We’re Never There Yet
In today’s passage, Hebrews takes a break from its survey of the Old Testament… to tease us readers… by saying we’re stuck drinking milk… when we could eating meat, that we’re eating infant’s purée… when we could be having soufflé. In a rare case of life imitating art, this was actually lived out by Gerber baby food. Those alive in the 70s may recall the “Gerber Singles” campaign: it was baby food purée… designed for fully grown adults, with flavors like creamed beef or sweet-and-sour pork. Apparently the people at Gerber didn’t see the problem in naming their ready-made food slop for adults… Gerber Singles. Because nothing screams satisfaction to lonely bachelors or bachelorettes quite like cold meat paste in a jar. And the name “Singles”? That’s just rubbing it in. If only Gerber had read their Bibles first.
Hebrews has been a tricky scripture to explore together so far: it effectively requires you to have already read the entirety of the Old Testament and the gospels. And next week’s passage is the hardest yet. So before going further, the writer of Hebrews in today’s scripture pauses to discuss a genuine problem facing his readers. As longstanding believers, the first readers of Hebrews were meant to be teachers of the gospel by now… but instead they’re not even understanders, let alone doers! They were supposed to be mature Christians by now, but instead they can barely distinguish good from evil. Hebrews then surveys these basics that its readers need to relearn: repentance from dead works and faith towards God (i.e. trusting Jesus’ grace and forgiveness), baptisms and laying on of hands (i.e. joining the Church and being ordained as a Church leader), resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment (i.e. hope for justice and life in eternity). These are supposed to be the basics that every starting-out Christian should be able to explain why they believe what they do and how that belief has changed their life. This is the bare minimum Hebrews expects Christians to “get” and then build upon in wisdom.
But the danger Hebrews identifies is much worse than simply not hitting the books. Remember this letter was written because its first readers were fiercely tempted to de-convert from Christianity. A childlike understanding is well enough when you are a child, but when life is hard? When push comes to shove? It’s tempting to give up on the hard stuff and simply default to what is convenient and comforting, regardless of whether it’s true or false, harmful or healing. Hebrews warns, “Ground that drinks up the rain falling on it repeatedly, and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is cultivated… that ground receives a blessing from God. But if it produces thorns and thistles, it is worthless and on the verge of being cursed.” What Hebrews is trying to say is, “I can keep teaching you this stuff over and over again. And if you at last not only accept it but start living it? Wonderful! But if none of it ever sinks in? If your life never tangibly changes because of what Jesus teaches and asks? If you never grow beyond the most basic awareness, never become able to pass on what you have learned to others, never stick with it when times are hard but instead merely run away from Christ’s calling back to what’s easy for you? Then what’s the point? What good are all these words if you won’t listen or do them?”
Frank Sinatra once sang, “The best is yet to come, and babe, won’t it be fine?” I invite you to consider the opposite. Imagine a relationship that never changes, that never evolves or improves. Imagine a marriage where the spouses never grow past small talk like “How’s the weather? Oh fine.” Imagine a parent who still baby talks to their 40-year-old child. When we fail to continue stretching, testing, and nurturing our faith… the danger is that our relationship with God can become stagnant like that. When was the last time you read the Bible and applied it directly to your own ordinary, daily life challenges?? What was the last difficult thing you undertook because you felt God called you to it? When was the last time you seriously pondered your spiritual questions or doubts or concerns, not merely saying it’s a good question but actually wrestling to find out some answers? If Christian faith is a muscle, when is the last time you worked out until you were sore? If you are not working out your faith regularly… then how can you, do so today using whatever tools you’ve been given?
I ask these things… because I think most of us Americans are grown-up Christians still chowing down on spiritual baby food. Certainly, unlike the original readers of this text, we Americans are not in danger of being killed just for being Christian… and most of us aren’t contemplating de-converting from Christianity entirely. But still our spiritual immaturity is a danger. Hebrews says its readers are not “trained by practice to distinguish good from evil” as they should. It’s the same today. Instead of asking what Jesus thinks about goodness or evil, we decide goodness and evil by our own pride and convenience… by political affiliation… by what we’ve always done without ever wondering whether it’s right. Old Testament prophets not only called out the Israelites’ unbelieving neighbors but also the Israelites themselves. Yet we American Christians too often point out the speck in others’ eyes, miss the log in our own, and thereby damage our prophetic witness to the world. Our lack of spiritual training means we too easily fall for charlatans who parrot a few nice words but twist them for their own gain. We lack the awareness of self, of God, and of scripture to avoid such abuses of faith. Stuck on baby food faith, we lack muscles needed to chew on heavier questions and so hurt ourselves in the process..
And at worst… well, in The Book of Confessions, which contains our church’s twelve statements of faith, contains two faith statements created in response to times when Christians’ spiritual immaturity devastated entire nations. Spiritually immature Christians in 1930s Germany failed to recognize Adolf Hitler as the murderous madman he was. The Barmen Declaration in our constitution was first written in 1930s Germany as a desperate plea to repent and reject Hitler’s perverted version of Christianity before it was too late. Similarly, white South African Christians were so spiritually underdeveloped they twisted the Bible to support apartheid, which caused misery and havoc for their black neighbors. So after apartheid ended, South African churches wrote The Belhar Confession as an expression of repentance and remorse for this failure. So it’s no wonder then why Hebrews warns, “Ground that produces thorns and thistles is worthless and on the verge of being cursed. Its end is to be burned over.” Spiritual growth may seem small: study your Bible, pray, reflect each day on how you can treat others better. But spiritual apathy is a danger that not only weakens our personal faith but exposes the Church to charlatans, paints believers as hypocrites, and in large numbers can do great harm to innocents.
But the gospel hope of Hebrews comes in verses 9 and 10. Even though we speak in this way, beloved, we are confident of better things in your case, things that belong to salvation. For God is not unjust; he will not overlook your work and the love that you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do. Despite our all-too-common weak faith, our apathy and regression, despite all the cards stacked against our persevering in faith… God is not unjust. God will not overlook our work and the love that we showed for God’s sake. Despite all our failures and backsliding and infantile faith… the Lord knows that we’re trying. Not that our trying earns us grace—God’s grace is always an unearned gift—but in our spiritual struggles, God knows that we are ultimately his. When our faith is wavering, when we grow complacent or apathetic or settle for “good enough”… God has grace for us. When hard times hit and we are tempted to backslide, to fall back on old habits or ways of being… God has grace for us.
And more than merely forgiving us for our weaknesses, God empowers us, makes us stronger. If we are stuck on a baby food gospel of complacency… God will wean us onto a hearty gospel that nourishes our souls. Verses 11 and 12 end our passage for today in this way: And we want each one of you to show the same diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope to the very end, so that you may not become sluggish but rather imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises. When Hebrews speaks of “the full assurance of hope…” it is talking about the hope we have in Christ, a hope that is assured by God. And if God has given us this hope, God most certainly will not abandon us in our struggle to realize it in our lives. Rather, as we strive to become “imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises,” God works on our hearts, minds and souls to help us become what God has already promised us we shall be. If God truly is our Father who art in Heaven—and God is that—then just like a parent God works to grow us into fully mature adults, works to strengthen our faith and preserve us when times get tough. Of course, none of this assurance is grounds for slacking off. It is hard work being “imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.” But it is a reassuring promise to us imperfect people… that the perfect and loving God… will strengthen us every step of the way until we reach perfection in paradise.
And so, for all the harsh critique launched at us by today’s scripture… God’s gospel promise of hope is ultimately at the core of things. The author is pleading, “Don’t go back to what you once were… rather, live out God’s promise, go on toward perfection!” When you are young, sure, drink your milk… but we all must grow up, so don’t get stuck on spiritual baby food. Go deeper in faith! God has promised you something so much better! The athletes and doctors among us can testify to this: if you don’t work a muscle regularly, it will weaken. Similarly, if we do not exercise our faith—if we do not spend time with God in scripture and prayer, if we treat repentance as a free pass instead of as an opportunity to be better next time, if we do not honestly admit our doubts and then work to find the answers, if we act as if there’s nothing left for us to learn or achieve as Christians—if we are not working out our faith… there is a danger our faith may atrophy like an unused muscle, that we may regress back into all the sins and shame God has already freed us from, that in spiritual immaturity we can cause harm to others and ourselves. And so the message today from Hebrews… is that we are never “there yet” in our spiritual growth. There is always more to do, to learn, to correct, to grow into. It’s a calling to prayerfully consider how God invites us to go deeper in faith, how we can shake off the complacency and dust from our spirits. And the best part is we do all this—not from fear, since Hebrews comforts us that “God is not unjust”—but rather we do all this because we realize God has made us for so much more than spiritual baby food. It’s a delight to grow into maturity.
But in all our struggles and working, in our all striving to go deeper… as well as in our all complacency and backsliding… praise be to God that the love of the Lord is never dependent upon what we do… but rather is entirely dependent upon the one who already paid it all for us, Jesus Christ. Amen.
 For reference, a full copy of the PCUSA's Book of Confessions can be found at: https://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/oga/pdf/boc2016.pdf. There is an interactive table of contents on page five if you wish to quickly find the full text of the Belhar Confession or Barmen Declaration. The Book of Confessions is the second part of our denomination's tripartite constitution. Its statements of faith are informed by and subordinate to the Bible, and its confessions in turn inform the practical polity and worship guidelines presented in our Book of Order.