This is the sermon from November 18th, 2012. The text was Hebrews 10:11-25. It’s about provoking one another to good deeds.
Provoke One Another to Good Deeds
The author of Hebrews had a problem. People had stopped coming to church. When they first joined the church, they were full of that Pentecost fire. They were excited to be a part of Christ’s work, proclaiming the glory of grace, shouting Alleluia all the day long for the miracle of Christ’s resurrection. But as the days passed, life began to take its toll. As more and more Christians came into the fold, people began to have arguments over who was really in charge of the congregation. As the Gospel spread far and wide, people began to have disagreements over who should be allowed to be a part of their new movement. And as time passed, they noticed that the leaders did not always live up to the high standards that they set for the people.
But most of all, as the Gospel began to push out into the world, the world began to push back. Synagogues who had seen people leave began to preach out against the Christian faith. Authorities began to arrest Christians in the interest of “keeping the peace.” People were being fired and kicked out of their families for being Christian. They were left without anywhere to go. It was not an easy time to be a Christian. Their alleluias were much quieter now than they once were. And the author of Hebrews, likely a leader within their community, noticed that they didn’t need as many chairs for the meetings as they once did. He saw folks coming out of the synagogue on Saturdays who had once sat in pews on Sunday. He might have even saw people making sacrifices to God at the Jerusalem Temple, or even to the Roman Gods, even though Christ had already made the ultimate sacrifice. Many in the congregation had become discouraged, and simply did not think it was worth it to come to worship.
The world is not so different today. It is not an easy time to be a Christian. When we begin our faith journey, or experience a renewal, we are fired up, excited about all the things that are going on, euphoric with the wonder of the risen Lord. But slowly life happens. We learn that the church is not immune to the same power struggles and pettiness that govern secular institutions like work and school. We learn that church people don’t always act like they say they act, and church becomes a place where we feel frustrated as often as we feel fulfilled. We start to wonder, “Isn’t it enough to just believe in Jesus and try to lead a good life? If I’m getting nothing out of it, why do I even go to church at all? ”
This is probably a feeling that we’ve all run into from time to time. And so the words from the book of Hebrews, intended to encourage those who had been discouraged and bring back those who had slipped away, have a special meaning for us today. When it comes to this question of why bother coming to church, the author of the book of Hebrews has an answer to this question that is as simple as it is true. Because Jesus Christ died for you.
The author of Hebrews tells us that faith in Christ matters more than all the sacrifices in the temple, because Christ’s sacrifice was perfect. Rather than needing a priest to intercede on our behalf, a priest who stands day after day to make imperfect sacrifices, Christ sits at the Right hand of the Father and has promised to intercede for us. In dying on the cross, Jesus tore the curtain which surrounded the Holy of Holies in two. He opened the door for us to experience God. Christ gave everything so that we could cross that threshold. Is not the only response to such sacrifice for us to enter in?
And as the author tells us, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” Christ who has given his life for us has promised to be faithful always. Should we not be faithful in return?
But in the midst of all of this pushback, how do we hold fast to our faith without wavering? What can we do to hang on to the resurrection promise and not forget it in the midst of too much work and not enough time, too much insincerity and not enough kindness, too much apathy and not enough empathy? The author of Hebrews tells us to “provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another.” This verse tells us not only why we should come to church but what to do when we get here.
There was a church holding Vacation Bible School one summer. And the kids were outside in the church yard playing Red Rover. You know, “Red Rover, Red Rover, Send So-and-so right over.” The person who is sent runs to break through the chain of kids on the other side, and if you do, you get someone to join your team, but if they catch you, you join their team.
One team had only one person left, it was a little girl. Her name was Betty. When the other team called her name, she got into position, ready to go, and then dropped to her knees in tears. She buried her face in her hands, and choked out little sobs. When someone came over to see what was wrong, she said, “I don’t want to play this game any longer!” They asked why, and she said, “I can’t win. They’ve got each other! All I have is me!”
Holding on to your faith alone isn’t easy. I don’t think it’s really even possible. We need encouragement. We need people to cheer us on when we do good things, so that we don’t feel frustrated and burnt out for all our efforts. We need people to hold us accountable to the word of God, who will say to us, “you can do better” when we catch ourselves being selfish or cruel. Though it can sometimes be frustrating, church helps us grow and develop our faith in a way that nothing else can. Without a Tuesday evening meeting to read the Bible each week we don’t read the Bible nearly as much. Without leaders challenging us to do more for our community we start to believe that the way things are is the way they have to be.
When we come to church, we find a community of people who are here to love us and encourage us and teach us so that we can have a faith that does not waver. And all it takes is for us to be present. As Bishop Allen Bjornberg put it “The greatest spiritual practice is just showing up.” Just showing up at church each week can help you keep your focus on God. It’s a reminder each week of the resurrection promise, of Jesus’ faithfulness to us, and an encouragement for us to be faithful to Him. It’s a chance to go and be with other Christians, who don’t just talk the talk but also walk the walk, and let some of their faith rub off on us. And the benefits aren’t limited to our spiritual life, but bleed into our health and well-being as well. Studies have shown that regular church attendance can lower blood pressure, reduce the risk of depression or mental illness, and feed you wonderful food on a regular basis (that last study was an informal one, done by me, at our church dinner in September). When we come into church, we come into a place that can help us learn how to lead healthy lives and grow into people of strong faith. But most of all we go into a place where people love us first and ask questions later.
When I was around 11 or 12, me and a group of friends got together and said, “We haven’t played Red Rover in forever, why don’t we play that game, it was so much fun!” So we got into our two lines, and one after another people were sent in to break the chain. But even the fastest and the strongest kids couldn’t do it. We tried every thing we could. We’d flop over and make them hold our entire weight. Even when you went after the weakest links, they were still too strong to be broken, because of the strength of the people with them. Eventually we quit. It wasn’t fun. Together we were too strong for any individual to break.
When you connect yourself to a church community, even if you are weak, you will find bonds that cannot easily be broken. The strength of those around you will uphold you even when you cannot hold up yourself.
Now churches are still messy places, with people who disagree, messes that need cleaning up (both physical and spiritual), and hopes that we never live up to. We are not perfect. But that’s precisely why we come to church. We come to church to receive forgiveness for our mistakes, encouragement for our successes, challenges for our growth, and to become better followers of Jesus Christ. The church isn’t here to be perfect. It’s here to be perfected.
So let us go out and provoke one another to good deeds. Let us encourage each other to keep the faith without wavering. And let us perfect ourselves and each other that we might be made perfect through Christ who is perfect.
 Trapp, Dean “Provoke Those Around You to Love, Good Deeds” angusleader.com. 9 November 2012. Article. Accessed 16 November 2012. http://www.argusleader.com/article/20121110/LIFE/311100007/Provoke-those-around-you-love-good-deeds
 Weber, Nadia Bolz. “Sermon about Mary Magdalen, the masacre in our town, and defiant alleluias” Sarcastic Lutheran: The cranky spirituality of a postmodern Gal. 23 July 2012. Blog Entry. Date Accessed 16 November 2012. http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2012/07/sermon-about-mary-magdalen-the-masacre-in-our-town-and-defiant-alleluias/
 Gilani, Nadia. “Going to Church is Good for You: Services Lower Blood Pressure, Research Finds.” Daily Mail Online. 25 December 2011. Article. Accessed 16 November 2012. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2078519/Going-church-good-Services-lower-blood-pressure-research-finds.html
 Patterson, James III “Religion and Mental Health: Going to Church is Good for You” Reasons.org. 14 May 2010. Article. Date Accessed 16 November 2012. http://www.reasons.org/articles/religion-and-mental-health-going-to-church-is-good-for-you