The text for our consideration today is our Epistle reading from Hebrews 4 which concerns or entrance into God’s rest.
“Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it.” (4:1).
I’m not sure why you’re here today. For that matter, I’m not sure why you come here at all. You all have countless other places you could be today, and countless other things you could be doing today. And Lord knows, there are far more people who have either chosen not to be here today or for whom the thought of spending the morning in this building to do whatever it is that we do here is unthinkable. But for some reason, you have set all that long list of options for where you could be and what you could be doing, to be here. Why?
Allow me to try to steer your answer to my question to the one I’m looking for. I hope that you’re here today, and not somewhere else, because this is the time and the place where you get to participate in something that you only get to participate in here, at this time – what we call, the Divine Service.
Essentially, the Divine Service is the setting in which we hear God’s Word announced to us, and in which the Lord’s Supper is fed to us. The Divine Service requires a vigorous PARTICIPATION on our part. And our PARTICIPATION determines whether or not this is worthwhile time or a waste of time.
We PARTICIPATE in the Divine Service by ‘listening’ to God’s Word proclaimed and then ‘speaking back’ to God with the words that He Himself has first given us to speak. We PARTICIPATE in the Divine Service by ‘eating and drinking’ God’s Word embodied in the bread and the wine according to His Word – “take and eat… take and drink.”
We’re here today and not somewhere else, because there’s something happening here that we want to PARTICIPATE in more than anything else we could be doing somewhere else right now. And the reason that we willingly, even eagerly, set aside all the options we have for what we could be doing right now, to do this, IS TOTALLY SELFISH. We get SOMETHING out of PARTICIPATING in this that we don’t get from anything else we could be doing. And that ‘SOMETHING,’ is the VERY THING that gets to the deepest depths of our being like nothing else can.
Here, in the Divine Service, we hear God Himself speak to us through His Word, not only in the sermon, but in the scripture readings and in the entire liturgy which is drawn from God’s own Word. As we ‘participate’ in the Divine Service by ‘listening’ to His Word as though God Himself were speaking directly TO ME, we enter into a ‘listening’ that is unlike any other ‘listening’ that happens in any other place we could be if we weren’t here.
For here, we hear a Word that seems to know us better than we know ourselves. We hear a Word that gets right to heart of our heart and exposes all of the big and little cover-ups we work so hard to maintain so that no one can see who we really are – but then this Word from above says, “I see you. And nothing is hidden from Me.” And then it quickly proclaims that most unexpected and contrary to reason Word – “And I love you nonetheless – and you can quit all that hard work of covering up and hiding from ME and from others and from yourself.” “I know you, before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and I love you, and I forgive you all of your sins, and that’s the truth, and the truth shall set you free.”
When we don’t listen to this Word of God, either because we’re not here or because we’re wishing we weren’t, it’s “like seed sown on the path that never sinks in, and the birds come and devour it.” (Matt.13:4) But when we ‘listen’ to this Word of God, it’s “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and marrow, discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” (Heb.4:12). And it changes us.
• His Word changes us from a restless soul that is always striving to become the person who could be loved, yet never satisfied and never secure, into a soul that rests in the security of knowing that we are loved with the greatest love there is, even the love of God Himself.
• His Word changes us from that constantly searching but never finding, always restless, into a heart that is content and at peace solely because I know that Jesus Christ HAS FOUND ME and as long as HE HAS ME, I have all that I want.
• His Word changes our cold and dark heart from the accusing and judging machine that is, constantly spitting out reminder upon reminder of every good reason that we have to feel guilty and ashamed of ourselves, into a heart that is bursting with the overwhelming light and joy of prisoners set free by a gracious judge who has pardoned me, and forgiven me all of my sins, and “remembers them no more.”
This change that God works in us as we ‘listen’ to His Word proclaimed is then further compounded in us as we ‘participate’ in the Sacrament of the Altar, where the Word becomes flesh and dwells, not only AMONG US, but also IN US.
• When His body and blood get into us through this bread and wine, He comes into our ‘emptiness’ and ‘fills’ us with Himself – who is the fullness of God, and who “fills all in all.” (Eph.3:19; 4:10).
• When His body and blood get into us through this bread and wine, He restores our deeply imbedded need for a relationship with God apart from which we are always going to be terribly alone and lonely no matter how active our social life might be. As the man and woman ‘hid themselves from God,’ the One who is ‘fully God’ hides Himself in us and us in Himself through this eating and drinking of His body and blood. And even in our times of solitary isolation, we are never alone, for He is “with us.” “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
• When His body and blood get into us through this bread and wine, He restores our loveless soul that longs for real intimacy that is not only loved but also able to love another person with true love. He pours out the perfect love of God – from the cross – to our mouth – in this ‘most intimate’ unity of His body with our body and His blood with our blood.
If you were to try to summarize in one word, all that we have expanded on here, that word would be what our epistle reading calls, “rest.” “Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it.” (4:1).
This is why we have come here to this place on this day. You are here to ‘enter His rest,’ His ‘Sabbath.’ We are NOT HERE to ‘DO SOMETHING FOR GOD’ or ‘GIVE SOMETHING TO GOD,’ but to stop our doing and stop our giving and receive the heavenly gifts that God gives in this place, in the way.
• Here, we who are “anxious and troubled by many things,” receive the ‘rest’ that Mary is commended for seeking from her Lord as she sat at His feet and listened to His Word.
• Here, we who carry those heavy burdens of anger or guilt or shame receive “rest for our souls” from Him who takes our heavy yoke upon Himself and hangs from it at the cross.
• Here, we who are hounded by that relentless and never satisfied demand to prove ourselves and earn our way and live up to our potential, which no matter how high we reach always moves a little higher, here we receive a foretaste of the ‘perfect rest’ that is already finished and complete and that we will enter into when all our work here is done.
The familiar words of St. Augustine bear repeating here. “O God, you have created us for yourself and our souls are restless until they find their rest in Thee.”
• This is the ‘rest’ that God wove into the fabric of His creation on the 7th Day when He “rested from all the work that He had done.”
• This is the ‘rest’ that He led His people, Israel to by a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. But they grumbled and complained and refused to ‘listen’ to His Word and ‘receive’ His food as they should have. “And so the message they heard did not benefit them because they were not united by faith with those who listened… As I swore in my wrath, they shall not enter my rest.”
• This is the “rest” that Jesus offered to the rich, young man, who was so weary, but who refused to believe that this Jesus of Nazareth could truly give him – and “went away sorrowful.”
This warning is for us. The same can happen to us as happened to them. “Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it.” (4:1). Or as we may be more familiar saying this verse,“We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His word but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”
“Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he appoints a certain day, ‘Today,” saying through David long ago… ‘Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.’”
This ‘day’ that David calls “today,” is that 7th day when God established His perfect rest in which He Himself rests and into which He brings all who will enter. God’s ‘rest’ is an eternal and unchangeable ‘rest.’ ‘As it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be.’ This is the ‘rest’ that our Lord restored to His fallen world, when He declared from the cross that all the work that He came into this world to do is now “finished.”
And on the 7th day He rested. And on the 1st Day of this NEW CREATION, He began to lead His people, the New Israel, into His rest – declaring His Word, feeding with heavenly food.
“For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience.”
Why are you here today? We are here today to enter into this “divine rest” that God gives through this Divine Service.