Hebrews Advent sermon
The letter to the Hebrews was written to a group of Christians who were experiencing great persecution. They were tempted to leave their Christian faith and return to Judaism, as that was at least tolerated by the Romans. So the writer shows how the Old Testament pointed to Christ and how Jesus fulfilled the law. There is no point returning to Judaism, according to the writer, because Jesus has completed all the promises it held. I read in the newspaper this week of a family who won £8 million on the lottery, but their son preferred to stay in their old council house instead of moving in to the new mansion they had bought. The writer to the Hebrews says that turning away from Jesus would be like giving up the mansion for the council house. And now, in our reading, the writer shows how we should live by faith until Jesus comes again (10:37). So we have a list of OT heroes, all of whom lived by faith, and we are once more pointed to Jesus for encouragement to persevere. What can we learn from this chapter to help us live by faith, both now in Advent as we prepare for Christmas, and beyond?
The first point to notice is that living by faith requires hope: “Faith is being sure of what we hope for.” We will be looking at hope next week, but we need to see what these people hoped for to help us understand faith. If you look at v 16, you will see that “they were longing for a better country – a heavenly one.” So their hope could not be fulfilled in this life – they put their hope in a promise from God. So was this a vain hope? No. Look at how verse 16 ends: “Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.” And if you glance at verse 10, you will see that Abraham “was looking forward to the city with foundations.” Not only is the city prepared but it is in fact more real than what we see on earth – it has foundations.
Living by faith requires us to put hope in God's promises. But this is not just something we do in our minds – it must affect our lives. Look at verses 13 and 14:
“And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.”
People could see that they were looking beyond this world because of how they lived. Abraham lived in tents because he was waiting for God's promised city. If you are going on holiday for a couple of weeks, you don't buy a house. You stay in a hotel, a B and B, or camp. I went for a curry this week, and it was later than I normally eat in the evening, so I was getting really hungry! But because I knew the curry was coming, and didn't want to spoil it, I was able to refrain from eating beforehand. The question is, what are we waiting for? What do we hope for? Advent is a great time to reflect on these questions because we are waiting for Christmas – we know it is coming and we are preparing for it. The question of our sermon series is, “Are we ready for Jesus' second coming?” and for this sermon, “Can people tell by the way we live?”
So to live by faith we need to put our hope in God's promises. But as well as having a goal, we need a route. And if you look at chapter 12 verse 1, you see we have one:
“Let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”
During the summer, Victoria Park is full of people playing football. The problem is, they don't have a pitch marked out. So the players can run as far as they like from side to side and the game can get very boring and pointless. But we have a race marked out for us. Our lives have focus and meaning as a result. We know where we are going (what we hope for) and how to get there. But it is also a race which requires perseverance. Look back at chapter 11 verse 13:
“All these people were still living by faith when they died.”
We never stop living by faith. We start by faith, run by faith, and end by faith. It was the case for all the OT heroes in chapter 11 and it is the same for us today. And to encourage us, we also have all those heroes in the crowd:
“Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses...”
God does not leave us on our own. See how many times the words “we” and “us” come up here. The race we have been set is one which has been run many times before by many people and which we are running with many others. We need to have heroes to look up to. Use this time of Advent to read biographies of great Christians. Two of my heroes are Athanasius and George Whitefield (ask me afterwards if you want to know more!)
So we need to put our hope in God's promises by following the route set out for us. And both these find their expression in Jesus. As we noted at the beginning, the writer to the Hebrews always comes back to Jesus. Here, it is because Jesus is:
“the author and perfecter of our faith...”
and a supreme example of living by faith. The faith of all the OT heroes was written, as it were, by Jesus. He is the source of all their faith and he is the only source for our faith. He is also the one who perfects their faith and ours. Chapter 11 v40 says:
“God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect.”
Jesus fulfilled all the shadows and promises of the OT. Abraham never saw the nations blessed through him. Moses never entered the Promised Land. David never saw the Temple built. “None of them received what was promised” because it was only given in Jesus. And he is the greatest example of faith:
“Who, for the joy set before him (the goal) endured the cross, scorning its shame (the race) and sat down at the right hand of God.”
The race marked out for us is the one followed by all these people, especially Jesus. He was motivated by the goal of joy which enabled him to endure the cross. And we are told to “fix our eyes on” him and “consider him.”
If you are weary and wondering what the point of being a Christian is, consider Jesus and the suffering he endured so that you could live.
If you are feeling guilty because you think that you have failed to live by faith, consider Jesus – he is the perfecter of our faith and promises to bring it to completion.
If you feel you do not have the strength to live by faith, consider Jesus who is sat at the right hand of God. He has finished the race and, as we read elsewhere in Hebrews, “he always lives to intercede” for his people.
To conclude, here are some words from another hero of mine talking about the miracle of the Incarnation:
“God and man in one person! Oh! thrice happy conjunction! As man he is full of experimental sense of our infirmities, wants and burdens; and as God, he can support and supply them all. The aspect of faith upon this wonderful Person, how relieving, how reviving, how abundantly satisfying is it?”