turns out that he was the guy who ran the whole computer system for the whole plant. You get up there and it was like the flight deck of the USS Enterprise up there. And there he was Steve Gibbs, IT support manager.
And he said, “I put that notice up years ago, but no-one’s ever contacted me, and then he said this. I’ve been here since Wapping opened in the 1980s, I’ve met hundreds of journalists, cos I have to fix their computers, but until you walked in that door, I have never met or even heard of a Christian journalist working here.”
And this, friend, is the place which produces the biggest selling newspaper in the English Language, which is the The News of the World. And the most influential newspaper in Britain, The Sun.
Now being on my own all that time was hard, but it inspired me. I thought: “There’s nowhere more important for Christians to be than in the media.” I’m going to influence the influencers.
And so particularly when I was in TV, I would take my non-Christian colleagues along to church with me.
I took people to Holy Trinity Brompton, to Kensington Temple, to St Mark’s Battersea Rise, to lots of different churches, but you know what I knew it could only go so far, because I was committed to planting a Newfrontiers church in Reigate and Redhill, and that’s where I lived, way out in Surrey, and I knew that none of my colleagues would ever come way out down south to where I lived.
And do you know what friend, I dreamt that one day there might be a Newfrontiers church in the middle of London. I dreamt about being able to have my work and my church in the same place, but it just didn’t exist, until now.
I want you to know that this church has been in my heart for years. Ever since I became a Christian in 1985, I’ve felt called to be part of a Newfrontiers church in the heart of central London. And now we get to do it. It’s so exciting. It’s our destiny to do this thing.
But there’ll be hardship involved.
For this thing to work, we’ll need all hands on deck. Can I ask you: “What will you volunteer to do?”
Maybe you’ll volunteer to help set up of the meeting place at the New Connaught Rooms. You’ll get there early, and you’ll lug stuff around, and you won’t get any glory, you’ll just get sweaty, and it’ll be hard. Most people won’t even know you’re on the rota. But it’ll do you a world of good if you endure hardship as discipline.
Maybe you’ll volunteer to help in the children’s work, and you’ll miss out on the adult meeting occasionally or even regularly, and you’ll have to get there early and set up too. Actually working with the kids is fun, but when it’s Saturday morning and you’ve already done 70 hour week at work, and 5 hours on the tube, preparing a lesson on Zaccheus up the tree is hard work.
Maybe you’ve decided that Christ Church Central London is your church, but giving financially presents a challenge for you. You’d love to fill out a standing order form, but it just seems hard. You’d love to give on a regular basis so that we can get the tax back, but it feels hard.
Maybe you’re going to be one of our welcomers. What an important area of service that will be. So many times since we’ve moved here, people have said to us, “I went to such and such a church, but no-one spoke to me.” By the grace of God, at Christ Church London we want to take steps to ensure that never happens.
We don’t want anyone to ever come amongst us and say, “Oh, yeah I went to the New Connaught Rooms but no-one spoke to me.” To make that happen, it’ll mean two things, one will mean that we’ll all have to be welcome team.
We won’t always talk to our friends straight after the meeting. For some of us saying hello every Sunday to people we don’t know will be hard. It’s fine once you’ve done it, but the initial saying hello for some of us is a hardship, you have to make yourself do it..
But we’ll also have a welcome team, who’ll pick up any who do slip through the net. We want everyone to feel welcomed, because if we can look after the people God gives us, he might be inclined to give us some more.
Now none of these things may sound that hard, but when I was working in London before I was married, I was simply exhausted by work most of the time, so every additional church thing had the potential to tip me over the edge. I mean no-one ever tells you at school or at university, how much of an adjustment working life is.
No-one tells you that when you finish work, rather than wanting to go out for a drink, or go down the gym or whatever, you’ll be so tired that the only thing you’ll want to do is go to bed. And that’s an issue if you want to spend time with God.
I think this is one of the hardest things about living in London. Making time to spend time alone with God on top of a busy working life. Now we’ve got to find a way of doing that. The Bible doesn’t say you’ve got to have a quiet time, but in my weakness I discovered I couldn’t survive without one. When are we going to do it? is it getting up early before work, or after work, or a mega bumper quiet time at the weekend? There’s no law about this, and we’ll never hound anyone from this pulpit, but I know, that as a Christian, I needed to have a regular quiet time, because for me anyway, and this may just reveal my weakness, when I was working in London, the constant question was: “Am I going to influence them, or are they going to influence me?” And for me, the key to that question was a regular quiet time, which would have been fine were it not for the fact that I felt beaten up by the hours I was doing at work. But I’m so glad that I did what I did at work. Having to work out my Christianity in the workplace helped me. Enduring hardship helped me.
So let’s throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.