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The Sacrifice of Praise

I recently had the honor of being asked to preach at First Presbyterian Church in Fairbanks, on a Sunday when most of our pastoral staff was out of town. What follows is the text of the sermon I wrote and delivered on that day. 

Hebrews 13:7-17 - "The Sacrifice of Praise"

My wife Stephanie and I were sitting together one evening this week. We were just chatting together while Stephanie was sorting some laundry, turning all the clothes right side out and checking the pockets before they went into the wash. As we were talking, she felt something odd in the long sleeve of one of Sarah's dresses. Sarah, our four-year-old daughter. Stephanie reaches into the sleeve and pulls out two crumpled dollar bills. We looked at each other and just knew that something wasn't right. She didn't have any money of her own and we were pretty sure that we didn't have any loose ones that she could have taken. The next morning over breakfast, Stephanie asked Sarah about it and got the whole story. It turns out Sarah had taken the money. Stolen it. She had stolen it while she was at church last Sunday. It turns out, she had taken the two dollars from the Sunday school room basket that held the children's offerings that were intended to support Abdul, the child our children's ministry is supporting through World Vision. Heavy sigh. Groan. Yes, that's our kid. Stealing from God, and from a poor starving child in the third world.

Well, it’s what kids her age do, and it’s been a pretty good teaching moment this week as we’ve had plenty of opportunities to talk to her about serving others and about making broken things right.

Of course you recall, we've been spending quite a few weeks working our way through the book of Hebrews. And we've seen how a major theme of the book of Hebrews is that Jesus is greater. Again and again we read that Jesus is greater: greater than the angels, greater than Moses and the priests, and the prophets. Greater than the Mosaic Law. And again today, we will see the writer of Hebrews teach us that Jesus is greater even than any religious tradition. And finally, since Jesus is greater, we'll see the writer of Hebrews teach us that our only response to such a great God is to offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is our words and our works that acknowledge his name.  

Our text this morning begins in Hebrews 13 verses 7-17. Verse 7 begins with an admonition, or a word of correction. "Remember your leaders, those who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life, and imitate their faith." And this is wise counsel indeed. We should remember our leaders, our teachers, and value their instruction. We should watch them and see their lives, and model our lives after theirs.  

It appears from what we read in the next few verses that these Jewish Christians were new believers and followers of Jesus, but having been left alone for some time, left to their own devices, they began to neglect what their teachers had told them, and they began to strike out on their own, doing whatever seemed right to them.

We understand that these leaders were ones who had preached the word of God to them, who shared the good news of Jesus with them. The writer now urges them to "remember" their leaders, not just to think of them fondly [like "hey, I remember Dave Moody. Good guy."], but no, the directive is to hear again, to consider again the things that these leaders taught them, and be instructed, be corrected by them.

When we in this room think of our leaders who speak the word of God to us, perhaps we think most immediately of our pastoral staff here at First Pres. We think of Andy, Dave, Emily, and David, who have preached the word to us, who love us, and whose full time vocation and responsibility is the shepherding of our spiritual lives and those of our children, or maybe we think of other teachers or spiritual leaders in past seasons of our lives who were important to us.

It's perhaps fitting that this passage should be presented by someone other than our four pastors. It might sound a little self-serving for Andy or Dave to stand up here and say to us, "Hey, you should really listen to us, follow us, and you should appreciate us." It might be hard for them to say. So it's my privilege to say these things on their behalf.  The fact is we are very blessed, very fortunate to have these Godly examples on our staff and in our lives. They do care for us, they do teach us from God's word, and they model Godly lives for us to emulate.

In verse 17, the writer says again "obey your leaders and submit to them." The word "leaders" here in verse 7 and verse 17 is a pretty non-specific word. It doesn't specifically refer to elders or deacons in the early church, although it would certainly include them. It isn't specifically apostles or pastors, although it includes them as well. "Leaders" in this much more general sense refers to, as verse 7 says, "those who spoke the word of God to you." We are told to obey them and submit to them. This is a good reminder to us of the wisdom of listening to and submitting to those who speak the word of God to us. Not just our pastors, but also our Bible study teachers and small-group leaders. We should trust our elders and deacons. Our youth should love God the way David loves God.  Children must listen to their parent’s instruction, spouses should submit to each other, and friends must keep each other accountable to the truth. In these ways we are all leaders as we speak to each other the word of God.

I imagine pastors must carry a special burden for those they know and love and minster to regularly. I know that Andy has at times felt a real sense of loss and sadness when he sees someone in his care that has made a really bad life decision, or maybe someone who has turned their back on God or God’s people for a time. The writer of Hebrews tells us that their leaders are "keeping watch over your souls, as those who will have to give an account." Hear that comparison: it is as if they will be held accountable for our choices along with us - at least, this is the burden they feel.

It makes me think about a scene, maybe in an antique shop or a fine china shop, where a parent browses the store with a young child. If the child is over energetic, or careless, and drops and breaks a valuable piece, the shop owner won't simply look at the child and hold the child responsible. The shop owner looks to the parent and asks the parent to make it right. That's this kind of responsibility our pastors feel for us and our choices.            

The end of verse 17 continues, "Let them [that is, our pastors] do this [that is, keeping watch over our souls] with joy and not with groaning, for that would be of no advantage to you." What a great image: groaning. I didn't ask Andy or Dave about this, and I'm sure they wouldn't say, but can't you just imagine there are times in their professional lives when they just groan and sigh and think to themselves, "why do you make these same poor choices. Haven't we been over this again and again?"

And we know what this is like, right? This groaning and sighing over the difficulty of being responsible for someone who is making poor decisions. Maybe as parents, we've had to deal with an adult child who makes unhealthy and unproductive life choices, or maybe as teachers we’ve had students with no interest in learning. Or maybe as parents of four-year-old daughters who steal money from their Sunday school class. And from a poor starving child in the third world. We sigh. We groan.

So let's not be like that. Let’s instead thank God for those leaders God has put in authority over us. Let's look at their lives and their examples and imitate them. Let's pray for them, for their strength and encouragement. Who knows, maybe a kind word to them or a note of thanks from time to time might also be in order. At the very least, let's try not to make them sigh or groan at the choices we make.

The second thing today's passage teaches us is that Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever, and that Jesus is greater than anything we could add to the gospel of grace.  The entire book of Hebrews culminates in this critical idea that Jesus is greater. Jesus is greater than any religious practice or tradition, even a religious system that attempts to please God and reconcile us to God. Jesus is greater than that.

In verses 8 and 9, the writer warns his audience, “Do not to be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings; for it is well for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by regulations about food, which have not benefitted those who observe them." Our hearts are strengthened by grace alone - sola gratia - that is, the unmerited favor, the kindness from God that we could never earn, reconciliation with God, not because of anything we do, but because of what Jesus did for us. Without that grace from God, without the actions of Jesus on our behalf, all of the laws and regulations about what foods to eat don't do a bit of good. Without a relationship with Jesus, all religious practices are no more than empty tradition.

These early believers in chapter 13 were Hebrews and they had lived under the Jewish Mosaic law. They had very strict rules about what they could and could not eat. There were rules about animal sacrifices for various purposes, and priests who made sure the rules were followed.  The priests performed these roles on behalf of the people, so if these practices were going to benefit anyone, surely the priests would get the most benefit, right? These guys were on the inside, they got to hang out with God. They were in the center of the center. These priests were the only ones worthy enough to do these things. And yet, v. 8 and 9 tell us that these rules hadn't benefited those who observed them.

These rules were all about keeping the Jewish people in a right relationship with God, about paying any penalties and being forgiven for their sins. This was the religious system that they had kept for generations, and I'm sure they had grown to love this system and trust this system to keep them on good terms with God. But then came Jesus who was the full and final sacrifice that the law demanded. And with his sacrifice, the law was fulfilled, making any other sacrifices pointless. So these early believers in Jesus stopped doing it, they stopped living under this Mosaic Law, and rightfully so.

In addition to the Jewish people in this part of the world at this time, there were also pagan tribes with their pagan gods and religions. These other religions had their own systems of worship with priests, and temples, sacrifices to their gods, and rules to govern all of it.  And these early Christians, after initially hearing about the gospel of grace, and being freed from the demands of the law – perhaps they started to look back at their Jewish heritage. Maybe they had some nostalgia for the good ol’ days and the old ways. Maybe they were looking at their neighbors next door and watching them perform their religious rituals, and maybe they felt a little inferior. You see, these early believers didn't have a temple to worship in, they just met in their homes. They didn't have any priests in robes, they just had these guys, friends of theirs maybe, who told them about Jesus. The never did animal sacrifices. They didn’t have any rules on how to go about it. No altar. No organ. No hymnals. And perhaps there was a temptation to develop some of these things. Keep following Jesus, yes, but maybe we can add to. We can add to what Jesus did for us. We can add in what we do for him. We can develop some special laws and then follow them, so that we can really show Jesus how good we are. And the writer of Hebrews steps in, corrects them, and says, "don't get carried away by any strange teachings. Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever." And Jesus is all we need.

The writer goes on to assure them that rather than lacking anything, what we have in Jesus is greater, just as Jesus is greater. Verse 10 says, "we have an altar from which those who officiate in the tent have no right to eat." And he’s referring to those guys, the priests of the temple, the ones at the center of the center; even they are not worthy to eat at this altar. Of course these early Christians had no altar, not a literal one anyway. The writer of Hebrews is of course referring to Jesus. Unlike the priests in the temple who did not know Jesus, we have the ability to partake in Jesus' sacrifice, and Jesus is greater than any animal sacrifice offered by pagans or priests. They - and we - no longer need the symbolic sacrifice of an animal when we have the actual sacrifice of Jesus.

I had an English professor in college whose area of specialization was modern poetry. He would get totally caught up in the poetry itself as well as the analyzing and talking about poetry. He had this phrase that he would use over and over again that has really stuck with me. He would often talk about the relationship between the sign and the signified.

Of course you recognize the word sign. A sign is something that stands in place of some other real thing. A sign points to something else. A sign is a substitute. The signified is that thing that the sign points to. The signified is the real thing, the thing itself. In poetry, writers will use some mental image, something most readers will understand, and use it to represent - to point to - some other subject. Shakespeare compares a woman's beauty to a summer's day. A mild and sunny summer's day is something we all understand and have experienced. The writer uses this sign - a summer's day - to help us understand the signified - the beauty of the beloved. And of course we shouldn't mistake Shakespeare's subject; he isn't writing about a summer's day, but about a beautiful woman. We shouldn't mistake the sign for the signified.

Right out here, above the stairs, is a beautiful mosaic made of small ceramic tiles, cut and fashioned by Jordanian artists. It's a beautiful scene of Jesus sitting with children surrounding him, reminding us the gospel story of the children flocking to Jesus. It's a beautiful piece of art, but it is simply a piece of art, and nothing more. It's a picture of Jesus, it reminds us of Jesus, but it is not Jesus. It is a sign, but it is not the signified, and I don't think any of us would confuse one with the other.

Now, we don't have any strange teachings about whether or not to eat animal sacrifices. It just doesn't often come up. But in much the same way, we do have other signs and symbols that remind us of our special relationship with God and that aid us in worship. We have traditions surrounding our worship that are neither Biblical nor unbiblical, its' simply the way we do it. This collection of things and ways that good Christian people are supposed to be and do isn’t wrong necessarily, but they are those extra things that we've added on.

Our religious practices may have developed naturally out of a heart of worship, but they have a tendency to consolidate and come together into patterns. It's human nature. We fall into a pattern and then after a while we simply practice the pattern without examining why. And sometimes we can get pretty rigid and inflexible. Then, when someone comes along to challenge our pattern, our way of worshipping, or our ways of doing church, we become defensive. We'll protect our traditions as the right way to worship God. But we have to remember that Jesus is all. It's grace alone that reconciles us with God, and not our religious traditions.

Please don’t misunderstand me, symbols, and practices, and traditions, and rituals are good and important insofar as they serve as reminders. As Ebenezer stones. Like the Lord’s supper, as long as they point us clearly and specifically back to Jesus and his grace to us. But we have to keep the main thing the main thing. It's a matter of heart more than it is a matter of practicing empty forms. In truth, we need both, both the sign and the signified, both the representation of the thing and the thing itself.

But our focus should always be on Jesus, and on the work that God did for us, and the grace that has been extended to us on the cross. If we can keep Jesus at the center, and keep the supremacy of Jesus in our minds, perhaps we can avoid an unhealthy over-emphasis of tradition, symbols, and the often-times resulting legalism in our lives.

In verses 11-12, a comparison is made between animal sacrifices under Jewish law, and the sacrifice of Jesus, the completion of the law. This isn’t the first time this comparison is made as one is a precursor to the other, the first one a sign that anticipates the second. But the emphasis in these verses is the idea that - just as the animal given in sacrifice was taken outside of the city to be burned - this sacrifice of Jesus, of God’s own son, of God himself, has taken place outside of the city gates. When the priests, the worthy ones, are at the center of the center, because Jesus is so utterly rejected, he is cast out: outside of the temple, outside of the courts, outside of the city itself.

When Stephanie and I lived in Fort Yukon, one of the fascinating places to visit was the village dump. You had to go there to dump your own trash, and while you were there you could find just about any other odd thing: cast off furniture, junked cars, the skeletons of ’70 era snowmachines. Often there would be piles of trash burning with black smoke coming from black plastic bags. Dead dogs, dirty diapers, the empty carcasses of salmon or moose. It is a filthy, stinky, and fascinating place. And of course, the dump is not nestled right in the center of town. The dump is at the end of a long dirt road that leads a couple of miles outside of the town. Far enough away that no one has to see it or smell it unless you’re dumping your trash.

And that’s kind of how I imagine the place where they took Jesus to be crucified. This is where we take the trash. This is far enough away that we won't have to smell the rotting flesh, and where we don’t mind a few scavenging animals. This is the furthest we can get from clean, holy, acceptable, and at the center of things.

But verse 13 says, "Let us then go to him outside the camp and bear the abuse he endured." It's like the writer is saying, if that's where Jesus is, then that's where I want to be. In the typically atypical way that the Kingdom of God turns things on their heads and in that first-shall-be-last kind of way, when our natural impulse is to want to be in the middle of things, at the center, on the inside, in with the in-crowd, here the writer expresses that Jesus is greater than all of that, and being with Jesus, even if it means being out at the village dump, even if it’s in a third world slum, no matter that it is on the margins of society with fallen and forgotten people, if that's where Jesus is, then that's where we want to be too. And if being on the outside, being out of the loop and missing out on the action and perhaps being rejected by our culture is the price we have to pay, then the writer of Hebrews is happy to bear that abuse, and encourages us to do the same.

Two weeks ago, Andy preached from Hebrews 12 about an unshakeable kingdom. Here again, the writer of Hebrews reminds us that in this life, we have no lasting city, everything that we do, what we design and build, even our religious practices are shakeable - that is they are temporary, finite, and will fade away. But we look forward to an unshakeable city – an eternal city - that is to come.

The third thing we learn in this passage is that the only appropriate response to knowing a God who is greater is to praise him and worship him. Verse 15 says, "Through him, then, let us continually offer a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that confess his name." I like the word "then." Kind of like the word "therefore," that occurs so often in the Bible. It indicates a concluding remark or a culminating idea. It's as if the writer is saying, "Everything that I wrote before: here's the point I was building to." In fact, I would say that verses 15 and 16 of this chapter are the climactic verses in the entire book of Hebrews. Not just today's passage, but the entire book, and I’m glad that Andy has left it for me to deliver. I would argue that the whole thing builds to this idea that the only appropriate response to the right teaching of our leaders, to the understanding and acceptance that Jesus is greater, greater than the law because he has completed the law, greater than any tradition, greater than anything we can add to his gospel, the only appropriate response is to praise him, to worship him. We saw this earlier, at the end of chapter 12, when the writer pointed out that our only response is the give thanks to God and "offer up our acceptable worship with reverence and awe."

We shouldn’t overlook the fact that verse 15 tells us not simply to praise and worship God, but to “offer a sacrifice” of praise. All of this is framed by the writer in a context that his readers would understand: the Mosaic law. The writer tells them to “make a sacrifice,” because it was a concept they understood.

In a sacrifice, something must die. That’s the difficult reality. When an animal was sacrificed and a blood offering poured out, the animal’s life had to be taken and it died. When Jesus was crucified and became the ultimate sacrifice for us, he died before being raised again. When we offer a sacrifice – a sacrifice of praise or thanksgiving, or the sacrifice of giving to others, what is it that dies? Not ourselves, thankfully, but maybe a part of ourselves. Maybe that part of us that demands we always be comfortable has to die. Maybe that part of us that says “I’m going to take care of myself first” has to die. Maybe it’s the part of us that says, “I don’t want to feel foolish.” Otherwise – if I insist on remaining comfortable, taking care of me and mine first, and never appearing foolish, maybe, if it doesn't cost us anything, it’s not a sacrifice at all. Maybe to be a sacrifice, it has to hurt, at least a little.

I had a friend a few years ago that introduced me to mountain-biking. We were friends and wanted to hang out together, and this is something he liked doing, so I bought a bike and joined in. He would tell me about mountain bike races he had been in and how much he enjoyed them. He rode in a 24-hour relay race a couple of times where a team of three people would take turns riding laps around a course, and the winning team was the one who completed the most laps in 24 hours. He told me how arduous this was, and how painful it was. And how much fun it was. Fun? I asked him? It doesn’t sound like fun. You said it was arduous and painful. Well yeah, he replied, but you know how it is when you push yourself, and it hurts, and you push through the pain and keep going, just to see how far you can go. Maybe those of you who are athletes can understand this, but I certainly don’t. For me, when it becomes uncomfortable, that’s when it’s time to ease up, and when it hurts, that’s a pretty clear sign that it’s time to stop.

Following Jesus is no guarantee that we’ll always be comfortable. Following Jesus is no guarantee that we’ll never hurt. On the contrary, if Jesus suffered and it is our desire to follow Jeus, who are we to be unwilling to suffer? And in today’s passage the writer says in v. 13, "Let us then… bear the abuse he endured.” If we are going to be followers of Jesus, then we have to offer a sacrifice or worship, we have to “do good and share what we have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” The command is not simply to worship God and do good, but to offer a sacrifice of these things. This is what Paul says in Romans 12:1 when he writes, “Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” In the same way, 1 Peter 2:5 says, “offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” Is what we offer to God in our worship and in our service a sacrifice?

Unlike me and my somewhat lacking mountain-bike skills, maybe we should take the fact that it hurts not as an indication to stop, but maybe we should recognize when it doesn’t hurt a bit, when we sacrifice nothing in our praise and our charity, that it's a sign we should be doing more. And again, we don't do more because we need to, or because we are earning anything, or pulling our own weight, or making our own way. But simply because we trust in a God who is greater, a God who has done it all for us, and in response we offer our sacrifice of praise and service.

Last Sunday, Andy challenged us to consider each of our days and all of our lives as a sacrifice of worship. Worship isn't only what we do on Sunday morning, but it is what we do moment-by-moment throughout every day. We’ve heard the command to pray without ceasing, and we understand that to mean we maintain a constant spirit of prayer and communication with God even as we do our work, drive our cars, and raise of families.

In the same way, we can say “praise without ceasing,” and understand that we can maintain that same constant spirit of praise and thanksgiving. Do we praise God and worship him when we’re enjoying our outdoors – hiking and hunting? Do we praise God and worship him as we come home at the end of a long day at work, thanking him for a comfortable home and family to come home to?  

Is my work an act of worship? Do you recognize that, if you’re a construction worker, you participate with God in God’s orderly and planned act of creation, providing boundaries for the earth and the sky, and safe places for people to dwell?

If you are raising young children, or teaching others, you – like Jesus – are raising up a group of disciples, teaching and training them, equipping them to show the love of Jesus to their generation.

If you are a caretaker of any kind of facility or organization, you are being a good shepherd of space and resources and co-laboring with God. All of these things, all of the jobs that each of us do, we can offer up to God as our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.

Let’s offer a sacrifice of praise. Let’s do it continually. As Jesus indentified with the outcasts, those in the margins of our society, so should we. We should emulate Jesus by "going outside the camp," outside the city walls, outside the safe enclosure. Maybe our sacrifice should involved going outside our culture, our social circle, and our comfort zone to reach out to love and serve others.

Let’s remember and appreciate those who spoke the word of God to us. Let’s think again about their teaching and be instructed and corrected by it. Let’s always remember, especially when we’re distracted by something good, but a lesser good, that Jesus is greater. And let’s worship God through our sacrifice of praise, and through our service to others. As Jesus himself instructed, let us Love the Lord our God with all of our hearts, all of our souls, all of our strength, and all of our minds, and love our neighbors as our selves.

Posted on Friday, April 19, 2013 at 12:12PM by Registered CommenterBrian Rozell | CommentsPost a Comment

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