Living today … because the future is secure
You never know how things will pan out until the end. There are too many sport stories of defeat being snatched from certain victory for coaches to remind their players ‘the game isn’t over until the final whistle’. So when Australia was reduced to 13 men yesterday in the Rugby World Cup against Wales’ 15 men defending against a strong attack all past stories would tell you that Wales would score – maybe even twice. The reason I’m telling you this is that they didn’t – and that’s the news – that the Australian defence held. In the movie and stage version of ‘Shakespeare in Love’ a minor theme, as it were, about the theatre business was that even though its ‘natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster’ one did nothing because ‘strangely enough, it all turns out well’. When asked how, the answer would come ‘it is a mystery’. And when things are tough and look like not going well then take heart because it’s not the end!
The early church of the first century – following Jesus, the crucified and risen Lord – had to work out how to live in the end times while waiting for Jesus’ return. The letters in the New Testament testify to the issues raised that were pertinent to the local situation. So in Corinth, they were facing factions, charismatic leadership rivalry, sexual ethics, how to engage with the community in terms of eating, how to engage with each other in terms of spiritual gifts, wealth, and orderly worship. The Christians in Galatia were facing issues relating to the Gospel itself – particularly whether one had to become Jewish before one became a Christian. In Philippi they were very supportive of Paul by sending him gifts in prison but even they suffered this conflict about the priority of Judaism. In Ephesus it was the practicalities of Jews and Gentiles now both Christians working out how to live together and in the world. In Thessalonika, there were concerns about those who die before Jesus’ return – did they miss out on anything? – and if Jesus was coming ‘soon’, why bother working, let’s have a good life and sit around and wait.
The message of the cross and the empty tomb is the foundation – what everyone has to return to for strengthening, encouragement, guidance – because that message brings us the truth of Jesus’ presence with us – he’s no longer dead for Christ is risen! (He is risen indeed. Hallelujah!) Because they didn’t see Jesus after his ascension – and we don’t still today – what disciples were called to do was to be faithful – to believe in him, to trust him, to be obedient, to struggle when things are tough, to rejoice, to pray, to worship, and to live in this relationship with Jesus for relationships govern our behaviour but because Jesus is absent from our senses, it is easy to forget him, ignore him, and even worse disobey him, reject him, rebel against him – and by this I’m not talking about the big stuff – the atheist cry of ‘there is no god’ – no, I’m talking about – together with the New Testament – the daily choices we make, our daily behaviour, and particularly those times where either because of the selfish patterns of our lives or our laziness and weakness when tempted, we know what Jesus would want us to do but we do our own thing anyway. ‘I’ll get forgiven tomorrow’, we say. ‘I’m too weak – God understands my weakness’ we excuse ourselves.
We don’t know who wrote the letter to the Hebrews but it is a masterful letter that takes Judaism and its rituals and says in effect that Jesus has fulfilled them. Jesus is God’s Son, not an angel. Jesus is above Moses. Jesus is our great high priest and his death on the cross fulfils the purpose of the Jewish temple – after Jesus, it is no longer needed. Whatever the priesthood and the temple and the sacrifices accomplished are now accomplished and fulfilled by Jesus. The old covenant gives way to the new covenant.
This makes Christians the people of God – particularly akin to the people in the wilderness – as we live before entering the promised land while living by faith that we are already citizens of the promised land. The early church often saw the people in the wilderness as an example or type for them – to learn from – so as to not make the same mistakes they made. And so in Hebrews Chapter 3 we hear …
Therefore, as the Holy Spirit says,
“Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion,
on the day of testing in the wilderness, where your fathers put me to the
test and saw my works for forty years.
Therefore I was provoked with that generation, and said, ‘They always go astray in their heart; they have not known my ways.’
As I swore in my wrath, ‘They shall not enter my rest.’”
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. As it is said, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”
For who were those who heard and yet rebelled? Was it not all those who left Egypt led by Moses? And with whom was he provoked for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the wilderness? And to whom did he swear that they would not enter his rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief. (Hebrews 3:12-19 ESV)
The call to follow Jesus is for today. You see, that’s all we have – we live one day at a time. As Jesus said in the sermon on the mount …
“Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” (Matthew 6:31-34 ESV)
Christianity never taught people to leave the world but to be salt and light in the world. This can only happen when Christians are oriented to Jesus, are linked to him, grafted in him, grow in him – and yes, that involves choices in terms of other religions and that may involve being different to the world in terms of one’s ethics. The orientation and identity of the Christian is always linked to Jesus. This relationship is a gift given by Jesus to Christians in baptism – a gift we grow into and become comfortable receiving and using – words, water, bread and wine, prayer, talking about Jesus, praising, worshipping, confessing – both sins and faith – because Jesus continues to serve us.
Why is this so hard, at times, to believe and to live out? Because of our sinful nature. We easily forget what God has done for us. We can doubt his Word – feel confident in it one week and struggle with it the next. My personal thinking for why it is so tough at times is because God doesn’t match our image of him – he doesn’t do what we want him to – and often we wanted him to do something ‘good’ for us – protection from something or healing for someone or a break when things are tough – and when things don’t go as we prayed, then it can become a real crisis. Our sin orients us to ourselves so easily that it takes effort to think about the people we see around us and serving them, let alone responding to Jesus we don’t see! We don’t know how to read our lives either. The older we get, the more experiences we have that something we thought good didn’t turn out to be good for us and something we never wanted to face becomes what shapes us in a good way.
So we are directed not to look back over our lives to stew on things that went wrong or past glories, nor to look too hard into our hoped for future but to look around at today as we listen to God’s Word, as we remember our baptism, and as we hunger for the Lord’s Supper (if today is Monday through Saturday). We are called to recognise our sinful nature and struggle against it. In fact our bodies might be thought of as the wilderness for God keeps us going in them while looking after us so that when we see him face to face we will have new resurrected bodies as we celebrate the eternal rest with God – also known as the marriage feast of the Lamb.
Lutherans have struggled at times to preach and teach sanctification – that our faith results in behaviour over which we some control and that ignoring – not struggling – with sin is dangerous because it ultimately is a rejection of God’s Word because we’re saying that God’s Word is not speaking to me today when we sin. Sure, there are the sins that catch us – we discover them more afterwards and we repent but let us also recognise the sins that are more of the ‘I’ll do it my way’ and they can cause us shame and they will try and separate us from church, from Christian friends, from reading the Word, from praying. Both sins are forgiven on the cross already and that is declared not as a licence to sin but as a comfort and encouragement to repent and try again – not for God’s sake but for your sake and for the sake of the people around you.
We are here today – still in the end times – because of our sins to get cleaned and patched up, forgiven and strengthened for another week in the world – one day at a time. Jesus, as one of us, does know what we’re going through and he has prepared a place for us for the end and while the curtain is still up on the stage called this world he mysteriously is with us so that our sins, death, and the devil do not dominate us and we can live today like sheep of the Good Shepherd, following his voice.
- Hebrews 3:7 - 19