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Worship: It Can’t be Hoarded


Hebrews 10:19-25


I watched a six year-old boy brush his teeth before going to bed.  He squeezed toothpaste onto his toothbrush – and then more toothpaste, and after that more still, great gobs of it.   I asked him what he thought he was doing.  He told me that if he used five times as much toothpaste as normal, he wouldn’t have to brush his teeth for five days.  His reasoning was sound. He erred on only one point: he didn’t know that dental hygiene can’t be hoarded.

Most things in life can’t be hoarded.  Affection can’t be hoarded.  If my wife staggers home and needs to be hugged for any reason, I hug her. I’d never think of saying, perplexed, “But I hugged you last month.”

It’s no different with worship.  What God lends us through our worship of him can’t be hoarded.  Now to be sure, our primary motive for worshipping must always be the praise and adoration of God, the public celebration of his mercy and patience and truth. And as long as this is the primary motive of our worship, we will indeed be worshipping him.   At the same time, the worship we bring to God in turn brings blessing to God’s people. Such blessing, however, can never be hoarded.  God’s gifts, like manna of old, are sufficient for us in our need at the moment of our need and the moment of the blessing.  Nothing here can be hoarded.

The text of today’s sermon reminds us of some of the blessings of worship. It indicates what God works in those who “draw near to him with a true heart in full assurance of faith.”


I: — The first blessing of worship, according to our text, is “a heart sprinkled clean from an evil conscience.”         Presupposed here is the truth that we have a conscience, and ought to have one. Through worship we approach God, and find that our conscience is cleansed.  Plainly the conscience that is now cleansed needed to be cleansed inasmuch as it was defiled.

Today it’s fashionable to suggest that conscience is only a legacy from infancy, a carryover from parental restrictions, a carryover nasty to the point of being neurotic and therefore distressing; a carryover, in other words, better described as a hangover. If this is the case, then we should all aim at ridding ourselves of conscience.         Wouldn’t we all be better off if we were conscienceless?

It so happens that there are people who are utterly conscienceless.   Many of them are locked up in the provincial hospital in Penetanguishene , Ontario . They are psychopaths. They can never be trusted and therefore are highly dangerous.  Some of them sleep every night with one ankle cuffed to the bed frame. They are pitiable.

Perhaps you want to tell me I’m not being fair; in fact there is not a continuum between the person whose conscience isn’t quite as sensitive as it should be and the conscienceless psychopath who has to be locked up; perhaps you want to tell me that the psychopathic mind isn’t different merely in degree but in fact is different in kind.         I won’t argue with the objection.  But I will say this: to be conscienceless is also to be shameless, and the shameless person is to be pitied.

Yes, we all understand what psychotherapists mean when they speak of adults who are “shame-bound”, and we understand why psychotherapists (and others too) deplore the inhibited life of those who are shame-bound.   We should support those who struggle to rid themselves of neurotic shame, unnecessary shame, taboo-shame that has nothing to do with what’s right but everything to do with emotional warping at the hands of coercive figures. Still, rightly deploring “shame-bound”, it would only be folly to think that all shame, in all situations, is a sign of neurosis.         The person with no sense of shame is dangerous; the person with no sense of shame is to be feared when he is in our midst and is to be pitied when he isn’t in our midst.

A gospel-sensitized conscience, a Spirit-sensitized conscience, has nothing to do with neurosis.  It has everything to do with our awareness of who God is and what he has done for us, what he now asks of us and where we have failed to render him what we owe him. When the prophet Isaiah goes to the Jerusalem temple to worship he finds himself crying before God “Woe is me, for I am a man of unclean lips.” When Jesus overtakes Peter, Peter blurts “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man.” Neither Isaiah nor Peter needed a mental health expert.

Those who assume we’d better off if conscience were rendered inoperative forget something crucial; namely, not all guilt is neurotic: much guilt is real.  Not all offences are mere violations of social convention; many offences offend God and wound his creatures.  All of us are perpetrators who feel guilty because in truth we are guilty and ought to feel guilty.  Because of our depravity we have a destructive streak in us that will destroy ourselves and others unchecked – unless it’s checked by a conscience that hasn’t yet been blunted.

Most significantly, our text informs us that to approach God in worship is to have our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience.  Six hundred years before the unknown author of Hebrews penned today’s text the prophet Ezekiel knew that God had given him a word for dispirited people: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses.”

Plainly, while a fittingly sensitized conscience is unquestionably one mark of the Christian, it’s not the only mark; it’s not the most important mark; it’s not the ultimate mark. The characteristic mark of the Christian – that is, the mark by which the Christian is publicly identified and privately consoled – is the assurance of God’s pardon. “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you will be clean from all your uncleannesses.”

The apostle John is quick to admit that from time to time our hearts do condemn us; and just as quickly he adds “[and] God is greater than our hearts.”  Of course we have an evil conscience; and God is greater than our conscience, for he has already sprinkled clean water upon us and cleansed us from all our uncleannesses.

At the time of the Reformation our Protestant foreparents insisted that to know God is to know God as “propitious”. “Propitious” is one of Calvin’s favourite words.  When he’s not using the word but wants to express the idea, Calvin uses such synonyms as “favourable”, “merciful”, “benevolent”, “fatherly”. Let’s linger over the last word: “fatherly”.         Calvin never denies that God is judge; God is the just judge; God is the judge whose judgement can’t be ‘bought off’ or ignored or set aside or deflected elsewhere. Yet just as firmly Calvin insists that God isn’t judge ultimately; ultimately God is father. He judges us only for the sake of correcting us, and he bothers to correct us only because he wants to bless us with blessing greater than anything we can imagine. God, of his sheer mercy, has made us and our need his dearest cause.  We don’t genuinely know God, say our Reformation foreparents, unless we know him as propitious. Who, after all, could ever love someone who was judge only?  Who could ever adore someone who was power only?  Calvin maintains that the God who is power only is the God who can never be worshipped.

John Newton, cruel slave-trader turned clergyman, hymnwriter and spiritual counsellor; Newton ’s best-known hymn, Amazing Grace, should startle us as often as we sing the second stanza: “’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and grace my fears relieved.” Now we know why the psalmist exclaims, “This I know, that God is for me.” (Ps. 56:9)

As we worship week-by-week God’s truth concerning us – we are those whom he has soaked in his mercy – penetrates ever more deeply into us. “Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with a heart sprinkled clean from an evil conscience.”


II: — Our text points to yet another consequence of worship: “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.” We must be sure to note that we aren’t urged to hold fast to the good old days (that weren’t good in any case.) We aren’t urged to hold fast to the present inasmuch as we fear the future. We are urged to hold fast the confession of our hope.

What is our hope?  According to scripture hope is a future certainty grounded in a present reality. The present reality is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, rendering him victorious – plus his ascension on high – rendering him ruler, ruler over all that is. The future certainty is that his rule, known now only to his followers, will one day be made manifest. His rule, disputed and doubted if not disdained at present, will one day be indisputable.

When we speak of “hope” we aren’t speaking of hopefulness, wishful thinking, “Wouldn’t it be nice if…?” When we speak of hope we aren’t speaking of something ‘iffy’, something we’d like to see occur even though it might not occur.         When we speak of hope we are speaking of a future certainty more certain than anything the world can imagine.         Hope is a future certainty grounded in a present reality.  Our Lord’s resurrection means the crucified is Victor; his ascension means the Victor is Ruler.

When the psalmist exults “The earth is the Lord’s”, he knows that despite all appearances the world doesn’t finally belong to international financiers who make or break millions of people every day. It doesn’t finally belong to powerful nations and the disinformation that all nations traffic in. It doesn’t belong to multinational corporations who have engineered untold deprivation and suffering among marginalized people.  It doesn’t belong to ideologues whose deceptions most of us have no way of detecting until we are their victims.

We have to be honest, however: it doesn’t appear that the earth is the Lord’s.  It appears that the earth is everyone’s except the Lord’s.

We are not the first people to be jarred by the manner in which appearance contradicts truth.  The Israelite people of old looked out over the world’s treachery and turbulence and remarked, “At least we can be certain of one thing: God brought us out of Egypt . At least he’s involved with us even if he’s involved with no one else.”  The prophet Amos replied “Yes, God brought Israel out of Egypt . He also brought the Philistines out of Caphtor and the Syrians out of Kir.”  In other words, God is ceaselessly immersed in the struggle and turbulence of people everywhere. He is never a handcuffed bystander in the face of international maelstrom.

At the birth of Jesus wise men came from the east, from Persia . Today Persia appears in our newspapers as Iran . The wise men loom large in the Christmas story, the Christmas story being, of course, the narrative of God’s definitive incursion into human history.   Yes, the Son of God was born in Nazareth , a one-horse town in a backwoods province of the Roman Empire . Wise men from Iran , however, soon acknowledged him, Iran being as large as Nazareth was small. The visit of the wise men is cherished in Christian story.  After all, their recognition of the Messiah sealed the Christ’s significance for the vast Gentile world and the protracted unfolding of world history. The force of what the wise men represent ought to be at the forefront of our minds at all times today.

Jonah was sent to the city of Nineveh . He didn’t want to go; in fact at first he refused to go. Nineveh was a city in Assyria , and Assyrian cruelty was unrivalled.  Assyrian cruelty had reduced the twelve tribes of Israel to two, consuming the other ten in a holocaust that anticipated Hitler.  Eventually Jonah went grudgingly to Nineveh , and was dismayed to find the response to his preaching overwhelming.  Today Nineveh appears on our maps as Mazul, a city in Iraq .

Wise men and Iran ; Jonah and Iraq ; anyone who sees with the eyes of faith sees that the Christ who is victor is also the Christ who rules.  His kingdom is immoveable. And one day his present, effectual rule will be manifested so as to render it indisputable.

The Christian is never permitted to despair of the world, never permitted to despair of the international situation.         The world of superpower intrigue, power plays, connivance, disinformation and duplicity is nonetheless a world that God has promised never to give up on and never to abandon.

“Let us hold fast the confession of our hope (hope being a future certainty grounded in a present reality) without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.”


III: — We are reminded, finally, that through worship we encourage fellow-worshippers. “Do not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encourage one another”, our text reads. The encouragement we receive through gathering to worship is not to be sneered at or discounted, because discouragement is always ready to spring upon us. The English word ‘courage’ is derived from the French word ‘coeur’, ‘heart’. To be dis-couraged is to be de-heartened.  To be discouraged is to have lost heart.  And such a condition laps at us all the time.

We don’t know who wrote the book of Hebrews. Whoever it was used a Greek word for ‘encourage’ that every Greek-speaking person in the ancient world knew well: parakalein.  The associations surrounding this word are rich.  As soon as the writer used it, readers would find their mind swimming with associations.

[1] One such association has to do with military conflict.  To encourage someone, in a military context, is to be that person’s ally. Allies are important since discipleship always unfolds amidst conflict.  To say that discipleship unfolds amidst conflict is to say that opponents are never far away; danger is never far away.  We always need allies, reinforcements.

A familiar tactic of military commanders is to divide or separate, and then conquer.  If a platoon can be isolated from the rest of the army; if a country can be isolated from other countries, then that platoon or country can be overrun readily. To cut ourselves off from worship is to cut ourselves off from the encouragement, the re-heartening, of fellow-Christians; which is to say, to cut ourselves off from allies and reinforcements.  Our defeat thereafter is a foregone conclusion.

Scripture is fond of the military metaphor just because it knows that evil is militant, aggressive.  Scripture speaks of the “hosts of spiritual wickedness” just because it knows that evil swarms.  Scripture speaks of the “demons”, plural, just because it knows that evil is pluriform, many-faceted, all-pervasive. Anyone who lacks allies in this situation is in a sorry way.  Through worship we are encouraged; we are re-heartened through the reinforcements God unfailingly provides.

[2] There are other classical associations with parakalein, encourage. One is urging someone to take up a public duty, to assume public responsibility.

I would never deny that the first function of worship, because it’s the characteristic function of worship, is the praise of God.  Worship is not a means to an end, however important and exalted that end might be. Worship is always primarily the adoration of God, the public acknowledgement of God’s worthiness.

At the same time, however, as our worship is focussed on the public acknowledgement of God’s worthiness, one of the consequences of our worship is that we hear again and again that the whole earth is the Lord’s. He loves the world more than he loves himself.  (After all, he spared not his own Son even as he has continued to spare the world.) As this truth seeps into us we are made aware that we have both opportunity and responsibility for public service in the world.

Since the whole earth is the Lord’s, there is no area or dimension of life from which he is absent.  Since the Lord isn’t absent, a Christian witness ought always to be present. As often as we gather for worship we are reminded of the inappropriateness of religious ghettoism. To worship with fellow-Christians is to encourage them to take up public responsibility.


There’s no point in putting a five-day dollop of toothpaste on our toothbrush.  Dental hygiene can’t be hoarded.         Neither can affection. And neither can worship.

For this reason the unknown author of Hebrews whose letter we have probed today urges us not to neglect meeting together. Inasmuch as we do worship together

we shall find that our conscience is both sensitized and cleansed;

we shall hold fast the confession of our hope, the certainty that Christ the victor rules;

we shall encourage one another as we find ourselves both provided with allies and
persuaded of our public responsibility.


                                                                                                Victor Shepherd          

February 2007