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28 Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, 29 for our “God is a consuming fire.”
13:1 Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters. 2 Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.
3 Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.
4 Marriage should be honored by all, and the marriage bed kept pure, for God will judge the adulterer and all the sexually immoral.
5 Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said,
“Never will I leave you;
never will I forsake you.”
EVERYONE (Repeat in unison):
“Never will I leave you;
never will I forsake you.”
(And continue in unison)
6 So we say with confidence,
“The Lord is my helper; I will not be afraid.
What can mere mortals do to me?”
7 Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. 8 Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.
15 Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. 16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.
This morning, I want to begin with just one question for you. What is your dream? What is your dream for your life? And more specifically, what is your dream for our community, our church, the kingdom of God? What is your dream? Do you have one?
The passage from Hebrews that was narrated so beautifully by our small chorus of women just now describes the author’s dream for God’s people. I use the word “author” because I had originally assumed the writer of this epistle was Paul but later on as I was doing more research, I realized that scholars couldn’t agree on who was the actual author of Hebrews. What scholars agreed on was that the writing here is more polished and eloquent than any other book in the New Testament and the style seems different from Paul’s usual style of writing so the best conclusion they can agree on is that the author is unknown. How mysterious! In fact, there are a number of scholars who think the author might be Priscilla, one of the female leaders of the church at that time. That’s why the name of the author was omitted, they argue, because men at that time wouldn’t read something written by a woman. Well, we don’t know for sure who wrote this epistle but one thing is evident. The author had a very clear dream of what a community of God would look like. He or she describes certain marks, signatures, characteristics that would identify a community of believers.
The first mark, which forms the foundation for all the rest, is love. The writer focuses our attention in two directions. First, we are pointed to the love of fellow believers in community: “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters.” (13:1). Here the writer employs the word philadelphia, the Greek noun expressing the love between brothers and sisters. We are family, and it is vital for us to nurture and strengthen this bond if we are to find our way together.
But love also has an external dimension. As God’s people, we are called to show love within and without. As we grow to love one another, this love gives us the courage to reach out together to the unfamiliar, the stranger, the outsider. This is the gift of hospitality that we can extend together (13:2). Hospitality is basically taking care of the other — going out of our way to pay attention to the stranger and their needs. Recently, I had the privilege of starting a new cell group. And I have come to realize that it’s much easier extending hospitality when we can do it as a group. If we share the same heart and unity of spirit, reaching out together can be a joy. It’s amazing how we can give each other courage and inspire one another to go beyond ourselves, isn’t it? But it is not just about giving. The writer of Hebrews reminds us that when we are hospitable, we too receive gifts because we may entertain “angels without knowing it” (13:2). Perhaps the writer was thinking about Abraham (Genesis 18) or Gideon (Judges 6). For these characters, hospitality led to new possibililites, a new life, and new avenues of service. I wonder where radical hospitality will take you and me, and our church in time to come?
The second mark of God’s people is empathy and compassion. Empathy is the ability to put yourself in the shoes of someone, to understand what they may be going through….physically, emotionally, mentally or socially. And compassion is what we extend to others when we have caught a glimpse of their perspective and situation. I remember when I was in Japan the first year I was serving in ministry. I was living and working with 4 other team members. In general, we got along pretty well but there was one girl who just kind of got on my nerves. She was a little irritating. Ok, maybe more than just a little. J She had her quirks about a lot of things and she kind of demanded that we do things her way. When you are living and working with someone like that, it can be challenging. She was also somewhat different from the rest of us so while the rest of us bonded, she was kind of on the outer fringe.
At that time, we were preparing for quite a massive project and it was our first year in the first location so there was a lot of preparation work needed and many things were uncertain. Some of us decided to go on a fast to spiritually prepare for this project. At that time, it was quite an “in” thing to do fasting and prayer. So I chose to go on a 7-day fast just to prepare myself spiritually. I knew that fasting is a time when God might want to deal with some of my personal issues and I was open to whatever that God may want to address, even my gayness. Surprisingly, even though I was open and prepared for God to deal with my gayness, it never came up! In fact, the issue that God surfaced was my attitude towards this team member whom I wasn’t getting along with. I felt convicted that I needed to change my attitude towards her, be open to seeing things from her point of view and try to help her feel more like “one of us”. Honestly, it wasn’t easy because people don’t change overnight and the things that irritated me before were still there. But I felt like God wanted me to try and somehow, God gave me the strength to do so even though it was not my natural inclination. She injured her knee one day and because my dad had given me a special medicated oil for sprains, I was going to just pass it to her and let her use it. So kind, right? 😉 But when I saw how swollen her knee was, I felt a tinge of compassion and offered to help her massage her knee with the oil. She was pleasantly surprised and started sharing with me how hard it was to be in Japan away from her family and boyfriend. So for one month, I would help her massage her knee every evening and we would talk. And I started to see things from her point of view with a little more understanding and compassion. Did we become the best of friends? No, of course not. But I learnt that exercising empathy and compassion was essential to helping me change my attitude towards her and extend care and concern to her in spite of our differences and disagreements.
That’s why Hebrews 13:1 says, “Keep on loving one another as brothers and sisters.” The author knew that even when the going gets tough, we need to keep on loving one another. Even when we disagree. Even when we don’t understand. Even when we are different. Even when we are not the ones suffering. Even when our struggles may differ. Do we exercise empathy and compassion for one another and for the stranger?
The third mark is fidelity. Fidelity is basically keeping our promises. In our relationships with one another, do we keep our promises? Can the people we love trust us wholeheartedly? Do we honour our relationships and help others honour theirs? Are we trustworthy and full of integrity? It’s interesting that the verse following says, “Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have, because God has said, ‘Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.'” On what basis are we called to be content? How can we be content with all that we have and stop being greedy or anxious about our future? Often, I think it is not so much that we are all greedy and love to accumulate money or material possessions. Rather, many of us are anxious about our future. Will I have enough for my retirement? Am I making enough to take care of the people I love, pay my mortgages and still have a little left over for fun? Am I investing my money in the best way possible so that I won’t need to worry in my old age? All these are valid concerns but they can sometimes overwhelm us and become a burden. That’s why Jesus often says in the gospels, “Do not worry. Do not fear. Do not be anxious.” So how can we be free from the love and anxiety of money? It is based purely on God’s promise, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” Just like fidelity in our human relationships, God has made us a promise, a commitment to always be there for us. Basically, God is saying, “Trust me. Put your security in me. Let me be the one to provide for you, to protect you, to love you. I will never leave you or abandon you, no matter what. Our relationship is solid. It will stand the test of time. You’ll see.”
This is further reiterated in verse 8, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” Have you ever been in a relationship and everything is going so well for both of you and you secretly wish things will stay the same forever? Well, at least with Jesus, we know he will stay the same. His promises will never waver and our relationship will stand the test of time. His constancy and love is what enables us to stay contented, to not be anxious, to keep on loving and to stay true to our promises.
There are many other things we could look at in this passage but I just want to highlight one more thing. I am often curious to see what a passage is about by looking at the verses before and after. This sometimes helps to give a passage context or a framework, if you like. What I found for this passage was very exciting. If you read Hebrews 12:28-29, it says, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.” Acceptable worship. And if you read Hebrews 13:15-16, it says, “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. 16 And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.” Sacrifice of praise. Acceptable worship and Sacrifice of praise. Therefore, all the things that we endeavor to do in between is an act of worship and a sacrifice of praise. When we keep on loving one another, that is worship. When we exercise empathy and compassion especially for those who are suffering, that is worship. When we keep our promises, that is worship. When we choose to be content and rest in God’s promises, that is worship. When we do good and share with others, that is our sacrifice of praise.
A few days ago, the world celebrated the 50th anniversary of an important event in the civil rights movement. On 28 August 1963, 250,000 people who believed in equality for all regardless of race were getting ready to march on to Washington and Martin Luther King, Jr delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech. He said, “I say to you today, my friends, even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream….I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low. The rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight. And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh will see it together. This is our hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nations into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood (and sisterhood). With this faith we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”
This dream and all that people sacrificed to make it come true was an act of worship. I too have a dream. It may not be as monumental or inspirational as King’s but I dream of God’s people, believers all over the world keeping at loving one another even though we have our disagreements and differences. I dream of a community of God that is courageous and compassionate in extending hospitality to those who are considered outsiders and those who are suffering. I dream of a people so rested in God’s love and promises that excessive anxiety has no place in our lives and we have space in our hearts for others. I dream of a community that loves wholeheartedly and steadfastly. A people of God who do all this as an act of worship, a sacrifice of praise.
This dream begins with me….and you. What is your dream? Perhaps as we share our hearts and our lives, one day we can call it our dream. Where do you want to start? What is the Holy Spirit prompting you to do today as the first step towards fulfilling this dream?