Don’t Fall Away During COVID

This post is a sermon manuscript from Pastor Josh Moore’s recent message on Hebrews 3:7-19 (originally preached on October 11th, 2020 at Red Door Church in South Royalton, Vermont). You can view the sermon here on the church’s YouTube page.

What do the names Marty Sampson, Joshua Harris, Ryan Bell and Derek Webb have in common?

These are all well known Christian figures–we might call celebrities–who have publicly renounced their faith in recent years.  I’m sure there are many others.  

I’m sure some of you know people who were once walking with God and now are no longer.

We should pray for these people.  

But we can also learn something from their stories and from their stepping away from Christian faith. Something that we will see in our passage today (out of Hebrews 3).

Here is what I hope we will see: that just because someone appears to be walking solidly in the faith does not mean that they always will.  We cannot take it for granted that everything is okay with a person or even that everything is okay with ourselves for that matter.  As we will see today, the Christian community plays an active role in the believers’ lives and the believer has the responsibility to be actively involved in Christian community. 

We will see from Hebrews 3 just how important community is and we will hear a clear warning from the passage today, not to forsake it.

‘Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end.’

-Hebrews 3:12-14

Oh how I long for each of you to make it to the end of the race.  To cross the line, to finish the race and to hear those much anticipated words from the Lord on that day: “Well done.”

Let’s look at our passage this morning.

God Uses the Wilderness to Test Us

This passage in Hebrews starts with a quotation out of Psalm 95 verses 7 through 11.  What I want us to do as we start out today is to quickly read Psalm 95.  This Psalm does something really interesting.  

The first seven verses talk about worship, the ones that are not mentioned in our passage today.  They say:

Oh come, let us sing to the Lord;

    let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation!

Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving;

    let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise!

For the Lord is a great God,

    and a great King above all gods.

In his hand are the depths of the earth;

    the heights of the mountains are his also.

The sea is his, for he made it,

    and his hands formed the dry land.

Oh come, let us worship and bow down;

    let us kneel before the Lord, our Maker!

-Psalm 95:1-7

But then in verse 8 we begin to hear something very different.  And this is the section that is quoted in Hebrews 3 this morning where it says:

‘Today, if you hear his voice,

    do not harden your hearts, as at Meribah,

    as on the day at Massah in the wilderness,

when your fathers put me to the test

    and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.

For forty years I loathed that generation

    and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways.”

Therefore I swore in my wrath,

    “They shall not enter my rest.”’

-Psalm 95:7d-11

The fact that these two passages are set side by side, the one about worship and the other section about having a hard heart and rebelling against the Lord is something we should pay attention to.

“Come let us bow down in worship” it says, then just two verses later, “Do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion, during the time of testing in the desert.”

Some scholars believe that these two parts of the psalm belong to different psalms or different time periods because they are so different. If you just look at the themes it might be easy to draw that conclusion.  

But other scholars (wiser ones in my opinion) suggest that there actually is a logic here and that these two sections belong together.  One helpful writer that I was reading this week writes that it is:

‘a good thing to worship God, but acts and words of worship are acceptable only if they proceed from sincere and obedient hearts”

-Peter T. O’Brien quoting Bruce, The Letter to the Hebrews, 141.

Perhaps one of the point the Psalmist is trying to get across is that just because you have heard the voice of God and because you have seen great wonders like those put on display in the wilderness for Israel, you can still have a hard heart.  Moreover, just because you bow down in worship and kneel before the Lord, does not mean that you know Him.

And this is where testing becomes a useful tool in the hand of the Lord.  The Lord brings about tests–wildernesses–and begins to reveal what is really in our hearts.  The wilderness draws it out.  

And what did God find in the heart of Israel while they were in their wilderness as they left Egypt?

Hard hearts.

The Seriousness of a Hard Heart

Now I want us to pause here for a moment to think about this.  Look at verses 9 and 10 in Psalm 95.  It says:

‘when your fathers put me to the test

    and put me to the proof, though they had seen my work.

For forty years I loathed that generation

    and said, “They are a people who go astray in their heart, and they have not known my ways.”’

-Psalm 95:9-10

Many of you no doubt know what happened during that time–those 40 years.  These people witnessed the Lord lead Moses into Egypt and lift up his staff against Pharaoh and perform all kinds of wonders eventually leading up to their release from bondage.

They witnessed the parting of the Red Sea and the pillar of fire that guided them.  They saw the thunder and the smoke upon the mountain and witnessed proof after proof that God was there. They saw that He was awesome and mighty and that He loved them and was going to do what He had promised to them and to their fathers.

Yet, despite all of that, they continually went astray and did not know the ways of God, the Bible says.  

A hard heart is a terrible thing.  It blinds you to reality.  Even when God is right before your very eyes displaying his might and power, the hard heart still turns from Him.  We see this in the time of Jesus as well.  Jesus would heal the sick, raise the dead, confound the teachers with his answers and did many other wonders, yet those who were hard in heart still would not follow him or listen to him.

The bottom line is this: the hard heart is not a heart that seeks after God.  It is a prideful heart and a heart that trusts in itself and not in the Lord.  It does not listen to the voice of God but only to its own reasons and desires.  

The Scriptures says that God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6).  

So God is opposed to the person with the hard heart.

And it is in the wilderness that the hard heart is most clearly revealed.  It is in those times when things are not good.  When things are difficult.  When things are not going as you hoped or desired.  It is at those times when God often draws out what is in a person’s heart.

We are in a Wilderness

And at this present time we too find ourselves in a wilderness of sorts.  

Probably much like Israel after the Exodus many of us Americans thought that we were on our way to some great place just 6 or 8 months ago when the economy was strong and now, all of a sudden, we are in the wilderness.  Here we are in the middle of a desert and it doesn’t appear that we will be getting out anytime soon.

Could it be that God is testing us?  Could it be that the Lord is wanting to reveal what is in our hearts?  This prolonged situation which has gone on much longer than we ever anticipated has put our nation and our world to the test. 

What is God seeing?  What is being revealed about us?

As I said last week in the sermon I don’t think that COVID-19 is to blame for most of our problems.  Has it done damage–of course!  Many have lost their lives (I lost one of my aunts just two weeks ago to COVID-19) and it has brought entire nations to their knees, even our own.  Countless numbers have lost jobs and had to close businesses and we could go on about all the damage that COVID-19 has done.

But the greatest evil, far surpassing anything that COVID-19 has done, has been what has come out of us from within our hearts.

Tim Keller in his book The Prodigal God, tells the story about how a newspaper once posed the question 

“‘What’s Wrong with the World?’ the Catholic thinker G. K. Chesterton reputedly wrote a brief letter in response:

‘Dear Sirs:

I am.

Sincerely Yours,

G. K. Chesterton.’

-Quoted in Tim Keller’s book The Prodigal God, 46.

Could COVID-19 be a Gift?

He’s right.  We are what’s wrong with the world.  Not COVID (though COVID certainly has not made things better).

Or has it?

COVID-19: A GIFT?

If what G.K. Chesterton said is right, and we are the main problem with the world.  Could it be that COVID is a kind of gift or medicine?  Could it be that COVID is teaching us something deep and profound?  That God has stirred up this whole ordeal for our good?

If we are walking through this event with our eyes open then I think we will see that maybe this is in fact the case. 

How so? How has COVID been like medicine? In what way.

I think in the same way that Nobel Prize winner (in literature) Alexandr Solzhenitsyn saw prison as a gift and good medicine for his soul. He was thrown into Joseph Stalin’s corrective labor camps for eight years in the mid 1900s because he had made some disrespectful remarks about Joseph Stalin.

Later he would write about his imprisonment in a book titled The Gulag Archipelago.  In that book he says these amazing words:

‘I turn back to the years of my imprisonment and say, sometimes to the astonishment of those about me: “Bless you, prison!” I . . . have served enough time there. I nourished my soul there, and I say without hesitation: “Bless you, prison, for having been in my life!”’

The Gulag Archipelago, vol. 2, 617. As quoted by John Piper here: https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/thank-you-lord-for-solzhenitsyn.

Solzhenitsyn saw prison as a gift, not because it made his life easier or because it was pleasant but because, in his words: his soul was “nourished” there.

I think that is the kind of effect that COVID can have for us if we will see it with the eyes of faith.

Right now, during this time, God is revealing things to us that we so desperately need to see. Many people today are seeing now more clearly than ever that the world is broken.  And that the solutions to that brokenness are not a particular political party or leader. We are beginning to see that freedom only goes as far as the people who are free. If the free people are not good, then the freedom will only lead to evil and destruction. I think we are seeing that play out very clearly here in America today. 

Our problems, in other words, are inside of us, they are in us.  They are us.  And COVID is drawing those things out once again.  

And I would venture to say that viewed this way, COVID is not harming us but helping us.

Because COVID is seeking to draw our attention up off this world and up onto the Lord–to help us see that there is something greater beyond this time and place.  

Do you believe that? 

Do you believe that for those who trust in Jesus Christ that there is something on the other side of this world that is greater?

I lost my grandmother to pancreatic cancer a month ago and my aunt died as a result of complications from COVID just a couple of weeks after that.  I miss them. I mourn their passing. But they both loved Jesus.  My grandmother made a remark to one of her daughters before she died that she wanted to go and get her hair done because she was going to see the Lord and wanted to look her best for her Savior. She loved Jesus as did my aunt Paulette. So while I miss them, I know that they are with God right now.  That is a rock solid hope in a time like this. 

And I want to ask you, do you believe that promise?  That if you believe in Jesus and put your trust in Him that you will be with God immediately after you die, forever in paradise? 

I’m concerned that some of us may have lost sight of that in the midst of the pandemic and all the other problems that we are facing.

Israel Lost Sight of the Promised Land

That is what happened to the Israelites. They lost sight of the promised land while they were in the wilderness.  

While we may think, “oh that’s Old Testament and that was way back then and has no relevance for us today,” the writer to the Hebrews, here in the New Testament thinks that it is very relevant for us.  

And in fact this passage before us today is a warning passage in which God wants us to be warned about these these things lest we suffer the same fate as they did.  

God had promised them a land, a place flowing with milk and honey, a place to rest and to call their own.  But that place was future and it required them to listen and obey to get there.  They had a wilderness to go through in order to get to the promised land.  

And, just to be blunt, they didn’t want to do that.  So they began to grumble and to turn against their leader and resist God.  They ignored his commandments and hardened their hearts.   

What was the result?  That entire generation died in the wilderness and never entered the promised land, the rest that God had promised them.

And God has done the same here in this present wilderness.  The promises that He has made to us in Christ are future.  We have grace now, yes, we are saved now, yes, we have relationship with God now and know the consolations of his love and joy, now–yes.  But the fullness of those things is future.

And if we are to fully enjoy those things we must not lose sight of the goal, the prize, the things that God has promised us in the future.  

COVID is helping us do that.  COVID is a daily reminder that this world is not our home and that here we have no lasting city but the city we seek is one that is future.  

The Danger of Falling Away

If you lose sight of that, your fate could very well be like that of that generation of Israelites that perished in the wilderness.  Look at verse 12:

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. 

-Hebrews 3:12

The book of Hebrews was written to Christians. When this verse was penned, the author had the entire congregation in mind. What this means is that he does not take for granted that every single person sitting in the pew is safe and secure in their faith. He doesn’t assume that warnings and cautions don’t have a place for the believer.  

Here in context this warning about falling away follows immediately after the story about the generation in Israel in the wilderness that rebelled against God and did not make it to the promised land.

Well, what’s he saying?  What is being implied here?  

Why would he warn Christians of the danger of falling away?

Because those warnings are actually part and parcel of how Christians finally arrive at their destination.  True Christians heed the warnings–they listen.

Just like all the kids who safely cross the road are the ones who listen and put into practice the warnings to “look both ways” and “wait until all the cars pass before you go” that were given by their parents.

Some Christians seem to think that just because true believers cannot really and finally fall away from the faith that implies that warnings are therefore superfluous and irrelevant.  But that is like saying that because you believe that your child is not going to get hit by a car that you don’t need to ever tell him to watch out for a car.  

That is faulty logic. It is in the warnings and in the cautions and the in teachings and even in the rebukes that the child learns how to avoid the cars and cross the road safely.  The warnings are a necessary part of the process.

So it is here. If you are a true Christian then you will heed the warning that is given to you today.  

Just to be Clear, What is the Warning?

What is the warning?  What exactly is the writer warning us about?

The essence of the warning is this: Christian, do not coast!  Do not put the car of your faith on autopilot!  Walking with God is a daily battle and you must be vigilant.  

Look at verse 13:

But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 

-Hebrews 3:13

Do you hear that last part of that verse there?  “That none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”

What does that mean?

Sin is a liar.  Sin is a deceiver.  Sin will tell you things like “just do it, it’s not a big deal, just this one thing and it will be okay.”  Or sin will make promises that it cannot keep.  It will tell you that there is life in disobeying God. That’s where it starts.  And often it is something seemingly innocent at the start–something that no one would think much of. 

Over time your heart becomes hardened and you begin to willfully, knowingly, outright do things that you never would have dreamed of doing before.  Sin deceived you and instead of giving you life it took you straight to the grave. 

Some of you think, “that would never be me!” I doubt any of the Israelites as they marched out of Egypt triumphantly having watched God deliver them with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm under the leadership of Moses–I doubt any of them was thinking that in just a short time they would be worshipping idols and grumbling and rejecting that very same God. 

But that is exactly what happened.  So be warned Christian. We are in a wilderness right now just as Israel was, do not let the deceitfulness of sin take hold of you, lest you fall away.

The Anecdote: Community

How?

How are we to do this?  Thankfully the writer doesn’t leave us in the dark.  He gives us an anecdote.  

Look back at verse 13 again with me:

But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. 

-Hebrews 3:13

Notice how community is assumed here.  He takes it for granted that the believers are in community together.  And not a little community either.  He says “every day.”  Every day believers are to be in one another’s lives, exhorting one another.

The Greek verb here that is behind the word “exhort” is the Greek word parakaleo. This word has a wide range of meaning that ranges from warnings like we have here to reproof and even encouragement and comfort.

So the main anecdote here in context that the author gives us as an aid and preventative measure against being hardened by the deceitfulness of sin is being in regular Christian community.  

And by community I don’t mean a social club.  I mean rich, deep, intimate community.  The kind of community that doesn’t assume that you are going to be okay and that you can cruise to glory.  It doesn’t assume that you can see all of your own problems and fix all of your own problems.  It assumes that you are quite dependent on others, especially in your spiritual life.  Listen to what it says in Ecclesiastes 4:9-12:

“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up! Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone? And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken. “

-Ecclesiastes 4:9-12

I need you and you need me. I need you to tell me when I am straying.  I need you to help me when I fall down.  When I am discouraged or doubting or fearful or not walking in step with the gospel.  I need you.  And you need me to do the same for you.  

God means for us to be in fellowship with people who love us enough to say the hard thing and to rebuke us when we need it.  And at the same time he means for us to be with believers who can and will encourage us and remind us of God’s promises when we are struggling or discouraged.  Community is vital–it’s not an optional choice.

And this is precisely one of the main reasons why this COVID crisis is such a harsh wilderness. Yes, there is the risk of getting sick and physical suffering and dying, but perhaps the even greater risk is being cut off from Christian community.  

Brothers and sisters, we need each other, now more than ever.  I’m afraid that some of us may be slipping into a comfortable habit of watching online or keeping your distance from the gathering of believers.  

Folks there simply is no substitute for in person worship.  We are thankful for the online option, but it’s not the same.

I know that for some of you it may be necessary for now.  I understand that.  I just lost one of my aunt’s to this and there are others in my family back in North Carolina that are still fighting for their lives.  I know it’s deadly.  It’s for real.  It’s no joke.  

But I also know that these warnings are no joke.  And you are not strong enough to live like a maverick and do the Christian life on your own.  The writer of the inspired text here assumes that you need others in your life. You don’t know better than God.  He made you.  He knows what you need and here He tells us–be in community.  Exhort one another daily.

And then notice that phrase in verse 13: as long as it is called “today.”

As Long As it is Called “Today”

You know that it won’t always be “today”, right?  Verse 14 speaks of the “end.”  What is the end?

The end is one of two: (1) either the end of your own personal life or (2) it is that glorious day when the Lord Jesus will come back for all of His people, whichever comes first.

All of us will die or see the Lord Jesus return.  All of us will stand before him for judgment.  Later on in this book in chapter 9:27 the author will say these words: 

And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment,

-Hebrews 9:27

You will stand before the Lord at the end.  

But the writer here in our passage today in verse 14 says that it is only those who “hold their original confidence firm to the end” who will be welcomed into the eternal rest that is offered to us in the gospel. 

That confidence is faith in the gospel, the good news about Jesus.  The good news that anyone who would repent of their sins–that means to turn from doing wrong–and put their faith in Jesus will be saved from the coming judgment of God and saved into eternal life and rest and joy and bliss in the presence of God forever.  No matter what you’ve done or where you’ve come from or who you are or were.  This offer is for you.  Jesus came for you.  Believe today.

And if you hold that simple faith, like a child, just resting in that promise until the end, you will immediately pass into the presence of God at the end.

But I need you if I’m going to make it to the end.  And you need me if you are going to make it.  We need each other.

Let’s pray.

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