A sermon on Hebrews 12:28-13:16, preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church.
It’s easy to lose sight of the value of a particular gift. It’s easy for that initial flood of surprise and delight to fade away. How many backs of closets, how many attics, how many yard sales are full of gifts that once enthralled us, then began their procession from the top of the desk or dresser where we could always access it, to the top drawer where we could reach for it occasionally, to the box in the closet, to the box in the garage, to Goodwill. How much dust has already settled on some of the gifts you just received this past Christmas?
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews writes to a group of Christians, some of whom at least have begun to lose sight of the value of a particular gift, others of whom might stand in similar danger. I say “danger,” because there are some gifts that are just so valuable, or in which the giver is just so personally invested, that you don’t dare let them find their way into the back of a closet, or a box in the garage, or – heaven forbid – a yard sale. You know the kind of gifts I mean. Now, I’m not talking about that hideous wind chime that you have to leave up because so-and-so gave it to you, and so-and-so comes over to your house every now and then and listens for it when there’s a breeze. I’m talking about the gift that cost the giver a lot, that he or she acquired only with considerable care, labor, or expense; perhaps that he or she found it difficult to part with, but did nevertheless as a sign of his or her affection for you. For such a gift to end up in a box in the garage or in a yard sale would surely damage the relationship, for the gift and how it is treated is so valuable as to have become a symbol for the relationship itself.
Some of the Christians addressed by the Letter to the Hebrews were about ready to put this gift in the back of the closet, or even in the trash, because this was a gift that was costing them too much, in terms of their neighbors’ good will, to keep displaying. I’m talking, of course, about the gift of reconciliation with the God of Israel, whom they had come to believe was the only God – the gift of reconciliation procured for them by Jesus at the cost of his own life, an expensive gift indeed. A great deal of the Letter to the Hebrews, in fact, is given over to reminding the audience of the immense value of what they have been given in Jesus, so as to embolden them to continue to bear the cost of displaying this gift where it would be visible to their neighbors, not least of all by continuing openly to associate with the other people in their city who gather in Jesus’ name. They have the forgiveness of their sins and a fresh start with God; they have the assurance that God’s Son will continue to direct God’s favor in their direction as they face any difficulty or necessity; they have a place now in God’s own household, God’s own family; they have the unprecedented boldness to enter into heaven itself, the very presence of the Holy God, having been cleansed from every defilement by Jesus their high priest and atoning sacrifice, whenever that day comes when the way into heaven is disclosed; they have the promise of citizenship in God’s eternal kingdom, a homeland that will embrace them forever.
And it is this that brings us to the reading we heard today.
So then, since we are in the process of receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, and through the manifestation of this gratitude let us worship God in a manner well-pleasing to him, with reverent submission and awe – for our God is indeed a consuming fire. (Heb 12:28-29)
The NRSV translates that first verse, “let us give thanks,” the NIV, “let us be thankful”; the CEB comes much closer to the meaning of the Greek at this point with “let’s continue to express our gratitude.” Let us treat these gifts and act toward the Giver in the manner that will show him that we understand their value – and that we value the relationship into which he has invited us by the very act of giving us such precious gifts in the present and promises of gifts yet to come.
The ancient Greeks and Romans thought a great deal about gift-giving and gratitude and the quality of the relationships that these exchanges created and maintained. Gratitude would take certain, rather predictable forms, all of them considerably more substantial than the perfunctory “thank you” notes we had to write out as kids to various uncles, aunts, and the like. If I received a gift of significant value from someone, particularly a gift the value of which I would likely never be able to match in the future, I would show gratitude, in part, by bearing widespread witness to the gift and to the giver’s virtue in giving it. In his manual on giving and receiving gifts well, Seneca, a Roman contemporary of Paul, wrote: “I shall never be able to repay you my gratitude, but, at any rate, I shall at least not cease from declaring everywhere that I am unable to repay it” (On Benefits 2.24.2). He advises giving testimony to “the blessing that has come to us by pouring forth our feelings and bearing witness – not merely in the hearing of the giver, but everywhere” (On Benefits 2.22.1). A gift that one would prefer to keep hidden from public view (hiding one’s connection with the giver), one should never accept in the first place (On Benefits 2.23.1). One would also be watchful for occasions on which to render some appropriate return for the gift – in investing oneself in advancing the giver’s interests in the world, hence in service to the giver, if one was not in a position to give a gift of like value.
And so, quite directly, gratitude supplies the fundamental motivation that drives and shapes our response of witnessing to the Giver and looking for opportunities to serve the Giver’s interests. The author of Hebrews helps his hearers make this very connection. In 12:28, he speaks of worshiping God in a way that will be “well pleasing” to God, that is, by allowing gratitude for God’s gifts and promises to shape how they will live. Toward the end of this passage, in Hebrews 13:15-16, the author returns to naming those kinds of “worship” that are in fact “well pleasing” to God – the kinds of “religious acts,” the kinds of “liturgical sacrifices,” that show God the reverence and grateful service God’s favors merit:
Through Jesus Christ, therefore, let us continually offer to God the ‘sacrifice of praise’ – the fruit of lips that profess his name. Let us not overlook doing good and sharing, for sacrifices of this kind are well-pleasing to God. (Heb 13:16)
This is what we ourselves were after when we decided, as a congregation, that the third mandate of our mission statement should be “Go to serve Christ.” Knowing Christ and the immeasurable benefits Christ brings into our lives must lead to grateful response in the form of witness and service. Growing more like Christ must translate into putting ourselves – our time, our energies, our resources, our very bodies and all that can be accomplished through them – at God’s disposal, even as Jesus had done, to advance God’s interests in and to serve God’s desires for the people and the world around us. And, indeed, the level of our investment in witnessing and giving back to God through serving his interests reflects the level at which we value – or, frankly, do not value – the gifts we have received or are yet to receive.
The author of Hebrews clearly understands gratitude to involve us in service – again in his words: “let us not forget to do good and to share, for such sacrifices are well-pleasing to God” (Heb 13:16). In our mission statement, we emphasize “going” to serve Christ, which is good – we have to get out of this building and into the world. But the author of Hebrews himself points us to one another in the Body of Christ as our first arena of service.
Keep loving one another as sisters and brothers would love each other. Don’t neglect showing hospitality, for in this way some have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those in chains as though chained yourselves alongside them, those who are being mistreated as though you yourselves are in their skin. (Heb 13:1-3)
The needs within our own congregation are significant; the needs of our harassed and persecuted sisters and brothers abroad, staggering. The care and compassion we show one another, the time and energy and resources we invest in relieving one another, here in this congregation as well as throughout the global Body of Christ, are investments in people about whom God deeply cares, service that God receives as rendered even to himself. These are the spiritual and bloodless sacrifices that ascend before God and proclaim loudly and genuinely in his hearing, “thank you, God, for all that you have brought into our lives.”
The author of Hebrews, however, also impels us to give expression to our gratitude in the form of testimony and witness: “Through Jesus Christ, let us always offer to God the ‘sacrifice of praise’ – the fruit of lips that profess his name” (Hebrews 13:15). It is obvious when we offer “the sacrifice of praise” in this place, singing our hymns to God and offering prayers of thanksgiving; the author of Hebrews points to the less obvious but even more necessary “sacrifice of praise,” when we own God out there with our lips, when we acknowledge, or confess, or profess God out there, testifying to the good things God has done for us, the help God has brought us, God’s saving interventions in our lives and in the lives of those whom we love. Every such “sacrifice of praise,” every such act of witness that we make to God’s kindness, goodness, and beneficent intervention, is an invitation to our conversation partner to experience the same – and, as such, is an act of service of the greatest value to our neighbor.
D. T. Niles, a Sri Lankan pastor and evangelist of the 20th century, eventually president of the Methodist Church of Ceylon, once said that evangelism “is just one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” This is a profound and justly celebrated quotation, for it tells us how we need to see ourselves and others, how we need to see ourselves in regard to the other – both beggars, one of whom has found a place that never fails to give out bread. It also tells us how we need to value Christ, what he brought and continues to bring into our lives, and what he has for the other person – the life-sustaining nourishment in which he or she stands in as much need as we did and do.
I remember what it was like going back to school, as a kid, after Christmas Break. I was excited to tell my friends about the great toys that I had received, and they were all excited to tell us about the great toys they had received. We’d end up going to each other’s houses and playing together with all these great, new toys. Witness – evangelism – is a lot like that. Only the better analogy is not boys and their toys, but beggars and bread, finding that which will nourish, sustain us, get us through. Of course, even that analogy suffers, for witness – evangelism – is about sharing where to find life-giving bread of an entirely different and greater order. In Jesus’ own words on the subject: “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever” (John 6:51, NRSV).
If we are ever to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, how can we keep back from them the invitation to enjoy what has been the most beneficial relationship that we have found, the connection with God through Christ that gains for us the greatest help for this life and the greatest hope for what follows this life? Whose good are we serving if we exert ourselves to give them a loaf of bread, but falter at taking the extra step – the eternally significant extra step – of offering them the life-giving Bread that came down from heaven?
Perhaps we shy away from witness – from evangelism – because we think of it as walking someone down a theological argument like the “Romans Road” or as imposing our religion on someone else. That’s all wrong. Witness – evangelism – is nothing more and nothing less than telling another person how God reached into our lives and turned things around for the better, turned us in a better direction. It is simply telling another person about the life-giving nourishment that we found, and that is available for him or her as well.
As you come to know Christ and Christ’s benefits more fully, allow yourself to be moved to witness and service in grateful response, simply sharing what you yourself have come to know of Christ and of his interventions in your life. As you keep growing more like Christ and seeing what God’s transforming power and purpose can accomplish in your own life and in the lives of your sisters and brothers, simply bear witness to what you have experienced. In so doing, you are fulfilling that climactic commission that Christ entrusted to all of his followers when he said: “Go, then; make disciples out of all the nations” (Matt 28:18-20). Honor Christ’s lordship and make his reign visible and real in this world, because it is visible and real in you, in your life, in our life together, as we give ourselves over to Christ, for him to accomplish his good purposes in this world through us, both offering his love and issuing his invitation through us. Go, indeed, to serve Christ.