(Message given at NFC on December 28, 2014)
I’m always in awe of two things about Christmas in our society.
One, I’m always amazed to see Christmas decorations in stores before Halloween. It seems like it gets earlier and earlier by the year. And then two, I’m always amazed at how quickly all things Christmas disappear. K103 stops playing 24 hour Christmas music almost immediately. Stores put all the Christmas stuff at 75% off and it goes quickly.
We start so early, we’re almost sick of it before it arrives. And now many are on to the next thing, wondering what will be the next thing to give a jolt to our lives.
But on this last Sunday of 2014, and just 3 days after Christmas, believe it or not, I’d like us to reflect a bit on why Christmas matters. Why is God becoming a human being in Jesus Christ so significant? What does it matter?
I’m sure you have some ideas about that! Many of you have thought about this before. Why is the incarnation, why is God becoming human so significant? Why does Christmas matter? [ASK]
One of the things I love about theology is that people over centuries have taken the time to think long and hard about the significance of many things about the Christian life. Some people make the accusation that religion is about mindless dogma, about ignoring your questions and just having belief. But the truth is that people have thought and questioned and wrestled with some of the most mind-bending parts of our faith.
Our faith rests on the fact that the all-powerful Creator God became a human baby. That is not an easy thing to wrap our minds around. Yet I love that for two thousand years, great minds have wrestled with this, taken it seriously and plumbed the depths of truth around what this means…for us.
I’m one who grew up as a child hearing the story of Jesus, knowing from an early age that this is how God chose to save the world. So for a lot of my life, it was just a given. For me, in seminary, some of the a-ha’s of studying was realizing that it didn’t have to be that way. Other major faiths don’t have this component of God taking on human flesh, this idea of the “self-emptying” of God, this crossing of the huge chasm between divine perfection and human frailty.
And the more I’ve thought about that, the more it’s become clear that we make a mistake when we separate things out into “spiritual” and “worldly”…when we completely separate “holiness” and “sinful flesh”. God embraced humanity, redeemed bodies and the physical world. It is significant that Jesus was fully human, and went through suffering on our behalf.
In the section from the book of Hebrews that we are looking at today, I like that it begins by giving an answer to what God was doing when Jesus was born in a manger.
In bringing many sons and daughters to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through what he suffered. Both the one who makes people holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. He says,
‘I will declare your name to my brothers and sisters;
in the assembly I will sing your praises.’ And again,
‘I will put my trust in him.’
And again he says,
‘Here am I, and the children God has given me.’
Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death–that is, the devil– and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants. For this reason he had to be made like his brothers and sisters in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Hebrews 2:10-18, TNIV)
God was “bringing many sons and daughters to glory.” Glory is one of those really rich and deep words in the bible, calling to mind so many different things. Glory is the very presence of God, the Shekinah glory of God present in the cloud leading the Israelites through the desert. It represents God’s splendor, beauty, power, magnificence.
Glory includes awe and terror, as when Moses came down from Mt. Sinai after meeting God face to face, and his face glowed with the glory of God, causing everyone to fear. God’s glory inhabits the tabernacle and the temple in worship, calls prophets like Isaiah and Ezekiel to a life of service. Glory is what the angels sing when Christ is born, glory is how Christ appears when he is transfigured before the disciples’ eyes…and glory is the description of the fulfillment of all God’s hopes at the end of time, when the new holy city of Jerusalem comes down from heaven.
Glory is eternity; it is heaven. It is the fulfillment of God’s perfection.
Hebrews says to us that God taking on flesh in Jesus, and Jesus going through suffering…it all was done to bring “many sons and daughters to glory.” The glory of God emptied God’s self to become human, so that by joining us, we could then be brought into the fullness of God’s very presence forever!
Jesus makes us holy–the biblical and theological word is “sanctifies” us. Jesus’ very life, his obedience and his suffering and his death and resurrection: these are what God uses to make us holy, to make us part of God’s family, to bring us (God’s sons and daughters) into the glory of God’s presence!
This week something grabbed my attention that hadn’t before.
Not only are we God’s sons and daughters through what Jesus has done…Jesus also “is not ashamed” to call us “brothers and sisters.” Now, in a sense that’s obvious. We talk about this mystery of the trinity with God the Father and Jesus the Son, and if we are God’s children then in one sense of course we are siblings to the Son.
But part of my Christmas celebration this week was to reflect a little on the different relationship we have with siblings than we do with parents. It was just another way that God keeps working on me to try and understand even more deeply the great lengths God went to in order to join us on our own level, how God came as close to us as possible.
With a parent, there is always a bit of distance and separation. There’s a power differential there always, even when you become an adult. I’m not proud of how quickly I can still sometimes act like a snotty 14 year old when I’m around my parents! But for Jesus to call us and declare us his brothers and sisters…that somehow is more real and messy and close.
You play with siblings. You fight for siblings. You fight WITH siblings. You have a bond, a bond of experience and commonality that is closer and less remote than a parent relationship sometimes feels.
Every family is different of course, and this isn’t a perfect analogy. But for me, these verses that declare us brothers and sisters of Jesus helped me get to a more real and close understanding of what Christmas really means, the depth to which God came near.
All of this helps me grapple with how much Jesus shared with us, how much Jesus became like us.
And the truth is, of course, that there are some significant ways Jesus is unique. There are things about Jesus being God that make a powerful difference for us. It is both in Jesus being like us and in Jesus being unique and divine that our hope comes from.
Look with me at the second half of these verses from Hebrews chapter 2.
Can we pull out some of the important things and not miss them?
He shared our humanity, even the experience of death. Death is the one thing that levels us all, that conquers us…death is what so many people fear. By being God and yet sharing our humanity and even experiencing death, in some great and mysterious way that is not able to be replicated by anyone else, Jesus’ death broke the power of evil, of the devil, of death itself.
Death, which Genesis says came into the world for human beings because of our temptation and disobedience, now has its power broken in the very act of Jesus going through it. This was all for us! This was God’s purpose, that through this drawing near, many sons and daughters would be brought to glory.
This is why he was made like us in every way, so he could stand in the perfect high priest position.
The high priest in Jewish tradition was the go-between, the redeemer, the one who was part of the community but also stood outside it. The high priest was the one who could bring the people’s sacrifice to God, and therefore be the conduit for God’s forgiveness back to the people.
One of the beautiful things about the book of Hebrews is the way it shows careful thought and reflection about this priestly practice in relation to Jesus. Jesus becomes, the author of Hebrews realizes, both the perfect high priest and the perfect sacrifice. God is providing everything we need perfectly!
Jesus became like one of us, fully, in every way, so that as a perfect high priest he could represent us to God. Jesus remained fully divine, fully God, so that as perfect high priest he could represent God to us.
His life, his obedience, his death and resurrection show that he has made amends for all our sin. Atonement, forgiveness, wholeness and healing have been completely and fully achieved! This is the wonder that began when God’s love was demonstrated by becoming Jesus, baby in the manger.
Because of Christmas…because of Jesus…
We have a new family! We are sons and daughter, brothers and sisters to Christ.
We have a sure future! We are being brought to glory, in all the fullness of that word: enabled to be in God’s presence, forever, in all its beauty and wonder and majesty.
We have the gift of the power of death broken! No longer are we powerless, afraid, cowering, unsure. Jesus has broken the power of death!
And we have the perfect go-between, the perfect high priest! Jesus, in every way like us, knows the struggle and the difficulty and the temptation of being human. Jesus offered himself as we could not-as the perfect sacrifice we could not be.
This is worth dwelling on, thinking about, plumbing the depths in exploration. Christ is born…and our lives and our destinies are forever changed.
Receive him. Open the gift. Give Christ your life.
May we not move on from celebrating the wonder of God drawing near to us, and God bringing us to glory.