It has been my custom for the past several years to start the year with a covenant renewal celebration. When I first did this I meant it in the sense that every time a church gathers around the Lord's Table, they engage in a covenant renewal activity - that's how holy communion functions. But in 2016, we established a church covenant and now, at the beginning of the year, we can see this first Communion Sunday as a time to reflect on and re-affirm our commitment to one another in our church covenant.
This morning, I am going to direct my comments to the covenant members of the church – those who have signed the church covenant and committed themselves to this fellowship of Christians to be participants in our life and ministry together. I know many are present who are not covenant members; you are all invited to listen in, and I’m sure there will be much you can gain and appreciate from what I will say. Yet I am speaking directly to the members.
I would like to begin in an unexpected way this morning, by reminding you of the tabernacle. This is a picture of the tabernacle – the large tent of worship the Israelites were commanded to make in the wilderness of the Sinai Peninsula in the 15th century bc.
This tent-structure was inside a large enclosed area where worshipers would gather. God himself commanded that Moses have the Israelites construct this moveable, semi-permanent tent; in fact, he gave him explicit instructions to “build it according to the pattern shown to you on the mountain” (Exo 26.30, etc.). In other words, as the New Testament indicates, this tabernacle was simply an earthly copy of a heavenly original – the true “holy places” are in the presence of God where Jesus Christ now intercedes for us.
Now, the tabernacle had two rooms – the outer one was called “the holy place.” This was the room containing a table with twelve loaves of bread called, “the bread of the presence,” and it contained a brilliantly lighted lampstand with seven lamps (like a menorah today among the Jewish people), and the golden altar of incense right in front of the thick curtain that separated this room from the inner room called, “the most holy place.” In this completely dark inner room was only one price of furniture: the ark of the covenant. This was a golden chest with a shining gold top over which two angels hovered. This was the "footstool" on which, in the imagery of the tabernacle, the living God rested his feet from his dwelling place in heaven.
Into the holy place, the priests could go every day to maintain the lamps, to burn the incense, and to refresh the loaves. But into the most holy place only the high priest could go on only one day of the year to sprinkle the blood of an atoning sacrifice on the ark of the covenant - on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement.
The tabernacle represented the presence of the holy God with his chosen people. They knew he was Lord of all and could not be contained in an earthly building. But they also knew that he promised to dwell with and among his people in a unique way – protecting them, providing for them, and guiding them. God himself designed this place and everything inside of it for the express purpose of revealing his holy presence and inciting his people’s heartfelt worship and awe. God filled the heavens and the earth but, in a unique way, he dwelt among his people in the tabernacle.
That is the image that you are to have in mind when you read this passage. Read again:
Therefore, brothers [and sisters], since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God” (Heb 10.19–21).
The tabernacle of Israel in the wilderness of Sinai was only a shadow (the writer of this letter says) of which Jesus is the reality in heaven. That is what the writer has been endeavoring to show in the whole book up to this point. Now that Christ has come, we who believe have the reality of what the former people of God had only in a suggestive, representative form.
This letter was written, we can gather, to a house church in the city of Rome around 50 ad. This small group of people – less than thirty or forty, most likely – had come to faith in Christ out of the Jewish people in the capital city. They had experienced new life in Christ, had been visited by the representatives of the apostles; they had suffered for their faith at the hands of the both the Roman government and even more from their former friends and families in the Jewish synagogue; and they are weary. In their discouragement, they are being tempted to give up Christ and return to their former way of life. The writer writes to encourage them hold fast to Christ, to not give him up. He informs them of the privileges of their new status in Christ and he warns them of the consequences if they turn away from him.
And this passage is one of the high points of application in the book - it actually introduces the fourth warning, though we're not going to go that far. This whole paragraph is like an “If/then” statement. Only the “if” is a certainty, translated “since.” Since we have the reality of what was only pictured in the Old Testament, since we have the reality of what the tabernacle was, since we have the actual presence of the holy God, since we have the truly atoning blood, since we have the great high priest… then here is how we should live, these are the conclusions. Look at your Bible, there are three conclusions:
Verse 22: “let us draw near…”
Verse 23: “Let us hold fast…”
Verse 24: “let us consider…”
These three exhortations tell us what it means to live as God’s people in light of all that we have in Christ. These instructions are as necessary for us today as they were for the early believers in Rome.
First, verse 22: “let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.”
Let us draw near…to what? Well, in the imagery of the passage, we are to confidently enter the most holy place at the bidding of our great priest who is over the people of God. That which only the high priest could do and on only one day, we can do at any time in our spirits as we take the hand of Jesus (so to speak) and follow him into the presence of the Father.
And because of that, he draws a picture of our condition both inwardly and outwardly. Inwardly, we have “our hearts sprinkled clean from evil conscience” (v 22). This is, according to Ezekiel 36, the Holy Spirit’s work of cleansing that is like the rain, “I will sprinkle clean water upon you and you shall be clean,” promised the Lord of what the new covenant would bring. In Christ, we have in reality what the Old Testament saints had only by faith, the full forgiveness of sins and the cleansing of the conscience from guilt. This is God's inward work in the life of one who trusts in Christ alone.
And, the writer of Hebrews adds, “and our bodies washed with pure water.” This is the outward work of cleansing that is based on the first, inward work. In response to his grace, we confess our faith when we are baptized, which is our symbolic acknowledgment of what God has done inside of us.
Since, this is true (the writer tells us) we should draw near to God in worship demonstrating our devotion to him with hearts of intense submission to him and recognition of his worthiness. That’s first, “let us draw near.”
And, second, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering,” (verse 23) “for he who promised is faithful.” Sometimes when we celebrate the Lord’s supper we confess our faith using the Apostles’ Creed or the Heidelberg Catechism. That is not what this confession is about. This is about the basic confession that any other confession is based on. This refers to the confession that is made in baptism.
You see, baptism is the foundation of the Christian life. In baptism, a person gives a personal expression of faith – Christ has saved me. But, baptism is also called, “the pledge of a good conscience toward God" (1 Pet. 3.21). In baptism, a believer confesses faith in Christ AND submission to Christ. That confession, whether or not the words are used, is summarized by Paul as, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” So, any time a baptized Christian is called upon to confess his or her faith, it is simply an extension or a confirmation of that basic confession they made in baptism. Any confession of your faith – in church, at work, to your children – is simply a re-statement and a confirmation of your baptismal confession. Hold on to it, he says, don't let it go!
It is our faith in Christ he is urging us to hold fast. These believers were in danger of slipping away – many are today. “Hold fast your confession” he says.
So, “draw near in true worship,” and “hold fast your confession,” he says to us.
Finally, verse 24: “let us consider how to stir up one another to faith and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
This follows on the first two: If we are to draw near and hold fast, we are going to need the support and encouragement of our fellow-Christians. So, it is the responsibility of each member to consider how to stir up others to live for Christ, and it is the expectation of each member that as he or she does that, they will be stirred up as well by the others. Without it, we become weary, dull, sluggish, careless, and cold.
Those are our responsibilities: Draw near, hold fast, stir up.
But let’s note something about this passage, in fact, something about this whole book that is easily overlooked. The writer speaking to a church, that is, not the leaders but the members. When you read this book, you don’t even know that there are leaders until the last chapter and even there he doesn’t address them. There, in one sentence, he summarizes that responsibilities of the members to them their leaders:
“Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they are keeping watch over your souls as those who will give an account. Let them do this with joy and not with groaning for that would be of no advantage to you” (Heb 13.17).
Why is the focus on each of the believers not on those who have some spiritual responsibility for them? It is because leaders are given for the well-being of the church, not for its being. What I mean is that a church exists wherever true believers come together to worship and witness in a community; leaders – elders, pastors, ministers – are given to prosper the church. They aren't given to make up the church. Ultimately, I am only one of the members of this church, as are all the elders and staff. The church is the people, not the leaders.
That means, you members are responsible for this church – not me, not the elders, as though we could somehow lead it effectively ourselves without your participation.
Look at our church covenant which is inside your bulletin today. In one sense, this is also simply an extension of our individual baptismal confession. When we individually say, “Jesus Christ is Lord” at our baptism, we obligate ourselves to live according to his gracious rule which he communicated in his teachings in the New Testament. He said, “Go and make disciples, baptizing them… and teaching them to observe all that I commanded you.” All the covenant does is summarize his teachings so that we can commit ourselves to them.
May I summarize the covenant? None of it should surprise a Bible-reading person or be considered an unrealistic demand.
Introductory Conviction (first paragraph): We affirm that God has saved us by the gospel… So here’s what we intend to do:
Then there are seven bullet points:
- We will walk together in Christian love, as brothers and sisters doing for each other what we should…
- We will hold marriage and singleness in honor as God commands - faithfulness in marriage, chastity in singleness…
- We will seek to bring up our children in the Christian faith…
- We will worship together and alone…
- We will strive to live carefully in the world…
- (Let’s camp on this) “We will work together to maintain a faithful gospel ministry in this church, by participating in its worship, programs, discipline, and doctrines. We will contribute cheerfully and regularly to the expenses of the church, the relief of the poor, and the spread of the gospel through all nations.”
This point isn't given to the elders... except insofar as they are members. The members are responsible to maintain a faithful gospel ministry. All of the members! Those of us who are elders and pastors ought to do this as well, because we are members. You are responsible to maintain a faithful, gospel ministry in this church.
My four children were home over Christmas - with their spouses and children and of of the things that go along with them. We had a great time... and Laura and I were happy to see them wave to us our of their rear view windows when they drove away! But I had occasion to do a lot of reflection this Christmas.
On one hand, about three weeks before Christmas, we learned that Laura's mother has cancer and is dying. I am one of those privileged souls who knew that my parents-in-law loved and respected me and I felt the same about them. Margaret, Laura's mother, is the last of their parents and for us, the last of their generation.
On the other hand, in our house we had these grown children who grew up in that house. I had to remind myself that I'm not longer the parent of small children; I can't tell them what to do anymore. My only responsibility is to spoil the grandchildren and feed them candy.
Family's change! That's the nature of family. Nothing remains the same.
Our church is a family. And it is changing. is changing. One thing about our church family makes change difficult. We have always had a long-serving staff team. Right now, there are eight staff people listed on the back of the bulletin: Two of us (Clare and I) have been here for over thirty years; two more (Paul and Mary Kay) have been on staff for nearly twenty years; and two more, grew up at the church before joining the staff. (The other two we accepted in from outside!). That's a good thing and it provides real stability to a church. But that kind of stability makes change difficult.
Last month, our music minister, Brandon, and his wife, Katherine Bellanti moved to Boston. We’re in a process of looking for a replacement. That change is hard. But there are more substantial changes coming.
Next month, mid-month, Clare Holden will leave our staff. Some of you know, Clare has been to me like the sister I never had – faithful, hardworking, with the gift of service, she helped to create the administrative structure that has allowed this church to ministry faithfully. She took on responsibilities that allowed us as a church to focus on small groups, relationships, teaching, and not on arguing about finances and colors of paint. I can't imagine not having Clare in the office next to me! Clare’s retirement will not be a big change for most of you – she’s never had a prominent, up-front, kind of stature in the church. She’s had a quiet, behind-the-scenes, skeletal stature. You don't see a skeleton, but do you know what happens when you remove a skeleton from a body? You have a puddle on the floor!
Her retirement is a profound loss to the staff of the church, mostly me. But that's how families' work - they change.
And those changes will continue to happen. Someday, I’ll retire. Another, either from our staff staff or from outside, will take my role. Part of my responsibility is to help you face that as covenant members ought to.
You are responsible to maintain a faithful gospel ministry in this church - even as the church changes over time. How to you do this? The covenant states at least some of the ways.
First, you will do that "by participating in its worship, programs, discipline, and doctrines." As you come to worship, read the Bible, participate in small groups, involve yourself in ministry, and build life-altering relationships, God will shape you to be the kind of Christians who know the gospel and love the gospel.
Second, the covenant says you maintain that by contributing to the ministry of the church. "We will contribute cheerfully and regularly to the expenses of the church, the relief of the poor, and the spread of the gospel through all nations.” Those are the three things churches are meant to do - your support in doing that is what allows us to be a gospel-centered church.
Third, let me add what is found elsewhere in the covenant - you must pray for the church, for its leaders, for God's guidance and protection, and for the effectiveness of the gospel in people's lives.
As we stand and re-affirm the church covenant at the beginning of this new year, let's keep these things in mind. We are members of a living church, a lampstand in the heavenly tabernacle, and a shining light in this community!