… to provoke one another to love
And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
The word “provoke” and the word “love” sound strange together. When I speak of my grandchildren “provoking” one another it is not generally with respect to activity that promotes happy responses. In our day to day conversations the word “provoke” is used almost exclusively with a negative connotation; so much so that we consider the word to denote (or mean) something negative. The Greek word used here is found in one other place in the New Testament and is used of the “sharp disagreement” between Paul and Barnabas (Acts 15:39). So when the writer of Hebrews chooses this word with reference to love and good works it stands out; it gets our attention.
The word is a strong word; other translations of the Bible render this word with “arouse” (NEB), “stir up” (RSV), or “spur” (NIV). The word denotes an act of stimulation. Do you ever yield to that base instinct to “stir up”; to say something just to see someone’s head snap in response? According to this text to provoke or stir up can be positive; activity to stimulate the best and highest—“to provoke one another to love and good deeds.”
The context of this text of scripture is worship. When the author reminds his readers of “not neglecting to meet together” it is clear that he has the context of believers worshipping together in his mind. In the paragraph in which this sentence about provoking is found the author is reminding readers 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.” The worship we bring to God in turn brings blessing to God’s people; in short, worshipping together is an act designed “to provoke one another to love.” (We are provoking one another right now).
The topic of worshipping together is the theme for this final week of our small group study. I invite you to reflect with me on the importance of believers worshipping together—important enough that the scriptures counsel us not to neglect it. It is true that Jesus promises the believer to be with you wherever you are; whether alone or in a crowd. But worship in scripture is something people do together. “Where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them,” promised our Lord. The number of people can be large or small; the implication is that worship is done with other believers. The worship we bring to God in turn brings blessing to God’s people. To be sure God is the author of spiritual blessings in worship; such blessing occurs in the context of worshipping together. In short, to worship God together is the vehicle of those spiritual blessings.
1. It was the title of Dr. Victor Shepherd’s sermon that caught my attention: “Worship: It Can’t be Hoarded.” It began with the following story.
“I 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 hoarded.”
Most things in life can’t be hoarded. A few months ago my wife and I attended a wedding reception where guests we treated to a fourteen course meal. Needless to say, we did not go home hungry. On such occasions Valerie’s comment to me is about a question she has to ask of God about his design of the human body. It seems perfectly reasonable to her that after eating a large meal she should not be hungry for a few days. Sure enough on the next day we were hungry once again. Most things in life can’t be hoarded.
Affection can’t be hoarded. If your spouse, staggering under the load of a difficult day, needs a hug, you give a hug. It would be foolish—even dangerous—to say, 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 him. 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. If we neglect to meet together we cut ourselves off from these blessings.
2. “Let us consider how to provoke one another to love.” I invite you to underline the word love as we take a moment to think about what love the author has in mind. In saying “let us” the Apostle is outlining what God’s saving work calls the believer to do; it is to say that God’s actions on our behalf logically leads to some responses in the life for the person possessed of faith in Christ. The action of God that the author has been exploring is put this way: “when Christ had offered once for all time a single sacrifice for sin”. The love the author has in mind is a love whose paradigm in the cross of Christ.
At the cross of Jesus Christ we see the love of God in action; a love that will go to any length for our sakes. It is here—at the cross—that we see clearly that real love is self-giving and self-forgetful. Many people look at the evil of our world and conclude that God is to blame; God is anything but love; God should be put in the dock—the place where the accused sits in a court—and be made to explain his actions or lack thereof. God insists that the problem is human sin—“Christ has offered once for all time a single sacrifice for sin”. In reality humanity is in the dock before the just judge, but in our sinfulness we think it is God who needs to give account to us. If we doubt the sinfulness of humanity look what we humans did when we got our hands on God. Yet, without regard to himself, God comes among us in Jesus of Nazareth and subjects himself to being judged by us—and he does so for our sakes. Jesus turns this to our good—a single sacrifice for sin. The wonder of such love is the foundation of why we gather to worship.
When the apostle Peter speaks of the grace of God he uses a Greek word that means variegated, variegated with respect to colour. It is to speak of something as diversely coloured. What does Peter have in mind? Peter can only mean that God’s grace is many-splendoured (NRSV manifold). As diverse as the predicaments of life are, God’s grace meets us in all of them; his grace appears with a different hue, a slightly different shade, as our predicaments change. His grace is many-splendoured. Regardless of our predicament, be it perplexity, pain, rejection, sin, disappointment, folly, his grace is many-splendoured—and we can only adore him for it.
And yet even as we worship God initially on account of what he has done at the cross and continues to do in his grace, we worship him ultimately on account of who he is in himself. God is immense. God is eternal. God is underived. God is indivisibly simple. God is immeasurable; that is, his centre is everywhere and his circumference is nowhere. God alone has life in himself and alone lends life to anyone else. God forever moves amidst all that he has created even as he towers infinitely above all that he has created. God is holy; that is, he is uniquely, irreducibly, uncompromisingly, inalienably GOD. We worship God ultimately as our apprehension of him overwhelms us and we can only prostrate ourselves before him.
3. There is a political statement made in worshipping together. I am generally not given to raising the subject of politics in preaching but there is an aspect of worship that has at times been perceived as a threat by political powers. When we worship God we are publically confessing that only God is worthy of our adoration; only God is worthy of our ultimate allegiance; only God is worthy enough to bow our will before to align with his. There is a citizenship claim much deeper and greater on our lives than citizenship in our country.
In the first three centuries the church operated as an illegal religion in the Roman Empire; Christians would not acquiesce to Rome’s demand to add worship of the Emperor to their practices. Religions that Rome could not co-op they opposed. The dictatorships of history have often acted this way towards the church; allegiance to God is perceived as a threat to political power. In our western democracies the church is being marginalized, mocked, and dismissed. I am not surprised that secularists with political power oppose the church’s allegiance to God.
In the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms the first fundamental freedom enumerated is “freedom of conscience and religion”. Princeton Professor of Jurisprudence Robert George argues that “religious liberty is good because the distinctly human capacity to think about the highest and most important questions—What is a human being? What is the proper goal of human life? Is there a God? If so, what does he demand?—is the good which must be protected above all. It is the good that defines human beings as human.” I think the Professor’s reflection squares with scripture. The Bible declares that the thing the makes us human is God speaks to the human; we were created for conversation with God.
What does God demand? Love. Jesus calls his people to love one another as he loved us. The writer of Hebrews identifies the right response; let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds. I believe that the public worship of God; this God who loves us without reserve in Jesus Christ is an act of “provoking one another to love”. I believe that a great and precious gift we can offer our neighbours is to welcome them to join us in this worship.
4. We must be careful at this point to note that worship is not a means to an end, no matter how valuable the end. Worship is always primarily the adoration of God, the public acknowledgement of God’s worthiness. Worship is not principally so “we get something out of it”; we worship because God is worthy. At the same time we understand that God is unfailing in his promises—the promise to be present and God’s presence always contains everything else he is to us. His presence is the giving of himself to us. His promise to meet our needs is contained in his promise to be present. God always shows up in all that he is.
We sing because God is worthy or our praise. We listen to scripture and sermon because God is worthy of our attentiveness. We pray because God is worthy of our trust to meet our needs. As we engage in those things together we encourage each other to be thus engaged. You may not think your voice melodious yet the effort to sing the praise of God encourages those around us. In a similar way our attentiveness promotes and facilitates the attentiveness of others. Our engagement in prayer encourages the believer next to you that God can to be trusted with their needs. All of this together is “to provoke one another to love”; that is to provoke in each other in love of God from which all other loves are lifted.
Our text of scripture reminds us that through worship we encourage fellow-worshippers: “not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encourage one another”. 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.
The Bible often uses military imagery to speak of the Christian life. Discipleship always unfolds in the midst of conflict. There is an enemy of our soul who seeks to destroy. To encourage someone, in a military context, is to be that person’s ally. Allies are important for discipleship; we always need allies, reinforcements.
A familiar tactic of military commanders is to divide or separate, and then conquer. Our enemy ever seeks to isolate in order to destroy. It makes defeat much easier. 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.
We need reinforcements when we are have been blindsided by something that is perplexing to the point of not knowing which end is up. When we have been disheartened by rejection—in a relationship that has ended, being terminated from employment, turned down for a promotion—we need a faith ally who can help us rely on the one who will never leave us nor forsake us. When we have been disappointed we need a faith ally to encourage that a world of possibilities are yet at our Lord’s hand. When one has been overtaken in some fault we need the help of those who will walk with us towards restoration and wholeness.
5. To provoke one another to love also implies an outward focus. We look beyond the “walls of our church”, so to speak to engagement in the world. At the same time 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 to be of service to our Lord in the world.
The pew at the back of the choir loft is the heaviest one in the church. Last December one of the men of the church and I lifted it out of its place to take it out of the sanctuary. After, we reflected that we had no business doing that—supposing ourselves to be younger and stronger than is in fact the case. When we removed the pews to have the floors redone several men together carried that pew. If one stumbled or lost their grip there was enough others to carry the load. We are better together. When we are blindsided in life we need others to help carry the load; when our grip on Christ slips we need others to pray and sing for us and carry us along. In view of the fact that our Saviour’s grip on us is always certain let us consider how to provoke one another to love.