Hebrews 10:19-25; Matthew 18:15-20

3rd Sunday before Advent

St Barbara’s 06.11.2022

Rev Tulo Raistrick

Last week, we began to think of all those Christians of the past who have bee an inspiration to us. In two weeks time we are going to be thinking about the church of the future. And today, our focus is on the church of today.

I don’t know about you but I found the Covid lockdowns that we experienced in 2020 and 2021 acted as something of a circuit breaker. All my normal routines and habits, the activities and clubs that I was involved in, suddenly stopped. The experience of many organisations, societies and groups, including many churches, since the end of the lockdowns, has been that whilst some people have come back with renewed vigour and energy, a significant number of others have been slow to return. Some people have simply fallen out of the habit of doing things they did before; others have fallen into new routines that don’t include those activities; and others have re-assessed their priorities and decided there are other things they would rather do with their time.

When it comes to church life, the writer to the Hebrews’ words, written two thousand years ago, speak to us with remarkable relevance. He writes: “let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but let us encourage one another.” Those words touch on the privilege of meeting together, the value of meeting together, and the fruit of meeting together. As we look at these together, I hope they act as a source of affirmation, affirming why you are here this morning, and as a source of encouragement, encouraging you to keep gathering with each other.

The letter to the Hebrews touches on the extraordinary privilege that we have as Christians in gathering together to come into the presence of God. He was writing to people steeped in the experience of Old Testament worship, people for whom the presence of God was so holy and awe-inspiring, that they were unable to even come close to God’s presence. That was reflected in the worship at the Temple in Jerusalem. God was seen to be present in the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum of the Temple, and no-one could enter there except one person, the High Priest, and only they could go in once a year after extensive preparation. Entering into the presence of God was way out of reach of normal worshipers.

But now our writer to the Hebrews declares that all that has changed. What was possible for only one person is now open to all. What was an act that could only happen once a year can now happen at any time, unlimited access. And it is all made possible because of Christ. It is because of his sacrifice for us that the barrier between us and God, represented by that huge heavy curtain in the Temple that was ripped in two when he died on the cross, has been removed. Sin has been overcome. We are welcomed into the holy presence of God. And the writer to the Hebrews tells us that Christ stands alongside us, commending us, accompanying us into the presence of his Father.

It is a remarkable turn-around; it is a gift of incomparable worth. Imagine being offered the opportunity to sit down and have a chat with the person you most admire in the world – maybe a great musician or sportsstar, a world statesman or woman, an extraordinary philanthropist or carer, an admired author. Imagine if their closest friend has sorted out everything for you: they’ve taken care of all the travel arrangements, they’ve cleared space in both your diaries, they’ve spoken of you and commended you to the person in such a way that they are as excited to spend time with you as you are with them, if not more so. Imagine having that opportunity and turning round and saying “no – another time perhaps. I don’t really feel like it.” What a loss! What a missed opportunity!

Here we are offered to come into the presence of God Himself – Christ has arranged everything for us: he has made it possible. He presents us to the Father clean, forgiven. “Where two or three are gathered in my name”, Jesus says, “there am I with them”. When we gather together, whether here on a Sunday morning, or at Buzz on a Sunday afternoon or Prayers and Bears and mid-week communion on  a Wednesday morning, or in our home groups, or when we meet together for meals in one another’s homes, we are welcomed into the presence of almighty God, the God who is Lord of heaven and earth, the source of all that is good and beautiful and virtuous in our world, the God who is love. What a privilege! No wonder the Hebrews writer encouraged his readers not to give up meeting together.

As if the privilege of coming into God’s presence as we meet together is not enough, the Hebrews writer talks also about the value of meeting together too.

For most of us, and I include myself in this, doubt and struggles with faith can be a regular part of our existence. There are times when we may wonder, “Is this all real? Is belief in God a sound foundation of life or is it wishful thinking?” Or we may feel, “I believe in God, but I don’t believe he would accept or love someone like me”. And in a world where much of the prevailing ethos and outlook on life  does not have room for God, where belief in God may be seen at best as a somewhat well-meaning irrelevance, it is easy to begin to doubt the value and importance of faith.

That is one of the reasons why the letter to the Hebrews urges its readers to keep meeting together. Why? So that we can encourage one another, build each other up, remind one another that we are not alone in our faith, but that we are part of a community of faith that shares our same beliefs.

A friend of mine, Francis Njoroge, used to illustrate this very visually in the rural Kenyan villages he would visit. He would ask the villagers to make a fire using branches, but then ask them to remove each branch from the fire and separate them from each other. Very quickly all the fires had gone out. He asked them to put the branches altogether again and form a new fire, and of course, this time the fire kept burning. His point: we need each other. We are stronger together.

And even if you don’t feel that you need the encouragement of others, your very presence may be the encouragement to them. I know that I am not the only person here who takes great encouragement when I look around this congregation and see who is here. People who despite, or even because of immense challenges, whether through health, or family, or work, are here in church today, still believing, still worshipping. That fills me with such hope and faith.

When we gather together, we affirm, we support, we strengthen one another. There may be times when we just don’t feel like being together with others. But your presence is a source of encouragement to others, so please come. And those of you who join us online, who because of circumstances are not able to join us physically, do let us know that you are with us. Its been such a joy for example to know that the folk at Herald Lodge have been joining us for services. Drop me or others a line to let us know.

There is privilege, there is value in meeting together. And there is also fruit. Meeting together is not just for our own benefit. We are not just a holy club. As the writer to the Hebrews puts it: “Let us spur one another on to love and good deeds.” As we meet together, there is the opportunity to stir up in each other the gifts and passions that we have to make a difference in the world. That may come through conversation, as we ask people about their work or their school or their families or their activities, encouraging and prompting reflection on how is God’s love being expressed in those situations. It may come through prayer, praying for one another, whether through our Sunday intercessions, or over coffee, or when we pray by ourselves in our homes. That may come through shared action, as we did at our recent Harvest service, giving to the work of Carriers of Hope. Meeting with one another can spur us on in expressing God’s love for our community and the wider world.

At our PCC meeting on Tuesday we are going to be thinking about how over the coming months we can spur one another on to love and good deeds. If you have suggestions please let one of our PCC members or me know. It would be great to hear from you.

There are so many wonderful reasons for us to meet together – to experience the presence of God, to encourage one another in faith and to spur one another on to live lives of love. May God help us to make the most of such opportunities.