"Reviewing what weíve already learned"

Message preached September 2, 2001
Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren
Glen Arm, Maryland USA

based upon Hebrews 13:1-8

Order of Worship

With school in session once again this week, let me remind you all of that most joyous of educational activities - the test, the exam, the pop quiz. I bet you who are headed in that direction can hardly wait for the first one. It ranks up there with having your wisdom teeth removed at the dentist, doesnít it? I can well remember sitting with a #2 pencil in hand, staring at that innocent looking piece of paper, feeling like any wisdom I possessed had already been yanked out of my head.

The important thing to remember - especially if you canít recall anything else - is that tests have a purpose. They werenít invented by some mad scientist in Transylvania intent on driving the rest of the world crazy. Though I must confess, I have taken a few exams in my lifetime which made me wonder about that. Even so, the real goal of a test is to determine what weíve learned thus far, to assess our progress, to help us figure out what we need to pay more attention to in the future.

When it finally dawned on me that this was what exams were all about, my prayers beforehand changed. Anyone who thinks that prayer is no longer in our public schools, has never been nearby at test-time. Belief in God soars, as desperate prayers are spoken silently by those caught unprepared. For some, the request is for a miracle. "I know I havenít read any of the assignments or listened in class, God, but please help me pass. If you give me a ĎC,í Iíll go to church this Sunday. If you give me a ĎB,í Iíll be nice to my little brat of a brother. And if you grant me an ĎA,í you Awesome God, Iíll do whatever you (or my parents) ask ... for the next month, at least."

Of course, none of us have ever prayed such a prayer, have we? Yeah, right! Anyway, as I was saying, my approach to prayer before test-time changed when the purpose behind exams became more clear. Not that I stopped believing that God could perform miracles. Itís just that I wondered what good an evaluation of my ability it would be when it wasnít real. How prepared would I then be for the harder tests in life? "Lord, help me to use this brain you gave me to the best of my ability. Help my mind to be clear, that I might remember what Iíve already learned."

Life is full of tests, you see. Most of them have nothing to do with #2 pencils and sheets of paper laid face down on a table, to be turned over only when the teacher says, "begin." Some of life's exams require of us everything we have learned thus far. Godís miracle-working hand is, indeed, absolutely necessary at times, when weíve reached the limits of our ability.

Yes, life is full of tests. In school, what do you do when you know that an exam is coming? You look back over what youíve already learned, right? Hopefully, youíve been paying attention. The need for such a review doesnít end, though, once we put away our textbooks and note cards, once we say goodbye (and good riddance) to "school." Reviewing what weíve learned is precisely what school exams, at their best, were designed to encourage us to do. Other tests in life may not have our best interests in mind, but it sure is helpful to review what weíve learned before we face into them.

A case could be made that one of the reasons we gather together on a regular basis as followers of Jesus is to review, to look back upon what weíve learned along the Way, to remember. It is so easy to forget, to let go of it all, to become unprepared to face lifeís trials. Once we think we have no need to review, that weíve got it all "up here," weíre lost. Reviewing helps it all to sink deeper, such that it enters that almost unconscious area of our being we sometimes call our "will." When what we have learned becomes a part of our very character, it is less apt to just "fly away" when push comes to shove in life, when we face other tests and trials.

A number of years ago, during a "50 Day Spiritual Adventure" in which our church participated during the season of Lent, there was a practice encouraged which went by the title, "end of the day review." Any of you who were here then remember it? This "end of the day review" was actually an ancient spiritual discipline given a new name and more modern dress. It is vitally important, you see, that we take time, regularly (whether at the end of the day or at its beginning, or at some other time), to examine ourselves, to review where we are in our walk with Christ, to recall what we have learned - in both head and heart.

Scripture is an integral part of that review. Thatís why we seek to build the reading of it into our daily walk. Even the re-reading of what weíve already read. Granted, itís tempting to think "Iíve already read that" and push on to something new once we come across what weíve already gone over. However, every re-reading brings something new or, if not that, it reinforces what weíve already learned. In fact, the Bible provides its own reviews - opportunities to look back and remember.

Such is the case with this morningís scripture from the New Testament book of Hebrews. Perhaps more than some other letters in scripture, Hebrews lifts up the fact that a life of faith is a journey. In it we are running a race, looking to Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. (Hebrews 13:2) Along the Way we are continually learning what faith (having faith in a faithful God, living faithfully), is all about.

The last chapter of this letter begins with what - at first - appears to be a random series of sayings, little ethical statements revealing right and wrong. Looking deeper, however, it becomes clear that these are not as arbitrary as we first thought, that actually this is somewhat of a review of some of what we have already learned - through this letter, and through scripture in general. Review what youíve already learned. Test ahead. Not necessarily a God-given examination, mind you. God is not merely a schoolteacher, nor a test giver. The rougher trials in life are not chosen for us by God to see what weíre made of. God is not that kind of God.

Yes, you might agree, but what about Job in the Old Testament. He faced the test of his life when everything he held dear was taken from him to see if heíd give up on faith. The story begins with God and Satan in conversation, and it appears as if God allows Job to be so tested. Even there, however, God didnít hand out the test, so to speak. God, in his often mysterious wisdom, allowed it to happen, but God was not the tester. A minor difference? Maybe, maybe not. Life is full of tests, some of which challenge our faith to the max, some of which leave us wondering where God is in all of this.

Like when Christians behave miserably toward other Christians. That is a real trial for many of us. Sometimes our faith is most tested by those whom we care about the most. It hurts deeply when someone who also bears Christís name attacks us. We may be tempted to give up on faith because of it. I know many who have given up on the church because of the un-Christ-like behavior of his followers. The challenge of such a test is to "let mutual love continue." (8:1) Sound familiar? Thatís the first of those review statements in Hebrews 13.

On my motherís knee I learned to both love, but also to be careful when it comes to strangers. "Stranger danger" is good wisdom to be passed on to children, for there are many predators out there. However, there are also angels. If we are to be bearers and sharers of good news, we cannot approach all strangers as if they represented danger. The challenge of faith, especially after we may have suffered abuse (or witnessed abuse) by those we donít know, is to keep on risking, reaching out with gospel hands and hearts. The early church, facing persecution by "strangers," continued to reach out, to share the good news. If they had not, would we be here today? No. "Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers," the book of Hebrews here reminds us, "for by doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it." (8:2, see also Genesis 18:1-15) Donít give up, there is good out there also.

"Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them; those who are being tortured, as though you yourselves were being tortured." (13:3) This review item reminds me of the testimony of Donna Shumate at Annual Conference this year. A young Brethren lawyer in North Carolina, Donna was told by a judge to represent (pro bono) a woman charged with murder. In the course of the trial they came to know one another, and in the process this woman became a Christian. Though she currently is on death row, her case still under appeal by Donna, this woman has said that if and when it comes to her final meal, she will request a Love Feast. That will be a severe test of faith, to lift up the life and love of Christ in the face of death, but doesnít the tub and the towel, the bread and the cup belong in prison, also? If not there, where?

It seems strange to follow up an encouragement to care for those in prison, being tortured, with a statement about marriage, but thatís what Hebrews does. Of course, for some, marriage itself feels like a prison. "Honor marriage," Hebrews says, in the face of how we so often treat it today. Marriage isnít an institution, itís a relationship, and within it we need, as Hebrews says, to "guard the sacredness of sexual intimacy between wife and husband. God draws a firm line against casual and illicit sex." (13:4, Peterson)  How often do we face the test on that one? More than we should, probably. If the truth be told, most of the "testing" is this area is by done our own free will. It seem very wise to, as husband and wife, regularly review what weíve learned thus far in marriage and renew our covenant with each other, pledging our faith in the faithfulness of one another, before a faithful God.

Iím running out of time to review all of these just now, but I trust you will continue the process. Labor day, after all, is a good time to kick back and look back, even as we look ahead. Please take time to review what you have learned at the feet of Jesus, perhaps turning again to this chapter from Hebrews. If it isnít already your practice, seek to somehow build in an "end of the day review," or some other means of regularly looking back at what youíve learned by faith. Why? Because life is full of tests.

By the way, did you know that Jesus taught us a prayer for such exams? Every time we pray "Our Father, which art in heaven...," we quickly pass over a line that says, "lead us not into temptation." (Matthew 6:13a, Luke 11:4b) A better translation might be, "help us not succumb to the trial." Tests are, after all, a part of life, some of which severely try our faith. God will not purposely lead us into them. However, the One who "is the same yesterday and today and forever" (13:8) can be counted on for help in keeping the faith. He will be faithful in delivering us from evil. He "will never leave you or forsake you." (13:5b, Joshua 1:5) You can remember always, believing what you say, that "the Lord is (your) helper" through any test. So, donít "be afraid." After all, "what can anyone do to (you)?" (13:6, Psalm 118:6)

©2001 Peter L. Haynes

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