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Dear Friends in Christ,
I don’t think any of us realizes how blessed we are! We are among the richest people who have ever lived on earth. Our homes are palaces compared to what most people lived in just a few hundred years ago, even compared to what many live in still today in other parts of the world. It’s not just the size of our homes, but the conveniences we just take for granted, like central heating and air conditioning, hot and cold running water, and indoor plumbing. Hardly anyone had those things just a few hundred years ago, and we tend to think we would die without them.
But more important than our physical blessings, we have greater access to God’s word than ever before. We each have our own copy of the Bible. We can google a few words from a passage we are trying to remember, and, most likely, it will pop up on our screen. We can access the Bible almost anywhere, almost any time, just by using an app on our phones.
But even more important than our easy access to the Bible, all of us here tonight have had the gospel preached to us. We have been brought to understand the truth that we are saved by God’s grace. We are saved by the work Jesus did for us, not by anything we do. We get to be reminded of that fact many times a day as we read devotions that are faithful to God’s word, or as we go to a chapel service. In fact, these words of God through the writer to the Hebrews are very fitting for us tonight because we are a lot like Israel on the way to the promised land.
Like us, Israel was very blessed. They had witnessed fantastic miracles of God. They had actually heard the voice of God speaking to them from Mt. Sinai. They had Moses who could go to God for them with a question and God would answer them. They had the gospel preached to them as they saw the promises God made to Abraham being fulfilled right before their eyes and therefore had no reason to doubt that God would keep the rest of his promises to Abraham which included the sending of the Messiah, the prophet who would be like Moses, the savior of the world.
So, what does the writer say to us, who like Israel, have had the gospel preached to us and been showered with so many blessings from God? He says be careful. Be careful that what happened to so many of them doesn’t happen to you.
What happened to them? After they saw the plagues God sent on the Egyptians; after they saw God divide the Red Sea for them and then saw it come crashing down on the Egyptians; after they ate manna and heard God speak to them at Mt. Sinai; they still didn’t trust God. They didn’t have faith. When the twelve spies returned from searching out the promised land, they listened to the ten faithless spies who told them about powerful armies, and walled cities, and giant warriors. They refused to listen to Joshua and Caleb who assured them that God was with them and God would fight for them; that they should trust God and they would inherit the land just as God had promised. Because of their lack of faith, because of their disobedience, God did not allow them to enter the rest of the Promised Land. They had to wander in the wilderness for 40 years until everyone over the age of 20 died, except for Joshua and Caleb.
The gospel was preached to them. They saw wonderful evidence of God’s power and God’s mercy. But the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith.
What a wonderful thing it is that God wants everyone to be saved. What a wonderful thing it is that Jesus lived and died to pay for every sin of every person who ever has, or will live. Jesus is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world. God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son. Salvation has been won for everyone. God wants everyone to have it. But, John 3:16 continues, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. Or as the familiar Scripture from the end of Mark says, whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. The gospel offers forgiveness and eternal salvation to all for free, but it is of no value to those who hear it and do not combine it with faith. Faith is the hand that receives God’s gift of salvation and says, “thank you Lord.”
Luther summarizes what Scripture teaches about faith when he reminds us that faith is not a decision we make, or a good work we perform. He reminds us that we “cannot by our own thinking or choosing believe in Jesus as our savior.” Trusting God’s promise goes against our nature. But, God the Holy Spirit uses the Gospel as it comes to us in the word and in Baptism to create a new nature in us so that we are enabled to look past the mighty armies of so-called enlightened teachers, and the walled cities that claim they have higher knowledge than Scripture, and the giant warriors of philosophy, and trust God’s simple promise.
Faith, trust that God has saved us because of Jesus’ life and death in our place; trust that there is a rest, a Promised Land called heaven where we will rest from the effects of sin, a land that can be entered only through Jesus; such saving faith is a gift of God worked in us by the Holy Spirit through the Word and Sacrament.
Salvation is by grace alone, purchased and won for us by Jesus alone. God’s offer of free salvation in Jesus is received by faith alone, a faith which trusts the promises of God found in Scripture alone. And this faith is worked in us by the Holy Spirit through the word and sacraments. So why does the writer warn us to be careful? Because those who have the most blessings, like Israel, like us, seem to be the most prone to taking those blessings for granted and losing them.
How sad it is to think about all those Israelites who never got to enter the Promised Land because they didn’t trust God, even though they saw the miracles and heard the voice of God. How sad it is to think about the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day, people who saw Jesus in person, heard him preach the gospel, saw him raise Lazarus from the dead and yet, instead of trusting in him for salvation decided they had to try to kill him. How sad it is to think about all the people who have been baptized, who have vowed at their confirmation to remain faithful to God no matter what, but who have fallen away, who no longer trusting in Jesus as their savior.
Remember that the only thing that can prevent that from happening to you is the work of the Holy Spirit. Remember that he only promises to work through God’s word and Sacrament. So, if you take the writer’s advice and you are careful that you don’t miss out on the rest God wants you to have, you will make constant use of God’s word and Sacrament. When you are tempted to doubt, and everyone is, pick up your Bible and search the Scriptures. The Holy Spirit will use God’s promises to help overcome your doubts. When you are tempted to think that either you are too bad to be forgiven, or that you are good enough that you don’t need much forgiveness, come to the Sacrament. As you prepare yourself for the Lord’s Supper by comparing your thoughts, words and actions to God’s holy will, you will see your sins and how much you need a savior; and as you take the Supper you will be assured by God himself, by the very body and blood of Jesus given and shed for your sins, that whatever sin is bothering you has been paid for in full by Jesus. Through confession and absolution, through constant contact with God’s word and sacrament, the Holy Spirit is working to strengthen and keep you in the one true faith so that you don’t miss out on God’s rest.
God wants all to be saved. He made that possible by sending Jesus to win salvation for all. He offers salvation, eternal rest, to all for free because of Jesus. But that salvation doesn’t do anyone any good until it is received through faith. But even faith is a gift of God, worked, strengthened and preserved in us by the Holy Spirit working through the word and Sacrament. He has worked faith in your hearts. Be careful that you don’t take his blessings for granted. Let the Holy Spirit continue to do his work in you by continuing to read and study the word and to receive the sacrament. Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.
We are saved by Grace alone, through faith alone, a faith which trusts in the promises of God revealed in Scripture alone.