Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 4, 2015
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12 Commentary
Comments and Observations
In all the Bible studies I’ve been part of for the last 40 years, I can’t remember anyone exclaiming, “Let’s study Hebrews!” At least once a year someone will urge the group to study James, the focus of the lectionary last month, because “it’s so practical!” Hebrews is so… impractical, so theological in an Old Testamenty sort of way. I mean, who cares anymore about all these sacrifices and priests and ceremonies and rules? How can we possibly relate all of this Old Testament stuff to the 21st century?
As I pondered that, an old Coke commercial came to mind. “Coke has a better idea.” I don’t recall how Coke was supposed to be better, but that line stuck with me all these years. In the letter to the Hebrews, the author is basically saying, “Christianity has a better idea.” The word “better” occurs 13 times in Hebrews. The author explains in great detail (someone might say in excruciating detail) how Christianity is better than any alternative. Or, to be more true to our opening lectionary reading, “Jesus is better.”
The specific alternative in view in Hebrews is Judaism, probably because it was the former religion of the recipients of this letter. These were Hebrew Christians who were in danger of “drifting away” (2:1) from the Christian faith. Whether they were genuine Christians or counterfeit is difficult to discern given the infamous ambiguity of 6:4-6 and 10:26-31. Whatever the case may have been, the recipients of this letter were looking back at the attractiveness of their old religion with all it priests and sacrifices, ceremonies and laws, covenant and sanctuary. It all looked so glorious compared to the sparseness of the Christian faith, which was about, well, just Jesus. In the words of an old Paul Simon tune, they were “slip sliding away.”
So Hebrews is studded with stern warnings (5 in all) about the slippery slope on which these Hebrew Christians were walking. But the heart of Hebrews is not exhortative; it is indicative. You shouldn’t slip slide away because Christianity is better than anything else. It is better, not because its ceremonies or its regulations or its ministers or its ideas are better, but simply because Jesus is better. So, says 3:1, “fix your thought on Jesus.” The author lavishly illustrates the superiority of Jesus by reminding his readers of central features of Judaism and showing exactly how Jesus is better than anything Judaism has to offer. Sermons on Hebrews will be heavily Christ-centered, or we’ve missed the whole point.
But that’s pretty tough to pull off, given the thicket of obscure Old Testament references one must hack through in order to preach Christ clearly from Hebrews. Can you imagine preaching on Hebrews in a seeker friendly church, a church filled with young adults wearing jeans and sipping their lattes? Well, in fact, that’s probably where Hebrews belongs, though you will have to deal sensitivity with their built in post-modern opposition to any claims of superiority.
A few years ago pollsters like George Barna told us that there are some 8 million young adults out there who no longer attend the church of their youth. They have drifted away to something that looked better. Probably another 8 million are still sitting in traditional churches like the one I served for the last 22 years, wondering if they should stay. Seeker churches are filled with people on the edge of that slippery slope, maybe slip sliding away, or maybe slip sliding back in. Then there are all those “nones” out there, who claim no religious affiliation at all, often because they never had any to begin with. How can we attract these drifters? Hebrews gives us the heart of any missional strategy. Show them Jesus in all his superiority. Most of these slip sliders are turned off by the church and organized religion. So, help them by fixing their thoughts on Jesus.
The problem, of course, is that Hebrews presents a world so unlike the 21st century that it seems downright bizarre. How can a 21st century preacher translate the heavily Jewish character of Hebrews into something that a biblically illiterate Gentile congregation will see as relevant? Particularly vexing is the whole idea of a high priest offering an atoning sacrifice for sin. That is an utterly foreign idea for folks who don’t even have a sense of guilt, at least not with respect to God. So why would they need a sacrifice to atone for that guilt? And what on earth did a high priest do back then that we need today? This is foreign language to many seekers, and even to churched folks who spend their days watching CNN and reading People magazine. So, the courageous preacher will have to spend some time on those overall subjects.
How can we get seekers to tune in when we deal with such ancient and arcane subjects? The same way we preach anything from this old Book—by showing how the Bible ties into people’s fundamental needs. So in preaching on Hebrews, we look for the deep universal needs to which the culturally specific text speaks. So, for example, in our reading today, the author refers to glory again and again, beginning with the glory of Jesus and concluding with the glory of his followers with lots of glory references in between. Everyone yearns for glory, but few of us ever get it. We were created to be glorious as the image of God, but we’ve fallen short of that glory. Only Jesus can satisfy our hunger for glory.
Given its theme, it is not accidental that Hebrews starts with a burst of high Christology, perhaps the highest anywhere in the Bible. And it’s not surprising that it starts with an extended comparison which immediately begins to show that Jesus is better. Note the parallels: In the past/ in these last days; God spoke/ God has spoken; our forefathers/ us; through the prophets/ by his Son; at many times and in various ways/ 7 magnificent ways in which Christ is superior.
I need to make a little aside here. At the heart of this comparison is the idea of progressive revelation. God spoke then, God has spoken now. What he said back then was and is true, but what he has said here and now is better, because in this, his latest speech, God has spoken his last Word, the Word that is incarnate. There is no need for further revelation; “what more can he say than to you he has said.” Given the prominence of sects and cults and world religions that claim ongoing direct revelation, it is important to hear this message from Hebrews. We don’t need more revelation, because Jesus is the sum total of all God has to say. As F.F. Bruce said, “The story of divine revelation is a story of progression up to Christ, but there is no progression beyond him.”
The absolute sufficiency of Christ is demonstrated in this dazzling display of descriptive phrases in verses 2 and 3: “whom [God] appointed the heir of all things, through whom he made the universe, the radiance of God’s glory, the exact representation of being, sustaining all things by his powerful word, provided purification for sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” There are seven, count ‘em, seven ways (it seems unlikely that the divine number seven is accidental in a heavily Jewish letter) in which Jesus is better than anything or anyone that might claim our religious allegiance. This prologue sums up the argument of the whole epistle, particularly in those last two phases. He “provided purification for sins” and “sat down at the right hand of the Majesty.” This magnificent Christ is the great High Priest whose work is done. He sat down, because “it is finished.” Therefore, we have absolutely no need for any other priest or sacrifice or ceremony or religious observance.
But the author is not finished extolling the superiority of Jesus. Indeed, he has only begun. He continues by addressing the subject of angels, which might strike us modern readers as peculiar and irrelevant until we recall the postmodern fascination with spirituality, including all varieties of spiritual beings and forces. A world that will not believe in the God of the Bible is eager to believe in all kinds of lesser spiritual realities. I recently had a literally hair raising experience counseling a young woman who had visited a real haunted house and found herself obsessed (not possessed) with an alternative spirituality. I had to tell her what the author of Hebrews says. As real as such spiritual beings may be, Jesus is superior. They are merely servants of God; he is the Son.
Hebrews brings up the subject of angels, not so much because the Jewish faith worships angels (though there might have been an offshoot movement that was obsessed with angels), but because angels were involved in the giving the Law to Moses (2:2). As mighty and important as angels are, Jesus is mightier and more important. So, our author concludes, “if the message spoken by angels was binding, and every violation and disobedience received its just punishment, how shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation [as that accomplished by Jesus Christ, the great High Priest].” This is the first of the five warnings about “drifting away.”
The author continues this angel theme with a reference to Psalm 8, in which the son of man was “made a little lower than the angels….” This is the first of three rapid fire and incredibly complex arguments designed to prove, once again, the central theme. The thought goes something like this. In Jesus, you have someone who is bigger, better, more effective than anything any religion or philosophy or lifestyle could ever offer.
First, says our author, consider this. Even though Jesus was the Son of God, God made him a little lower than the angels in his brief stay on earth, so that, after his stay was done, God could crown him with glory and honor and put everything under his feet. While it’s true that we can’t see everything under his feet at the current time, we do see Jesus crowned with glory and honor precisely because he suffered death. He will restore the glory of creation one day and crown you with glory and honor, too. Isn’t that incredible? And you want to leave him for that old religion?
Second, consider salvation in another way. Picking up on that idea of crowning us with glory, the author describes the inglorious death of Jesus like this: “it was fitting that God, to whom and for whom everything exists, should make the author of our salvation perfect through suffering.” This was the only way it could have been done; it was fitting, appropriate, necessary that the Son of God had to suffer death. Yes, he was the perfect Son described in his seven fold glory earlier. But to become our perfect Savior, he had to suffer all we suffer. Only then could he be the perfect High Priest, able to represent an imperfect people to a Perfect God. Isn’t that incredible? And you want to leave him for that old religion?
Finally, consider that the work of Jesus transforms us from mere mortals, a little lower than the angels and sinful to the core, into brothers and sisters of Jesus, members of the family of God. In Jesus you can be not merely servants of God who obey his Law; you actually become sons and daughters of God who are loved for Jesus sake. Isn’t that incredible? And you want to leave him for that old religion? Jesus is the perfect Savior who has changed you and is changing the whole world.
This opening reading from Hebrews reminded me of that recurring scene from my favorite childhood TV program, “The Lone Ranger.” After my hero performed another act of derring-do, he would gallop off toward the horizon, and someone would call out, “Who was that masked man?” That reminded me of that famous scene from that wonderful movie, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.” After successfully robbing multiple banks, Butch and Sundance are fleeing into the wilderness, doggedly pursued not by some ragtag posse from the nearest town, but by an obviously professional posse wearing white hats. After their most ingenious but ultimately unsuccessful efforts to evade the white hats, Butch and Sundance turn to each other with the same question. “Who are those guys?”
Those two scenes are contemporary illustrations of the identity question that dogged Jesus. From John the Baptist’s initial exclamation, “Behold the Lamb of God…,” and Nathanael’s cynical response to the claim that this Nazarene is The One, the question of Jesus’ true identity echoes through the New Testament. We hear it after Jesus first sermon in his hometown, after Jesus stilled the first storm on the Sea of Galilee, at Jesus’ trial before both the Sanhedrin and Herod, even in the Garden after his resurrection. Jesus himself asks it after months of teaching and healing, “Who do you say that I am?” The Prologue of the Gospel of John gives the most theologically seasoned response to that question, though the great soaring Christological hymns of Colossians 1 and Philippians 2 are close seconds.
That’s why it is so surprising that this comparatively late Epistle to the Hebrews should be so occupied with that once settled question. But that question is the focus of this letters, because the second generation Jewish Christians to whom it is addressed were tempted like every new generation to find something better than the same old thing passed on to them by their parents. The author of Hebrews knew that there was nothing better, so he begins his complicated letter with this forthright answer to the age old question. Who was Jesus really? The answer makes all difference in the world.
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