Strive to Enter God’s Rest
February 23rd/24th, 2014
St. John Lutheran Church, Fraser, MI
A prison warden went to see a man on death row the night before his scheduled execution and asked him what he would like to eat for his last meal. “Well,” the prisoner replied, “more than anything else, I’d love a big piece of fresh, home-grown watermelon.” “Watermelon?” the warden asked. “But there’s a foot of snow on the ground! The seeds haven’t even been planted yet, and it will take months before they grow ripe enough for you to eat.” “That’s ok,” said the prisoner, “I don’t mind waiting.”
Waiting. Most of us hate waiting for things like stoplights and the next available teller at the DMV. We consider it a major inconvenience to have to wait while the person in line ahead of us digs through their change purse to count out exactly 73 cents while paying for their groceries. But, like the man on death row who didn’t mind putting off his execution a few months, there are other things we have no problem waiting for. Students don’t mind waiting the whole summer for school to begin again. Adults don’t mind waiting another year to do taxes after finally submitting this year’s forms. But whether you enjoy waiting or not, you can’t avoid it, especially if you are a child of God. For as God’s child, not only are you enjoying the fruits of forgiveness each and every minute you spend on this earth, you are also always waiting for the arrival of the New Heavens and the New Earth. There is something else coming for the children of God, and we wait for it.
As today’s reading from Hebrews put it, there is a Sabbath rest for the people of God, a Promised Land that awaits us just as it awaited the Israelites as they left Egypt. Our Journey parallels their journey in so many ways. As they were born into slavery without their permission, so also we are born enslaved to sin and death, unable to free ourselves. As their deliverance was the result of God’s gracious and miraculous actions, culminating in the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb whose blood covered the Israelites when the Angel of the Lord swept through Egypt killing firstborn sons across the empire, so also our deliverance is the result of gracious and miraculous acts of God, culminating in the sacrifice of Jesus, whose blood covers us and shields us from eternal death. As they were delivered out of slavery to Egypt when Pharaoh and his army were drowned in the Red Sea, so also we are delivered from the army of sin and Satan when it is drowned in the water of Baptism. As they were delivered into their Promised Land when they crossed through the water of the Jordan River, so also we are delivered into our Promised Rest through the water of Baptism. As they were sustained on their journey from deliverance to rest by living off manna, miraculous bread from heaven, so also we are sustained on our journey through this life by feeding on miraculous bread from heaven: Jesus, who is himself the Bread of Life. But the parallel that the writer of Hebrews focuses on today is the goal of the journey: Rest. Rest is the destination. A little piece of paradise is what awaited the Israelites at the end of their exodus. A big piece of Paradise awaits you and me and all God’s people at the end of ours.
There remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God. Our Eternal Promised Land will be paradise, a place where we will rest from our Work as God rested from his on the 7th Day of Creation. God rested on the 7th Day because everything was very good, it was complete, it was exactly the way he intended it to be. Now, instead of being focused on creating, he was focused on blessing, sustaining, and living in communion with his finished creation. It’s like that moment where you finish renovating a room in your house – maybe the man cave. You worked to build the entertainment center and shelving unit. You worked to get cable or satellite TV hooked up. You hooked up the Blu-Ray and Netflix. You even moved that old couch in there so you’d have a place to sit. But when your work is done, you just sit back and enjoy watching the Tigers with a few friends – no longer working, but simply enjoying the completed project. You have entered a type of rest. But it is no comparison for the Eternal Rest that awaits you, for in the man cave you still have to get up and go to the kitchen for snacks and drinks. You still have to leave the man cave and go to work or the doctor or the grocery store. You can’t stay in the man cave forever, although some have no doubt tried. But God’s rest is true rest. For God’s People, for you, when your last day comes you will enter into God’s rest, and will rest from your works as he rested from his. There will be no more works needed to reconcile the broken relationship between God and man, for Christ has done it all.
What a wonderful time that will be. But it’s not here yet. At least for those of us sitting in this room today, that time has not yet come. We are still waiting for our eternal rest. What do we do while we wait? Strive to enter that rest, lest we fall away like the first generation of Israelites, who never made it into the Promised Land. One of the dangers of waiting is that we are easily distracted. When you wait in line at Meijer you find yourself surrounded by scantily clad women on the covers of magazines. You find yourself flanked by candy and Pepsi and gum and a whole host of things you don’t really need. If you’re not careful, you might find a lot of unintended items in your cart by the time you reach the front. So also, as we wait for God’s rest, we find ourselves surrounded by many distractions – pleasures of the flesh, lustful desires, greed, pride, self-pity. Any one of these distractions can be the beginning of our undoing. Any one of these distractions can be eternally fatal, and so we are encouraged to keep moving toward our heavenly rest, to strive, struggle, and fight to get there at all costs.
And so it is crucial to remember that the way into God’s rest is through his Son, through the promises we have been given in his Word. The way to strive to enter God’s rest is by clinging to God’s Word. That’s what the first generation of Israelites failed to do when they reached the borders of the Promised Land. They sent in spies to survey the land, but the spies came back and declared that the nations and armies in Canaan were too powerful for the Israelites to face in battle. They doubted God’s promise to give them the land. They did not hold to his first word, therefore God gave them a new word: he told them that they would not enter. Instead, they would wander in the wilderness until they all died off and their children would inherit the land. Of course, the Israelites being who they were, suddenly decided to believe God’s first promise to give them the land. But it was too late. Ignoring God’s new word of punishment, they tried to enter the Promised Land without God’s blessing, and they were soundly defeated, sent away like a dog with its tail between its legs. God’s promise made all the difference in the world. If they would have trusted his promise the first time, they would have entered a land flowing with milk and honey. A land filled with cities and roads and fields already cultivated for them – a land where they would find rest. They would not have to clear forests to farm as the first settlers in Michigan had to. They would not have to build homes or roads or any infrastructure; the land was ready to support a civilization. It was fully furnished; all they had to do was move in. But they did not trust God’s promise. They trusted their fears more. They trusted their inabilities more than they trusted God’s abilities. They gave in to the distractions and clung to doubt more than to God’s word of promise. So instead of entering their rest, they were exiled to the wilderness, destined to die as a people without a home, until their children were old enough to take possession of the land instead of them.
Don’t find yourself doomed to the same fate. That’s our warning from Hebrews today. Strive to enter God’s rest, lest you fall by the same sort of disobedience. The disobedience he is writing about here is not just breaking the 10 Commandments, it is unbelief, as he himself says chapter 3 where he writes, “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” [Hebrews 3:18-19]. And also, “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.” [Hebrews 3:12-13]. Since it is still called today, my encouragement to you is that you strive to enter God’s rest by clinging faithfully to the Word of God and promises he has given you therein. Strive to enter God’s rest by Returning daily to your Baptism. The Israelites did not trust that God’s Word of promise was more powerful than the armies of Canaan, and so they were denied rest. So often we are tempted to believe that God’s Word of promise given to us in our baptism is not more powerful than our sin. We are tempted to try to add our own righteousness to the righteousness given by Christ – but we have no righteousness to offer. Rather than helping by adding our own righteousness, we simply make matters worse. Trying to enter God’s rest by using the water of our own righteousness is like throwing water on a grease fire – it only makes matters worse. The water of our righteousness will not put out the fire of our sin – it will only make it worse. We need God’s water. We need the water of baptism.
“Strive to enter the rest of God” means no stop relying on yourself or your own abilities, and rely instead on God’s promise given to you in Baptism. So often we are tempted to believe that the enticements of the world are worth more than the Word of God, that the indulging the pleasures of the flesh will be more satisfying than a life lived according to God’s design. So often we are tempted to feel like God is keeping something from us, holding us back, and so our attitude matches that of the Israelites who accused God of delivering them from Egypt only because he wanted to kill them in the desert. Our attitudes and actions often reflect that we feel that God has given us a design for marriage and relationships just so that he can keep us from enjoying life. The distractions of this life are always vying for our attention just like the candy bars and magazines in the checkout lane. But our call is to see past the temptations and to strive to enter God’s rest.
Strive to enter God’s rest by relying on God’s Word, for it is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword. Earthly swords can be sharpened enough to cut through flesh and bone, but God’s Word is sharp enough to cut through spiritual realities. This is a warning to us if we, like the first Israelites in the exodus, fall into unbelief. God’s Word cuts through our excuses and self-justifications, leaving us naked and defenseless before him to whom we must give account. And yet, that is not all God’s Word does. Yes, it kills, but it also makes alive. As the rain and snow come down from heaven and do not return to it empty, but water the earth so that it sprouts, so also the Word of God will not return to him without accomplishing the purpose for which God sent it. And the content of the word is simple: We cannot bring ourselves into God’s rest; we must be brought there by being united to the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ through the waters of baptism. God’s Word is not a mere vibration in the air like a human voice that eventually fades away, it is living. God’s Word is not merely ink on a page, it is active. The Greek word translated as “active” is literally “energy.” God’s Word is full of living energy to carry out his will – either to bring us into the promised rest, or to send us away into the wilderness. Strive to enter God’s Rest. Trust his word of promise – for he alone can bring you into the Promised Land. And in your baptism, he has promised to do just that.
Nobody likes waiting. But the simple fact remains that the life of a Christian on this earth is entirely waiting, for a promise remains that we will one day enter God’s rest. Do not become weary or distracted in your wait, but strive to enter God’s rest. We are not there yet, but we are the people of God. You are a child of God already today, adopted into his family through the water of baptism. Just as he safely delivered his children into the earthly Promised Land in the days of Joshua, so also he will deliver you into the Promised Rest of the New Creation. Strive to enter that rest. Trust the Lord to bring you there, for he has promised to deliver you safely home. He has given you that word. And while the grass withers and the flower fades, the Word of our God stands forever.