It Can’t be Hoarded
watched a six year-old boy brush his teeth before going to bed.
He squeezed toothpaste onto his toothbrush – and then more
toothpaste, and after that more still, great gobs of it.
I asked him what he thought he was doing.
He told me that if he used five times as much toothpaste as
normal, he wouldn’t have to brush his teeth for five days.
His reasoning was sound. He
erred on only one point: he didn’t know that dental hygiene can’t be
Most things in life can’t be hoarded.
Affection can’t be hoarded.
If my wife staggers home and needs to be hugged for any reason, I
hug her. I’d never think
of saying, perplexed, “But I hugged you last month.”
It’s no different with worship.
What God lends us through our worship of him can’t be hoarded.
Now to be sure, our primary motive for worshipping must always be
the praise and adoration of God, the public celebration of his mercy and
patience and truth. And as
long as this is the primary motive of our worship, we will indeed be worshipping
At the same time, the worship we bring to God in turn brings
blessing to God’s people. Such
blessing, however, can never be hoarded.
God’s gifts, like manna of old, are sufficient for us in our
need at the moment of our need and the moment of the blessing.
Nothing here can be hoarded.
The text of today’s sermon reminds us of
some of the blessings of worship. It
indicates what God works in those who “draw near to him with a true
heart in full assurance of faith.”
I: -- The
first blessing of worship, according to our text, is “a heart
sprinkled clean from an evil conscience.”
Presupposed here is the truth that we have
a conscience, and ought to
have one. Through worship we
approach God, and find that our conscience is cleansed.
Plainly the conscience that is now cleansed needed to be cleansed
inasmuch as it was defiled.
Today it’s fashionable to suggest that
conscience is only a legacy from infancy, a carryover from parental
restrictions, a carryover nasty to the point of being neurotic and
therefore distressing; a carryover, in other words, better described as
a hangover. If this is the
case, then we should all aim at ridding ourselves of conscience.
Wouldn’t we all be better off if we were conscienceless?
It so happens that there are people who are utterly
of them are locked up in the provincial hospital in
. They are psychopaths. They
can never be trusted and therefore are highly dangerous.
Some of them sleep every night with one ankle cuffed to the bed
frame. They are pitiable.
Perhaps you want to tell me I’m not being
fair; in fact there is not a
continuum between the person whose conscience isn’t quite as sensitive
as it should be and the conscienceless psychopath who has to be locked
up; perhaps you want to tell me that the psychopathic mind isn’t
different merely in degree but in fact is different in kind.
I won’t argue with the objection.
But I will say this: to be conscienceless is also to be
shameless, and the shameless person is to be pitied.
Yes, we all understand what
psychotherapists mean when they speak of adults who are
“shame-bound”, and we understand why psychotherapists (and others
too) deplore the inhibited life of those who are shame-bound.
We should support those who struggle to rid themselves of
neurotic shame, unnecessary shame, taboo-shame that has nothing to do
with what’s right but everything to do with emotional warping at the
hands of coercive figures. Still,
rightly deploring “shame-bound”, it would only be folly to think
that all shame, in all situations, is a sign of neurosis.
The person with no sense of shame is dangerous; the person with
no sense of shame is to be feared when he is in our midst and is to be
pitied when he isn’t in our midst.
A gospel-sensitized conscience, a
Spirit-sensitized conscience, has nothing to do with neurosis.
It has everything to do with our awareness of who God is and what
he has done for us, what he now asks of us and where we have failed to
render him what we owe him. When
the prophet Isaiah goes to the
temple to worship he finds himself crying before God “Woe is me, for I
am a man of unclean lips.” When
Jesus overtakes Peter, Peter blurts “Depart from me, for I am a sinful
man.” Neither Isaiah nor
Peter needed a mental health expert.
Those who assume we’d better off if
conscience were rendered inoperative forget something crucial; namely,
not all guilt is neurotic: much guilt is real.
Not all offences are mere violations of social convention; many
offences offend God and wound his creatures.
All of us are perpetrators who feel guilty because in truth we
are guilty and ought to feel guilty.
Because of our depravity we have a destructive streak in us that
will destroy ourselves and others unchecked – unless it’s checked by
a conscience that hasn’t yet been blunted.
Most significantly, our text informs us that to approach God in
worship is to have our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience.
Six hundred years before the unknown author of Hebrews penned
today’s text the prophet Ezekiel knew that God had given him a word
for dispirited people: “I will sprinkle clean water upon you, and you
shall be clean from all your uncleannesses.”
Plainly, while a fittingly sensitized
conscience is unquestionably one mark of the Christian, it’s not the
only mark; it’s not the most important mark; it’s not the ultimate
mark. The characteristic
mark of the Christian – that is, the mark by which the Christian is
publicly identified and privately consoled – is the assurance of
God’s pardon. “I will
sprinkle clean water upon you,
and you will be clean from all
The apostle John is quick to admit that
from time to time our hearts do condemn us; and just as quickly he adds
“[and] God is greater than our hearts.”
Of course we have an evil conscience; and God is greater than our
conscience, for he has already sprinkled clean water upon us and
cleansed us from all our uncleannesses.
At the time of the Reformation our
Protestant foreparents insisted that to know God is to know God as
is one of Calvin’s favourite words.
When he’s not using the word but wants to express the idea,
Calvin uses such synonyms as “favourable”, “merciful”,
“benevolent”, “fatherly”. Let’s
linger over the last word: “fatherly”.
Calvin never denies that God is judge; God is the just judge; God
is the judge whose judgement can’t be ‘bought off’ or ignored or
set aside or deflected elsewhere. Yet
just as firmly Calvin insists that God isn’t judge ultimately;
ultimately God is father. He
judges us only for the sake of correcting us, and he bothers to correct
us only because he wants to bless us with blessing greater than anything
we can imagine. God, of his
sheer mercy, has made us and our need his dearest cause.
We don’t genuinely know God, say our Reformation foreparents,
unless we know him as propitious. Who,
after all, could ever love someone who was judge only?
Who could ever adore someone who was power only?
Calvin maintains that the God who is power only is the God who
can never be worshipped.
John Newton, cruel slave-trader turned
clergyman, hymnwriter and spiritual counsellor;
’s best-known hymn, Amazing
Grace, should startle us as often as we sing the second stanza:
“’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear, and
grace my fears relieved.” Now
we know why the psalmist exclaims, “This I know, that God is for me.” (Ps. 56:9)
As we worship week-by-week God’s truth concerning us – we are
those whom he has soaked in his mercy – penetrates ever more deeply
into us. “Let us draw near
with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with a heart sprinkled
clean from an evil conscience.”
II: -- Our
text points to yet another consequence of worship: “Let us hold fast
the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is
faithful.” We must be sure
to note that we aren’t urged to hold fast to the good old days (that
weren’t good in any case.) We
aren’t urged to hold fast to the present inasmuch as we fear the
future. We are urged to hold
fast the confession of our hope.
What is our hope?
According to scripture hope is a future certainty grounded in a
present reality. The present
reality is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, rendering him
victorious – plus his ascension on high – rendering him ruler, ruler
over all that is. The future
certainty is that his rule, known now only to his followers, will one
day be made manifest. His
rule, disputed and doubted if not disdained at present, will one day be
When we speak of “hope” we aren’t
speaking of hopefulness, wishful thinking, “Wouldn’t it be nice
if…?” When we speak of
hope we aren’t speaking of something ‘iffy’, something we’d like
to see occur even though it might not occur.
When we speak of hope we are speaking of a future certainty more
certain than anything the world can imagine.
Hope is a future certainty grounded in a present reality.
Our Lord’s resurrection means the crucified is Victor; his
ascension means the Victor is Ruler.
When the psalmist exults “The earth is
the Lord’s”, he knows that despite all appearances the world
doesn’t finally belong to international financiers who make or break
millions of people every day. It
doesn’t finally belong to powerful nations and the disinformation that
all nations traffic in. It
doesn’t belong to multinational corporations who have engineered
untold deprivation and suffering among marginalized people.
It doesn’t belong to ideologues whose deceptions most of us
have no way of detecting until we are their victims.
We have to be honest, however: it doesn’t appear that the earth is the Lord’s.
It appears that the
earth is everyone’s except the Lord’s.
We are not the first people to be jarred by
the manner in which appearance contradicts truth.
The Israelite people of old looked out over the world’s
treachery and turbulence and remarked, “At least we can be certain of
one thing: God brought us out of
. At least he’s involved
with us even if he’s involved with no one else.”
The prophet Amos replied “Yes, God brought
. He also brought the
Philistines out of Caphtor and the Syrians out of Kir.”
In other words, God is ceaselessly immersed in the struggle and
turbulence of people everywhere. He
is never a handcuffed bystander in the face of international maelstrom.
At the birth of Jesus wise men came from
the east, from
appears in our newspapers as
. The wise men loom large in
the Christmas story, the Christmas story being, of course, the narrative
of God’s definitive incursion into human history.
Yes, the Son of God was born in
, a one-horse town in a backwoods province of the
. Wise men from
, however, soon acknowledged him,
being as large as
was small. The visit of the
wise men is cherished in Christian story.
After all, their recognition of the Messiah sealed the Christ’s
significance for the vast Gentile world and the protracted unfolding of
world history. The force of
what the wise men represent ought to be at the forefront of our minds at
all times today.
Jonah was sent to the city of
. He didn’t want to go; in
fact at first he refused to go.
was a city in
, and Assyrian cruelty was unrivalled.
Assyrian cruelty had reduced the twelve tribes of
to two, consuming the other ten in a holocaust that anticipated Hitler.
Eventually Jonah went grudgingly to
, and was dismayed to find the response to his preaching overwhelming.
appears on our maps as Mazul, a city in
Wise men and
; Jonah and
; anyone who sees with the eyes of faith sees that the Christ who is victor
is also the Christ who rules.
His kingdom is immoveable. And
one day his present, effectual rule will be manifested so as to render
The Christian is never permitted to despair
of the world, never permitted to despair of the international situation.
The world of superpower intrigue, power plays, connivance,
disinformation and duplicity is nonetheless a world that God has
promised never to give up on and never to abandon.
“Let us hold fast the confession of our
hope (hope being a future certainty grounded in a present reality)
without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful.”
III: -- We
are reminded, finally, that through worship we encourage
not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encourage one
another”, our text reads. The
encouragement we receive through gathering to worship is not to be
sneered at or discounted, because discouragement
is always ready to spring upon us. The
English word ‘courage’ is derived from the French word ‘coeur’,
‘heart’. To be
dis-couraged is to be de-heartened.
To be discouraged is to have lost heart.
And such a condition laps at us all the time.
We don’t know who wrote the book of
Hebrews. Whoever it was used
a Greek word for ‘encourage’ that every Greek-speaking person in the
ancient world knew well: parakalein.
The associations surrounding this word are rich.
As soon as the writer used it, readers would find their mind
swimming with associations.
One such association has to do with military conflict.
To encourage someone, in a military context, is to be that
person’s ally. Allies are
important since discipleship always unfolds amidst conflict.
To say that discipleship unfolds amidst conflict is to say that
opponents are never far away; danger is never far away.
We always need allies, reinforcements.
A familiar tactic of military commanders is
to divide or separate, and then conquer.
If a platoon can be isolated from the rest of the army; if a
country can be isolated from other countries, then that platoon or
country can be overrun readily. To
cut ourselves off from worship is to cut ourselves off from the
encouragement, the re-heartening, of fellow-Christians; which is to say,
to cut ourselves off from allies and reinforcements.
Our defeat thereafter is a foregone conclusion.
Scripture is fond of the military metaphor
just because it knows that evil is militant, aggressive.
Scripture speaks of the “hosts
of spiritual wickedness” just because it knows that evil swarms.
Scripture speaks of the “demons”,
plural, just because it knows that evil is pluriform, many-faceted,
all-pervasive. Anyone who
lacks allies in this situation is in a sorry way.
Through worship we are encouraged; we are re-heartened through
the reinforcements God unfailingly provides.
There are other classical associations with parakalein,
encourage. One is urging
someone to take up a public duty, to assume public responsibility.
I would never deny that the first function of worship, because
it’s the characteristic function of worship, is the praise of God.
Worship is not a means to an end, however important and exalted
that end might be. Worship
is always primarily the adoration of God, the public acknowledgement of
At the same time, however, as our worship
is focussed on the public acknowledgement of God’s worthiness, one of
the consequences of our worship is that we hear again and again that the
whole earth is the Lord’s. He
loves the world more than he loves himself.
(After all, he spared not his own Son even as he has continued to
spare the world.) As this
truth seeps into us we are made aware that we have both opportunity and
responsibility for public service in the world.
Since the whole earth is the Lord’s,
there is no area or dimension of life from which he is absent.
Since the Lord isn’t absent, a Christian witness ought always
to be present. As often as
we gather for worship we are reminded of the inappropriateness of
religious ghettoism. To
worship with fellow-Christians is to encourage them to take up public
no point in putting a five-day dollop of toothpaste on our toothbrush.
Dental hygiene can’t be hoarded.
Neither can affection. And
neither can worship.
For this reason the unknown author of
Hebrews whose letter we have probed today urges us not to neglect
meeting together. Inasmuch
as we do worship together
shall find that our conscience is both sensitized and cleansed;
shall hold fast the confession of our hope, the certainty that Christ
the victor rules;
shall encourage one another as we find ourselves both provided with
persuaded of our public responsibility.