Sermon Commentary for Sunday, December 23, 2018
Hebrews 10:5-10 Commentary
What on earth is this whole Christmas business about? Why is it worth all the effort so many people put into celebrating it? To answer that, not just the Church but also the world needs to know just why Jesus came to be not only born in Bethlehem, but also to grow up to live, die and rise again for his adopted brothers and sisters.
Yet as my colleague Stan Mast to whom I owe many ideas for this commentary points out, Hebrews 5:5-10 may seem like a rather odd place to turn for answers to questions about Jesus’ birth and Christmas. After all, the book of Hebrews in general and its chapter 10 in particular seems, with their heavy sacrificial emphasis, more oriented toward Good Friday.
Yet as Mast also notes, careful readers will notice that the Epistolary Lesson the Lectionary appoints for this Sunday speaks not once but three times of Jesus’ coming. “When Jesus came into the world, he said,” according to verse 5, ‘Sacrifice and offering you did not desire’.” Verses 7 and 9 then go on to quote Jesus as saying, “I have come to do your will, O God.”
As Thomas J. Long to whose excellent commentary on Hebrews (John Knox Press: 1997) I’m also indebted for much of this Commentary notes, law-based religion invites people to come again and again to God with a guilty conscience. So we try to shrink the guilt we feel by reminding God of all the sacrifices we’ve made on God and God’s church’s behalf.
We say things like, “God, didn’t I sacrifice my time to serve as an elder or on the deacon board? Didn’t I give up some of my precious time to visit that aging saint in the nursing home? Didn’t I risk sacrificing my career and reputation by standing up for that slandered co-worker? Don’t you see, God, how much I’ve given up for you?”
Yet as Long notes, while we repeatedly offer God those and similar things, they’re never enough. All of our sacrifices aren’t adequate to satisfy God’s demands. So we do things like leave church each Sunday feeling guilty that we haven’t given up enough to please God. We also resolve to return next week with another “basketful” of sacrifices. Or we decide to just stay away altogether.
Add to all that the frantic busyness of our Christmas celebrations and preparations for them, and it’s enough to make the most devout Christian exhausted on this Christmas Eve eve. At this time of the year many of us don’t just think we need to make sacrifices to make God happy. Now many of us also feel like we have to make sacrifices to make our family members and friends, bosses and co-workers happy. Merry Christmas, indeed!
Hebrews 10:5-10 is gospel for the deeply guilty and frantically busy. It frees us to shout, “Merry Christmas!” It announces, after all, the great news that God has pulled the plug on our treadmill of sacrifices. This week’s Lectionary Epistle announces, “When Christ came into the world, he said [to God], ‘Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased. Then I said, “Here I am – it is written about me in the scroll – I have come to do your will, O God”’” (5-7).
Why do Christians celebrate Christmas with such deep joy? Why did Jesus come not only to Bethlehem, but also to Calvary, Israel and the world? Jesus came to do for us what we could not do for ourselves – render obsolete the treadmill of sacrifices. Jesus came to make us acceptable to God. Jesus came to make us “holy” (10).
We might even say that Jesus very first words weren’t “Goo-goo, gaga” or “Mommy!” As Mast notes, they were, instead, probably figuratively rather than literally, “I have come to do your will, O God” (7b, 9). So while Hebrews mysteriously insists Jesus somehow “learned obedience from what he suffered (5:8), our text also insists that Jesus’ mission right from the get-go, beginning in Bethlehem, was to do God’s will. Even though he may have somehow grown in his understanding of that will, as Michael Joseph Brown points out, right from the moment of incarnation Jesus was completely committed to carrying out God’s will.
This, however, as Edward Pillar notes, stretches some popular conceptions of just why Jesus came. We, after all, sometimes shrink his saving work to his atoning death on the cross, with perhaps a bit of resurrection on the side. Hebrews 10 at least suggests that Jesus also came to live as well as die and rise from the dead for his adopted brothers and sisters.
While Jesus was tempted and tested in every way that we are, he remained perfectly obedient and faithful. So when he came to Bethlehem to begin to do God’s will, he did it perfectly enough for all of us. As a result, the Hebrews’ Preacher can sing in verse 10, “By [God’s] will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.”
Because Jesus “came” at Bethlehem to offer himself to God, when God looks at us God no longer sees just rebellious children. God also sees those whom God has declared “holy,” as acceptable and pleasing to God because of Jesus’ perfect doing of God’s will.
So those who proclaim Hebrews 5:5-10 can announce to God’s deeply beloved adopted sons and daughters, “I tell you: in the name of Jesus Christ, you are forgiven.” And because Jesus came to do God’s will, those who hear this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson as well as those who preach and teach it can together humbly, gratefully and joyfully shout in response, “Thanks be to God!”
Yet Jesus’ coming to replace all of our sacrifices with doing God’s will also frees us, in one sense, to offer God types of sacrifices. We no longer offer them to somehow please or satisfy God. Yet God’s adopted sons and daughters offer things like offer “our bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God” (Romans 12:1).
God’s children offer our whole selves to God as the among the very best ways of saying thanks to God for Jesus’ having done God’s will perfectly so that we might have life. We offer God our words, actions and even thoughts, not as part of our “daily run” on the treadmill that is our attempt to please God, but to show our gratitude for what Jesus has done, does and will do.
Whenever I hear Jesus say, “I have come to do your will, O God,” I think of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final speech at the Bishop Charles Mason Temple on April 3, 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. He addressed it to sanitation workers and others who were continuing to protest the unjust treatment of those workers.
Near the end of his speech, Dr. King said, “I don’t know what will happen now; we’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.
“And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life—longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will (italics added). And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land.
“I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight; I’m not worried about anything; I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”
Of course, there was only one Messiah – and Dr. King wasn’t it. But he too, with Jesus Christ, wanted to do God’s will. What’s more, King was willing to join Christ in dying in pursuit of that goal.
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