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Sermon: Hebrews 4:9-16
Pentecost 22 – October 21, 2018 – Rev. Steven J. Radunzel
When I was young my parents brought my brothers and sister and me to church every Sunday. We really did go to church every Sunday. That’s why it was very unusual one summer Sunday, when I was about 9 or 10 years old, that we did not go to church. And we didn’t go to church that Sunday because we went fishing. My father wanted to spend one Sunday with all of us at a picnic area near the Apple River where we could also go fishing. It would be good family time.
That family time and fishing may all sound very good, but back then on that Sunday morning I was feeling horribly guilty. I loved to fish, but we were skipping church to go fishing. And I knew very well what the 3rd commandment said – “Remember the Sabbath day to keep it holy.” I was worried that our boat might tip over, we might drown, and I would go to hell for sure for skipping church to go fishing. I was glad to get home that night so I could thoroughly repent of my sin.
Over the years I’ve learned that I didn’t give God enough credit for his grace and mercy and that I was a little too hard on myself because I didn’t have a real accurate understanding of the Sabbath that I was sure I was breaking.
The word Sabbath means rest, and the word Sabbath or rest, or, the hyphenated word Sabbath-rest which the writer of our text uses, is used about four ways in the Bible. There was the Sabbath-rest of God on the seventh day of creation. There was the Sabbath-rest of the people of Israel when they got to the Promised Land. There was the Sabbath-rest of the weekly Sabbath days of the Old Testament and in Jesus’ day. And there is the eternal Sabbath-rest that we will experience in heaven.
Today we’re going to consider some of those Sabbath-rests:
There’s a lot of confusion about the Sabbath day and keeping the Sabbath among Christians. Jewish people who are orthodox keep the Sabbath in much the same way that faithful Jews in Jesus’ day did. Their Sabbath is the seventh day of the week, Saturday. It begins at sundown on Friday and lasts till sundown on Saturday. They do no work on the Sabbath and dutifully go to worship at the local synagogue. If you happen to drive along Peterson Ave. in Chicago on a Saturday you will see many orthodox Jewish families walking to and from worship.
Within the Christian realm, Seventh Day Adventists insist that we have a responsibility to keep the Old Testament Sabbath, to worship and do no work on Saturday, the seventh day of the week. Strict Calvinist Reformed worshipers insist that Sunday is to be observed like the Old Testament Sabbath, that it’s a day for worship and no work. Not as strict Reformed and Protestant or Evangelical Christians observe Sunday as the Lord’s Day, a kind of New Testament Sabbath day set aside for public worship.
And what about us Lutherans? What do we believe about the Sabbath? Well, that Sunday so many years ago when I thought I was going to go hell for sure for breaking the Sabbath is a good indicator that lurking in the hearts of many Lutherans, or, at least this one Lutheran, were some false ideas about the Sabbath, some misunderstandings about keeping the Sabbath, some misunderstandings about Sabbath-rest.
The writer of the book of Hebrews in his 4th chapter gives us some good insight into the uses of Sabbath or rest or Sabbath-rest across the pages of Holy Scripture, what the Sabbath is for us Christians today, and what Sabbath-rest we should especially be concerned about.
The book of Hebrews was written to Christians who had been Old Testament believers. That’s why it’s called the book of Hebrews. They were primarily Jews who had come to believe that Jesus was the long-promised Messiah. They believed that Jesus was their Savior from sin. But many of these Jewish believers were being severely persecuted and challenged by their fellow Jews who didn’t believe in Jesus. They were seriously tempted to give up their faith in Jesus. The writer’s purpose in this letter was to convince them not to give up their faith, that Jesus really was the Son of God, the Messiah, and their Savior.
Therefore the writer begins in our text by warning his readers about unbelief, about falling away from Jesus, about losing the Sabbath-rest that Jesus won for them. He reminds them that many of the people of Israel under Moses’ leadership did not enter the Promised Land rest but died in the wilderness because of their unfaithfulness.
The writer uses the term Sabbath-rest in different ways in order to help his readers and us focus on the most important Sabbath-rest, the eternal Sabbath-rest. He reminds us of God’s rest on the seventh day of creation. We remember how we’re told that God was busy creating the earth, the plants, the animals, and man and woman on the six days of creation. But on the seventh day God rested. Clearly God didn’t have to rest as if he were tired. But he rested in the sense that he stopped working, he stopped his creating work.
It’s interesting in that creation account that each one of the six days of creation ends with the familiar statement, “And there was evening, and there was morning – the first day,” and then the second day, and so on. But on the seventh day that sentence about evening and morning is not there. There’s an implication that God’s Sabbath-rest of the seventh day was not meant to be just one day, it was meant to go on forever. Adam and Eve and all their descendants, you and I, were to enjoy an eternal Sabbath-rest in a perfect world with God. Sin, however, destroyed that perfect, eternal Sabbath-rest.
Then the writer speaks about the Sabbath-rest that the people of Israel were supposed to experience in the Promised Land. But many of them never entered that rest because of their sin and disobedience.
But then the writer notes something very important. Even though many of those people of Israel didn’t enter the Sabbath-rest of the Promised Land, God still promised another kind of Sabbath-rest to faithful believers who were yet to come. We know that because about four-hundred years after Moses and Joshua, King David wrote in the 95th psalm, “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.” In other words God was encouraging people, “Do not harden your hearts in sin and unbelief like so many people in Moses’ day did. Rather remain faithful so that you can experience my eternal Sabbath-rest, what I always intended for you.”
And so the writer begins in our text, “There remains, then, a Sabbath-rest for the people of God.” And he goes on, “Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.”
And so that we’ll make that effort to enter God’s eternal Sabbath-rest and not fall away into sin and unbelief the writer gives us a very clear and vivid warning: “For the word of God is living and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
If you or I think that we can hide our sin or unfaithfulness from God we should think again. God knows every sinful thought, hears every sinful word, and sees every sinful action. He could expose and reveal them all. Sometimes he does in this life. He could reveal all our sins on the last day if he chose, even the deepest, darkest, most private sins and thoughts.
So take your sin and any unfaithfulness seriously. Don’t imagine that your sins make no difference, that if they aren’t known they won’t harm you or your relationship with God.
Rather, “make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will fall by following their example of disobedience.” And the writer of Hebrews gives us good reason to turn from our sin, to repent of our sin, to turn to God for his eternal Sabbath-rest. “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.”
What faith do you profess? What do you believe in? Whom do you believe in? Whom do you trust to enter God’s eternal Sabbath-rest? Jesus is the perfect high priest, he’s the perfect Savior. He’s superior to all the high priests of the Old Testament. Those high priests were mere human beings. They were sinful human beings. They offered sacrifices on the altar at the tabernacle and temple that never really atoned for sins.
But Jesus is a high priest who came from heaven. He is the Son of God. He was without sin. And he offered himself as a holy sacrifice on the cross to genuinely atone for our sins and the sins of the whole world. He rose from the dead and once again ascended back to heaven. You and I profess faith in Jesus our great and perfect high priest. So let us take seriously the encouragement of the writer, “Let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.”
And we hold firmly to our faith in Jesus by hearing God’s word. That’s why coming to worship on Sunday morning is so important. This is where we worship Jesus. This is where we hear the word of God read. This is where we hear the word of God preached. Any time, any day, we read God’s word, hear God’s word, study God’s word is a day and time that we’re keeping the Sabbath. We’re keeping the Sabbath because we’re learning that we can rest from our sin and rest in God’s mercy and forgiveness. We’re keeping the Sabbath because we’re focusing our attention on the eternal Sabbath-rest that is to come.
And Jesus will help us from now until we enter that eternal Sabbath-rest. He is able “to sympathize with our weaknesses” because he “has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet was without sin.” Jesus knows what it’s like to be one of us. He knows what it’s like to be a human. He knows exactly what it’s like to be tempted. And he withstood all temptation for us.
So the writer encourages us, “Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” Approach the throne of God’s grace on Sunday morning. Approach the throne of God’s grace any day, any time. At the throne of God’s grace and mercy you will find his forgiveness and Sabbath-rest. Amen.