(A sermon based on Hebrews 13:20-21 preached on Sunday, February 16, 2014)
Isaac Newton’s 3rd law of motion states, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.” The physical truth explained in that law is that every action produces a reaction that is equal in size to and opposite in direction from the action. So, for example, when the action is a rocket pushing against the earth, the earth pushes back with a reaction that is equal in size to the push of the rocket but is in an opposite direction; that’s why the rocket launches. Newton’s third law also explains why, when you step out of a boat onto the shore, the boat goes off in the opposite direction with a force equal to the push of your foot.
We can also think in terms of cause and effect: something happens that causes something else to happen; something happens because something else happened. So, for example, snow and ice fell north of us last week and accidents happened on the roads; the snow and ice were the cause, the accidents the effect.
Relationships are not rockets and snow storms, though. While something that a person does or says will likely provoke a reaction from another person, that reaction is probably going to be neither equal and opposite—nor expected and predictable. An action might not cause the effect for which the person carrying out the action hoped. Or the lack of a reaction might be astoundingly unexplainable.
Here at the end of his sermonic letter, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews offers a beautiful prayer for the people to whom he wrote the letter:
Now may the God of peace, who brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, make you complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
The writer prays that “the God of peace,” the God who by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus brings peace—wholeness, serenity, and unity—to God’s people and ultimately to God’s creation—would make his readers “complete”—whole, mature, perfect—in “everything good.” He also names some things that the God of peace had done: he raised Jesus, who has taken care of our safety and security through his death on the cross, from the dead.
Now, let’s apply our beginning thoughts to this reality. What might—what should—be our reaction to this great action by our great God? God has accomplished this great and mysterious and loving and gracious thing through the crucifixion and resurrection of his Son Jesus. Perhaps there can be no “equal” reaction, but surely there will be a reaction.
Maybe “Wow!” is a good place to start. Anne Lamott says, “’Wow’ is about having one’s mind blown by the mesmerizing or the miraculous” (Help, Thanks, Wow, p. 71). There are an untold number of mesmerizing and miraculous things in this old world, but there is nothing more mesmerizing or miraculous than what God did in Christ. Lamott goes on to say, “When we are stunned to the place beyond words, when an aspect of life takes us away from being able to chip away at something until it’s down to a manageable size and then to file it nicely away, when all we can say in response is ‘Wow,’ that’s a prayer” (p. 73).
“The God of peace … brought back from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant.” Wow.
That “wow” can be more than an emotional reaction, though; it can express itself in the ways that we grow and mature and change. So the writer’s prayer was that the God of peace who has done such marvelous things through the death and resurrection of Jesus would make his readers “complete in everything good so that you may do his will, working among us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ …” He prayed, in other words, that God’s action in Christ would lead to a reaction on our part that would cause us to become more and more who God wants us in Christ to be.
Our reaction to what God has done cannot be equal to what God has done but what God has done certainly can and should cause an effect on us, namely, that we will grow in doing his will and doing what pleases him. How do we know what that is? Through Jesus Christ! How do we so grow and live? Through Jesus Christ!
God has done what God has done in Christ. Because of what God has done, we serve a risen Savior who is in the world—and who is in the Church and in the Christian—today. We can grow in our relationship with him through prayer, through Bible study, through worship, and through service. My analogy to Newton’s third law breaks down here because our reaction to God’s action in Christ is not in an opposite direction; indeed, God’s action draws us closer to Christ. I started to say that while we draw closer to Christ we are also driven in the opposite direction, away from Christ and to people, but Jesus taught us that we find him in other people. So it’s all about being drawn closer to him.
There is a sense in which our reaction to what God has done in Christ can produce an action that approaches equality. Jesus said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it” (Luke 9:23-24). God gave himself away in Christ. If we are to follow him, we will give ourselves away, too.
Please take this away with you: who we can become and what we can do comes from what God has already done. We live lives of legitimate gratitude and growth when we are reacting and responding to what God has done in Jesus Christ our Lord …