Most of us, I imagine, are familiar with Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam.” Painted on the ceiling of the Vatican’s Sistine Chapel in 1508, its fame is second only to the Mona Lisa. It is, obviously, high quality art. But I like to think there may be something more at play in our ongoing passion for that particular work of art. As we observe the hands of God and of Adam outstretched toward one another, their fingers nearly touching, we are reminded that, as human creatures, we have an innate yearning for fellowship with our Creator. A Harris Poll conducted in December, 2013 found that 74% of Americans still believe in God. That percentage is, not surprisingly, even higher in the Midwest. So that, I assume, would imply that a large percentage of Americans want to feel and experience a connection to God. And that, I would imagine, is why we’re here this morning; why we gather on any given Sunday, for that matter.
The Book of Hebrews begins by reminding us that the way in which we both feel and experience closeness to God is through Jesus. The book’s opening describes Jesus as co-creator, a reflection of God’s glory, and an exact imprint or facsimile of God. He is the one who fully and finally removed the effects of sin which had obstructed our intimacy with God.
In the Old Testament, the “glory” of God signifies the visible divine presence. Jesus is that visible, divine presence. In the book of Exodus, God’s glory is revealed when he miraculously provides food for the Israelites in the wilderness. God’s glory brings salvation and preservation for God’s people. In the gospel of John, it is not only Jesus’ resurrection, but equally his willingness to die for us, that is his glorification. The coming of Jesus was the ultimate revealing of God’s glory. And because Jesus makes the ultimate, final sacrifice for sin, there is nothing left to come between us and God. Jesus has bridged the gap. And so, no one else and no thing else can answer and meet our deep human yearning to be in a loving, intimate relationship with God. Because Jesus made purification for our sins, Hebrews tells us, we have an “in” with the heavenly Father and ought to feel confident and bold in God’s presence.
Now, by that I don’t want to contribute to any “name it and claim it” kind of theology that encourages us to give God our marching orders. But rather, that we don’t need to ever feel, as folks sometimes do, that our worries or problems are something trivial to God or some inconvenience that interrupts his important work of keeping the universe from spinning out of control. No; we can bring anything and everything on our hearts and minds boldly into the presence of God and trust that God will be fully attentive because of the grace we’ve been given through Jesus. We have freedom to enter confidently into God’s presence 24/7.
Freedom is a good topic for this holiday weekend. The Fourth of July each year serves as a reminder to us of all we have for which to give thanks… not the least of which is the freedom of religion. Freedom – our political freedom and our religious freedom – are precious gifts. But perhaps a question worth pondering this holiday weekend is, “How well do we appropriate those gifts?” It’s not enough to merely appreciate; we’ve got to appropriate. Most of us were raised to say “thank you” when we receive a gift. Yet all of us who have ever given a gift sincerely – not out of a sense of obligation or guilt or a desire for attention or acceptance – but genuine giving from the heart. You know; like when we love someone and we see something that we know they’d really enjoy and we want to be the one to provide them with that joy. And so we buy it and we wrap it up and we give it to them. And what do we hope for far more than a “thank you?” We hope they’ll use it and enjoy it. We want them to appropriate, not just appreciate, the gift.
But how well have we appropriated our religious freedom? Over our country’s more than two centuries, thousands upon thousands have died so that we might exercise religious freedom. And, more than two millennia ago, one died so that we might have free, unobstructed access to Almighty God.
In his book, Bearing Christ’s Reproach, bible scholar David deSilva writes,
[T]he gifts God has provided – the salvation and inclusion into God’s family which cost the Son his life – must be appropriately valued. This means that loyalty to God… and to Christ… must always be faithfully maintained and enacted in the ways God directs, such as in acts of love and service to other members of God’s family and in bearing testimony to God’s purposes, values and gifts.[i]
Further along, in the tenth chapter of Hebrews, our bible writer puts it to us this way:
Let us hold fast to the confession of our hope… and let us consider how to provoke [or incite] one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another…[ii]
Friends, you likely already know that today in America, worship attendance is at an all-time low. Some church leadership websites claim that churches now need to receive more than twice as many new members each year as they did a couple decades ago in order to maintain level weekly attendance. Now, please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean to imply that missing church is an unpardonable sin or that God has some cosmic abacus and heavenly entrance has a minimum score. But, I do hope to provoke us to consider this question: If so many Christians in America value the freedom to worship, why has worship become something we do if there happens not to be anything else interesting happening on Sunday morning? When we value a gift, we appropriate it; we put it to use for its intended purpose. And, at least according to the author of Hebrews, there is great value to be discovered and experienced when we come together as God’s people. Many Christians in America are distressed that prayer no longer takes place in public schools. But here’s a question to consider: how many of us – who clearly have the freedom to do so – initiate opportunities to pray with fellow believers? Our American freedom of religion means we can meet at church to pray, we can meet at the park to pray, we can meet at Panera to pray (so long as we don’t become loud and disturb other patrons). We have a myriad of places where we can pray together. But do we?
deSilva further writes:
Believers need to gather frequently with one another, both in the formal settings of worship and informally for support and encouragement in pursuing values that do not always reflect the values of the [wider] society…
Friends, I wonder if we, as 21st century Americans far removed from the first century Imperial Roman Empire, don’t face some of the same temptations faced by the recipients of Hebrews. You see, the Christians in that day and time were finding it hard to be true to their faith. They faced persecution. Their unbelieving neighbors viewed them with suspicion and made it hard for them to do business and go about their daily lives. Some were judged as what would be the modern equivalent of terrorists because of their unwillingness to pray to the Emperor and various pagan gods; because of their unwillingness to participate in pagan feasts and sacrifices that were considered necessary to secure the well-being of their nation. Some were even imprisoned. And so, some began to moderate their lifestyle, distancing themselves from their Christian brothers and sisters, lessening their engagement in Christian worship and fellowship in order to fit in and get by. But, in doing so, they place themselves no longer at the mercy of God – whose mercy they can be fully confident in, thanks to Jesus – but they place themselves at the mercy of the world.
Likewise, even today in our culture, we will discover that, living out our loyalty to Christ and one another places us out of step with the world around us. deSilva gives some examples of what that might look like:
caring for the homeless or shut-ins rather than networking with the powerful and well-connected… freeing time to serve others or seek God’s will rather than devote every possible hour to ‘getting ahead’ at work or at school… buying less expensive clothes and cars in order to have more to give to others in need…[iii]
Brothers and sisters, it is because of Jesus that we have unlimited access to the God of all creation; the one for whom our spirits yearn. Because of Jesus, we have the freedom to come before God’s throne of grace with boldness and confidence. Because of Jesus, we have freedom to live within the context of God’s holy family. Yet that remarkable freedom calls us to go beyond verbal appreciation; that freedom is a gift we must choose to appropriate. Many have died to maintain our nation’s freedom of religion. And one, only one, the Son, the reflection of God’s glory and imprint of God’s being, died that we might be purified from sin and know the freedom of unrestricted access to God.
So may we celebrate our freedom by holding fast to our faith, by provoking one another to love and good deeds, and by not neglecting the blessing of spending time with one another for in doing so, we will truly appropriate the gift and praise the giver. Glory, glory, hallelujah!
[i] Bearing Christ’s Reproach: The Challenge of Hebrews in an Honor Culture; by David de Silva; BIBAL Press; 1999; p. 116.
[ii] Hebrews 10:23-25b. NRSV.
[iii] Bearing Christ’s Reproach; pp. 117-118.
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