Summary: As the people of God, we are called to work in partnership with Christ and with each other.
I am always encouraged when people from congregations across Northern Oho can blend their gifts and energy for the good of the entire district and especially when we can worship together. Hebrews 2:12 says, “In the midst of the congregation I will praise you.” And that is what we want to do this morning.
At Elm Street, we don’t see large crowds on Sunday mornings, so it is a special treat to gather with such a large number of brothers and sisters in the faith.
Some of you may have come here this weekend a bit discouraged about your congregation. Commitment levels are down. Absenteeism is up. Volunteers are few. Challenges are many. You may feel worn down, used up, and done in. You may be tired and exhausted and almost ready to give up the fight because the giants you face seem so big. And you recognize your need for encouragement and hope. A lot of us here know that feeling.
The Elm Street Church began over a hundred years ago as a mission project. By the late 1950s, it had become a large congregation, but then in the 60s, attendance began to dwindle, discouragement set in, and mission efforts almost fizzled out. So, when Sue and I were interviewed 25 years ago, one of the board members told us, “We don’t need much. All we need is someone to do the marryin’ and the buryin’, and there won’t be much marryin’.”
Discouragement is not a new phenomenon among God’s people. The letter to the Hebrews was written to a congregation that was disheartened, discouraged, and disillusioned. According to Hebrews 10, the memory of hardship, suffering, and public abuse was still fresh on their minds. They had gone through tough times. Even their possessions had been plundered. The writer says in 10:32, “You endured a hard struggle.” Chapter 12 tells us that their knees were weak and their hands were drooping. It was a congregation that had become tired and weary, and their lame feet needed healing. It reminds me of the words in Martin Smith’s song “Shout to the North,” which say, “Rise up church with broken wing. Fill this place with songs again.” Many of you understand the sentiment of those words because hope has receded into the horizon.
One modern writer reminds us that “The most important currency a congregation has to spend is hope. If hope gets spent down, there isn’t much of anything else left.” (Alan Roxburgh & Fred Romanuk. The Missional Leader).
When I was in graduate school, my research project focused on a congregation that was going through severe conflict. One of the things I found was that the conflict had gone on so long and had become so intense that some members had lost hope. They were saying things like “It’s hopeless” or “It won’t get better.” Many of them were unwilling to invest more energy into the life of the congregation and they left. Discouragement can rob us of our hope for the future.
The book of Hebrews is “a book for dreamers,” one writer has said. Or maybe we should say “It’s a book for visionaries.” (Issaac S. Villegas, The Mennonite. June 2, 2009) It’s a sermon filled with hope. Try reading it aloud sometime and listen to its message. It will take you less than 35 minutes and its 13 chapters will refresh your soul.
In some ways, Hebrews reminds me of a little boy at our church. We see this little boy nearly every Sunday and he seems normal in every way but one. He can’t walk. Instead, he runs. It makes some of us tired just to watch him; he has lots of energy. And if you try to catch up with him, he will suddenly veer off in a direction you don’t expect. That’s kind of the way the book of Hebrews is written.
As Hebrews begins, the ideas and understandings of Jesus come tumbling out, one right after the other.
• First, the author tells us that God spoke through the prophets of old, but that more recently he has spoken through Jesus.
• Next, he focuses on the importance of the angels in heaven, but he says that Jesus is greater.
• Then he praises Moses, that great leader of the Israelites, but he makes clear that Jesus is even superior to him.
• And just when this Hebrew congregation begins to think, “OK. We get the point. It’s all about Jesus and him alone. All that matters is his majesty and glory, praise his Holy name,” the writer turns in a direction that sweeps up the members of this discouraged church and carries them along in his understanding of God’s heavenly purposes.
And we begin to realize that it is the faithfulness of Jesus that brings hope and significance to the church that He has established. Jesus is the church’s one foundation. He is our hope. And we can take courage because we are his household and together we serve the same Lord. We are partners in a heavenly calling.