Mark Buchanan shared the following story in a magazine article:
A number of years ago, a friend of his assembled a weekend work party to lay sod in his yard. The sun was shining. He had fresh coffee and cinnamon buns. The crew he’d called together were all good friends. As he relates: We liked each other immensely. Then one of the guys said: ‘Do you realize something? This is it! This is it!’ We stopped. This is what? ‘This is community.’ We all murmured our assent and congratulated one another. Yes. This is it. But then I said, ‘This is great, but I don’t think this is it. I like you all too much. Add a person or two to this company who lacks social graces, who looks different, who’s needy, smelly, and irritating. If we truly loved a person like that, then that would be it.’
Silence. Then one of guys said, ‘Uh, Mark. We’ve accepted you, haven’t we?’ We all laughed, but they understood. We are always tempted to turn the church into a club. With our kind of people. But Jesus said it’s no credit to us if we love those who love us, our kind of people. We don’t need God to love them; natural affinities are sufficient. Jesus said, we are to love the least of these and the worst of these, even enemies. That takes God: it takes a supernatural overthrow of our own prejudices, and a Spirit-given empowerment of God’s extravagant love.
A year or so after our sod-laying party, Wanda arrived at our church. Wanda was not our kind of people. She was thirsty alright, for beer, port, rum, vanilla extract, whatever. She had only one way to pay for that. I’ll let you guess. But she was desperate, and thirsty for something else. She called the church one day, wondering if she could see a pastor, and now! Two of us met with her. She told us her troubled story. I told her about the woman at the well whose life, like Wanda’s, wasn’t going well. But she met Jesus and we asked Wanda if she would like to meet Him too.
‘Oh yeah!’ she said. We prayed. She confessed, repented, surrendered. The other pastor said, ‘Now, Wanda, this Sunday will be your first time in church. Don’t feel you have to fit in right away. You can sit at the back if you like, come late, leave early. Whatever is comfortable.’ Wanda looked at him sideways. ‘Why would I do that?’ she said. ‘I’ve been waiting for this all my life.’
That Sunday, Wanda was the first to arrive. She sat at the front, and loudly agreed with everything I said. She was the last to leave. The next Sunday, same thing, except she brought a friend, one of her kind of people. I preached on servanthood. My main point was, if you’ve tasted the love of Jesus, you’ll want to serve. It was Communion Sunday. After the message, I called for the servant leaders to come forward. In those days, we called our elders, The Servant Leadership Team. I asked the Servant Leaders to come and help with Communion. That day only two of our team were in church. They straggled to the front. All Wanda heard was the word servant. And she had been listening intently to my sermon: if you’ve tasted the love of Jesus, you’ll want to serve. She walked straight up to serve Communion with the other two ‘servants.’ I flinched. Then I remembered Luke 7, Jesus’ words to Simon, the Pharisee as a woman, not unlike Wanda, washed Jesus’ feet: ‘Do you see this woman?’ Do you see her?
I leaned over to Wanda and said, ‘Since this is your very first time doing this, do you mind if I help?’ So Wanda and I served Communion. The best part was watching the faces of the people I love, serve, pray for and preach to. Not one flinched. They saw her. This is it. This is true community.[i]
One of the problems of church life in North America is a misunderstanding of what the bible reveals as true community. We often judge others far more severely, and expect others to meet our needs, rather than understanding that part of being in community is what we contribute to others.
It is all part of the consumerism of our age. I’ve also been struck by an interesting parallel between our spiritual condition and the growing problem of physical conditioning. Many medical people are concerned about the lack of physical exercise that many children receive. With so much to entertain us, we are becoming physically unhealthy. But it is not just being physically out of shape, as a culture we are struggling with being emotionally, relationally, and even spiritually out of shape. There are things we know and don’t practice, or we should know but think that these exercises are optional. To be spiritually fit, you must discipline yourself. As a matter of fact, the apostle Paul tells Timothy that we must train to be godly (cf. 1 Timothy 4:8b). Another translation uses the word, discipline yourself to be godly. What will it take to get in good spiritual shape? What kind of exercises should we practice in order for us to be spiritually fit? In Hebrews 10 we discover three things that will help us stay or get spiritually fit. These three things are at the core of our faith and they have eternal qualities. “and now these three remain: faith, hope and love. And the greatest of these is love (1 Cor. 13:13).”
How do these qualities develop in our lives? In the tenth chapter of the book of Hebrews, we find how they can be applied into our daily lives in order to remain spiritually fit.
THE FIRST THING IN STAYING SPIRITUALLY FIT IS THE EXERCISE OF FAITH
What do I mean by the exercise of faith? Biblical faith is learning to trust God. Trust only occurs out of cultivating a relationship with God. We must draw near to God in order to be close to Him. Remember that the writer is speaking to people of a Jewish background. This is the book written to Jewish followers of Christ, the Hebrews. N.T. biblical scholar, F. F. Bruce writes:
In view of all that has been accomplished for us by Christ, he says, let us confidently approach God in worship…
Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.[ii]
The ‘boldness’ which believers in Christ have to enter the heavenly sanctuary through Him is set in contrast with the restrictions which hedged about the privilege of symbolic entry into the presence of God in Israel’s earthly sanctuary. In it not all the people who could exercise this privilege, but the high priest only, as their representative; and even he could not exercise the privilege any time he chose, but at fixed times and under fixed conditions. But those who have been cleansed within, consecrated (fully surrendered to God) and made perfect by the sacrifice of Christ, have received a free right of access into the holy presence; and our author urges his readers to avail themselves fully of this free right.[iii]
What is Bruce talking about? In the O. T. the High Priest could only enter into the Holiest part of the Temple where God’s presence was on one day of the year: the day of Atonement. But now because of Jesus Christ, the barrier or veil has been torn aside in order to provide us access into God’s very presence whenever we call on His name. Do we really grasp the significance of this access? Do we avail ourselves of this privilege of freely coming to God?
A. We must communicate in order to develop a healthy relationship.
Drawing near to God speaks of taking time to commune with Him, to talk to Him. Our assurance of God’s interest in what we have to say is based on our relationship with Him. We are family. Jesus encourages us to call God, Father. It is a term that speaks of a very close relationship. This drawing near to God is based on what Christ did on our behalf at the Cross and resurrection. It is not based on human merit. So when I pray, I do not say: Do I deserve this? Rather, I come to God asking for His help based solely on my neediness and His willingness.
One reason we may not pray more or take prayer more seriously is that we don’t understand God’s willingness to hear us and to answer our cry. The question of our prayerlessness is often tied to superficial things like self-reliance and other interests, but deeper issues also keep us away from drawing near to God.
B. One reason we don’t pray more is that we have misunderstood the nature of God.
We do not see Him as being that interested in even the little details of our lives. Ultimately, we don’t see Him as being willing. I love the story of the leper who came to Jesus as recorded by Matthew.
A man with leprosy came and knelt before him and said, ‘Lord, if you are willing, you can make me clean.
Jesus reached out his hand and touched the man. ‘I am willing,’ he said. ‘Be clean!’ Immediately he was cured of his leprosy.[iv]
What we need to hear is that Jesus is willing. Jesus challenges us to keep trusting Him.
Archbishop Richard Trench writes: “Prayer is not overcoming God’s reluctance, it is laying hold of his highest willingness.”[v]
In one parable regarding our need to never give up when we are praying, Jesus shows us the importance of perseverance. The issue is not willingness, but rather it’s the issue of our trust and confidence in Him. When God delays answers to prayer, other things are happening, one of which is the exercise of our faith. Faith must be exercised in order to grow stronger. When prayer is not being answered, the temptation is to quit praying, but true faith continues exercising its spiritual muscle knowing the goodness and willingness of God to answer in compassionate ways. This is brought out in one of Jesus’ parables. “Then Jesus told his disciples a parable to show them that they should always pray and not give up (Luke 18:1).”
Then He relates the story of the unjust judge and the persistent widow. It is a parable of contrast between a judge who neither feared God nor man, and a just and loving God, who is concerned about the least, the lost, and the disregarded. This is evident throughout the Scriptures. Here the widow who, because of her persistence, gains her petition from this judge. God is nothing like this judge. God, our Father, is caring, compassionate and deeply interested in our lives. He loves us. Notice how Jesus concludes with a promise and a challenge.
And will not God bring about justice for his chosen ones, who cry out to him day and night? Will he keep putting them off?
I tell you, he will see that they get justice, and quickly. However, when the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?[vi]
The point Jesus is making is that persistence is an opportunity for faith to grow. The real issue is our faith. Do we believe God? Will we continue to trust God even when it seems He is not answering. God is working and will give us good gifts.
C. Another reason we struggle with prayer is that we are looking at our own sense of worth and value.
We may not feel like we deserve what we are asking for. That’s true of all of us. None of us deserves what God gives us, that’s the meaning of grace (unmerited favor). We come to God to find grace when we least deserve it.
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet he did not sin.
Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.[vii]
Here in our text we are challenged to draw near to God in assurance and confidence because we are trusting in what He has done on our behalf.
THE SECOND THING IN STAYING SPIRITUALLY FIT IS THE EXERCISE OF HOPE
It has been said that man can live without food for forty days, without water for three days, but only one second without hope. Hope is what keeps us going. Knowing this, the enemy of our souls will battle us on this point so that we will lose hope. How many have battled despair? How many have wondered where God was in your crisis? Maybe some today are battling this giant. You can’t see or understand what is happening. You’re wondering where God is in your current situation. Our hope is in a person. God is faithful and what He promises, He can deliver. Maybe we have even given up and lost hope in our current situation. We were reminded in our prayer meeting last Tuesday night by one of our deacons that even the apostle Paul and his team lost hope while they were in a storm at sea.
When neither sun nor stars appeared for many days and the storm continued raging, we finally gave up all hope of being saved.[viii]
But God sent an angel to Paul with a word of encouragement. God will come in our darkest hours.
A. We are being challenged to persevere in hope.
In Hebrews we are challenged to hold firmly to hope because God is faithful. It is a challenge to not allow the outward circumstances of life to define us. “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful (Hebrews 10:23).”
In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis points out regarding the nature of Christian hope:
Hope means a continual looking forward to the eternal world…It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next…It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in’: aim at earth and you will get neither.[ix]
B. It is also a call to communicate our faith.
It is a hope we profess. We live in a hostile society to the gospel. What we need to understand is that the culture has always been hostile.
It is both difficult and dangerous to tell the truth. People who tell the truth not infrequently get killed. The word used in the first Christian century for telling the truth about God in a given situation, martus, has come into our language as ‘martyr,’ the person who loses his life telling the truth.[x]
That is our problem, we are not willing to lose our lives or status, by speaking out. We are afraid of losing our reputation, or the possibility of relationships because we have told others about Jesus. Think back to the prophets and apostles who spoke courageously God’s message to their generation, but often at the cost of their very lives. What is interesting is that those who destroyed them were often doing it in God’s name.
THE THIRD THING IN STAYING SPIRITUALLY FIT IS THE EXERCISE OF LOVE
Love cannot survive alone, it must have others to love. Here we are encouraged by the writer to motivate and inspire each other to express love. Love is demonstrated by action. When speaking of love, the writer immediately moves our relationship to one another as believers. The need to assemble, to come together, to resist the temptation to live independently and in isolation.
And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.[xi]
The Day here is the day of judgment. Obviously, some had fallen back and away from the community of faith. Many today do not see the need for the church. The temptation for the early believers was similar to ours. To neglect assembling together. For one, it was dangerous in that hour to gather together. These early Jewish believers were seen as either heretics in the eyes of the Jewish community because of their faith in Jesus Christ, or unpatriotic and even revolutionary in the eyes of the Roman Empire. Caesar was worshiped as Lord, but these believers rejected that claim and worshiped only Christ as Lord, some at the expense of their lives.
Today, the attack against coming together is more subtle. The church is seen as being too institutional and not relational enough. Though there are dangers in being too institutional, the problem is deeper. Many attend solely to receive. George Barna, a Christian researcher and writer states that 20 million Americans claim to be believers but do not attend church. Some believe that meeting with a few believers when it is convenient is far better, and so there is a movement toward house churches, with a more intimate body life. I believe that people can have these needs met in building meaningful relationships as we serve one another. Yet, there is a danger that is not first understood. Divorcing ourselves from the larger group life can lead to the dangers of false teaching and becoming ingrown and very inclusive. It is interesting that in John’s revelation of the Lord Jesus Christ, we have a picture of incredible light which both heals and reveals. In Eugene Peterson’s book ‘Reverse Thunder,’ he writes that this final book is the last word from God on various things, one of which is the church. Seven churches are addressed and dealt with. Almost all are affirmed and corrected, but all are given a challenge to receive a promise.
The church is the place where we come to find out what we are doing that is right; it is a place of affirmation. The church is the place where we come to find out what we are doing wrong; it is a place for correction. The church is the place where we come to hear the promises; it is a place of motivation. No Christian community can do without any part of the message. We need affirmation, we need correction, we need motivation.[xii]
The gospel is never for individuals but always for people. Sin fragments us, separates us, and sentences us to solitary confinement. Gospel restores us, unites us, and sets us in community. The life of faith revealed and nurtured in the biblical narratives is highly personal but never merely individual.[xiii]
But whenever we grow disillusioned with the church because it’s not what we think it ought to be, we need to be reminded again that the church is a family in progress. There is never a sense of arrival.
The churches in the Revelation show us that churches are not show homes where everything is on display. Rather they are messy family rooms. Entering a person’s house unexpectedly, we are sometimes met with a barrage of apologies. John does not apologize. Things are out of order, to be sure, but that is what happens to churches that are lived in. …They are living rooms, and if the persons living in them are sinners, there are going to be clothes scattered about, handprints on the woodwork, and mud on the carpet. For as long as Jesus insists on calling sinners and not the righteous to repentance- and there is no indication as yet that he has changed his policy in that regard- churches are going to be an embarrassment to the fastidious [those that expect everything to be perfect] and an affront to the upright. John sees them simply as lampstands; they are places, locations, where the light of Christ is shown. They are not themselves the light. There is nothing particularly glamourous about churches, nor, on the other hand, is there anything particularly shameful about them. They simply are.[xiv]
What Peterson is doing is challenging the idea that somehow we have arrived. No! We are constantly reaching out to broken people. People struggle. Saints struggle. It is in the family that love and care comes, not because we deserve it but rather because we need it. As the apostle Paul challenged the church at Rome.
We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.[xv]
What kind of effort are you making in staying spiritually fit? Are you drawing near to God in faith? Persevering because of the hope you profess? Loving enough to relate to people unlike yourself? Living in community versus living in isolation? It’s an effort in cooperation with the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Pastor John Ortberg writes in Leadership journal:
Significant human transformation always involves training, not just trying. Spiritual transformation is a long-term endeavor. It involves both God and us. He likens it to crossing an ocean. Some people try, day after day, to be good, to become spiritually mature. That’s like taking a rowboat across the ocean. It’s exhausting and usually unsuccessful. Others have given up trying and throw themselves entirely on ‘relying on God’s grace.’ They’re like drifters on a raft. They do nothing but hang on and hope God gets them there. Neither trying nor drifting are effective in bringing about spiritual transformation. A better image is the sailboat, which if it moves at all, is a gift of the wind. We can’t control the wind, but a good sailor discerns where the wind is blowing and adjusts the sails accordingly. Working with the Holy Spirit, which Jesus likened to the wind in John 3, means we have a part in discerning the winds, in knowing the direction we need to go, and in training our sails to catch the breezes that God provides. That’s true transformation.[xvi]
Praying, persevering and partnering with others is the key to staying spiritually fit.
1. What kind of an effort are you making in staying spiritually fit?
2. If prayer is a struggle, can you identify some reasons for it in your life? Self-reliance? Other distracting interests? A false view of God’s willingness to answer? Or I don’t deserve it?
3. How does your communication reflect your hope to others?
4. How do you view church attendance? Optional or as a spiritual discipline for greater spiritual growth?
5. What’s your expectation of church life? Something I get out of it? Or something I put into it? Or both?
6. Are your expectations of other believers realistic or idealistic?
[i] Mark Buchanan, ‘This Is It,’ Leadership Journal (Spring 2008).
[ii] Hebrews 10:22, The New International Version of the Bible, Zondervan, 2011.
[iii] F. F. Bruce, The Epistle To The Hebrews, (Grand Rapids, Mi: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1964), 244.
[iv] Matthew 8:2-3.
[v] Richard Trench, Notes on the Parables of Our Lord, (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group, 1981).
[vi] Luke 18:7-8.
[vii] Hebrews 4:14-16.
[viii] Acts 27:20.
[ix] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, 180-182, as quoted from Wayne Martindale and Jerry Root, Eds. The Quotable Lewis, (Wheaton, Il: Tyndale Publishing House, 1990), 305-306.
[x] Eugene Peterson, Reverse Thunder, (San Francisco: Ca: Harper Collins Publishers, 1991), 102.
[xi] Hebrews. 10:24-25.
[xii] Eugene Peterson, Reverse Thunder, 53.
[xiii] Ibid, 42-43.
[xiv] Ibid, 54.
[xv] Romans 15:1.
[xvi] John Ortberg, ‘True (and False) Transformation,’ Leadership journal, (Summer 2002), 104.