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Because You See The Day Approaching

 

Hebrews 10:19-25

 

I: — What will the future be like? I don’t mean “Will there be greater electronic wizardry and paperless banking and grass that doesn’t need cutting and voice-activated computers in everyone’s home?” Of course all these things are going to come to pass, and come to pass soon. We already have a good idea as to the technological future, even though there will be more than a few surprises along the way. I mean, rather, “What will the human future be like?”

Different eras have answered this question differently. The ancient Greeks maintained that the future would resemble the past.  History is cyclical; what has been will be.  The future is entirely predictable since the cycle of history is always being repeated. Whether good or bad, blessing or bane, the wheel of history goes around and around. The future will resemble the past.

During the Victorian era a different answer was given. The human future wouldn’t resemble the past. The human future would be better. The Victorians believed in progress. They didn’t merely believe in technical progress.         (Technical progress is undeniable.   No one prefers the application of leeches to micro surgery.)  Beyond technical progress, the Victorians believed in human progress. Humankind was coming of age, entering upon its maturity.         The future would be better than the past had ever been.

In Europe the myth of progress was “outed” as sheer myth in 1914.  The Great War found the two most cultured nations in the world slaughtering each other in a manner that would have startled even blood-thirsty barbarians. On some days in World War I there were 60,000 casualties per day.  Then came 1917, the October Revolution, in Russia . A regime was established that made the Czar’s cruelties look like Halloween pranks.  Nineteen forty-five acquainted the world with the death camps.  (All of this driven, we must remember, not by uncivilized “savages” but by the most refined, cultured, educated of the Western world. Next there occurred the nuclear obliteration of cities in Japan .

Today the Arab League has vowed the extermination of every last Jewish person anywhere. And of course the medical technology that granted us relief from diphtheria and whooping cough appears relatively powerless in the face of AIDS.  AIDS, everyone knows, has wiped out an entire generation in four central African countries already, and will likely destroy many more people.

Existentialist philosophy abandoned all talk of the future concerning humankind as a whole.  Existentialist philosophy spoke only of the future of the individual existent, the solitary individual.  This person would have a future if and only if she acted “in good faith”; that is, if she were alert to the pressures of social conformity and resisted them; if she made no attempt to “keep up with the Joneses” but instead courageously made that decision (and kept on making such decisions) rooted in her own integrity and oriented to her own goals. But of course dozens of questions were begged here.  What makes one goal preferable to another?  Why is the goal I select for my life any better than the goal society as a whole pursues semi-consciously?  And hasn’t depth psychology undercut the notion of “integrity” in any case? Furthermore, if my coming death ends all of this “existential authenticity”, why not die now? Albert Camus, perhaps the best-known existentialist writer, frequently remarked, “The only intellectually defensible action is suicide.”  What kind of a future, then, did existentialist philosophy hold out?

Then what is our future, yours and mine?

 

II: — The future of humankind is wrapped up in “the Day of the Lord”, as scripture calls it, sometimes abbreviating it to “the Day.”  When the author of Hebrews wrote “because you see the Day approaching…” he assumed that his reader knew immediately what he had in mind. They and he were aware that God’s struggle with a creation that has frustrated God since the first instance of human disobedience and the welter of evil that poured over the creation as a result; God’s struggle to restore his creation will come to a climax on the the Day of the Lord. The parables of Jesus speak of this Day over and over.  The apostles mention it in every letter.  It fills the horizon of the early church’s consciousness.  God’s people look forward to it.  Its coming isn’t in doubt.  It looms so large before us that we can sense it even now.  The Day of the Lord is our future.

 

[i] God has fixed a day when the truth and reality of God will shine so very brightly as to be indisputable. Right now God – his truth, his sovereignty, his purpose – all of this is disputable. Agnosticism and atheism are defensible positions at this moment, arguably.  The day has been appointed, however, when God, known now only to faith, will be unmistakable and undeniable in equal measure.

[ii] God has fixed a day when the faith of God’s people will be vindicated.  Those who insisted that the only real power of the universe is the weakness of the crucified; those who upheld the triumph of the world’s biggest loser; those who maintained that the almightiness of God is nothing other than the limitless efficacy of his limitless vulnerability: all such people are going to be seen not has having been deluded fools but rather has always having been in the right.

[iii] God has fixed a day when the victimized and wounded of the world; the disfigured in body and mind and spirit; the crushed and submerged – are going to be blessed. What they never found in their earthly existence will be made up to them eternally.

[iv] God has fixed a day when the huge chasms that divide people now and foster rage and hostility in their hearts – the chasms of race and wealth and social privilege and opportunity — these chasms are going to be no more, and alienation will give way to reconciliation and shalom, that peace of God which is nothing less than the creation of God healed.

[v] God has fixed a day, we must add soberly, when those who have maintained for fifty years that they don’t want God and his truth and his way and his people; the day has been appointed when these folk (known only to God, we must add) will finally be given what they always said they wanted.

The guarantee of it all, insist prophet and apostle, is the resurrection of Jesus Christ.  God has raised his Son from the dead as the down payment, the first instalment, on the future day of the Lord.  God keeps his promises. The Day of the Lord is our future.

 

III: — This future is glorious. It looms before us now so as to determine our present.  Because this day is approaching, says the author of Hebrews, we must now, at this moment, “approach him, [draw near to him] with a true heart in full assurance of faith.” (Heb. 10:22) We can approach God and we do. But in full assurance of faith? Is full assurance of the gospel of God and our inclusion in it; is full assurance of faith something we can give ourselves?         Surely not. Then how do we gain assurance of the gospel of God and our inclusion in it?  How do we gain full assurance of faith?
When Maureen and I were courting we wrote letters to each other, hundreds of letters.  The farther apart we were geographically the more frequently we wrote. At one point in our courtship I was a student minister in a summer appointment in northern BC near the Alaska Highway; she was gallivanting around Europe . Even though our letters were love-letters there were doubtful lines (or doubting lines) in a letter from time to time. I at least would ask myself, “What exactly did she mean by that line? Was she upset with me?  Had I offended her and she wanted ‘out’ and was trying to let me down gently? And how about that oblique reference to the three American submarine sailors she and her two girlfriends met in Scotland ? Not to mention the 25-year old Israeli veteran of the Six-Day War with whom she toured Paris ?” Assurance concerning our relationship waxed and waned for several months.  But in September, when we saw each other’s face, doubt and disquiet evaporated instantly. There flourished the fullest assurance of our relationship.

It’s in the face of Jesus Christ that God’s glory shines, says Holy Scripture.  As often as we behold the face of Christ we behold the glory of God. And the glory of God, God’s people know, will fill the whole earth on the Day that God has appointed. As we continue to behold the face of Christ and see in his face the glory of God, our faith is strengthened; doubt and disquiet evaporate; and full assurance of faith flourishes. For this reason, if for no other, the purpose of the ministry is always and everywhere to point out the face of Christ and point the congregation to it.

 

In the second place, our author tells us, because we see the Day approaching we must “hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering.” (Heb. 10:23) The “confession of our hope” is the public acknowledgement of our confidence in the coming Day. The “confession of our hope” is our unshakeable conviction concerning God’s vindication of himself, his truth, his way, his people; God’s restoration of the victimized and scarred; God’s reconciliation of the alienated and hostile. The confession of this we must “hold fast.”  But not merely hold it fast in our hearts, privately; rather we must hold it up, hold it out; hold it up for others to see; hold it out for others to seize. We must do our hope, in other words. We hold fast the confession of our hope by doing our hope.

I saw it done in a city of which I am especially fond, New York City . On one occasion I spent an hour sitting on the steps of the NYC Library in downtown Manhattan . A black man was seated a few yards away from me. He was drunk; not comatose drunk, not even falling-down drunk, but certainly past the twilight zone. A white woman, 30 years old, sat down on the steps to change from her high heels into running shoes. (Businesswomen in NYC travel to and from work in running shoes, saving their dress shoes for office hours.) The man asked her if she could light his cigarette.         I waited to see what was going to happen next.  After all, everyone knows of the assaults in NYC, the knife-point robberies, the six murders per day, the rapes, the racial strife.  What was a young, attractive white woman going to do about a request from a drunk, black, male stranger?  She slid along the library step towards him, not so close as to be inappropriate but close enough that she could reach him.  She took out her lighter and lit his cigarette. She changed into her running shoes. Then she conversed with him for fifteen minutes. She didn’t speak to him flirtatiously, but neither did she speak to him condescendingly. She addressed him as a human being whose significance was no less than hers; she addressed him as a suffering human being whose suffering was one with hers; which is to say, one with the suffering of us all.  She addressed him as someone whose startling unlikenesses – race, gender, wealth, prospects, history – didn’t render her suspicious or superior or fearful or contemptuous or dismissive.  For her he was a fellow human being caught up in the same struggle, stuck with the same suffering, awaiting the same release.  Then with a smile, a cheerful wave, and and bright “farewell” she went on her way.

I was stunned, and stunned just because this one incident had been for me one of those moments in my life when the truth and reality of the kingdom of God , present now and known to faith, becomes startlingly vivid and luminous. It was one of those moments when the reconciliation and harmony and defencelessness that are going to characterize the Day of the Lord are aglow with God’s splendour now. It was a moment when the “hope” for God’s creation that the gospel holds up and holds out; when this hope, whose confession we hold fast, is so alive in the present that it pulsates.

What are such moments in your life?  If we are alert to them we know them to be moments in which the hope that we confess and hold fast; these are moments in which this hope is vindicated as true, vindicated as the only future the world can ever have.

 

Lastly, because the Day is approaching, says the book of Hebrews, we must “consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds….” (Heb. 10:24) Everywhere else in the New Testament the word “provoke” is used in the nasty sense, as when we antagonize people, spear them, arouse them to resentment or spite or even bloodletting. Here alone scripture uses the word “provoke” in a positive sense: we are to prod each other, stimulate each other, energize each other, incite each other to love and good deeds.

A friend of mine injured her knee skiing.  More than “injure” it; she mangled it.  There was much damage to muscle and nerve.  Would her knee ever work again; that is would she be able to walk? Part of medical treatment involved having an electrode placed on the area of the injury.  An electrical jolt provoked damaged nerve and muscle, stimulated them. After all, it’s important to avoid lameness, isn’t it?  Don’t we use a jolt of electricity to re-start a heart that has stopped beating? Don’t we jolt a heart that is beating irregularly so as to get the jolted person out of danger? Proper heartbeat is important, everyone agrees.

It’s important that hearts beat in a congregation, that there be no lameness in it.  To this end, our author tells us, we have be stirred up, stimulated, provoked (in the best sense of the word) again and again.  For only then do love and good deeds appear in our midst.

In my older age I have concluded that love is genuine only where there is affection.  Frankly, I’m tired of people telling me that they love me (they mean that they won’t sabotage me) when they possess no warmth concerning me. I’m tired of hearing it said that love someone is to will the best for him (even though you can’t stand him.) In my older age I have concluded that love is love only if affection is present.

Think of what Paul says about love in 1st Corinthian 13: love doesn’t insist on its own way, isn’t resentful, doesn’t gloat when someone else is found to be wrong; love, he says, can endure anything. It all sounds good in the abstract. When we are faced with frustration or betrayal or a public skewering, however, we shall find that love is free of resentment and can “endure anything” only if we are possessed of genuine affection.

Paul told the congregation in Thessalonica that they had become “dear” to him, so dear, in fact, that he gave nothing less than himself to them. He told the people in Corinth that their affection had shrivelled, even as he urged the Christians in Rome to “love one another with affection.”

Dead or stony or frigid hearts in a congregation (at some point this means all of us) have to be stimulated yet again, jolted even, so that the heartbeat of the congregation will always be restored as affection gives rise to those “good deeds” which we otherwise resent having to do.

And what does affection within a congregation have to do with the Day of the Lord, someone asks? This.         On the Day the brightness of our Lord’s appearing will bleach away hostility, grudges, resentment. And since this Day is close upon us, our affection must swell in proportion to its proximity. At the same time we must continue to approach God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, even as we continue to hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering.

                                                                                                Victor Shepherd                                                                                                                                                                                                                                         

September 2006