Sermon Commentary for Sunday, November 14, 2021
Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25 Commentary
The COVID-19 pandemic and efforts to mitigate it have changed the way at least some Christians have met or are currently “meeting together” (25). Restrictions have forced at least some of us to meet together remotely rather than in the same building. Restrictions have also forced some Christians to worship somewhat differently even when they worship together in the same physical space.
Some of God’s adopted sons and daughters chafe against those alterations. Some find it difficult to meet together for worship in front of a computer or other device’s screen. Some find it hard to sing and, perhaps especially, celebrate the sacraments such as the Lord’s Supper on their own or with just their family members.
Other Christians, however, seem to have become quite comfortable with these different ways of “meeting together.” Some enjoy being able to walk just to our devices for worship rather than walk or drive to a more distant church building. Some appreciate being able to meet together for worship from the comfort of our homes where we don’t even have to worry our appearance because we can turn off our video feeds.
Yet regardless of how this commentary’s readers feel about restrictions on meeting together for worship, at least some of us wonder about the long-term effects of worship just as individuals or families. We wonder if this will discourage people from meeting together for worship when it’s safe to do so. We wonder if solitary or family worship has become such a comfortable habit that increasing numbers of worshipers will choose it even when they have other safe options.
Earlier this year with I asked Calvin University professor of philosophy James K.A. Smith about his sense of the pandemic’s effect on meeting together for worship. He told my colleagues and me of how he encourages his adult children to make worshipping with other Christians a priority. After all, “worship is a chance,” Smith says, “to love the people we don’t like.”
That struck me as a profound insight in a culture that seems increasingly riven by deep differences over theology, politics, and efforts to mitigate this pandemic. Social commentators like Arthur Brooks have shown how little many North Americans interact with those with whom they disagree.
Even some Christians find it increasingly difficult to like the people with whom we disagree. I’m concerned that solitary or family rather than corporate worship may only reinforce that dislike. It, after all, gives Christians even fewer opportunities to interact with fellow Christians whom we love but don’t necessarily like.
After Hebrews’ almost endless teaching about Jesus and his work, this week’s Epistolary Lesson teaches what it means to follow that Jesus. Not, however, before first returning for what may seem like the 100th time to Hebrews’ theme of Jesus’ superiority to Jewish religious practices.
So why does the Preacher go back over the same ground yet again? Perhaps it’s partly because his readers are considering risking their well-being by giving up what God has given them in Christ. They may be contemplating walking away from Jesus and back to their old faith.
To remind his readers of to what they’d be returning, the Preacher notes how Jewish priests had to keep doing the same sacrificial work over and over again. There wasn’t even any place in the old sanctuary for them to sit down and rest from their work because their work was never done.
Yet that’s a problem not just with ancient Judaism, but with all religion. Religious people are never done because they can never do enough. In that sense, Christianity isn’t a religion. After all, it’s not a way for God’s adopted children to try to do enough for God. Christianity is, instead, a vehicle for God’s beloved people to enjoy our relationship with God and the neighbors God calls us to love.
Yet as Will Willimon notes, religion, including a form of Christianity, can be a one-way ticket to fatigue. After all, just when God’s adopted children think we’ve got it figured out, someone comes along and says, “Have you considered that?” Or at about the point the church has worn us out, it comes along and asks, “Will you teach this?” And there we go, off trying again to get right with God.
God’s adopted sons and daughters don’t have to stand or run to do anything to connect to God. Since when Jesus “had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God,” so can his adopted siblings. We can get off the religious treadmill of trying to chase the right beliefs, words and actions.
God invites God’s adopted children to draw near to God by, among other things, what verse 25 calls “meeting together.” While we usually assume that means that we should go to church, the Preacher simply calls Christians to meet together. So he may have in mind Christians meeting together not just for worship, but also for fellowship, food, study and even service.
After all, God has graciously adopted us into God’s family. God has transformed Christians from God’s natural enemies into God’s children, and, thus, from strangers into siblings. So when Christians meet together, we come to a kind of family reunion.
Yet Hebrews’ Preacher insists meeting together is more than a family gathering. When we meet together, as Tom Long notes in his commentary on Hebrews* to which I owe many ideas for this Commentary, whether it’s a high mass or a prayer service, whether in a cathedral or house, with hundreds of other Christians or just two, God draws us close to himself.
Yet even preachers understand why some people give up that habit. It’s not just that efforts to stay safe from COVID-19 have forced some of us to worship by ourselves or with just a handful others. It’s also that worshipping by ourselves on a mountain trail can seem far purer than meeting with the motley bunch that shows up in church on Sunday. On top of that, as a colleague notes, “we just get tired in worship and … of worship.”
What’s more, as Long also points out, there may be more drama on Netflix, nicer people at Starbucks and a better view at the beach than in church. And no one in those places will use Jesus’ name to try to twist our arms into giving money, serving on committees, or teaching Sunday School the way some may in a church building.
That’s why God’s people want to remember how when God’s adopted sons and daughters let God draw us near to himself by physically meeting together for worship, remarkable things happen. I think that verse 25’s call to “meet together” is closely related to verse 24’s call to “spur one another on toward love and good works.” Corporate worship together in one physical space gives us the opportunity not just to encourage each other to love each other in concrete ways. It also, arguably, makes it harder to ignore that “spurring on” to good works.
What’s more, when we meet together for worship, we do what we will, by God’s grace, do for all eternity. God’s dearly beloved people practice for that day “When every knee should bow in heaven and on earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.”
Yet when God’s adopted sons and daughters meet together, especially for worship, God also catches us up in a mysterious heavenly drama. As God draws us near to himself, we’re somehow caught up into the great choir of angels and saints who are also worshiping God. Of course, sometimes you have to squint pretty hard to see that.
*Long, Thomas G. Hebrews. Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1997.
I once heard about a story that Fred Craddock told about an older man named Will. It speaks well to the nature of the worship to which Hebrews 10 summons God’s people. Craddock told of how when he was a boy, his parents would make his siblings and him dress up every Saturday night. Neighbors would then sit in Craddock’s living room to read the Bible and sing songs like “Bringing in the Sheaves” from old hymnals.
When Craddock asked his mother why they had to do this, she said, “We don’t live close enough to a church actually to attend. But some day we might live close enough to a real church and so for now we’re practicing.”
Will was a neighbor who attended those “services” every week. Craddock once asked him if he’d ever been to a real church. “Hundreds,” was Will’s reply. When Craddock press him about what’s it like, Will answered, “First off, don’t go by appearances. ‘Cuz sometimes you’ll see some little old white clapboard church up on cinderblocks out in the middle of nowhere and maybe the shutters are sagging a bit and all.
But don’t go by that. Because sometimes God disguises his goodness — he hides his best stuff in little old no-account places like that. But you just go inside one of those and you’ll see.” “See what?” Fred pressed him. “Well, when you look up at the ceiling, you’ll see it’s a deep, deep blue. And the stars shine and the angels sing and . . . well, you’ll just have to see for yourself someday, young man!”
Fred and his family attended Will’s funeral in one of those little churches God had cleverly “disguised.” But when Fred got inside, he was disappointed. It was nothing like what Will had promised. The paint was peeling. No stars shone. No angels on display.
But then, remembers Craddock, the worship service started. The choir began singing and swaying. The congregation joined in and all of a sudden, somewhere in the middle of all that singing and swaying, Fred looked up. “And the ceiling was blue. And the stars were shining. And ministries of angels sang Will to his rest.”
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