Sermon Commentary for Sunday, January 1, 2017
Hebrews 2:10-18 Commentary
God’s power cannot cut it. That’s both the bottom line and the upshot of this part of Hebrews 2. Isn’t that weird, though? Isn’t that counter-intuitive? How often haven’t most of us said or thought something along the lines of “If only I were in charge . . . If only I were in control . . . If only I had the power and the authority . . . why then, I could fix stuff, make good things happen, whip these folks into shape and usher in a better day!”
That’s how we think most of the time. Maybe it’s an inept boss or manager under whose weak leadership we chafe that makes us wish the reins of power passed through our hands instead. Maybe it’s politicians who strike us as not up to the jobs to which they got elected that tempts us to get our own names onto some yard signs and run for office ourselves. Whatever the cause, though, the fact is that we are pretty sure that the solution to making things better in the office or that the pathway for a stronger nation involves power and the proper channeling of that power.
Sometimes in this world that’s right, too. People who run for high office are sometimes accused of being overly ambitious, of being “power crazy” and unduly hungry for authority. And at times these people are that but just as often it is the case that if you genuinely want to make a difference for the country, the state, the county, the city, you need to get elected to do it because only then are you in a position to help the most people the most effectively. You need power to get things done in this world.
But the great irony and paradox of the Gospel is that although no one had a bigger set of problems to solve than God did in considering how best to save this cosmos, at the end of the day God concluded that his omnipotent power alone was not enough to seal the deal. Oh, the author to the Hebrews muses, maybe power would have been enough to save angels or something but it would not be enough to save flesh-and-blood human beings. No, these folks will need to be saved by another way and in the great reversal of all our normal thinking on such matters, the way forward for that salvation was going to lead smack through the way of weakness.
God was going to need some power, yes, it’s true. But the greatest display of that power would come when he had to raise a limp, dead-as-a-doornail human person from the grave. Up until then it was the frailty of a real human life that would be the epicenter of all things salvific. As it turned out, God could not zap the worst thing that threatens fallen humanity—namely, death itself and the devil who wields that death—by remote control. Flinging down lightning bolts from on high was not going to do the job. No, this was an enemy that had to be met on its own turf for some reason. This was a sickness that had to be healed from the inside out.
In fact and as Hebrews 2 makes abundantly clear, the One who would bring salvation had to do the hard thing not just of dying before it was all said and done but of suffering a very great deal all the way along. And here’s another really weird thing about the message of Hebrews 2: Jesus is depicted not just as suffering—a shocking enough revelation all by itself when you are dealing with God himself—but as having been made perfect through that suffering.
Hold on, though. Time out. Isn’t God (as God) already perfect? I mean, doesn’t that go with the package: perfect, holy, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, and all the other things that attend the definition of the word “Divine”? Didn’t Jesus have perfection pretty well wrapped up from the get-go as God’s own Son? Well, as the God-Man who was born of the virgin Mary, apparently not. Maybe as God alone Jesus had been perfect but once he took on a human nature as well and held it in tension inside his one person with the divine nature, a new dynamic opened up that required some suffering to bring about a perfection of Jesus that would not exist without it.
The bottom line of Hebrews 2 is that this is good news for us because we can know for sure that our Savior identifies with us, sympathizes with us, weeps for us and stands with us in the crises that can make our lives so unhappy and miserable at times. And preachers tend to focus on that part of this chapter. Pastorally that’s a fine thing to do.
But let’s not rush past the really curious things we learn about how God pulled off salvation that come up along the way. Power was not enough. Weakness was needed for salvation. Perfection as a divine being was not enough. A perfection-through-suffering was needed to be achieved for the Divine-Human being that Jesus became the moment he was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary.
Small wonder that in the course of his life and ministry, the Jesus who literally embodied all of these paradoxes told so many parables of reversal, said again and again that the greatest realities in the world were the things that could get hidden in dough or that you’d just stumble upon in a random field somewhere. Small wonder that the likes of Pontius Pilate could not make heads or tails of this man and that even the disciples—focused as they were for so long on restoring the political power of Israel—kept misunderstanding half of what Jesus said to them. The world just doesn’t work this way ordinarily. When we run up against these weaknesses, these sufferings, these paradoxes in Jesus, they call us up short. THIS is how salvation comes?
It’s a lesson the church keeps having to re-learn too. Over and again in history and right up to this present moment too many leaders in the church and too many ordinary members of the church are just sure that we will make the greatest impact for Christ by accessing political power, business clout, and any number of strategies for “success.” In truth, it all cuts against the Gospel grain and will never work. Hebrews 2 makes that much clear.
This reading is assigned in the Year A cycle for January 1, 2017, or New Year’s Day. We are still flush with all things Christmas even as we bid farewell to a hard year and hope for a better one. But before we walk away from the birth of the Messiah for another year, Hebrews 2 calls us up short, confronts us with the paradoxes of God’s plan of salvation, and so gives us another chance to re-orient our thinking and our ways of operating as we enter this new year. Whether we will take our cues from God himself or fix our eyes on the usual ways of getting ahead remains to be seen. But Hebrews 2 calls for us to go God’s way and not the way of the world.
Earlier in Hebrews 2 and as part of the run-up to this passage about weakness and suffering, the author of Hebrews admitted that at present we do not see with our physical eyes a world that looks like it’s under God’s control or under the Lordship of Jesus. And indeed, we wonder why God does not thunder in with great power and just clean house. Why does Jesus so often opt to be present in our weakness and in our sufferings instead of just wiping those things out in the first place? We don’t know the answers to such hard questions but the fact that weakness, suffering, and empathy are part of Christ’s way of being with us for now are all amply demonstrated by Hebrews 2. It reminds me of a story I have used before when preaching on Hebrews 2—a true story that reveals again how Christ gently comes to us.
A little boy of perhaps 6 or 7 years of age was in the hospital suffering greatly in end-stage leukemia. The pain he endured apparently caused some hallucinations, one of which was of a strange man who appeared in the doorway of his hospital room, causing the tyke to call out in alarm and requiring the soothing reassurances of his mother.
One afternoon as the mother cradled her mortally ill child in her arms, his body stiffened once again in alarm. “That man is back, Mommy” he cried. The mother was about to reassure him that no one was there when suddenly the boy’s thin body relaxed. He looked his mother clear in the eyes and said, “Oh, Mommy. I didn’t recognize him before but it’s Jesus. I have to go now.” And in great peace he died.
We don’t always know why Jesus meets us in our weakness and sorrow instead of waving them away with the power of his omnipotence. But we know he never leaves us and never will. The arc of his saving life assures us of this both this day and even forevermore.
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