Sermon – December 29, 2019

Christmas 2 December 29, 2019 Psalm 147, Isaiah 63:7-9, Matthew 2:13-15, Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:10-18
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Our reading today from Matthew is a reminder… These twelve days of Christmas are not always merry for everyone… This year (and every third year), our lectionary bible reading schedule leaps chronologically over the arrival of the Magi (where I expect we’ll be next week on Epiphany Sunday…) into the story of Jesus and his family fleeing King Herod after the Magi’s visit. Traveling in haste down to Egypt, narrowly escaping murder by Herod, who hears of the birth of a rival king from the Magi…

We’re skipping over the most awful part of this story, where Herod orders the massacre of all the male babies of Bethlehem. Partly because it’s horrible. Partly because I don’t think we need to be overly reminded – the kings and rulers of the world are often dangerous to infants and other living creatures… And partly because I’m trying to do as the prophet Isaiah says – and focus on the gracious and praiseworthy deeds of the Lord – as told especially today in the letter to the Hebrews. A letter written for difficult and dangerous times much like ours. A letter full of deep hope and enduring grace.

We hear in the first four verses of Hebrews – which are traditionally read on Christmas Day – that Jesus is the exact imprint and likeness of God. (In other words – ) When we see Jesus – we see what God looks like… in human flesh.

And now the huge implications of Christ born in human flesh are sketched quickly in our last reading today. Here, in just a few verses, we have a concise outline of New Testament mega-themes to be developed throughout this letter. Here, as bible scholar Craig Koester notes, Jesus is described four ways – first as the pioneer of our salvation – second, as our brother who is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters – third, as the one who frees us from slavery to death and fear of death – and fourthly as a high priest, whose sacrifice of atonement is powerful and effective for our salvation…

Four over-lapping views of Christ, whose sacrificial life, death, and resurrection equips him to thoroughly identify with all our human trials, temptations and sufferings.

I will say here up-front… I’ve struggled at times over the years with Hebrews – which is one of the most eloquently written books in the Bible – and one of the more difficult to understand in certain places…

In particular, I’ve struggled with Hebrews saying Jesus was made perfect through suffering – partly because I don’t like suffering – and don’t like hearing that suffering makes anyone perfect. (Just because it’s true doesn’t mean I like it…)
Partly also because I have had a hard time accepting the thought of Jesus as ever less-than-perfect. Though with the help of several good commentaries (FF Bruce, Hugh Montefiore, William Barclay and others) I think I’m finally getting it – that the author of Hebrews isn’t saying Jesus was ever less-than-perfect as the divine Son of God – or ever less-than-morally-perfect as the human Son of Man. What Hebrews is saying (and which commentaries say is clearer in the original New Testament Greek) – is that Jesus is perfected, meaning made complete – in his work as Savior – through his suffering.

Suffering, which, like it or not, is one of the most basic parts of being human. We come into the world through the labor pangs and giving-of-birth-pains of our mothers. And tears are the first sound every healthy baby makes… and…

The suffering of Jesus is never about romanticizing suffering… (Or making suffering itself into any kind of a goal…) It’s about letting us know Jesus really is like us in his capacity for human suffering. Which is why Jesus is able – fully, completely able – to sympathize, empathize and compassionately identify with all our sufferings. It would probably be impossible for Jesus to save us in the fullest sense of the word salvation without having experienced human suffering.

And so… from infancy… Jesus has known human suffering – leaving his family’s home and nation in the dark of night… Fleeing as a displaced refugee from a violent, ruthless king, who intends to kill him…

Foreshadowing the way his life on earth will end. As Martin Luther said, “the wood of the cradle is the same wood as the wood of the cross…”
And already in the infancy narratives of Jesus, we see in microcosm the life story of the pioneer of salvation – the first-born from the dead, in the words of the letter to the Colossians and the words of Revelation. Jesus, who, as the letter to the Philippians says, “though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as… to be exploited, but emptied himself… taking the form of a servant….”

Jesus, though The unique Son of God, nonetheless invites us to share the honor of being called children of God. As Hebrews says, we have the same heavenly Father – and Jesus is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters. Craig Koester again is helpful, as he makes a comparison with some of us, especially in our adolescent years, who sometimes act embarrassed when our younger siblings follow us around while we’re busy trying to look cool for our peers. Jesus, by contrast, is always willing to be seen with us. Even if (in my case at least) he sometimes does have to do the older brother thing, and call me out for being less-than-kind to my brothers and sisters.

Jesus is our uniquely beloved older brother who we can (and should) always go to with all our troubles and cares…. whenever life is difficult and challenging and more than we can handle on our own…

And – Jesus at the same time – is our liberator and high priest – who frees us from death and the fear of death…in and through this holy mystery of the incarnation… in which God most-high is born lowly and human… Submitting to the pangs of human suffering and death, even death on the cross… Overcoming death… and all the powers of death that enslave us to death and fear…

And – here’s another place I’ve struggled – not only with Hebrews, but with the large theology of Jesus having to die for our sins. I believe this now… but it did take awhile for me to get there…With the theologian CS Lewis, among others, for quite a few years I thought it must have been at least theoretically and theologically possible… for Jesus to save us… without having to die… If we had only accepted him….
Over time, I’ve reluctantly come to believe… human nature was not going to let that happen… But it did take me awhile to get there… So I can understand those who don’t readily embrace atonement theologies…(And for sure…)

Atonement theology requires more time than we have today…Except to note… The theme of Jesus as our High Priest who works atonement for us is a theme Hebrews returns to often – picking up on the Old Testament’s frequent references to atonement and the high priests in the Jerusalem temple offering animal sacrifices for ritual atonement for the sins of the people. Which surely sounds strange to us today… Though, in context, most ancient religions, Judaism included, employed animal sacrifice – which again seems strange to us now…

Though the more I think about this the more I can’t help wondering… If perhaps future generations will study our religious practices… and find equally strange… our acceptance… and even apparent blessing… of so many religious, political, economic, cultural and commercial practices that lead, inevitably… to lost, distorted, and wasted lives…

And so all things considered…

Perhaps it’s just as big and a very similar leap of faith for us today… as it was for the first readers of Hebrews back when…. To really believe – that all the many sacrifices offered by all the high priests (by whatever name they go by) of our culture today – are every bit as ineffective – as the animal sacrifices offered in the temple of old by high priests of old. Ineffective, that is, for actually saving anyone…

All the things we worship that are not God… All the things this world tells us we should live and die for… All have zero power to save us from from sin, death, and the fear of death…

But now, again, just as Hebrews says – we are offered the gift of God’s grace – in the one and only truly effective sacrifice – God’s Son – our high priest – God’s sacrificial offering – who takes away all the sin of the world… who overcomes death and fear…

May this be enough always.

Thanks be to God. Amen.