Stave it off

Read Hebrews 9:1-10 and 10:1-4 to start.

Long, long ago, way back in 2001, some friends and I discovered a silly website called Homestar Runner. For several years they put out weekly three minute long cartoons, occasionally longer items, which were generally amusing and entertaining. The creators funded it by selling merchandise, I still have at least one or two of their t-shirts.

One cartoon they did in I think 2004 was a parody of children’s TV shows, and featured a ridiculous song about counting. It went like this, “Stave it off, one two three, and now you can count to three.” The joke was that then it was going to be repeated fifty times, which of course would be annoying and pointless, so it ends after the song plays just twice more.

The randomness of the words “Stave it off, one two three,” however, has stuck with me all these years. It makes very little sense as a song on even a pretend children’s show, and the phrase remains a bit of an in-joke with Laura and some of our friends.

What does it mean to stave something off, anyway? It’s a term you might use if you are hungry, and so you eat a bite or two of something to stave off your hunger. Eat a couple of crackers to stave off your hunger until dinnertime, for example.

The term comes from the concept of using a staff to push or drive something away. Imagine, if you will, a barge in a canal. We don’t have much in the way of barges and even less in the way of canals in this province, but in other places they have plenty of both. In the Netherlands, for example, they have plenty of canals. In those narrow waterways, if you are on a boat and there is some manner of debris floating near your vessel, maybe a log or a barrel that fell overboard or something similar, you would not want that to smash into your boat. So you could use a long staff or pole to push it away. You would be ‘staving off’ the potential problem of damage to your boat, keeping it at a distance in order to minimize the chance of harm.

Of course, using a ten foot pole to push a log or a barrel away doesn’t really solve the problem, does it? The debris is still there. Depending on the currents it might be right back in your way a minute later. Or maybe something goes wrong when you try to push it and it swings back and causes damage anyway. Even if you do successfully get around one piece of debris, it’s still there to pose a hazard to the next boat that comes along. The problem isn’t really fixed, it isn’t solved. It’s only been staved off. The underlying danger remains.

Of course, I’m not here this morning to talk to you about boats, barges, and ten foot poles. There are far more serious issues that concern us all. I don’t think too many people here are boat owners, but we all have problems, large and small. And while we may want to get ahead of our problems, to solve them, we all have things that we would like to push away and not deal with, at least not now. Maybe we’re unable, maybe we’re unwilling, maybe we have the vague sense that something is the matter, even though we’re not even fully aware of the depths of our true condition. But we all have something that we want to stave off.

I can think of four of them. Not for me specifically or personally, but on a basic level, there are four things that all people would all rather avoid, would prefer not to face or think about, and we continue to push away and push away. These are things that we cannot solve for ourselves no matter how much we try, no matter how hard we work at them. All our best efforts may stave them off for a time, but only really serve to delay the inevitable.

The first of these is sin. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God. You can read that in Romans chapter 3 if you want, but I don’t think that’s necessary, it’s a familiar verse, and we already know the truth of that statement. All have sinned. That’s you, that’s me, that’s the person sitting next to you, it’s not a question of yes or no, there is zero question about whether or not one of us has sinned. We all have, and it’s not a rare or exceptional thing. It’s not a case that maybe you haven’t sinned for a couple of months, but every so often you have a bad day and slip up a little. No, that’s not it at all. I would be surprised, amazed, really, if anyone here today could go so much a single day without sinning once. Not one cruel word, not one selfish action, not one unkind deed, not one improper thought, not one sliver of pride. Even if you managed all the rest, no doubt that last one, pride, would raise its ugly head, raise it up nice and high, and make itself known.

It’s not that we’re close to some state of sinless perfection; compared to God’s perfect standard, we’re all basically sitting not far from the starting line. Sin is a problem that we all face, one that we cannot avoid. In the book of Numbers chapter 32, at verse 23 we read the well known words “be sure your sin will find you out.” That was in the context of some of the Israelites not wanting to cross the Jordan and live in the Promised Land, and Moses cautioned them that they had to live up to their end of the bargain. If they did, it would be well, but if not, then their failure, their sin, would come back to haunt them. It’s not about a secret sin being discovered, it’s about the consequences. Sin certainty comes with consequences. As much as you might want to stave those off, sin will find you out. It doesn’t just go away.

There was a public service announcement I remember from when I was kid, about boating and littering. There was a child and his dad on a boat, and the kid had an empty plastic bag or something like that, and he was looking for the trash can. Dad tells him “Just throw it overboard,” and the kid replies “But where does it?” Dad’s answer is “Away.”

We know of course that garbage thrown off a boat doesn’t just go away, it ends up as pollution, probably in one of the oceanic garbage patches, there are five big ones of those in the various oceans of the world. That was the point of the public service announcement, garbage doesn’t just go away. It might be out of sight, out of mind, but it’s not gone. It’s still around, somewhere.

Sin is just like that, it doesn’t just go away. Be sure your sin will find you out.

The verses that I read to start describe what the people of Israel did in order to push forward the issue of sin and its consequences. The temple, and the tabernacle before that, with its altar and candlestick and of course the Ark of the Covenant, had a specific once-a-year sacrifice to atone for the sins of the entire nation. This was over and above the regular sacrifices that took place every single day, many of which were specific offerings for individuals. The Day of Atonement sacrifice is what is described in those verses of chapter 9, how the high priest went once a year by himself into the Holy of Holies to make an offering for the nation. This was what had been ordained in the law as given to Moses, and Israel did this year after year. But as we read in chapter 10, it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins. How would it? Sin is sin, and a blood sacrifice of some innocent animal may well indicate the sorrow and repentance of the sinner, but the price is not paid. As it says at Hebrews chapter 10, reading at verse 1 For the law having a shadow of good things to come, and not the very image of the things, can never with those sacrifices which they offered year by year continually make the comers thereunto perfect. 2 For then would they not have ceased to be offered?

Obviously the atonement was not complete, because it was done again. And again. And again. It had to happen repeatedly, because the people continued to sin, and as much as the sacrifices looked forward to Christ’s ultimate sacrifice, they were not an end to themselves. They were essentially writing post dated cheques on a deposit that had not yet been made. They were pushing it forward.

A guy worked with several years ago had an expression he used – like snow in the front of the blade. He used it to describe when things didn’t get finished, and so they piled up and piled up, waiting to be completed, but more tasks were coming down the pipe, and so you never got ahead. Think of the huge piles of snow you see in corners of parking lots. It piles up higher and higher, because there is nowhere for it to go.

Remember the winter of 2015? Most of us probably do. That featured snow in front of the blade, and plenty of it. There was so much snow, plow it, blow it, shovel it, no matter what you did it piled higher and higher, there was no where to put it. I remember shovelling and throwing the snow over my head to get it out of the way. It didn’t go away until spring finally came and melted it.

Unfortunately, we can’t count on spring coming to melt away the consequences of sin. We can’t do that now, much as the Jewish people couldn’t do that 2000 and more years ago. Sin has to be dealt with, it has a price to be paid.

The consequences of sin are myriad, some are more abrupt and devastating than others, and many are specific and direct. Those who tell lies and are persistently untruthful will find that no one trusts them. Those who fill their bodies with noxious or unneeded substances, whether it be drugs, nicotine, alcohol, or unhealthy food, will find that their bodies and their minds will deteriorate far faster than they would otherwise. Those who do violence to others are frequently the victims of violence themselves. These are all natural and expected consequences of sin.

But no matter the sin, great or small, there is one consequence that comes for all, and that is death. That is our second thing that we wish to stave off, but are unable to solve. The soul that sinneth, it shall die, we read in Ezekiel chapter 18, verse 20. That verse puts it in the most succinct way possible, but it was hardly something new. It was spelled out way back in Genesis chapter 2, at verse 17, where Adam was cautioned not to eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And of course in the very next chapter, we see how sin entered the world because mankind chose disobedience and ate that forbidden fruit. And every person born since that day, with but one exception, has gone down that same path. I mentioned Romans 3:23 earlier, and it remains of course relevant, but all have sinned and come short of the glory of God. None of us is immune to it or are exempt from the penalty.

Do you ever watch nature documentaries? I know we’ve watched some with the kids, and I remember watching various nature shows on TV as a kid. One near constant on those shows is that many animals hunt in some fashion or another. We might be familiar with how a cheetah uses a sudden burst of incredible speed to bring down a gazelle, or how a frog waits until a fly comes into range and then catches it with its long tongue, or how an eagle, an osprey, or a gannet each hunts fish in a different way. But are you familiar with persistence hunting?

African wild dogs do this, and it was practiced by many tribal peoples for thousands of years. The principle is simple, you find a suitable prey animal, and you follow it. You don’t have to be fast, you just have to keep moving and not lose sight of the prey. Hunters would follow antelope for hours, not allowing the animal to rest, and eventually it become exhausted and just drops. People are well suited for this, we can do long distance running surprising well, and we know to bring along water so we don’t dehydrate. Persistence wins out over speed in the long run. It’s not flashy, but it’s effective.

Death is just like that. It is inevitable. No matter how careful and how healthy you might be, death comes sooner or later. It is persistent, and while you might be able to stay out in front of it for a while, maybe a long while, sooner or later it will catch up. The wages of sin is indeed death. No matter what other suffering it may bring, death is the eventual outcome.

But what comes after death? If we can only stave that off for so long, and people have tried so many things, so many ways to delay the inevitable, what comes next? Some people believe that death is the end, that when you die, it’s all over. But that is not the case. And deep down, most of us know that, as much as some may refuse to admit it. William Shakespeare wrote, in Hamlet’s famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy, about the dread of something after death, which he described as an undiscovered country from which no traveller returns.

That brings us to the third thing we would sooner flee than face. We read the first part of Hebrews chapter 9, and the first part of chapter 10, but we skipped over the verses in between. I’d like to read one of those right now, verse 27 of chapter 9. And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment:

Indeed, there is something to dread about it, something after death. After death, there is judgement. As much as we do not look forward to death with anticipation, it’s what follows that is far more concerning. The judgement. Notice that it does not say punishment, but rather judgement. The Greek word is krisis (KREE-sis), from which we get our English word crisis. When you consider what the judgement entails, then yes, being faced with that is indeed a crisis for many, in our understanding of the word, because we think of a crisis as something specifically bad, but the word indicates a decision, or an evaluation.

The original meaning was to separate, as in wheat from chaff, good from bad. It is the idea of a turning point, a fulcrum at which one’s fate pivots and is decided. Yeah, that’s all kinds of troubling, because if we have sinned and come short of God’s glory, which of course we have, then it’s hard to imagine a scenario where we can hope the outcome of judgement to be to our benefit.

People talk about some imagined balance in the hereafter where their good deeds will be weighed against their evil deeds, but that does not appear anywhere in scripture in the context of God’s judgement of the dead. We’d like to think that sometimes, because it offers us some sense of control, or at least of contribution. If there is a scale, then we would have the opportunity to tip it one way or another, but it’s only wishful thinking. What is the weight of one evil deed? What is the weight of 1000 good deeds? Isaiah wrote that all our righteousness are as filthy rags, so that’s hardly encouraging. But even more problematic for those who seek to find hope in the balance, we read in James 2: 10 For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. No matter how good you are, no matter how hard you try, we’ve all gone wrong in at least one point of the law. Perhaps you don’t make graven images or commit murder, hopefully not, but who here has never coveted, never wanted what someone else already has? Who has never dishonoured their parents? Who has never once put something else in front of God?

Frankly, it’s a good thing there isn’t some divine balance scale upon which our deeds are judged, because it would tip heavily in the wrong direction. All have sinned and come short of the glory of God.

And what, then, for those who have come to judgement, and have been found wanting? This is our fourth and final item of concern, and of them all it is the one that that we would most desperately stave off, and that is wrath. The wrath of God, to be specific. For those who have sinned, which is all of us, that is what waits at the end of the line.

As much as judgement is a point of concern, wrath is far more frightening. There is no possible good outcome for wrath, not when it’s directed toward you. This is to be feared, this is to be fled. We have in Matthew chapter 3 John the Baptist’s scathing remark to the religious leaders who came to listen to his preaching, at verse 7 But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he said unto them, O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

These people were the most religious, most pious, well behaved, and best acquainted with the scriptures of anyone else of their time. Frankly, you would be hard pressed to find anyone in any time or place who were more religious than the Pharisees, or who were more concerned about following the law of God. But John called them a generation of vipers who had cause to flee from the wrath to come. It wasn’t a question if there was wrath or not, it was coming. And their religion was not going to save them from it. Keep in mind, what they believed was not some false, made up pagan thing. They were following the same instructions that Moses had written down some thousand years before, granted, with their own layers of interpretation added on top of it, but that was not going to avoid wrath. They were no farther ahead than the average man on the street, or the wickedest sinner there was. You should flee from the wrath to come, that was the takeaway.

We do our best, or at least we like to think that we do, to stave off the problem of sin, the certainty of death, the dread of judgement, and the terror of wrath to come. Sometimes we don’t even come close to doing our best, mind you, sometimes we hardly even try. But when we do our best, and of course, often our best isn’t all that great, but even if our best is really good, it’s still not good enough. We can never be good enough on our own. No matter how well behaved we may be, no matter how long we live, no matter how many good deeds we pile up, none of them matter when we are faced with the wrath of a perfect and holy God.

I’ve painted a picture of a lot of bad news this morning. These four things we would so desperately avoid, would stave off for as long as possible, and as much as we might delay, we are powerless to solve them. Like the Israelites of old, no matter how elaborate our ceremonies or how grand our works, all our efforts accomplish no more than did the blood of bulls and goats shed on altars centuries ago.

We can’t solve sin, or death, and judgement and wrath are far beyond our reach. Putting our efforts into delaying the inevitable is pointless, though, because the problems have already been taken care of.

We read verse 27 of Hebrews 9 a few minutes ago, let’s read it again, along with the next verse. 27 And as it is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment: 28 So Christ was once offered to bear the sins of many; and unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation.

The Lord Jesus Christ dealt with sin once and for all. He was the final, perfect sacrifice, and unlike the priestly sacrifices at the temple or the tabernacle, He didn’t provide some temporary stop gap, but rather a permanent solution. The price for all my sin, all your sin, has been paid in full. I don’t have to fix it, not that I could, because He already did. If we continued reading through Hebrews chapter 10, we would find verse after verse that explains this. At verse 10, we read 10 By the which will we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And then at 12 But this man, after he had offered one sacrifice for sins for ever, sat down on the right hand of God; and at verse 14 it says for by one offering he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified. At verse 17 and 18, their sins and iniquities will I remember no more, and where remission of these is, there is no more offering for sin. The price is paid in full.

This is not likely news to anyone here today, but it’s still important to be reminded. If you have accepted His gift of salvation, and turned to Christ in repentance and asked for forgiveness of your sins, then you need not fear. You don’t need to look forward to death and judgement with the threat of wrath weighing on your mind. You don’t need to stave it off. If you have believed, but still look forward in fear, trust in His saving grace and power to preserve you in this life and in the next.

If you have not yet put your faith in Christ and in His finished work on the cross, then pushing it forward will not help you. Do not delay, deal with the problem instead of putting it off. Today is the day of repentance. There is no reason to continue to look forward to the future with the dread of something after death, unless you chose to reject salvation. Then all the delay in the world will not help you.