Today’s passages: Isaiah, chapters 15-18; Hebrews, chapter 10
Scripture: Hebrews 10:19-27 (NRSV) – Therefore, my friends. since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 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. Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. For if we willfully persist in sin after having received the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries.
Observations: It is a very uncomfortable thing to talk about judgment. We don’t like reading passages like those in today’s readings from Isaiah, where God talks about the land being ravaged, and people having to flee. We don’t like to think about the ultimate judgment, as Jesus described in Matthew 25, when the righteous are welcomed and the unrighteous are banished from God’s presence. It is easy for us to ignore the subject – to think only about our own hope of salvation, and not think about others who are in eternal danger.
It’s easy to do that, that is, until we start reading Scripture. Then we are reminded – rather regularly – that a judgment is coming, and when that day comes, the choices which people have made to either receive Christ or reject him will be ratified for all eternity. We can look at passages like the ones from Isaiah and dismiss them, because they talk about judgment on Israel’s enemies – or even upon Israel itself, for its idolatry. But when the writer of Hebrews says that there is a fearful prospect of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries, we cannot simply dismiss that. God is grabbing us by the shoulders, shaking us, and saying, “Wake up! People around you are in spiritual danger!”
Not just people who live on the other side of the world; not just people in other areas of your own country; not even just the nameless people in your city, whom you drive by each day, or walk past in the grocery store. Your neighbors; your friends; your co-workers; your family members. People are around us each day who need to know Jesus, who need to see him enfleshed in us. God reminds us of the coming judgment, not to make us feel good about our promise of life together in his Kingdom, but to remind us that the fields are white for the harvest, and God calls all his people to be at work in those fields.
The earlier part of the passage from Hebrews set out above reminds us of the importance of staying “on top of our game.” In the NRSV, this passage is entitled “A Call to Persevere.” The writer reminds us that Jesus has opened a new way for us into God’s presence, and then tells us to approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith. We should gladly come into God’s presence, and we should do it often. We come before God each day as we open his Word, as we open ourselves before him and ask him to speak to us. We do it as we come in obedience to Jesus’ instruction to pray each day for our daily needs, and for God’s guidance and direction to keep us from evil. We do it as we allow God to direct us in the many encounters we have each day, so others may see the love of God in us.
This passage also reminds us of our obligations to each other within the body: Let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. I’m intrigued by the word “provoke.” We normally think of that as a negative word, like “picking a fight” with someone. From what I can tell, though, this particular word avoids much of that negative connotation, meaning something more like “incite” in a positive sense. One of the reasons that God has called us together to be a part of the Body is so we can encourage each other, “spur each other on” in our service to God. This is not a competition, of course; pride and arrogance come too easily from competition, and pride and arrogance are universally condemned by God. The point that I take from this passage is that we can’t “incite” each other to good works if we’re not spending time together.
As a pastor, I often struggle with people’s reluctance to regularly attend worship services. I’ve often thought about this passage only in that connection. (And I’ve heard numerous sermons in that regard, as most people have.) But as I think about it today, I realize that it’s hard to “provoke” people to good deeds even if they’re in church every week, if that’s the only time that they’re getting together with other members of the body. I’ve discovered that as I spend time in the Word, I want to be around other people who are doing the same. I want to talk with them about what God is saying to them, and how he’s working in their lives. I want to soak up the enthusiasm that flows from people who have a vibrant daily walk with Jesus, and I want them to be able to receive that from me, too.
Applications: God is reminding me today of the importance of regular times together with other members of the body. That doesn’t mean that he wants worship services every day; the early church gathered to worship on “the Lord’s day,” but they met together every day to encourage one another. We need to look for more opportunities for people to come together, and I need to seek God’s direction on how to provide those opportunities through the church. But God is also reminding me that I need to do more “provoking”!
Prayer: Father, it’s not easy to have to “provoke one another to love and good deeds.” It’s not easy to constantly talk about how important it is to not neglect meeting together. But it’s important. Thank you for reminding me today that it’s important for all of us to encourage each other in these ways, and for reminding me that when we do so in love, we can be confident that you will use our encouragement in the right ways. Help me today to encourage others in their walk with you. Amen.