Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
At least partly because I struggled to relate it to life in the 20th and 21st centuries, I didn’t preach a series of sermons on the book of Hebrews for the first 20 years of my ministry. Since the book had always seemed to me to be so impractical, I shied away from preaching about its references to sacrifices, ceremonies, and rules.
Yet the change in our culture has arguably only heightened the challenge of systematically preaching on Hebrews. When I was ordained in 1987, there was still a kind of cultural residue of Christian awareness. Many of the people my parishioners and I knew were at least somewhat familiar with Jesus.
Now, however, virtually all of us live in a pluralistic society. Many people to whom we proclaim Hebrews 1 and 2 live and work alongside people who couldn’t tell them much about Jesus. It sometimes seems that the only time Jesus’ name gets even mentioned outside the Church is by Christian radicals or in profanity.
Yet it isn’t just culture that has changed. The Church has changed as well. It isn’t just that God’s adopted children may be more contemporary, multi-cultural or liberal. It’s also that our awareness of basic Christian doctrine has apparently shrunk. Jesus’ friends seem to have largely lost track of him as anything more than a nice guy who helps us when we’re in trouble. That helps make some of Hebrews’ foundational terms and illustrations highly mysterious to our contemporaries.
Perhaps, however, that makes this an especially appropriate time for gospel proclaimers to accept the RCL’s invitation to take a careful look at both Jesus and the book of Hebrews that speaks so extensively of him. This may be this is a good time to let some parts of the book of Hebrews remind us not just about what Jesus came to do, but also about just who he is. As Hebrews’ proclaimers proclaim the Lectionary Epistle do that over the next few weeks, we might invite our hearers to think of its Jesus as a kind of lopsided smile.
Not just for Christians’ reactions to the joy, peace and sense of purpose Jesus brings into our lives. But also because, as Tom Long, to whom I owe many ideas for this and subsequent commentaries on Hebrews, points out, while the Son of God initially inhabited the heavenly realm’s glorious splendor, he gave that up to become like us in every way, except that he was perfect. And once he’d completed his earthly work, Jesus returned to the heaven realm’s glory. It’s what Long calls the “parabola of salvation,” but what I call “the Jesus slightly lopsided smile.”
While this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson begins by reminding readers that the Son of God is what 1:3 calls “the exact representation of [God’s] being,” it goes on to note how that Son swept downward from the heavenly realm into painful human experience. In his incarnation, Jesus was made, insists chapter 2:9, “a little lower than the angels.” Then, however, Hebrews’ Son’s arc climbed upward again. “After he had provided purification for sins,” says chapter 1:3, “he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.”
There you have the Son of God’s “slightly lopsided smile.” He eternally existed in the glory of the heavenly realm. However, for his adopted siblings’ sakes the Son of God gave that all up. And yet once he’d completed that task, God’s Son returned to the glory of the heavenly realm.
Yet why did the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God, Jesus Christ give up all of that glory and splendor in the first place? The God who loves to speak speaks to God’s people in different ways. God historically spoke in ways we could understand through people like Moses and Rahab, Deborah, and Isaiah, as well as Jeremiah and Esther.
But God’s beloved children didn’t listen. And even when we did listen, we quickly forgot what God said to us. Or simply disobeyed what God said. In fact, we chose to listen to the evil one and his allies. So while God has always talked a lot, God’s people basically stopped listening to God in any meaningful way. In fact, we stopped listening to God as soon as our first parents chose to listen to Eden’s snake.
Refusal to listen to God in any ways that leads to obedience seems to have been an issue for the Preacher’s first Hebrew audience. Its author, after all, reminds them to “pay more careful attention … to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away” (2:1). He conveys the sense that his first readers, like all of God’s people, basically tuned out what they heard from God. God’s children naturally show we’re not listening to what we’re hearing by acting as though we don’t hear it.
You might even argue that’s the root of so much of what’s wrong in our culture. Our leaders are rude, greedy or both because we aren’t listening to God. We neglect or abuse God’s good creation because we aren’t listening to God. We harangue, hate and harm those with whom we disagree because we aren’t listening to God.
So did God simply stop talking or just scream at us even louder – as human beings sometimes do with those who refuse to listen to us? No, God, in one sense, started speaking what one theologian called “baby talk.” “In these last days,” the Preacher says in 1:2, God “has spoken to us by his Son.” God bends over what a colleague calls “this violent playpen we call home” to speak to us again. This time, however, God doesn’t just talk baby talk to God’s deeply treasured people. God also comes and at least initially talks to us as a baby.
Soren Kierkegaard once told a parable about a king who loved a beautiful servant. While he wanted to tell her about his love, he wished to do so in a way that would let her freely love him. So the king traded his royal robes for peasants’ clothing and moved into a village near his servant. There the king courted her so that they gradually got to know each other.
Eventually the servant girl fell in love with this man she assumed was a peasant just like her. At that point her king told her just who he was. But because she knew him so well, she could hear him speaking about his love for her in ways that she could understand.
Why did the second person of the Trinity, the Son of God, Jesus Christ give up heaven’s glory to move into what Eugene Peterson calls our “neighborhood”? Because he wanted us to hear God speaking in ways that we would not only understand, but also gladly, by the power of the Holy Spirit, live by.
So those who want to hear what God’s saying look at Jesus. God’s people watch him care for children, scold self-righteous people, and eat with sinners. Those who want their children and grandchildren, as well as nieces and nephews to hear God speaking help them hear Jesus talking about God’s kingdom, love, service and even praying for our enemies.
Of course, we live in a noisy culture in which so many clamor for our attention. What’s more, many of us also love to talk. So to hear God talking, God’s adopted sons and daughters may have to ignore those other noises at least temporarily. To pay more careful attention to what God says to us, God’s beloved sons and daughters may also need to just be quiet for a little while.
After all, once upon a time, God spoke to us through prophets. God also gave God’s Spirit to help God’s people understand and live by what those prophets said. Now, however, God has spoken and, in fact, still speaks to us by God’s Son. However, God also gives us the Holy Spirit to help us not only pay attention to what we’ve heard, but also live by what that Son says.
That’s one reason why the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper is such an important part of the rhythm of godly living. The Holy Spirit, after all, uses it to, in a sense, speak to us about God’s hatred of evil as well as the depth of God’s love for us. The Spirit also uses Communion’s bread, wine/juice’s means of grace to equip us to pay attention to God talking to us because God loves us so much.
In his fascinating book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales, Oliver Sacks tells the story of Jimmie who remains forever stuck in 1945. Jimmie is a very nice, pleasant person with whom you can have a nice conversation. But if you leave the room after even a two-hour conversation and then return a bit later, he’ll greet you as if for the first time.
This vacuum leaves Jimmie with minimal joy because it locks him in what a colleague calls “an ever-changing but finally meaningless, present moment.” With nothing old to ever look back on and nothing new ever to look forward to, joy is largely impossible.
But there is one time when Jimmie shows something like joy, a moment when the largely vacant look on his face is replaced with something that looks like completeness and calmness. It’s when he takes communion.
When Sacks mourned to the nuns who care for him that Jimmie’s disease had stolen his soul, they invited him to come back for communion. When Sacks returned, he saw Jimmie fully participate in the service, recite the familiar lines, say the prayers, and then go forward to receive the wafer. As he did, Jimmie’s face was a picture of calm and even joy. We might say that the Holy Spirit helped Jimmie hear God’s Son speaking to him through the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
God was at work in Jimmie in ways that made him what my colleague Scott Hoezee calls “a living, breathing, walking, talking display window of a very surprising grace.” Sacks knew there was no good neurological explanation for this. “But perhaps,” says Hoezee in a reflection on Jimmie’s remarkable story, “Grace has its own reason.”
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, October 3, 2021
Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12 Commentary