A Proper Goodbye

Sermon recorded at Mayberry on Friday, June 19, 2021

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
June 20, 2021
Hebrews 13:18-25

I am sorry for the format issues in the bottom half of the sermon. I’m not sure what happened, and I have to now get ready to head to church! At least you can still read the text.

Setting the stage: At the opening of Worship

In a tweet this week, Pastor Timothy Keller wrote, “The gospel is neither religion nor irreligion, but something else entirely – a third way of relating to God through grace.”[1] I like that. It sounds a lot like what we have heard repeatedly as we have worked through the Book of Hebrews. The message of Hebrews was directed to a people who long to have rules to follow. They prefer the structure of their old faith rather than the graceful freedom offered in Jesus Christ. 

Today, we’re at the end of Hebrews. There are just a few items to clean up, some business to take care of before the author puts away his pen. Like us, he wants to make a good impression. Like us, he wants to say what’s important as he says goodbye. 

Saying what’s important, especially when saying goodbye, is a good message for Father’s Day. 

Read Hebrews 13:18-25

After the reading of Scripture:

We’re at the end. Not of history, at least I don’t think, but at the end of our work through Hebrews. We started this journey in January and since then, except for a break around Easter, have be enmeshed in this book. Are you ready for a new topic? I am. After all, this is my 21st sermon on the book. Today, we’re looking at endings. How do we say goodbye? 

Preparation for a trip

I think it was a Far Side comic. An ambulance delivers to the emergency room a patient from an accident. The doctor does a quick check, and then looks up to the nurses while shaking his head. “Dirty underwear, dirty socks, he’s hopeless. Who’s next?” The title below the drawing said something like, “Every Mother’s Nightmares? 

Was your mother that way? Did she make you wear clean clothes when traveling? Not only did mine do that, we had to leave a clean room behind. As bad as an accident might be, it would be horrible for someone else to have to clean up your mess. 

Thinking first about others

While there is humor in such situations, in the defense of mom’s everywhere (on this Father’s Day), such ideas are rooted in thinking about other people. That’s to be celebrated. It’s not a bad thing to leave a good impression, whatever it is we’re doing. 

Letters and Texts

Back in the day when people wrote letters by hand, which were sent through the Postal Service with an envelope and stamp and all, there was a particular form to follow. Most often, you ended the letter upbeat, hopeful, or at least invoking a blessing on the reader. 

Today, with character limits on text, few people even bother placing their name at the end. This creates a problem if the receiver of that text doesn’t have your name in their address book. If you receive such text, you only have a phone number to go by. You must either figure out who sent it (and what they’re talking about) or, at the risk of offended the sender, ask, “Who’s this?” 

I long for the good old days when we signed letters “sincerely,” and then included our name. It seems the courteous thing for us to do. Leave a good impression. After all, we have no control of the future. Instead of letting things hang, we should say our goodbyes in a way that if anything happened to us, we wouldn’t regret it. 

So, we kiss our loved ones when they, or we, set off on a trip. We tell family members we love them. We tell our friends how much we appreciate them. Proper goodbyes express our care. It’s the right thing to do. 

An American Requiem

An American Requiem: God, My Father, and the War that Came Between Us is a wonderful family memoir by James Carroll. The book also warns us on how not to say goodbye. I first read this book twenty years ago and sadly lent it out and couldn’t find it this week, but I remember much of the story. 
Carroll’s father planned on becoming a Catholic priest, but instead married and became involved in the early days of the FBI. He rose in the organization. He became J. Edgar Hoover’s right-hand man. When the Air Force was created after World War Two, he was chosen to head security. He went directly from being a civilian to receiving the stars of a general. Carroll grew up in Germany and Washington, DC, in a privileged household. Because of his father’s connections, he met Elvis Presley in Germany and dated one of Lyndon Johnson’s daughters. 
Assuming his father’s dream, Carroll enters the priesthood. This was the mid-60s, the era of Civil Rights and Vietnam. His father, at this point in his career, ran the bombing of North Vietnam. While in seminary, Carroll came under the influence of the Berrigan brothers, remember them? One of the two preached his ordination sermon. 
You can image how proud his dad was that his son was going to be a priest. After all, he’d felt the call but failed to follow it. His father invited all his friends. Sitting in the congregation that day were lots of generals and admirals. In addition, there were politicians, from the highest levels of government. And, in the pulpit, was an anti-war priest, who didn’t hold back words. His ordination was a disaster. For years afterwards, Carroll never talked to his dad. 
Then his father started to lose grip on things. It got so bad he was quietly retired from the Air Force. He was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. In his father’s remaining years, Carroll, left the priesthood, married, and had children. He tried to reach out to his dad. He realized he’d made a mistake, that he didn’t really understand his father, and that he embarrassed him. Sadly, his father no longer remembered or cared about what had happened. As his brain faded, there was no way to bring about reconciliation.
One reviewer of this book referred to it as Carroll’s benediction on his dad’s life. What he couldn’t do in person, he put on paper. 


Good endings are important

While it is not always possible, there’s something nice about good endings. And that’s what happens at the end of Hebrews. While I have insisted Hebrews is more like a sermon than a letter, the ending of the book takes on a letter format. The author, like someone writing a letter, wants to end on a positive note. He attempts to capture the hope of their relationship in Christ, and to close with one final summary of the gospel.


Our Hebrew Text

He starts by pleading for them to also help him and his community. Throughout this letter, he’s encouraged his readers and listeners to remain faithful. Now he enlists their help. We need the prayers and support of others. I need you to pray for me. We all need others to pray for us. Whatever you take from this sermon, remember to pray for me and for one another. It’s part of our commitment to one another as Christians. 
Next, he expresses the desire to visit his friends. He doesn’t make a promise that he will visit but expresses the hope it might work out. “God willing, I’m coming,” is another way of saying what he means. He knows he doesn’t control the future. 
From what we see, the author has a close relationship with this community. They know each other well. 
Then he offers a benediction which highlights what’s been said in this letter. He invokes the name of the God of peace who brought Jesus back from the death. Jesus, our shepherd, by whose blood we have an eternal convent and who offers us new life. Then there’s our part of this summary, living in God’s will, through Jesus Christ. 
This wonderful benediction captures so much of our Christian faith. Even if circumstances conspired against our author, so he died without visiting the recipients of his letter, he said what needed saying. He ends with a few more niceties. He gives them so news about Timothy. He says hi from those who are around him as he writes. That’s about it. As I’ve said, we have come to the end. 


How should we graciously say goodbye to those we love and for whom we care? We have an example here, at the end of Hebrews. If your dad is alive, be sure to tell him you love and appreciate him today. If there has been some strain on the relationship, try to work out. If you have children of your own, the same thing goes. 
In all our dealings with others: encourage graciously and with love. Amen. 

Happy Father’s Day! My dad fishing off Cape Lookout. December 2020

[1] https://twitter.com/timkellernyc/status/1405471032622845957?s=20

Hebrews 13:7-17: Leadership

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
June 13, 2021
Hebrews 13:7-14

Recorded at Bluemont Church on Friday, June 11, 2021

Thoughts at the Beginning of Worship

In preparation for today’s worship, I found myself rereading portions of Joseph Small’s wonderful book, Flawed Church, Faithful God. I like the title, for it accurately describes our situation. Toward the end of the book, he addresses the situation many churches find themselves in today: 

Churches in America today are anxious, not hopeful. The prospect of institutional decline leads to a frantic succession of vision statements, strategic plans, measurable objectives, and the displacement of outputs by outcomes, all dependent on the latest management trends. Hope in God’s way is replaced by reliance on the latest fads in management techniques accompanied by official expressions of optimism that sound eerily like whistles in the dark.[1]

While I agree with much of what Small says, I also think there has always been an anxious thread within the church. But such fears have more to do with our focus on what we are doing or can do and not enough focus on what God has done and is doing through Jesus Christ. We’re called to depend on the grace of Jesus Christ and him alone. And we need leaders who bring a message of grace to us, not ones who place more burden on our lives. 

Read Hebrews 13:7-17

After the Reading of Scripture:

We’re almost at the end of Hebrews. God willing, we’ll complete our journey through this book next Sunday. Our section today appears to focus on leadership. Our reading was bookended, in verses 7 and 17, with words concerning those in leadership over us. But there is so much more in this middle part of the 13th chapter. As we seen throughout this book, the author again circles around and brings back up topics he’s already covered. 

Earthly leaders are important. They’re identified here as those who told us about Jesus. Leaders have the awesome responsibility to care for the souls the believers under their watch. It’s a humbling position and my prayer often, when writing sermons, when I am going into a meeting, or a visit is that God will be glorified and that what I say and do will not build me up but help build Christ’s kingdom on earth. Being a leader in the church is humbling. You must be grounded in the Word and in prayer and know your own limitations and shortcomings. None of us are perfect, including myself. 

Jesus is our Ultimate Leader

The preacher of this letter to the Hebrews, after first encouraging his listeners to remember their leaders and learn from them by imitating their faith, turns to our ultimate leader, Jesus Christ. John’s gospel speaks of Christ as the good shepherd.[2] Hebrews devotes much of this letter to showing Jesus’ superiority to everyone and everything else. Earthly leaders will fail. Only Jesus is faithful day in and day out. He is the same, we’re told, yesterday, today, and tomorrow. 

While we’re to be concerned and responsible to our leaders, the preacher who lifts Christ up every chance he has, encourages his listeners to remain faithful to the Savior. Undoubtedly, there were some leaders at the time this letter was written, who preached some weird ideas of their own. God’s grace is the foundation of our salvation, we’re told, not obeying a bunch of rules and regulations concerning food and sacrifices. Verse 10 contains a terrible truth. Those who teach otherwise are not invited into the real altar, or we might say the perfect sanctuary where the perfect sacrifice, Jesus Christ, was made.[3]

Leaving the Old Behind

The author seems intent on us understanding that we’re leaving behind the old. Like Jesus, we’re to leave the city, which represents the old ways. Jesus suffered and died outside the city, and we are to be willing to join him and endure abuse, too. We know that the present is temporary. This world will pass away. We’re to wait and hope for this new city. While we wait with hope, we continue to praise God. For we know that God working things out.  

While we have a perfect sacrifice in Jesus Christ, we’re to sacrifice ourselves for the good of others. The preacher continues, remining us to do good and to share what we have with those who are in need. 

Role of the Church and Its Leaders

Our hope is in Jesus Christ, but this does not mean that the church is not important, nor does it mean that there is nothing more for us to do. Through the church, we learn of God’s grace through Jesus Christ. And through our lives and sacrifices, others may come to know the good news of Jesus as they see us life in a graceful manner. 

This passage concludes with a second reminder of the role of Christian leadership. The author informs his readers that leaders are also held accountable. Then he concludes with a hope they can do their work with joy and not sighing. If they can do their work with joy, it will be better for everyone. Hebrews is aware that not all the work of leadership is easy or joyful. Sometimes leaders must make tough decisions or give counsel that others may find offensive. But it’s part of the job.

A Story about Learning Leadership

As a new pastor, I remember early on being visited by a guy whose wife and children attended my church. I hadn’t even had the chance to meet them when he stopped by this afternoon. This was before my first Sunday, and this visit made me question just what I was getting myself into. 

This man had concerns. His wife was leaving him. He wanted me to tell her, offering scripture for me to quote, that she was to obey and submit to him. While he had a few selected verses to back up his ideas, he seemed to miss the point of scripture. This became apparent as I asked him a few questions. 

Gradually, in our conversation, it came out that he felt it was his right to come home after a hard day’s work and drink a six-pack and smoke a few joints. He admitted to doing this every evening. He even admitted that when she confronted him with his behavior, he sometimes became violent. Without even hearing her side of the story, I was glad she was making a break. As their children aged—they were at this time an infant and a toddler—I knew this situation would not get any better.  “I think I’m on her side,” I told him. 

“You’re not going to help me,” he asked? He then questioned my faith and my commitment to scripture. 

I told him that I would help him if he was first willing to work on his own issues. Furthermore, I told him, I certainly wasn’t going to suggest his wife and their kids remain in such a setting until he got his act together. He didn’t want to hear that. He cussed me and left. 

Leadership is Tough

Leaders, responsible for the souls of others, often find themselves in a difficult situation. We are not here to agree and to support whatever people think is right. Being faithful to the gospel means there are times we must challenge people in order that they might do what is right for them, for their families, and for God. Not everybody wants to hear that. 

Leaders Need Your Help

Speaking on the behalf of leaders (and in the Presbyterian system, we have shared leadership between clergy and Elders), we do the best we can. But we need your help and your prayers, and I think that’s the message of this passage. None of us, except Jesus, are perfect. Yet God works through us. For that, we can be thankful and humble. Leaders are important, but our hope is not in ourselves, in our leaders and institutions. Our hope is in Jesus Christ, and him alone. Amen. 

As leaders, we never know what’s around the next bend

[1] Joseph D. Small, Flawed Church, Faithful God: A Reformed Ecclesiology for the Real World (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018), 187.

[2] John 10:1-18.

[3] See https://fromarockyhillside.com/2021/03/hebrews-10-sacrifice/

Christians Should be Outstanding Citizens

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
June 6, 2021
Hebrews 13:1-6

At the Beginning of Worship

       We gather on the first day of the week, on the day of resurrection, to worship. Why? What does it mean? Think about this in our time together. 

Today, we’re beginning our exploration of the last chapter in Hebrews. We have completed the heavy part of this book written to encourage those first century disciples who were considering abandoning their faith. The author pleads with them to continue following Jesus, making the case for the excellence of our Savior. 

Worship God with awe is our call at the end of the eleventh chapter. The author of this letter/sermon wants us to praise God, not just on Sunday mornings, but with our lives. In the 13th Chapter, the author offers practical suggestions as to the shape our lives should take. These guidelines form around the concept of mutual love and knowing that God is always with us and provides us with what we need.

Read Hebrews 13:1-6

After the Scripture Reading

A Definition of Worship

I asked you at the beginning of our time together this morning what it means to worship. In his wonderful little book, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC, Frederick Buechner describes worship like this: “To worship God means to serve him.” He goes on to say there are two ways in which we do this. One is to do things for God. “We run errands, carry messages, fight for what’s right, feed his lambs and so forth. The other is to do that which we need to do for ourselves. Sing praises, tell God what’s in our minds and on our hearts (we call that prayer), and to make fools of ourselves in the way lovers have always made fools of themselves for the one they love.”[1]

Our reading today follows the advice we were provided at the end of the Hebrews 12. There, the author/preacher of this book, calls on his listeners to give thanks as we worship God with reverence and awe. We are well familiar with worship as a gathering in a sanctuary or perhaps even family worship around a dining room table. But we often forget that we’re to live lives of worship. How might we do this? Today’s reading lists several suggestions to set us out in the right direction. 

Bookend concept: Philadelphia

       These suggestions are bookended with two overseeing concepts. The first is Philadelphia, not the city but the original meaning of the word which is brotherly love. We can also translate this as mutual love. We can’t limit such love just to our male siblings Love is the over-all trait of a Christian. We sometimes sing, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Love becomes our identity. Paul reminds us that love never fails. Love, along with faith and hope, remain forever. But love is the greatest of these.[2]

Bookend Concept: God’s Presence

The second concept, that bookends the other side of this advice, is the notion that God will be with us. God is always present. God’s providence provides for our needs. Of course, this does not mean that just because God is with us, everything will go the way we want it to. That’s not the case and our author knew it, as we see in a passage.

Knowing God is with us means we have no reason to be afraid. After all, our reading ended, “what can anyone do to us?” This doesn’t mean we won’t have hardship. Our reading makes it clear there are those in prison and who are being tortured. Jesus said a similar thing when he told the crowds not to fear those who can kill the body but fear the one who can destroy both the body and the soul.[3] The eleventh chapter of Hebrews ends with a final explanation point: “Our God is a consuming fire.” Obviously, our author understands God’s power, as well as God’s mercy as shown in Jesus Christ. 

The Call to Show Hospitality

So, what is it that we’re called to do based on our mutual love and our belief in God? First, we’re to show hospitality to strangers. Doing this, we’re told, some have entertained angels. What are our experiences with strangers? In the ancient world, hospitality to those you did not know was chief virtue. Even pagans understood this. Stories of Zeus dressed as a beggar, and then rewarding those who, without knowing him, provides help, existed. 

In the ancient world, people often took advantage of strangers.[4]There were few inns, and those that existed often were not places one wanted to find themselves. Hospitality was important. Several times in Hebrews, we’ve looked back at Abraham. He showed hospitality to the stranger.[5] Even today, in the Biblical lands, it is important that one receive guests in an honorable manner. 

In the summer before I entered seminary, I spent much of my time off hiking portions of the Appalachian Trail in the South that I had not yet hiked.[6] One such hike was from Bastian, Virginia (where 1-77 crosses the trail) to Pearisburg, Virginia. My second afternoon on the trail, this was a three-day trip, I met a couple who had just moved to the area. They invited me to stay in their barn, which they wanted to make available to hikers. They also invited me for breakfast. We had a wonderful time talking, and they were excited to learn I would soon be entering seminary. They were also Presbyterians and were heading off to church as I headed back onto the trail. They added facilities for hikers and for many years, their barn was a welcome respite along the trail. Not that I was one, but I wonder how many angels they encountered? 

While it is important for us to show hospitality to those we know, the litmus test for Christian hospitality is how we treat those we do not know. Even Jesus acknowledged that greeting a friend isn’t anything to brag about. “Even the Gentiles do that,” he said.[7]

Empathy to Those in Jail and Being Tortured

       We’re also to extend our hospitality to the less fortunate, including those in prison and jail. Often when someone is sent away, they are forgotten. Out of sight, out of mind, but that excuse can’t be used by Christians. Here, as well as in the 25th Chapter of Matthew, we’re reminded of the importance of reaching out to those in jail. In Matthew, we’re told that such efforts are akin to comforting Christ.[8]  

Furthermore, we’re to have empathy for those who are tortured. The preacher may be thinking of Christians, who during times of persecution, faced torture. But I don’t think he’s only thinking of Christians. He does not distinguish between believers and not, only between the unfortunate who are tortured and those who are not. 

Torture as a practice was regularly employed in the ancient world. That doesn’t make it right. We should have empathy for those who are inflicted with such pain. The Message translation captures the idea of empathy when he says, “Look to victims of abuse as if what happened to them happened to you.” 

Whether torture is legally carried out by government or at the hand of rogue individuals, Christians should be outraged. Everyone deserves respect. After all, a foundational principle of our faith is that we’ve all created in God’s image. We have an obligation to speak up when someone abuses someone else.

Marriage Fidelity and Avoiding Greed

Our last two entreaties involve two ideas we might pull apart. But they go together. One deals with marriage and adultery. The other focuses on greed and a desire to have more. In our world, we separate these ideas. After all, adultery is the seventh commandment and coveting the tenth. But these ideas are united by the language in this text. Furthermore, in the ancient world, they were not seen as separate concept.[9] Both were considered an inability to control one’s appetite. We’re to be content and thankful with what we have. Our obsessions, whether sexual or material, can get us in trouble. 

Christians as Outstanding Citizens

The ethical call of Hebrews is that Christians should be seen not just by other Christians, but all people, as outstanding citizens within the community. We’re to be contented with ourselves, to have good hearts, to welcome the stranger and to look out for those who are not able to help themselves. How are we doing? 

Let’s be Known for our Love

You know, when those outside the church see those of us inside it living in fear over the loss of power and prestige, fighting with one another and the world, and concern only for ourselves and our ideas, we provide them no compiling reason to join us. But if they would see the type of Christian raised up here at the beginning of the 13th Chapter of Hebrews, they will be intrigued. They may or may not join us. Ultimately, that’s God’s call. But they will know we are Christians. How? By our love. Amen.

Good morning from the Blue Ridge. This was my view at 6 AM this morning!

[1] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: Harper and Row, 1972), 97-98.

[2] 1 Corinthians 13:13. In this chapter, Paul uses the “Agape” form for love (the love God has for us, the type of love that looks out for the best in the other) and not the “Philos” form used here. While they have slightly different means, they are still close in meaning and both are translated as love. 

[3] Luke 12:4-5.

[4] F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1964), 389.

[5] See Genesis 18.

[6] From 1983-1986, I hiked the southern portion of the trail from Springer Mountain, Georgia to the Shenandoah Mountains in Northern Virginia. The summer of 1987, I completed the trail, hiking from the Shenandoah’s to Mt. Katahdin in Maine. 

[7] Matthew 5:47.

[8] Matthew 25:36.

[9] Luke Timothy Johnson, Hebrews: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: WJKP, 2006), 341-342.

A Better Way to the Summit: Hebrews 12:14-29

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
May 23, 2021
Hebrews 12:14-29

Sermon recorded on May 21, 2021 at Mayberry Church

Introduction at the Beginning of Worship
Today is Pentecost. It’s a day to recall the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on those disciples who gathered in Jerusalem after Jesus’ ascension. We’re told in Acts that it appeared as if tongues of fire descended and filled the disciples.[1] God’s Spirit set them on fire for Jesus.  The use of fire in scripture is interesting. A fire can be warm and comforting. We enjoy gathering around a fireplace on a winter’s eve or at a campfire in the fall. But fires can also be terrifying and destructive as anyone who has witnessed a housefire or a forest fire will attest. 

Fire is also associated with God. Moses encountered God at the Burning Bush.[2] God led the Israelites out of Egypt by a Pillar of Cloud and Fire.[3] And on Pentecost, God Spirit descended as fire.

Two Candles and Two Flames
Do you know why most Presbyterian Churches have two candles in the front of the sanctuary, generally on the Communion Table? Or why do two flames appear beside the cross on the Presbyterian seal? The flames represent the Old and New Covenant, the flames from which God called Moses and the flames which appeared on Pentecost. Fire can be uncontrollable and somewhat mysterious, which makes it a good symbol for God. 

Two Options for Approaching God
Sooner or later, all of us will be called before God. Today I want you to think about this question. When our time comes, how do we approach the Almighty? As we continue to work through Hebrews, we’ll see there’s two different paths. One is via Sinai, which is a frightful trail to take. It’s like climbing an active volcano. It’s the way of fire. The law is hard and failure to keep it results in harsh consequences. 

Jesus lays out the other path. This path leads us to Zion. It’s the city of God, where, we’re told in Revelation, God personally wipes away our tears.[4]

The author of Hebrews wants us to stick with Jesus! His is the more excellent way.

Read Hebrews 12:14-29

After reading the Scripture
I’m going to take you on another hike, today.[5] In 1995, I did the first of three hikes to complete the John Muir Trail in the Sierra Nevada mountains of California. The trail begins at the top of Mount Whitney. It’s the highest point in the continental United States and ends in Yosemite Valley. In the 200 and some miles of trail, a good portion is above tree line. The views are incredible. 

Entering the Sierras
Starting the trail at Whitney means you have an extensive hike and climb to reach the top. Eric and I approached Mount Whitney from the west slope, but we started on the eastern side of the Sierras. Rugged, remote, and somewhat barren describes the eastern slope of the Sierras. We reached the heart of the Sierras through New Army Pass. This involved a terrifying climb. The trail disappeared behind a 100 or so feet wall of snow and ice. We kicked toeholds to climb to the top and pulled out packs up with rope. 

Before we reached solid ground, we had to work our way through the snow that had corniced along the top of the ridge. This created a lip that jutted out from the edge. Somehow, we safely made it to the top. 

The Climb Up the West Side of Mount Whitney
After New Army pass, we picked up the Pacific Crest Trail and hiked north to Crabtree Meadows. This broad plain is just 7 ½ miles and 4,500 feet below Whitney. The next morning, at daybreak, we set out. 

In the summer, on big mountains like this, it’s good to make it to the top early in the day. You never know when you must make a quick retreat in the afternoon as thunderstorms build. The first few miles were gradual, as we made our way around Guitar and Hitchcock Lakes. Then the trail became extremely steep. Soon, frozen snow covered the trail. I put crampons on my boots which provided much needed stability on the icy snow. 

After two hours of climbing, we were at the “Keyhole,” a notch to the south of Whitney, where the trail from the east and the west sides of the mountain join. From there, supposedly, it’s an easy 2 miles to the top. We’d done much of the climbing and only had 700 feet more gain to reach the summit. However, that few things are easy at 14,000 feet. Without conditioning to the elevation, you must go slow, or you’ll be gasping for breath.  

Reaching the Summit
We were at Whitney’s summit in time for lunch. The local rodent population came out to join us. I admit, we felt pretty good about ourselves as we ate, and the rodents begged. Just 20 or so feet to the east of where we sat, the mountain dropped straight off. We could see US 395, which looked like a thread running through Owen’s Valley. Straight out from us rose the Panamint and Amargosa Ranges, which surround Death Valley. We could even see beyond them, and on into Central Nevada. 

Others began to gather as they made their way up to summit as we ate and enjoyed this view. We were all in a celebrative mood, having conquered the mountain. And then it happened. 

Surprise Visitors
I saw the oddest thing. Someone’s head popped up over the edge. Where did he come from, I thought to myself? He pulled himself up on the top, then set out to belay another climber. While few people would call what we did that morning easy, we were in awe. This was nearly impossible.[6]

This couple climbed that morning, a thousand feet or so, vertically. Each carried a rack heavy with hardware: pitons, chocks and other anchoring devices, carabiners, slings, an ice axe, and hundreds of feet of rope. They were serious and had the equipment to help them climb and belay the other on this multi-pitch climb. 

Two Ways to the Summit
Think about these two ways to reach the summit. I’m going to tie it back into our passage this morning. Their experience and our experience, on the same mountain, were drastically different. 

Two Mountains: Sinai and Zion
In the last half of the 12th Chapter of Hebrews, we’re told of two mountains: Sinai and Zion.  There’s quite a contrast between the two. 

Sinai is scary.[7] It’s a place of fear. Even Moses, after all he has seen and done, fears the mountain upon which God gave Israel the law. And why not, this was a mountain to avoid unless God summoned someone up. Even animals were forbidden from approaching the mountain and those who did graze on its slopes were to be stoned. A holy mountain, precautions were taken to keep it sacred. 

But there’s another mountain, Zion. It’s the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, a place of merry angels where all who have been adopted by God joyfully reside. This is the home of Jesus, whose sacrifice enables us to enter this holy place. 

Are They the Same Mountain? 
But perhaps these are the same mountain, just different sides.[8] After all, the God of the Old and New Testaments is the same. The way up to the mountain on the Sinai route is impossible for most people. It’s kind of like the way those climbers summited Whitney. For the rest of us, there is a better way. To reach this summit, we have Jesus as a guide, the one whose blood is superior to Abel’s. He’s the one whose righteousness makes us perfect. 

Hope and Warning
While this passage presents hope to us, it is ultimately a warning not to reject the grace God shown us in his Son. We see this in both the opening and the closing paragraphs. 

The opening, verses 14-17, begins with the counsel for us get along with one another. We’re to root bitterness from our lives and to strive for holiness. How we live is important. The preacher pulls Esau as an example of what we’re not to become. Esau, if you remember, traded his birthright in for a bowl of soup. While it may have filled his stomach in the short-run, he regretted his decision in the long-run. But there was no way to go back. And, when our time is up, there will be way for us to go back. 

The closing paragraph, verses 25-29, frames the other side of the story of the two mountains. We’re reminded of the danger of rejecting Jesus’ offer along with a warning of impending judgment. All will be shaken, we’re told. I imagine a winnowing process, such as used by ancient farmers to separate the kernel of grain from the chaff.[9] Or, like a refining fire, where all impurities are burned away and only that which desirable remains.[10] Both images for God are Biblical, but because Jesus has already purified us, we are called give thanks and to worship God with reverence and awe. 

Follow Jesus, our Guide
Today, take the advice of the Preacher in Hebrews. Follow our guide, Jesus, to Zion, to the place we’ll find eternal rest. And along the way, seek peace with one another, avoid bitterness, and stay on the path blazed by our Savior. Sooner or later, we’ll all be called before God. Instead of going the Sinai route, Jesus’ way is the more excellent route to approach the Almighty. Let’s follow him! Amen.

[1] Acts 2:1-4.

[2] Exodus 3. 

[3] Exodus 13:21.

[4] Revelation 21:4.

[5] Last week, I talked about approaching Katahdin along the Appalachian Trail. See https://fromarockyhillside.com/2021/05/keep-going-hebrews-121-13/

[6] Of course, this couple made the climb, but few could. However, Paul makes the case of how difficult it is to follow the law. See Romans 3:9-20. The only one who kept the law fully is Jesus. See Romans 5:18.

[7] The author of Hebrews doesn’t name Sinai, but the fearfulness of the holy mountain where Moses was given the law is described in verses 18-21. See the description of Sinai in Exodus 19:16-25.

[8] See Thomas G. Long, Hebrews (Louisville: KY: WJKP, 1997), 140.

[9] Jeremiah 15:7, Matthew 3:12, Luke 3:17.

[10] Malachi 3:2-3.

Keep Going: Hebrews 12:1-13

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
May 15, 2021
Hebrews 12:1-13

Sermon taped at Bluemont Church on Friday, May 13, 2021

Thoughts at the beginning of worship: 

We’re on a journey. It’s a familiar Christian metaphor that we’ve seen through our time in the Book of Hebrews. As Christians, we are not settlers on this earth, we’re pilgrims. We’re passing through, longing for the place God prepares. That doesn’t mean this world is all bad; after all God created the world good.[1] But it does mean that we don’t need to be too attached to the present. We must trust and have faith in what God is doing. 

Today, the preacher of this sermon known as the Book of Hebrews, steps up the pace. Instead of a journey like Abraham trotting through the desert, or the Israelites filing out of Egypt, we’re now called to run. The end is near and there’s Jesus and others cheering us on. It is not a time to stumble, not when we’re so close. 

In my Monday’s Bible study on this passage, Jerry Potter, who ran track in high school, said his coach used to always say, “Don’t stop until you’re beyond the tape.” Was he just talking about running, or is this a metaphor for life?  

Read Hebrews 12:1-13 in The Message translation. 

After reading Scripture

The night had been filled with storms. It felt good to have rain at night, when sleeping. It certainly beat walking in the rain. Nonetheless, I kept waking and checking for leaks in my tarp and watching the incredible lightning. This made me sluggish crawling out of my sleeping bag come morning. 

Fog hung over Cloud Pond Lake and in a distance, I could see a moose in knee-deep water, eating. Although the rain had stopped, water continued to drip off the leaves and the ground was soaked. I pulled on my boots and began the morning ritual. 

Morning on the Appalachian Trail

By this point in my hike on the Appalachian Trail, everything had been reduced to a ritual. I put on a pot of water to boil, while I stuff my sleeping bag and rolled by pad. When the water boiled, I fixed a big bowl of oatmeal mixed with powdered milk, nuts, dried fruit, and brown sugar. With the remaining water, I set a tea bag to steep. I then found myself a rock and sat. While eating, I made a few notes in my journal and read a Psalm or two. I was in no hurry to start hiking with everything wet, Yet the trail soon called. 

Seeing the distance goal

It was my second day out of Monson, Maine. I headed deep into the 120-mile wilderness, a section of the Appalachian Trail in which there are no public roads. The next such road is at the base of Mount Katahdin where the trail ends. When I shouldered my pack, the cool air encouraged me to go faster. I climbed Chairback Mountain, making it across the various peaks. And on the fourth peak, I saw Katahdin, off in the distance. My summer of hiking the trail was coming to an end. I could see the goal. I celebrated with a large tootsie roll. 

Over the next day, Katahdin kept appearing. There it was on the peaks of Gulf Hogas Mountain and White Cap Mountain. I wanted to slow down, but at times felt an invisible hand push me forward. Sometimes the feeling was so real, as if someone was pushing against my back. I would turn around, but no one was there. 

I mused in my journal if it was God providing the strength I’d prayed for, to finish the trail. But as I was getting closer, I now wanted to go on forever. I wanted to savor every moment. 

Katahdin from Daisy Lake (taken on August 29, 1987)

The mornings were cold, sometimes below freezing, but by the afternoon, things would warm up and we’d often take a swim in one of the numerous lakes. I pulled a 23-mile day but was sad when I realized it would be the last of my 20-mile days. The days, along with the miles, were getting shorter. Several of us planned to climb Katahdin on August 30. There was no need to rush. 

Lakes block our way

Then the lakes appear. There were no more mountains, just hills, until the end which was on the summit of Katahdin. It seemed we just had lakes to walk around. Katahdin could regularly be seen from the southern shores. The lakes blocked our way to the mountain. We’d travel east or west, around the lake, to its mouth or headwaters, where we’d cross a small stream on a log to get to the other side. A few miles later, as we approached another lake, there would be Katahdin, again. It didn’t look much closer. With the trail running mostly running parallel, back and forth, we were forced to endure a slow approach. 

Hebrews and the Appalachian Trail

As I think back over our journey through the book of Hebrews, I feel a little like I was on the Appalachian Trail back in 1987. Throughout Hebrews, we’ve been invited to journey with others. Whether Abraham or Moses, or the Israelites, movement is a part of life. We’re called to something better. Something pulls us forward. Jesus Christ is like a magnet, drawing us onward. 

Jesus is superior to everything

The preacher of this sermon known as Hebrews has already pointed out Jesus as superior to everything. He tops angels and Moses and the Chief Priest. His sacrifice supersedes all other sacrifices and renders them obsolete. For Hebrews, everything comes back to Jesus. He is our goal, the one we are to follow, the one longed for by the people of faith in Israel, as we saw in the 11th Chapter. 

No longer just a journey, now a race

While the first 11 chapters of Hebrews is about a journey, the author shifts metaphors in the 12th. It’s no longer a leisurely walk, but a race, a marathon.[2] We’re taken into the sports arena where the fans are those who have completed the race. They form a cloud of witnesses, cheering us on, as we make our way toward the throne of God, toward our Savior, the one who perfects our faith. 

As I have said many times as we work our way through this book, the concern raised in Hebrews is that some have or are considering abandoning the faith.[3] The message in this passage is don’t give up. We’re so close. The discipline and the training we’ve endured have brought us to this point. Keep going… 

Those watching us includes Jesus

We’re reminded that Jesus, too, has run this race. He lived among us and suffered with and because of us. While he may have stumbled along the way to the cross,[4] he fulfilled his mission and is now at the right hand of God. We can almost envision the ancient coliseum in which the runners would complete their race. At the top, you had the king and his family. Here, we have God the Father and Jesus the son, watching in excitement as we run our race. 

Doesn’t that get to you, we’re being watched, by God and by those who have gone before us. Not just the ancient ones spoken of in chapter 11, but others from our own lives. Think of those who shared the faith with us and who encouraged us in this life. Maybe it’s our parents and grandparents. Maybe it’s a teacher or a youth leader. They want us to hang in there. They want us to remain faithful and finish the race. 


In the middle part of our reading, starting with verse 4, it appears as if the author moves off the race image, but not really. He brings up our trials and troubles and reminds us that we’re not the first or the only one to face such trials. Some had even worse. Furthermore, there are times we may wonder about the discipline we’ve had to endure. 

Does God not like us, we question? But we’re reminded that if a parent doesn’t discipline a child, there is something wrong. The same is true with God.

Did you parents ever say right before a punishment, “This is going to hurt me more than you?” Discipline isn’t fun for either party, but Hebrews reminds us that it’s part of our training. If a runner lacks discipline, he probably lacks metals, too. We must learn right and wrong, what is good and beautiful along with what is bad and ugly. Furthermore, we are to learn what God has done for us. 

Telling the story as preparation

In the Old Testament, after the Exodus, Israel is repeatedly told to teach the story to their children. It was the purpose behind the Passover celebration. The same is true for our remembering of Christmas, Good Friday, and Easter. It’s all part of our training and preparation for the race of life.

The race to the top

The morning of August 30th came quickly. Having camped the previous night at the base of Mount Katahdin, I was up before dawn. I laced my boots over my sore feet. Even though calloused after months of hiking, those dogs still hurt.[5] I went through my routine one more time, firing up my stove in the as dawn broke. 

After breakfast, I started discarding that which I did not need in my pack. I had spent my last night on the trail; this night I would be in a hotel. Like a runner discarding anything that would him or her back, I shed all the weight I could. With a light pack, I hit the trail. Nothing could hold me back now. 

That’s the message of Hebrews. Keep going. Shed anything that holds you back. Keep moving closer and closer to Jesus. God is not some angry judge in the sky just waiting for the opportunity to smack us down. God, along with all the others, are cheering us on. Keep going. 

As Jerry Potter’s track coach used to tell him, “Don’t stop running until you are through the tape.” And, I will add, “keep your eyes on Jesus.”  Amen. 

[1] The world itself longs for renewal, Paul tells us in Romans 8:18-25. 

[2] Thomas Long, Hebrews (Louisville, KY: WJKP. ), 

[3] We first saw this concern in Hebrews 2:1-4. 

[4] The idea that Jesus stumbled comes from Simon of Cyrene being pressed to take Jesus’ cross. See Matthew 27:32, Mark 15:21, Luke 23:26.

[5] Dogs were trail slang for feet. 

Be a Vehicle for Something Greater than Yourself

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
Hebrews 11:23-40
May 8, 2021

The recording was made on May 7 at Mayberry Church.

Thoughts at the beginning of worship

For the past two weeks, I have been slowly reading Garrison Keillor’s memoir, That Time of the Year. I savor a chapter or two each night before bed. Keillor often gives praise for those who helped him along the way. There’s a long litany of such folks: his mother, aunts, teachers, even preachers in the separate Brethren Church of his youth. It’s a good practice for us to think of those who helped us along the way. On Mother’s Day, we obviously think about moms. If they’re alive, we should thank our mothers. But there are often others, too, that serve in such capacity, that deserve our thanks.

For one his High School drama coaches, Keillor writes:

“Miss Person gave me encouragement, which I was desperate for… Her gift was to help self-conscious youngsters step out of the bubble. ‘It’s not about you. It’s about the material. Work on the material. Don’t make the performance be about you. Let yourself be a vehicle for something greater than yourself.’”[1]

Be a vehicle for something greater than yourself

“Let yourself be a vehicle for something greater than yourself.” Good advice. And isn’t this a lesson we’ve seen lived out in the lives of faith as recorded in the 11th Chapter of Hebrews? Those who dare to trust and follow God become a vehicle for something greater than themselves. Abraham and Sarah, an old couple, started a family and gave the world an insight into the covenant relationship we can enjoy with God. 

Today, as we look at the end of Hebrews 11, we’ll learn about Moses and others, all of whom are vehicles for something greater. May we also strive to be such a vehicle.

Read Hebrews 11:23-40

After the scripture

I recall a bumper stick from back in the 80s. It read, “The one who dies with the most wins.” Later in that decade, the movie Wall Street came out. It was to be a movie that showed the dangers of excess. In it, the movie’s villain, in a speech, makes the statement, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”[2] It was shorted to “Greed is good,” and became the motto for the decade. None of this expresses a Christian truth, but it’s an age-old idolatry we battle.

As Christians, our goal can never just be to achieve as much as possible in this life. Two reasons. First, we know that everything we have or might earn belongs to God.[3] And second, we, of all people, know that God has something better instore for us. This is a message found throughout Hebrews. We are called to make decisions in our lives based on such knowledge. 

Moses and his parents

Today, we continue through this lengthy list of heroes of the faith found in the 11th chapter of Hebrews. We start with Moses. But the author here, doesn’t just point out Moses’ faith. Moses family risked their lives to go against the order of Pharoah and to save their firstborn boy. They did this, even though it meant letting him go and allowing him to be claimed by Pharoah’s sister.[4] Today’s Mother’s Day, and we can only imagine the pain in Moses’ mother’s heart as she watched her son float down the Nile in a basket. She provided him with a chance to live. But think of the faith required. 

And then there is Moses himself. He chose the hard path. He was willing to stand up for those who were slaves, those who had no standing, those who were expendable. This didn’t help him, at least not financially. He had to abandon the wealth of his adopted family and flee Egypt. And when he came back to lead the Hebrew people out of bondage, he wasn’t well liked by those among whom he had lived. Think of his sacrifice, what he gave up, because he had faith. Think of those who risk positions of power or prestige to stand up for what they believe is the truth or justice. We witness true faith when someone places God first, above all else.

Dorrigo Evans: Giving up what you desire

Those of you who have gotten to know me know that I tend to read 3-4 books at a time. They are always in different genre which allows me to keep them apart. One of the books is always an unabridged audible reading. Currently, the book I listen to in the car and on walks is Richard Flanagan’s The Narrow Road to the Deep North. The story is about Dorrigo Evans, who is a physician within the Australian army. Captured in Java, early in World War 2, his fate is a POW camp in Thailand. There, they are assigned to the building of the Burma Railroad. 

The bridge over the River Kwai (which was only a small part of the Burma Railroad). My photo, taken in 2011.

The history of the Burma railroad is horrific. The author notes that some account puts the death toll over 200,000 men. Think of it this way: that’s more people than the number of words in his 350-page book. 

When the commander of their unit dies, Dorrigo becomes the top-ranking officer. He tries to do what he can to help those under his command. At one point, some of the men secretly kill and butcher a small cow they find wandering lost. The men have been dying for solid food. The cooks present their commander with a slice of the best, a steak. He and his men have been consuming mostly grass soup with a little rice. He finds the steak so tempting but knows it would be a bad example. There is not enough meat to go around for everyone. So, instead of accepting this gift, he insists the cooks take the steak to the hospital and give it to the men there. His actions earn him praise, but oh did he want that steak.[5]

Negative consequences of doing what is right

Doing what is right often has negative consequences. Instead of enjoying life in the palace, Moses found himself living the rest of his life in a tent in the wilderness. Instead of enjoying a nice slice of beef, Dorrigo continues to have hunger pain. However, is the right action to satisfy our bodies for the moment, or to do what can to help others?


Rahab is another of our characters. She might not be the woman of the Bible who comes to mind on Mother’s Day. The author of Hebrews doesn’t mince words. We’re reminded of her occupation: prostitution. Interestingly, other contemporary Jewish writings in the first century avoided her occupation. Instead, they praised her for hospitality to the Hebrew spies.[6]

We learn two things about Rahab in this passage. First, she heard how God had helped the Hebrew people during the Exodus. She believed this God was for real. So, she uses her knowledge to bargain to save her entire family. Her parents and siblings and their family benefit from her faith. Unlike many of these examples, Rahab received her promise immediately, by saving her family. But she also becomes enshrined in the Hebrew hall of fame. She is an ancestor of both King David and Jesus.[7]

How many of us have benefitted from the faith of another? Especially from the faith of our mothers, or in this case, the mother benefitting from the faith of the wayward daughter? 

Faith of the Hebrew people

The Book of Hebrews credits the people following Moses with faith as they cross through the sea and as the walls of Jericho fall. Interestingly, however, he doesn’t mention Joshua. If you remember, Joshua took over after Moses and was the one who led them to victory in the conquest of Canaan. This oversight may have been intentional. Hebrews doesn’t want us to focus on an earthly “Promised Land,” where the people found “rest.” Instead, our focus is to be on our true homeland, the place God has in store for us.[8]

Other examples

After Rahab, the preacher of Hebrews cites a litany of Old Testament heroes. Unfortunately, the rhetorical beauty of his litany in Greek gets lost in translation.[9] Poetry is hard to translate. Three sets of names mentioned: those who accomplished through faith, those who overcome obstacles by faith, and those who endured suffering by faith.[10]

The names include four judges, one king, and illusions to many of the prophets. While the prophets, except for Samuel, are not named, two stand out. These are Elijah and Elisha. Both credited with resurrecting the sons of widows. These resurrection accounts are mentioned here.[11]

As our author winds up his litany of heroes with a list of the horrific experiences some have faced because of their faith. When we think we’ve been persecuted, perhaps we should review this list. From mocking and floggings, to being stoning or sawing, while others flee to the deserts and mountains, people of faith have endured much. Yet, as we’re told at the end of the chapter, they did not receive the promise because God has something even better. At the end, seen throughout Hebrews, the author hints to what’s next. Jesus, the perfecter of our faith, has suffered, too. 

Ready to run the race

With all these names and examples of faith, the preacher of Hebrews wants us to be ready to run the race, which we’ll get into next week. But until then, think about what we might do if we trust in God and are willing to step out of our comfort zones. What might God do through us? Our lives are never about ourselves. As people of faith, we’re to be a vehicle in which God can make us be more than ourselves. Amen. 

[1] Garrison Keillor, That Time of Year: A Minnesota Life (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2020), 98. 

[2] The villain, Gordon Gekko, is played by Michael Douglas. The movie came out in 1987.

[3] Psalm 24:1.

[4] Exodus 2:1-10.

[5] While this is an example of Dorriogo doing the right thing, the novel does point out both sides of his life. He is both a flawed and noble man. See Richard Flanagan, The Narrow Road to the Long North (Random House, 2013. This story comes about 4 hours into the book.  

[6]Josephus identifies her as an innkeeper, and in the 1st Century rabbinical tradition, she was praised for her hospitality. See Luke Timothy Johnson, Hebrews: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2006), 304.  

[7] See Matthew 1:5.

[8] Johnson, 303. 

[9] Johnson, 305. 

[10] Johnson, 306-309.

[11] See 1 Kings 17:17-24 and 2 Kings 4:25-37. 

Hebrews 11:8-22, Stepping Out in Faith

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Churches
May 2, 2021
Hebrews 11:8-22

Sermon recorded on Friday, April 30, 2021 at Bluemont Church

Introduction at the beginning of worship: 

Again, this week, we’re talking about faith. Too often, we think of faith meaning we have arrived. It’s as if faith is our purpose.[1] However, the definition of faith we read last week, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen,” doesn’t support such an idea. Having faith is not the end, it’s the beginning. It’s what led Abraham to leave his home at an old age. 

Sadly, however, many people believe that faith is the end all.[2] The same is true with the idea of being “born again,” which Jesus’ speaks of in John 3. If someone can just be born again, we think, they have it all together, as if they’ve arrived. 

Developing faith is a process

Birth isn’t something we achieve and then is quickly over. In fact, if you think about it, we don’t achieve birth. It takes parents and a nine-month gestation period of which we don’t have any control. And once we come into the world as a child, we’re helpless. We can’t move or feed ourselves. Birth is just the beginning of a growth process, which makes it a perfect metaphor for a life of faith. 

Likewise, faith is a growth process as we step out of our comfort zones. Faith requires movement as we grow into a trusting relationship with God. We can look back, as the author of Hebrews does, to see how others trusted God. 

Looking back to see God’s guidance

We can also look back into our lives and see where God had been present when we were in need. Such knowledge of God’s work in the past informs our faith. And as we grow in faith, we also grow as disciples. And that’s what the church is to be about, making disciples.[3]

Like the early church, we’re called to live with confidence that God has things under control. We’re not to be in a hurry. Making disciples is not done in an instant. Helping God bring forth the kingdom takes more than a few volunteer hours. We’re talking about investments of lifetimes of people who, trusting and working with the Holy Spirit, help others mature as Christians.[4] We need to remember that we’re just vessels who need to be open to the Spirit, as we live as disciples. 

Read Hebrews 11:8-22

After the reading of scripture

Photo by Ruud Luijten on Unsplash

I tend not to be superstitious and place little trust in premonitions. However, on my first solo cross-country trip, something happened. I still find it strange. I entered unfamiliar territory, as I left Missouri and crossed into Kansas on I-70. I had flown over the country several times before this trip, but the vast lands between Missouri and the West Coast were unfamiliar. 

Around mid-day, I drove up on a familiar look car, going slightly below the speed limit. This was in 1988. The car was two-toned ‘55 Buick. A red body, a black roof, and lots of shiny chrome. I gave my turn signal and moved into the left lane to pass. When I pulled beside the car, I looked over. Not only was this car identical to the first car I remember my parents owning, but the driver also looked eerily familiar. 

He had dark black hair, black frame glasses, and wore a white t-shirt and a beige hard-shelled jungle hat. His left arm hung out of the rolled down window. He saw me taking a second look, nodded, and smiled. 

The man looked just like my dad when he was younger. My dad wore the same style hat when we fished at Dunk’s pond.[5] He had the same glasses. I wonder what had happen to that car which my dad had traded in 25 or so years before. As I sped on down the highway, I kept glancing into my rear-view mirror, thinking about my dad and wondering about this man who could have been his twin. 

A bit later, I pulled off the freeway, into the small town of Paxico. Main Street consisted of a few stores and buildings on the northside of the road. The Southern Pacific tracks paralleled Main to the south, between the town and the freeway. There was a small bar and grill, where I retreated from the intense sun and heat. It was dark and cool inside. I ate a burger and listened in to farmers in overalls at the bar, drinking a beer and expressing their hope they’d soon get some rain. Thirty minutes later, I was back on the road. 

In the distance, huge thunderheads, reminiscence of the cowboy song, “Ghost Riders of the Sky” loomed. Soon, lightning streak across the sky and even inside an airconditioned car, I could tell the outside temperature dropping. Then came the wind and I had to hold tight to wheel. Next, I entered the darkness, which came with pounding rain and hail. I could barely hear the radio. I slowed down.

It was over, as quickly as it started. The highway stretched into the west and steam rose from the wet asphalt. And out of that haze, I saw the car again, that ’55 Buick. I would pass him several more times over that afternoon and again the next morning, before I turned north to pick up I-80 for the drive across Wyoming. 

We are never alone

Unlike Abraham, I knew my destination. I was heading first to Idaho, where I would spend the summer running a camp, then on to Virginia City, Nevada for a year internship. But it was a bit unnerving for I was in a strange country and I knew no one. Yet, that ’55 Buick, whose driver could have been my dad, reminded me that I really wasn’t alone. No, my father was not with me, but our Father in heaven was there. 

Heading out without a destination

I like the Fredrick Buechner quote I included in this week’s bulletin. “Faith is not being sure of where you’re going, but going away.”[6]That’s Abraham, heading westward, through the desert. And, in a way, it was me, as I went to seminary and then accepted an internship out West, in a strange land where, at first, I felt as if I was a foreigner. 

Abraham and his descendants 

Our passage for today speaks of faith as a journey as we look back into the past. The Preacher of Hebrews is rather fond of Abraham. This is the fourth time he’s made an appearance in this sermon known as the Epistle to the Hebrews.[7] But it’s not just about Abraham, for he brings in his wife, Sarah, and his son, two of his grandsons, and one of his great-grandsons. Isaac, Jacob and Esau, and Joseph are mentioned. 

God made a promise to these ancestors of our faith, but none of them saw the promise fulfilled. They, like us, are transients in the world, knowing that the true home for which they long is that city God prepares…. 

Growth by steps

The thing we learn about all of them is how they grew in faith. Abraham took one step of faith leaving his home to become a Bedouin, wandering around the ancient Near East. He took a second step of faith when he refused to hold back anything required by God. This including Isaac, the only son of Sarah and the heir of the promise.[8]

Each of the patriarchs showed faith by extending their blessing to their children. Joseph, the last we hear of, displays faith by requesting his bones be taken out of Egypt and buried in the Promised Land. That wouldn’t be for another four hundred years. Speaking of faith being of that we cannot see… 

We are just passing through

Like our ancient ancestors, we, too, are only passing through this life. Yet, we’re to have faith in what God is doing in our world. It’s easy to think that things are going downhill, but we, as followers of Jesus, lay our hope, not in the ways of the world, but in the ways of God. 

Where is God working today?

Where do we see God working the world today? While most congregations and denominations in America are declining, the church is growing by leaps and bounds in Africa and Asia. Perhaps, we have too long thought of ourselves as God’s gift to the world, that we have forgotten that God’s ways are not ours.

The Man Who Moved a Mountain

I recently had a conversation with Stewart, your former minister. We discussed the book about his grandfather, The Man Who Moved a Mountain. Stewart told of how people, after reading the book, are often amazed at his Grandfather. Yes, God did some great work through him, but Stewart felt his grandfather would be overwhelmed by the praise. 

One person, impressed by his Grandfather’s work, asked if he knew how many people his Grandfather saved. They were surprised Stewart said he could answer that question. They were even more surprise by his answer. None! He didn’t save anyone. Salvation is from God, through Jesus Christ, not from any of us.  

Yes, God can work through us, as he did through Bob Childress, to help bring people into a relationship with Jesus. But salvation is a gift that can only come from God.

Our hope and stepping out in faith

As followers of Jesus, we place our hope in the work he is doing in the world. That should make us optimistic, but also humble. We’re called to step out in faith. In a sense, it can be a lonely journey. But we place Jesus first, knowing we are never alone. Our hope is in the overflowing love of God.[9] Like Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, we are called to step out in faith, trusting God. And there’s no telling what God might do through us. Amen.  

[1] While faith is important in living out our purpose, we created as the opening question of the Westminster Catechism describes, to “glorify and enjoy God forever.”

[2] This idea came from the Rev. Peter Lockhart, “Seeking a Better County,” a sermon on Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16. http://revplockhart.blogspot.com/2013/08/seeking-better-country.html

[3] See Matthew 28:16-20.

[4] Joseph D. Small, Flawed Church, Faithful God: A Reformed Ecclesiology for the Real World (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018),, 181

[5] Dunk was my great-uncle (my paternal grandmother’s brother), whose pond was about a half mile from our home.

[6] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 25. 

[7] See Hebrews 2:16, 6:13, and 7:6.

[8] Interestingly, Hebrews mentions Isaac as Abraham’s only son, while in Genesis we learn of Ishmael. Compare Hebrews 11:17 with Genesis 16. Of course, Ishmael was not the son of Sarah, but her servant, Hagar. 

[9] See Small, 214

Hebrews 11:1-7, The Difference Faith Makes

Jeff Garrison
Mayberry and Bluemont Churches
April 25, 2021
Hebrews 11:1-7

Sermon taped on Friday, April 23, 2021 at Mayberry Church

Introduction to worship

As I mentioned last week, the Session of both churches have spent time planning the future as we, God willing, come out of the COVID pandemic. Therefore, now is a good time to tackle the subject of faith. We are going to need faith to move forward. Do we believe, not just in God, but in a God who knows us and wants what is best for us? 

Today, we’re returning to the book of Hebrews. Between January and early March, we covered the first ten chapters of the book. The eleventh chapter begins with a short discussion of what faith is and then, because it is not an easy word to define, provides examples. These examples come from the Old Testament. In the twelfth chapter, we end with the best example, the faith of our Savior Jesus Christ. We’ll spent three weeks looking at the examples of faith and how they can inform our lives. 

Faith, Hope, and Love

The Apostle Paul in his great hymn of love, found in the 13th chapter of First Corinthians, writes: “faith, hope, and love abide. These three, and the greatest of these is love.”[1] Of the virtues and fruits of the Spirit, faith and hope are important, but not as important as love. Maybe this is because our lives of faith and hope should result in our lives being more loving. Hopefully love is the result of the faith we have as believers in Jesus Christ. 

Difference between faith and hope

That said, I think it might be helpful if I strive to differentiate between faith and hope. They certainly have similar meanings but let me propose a distinction. As Christians we have faith in a being, one that is not seen but who exists. Our faith is in the triune God: God the Father, our Lord Jesus Christ, and the Holy Spirit. That said, we have hope in a future situation in which the Kingdom of God, revealed in Jesus Christ, is achieved in its fullness. Faith is in God: hope is in what God is bringing about. Is that a clear distinction? 

But let’s go further. Hope, which rests in a future promise, “enables us to live with boldness and confidence in the present.”[2] In other words, this circles back around. Our future hope determines our action in the present.  

Read Hebrews 11:1-7

After reading the scripture

We live in an information age. Knowledge increases so fast that it’s mindboggling. Much of this growth in knowledge comes from the internet which allows for the sharing of ideas. Of course, there is a downside. Not all ideas are equally valid. As an example, it’s easier than ever for people to promote false ideas and conspiracy theories. Jesus’ advice to be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves apply.[3]

Because of this increase in knowledge, we have incredible information at our figure tips. We don’t even have to go to the library anymore. We can just pull out our smart phone and google what we’re looking for. 

Does knowledge increase our faith?

Does all this information increase our faith? Or does it make us doubters?[4] After all, what can we trust? Pilate’s question, “What is Truth,”[5] is the question of our generation. 

But we’re not the first generation to wrestle with this question. The author of Hebrews, who began his great sermon speaking of how God had spoken to people in the past.[6] But now, God speaks through a Son. Jesus Christ is truth. He’s in charge. He’s been in charge since creation. He’s THE High Priest. His sacrifice is perfect. And he’s the reflection of God’s glory. He’s the one in whom we’re to place our faith. 

Looking back helps us have faith moving forward

But as our author has done before, instead of jumping in with Jesus, he first takes us into the past.[7] The “Preacher” has us consider the lives of others who trusted and had faith in God. Knowing what God has done in the past gives us faith in the future.

The overall message of this chapter, of which we’ll spend a few Sundays, is that our faith should result in lives that trust God. This chapter consists of 18 different examples of faith. It’s a motley group that we’ll explore over the next few weeks. Yes, there are good folks in this group and there are some that raise eyebrows (such as a prostitute).[8] We’ll get to her in a couple weeks. What’s important is that we understand how they trusted God and the difference such faith made in their lives. 

Today, we start with three examples from a period of “prehistory:” Abel, Enoch, and Noah. I say “prehistory,” to indicate the time before God’s covenant with Abraham, which begins the historical journey of the Hebrew people that, for Christians, leads the birth of Jesus. During this period, things are a bit fuzzy. We have a few stories and a lot of names. These three are raised up as an example.


The first is Abel, the second son of Adam and Eve. If you read his story in the fourth chapter of Genesis, you’ll realize that he doesn’t even have a speaking part.[9] We’re told he raised sheep while his brother Cain farmed. But Abel’s sacrifice to God was more pleasing than his brothers, which led to his brother’s anger and the murder of Abel. As I said, Abel doesn’t speak. That is, until his blood cries out from the ground.[10] The Preacher of Hebrews makes the case that Abel, who had faith and who trusted God, still speaks. 

Abel reminds us that our lives may not always be easy. Yet, we’re to have trust that God will hear and respond to our cries. Abel had faith, but faith doesn’t mean that things will always go well for us, at least not in this life. Our faith is in the one who died but lives and because Jesus lives, we believe that we, too, will live.[11]


The second individual is Enoch. Again, we don’t know much about him as he only receives six verses in scripture.[12] That’s not much for a life of 365 years. What we learn is that Enoch gave birth to Methuselah, and that he walked with God. Now that’s an interesting image, walking with God. We have the image of Adam and Eve, before the fall, walking with God in the garden.[13] We have images of the disciples walking with Jesus in the gardens. We sing hymns like “In the Garden,” which reminds us to walk with Jesus.

Enoch had an exceptional close walk with God, for we’re told that God took him. The preacher in Hebrews adds some details, implying that his faith was pleasing to God, so he’s taken to heaven without first dying. 


And then there’s Noah. He lived in a dry part of the world and was told by God to build a giant ship. He did. We can imagine how everyone ridiculed him. The idea of a flood so big that one would need a ship one and a half times the size of a football field was just too hard for comprehend. People thought he was nuts. 

Noah had a choice. He could have agreed with his neighbors, whom we’re told were quite wicked. They might have invited him to their parties. Of course, he’d then have to give up building the ark. But he didn’t. He listened and followed God’s advice. Noah trusted God and was able to be saved from events that were not yet known. 

Who are our examples of faith? 

All these examples are of people whose faith pleased God. When we look around us, who do we see as examples of faith? And what kind of things are they able to do because of their faith? 

There’s a guy I knew who sadly is no longer with us. He died from a complicated autoimmune disease that claimed his life in his late thirties. The illness took its toll on his personal life, too. His wife left him a few years before his death. Yet, he remained faithful and trusted God. He always tried to do the right thing. He took his kids fishing and to church and cared for them the best he could. 

He had three children, but the last one, a girl, he privately admitted wasn’t his. This was easy to see. Yet, he treated her like the other two and spoke of the joy she brought into his life. I was amazed at his response, but he insisted that she deserved his love, too. After all, it wasn’t her fault. That’s the kind of grace faith can bring out in us. 

When it was evident he would not beat the illness, he begged for more time. He just wanted to spend it with his kids. He felt he could teach his boys more about hockey and flyfishing. He wanted to see his girl grow up. Sadly, it didn’t happen, but he trusted God. I believe that he was received into Jesus’ arms when his body finally gave out. 

My friend fly fishing from a kayak a few years before his death

What faith does

We place our faith in Jesus Christ. We trust that even if things don’t go our way (and remember, they certainly didn’t go Abel’s way, nor the way my friend had hoped) that God will be with us. As Paul writes to the Romans, there is nothing that can separated us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, nothing, not even death.[14]

Having such trust in the triune God can help us endure whatever the world throws at us. We need to live as we believe. Such a life makes a statement to the world. Such an example can be a far better witness than the most eloquent sermon or the most convincing argument for the existence of God. 

In closing, let me reread the opening passage of this chapter, this time from The Message translation:

The fundamental fact of existence is that this trust in God, this faith, is the firm foundation under everything that makes life worth living. It’s our handle on what we can’t see.


[1] 1 Corinthians 13:13.

[2] Luke Timothy Johnson, Hebrews: A Commentary (Louisville: WJK, 2006), 277.

[3] Matthew 10:16.

[4] While I use doubt here in comparison to faith, I would agree with Paul Tillich that the doubt is not the opposite of faith, but an element of it. See Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: Harper & Row, 1973), 25-26.

[5] John 18:38.

[6] Hebrews 1:1. See my sermon on the opening of Hebrews by clicking here

[7] You see this in chapter 3, where he talks about Moses before making the case that Jesus is the High Priest. In chapter 7, he speaks of Melchizedek before remaking the case for Jesus as High Priest who gives the perfect sacrifice. 

[8] The group includes the prostitute Rahab (Hebrews 11:31).

[9] This was pointed out by Thomas Long in his commentary on Acts (Louisville, John Knox Press, 1994), 116.

[10] Genesis 4:10.

[11] Romans 6:8.

[12] Genesis 5:18-24.

[13] See Genesis 3:8

[14] Romans 8:38.

Hebrews 10:19-31: Worship

Jeff Garrison  
Bluemont and Mayberry Presbyterian Churches  
Hebrews 10:19-31 
March 21, 2021  

Recorded at Bluemont Church on Friday, March 19, 2021

Information at the beginning of worship

We’ve spent the last three months making our way through the first three quarters of Hebrews. Last week, I mentioned we were at an end of a section of the book that involved some serious theology and Christology. Now the author turns to practical applications, first of which is a renewed call for his listeners and readers to remain steadfast in their faith and worship. 

As I’ve spoken of many times in this series, there are many hints in the book that the intended audience may be pondering the idea of leaving their faith in Jesus behind. After developing a strong theology around what Christ has done for us, the author again pleas for the people to remain faithful. 

A summary of today’s text

 The late F. F. Bruce, a British Biblical Scholar, sums up the passage this way:  

In view of all that has been accomplished for us by Christ, [the author of Hebrews] says, let us confidently approach God in worship, let us maintain our Christian confession and hope, let us help one another by meeting together regularly for mutual encouragement, because the day which we await will soon be here.[1]

Read Hebrews 10:19-31

After the reading of Scripture

There was a time when a good part of the population looked down on bikers. But over time, once you started having lawyers and bank executives trading their pinstripe suits for leather on the weekends, that changed. 

Think of other weekend activities for adults. You have guys playing Mountain Men, or Civil War soldiers, or the men and women who get all excited about life in Renaissance. The latter hold fairs and dress as if they lived in the 15th Century, only with the benefits of the 21st Century, such as modern medicine. 

Professional Hoboes

However, until I read William Vollmann’s book, Riding Toward Everywhere, I hadn’t realized there was another group of professionals who enjoy taking on a different weekend identity. These guys become hoboes. 

Of course, jumping on a train is illegal. Vollmann defines hoboing this way: “the unauthorized borrowing property of others.”[2] I’m not sure what to make of his adventures. There is something not quite right about using cell phones to communicate between friends as you try to dodge railroad police while looking for an open car and a good place to jump onboard.

Furthermore, unlike true hobos, it doesn’t seem fair that Vollmann and his companions have additional advantages. When things get unpleasant, such as riding in an open gondola car in the rain or snow, they jump off near an Amtrak station and take the train back home. Or, if they have more time on their hands, they check into a hotel, clean up and go out to dinner. Why cook a can of beans over an open fire when you have a credit card. It also helps having medical insurance. 

For these dudes, riding the rails is a game. In one adventure, Vollmann flew on a commercial airline halfway across the country just to hop a train back to California.

Importance of friendship

But it’s more than a game. Friendship also plays a role. You have friends with shared interests that you trust. That makes all the difference. Friendship binds us in our mutual interest. This sentence from his book struck me. “It is a fine luxury to trust oneself to a friend’s strength and help him in his weaknesses, all without negotiations or resentments.”[3]

It’s nice to have friends! And with Jesus, we have a friend in high places. But we also need friends here on earth. As we see in our text today, that’s part of the purpose of gathering for worship. 


Our passage begins with an exhortation. Remember how I told you earlier in this series, Hebrews sifts back and forth from exposition to exhortation.[4] We just gone through an extensive exposition, an advance class in Christology. Some of you may be asking, “so what?”[5] Well, the Preacher of Hebrews now tells us why. 


This section begins with a “therefore.” What has been previously said directs what comes next. 

In the opening three verses of this passage, we’re reminded of what has been just been covered. We now have confidence to approach God and to enter into the most holy of places because of Jesus. He’s both our High Priest and our sacrifice. Jesus’ blood has been shed for our sin. He creates a path that we might follow into a new life that takes us behind the curtain that has shielded previous generations from God. 

Jesus makes authentic worship possible

When we approach God, we’re called to worship. As people of faith, worship is necessary. When we worship, we acknowledge that God is so much bigger and stronger and better than us. We admit our limitations while proclaiming God’s glory. For Jesus has made authentic worship possible. 

I like how The Message translates verse 19, “we can now-without hesitation-walk right up to God, into “the Holy Place.” In worship, we boldly come into God’s presence. 

But worship involves more. Not only are we drawn near to God, and hold onto the promise, worship involves others. And worship isn’t just singing of hymns and listening to scripture or sermons. Verse 24 reminds us to “provoke one another to love and good deeds.” In other words, from our worship we work for the well-being of others. 

Worship as gathering

But first, we must gather. Worship isn’t something we do as individuals. Yes, as an individual, we can pray and connect to God, but worship requires others. Jesus said he’ll be where there are two or three gathered, not one.[6] And when that happens, we are transformed as we move into the presence of God. 

So, because of what Jesus has done for us, we can worship in joy and be full of hope. Our worship can transcend where we gather as we’re ushered into God’s presence. That’s the good news. We need to hold tight to this hope. 

A warning against sin

In the second half of our passage, we’re given a warning. If we continue to sin when we know better, we’re told in verse 26, God’s not going to like it. We should ask ourselves what kinds of sin does the author of Hebrews speak? After all, we’re all sinners. Even Paul refers to himself as the greatest of sinners?[7]

There are a couple of things we should understand here. We’re not talking about just any old sin. First of all, it has to be a sin willingly committed and we must have known that it was a sin. And even if we’ve committed sin, we shouldn’t lose hope. Earlier in this chapter, as we saw last week, Jesus’ sacrifice covers our sin.[8]


Sin is a part of the fallen human condition, which is why we have to depend on Jesus. So, here, the author refers to more than just an act, doing something against the law. It appears the sin here is apostacy or the abandonment of the hope we have in Jesus Christ.[9] When we experience God’s good news, and then abandon the faith, we have good reason to fear. Such sin “profanes the blood of Jesus,” we’re told. 

Drawing again on the Old Testament, the author of Hebrews reminds us that “vengeance belongs to God.” God will repay those who profane the good work of Jesus. We should be reminded that it’s not up for us to judge someone else, but at the same time we should examine ourselves and make sure we hold fast to the faith we have in Jesus.

Faith, Hope, and Love

One commentary summarizes this passage with Paul’s three-fold ideal of “faith, hope, and love.”[10] All three appear here. We have faith in what Christ has done for us, hope in our confession, and finally love that’s shown in how we relate to others.[11] The writer of Hebrews encourages his readers to remain faithful as they inspire one another to love and do good. 


Let think for a minute what the author might say to us not attending church. Granted, we’ve been in a difficult time for the past year with COVID and trying to avoid catching the illness. But as we come out of such a time, we need to quickly get back into the habit of gathering for worship. Interestingly, it appears from this letter, there were those who skipped church back in the first century. That still doesn’t make it right. 

However, I think Hebrews reminds us something important here. Coming to church isn’t about us. Too often we think it’s about what we get out of worship, but that’s to miss the point. First of all, we direct our worship toward God, not toward those in the pews. 

Secondly, as we’re told here, we come together to encourage each other. I am not to be the only one offering encouragement on a Sunday morning. All of us are to be encouragers. And sometimes, to encourage, we just have to show up and smile. Or maybe we catch someone doing good and acknowledge their efforts. 

Concluding hope

Because of what Jesus has done for us, may our lives be filled with worship, and may you encourage one another and have many good friends. Amen. 

[1] F. F. Bruce The Epistle to the Hebrews (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1964), 224.

[2] William T. Vollmann,  Riding Toward Everywhere (New York: HarpersCollins, 2008), 50.

[3] Vollmann, 13.

[4] Luke Timothy Johnson, Hebrews: A Commentary (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2006), 254-255.

[5] Thomas G. Long, Hebrews (Louisville, KY: John Knox Press, 1997), 103-104.

[6] Matthew 18:20. 

[7] 1 Timothy 1:15. See also Romans 7:24-25. 

[8] See Hebrews 9:28, 10:10.

[9] See Long, 109.

[10] 1 Corinthians 13:13

[11] Hugh Montefiore, The Epistle to the Hebrews (NY: Harper & Row, 1964), 174-175.

Hebrews 10: Sacrifice

Jeff Garrison  
Mayberry and Bluemont Churches
March 14, 2021  
Hebrews 10:1-18  

The sermon was taped at Mayberry Church on Friday, March 12, 2021

At the beginning of worship

Over the past few weeks, as we’ve worked our way through the Book of Hebrews, we have been in an advanced Christological class. We’ve experienced Jesus as our High Priest. We have learned of Jesus establishing a new covenant. And we’ve explored the differences between earthly and heavenly sanctuaries. 

Ideal verses the shadow

Much of this discussion in this part of Hebrews which we’re in, parallels a Platonic idea that compares the ideal with the shadow. We often mistake the shadow as reality.[1] In such, we see this sanctuary as a real place. But Hebrews makes the case the case that our earthly sanctuaries are only an imperfect representative of the heavenly reality. Through Jesus Christ, God casts off our sinfulness, which allows us to come into God’s presence. When our time here is over, to enter the real sanctuary.

Sacrifices in the First Century

The preacher of Hebrews has one last theological point to finish making before he moves into the section of this book dealing with ethical implications of what we believe about Jesus. He’s been talking about sacrifice all along. This would have been on the minds of many first century Jews. Even pagans sacrificed. This was seen as a reality in that era. But as we’ve already seen, the sacrifices witnessed at the temple were imperfect. They could not perfect those making the sacrifice. But Christ, who sacrificed himself, who paid the price of our sin once and for all, can perfect us. 

Next week, we’ll hear the preacher’s call to persevere. Because of what Christ has done for us, we should stick with him. But before that, we’ll delve into the sacrifice Jesus made. 

What does it mean to sacrifice?

So, let me ask you, what do we mean by sacrifice? Frederick Buechner describes sacrifice as “something that is made holy by giving it away for love.”[2]  And that’s what Jesus does for us. He gives away his life out of love for the world.  Such a definition should also help us understand our calling to sacrifice.  

Read Hebrews 10:1-18

After the reading of Scripture

Warm Radiators 

I was ordained in Ellicottville, New York. I spent three and a half years there, enjoying the life of a ski bum. While there, I lived in an old house, built in the late 1890s. My favorite thing about the house were the cast iron radiators. They were wonderful. Before Donna and I was married, it was just me and Happy, my cat. Happy loved those radiators, especially in the fall and spring. In the winter, because the weather was often very frigid, the radiators got too hot for her to sit on. But the rest of the year, they made a great perch for her to observe the neighborhood.  

In the winter, while Happy stayed off the radiators, they were a perfect place to dry socks and gloves and to warm up a jacket or towel. I assure you, there is nothing like getting out of a shower and wrapping yourself in a towel that’s been warmed on a radiator. Likewise, there is nothing like heading out into the cold while wearing a prewarmed jacket or gloves. Such warmth just makes you feel good inside. 

The warmth of God’s love

We should have similar warmth when we think about what God does for us. We’ve been created by God who loves us, who wants the best for us, and who adopts us as his own children. We’ve been redeemed by a God who doesn’t give up on us even when we think we’ve been just a big disappointment. 

God’s love for us is so strong because he was willing to offer up his own life, in Jesus, to atone for our sin. We are cared by a God whose presence is with us always. Think of God’s love as that warmed towel or jacket, wrapping itself around us, warding off the cold. 

Jesus is the reason we can be warmly drawn to God as opposed to hiding in fear. In him, we find forgiveness. We are cleansed. We are able stand boldly before God, not having to be shielded by a curtain like our Hebrew ancestors. 

Jesus’ obedience to God meant he took up his cross. Jesus’ self-surrender to God was total. “Not my will but Thine,”[3]he prayed to his father. This prayer is “the climactic expression of a life of complete openness to God.”[4] As we learn in our text this morning, Jesus has made the ultimate sacrifice for us.

The meaning of “sacrifice”

Let’s think for a few minutes how we use the term “sacrifice.” It’s a noble term. In baseball, there’s the sacrifice fly. You hit a deep fly ball, which allows a runner on third base to make it home before the throw can reach the plate. While the batter doesn’t end up with a run on their record, he does the job necessary to help the team win. 

Parents speak of their sacrifice for their kids. It may be so that they can have a better educator or a better experience with childhood. Depression era stories of parents who refused to eat until their children were fed touch our hearts. 

We speak of sacrificing for our country. A soldier or sailor might be required to sacrifice their life. Think of the one who jumps on a live grenade in order to save his buddies. John F. Kennedy best described such sacrifice in his inaugural address, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” 

In church, we often speak of sacrifice when we go beyond in giving. Maybe it’s to build a new community center or to give up one’s life of comfort and become a missionary.

The one thread that holds all these types of sacrifices together is that they are done for someone else. It’s not a sacrifice if you’re doing it for yourself. 

The Buechner definition I used earlier rings true here. “A sacrifice is something made holy by giving it away for love.”

Jesus’ sacrifice

Jesus speaks of his sacrifice in this way: “Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”[5] And Jesus shows us what sacrifice really looks like. The cross is the ultimate symbol of sacrifice. 

Martin Luther King realized the deep meaning of the cross when he said: “[W]hen I took up the cross, I recognized its meaning… It is not something that you wear. The cross is something that you bear and ultimately that you die on.”[6]

While that is true, and our faith demands our lives, the good news is that we don’t have to die for our sin. Jesus did that. But a sacrifice means we do something for the well-being of another.

Today’s text

In our morning reading, we hear two extensive quotes from the Old Testament.  The first, from the Psalms, reminds us that God doesn’t need our sacrifices.[7] Why did God need those animals that were sacrificed? After all, they belonged to God to start with. In a way, everything we have belongs to God and God can claim it at any time. Not in need of sacrifices as such, God is pleased to sacrifice for us. This sacrifice, through Jesus, is eternal. It does not need to be made day in and day out, like the old sacrifices. 

The second quote, which we’ve already heard in Hebrews,[8] comes from Jeremiah. We are reminded that in the new covenant, God writes his law in our hearts and minds.[9] Having been freed from sin, we are open to hear God’s word and to live in a new way. 

The importance of sacrifice

In many ways, we don’t like talking about sacrifices these days. We’re conditioned to want what we think is best for us. I remember how, after 911, instead of us as a nation being called to sacrifice to win the war against terror, we were encouraged to go out and continue spending to keep the economy going. 

But sacrifices are important. By sacrificing, we demonstrate the love Jesus calls us to have for others. Likewise, by Jesus’ sacrifice, we experience the incredible love that God has for us.[10] Furthermore, our sacrifices commit us to the faith we proclaim. 

We are so blessed that we should feel God’s love wrapping us up in warmth. And because we’re blessed, because Jesus sacrificed for us, we’re to be a blessing to others. Amen.  

[1] While I point this out, we must understand that Christianity isn’t a Platonic faith and there are teachings within Plato that are contrary to Christian theology and more akin to the Gnostic heresy. The classic teaching of Plato on the differences between the ideal and the shadow are found in Book Seven of The Republic, with the analogy of the cave. 

[2] Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC (New York: Harper and Row, 1973), 83

[3] Luke 22:42.

[4] Geoffrey Wainwright, Doxology: The Praise of God in Worship, Doctrine, and Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 22

[5] John 15:13. 

[6] Quote from James H. Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2011), 84. 

[7] Hebrews 10:5-7; Psalm 40:6-8.

[8] See Hebrews 8:8-12.

[9] Hebrews 10:16 & 17; Jeremiah 31:33-34.

[10] Romans 5:8.