Without Holiness

Hebrews 12:14-17 

I’m sure you’ve heard the definition of nagging: it is reminding somebody of something they haven’t forgotten.

A concerned mother worried about her son’s success at college. She came up with the perfect plan to help him stay organized and on task. She began sending him daily e-mails filled with advice and counsel and admonitions to study hard, eat right, keep his room clean and get to bed on time. After the first week of these daily letters, the young freshman called home and assured her that all was going well – “By the way mom,” he said, “I think you’ve invented a new form of communication.” “Oh, what is that?” “Cybernagging.”

 When you start to get bogged down in these last two chapters of Hebrews with things you’ve heard before, you might think the writer has gone to telling you stuff you already know. But it’s a good reality check to jump over to 13:22Brothers, I urge you to bear with my word of exhortation, for I have written you only a short letter. (Short letter? What would he have done if he hadn’t run out of ink and papyrus? No – this letter is just as long as God wanted it…) And he deals with issues that confronted them daily.

But it’s in these last two chapters that our writer gets down to the practical business of living. In the first eleven chapters he has helped us see the all-supremacy of Christ, the necessity of his death, the power of faith, but here in chapters 12 and 13, he really brings it all into focus on what this means for our daily lives. How should we live if Jesus Christ is Lord of all?

In these four verses – a series of six concise exhortations, seemingly random, yet each connected and all firmly based on one underlying premise – that if Jesus is Lord and our lives are under his lordship, our lives should be profoundly different from this world.

The exhortations are introduced by two phrases that communicate the intensity of their purpose – these are not casual suggestions, but vitally necessary for the Christian in his daily walk of faith.

The word the author uses is one that is translated by different English words: “Make every effort” (NIV) / “Strive” (RSV) / “Pursue” (NASB). Each one conveys that this is living life with singleness of purpose, focused dedication, the tenacity of a pit bull. This is a high priority assignment in two parts: Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.

Did you notice how integrally connected those two relationships are? How we relate with people, how we relate with God. You don’t get the option of just being a good old boy and saying, “I’m generous and compassionate with people, surely that’s good enough.”

Nor can you write off people and say, “I love God, but people I can’t stand.”

“Pursue peace with all men” – That’s not just the people you like and who like you in return. That’s the people whom you don’t like. In fact, that’s the people who don’t like you – and those may be the people who have tried to do harm to you and have inflicted pain on you with their words and their actions. Pursue peace with them. It’s hard not to be reminded of John’s words in 1 John 4:19-21: We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother.

“… and to be holy” – The writer doesn’t take the easy way out of this one. We’d like to think showing up at church fairly often is what God wants, or being generous with our contribution, or even teaching in a Bible class. But the writer says job #1 is holiness. In fact, he nails down any room for misunderstanding by saying, “without holiness no one will see the Lord.”

I could ask two questions this morning, and I’m afraid they would put most, if not all of us on the spot: #1 How many of us want to go to heaven? #2 How many of us pursue a holy life? Why is that? You can’t have the first without the second. It’s hard to misunderstand what the writer is saying, so either we don’t believe him, or we think there is some kind of wiggle room around it.

Holiness is a purity of our lives, but it is so much more than that. Holiness describes that single-focused, undiluted life that is ruled by one lord. You are “set-apart” for service to one master. Your single purpose in life is to glorify God with your lifestyle, your relationships, your words, your actions, your loyalty.

How do you develop holiness in your life? It’s a lot like cleaning out your attic or your garage. You start in one corner and start picking up things – does it stay or go, will it help me draw closer to God or does it push me away from God? Piece by piece, examining and deciding – and once you have cleaned out, it’s time to start refurnishing – there may be necessary pieces of a holy life that aren’t there. You may have let video games shut out your time for reading God’s word. Video games you can live without, God’s word is a non-negotiable necessity.

If you’re serious about God, you have to be serious about holiness, and it’s time to really start letting Jesus be Lord of all your life.

The author moves from two “make every effort” exhortations to four “see to it” imperatives: See to it that no one misses the grace of God and that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many. See that no one is sexually immoral, or is godless like Esau, who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son. (vss. 15-16)

  “See to it that no one misses the grace of God”

How does one miss the grace of God? There it is in all its splendor – God’s Son dying on the cross in our place – how could you miss it?

Unless you were so focused on what you are doing – look at my qualifications God! See everything I’m doing for you? Look at how much I’ve given up for your kingdom.

Unless you’re focused on a list of requirements and checking each one off. Check, check, check, check, oops– I’ll double up tomorrow, check, check, and check. Well, got all of those taken care of – I’m good with God for another week.

Unless you are so consumed by your failures and sin that you don’t see how God could possibly forgive someone that has done as many bad things as you have.

How does one miss the grace of God? The Hebrews writer dealt with that back in chapter 4, didn’t he? “Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short of it.”  What does he address there? Neglect and indifference; a sinful, unbelieving heart; giving up and dropping out. Don’t miss the grace of God by losing sight of what really matters – the glorious cross of Jesus Christ, who died for us.

 “See to it that no bitter root grows up to cause trouble and defile many”

This isn’t just a random analogy the writer pulls out of the air. Bitterness is like a plant with a deep spreading root system. I’ve got a plant in my yard – it’s a vine with thorns that travels underground and every now and then it will throw a shoot up and it will start to wind itself around another plant. I’ve seen them out in the countryside left unchecked – the vine will get to be ¼” thick and the thorns are like razors and it will literally choke another plant to death.

That is the picture of bitterness – it travels on our insides wrapping itself around and around, every now and then throwing a little shoot out and pulling someone else into its death grip.

Bitterness never just destroys one person; it always takes several with it. If you’ve ever experienced the poison of bitterness you know how powerful and deadly it is.

Our writer says, don’t let bitterness grow – dig it up, trace it to its source, keep it from choking the life out of your faith.

 “See to it that no one is sexually immoral”

The very idea of sexual immorality has become outdated, obsolete, antiquated, passé. Sexual relationships among unmarried people are so common – not just among the politicians and Hollywood stars, but among folks all around us, and I’m afraid, folks right among us – that we scoff at the very suggestion that there’s anything wrong with it. We’re made to feel foolish and judgmental by questioning the morality of these kinds of relationships.

And the truth is, sexual immorality is really a symptom of deeper spiritual problems. A person who has violated their sexual purity has already violated the intimacy of their relationship with God. You cannot be right with God and use your body for an immoral relationship. That’s precisely what Paul wrote: Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a man commits are outside his body, but he who sins sexually sins against his own body. Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body. (1 Cor. 6:18-20)

Sexual immorality would seem to be an intensely private sin. But the truth is, it has a devastating effect on, not just the individuals and families involved, but the larger circle of friends and the congregation. It has a way of infecting and destroying far beyond its immediate circle. And so our writer warns them – “see that no one is sexually immoral.”

 “See to it that no one is godless like Esau”

He catches us off-guard for a moment. Esau, godless? He reminds us of the story – “who for a single meal sold his inheritance rights as the oldest son…” You remember Jacob and the pot of stew and the foolish decision.

Godlessness is like that. It doesn’t just come out and say, “I don’t believe in God.” It displays itself in the choices we make. We say we believe in God, but we make choices that are short-sighted and self-dependent. They focus on my resources, my desires, my needs and leave God out of the equation. There’s no room for trusting God because I’m in control. That’s godlessness.

And tragically, as Esau found out, some of the choices and decisions we make have irreversible consequences. We find out too late that when I violate God’s will, I cut myself off from his blessings. Yes, we can always find forgiveness in God, but there are some of the heartaches and scars that are permanent reminders of our own rebelliousness that we will always bear.

Several years ago, I was cleaning the bulletins and cards left behind in the pews after Sunday morning, and came across this card left on the pew where the teens sat, and it made my heart ache.

“To whom it may concern: God is a figure created by those who are not strong enough to take credit or blame for themselves. He is also created by those who are scared of death and cannot face that there is no life or suffering after death, only nothing. There is no one single Devil or Evil, there is more than one for each of us on this earth. God is a figment of someone’s imagination that has succumbed many into its foolishness. I pity the fools who waste life parts on the worship of a one so-called God in which there is none. We are our own Gods and our own Devils. There is no proof of God. What is made to happen is made by worldly people!”

It made me think of something I had read by Auschwitz survivor, Elie Wiesel in his book, Night. Wiesel tells of one night when several prisoners decided to put God on trial. They wanted to try God for the horrors of the Holocaust. These were men of faith, but it seemed to them their faith had failed them. They asked young Wiesel to witness the proceedings. The prosecuting attorney brought charges. God’s people had been torn from their homes, separated from their families, beaten, abused, and burned alive in the incinerators. The defense attorney made his case. But in the end, they found God guilty of failing and abandoning his people, maybe even guilty of not existing. The trial was over. The mood in the room was somber, dark, depressing. The men prepared for bed. A few minutes later, however, when the time came for the Jewish evening prayer, these same men who had just found God guilty of abandoning them got on their knees and prayed their evening prayer. And then Wiesel was reminded of a verse in the OT book of Habakkuk: Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord. I will be joyful in God my savior. The Sovereign Lord is my strength. (Hab 3:17-19)

Faith sees us through the most difficult of times and circumstances. When everything else is take away from you, when you despair of even life itself, it is faith that sees you through, and you realize it has been God holding you in his arms the entire time.