On December 11 in the year 361, Flavius Claudius Julianus became the sole emperor of the Roman Empire. He was the half-brother of Constantine I, who had
become the empire’s first Christian emperor. But Emperor Julian as he came to be called went on in history to bear quite a different reputation. Having spent years professing Christianity, Emperor Julian later departed from his faith and attempted to turn Rome back to its pagan past
. Although his reign did not pursue a path of religious persecution, Julian’s renouncing of his faith later earned him the notorious title which has been
preserved throughout history as Julian the Apostate.
The word apostate comes from a Greek word that bears the same meaning. It refers to someone who has committed the sin of apostasy, a complete renouncing of
religious faith. Now following Julian’s reign, his Christian successor returned the empire to the practices of Constantine and re-embraced the Christian
church. Julian, however, continues to be remembered for his lapsing and serves still today as a warning of what can happen to any believer.
In our letter to the Hebrews this morning, we hear about how this danger threatens the faith of every Christian and we are called to remain vigilant about
the possibility of it happening to any one of us. “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away
from the Living God,” says verse 12 of Hebrews chapter 3.
As a pastor who has served in the church for 15 years now, I would say that most people continue their lives in the faith undisturbed until they encounter
a turning point. Their marriage comes upon hard times; their parents split up; they go away to college; they meet a new friend who
influences them. Turning points are opportunities in life to continue with past beliefs or to adopt new ones. Had Adam and Eve never encountered the
serpent, they may very well have continued on having never eaten the fruit of the tree of knowledge between good and evil. But that moment was a turning
point and Adam and Eve chose the self over and above the God who loved them.
Verse 13 of our reading today has an interesting phrase. It contains the words, “Hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” The writer is talking about how our hearts can grow deaf and cold to the words of our Lord because of a deception. Sin is always a
deception. It is so because sin always looks so appealing. It’s desirable. It’s enticing. It’s the promise of greater happiness, freedom knowledge or
independence. Sin gives the appearance of a can’t miss personal benefit.
Martin Luther writes in the catechism that the three enemies of Christ are the flesh, the world and the devil. Well, the flesh applies to our hearts. It
applies to our wants and our desires. And we’re told constantly to do what? To follow our hearts; to trust in our feelings; to listen to ourselves. It
sounds so natural and that’s because, well, it is.
We hear this advice the most in life when we encounter those turning points. And it’s like watching a character on television or in a movie faced with a
dilemma. Don’t open that door; don’t go down that dark alley, don’t spend the night in that house. You think those things because you’re given information about what’s about to happen that the character doesn’t have. Except in real life,
you are the character and God is the one who knows the danger that awaits you.
Jeremiah, the ancient prophet to Israel, once wrote, the heart is deceitful above all things. One commentator I read a couple weeks ago wrote something
that I found to be very sobering. He said, “My desires are not to be trusted.” That’s not a concept we’re used to hearing. We’re not used to challenging
our feelings and desires. What psychologist or self-help coach would ever tell you something like that?
Now, it’s one thing to wrestle with this personally, but what about when you receive affirmation? In the Old Testament, false prophets arose that dismissed
calls for repentance; idolatrous priests arose which combined other religions with the One, True God. We so often want to have trust in our institutions of
the faith, but sometimes they can become the most godless places of all.
Any and every Christian leader, pastor, priest, so-called prophet or pope must have his words measured against the sacred scriptures because none of us are
immune from leading people into great deception. We all have a human nature; we all wrestle with sin; we all are tempted to soft pedal our
Lord’s teachings and we are all capable of being deceived ourselves and then passing this deception on to others.
Highly regarded Christian leaders are susceptible; religious institutions are susceptible and the final highly regarded authority that is susceptible to
deception is the masses. What do most people think? What do most people want or say? We take polls of others because we believe the majority of people will
often be right, but in circles of faith, this is hardly ever true.
The example given to us today in our reading is the Israelites who were once led by Moses. An estimated two million people left Egypt to journey through
the wilderness and make their way to the Promised Land. And yet the Books of Deuteronomy and Numbers tell constant stories of grumbling and rebellion and challenges to Moses’ leadership and
golden calves and snakes sent in judgment against unbelief. The masses were also susceptible to the deception of sin and they believed it and fell away
And so in the end, we see that all other authorities outside of Christ can be deceived and can present a danger to us spiritually. The danger of losing
your faith is real. The possibility of being separated from Christ is real. And so, there is this reason for us to remain vigilant about all other
influences. Only in Christ Alone do we find the complete safety of One who will never deceive us. And the only trustable manner in which Christ comes to us
is through His Word and through sacraments. These Means of Grace are the ways in which we have contact with God. They are the means through which Christ
delivers the forgiveness of sins and strengthens our faith in Him.
These means are external to us. They lie outside of our hearts and desires. They are not dependent upon how we feel about them. They
offer us the forgiveness of sins as gifts which deliver to us Christ Himself and wherever Christ is, there is also life and salvation.
This free grace and favor we find with God is the most life changing news you can ever receive. It has transformed empires and has affected the destinies
of continents and earthly kingdoms. But as strong as it is and as righteous as it is, there are still other forces in this world that seek to lure you away
from it. The temptation to sin and to sin continually is never what it seems to be. The Bible says that Satan masquerades as an angel of light and I would
put sin in that same category. It masquerades as something other than what it really is. You are deceived into thinking that it will be something good for
you and it taps into your nature as its ally to convince you that it is. Over time or in a short amount of time, your heart can grow hard.
And so, we’re told to take care. We’re told to exhort or urge one another every day. Staying rooted in Christ is a calling Christ gives to the entire
community of believers. We watch out for one another; encourage one another; pray for one another and when it’s called for, we warn one
another. The church is the place of mutual encouragement and edification. It’s the place where Christ is present through Word and Sacrament to knit us
together as one Holy Communion of Saints. Not that we are holy in and of ourselves, but through the washing of our Lord’s blood, He cleanses us and makes
The Christian is always realistic about his sinful nature. He knows the enemy always has a window to his soul and that he can be deceived. Even Peter once
heard from Jesus that He was praying that his faith might not fail. And so we persevere in the one who bought us and saved us by His mercy and grace. We stay planted by His Word as a strong tree is planted next to a nourishing stream. We encourage one another and watch out for one
another knowing that each of life’s turning points may expose us to new voices and possible deceptions. The dangers to our faith are real, but through the
gifts Christ offers and the power of His Spirit, we will remain rooted in Him both now and unto eternity. Amen.