Not Meeting Together
09/06/2002 at 6.30pm
Jesmond Parish Church
A sermon preached by Ian Garrett
I wonder how we treat church meetings like this.
It may be that we treat church like a petrol filling station. We basically come to re-fill our spiritual tanks. And although there are lots of other people here on the forecourt, we don't really want to get involved with them. We just want to drive in, fill up and drive out.
Or it may be that we treat church like the cinema. We could have taken the home video approach tonight and all stayed in to read the Bible and pray on our own. But instead we've taken the multiplex approach only sadly without the seats and come together so we each get a bigger and better private experience.
Let me give you a moment to answer to yourself this question. What's wrong with those ways of thinking about church?
What's wrong with those ways of thinking is that they make church just an individual thing. So, I come to a service or CYFA or Home Group or whatever to get my 'top-up', my Bible input, my praise-experience, etc.. In fact, our society is so individualistic that you may have had trouble spotting what was wrong with those ways of thinking they come so naturally. But the bit of the Bible we're going to look at tonight knocks them firmly on the head.
It's always unsatisfactory dipping into the middle of a Bible book for a one-off a bit like walking into a film half-way through - and I wish we did it less. But, let's pick it up at Hebrews 10.19:
ThereforeWhich means that at this point the Bible is changing gear from reminding us about Jesus and what he's done for us, to spelling out how we should respond. So that in vv19-25 there's a series of 'let us''s 'Therefore, let us do this let us do that ' Verse 19:
19 Therefore, brothers [and sisters], since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, [ie, since Jesus has died on the cross and so can forgive anyone everything] 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. 23 Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. 24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another - and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (vv19-25)Now there are some things in those verses that we each have to do individually. Eg, v22 'let us draw near to God'. I can pray for you and I do. I can pray and praise with you like we've done tonight. But I can't do your drawing near to God for you, any more than you can do mine for me. At the end of the day, I've got to deal with God individually from the heart and so have you. But in vv24-25 we come to things that are not just individual. Things that others need us to do for them and that you and I need others to do for us. Verse 24 again:
24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another - and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (vv24-25)Which says loud and clear that we need one another in order to keep going as Christians. And that's what these 'Hebrews' ie, Christians with a Jewish background needed to be told (and so do we). Their story so far was this. They'd come to faith in Jesus and straight away run into a lot of 'stick' for it. Look down to verse 32:
32 Remember those earlier days after you had received the light, when you stood your ground in a great contest in the face of suffering. 33 Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated. 34 You sympathized with those in prison and joyfully accepted the confiscation of your property, because you knew that you yourselves had better and lasting possessions. (vv32-34)Last year some of us coming to a morning service here had to walk through a demonstration against some of the Bible truths we teach. But that was nothing compared to these Hebrews. Imagine the demonstration came back week after week. And then that the authorities were on their side. And then that people were being dragged out of services into police vans and off to prison. It would make you think twice about coming, wouldn't it? It would make you think about yourself. And what God said to these 'Hebrews' in their situation, he's still saying to us, today, in ours. Namely:
I. Consider others
First, CONSIDER OTHERS (v24)
24 And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.Two words sum up what our attitude should be to any meeting with fellow-Christians: consider others.
Whereas by nature we consider ourselves. I don't know about you when it comes to Sunday afternoon or Wednesday evening or whenever it is that a group you're in meets. But some time or other I reckon we've all said to ourselves things like, 'I don't feel like going.' Or, 'I'm not getting much out of it.' Or, 'I'm too tired.' Or, 'I'm too busy.' And they all seem such strong reasons for not going. Until you realize they're all about me. So far, I haven't considered anyone other than myself.
And I find it revolutionises my view of the meetings and groups I'm involved with when I consider others. It's revolutionary to look down my Home Group list in advance and think, 'How do they feel?' Answer: hard-pressed Christians in need of encouragement. So fat lot of good if I won't go and encourage them. Again, it's revolutionary to ask, 'What are they getting out of it?' And part of the answer is what I'm putting into it. So fat lot of good if I just come expecting to get and not to give if I come wearing my invisible 'I've had a harder day than you; look after me!' badge.
The truth is that any group of people coming together where each simply expects to get their needs met is going to be a disaster. Whereas a group of people coming together where each aims to meet one another's needs will work - because everyone's needs will be met without anyone having gone looking for that.
And can I say: any meeting or group - like services or small groups or youth groups is only like a bit of scaffolding within which we have the opportunity to build relationships and actually get involved in one another's lives. But the scaffolding won't make that happen. That's down to us. And it's not the scaffolding's fault if it doesn't happen. Although good scaffolding helps, obviously.
So that's the first thing. Consider others. When you're on the brink of not going to whatever it is, don't think of it as 'the service' or 'CYFA' or 'Home Group' or 'Focus' something nameless and faceless. Think of a few others who'll be there. Think of it as Sarah and Pete, Paul and Liz, and so on. Because services and CYFA and Home Group and all the rest is people. Consider others.
Secondly, MEET OTHERS (v25a)
Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing (v25a)Some of these Hebrew Christians had stopped meeting together because the non-Christian world made it hard to meet for the reasons we saw earlier in vv32-34. Eg, v33:
Sometimes you were publicly exposed to insult and persecution; at other times you stood side by side with those who were so treated.Non-Christian family members, non-Christian friends, non-Christian authorities basically the non-Christian world - made it very hard for them if they actually put their heads above the parapet and met together. And in that kind of situation, you're sorely tempted not to meet, aren't you?
Now our situation here is different at least for now. But not totally. The non-Christian world still makes it hard. Eg, I'm sure there are some of us here whose housemates or even family members over the last few months have made comments about us coming to church which have made it harder for us to come. Perhaps some of them have even been obstructive. Now that's not prison like the Hebrews were facing. But it's not pleasant, either. And things could get less pleasant: five, ten years down the tracks there could be more demonstrations, and anti-Christian legislation on the demonstrators' side. Which would make it much harder to associate with any church taking a public stand on all that the Bible says. And we need to reckon with that.
And if you're not yet a believer in Jesus, you need to reckon with the cost of associating publicly with fellow-Christians. You will strain or even possibly lose the odd friendship. But the flip-side of it is that you won't be in it on your own. That's the whole point of this bit of the Bible.
So: the non-Christian world makes it hard to meet together. And on top of what we've just seen, we should add that even its structures - like Sunday working and shift working - make it hard.
But then, also, your job and its mobility may make it hard to meet with other Christians. Going home over the summer may make it hard. (And in both those cases, we must take the initiative to stay really closely in touch with Christian friends.) For some of our church family, it's not just hard; it's impossible. I've been aware, preparing this, of housebound people like Joyce Ferry, who would love to be here; and I've been thankful for those who visit them, to bring a meeting to their homes.
But then an additional application of v24 is that we shouldn't make it additionally hard either for ourselves or for others.
It is possible to make it hard for ourselves to meet. Eg, by living a long way from church. Or even moving somewhere where there just isn't a good church. Which is why I always say to students that the ideal in planning future moves is to think: first, church (is there a good one in this place I'm thinking of working in?); second, house (live in a house that makes it easy to get to church); then third, work (it's fine if that's harder to get to, because you've got the strong incentive that they'll fire you if you don't). It's why I'd encourage CYFA members to choose university or college courses on the basis of whether there's a good church (plus or minus good Christian Union) where you're thinking of going. And I'd encourage all of us to apply that order of priorities in any move in life. Eg, it's more important that the children are in a good Sunday school than in a good school.
Again, it's possible to make it hard for ourselves by settling for a church on the grounds that it's local, when it simply isn't Christian: it's not a Bible-believing and teaching church. Which is spiritual folly. It's like shooting yourself in the foot at the start of the race. And I'd say: either commute to a healthy church or move.
And there are plenty of other ways of making it hard for ourselves to meet such as the late Saturday night; the weekend away; and also the hit-and-run attendance. I know it's a chicken and egg problem you feel like legging it straight after the service because you don't know anyone; but the reason you don't know anyone is that you leg it straight after the service. And I apologise on our behalf if that's because we've failed to welcome you.
That's making it hard for ourselves. But we also need to beware of making it hard for others. The number one reason I've heard newcomers give for why they were put off coming to our church again is: 'No-one spoke to me.' And brothers and sisters, that is not because the staff failed or the Welcome Desk failed or the sidesmen failed; it's because we as a body of Christians failed. If you're a believer, you are the welcome team. Liz Bailey, now Jackson, when she was on the staff, used to liken Sundays to throwing a party. She'd say, 'It's our party; so it's our job to talk to people and introduce people to one another and generally look out for people.' And that's dead right. And if you're worried about getting into conversation, the golden rule is: saying nothing to someone is always worse. In my tired, end-of-Sunday moments, I'm sure I've bored the pants off generations of students as I've struggled to hit on what interests them. But I guarantee it was better that they went away spoken to than not. 'No-one spoke to me.'
On my sabbatical last summer I visited a church in Los Angeles. I parked on the road near the church, got out and saw a guy obviously going to church because he was carrying a vast Bible, which looked like a briefcase without the handle. And he said to me 'Hi!!' So I said, 'Good morning.' And he said, 'Have you come far to church today?' So I said 'About 5000 miles (or whatever it was).' And we got talking. And he hosted me throughout the morning. Sat with me. Explained the bits of paper, and the bits of the service which are so alienating to a newcomer. Took me to the Welcome Desk (which of course in California is outside in the blazing sun, under palm trees) to get my complimentary visitor doughnut and lemonade. Showed me round their church site. I arrived back in the UK to find a letter from him. He must have asked their church office if an English guy had by any chance left his address on that particular Sunday.
Brothers and sisters, that is exemplary. And it should be normal among us.
Contrast that with the experience of a friend of mine on arriving at university. He wasn't yet a Christian, but was interested. He found his own way to a Christian Union Hall Group meeting, but got there a bit late. He knocked on the door. A face poked out and said, 'Shh! We're praying. You'll have to wait out there till we've finished.' Miraculously he waited and when they finished they called him in. They didn't ask his name or introduce themselves. They gave him a Bible and said, 'We're looking at Ecclesiastes.' And when he obviously couldn't find it, one of them helpfully said, 'It's in the Old Testament, stupid.'
It took him three years to go back to a Christian meeting. Three wasted years. Verse 25: 'Let us not give up meeting together.' And let us not be the reasons why other people give up meeting, either.
Let me just say something on when we are most tempted to give up meeting.
One time is: when we move to a new place. And we face the effort of finding and trying and joining and getting stuck into a new church. When we're back at 'square 1' in the friendship stakes and everything work, rest and play - is an effort. And at a new church we discover not the perfectly welcoming, hospitable Christians we should all be, but the shy, sinful, preoccupied Christians we all are. And much patience is needed. If you are moving away, please do use the 'Good Church Guide' - which in reality is Georgy (one of our Parish Assistants) - to ask for help in finding good churches (leaflets on the Welcome Desk, or contact Georgy). And that applies equally to finding a church near home or work over the university holiday.
Another time we're tempted to give up meeting is when life is hard, as it was for these Hebrews. When we're disillusioned with God and least feel like it. But we need to say to ourselves, 'The times I least feel like coming are the times I most need to.'
Another time is when we're struggling most with sin and, frankly, failing. And can I say: the times we feel we have most to hide are the times we most need not to hide, but to be among our fellow-Christians, to be encouraged and pointed back to the Lord Jesus and his constant forgiveness and acceptance of us as the sinners we are. When we feel failures beyond forgiveness, we need others to tell us:
19 Therefore, brothers [and sisters], since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, 21 and since we have a great priest over the house of God, 22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water. (vv19-22)And on that score, can I plead with us to treat one another realistically? Please assume that your fellow-Christians are discouraged that's a safe default position to work from. Please assume that they are as sinful and struggling as you are. Then you'll be in a position to encourage them.
When are we tempted to give up meeting? Basically, any time. All the time. Which is why many people find it so helpful to commit to a role which means they have to be there. Eg, tonight, I had no problem deciding whether or not to come. Nor did the Music Group or the PA or Video Team or the Sidesmen or the Welcome Desk Team or the tea and coffee maesters. A commitment to a role is a sort of 'auto-discipline'. It's massively helpful.
So, Consider others. So that we meet others.
Thirdly, ENCOURAGE OTHERS (v25b)
Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another--and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Ie, the point of meeting is not just for tea or coffee or football chit chat. It's for encouragement. Which in the New Testament means specifically Christian encouragement helping and urging and spurring others on to keep trusting the Lord and to keep living Christianly. Which is why we put the Bible at the heart of our groups not because we think they're just 'Bible study groups'. But because the best thing we can do for one another is to keep pointing one another to the Lord through his Word.
And we are responsible for keeping one another going as Christians by doing that. We're responsible for spotting the signs in one another of fatigue or doubt or discouragement or compromise whatever and encouraging one another back to spiritual health. We're not just lone individuals. And if that sounds a bit heavy to you, just look at the end of v25:
and all the more as you see the Day approaching.That means 'the Day' of Jesus' return, the day of judgement. So picture this scenario. Joe Bloggs drops out of church and you or I are the one who knows him. And the temptation is to think, 'Well, is it any of my business? Mightn't it look a bit heavy if I phone or try to visit or whatever?' Well, hold on. The point is: 'the Day' is approaching. If Joe's dropped out it may mean he's not yet a Christian- he's had a 'look, see', and backed off. But where does that leave him for that 'Day'? Unforgiven. Unreconciled to the Lord. Or it may mean he's a Christian who's not going well right now in the Christian race. In which case he's in danger of arriving at that 'Day' yes, forgiven and accepted, but looking back regretfully at a Christian life that could have been so much more fruitful - if only someone had got alongside him and encouraged him.
Consider others. So that we meet others. In order to encourage others.
Let me close with this. I remember my Graduation Day all of us standing in our College year, waiting to go off to the University Senate House to collect our degrees. And a friend said to me, 'Isn't it great to look around and, whether people have worked well or rescued a last-minute pass, to think, 'We all made it to this Day in the end'?' And we reminisced about the people we'd helped the all-night typing-their-dissertation sessions; for some of them, the all-night vigils having put them to bed dangerously drunk. And we remembered the people who'd helped us who'd lent us notes and tried to explain partial differentiation into the small hours before an exam. And so on. And there was just a great sense, on that Day, that we'd made it to that Day together; and that we wouldn't have made it on our own.
And it'll be something like that on 'the Day' Christians are all standing face to face with the Lord Jesus for the first time. And in view of that, the Lord says to us:
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. 25 Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another - and all the more as you see the Day approaching. (vv24-25)
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