Delivered November 14, 2021 by Rev. Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Our text this morning comes from Hebrews. Thought to be written thirty-five years or so after Jesus’ death, it is written by an anonymous writer who modern scholars simply call, The Preacher. It is written in a very Jewish style of writing called midrash whereupon a writer will quote scripture and then unpack the meaning of what the teaching is about. Although the original recipients of the letter are not known, what we do know that it is written to a church that gone through a difficult time. Its major themes are that followers of Christ have gone through the wilderness of suffering as the Hebrews did but it’s different now; instead of having to offer sacrifices to God all the time to atone for our sins, we have a priest of our own flesh, Jesus, who as God’s Son, freely gave himself as the ultimate sacrifice. Jesus is pictured as the great high priest who has entered the Holy of Holies and paid for our sin once and for all.
Today’s verses were written by an early church preacher trying to remind the people of the new life they’ve been given through Christ, and as such, they should not lose heart. Hear the Word of the Lord.
19 Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, 20 by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25 not neglecting to meet, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
Friends, the Preacher is using these words as a pep-talk to his or her people in the pew. Homiletics Professor at the Candler School of Theology, Thomas Long, says, “The preacher is actually addressing a very common and familiar pastoral problem: congregational decline. His congregation is basically tired and discouraged—tired of trying to live the Christian life in a culture that offers no support for it and discouraged about the way evil still seems to persist in the world. As a result, the congregation has begun to question the value of being followers of Christ. Attendance at worship has begun to falter (10: 25), zeal for mission has waned, and the kind of congregational life that is rich with love and compassion has begun to dissipate (10: 24).”
Do you think this resonates with pastors and their churches today? Can I get an, Amen?! Churches across the United States were already in a state of decline and then the pandemic hit. Now pastors and church leaders are wondering, “Will folks come back home?” The Preacher’s words of encouragement are what the 21st century church needs to hear. So, what are those words we need to hear?
The church needs to hear the hope that Jesus has already won the battle and as Christians, we are to live in that victory. Verse 19 reminds us that we have access to God in the sanctuary of the Almighty because of what Christ has accomplished for us. The veil of separation that hangs between us and God has been ripped in two because of Christ. When the Preacher in verse 23 says, “Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope,” this is what he is talking about. When the church is tired, it’s to look at Jesus and remember! It’s to look at Jesus and draw strength and hope amid swirly despair.
Then the Preacher tells the church to do something else. In verse 24 the Preacher tells the church to provoke one another to love and good deeds. It’s a call for Christian provocateurs! Provocateur comes from the Latin word provocare which means to ‘call forth’ or to ‘call out.’ It means to incite someone to action. In the language of the New Testament, it means to irritate. The call is for those of us in church to irritate and incite action from one another for the purpose of expressing ministries of compassion and service through mission. It’s like the old saying, “When the going gets tough, the tough get going!” In other words, it’s easy when things seem hard and at times futile to fall back into an attitude of defeat. This is what was happening to the church the Preacher was writing to centuries ago. The antidote to despair is for members of the church to incite one another to get about the work of the church which is ministry of service and compassion. Why do you think we have been holding up of the flag of “Just Say, Yes!” the last six months? Your church leadership has been trying to provoke the membership of the church back into action and help you dislodge from the hopeless, despairing mindset of the pandemic! We’ve been trying to provoke you in the name of Jesus!
Remember the hope we have in Christ. Provoke one another to demonstrate love in service and compassion. Now third, the Preacher in verse 25 reminds the church to not neglect meeting together as is the habit of some. One of the biggest challenges birthed over the last 20 months has birthed is our tendency to isolate and “do it my way.” Frankly, during a world pandemic we had to do that in order to stay healthy and figure out how to live life from home. We have become adept with technology that has kept us in digital touch with others; I am grateful for that. The shadow side to our self-sufficient isolation is that if it is continued for the long haul, it can lead to apathy at best and laziness at worst.
I get it. There’s nothing like making a nice breakfast, sipping on coffee, and snuggling on the couch as you worship from home. We are grateful for that technology! But you can’t swing a hammer on a Habitat house from your den. You can’t prepare 1,000 turkey dinners to be put together and delivered next Saturday morning from your living room. You can’t feel the raw power and emotion of our choir in worship from your bedroom. Sisters and brothers, a community of faith is meant to be together. Remote worship is a wonderful tool when you can’t be there in person. Remote worship is a way to augment one’s spiritual life. But Christians are made for community. Jesus and his fellow Jews travelled 60 miles from Galilee to Jerusalem to worship with the other Jews for worship, but people can’t get from Pompano to their local church for worship. The Preacher is calling us to be together, meet in fellowship, worship, and service.
Lastly, the Preacher tells his tired church community in verse 25 to be encouraging each other until Christ comes in glory. The word encourage literally means to en-strengthen another. As a community, we are called to strengthen one another with words of hope, words of grace, and words of encouragement. As a community we are to come alongside the broken ones in our midst and give them strength they don’t have themselves. This is why the church is called the body of Christ. It takes all of us to usher in the ways of God. When one member of the church gets tired and discouraged, another member comes alongside and keeps the other motivated and going. When the encourager gets worn down, the receiver of their care in turn provides care to them. When we encourage each other, we generate a flywheel-effect of grace occurs and creates its own energy and momentum.
The Preacher’s words from Hebrews are apt this morning. We are to hold onto the promise and hope Jesus, the Great High Priest, offers us. We are to provoke one another to accomplish loving ministries of compassion and service. We are to be about meeting with others in community. And we are to actively encourage each other. This my beloved is what the Preacher says Church is all about. Let it be.
© 2021 Patrick H. Wrisley, Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, 401 SE 15th Avenue, Fort Lauderdale, FL. 33301. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.
 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV). New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
 Feasting on the Word: Year B, Volume 4: Season after Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ) (Feasting on the Word: Year B volume) by David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor. See https://a.co/1GOXxU6.