You Have Come to God

Hebrews, Worship No Comments »

I think Christians were having worship service disappointment issues even back when Hebrews was preached/written. There have probably been worship issues for every generation of God’s people that go all the way back to expectations that we set after that very first worship assembly at Mount Sinai.

That first worship service was crazy awesome! There’s thunder and lightning and smoke. God himself appears in a great fire. There’s the sound of a heavenly trumpet. The whole mountain is shaking. The people are trembling. God’s people are in the holy presence of God with all the smells and bells you would expect. This is a worship experience you can see and hear and smell and touch — something for all the senses!

How was church? Did they bring the Word?

Yeah, the Ten Commandments! Everybody came forward! They didn’t even get through one verse of Just As I Am!

I think this little church in the middle of the first century in the Roman Empire longed for that kind of worship. They wanted a worship experience where something happens — something transcendent, something powerful, something that moves me. Something.

These Christians were gathering on Sundays to read or recite from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, to sing a song, to share a meal, and to pray. And I wonder if some of them think, “You know, they do worship better at the old temple in Jerusalem. The priests in the decorated robes, the smells of the incense, the sounds of the Levitical musicians and choirs, the dramatic spectacle of the sacrifices — now that’s a church service!”

Or, maybe, “My friends seem to have a really good worship experience at the pagan temple down the street. There’s rituals and chants and dancing and music and blood and sex and it’s loud and there’s lots of energy. Something happens there.”

The preacher in Hebrews knows these Christians are growing weary with worship. Some of them have stopped coming. They don’t go to church anymore. Or, not like they used to. So he reminds them what’s really happening at church. He tells them again about the unseen realities of what’s going on at worship. There’s more here than meets the eye. And he wants his church to hear it.

“You have come to Mount Zion, to the heavenly Jerusalem, the city of the living God. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the judge of all people, to the spirits of righteous men and women made perfect, to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” ~Hebrews 12:22-24

How was church? How was church?!!?

You have come into the presence of God! And when you assemble with the people of God in the presence of God, things happen! Eternal things. Divine things. Salvation things. Whether you feel your pulse race or not, whether you feel moved or not, you have come into the presence of God! And there’s more going on than you can see or touch.

Faith is the assurance of things hoped for and the certainty — the conviction — of things we can’t see. So even if you see and feel nothing at worship, you have come into the presence of God.

The word is proselay in the Greek, to come or to approach. It’s the same word the preacher’s been using the whole sermon. “Let us come to the throne of grace with boldness (4:16). Christ Jesus is able to save all those who come to God through him (7:25). Let us come to God with a true heart in full assurance of faith (10:22). And now this, finally: You have come to God (12:23)!

How was church? Listen and I’ll tell you about church. You can’t see it, but God is at church and Jesus is at church and the angels and saints. And it’s eternal and powerful and it’s personal and relational and don’t you want to be a part of that?! Don’t you want to belong to that? Yes, be a part of the worshiping community of God’s covenant people! Why would you want to be anywhere else?



How Was Church?

Hebrews, Worship No Comments »

I have had many spectacular worship experiences in my life. I’ve had several wonderful, inspiring, awe-filled worship moments. I’ve broken down in tears while praying with a group of fellow ministers at the Western Wall of the temple mount in Jerusalem. Praying to God at that sacred place where our Lord actually appeared to his people, where his glory filled the temple and where his voice shook the hills, I was overcome with emotion. “God was here! He was actually here!” And I just wept.

I’ve recommitted my life to Christ with 15,000 worshipers at the state fairgrounds coliseum in Tulsa. Fifteen-thousand of my brothers and sisters worshiping God, singing praises to God, listening to Rubel Shelly preach about our forgiveness in Christ, about our right standing with God, challenging us to truly live into the realities of that righteousness. And the singing was just indescribably beautiful. Powerful. “God is here! God is right here speaking to me, talking to me, changing me.” And I made promises to God that night, standing right there on the coliseum floor, “Lord, I belong to you. Thank you, God. Please, do whatever you want with me. I’m yours. Thank you, God.”

I’ve marveled at the majesty and power of God at that first 4Amarillo gathering at First Baptist five years ago. I was stunned, I was overwhelmed at the gracious glimpse of heaven we got that night. Presbyterians and Methodists and Baptists and Church of Christers, singing to the Lord, holding hands, making promises to each other, loving each other in Christ. There were no barriers, no obstacles, nothing between us at all. I thought, “This is heaven! This is God’s perfect will being done on earth just as it is in heaven.” Christians from every denomination, from every stripe of the faith, worshiping together, one in Christ Jesus, united in the Spirit. And I was paralyzed in awesome wonder.

I’ve had a lot of amazing worship experiences in my life. Not too many of them have been at church.

You’ve had some great worship experiences in your life. On top of a mountain on Trek. Around a campfire at Bluehaven. On a mission trip in a foreign country. (I’ve heard people describe what they call life-changing worship on a KLUV cruise, which proves that one man’s heaven is another man’s hell.) We’ve all had what we would call great worship. And we think it ought to happen more often at church. There’s something inside us — an instinct, a deep desire, we just know — church ought to be a place where really awesome worship happens all the time.

But it doesn’t.

The songs are not my favorite and not everybody’s singing. The sermon is mediocre and not really relevant to my life. The prayers are uninspired. The room is dingy.

How as church today? Was it long today?

It’s always long.

And we all think the other church across town does it better. Something happens at that other church. The worship is awesome, the sermon is practical, the prayers just soar, and all the people are full of joy at that other church.

Two-thousand years ago, a congregation of Christians had the same problem. Just thirty-five or so years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, a group of Christians, probably in the capitol city of Rome, also had worship disappointment issues at church.

So a preacher had to remind them about what’s really happening at church. He tells them about the unseen realities of what’s going on in corporate worship. There’s more happening there/here than meets the eye. And he wants his church to hear it.

Hebrews 12:22-24 is a powerful passage about those unseen realities: divine beings, eternal souls, everlasting blood, the holy presence of Almighty God. These three verses go a long way in reshaping our views of and expectations for what happens in the worship center on Sunday mornings.

We’re going to look more closely at this familiar passage over the next two days. Why don’t you read it a couple of times today and tonight and then come back tomorrow to dive into the rich realities together.



Healing Comes in the Running

Hebrews, Suffering No Comments »

“Strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. ‘Make level paths for your feet’ so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed.” ~Hebrews 12:12-13

In the big cities that host the large annual marathons in which thousands of runners participate, the front of the race is dominated by world class athletes. They’re young and lean and fast and they just seem to effortlessly cruise to the finish line. At the back of the race, though, it’s a different picture. That’s where all the ordinary runners are.

The ones near the back have a few more years under their belts and a few more pounds hanging over their belts. There’s a lot more stopping to catch a breath and to get a drink. There are also people in wheelchairs and on crutches, people with disabilities. Those people are courageously struggling. They’re determinedly suffering. And those people at the back of the race help each other. Have you noticed that? If somebody back there gets weak from the heat or faint from exhaustion, the other runners pay attention to that and they help out. At the back of the race, it’s much more about compassion than competition.

The great race of the Christian life is a lot more like the back of the pack than the front. And you ought to be able to find that compassion in the Church.

If you are a weary or discouraged Christian, if you’re an out of shape Christian, the preacher in Hebrews encourages you to strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. The runners who are lame, the Christians who are struggling and hurting and suffering still have to get out there on the track and run. You can’t say, “I’m too weak to run” or “My legs are too hurt to participate” or “I’m in too much pain.”

Like Jesus, the preacher says, “Pick up your bed and run!”

In the Christian faith, if you play hurt, you end up healed. If you stay on the sidelines, the injury gets worse. If you keep running, the Word of God, through the people of God, promises complete healing.



The Gain is Worth the Pain

2 Thessalonians, Hebrews, James, Romans, Suffering No Comments »

“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. 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.” ~Hebrews 12:10-11

Our Father is at work during the hard times in our lives, training us to share in his holiness, righteousness, and peace. The preacher in Hebrews is telling us, look, we ought to recognize the pattern here. We experienced this with our own parents and, if we’re parents ourselves, we do the same things. Good parents, including God, exercise discipline because they want their children to grow up to be like them, to share their values and commitments and way of life.

We sent one of our daughters to college in Oklahoma City and we told her, “You can only date boys from Texas.” Why? Because we have standards — standards related to our values and way of life. I check our youngest daughter’s phone from time to time and I see that almost half her playlist is Tom Petty and Aerosmith. And I say to myself, “Ah, we raised her right.”

God’s like that, too. He wants us to grow up to be like him. He wants us to love what he loves, to think what he thinks. He wants us to be holy like he is holy, to treat people the way he treats people, and to be righteous in the ways he is righteous. So he trains us. He conditions us. He uses discipline. And it’s not always pleasant. But it is always for our good.

“We rejoice in our sufferings because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” ~Romans 5:3-5

“Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking in anything.” ~James 1:2-4

“We boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring. All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the Kingdom of God.” ~2 Thessalonians 1:4-5

We know what God is doing through our struggles. We know it’s for our ultimate, eternal good. This character forming, this kind of relationship building with God, is proof that you belong to him as his child. It’s proof that he cares for you and he’s committed to you.

I know your sufferings are painful and your trials are terrible. And I know your troubles or whatever you’re going through make you feel lonely and desperate and depressed. Physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually — I know it’s real. And the Scriptures do not discount how hard this life is. The Bible doesn’t downplay the costs associated with a life of faith. The Scriptures don’t brush off your feelings. Your feelings are real. Your hard experiences are real. But the preacher in Hebrews wants to open our ears and our hearts to the eternal truth, to the everlasting reality of what’s being accomplished.

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus.

Jesus stayed focused on the joy in front of him: the joy of doing his Father’s will, the joy of fulfilling his Father’s purposes, the joy of participating in God’s salvation. Jesus endured the agony of the cross, he suffered through an excruciating physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual torture and death. And because he persevered, he reigns today at the right hand of the throne of God.

The preacher in Hebrews knows the people in his church are hurting. And they’re tired of hurting. They’re tired of suffering. To encourage them to keep running the race, he reminds them of the truth of Christ Jesus. Whatever you’re suffering, whatever you’re going through, Jesus went through so much worse, so much more, for the sake of your holiness, your righteousness, and your peace.



Our Suffering Has Meaning

Hebrews, Suffering 1 Comment »

All suffering is painful to the body. All suffering is a challenge to the spirit. But the suffering that destroys a soul is the suffering that has no purpose, a suffering that has no point or goal. You can endure a whole lot of pain and distress is you know it’s not meaningless. What good is my pain accomplishing? What benefits are being achieved in my suffering?

“Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as sons and daughters. For what child is not disciplined by his father? If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons and daughters. 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!” ~Hebrews 12:7-9

When a hospital patient is recovering from surgery and calls the nurse in the middle of the night and says, “This pain is killing me; why is this pain so bad?” the most reassuring truth the nurse can provide is to say, “The pain is a sign that healing is taking place.” This passage in Hebrews 12 is the preacher coming to the bedside of his hurting congregation to reassure them that the pain they feel is not a destructive anguish, but a healing one.

Now, I know discipline is a touchy subject. If it’s not done correctly, a child can grow up believing that authority belongs only to those who hit the hardest and hurt the most. We’ve seen too much of that and a lot of people now feel like it’s wrong to discipline children at all, especially in physical ways.

But at the same time, we’re very aware how dangerous it is for children who’ve never learned any limits, kids who’ve never been told “No” or been given any boundaries. Spoiled children or ignored children are a nuisance to everyone around them. In fact, we point to those kids when we’re disciplining our own kids: “We’re doing this because I don’t want you to grow up like that! We’re disciplining you so you won’t behave like that!”

We all agree that some kind of discipline, as an aspect of genuine love and concern, is vital. We see a kid growing up with no discipline and we think there’s something wrong with the parents. Or maybe the parent doesn’t really love the child enough to undertake the difficult work of discipline.

That’s the point in this part of Hebrews 12. If we are genuinely God’s children, then we should expect that God will treat us like a wise parent does, by bringing us up with appropriate discipline. “The Lord disciplines those he loves (12:6).”

Discipline is not just punishment. It’s not correction only. Discipline is also training, it’s conditioning. Giving your children chores like mowing the lawn or cleaning the bathroom mirrors isn’t punishment, it’s training for a certain kind of life. Making your kids save part of their allowance and count their blessings and use their manners isn’t punishment. But it’s still discipline, it’s conditioning them to live a certain way.

Whatever hardship you’re going through right now has meaning. It’s not random. It’s not arbitrary. And whatever pain you’re suffering, whatever trial you’re in the middle of right now, it doesn’t mean God has abandoned you or God’s mad at you or he’s stopped paying attention to you. Just the opposite! God is treating you as his beloved daughter. God is treating you like his genuine son. You belong to him. He loves you. He’s training you, conditioning you, bringing you up for a certain kind of life that looks like his.

“Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his child.”

Whatever is causing our hardship — the devil, God himself, or just a result of living in a broken world — we do know that our Father uses that suffering for his good purposes in our lives. Whatever the cause, he’s ultimately the one who allows it, yes? Well, Hebrews tells us it’s a good idea to see your suffering as God’s instruction, his discipline, his training. The best possible thing you can do in a terrible situation is not ask what’s causing this, why did this happen? The best thing you can ask is, “What is God doing in the middle of this? What does God want to accomplish in me? What’s he trying to teach me? How am I supposed to grow? What part of me needs to be changed through this difficulty? How is this going to make me stronger? How can this struggle make me more like Christ?”

In my position as a congregational preacher, I have the occasional opportunity to visit with people who are going through terrible sufferings. And we’ll talk about the situation and we’ll visit about the problems. And then I’ll ask a couple of those questions. “What is God trying to do here? What’s God saying to you in the middle of this? Your marriage is breaking up, your finances are in ruin, you’ve been diagnosed with cancer. Where is God in all this? What’s he trying to grow in you?”

And I get a blank stare.

It’s never occurred to them to ask those kinds of questions. They’re so focused on what God is not doing, they never imagine he’s actually very involved.

It might come as a shock to you but, precisely because God loves us and treats us like his sons and daughters, he refuses to spoil us or ignore us, he refuses to let us get away with our sin and rebellion, and he refuses to let us wallow in mediocrity or stagnate into some kind of boring weariness. People say when God closes a door, he opens a window. Maybe. I think sometimes God closes a door because he wants us to kick it down! He’s training us. He’s conditioning us. He’s growing us.

In the middle of tough circumstances, a lot of people I talk to feel further away from God, not closer. They’re praying less, they’re not reading their Bibles, they stop coming to church. But the Lord disciplines those he loves. Pray more. Read the Scriptures more. Come to church more. Open your ears and your heart to the training of the Lord. He loves you.



Paying the Price

Discipleship, Faith, Hebrews 1 Comment »

Being a disciple of Jesus is costly.

Sometimes we pay financially. There are jobs Christians will not do. There are deals Christians won’t make, promotions they never get, strategies they can’t use.

Sometimes the cost of following Jesus is social. Sometimes a family will bail on a new Christian convert. You mention the Lord Jesus more than twice at a party and you might not be invited back. There are entertainment and pastimes disciples of Jesus won’t be a part of.

Sometimes it’s an intellectual or emotional price. It’s a whole lot more demanding mentally and emotionally figuring out how to love your enemies than it is trying to get even. Being different from the culture, always swimming upstream, takes a toll. the cross is the heaviest piece of furniture to move, and Christians are called to pick it up and carry it every day.

And Christians pay the price politically. There are appointments Christians will never be considered for. There are powers Christians refuse to use, lords they refuse to serve, and compromises they refuse to make.

Commitment to the faith carries a cost — we know that. But Christians are not always willing to pay that cost. The price can seem too high in some circumstances. Or maybe we just get tired of paying it every single day. Most of the time, though, what chips away at our confidence and erodes our strength is a loss of hope. We keep paying the price and making the sacrifices, but nothing changes. The problems don’t get fixed, the powers against us still seem to be in control, and none of the issues go away.

It’s a struggle.

We grow weary and lose heart. We get tired of serving other people. Tired of trying to keep the church going. Tired of being different and pointed at and whispered about. We get tired of trying not to sin, tired of reading the Bible, tired of praying. Tired of battling our own cravings and addictions. Christians grow weary of walking the walk.

And Christians who are tired and losing hope don’t usually do something dramatic. They don’t become atheists, they don’t join a witches coven, they don’t start suddenly rooting for the Red Sox. They just give up. They just quit.

The sermon in Hebrews is addressed to Christians on the verge of quitting. The preacher in Hebrews is concerned about people who stop coming to church. He’s worried about people who pour their lives into the collection plate but never receive the blessing. He’s concerned about people who have all the scars, but none of the hope.

I want to spend the rest of this week looking at some really encouraging words from Hebrews 12 that speak directly to those who are losing hope in the midst of terrible pains and hardship. Tomorrow, Hebrews 12:5-9, our suffering has meaning. Friday, Hebrews 12:10-11, the gain is worth the pain. And then Saturday, Hebrews 12:12-13, healing comes in the running.

In the meantime: “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. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful people, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.” ~Hebrews 12:2-3