20th Sunday after Pentecost – B (Proper 23) LSB #765
Text – Hebrews 3:19
So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.
WHAT DOES UNBELIEF LOOK LIKE?
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16 is the most well-known verse in the Bible, but one just two verses later is not mentioned so often: “…whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
What does unbelief look like? It’s helpful to know. But even if you know what it looks like, there are times when you still have to pay attention & actually look – you know – open your eyes, focus on & think about what you’re seeing. You have to process the information that your eyes are taking in.
Back in August I was pulling dead brush off the fence line between our house & the city baseball diamond. My eyes saw the 7 foot high vine-like plants flourishing along the top of the fence, but my brain was not processing what I saw. Generally, poison ivy plants aren’t flourishing that well, or that high off the ground, so I never gave it a thought.
The next morning my right eye began to itch. By that evening, it was swelling shut. By the next morning it was difficult to see out of either eye. Yes, those 7 foot high vine-like plants were monster growths of poison ivy. Fortunately, the steroids the doctor gave me did the trick. Still, I should have given much more attention to what my eyes were seeing.
This morning, we’re going to try & give some attention to what unbelief looks like. Generally speaking, we all know what it is, but how often do we focus on & think about it, when our eyes see it? I know very well what poison ivy looks like, but with it that high off the ground, on top of that fence, I never bothered to pay attention & actually think about what I was seeing. My brain wasn’t processing the information that my eyes were taking in. That oversight caused a lot of discomfort, & the fact that I made such a serious blunder irritated me even more. However, unbelief causes exponentially more pain & suffering than any amount of poison ivy ever could. What does unbelief look like? It’s a helpful thing to know.
The author of Hebrews gives us a start when he writes, “And to whom did [God] swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.”
Imagine that for the rest of eternity you will never be able to rest. Imagine being so tired you can’t keep your eyes open & it is physically impossible to remain standing. Now, in that state, think again about the Words of Scripture I just read:
“And to whom did [God] swear that they would not enter His rest, but to those who were disobedient? So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.”
The point God’s Holy Spirit is making is that heaven will be like rest, & hell will be the opposite. So we already have one answer to the question, “What does unbelief look like?” It looks like the complete opposite of rest. Disobedience will never lead to finding rest.
The author of Hebrews also positions the word unbelief as a synonym of disobedience. He’s writing to the NT Israelites, or the children of God, but he uses an example from the OT Israelites as a warning. They had been slaves in Egypt for hundreds of years, treated harshly & brutally. Yahweh rescues them & delivers them right to the doorstep of the Promised Land.
And there, they refuse to enter. They disobeyed God’s command to take the Promised Land from Him as a gift & a blessing. Here’s how Moses summarized Yahweh’s response:
“Then the Lord said, ‘I will pardon them as you have requested. But as surely as I live, & as surely as the earth is filled with the Lord’s glory, not one of these people will ever enter that land. They have all seen my glorious presence & the miraculous signs I performed both in Egypt & in the wilderness, yet again & again they have tested me by refusing to listen to my voice. They will never even see the land I swore to give their ancestors. None of those who have treated me with contempt will ever see it.’” (Numbers 14:20-23 NLT)
What does unbelief look like? In Moses’ day, it looked like wandering in the wilderness for 40 years until an entire generation of Israelites died there. They disobeyed God & the book of Hebrews describes that disobedience as unbelief.
A large number of Americans today will scoff at the idea that there is only one way to heaven, as Jesus taught. That seems far too exclusive for the equal rights mantra of our day. Given that mindset, the idea that unbelief, as Holy Scripture describes it, is fatal for all eternity is simply too much to swallow. How could one particular faith be so decisive?
Many Christians now buy into the line that all religions lead to the same place, even if they take a different path to get there. Verses like the sermon text for today are brushed aside as hopelessly outdated at best. At worst, they’re considered to be one reason for banishing religion from any sort of public influence. Be religious if you like, but you better keep it to yourself.
That sort of attitude sounds eerily familiar to the 3rd chapter of St. John’s Gospel: “…this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, & people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light & does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.” (John 3:19-20 ESV)
So we’ve looked at the disobedience of the OT Israelites, & we’ve given thought to our own culture. Finally, we need to consider, “What does unbelief look like in your heart & in mine?” Four weeks ago, the Gospel reading was about the father with a demon possessed son. He brought him to Jesus out of desperation & when challenged by Christ, he confessed, “I believe; help my unbelief!” Even if it’s not the damning variety, unbelief does exist in our heart. The classic Lutheran understanding is that even as true children of God, we are still, by nature, 100% sinner. Now, there is good news too. We teach that at the same time, we are also 100% saint. It’s the very dichotomy St. Paul speaks of when he wrote:
“So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind & making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:21-25a ESV)
One of the common ways that unbelief expresses itself in our lives is when we worry. To do so is to believe that God is not in control of our future, & cannot protect us. Worry is a form of unbelief. Or maybe, given the wealth of our nation, our unbelief takes the form that it did in the Gospel reading for today:
“And he said to [Jesus], ‘Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.’ And Jesus, looking at him, loved him, & said to him, ‘You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have & give to the poor, & you will have treasure in heaven; & come, follow me.’ Disheartened by the saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions.”
This man struggled because he trusted in his possessions more than he believed in Jesus. That’s one reason that giving a regular & generous offering to God is so important to our faith life. It’s a way of doing battle against our sinful, selfish, unbelieving nature. It’s one way of resisting the temptation of unbelief that lives within our heart & soul each day.
Another way in which unbelief rears its ugly head is through the times we choose to live with something less than the truth. Jesus said that He is the Truth, therefore, anytime we hide it, or obscure it, we are allowing unbelief to find a home in our hearts. I could go on & on, but I think you get the point. Unbelief looks a lot like the way we make decisions, & the way we live our lives. Unbelief looks a lot like the priorities we establish as we go about our day, too often Jesus is in anything but first place. In last Sunday’s sermon we considered the problem of drifting away from faith in Jesus as Savior from all of life’s problems. That drifting always begins with putting something ahead of Christ in our daily priorities.
The letter to the Hebrews aims to strengthen faith & hope, to encourage patience in the face of life’s trials, with a joyous & resolute holding fast to the Christian confession. The message has three primary characteristics. It’s founded on the OT, centered in Christ & marked by an intense consciousness that all the days, since the coming of Christ, are last days.
Jesus’ coming is the beginning of the End. The new world of God has become a reality in the midst of the old. Eternal issues are being decided now, in faith or in unbelief. We’re confronted by an eternal & inescapable either-or. It’s a difficult place to be, yet it’s far better than the only alternative, which is to never know Christ at all. I believe. Help my unbelief.
For the remainder of this week, as you find rest in God’s forgiveness of each of your sins, spend some time actually looking at, & focusing on, the areas of unbelief in your life. Get to know them well so you can repent of them, & find ways to counteract them. God’s Holy Spirit is eagerly waiting to help you, to forgive you, & to the restore the life He offers, each day.
“Take care, brothers [& sisters], 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.” (Hebrews 3:12-13 ESV) Amen.
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust Him for His grace; behind a frowning providence faith sees a smiling face. His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour; the bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower. Blind unbelief is sure to err & scan His work in vain; God is His own interpreter, & He will make it plain. You fearful saints, fresh courage take; the clouds you so much dread are big with mercy & will break in blessings on your head. Amen.
Pastor Dean R. Poellet