In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
When we started with the Epistle to the Hebrews a few weeks ago, our ears were greeted with those sweet and blessed words of that grand chapter on faith, Hebrews 11: “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” and the repetition of “by faith,” how by faith God’s people of old were commended, attested by Him, for trusting His promises. “And without faith it is impossible to please” God (Heb 11:6). And we remember what the Lord says through St. Paul in Romans, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” (Rom 3:28).
Now as we hear the first verses of our Epistle reading—indeed, as we also hear the Old Testament and Gospel readings for today—we may be tempted to hear a list of “do’s and don’ts”; in other words, a list of rules, commandments, laws. The Old Testament Reading, from the Book of Proverbs, gives instructions about one’s behavior before the king, and about taking a case into a court of law. The Gospel, from St. Luke, tells of an occasion, a dinner at the home of a ruler of the Pharisees, in which Jesus addresses the lawfulness of healing on the Sabbath, the seeking of places of honor at a dinner, and who should be invited to a dinner or banquet. And the Teacher of the Hebrews gives a list of several expectations or “commands”:
- Let brotherly love continue;
- Don’t forget to show hospitality to strangers;
- Remember prisoners and the mistreated;
- Honor marriage and keep the marriage bed undefiled;
- Keep free from love of money and be content with what you have.
He even offers some blessings and some judgments for keeping or violating these precepts: “Some have entertained angels unawares.” “God will judge the sexually immoral and adulterous.” A pastor in Michigan asked, “I’m wondering if expectations like these end up feeling legalistic to those who don’t live by them?” In truth, we know that none of us fully lives by the expectations of the Law. “The Law always accuses.” Luther gives great instruction on this in the Small Catechism, on Confession and Absolution, as we’ve heard before:
Consider your place in life according to the Ten Commandments: Are you a father, mother, son, daughter, husband, wife, or worker? Have you been disobedient, unfaithful, or lazy? Have you been hot-tempered, rude, or quarrelsome? Have you hurt someone by your words or deeds? Have you stolen, been negligent, wasted anything, or done any harm?
If you’re answering “no” to all of these questions, then you’re lying, in which case you’re guilty of that sin, and of calling God a liar. For He says in His holy Word, through both the Apostle and the Psalmist, “None is righteous, no, not one” (Rom 3:10; Pss 14:1; 53:1). As long as we are in this body and life, we will always feel the accusing sting of the Law, always see its finger pointing at us, whenever we hear it. Every one of us can truthfully answer “yes” to each of these questions. We all stand accused and guilty according to God’s law.
Is this the purpose, though, of these expectations in Hebrews 13, to get us to realize our guilt for failing to keep them? No, not really. Instead of ‘expectations,’ let’s call them by a better name, exhortations, or better still, encouragements. Also, let’s back up a bit, to the verses right before our text, and there we will find the Teacher’s purpose and context for these encouragements. “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship, with reverence and awe, for our ‘God is a consuming fire’” (Heb 12:28–29; Dt 4:24). The context for these encouragements, these behaviors and attitudes, these ways of following Christ, is worship, what we properly call Divine Service, in German, Gottesdienst, God’s Service. Most people define worship as something we do for God. How does God define it in His Word? Our Triune God speaks, and we respond. God acts, and we receive. If we were to diagram the directions in worship with arrows, the first and by far biggest arrow comes from God down and outward to us. Even the order of lighting the candles signifies this, with the light coming down, as it were, from God, and outward, from His Presence marked by the altar, and out toward us. We receive His gifts of His holy Word and blessed Sacraments, and return thanks and praise in hymns and prayers and Amens and lives lived to His glory. The upward arrow of our response is so much smaller, yet our God honors our responses as sacrifices pleasing to Him (Heb 13:16).
Who and what is the center, the heart, of the Divine Service? Christ Jesus and His cross. He is also at the heart of our text: “Jesus Christ yesterday and today the Same One and into the ages, into eternity” (v. 8). You may have noticed, my theme is “Christ Jesus the Same.” So which order is preferred, ‘Christ Jesus’ or ‘Jesus Christ’? It doesn’t matter; Jesus, His personal name, tells us who He is, Yeshua, “Salvation, Savior,” or Yehoshua, “the LORD [YHWH] saves”; Christ, Messiah, Anointed One, declares His threefold office as our Prophet, Priest, and King. As The Prophet, He speaks the Word of God to us, above all those words of mercy, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” “It is finished,” and all the seven words from the Cross. And He speaks that comforting promise, “I will never leave you nor forsake you” (v. 5), just as He said to the penitent thief, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with Me in Paradise” (Lk 23:43). As our Great High Priest, He offered up Himself as The Sacrifice for sin, “sanctifying the people,” making you and me holy, “through His own blood” (v. 12), and making us His priestly people, offering the fruit of our lips and our lives as sacrifices of praise to God. As our King, He established His reign over His redeemed Creation, and His authority over sin, death, and the devil, on the throne of His Cross, a crown of thorns adorning His brow, bejeweled with His most precious blood. Through the water and the Word, the Holy Spirit washes us in Jesus’ holy, innocent blood, giving us new birth, making us sons of the Father. At His altar, Jesus gives to those who confess His Name and His Real Presence here the right to eat His body given and His blood shed upon the cross for the forgiveness of all our sins.
From this holy place, He sends you forth to continue His Service, God’s Service, to your family, to one another, to your neighbor, to strangers. He calls you to be “masks of God,” for through you He continues to serve. These encouragements are more than commands; they’re portraits of Jesus Christ, portraits of love and service and humility, the One who serves us still, who gave Himself in love and service to the whole world, as He loves and serves through you. “Let brotherly love continue,” because Jesus has come to be your Elder Brother, so that you may call upon God His Father as your heavenly Father. “Do not forget the love of strangers,” because you were a stranger and alien before God, separated from Him by sin, and Jesus left His home to become a stranger, a sojourner, on earth, rejected by those who should have received Him and welcomed Him with joy. Through Him, God does welcome you into His eternal abode with great joy, and He is preparing a banquet for you who were poor, crippled, lame, and blind without His grace for you in Christ. “Remember those in prison and those who are mistreated,” for Jesus was arrested and beaten, though completely innocent; but He gladly suffered this reproach, this shame, to pay for and cover your guilt, to set you free and declare you innocent. “Let marriage be held in honor among all,” for Jesus has made you a member of His beloved Bride, the Church. For her He gave His life. For Him we live and, if called upon, for Him we die. That is the very essence of marriage, dying, laying down your life, your wants and needs, for the sake of the other. It is the essence of the way of Christ, the way of the Cross. To be His believer and disciple, you must take up your cross, your death to self. There is no other way.
What more can we want? Do you want a new plan for this or that? “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Are you seeking a new, exciting program? “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Are you bored with something in worship, or with the people around you? “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” He is ever the same, but He’s far from boring! His sameness means comfort, promises kept, certainty, security, reliability, Truth. By the Holy Spirit’s power let us confess this Same One with John the Baptist, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” and “He must increase, I must decrease.” And let us ponder the words of a man drawn by God, be it ever slowly and painfully, through crises of the mind, from his life of philosophical meanderings and sexual promiscuity to the forgiveness and Faith of Christ and service in His Church, St. Augustine of Hippo, who wrote in his Confessions:
Late have I loved You, O Lord; and behold,
You were within and I without, and there I sought You.
You were with me when I was not with You.
You called, and cried, and burst my deafness.
You gleamed, and glowed, and dispelled my blindness.
You touched me, and I burned for Your peace.
For Yourself You have made us,
and restless are our hearts until they find their rest in You.
Late have I loved You, O Beauty ever old and ever new.
You have burst my bonds asunder; unto You will I offer up an offering of praise.
And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in ✠ Christ Jesus. Amen.