Friday, December 26, 2008

A Christmas Eve sermon (I): Hebrews 1:1-4

Show and Tell for Christmas

I’m a great fan of the Mel Brooks movie Robin Hood – Men in Tights, which is a spoof on a lot of other Robin Hood movies, particularly the Kevin Costner flick Prince of Thieves. In one of my favourite scenes from the movie Mel Brooks takes a swipe at Costner, who spoke Robin Hood’s lines in Prince of Thieves with a broad American accent. In Brooks’ movie Robin, played by Cary Elwes, arrives at Prince John’s banquet hall while a feast is in full swing. He drops a dead boar down on the table in front of Prince John and announces that he’s come to lead the people of England. Prince John asks, “And why should the people of England listen to you?” Robin replies, “Because, unlike other Robin Hoods, I can speak with an English accent!”

Well, of course, this is meant to be comedy, but there’s a deep truth being expressed here. I can remember as a child watching some of the great Hollywood biblical epics, like Samson and Delilah and Quo Vadis and The Ten Commandments. I enjoyed them, but still something about them didn’t seem quite right. After I became an adult I realised what it was. I don’t like biblical movies where the characters speak with American accents! How ridiculous! Do the directors really think that Jesus’ disciples spoke American? Of course, when I think about it, it’s kind of ridiculous for me to think they spoke British English, too! But what was the deep longing I was unconsciously expressing? It was the longing for God to speak to me in my language, and not someone else’s. Even if I can understand the other person’s language, it means so much more to me if I can hear God speak to me in my first language, the language of my heart.

Does God speak our language? Can we understand God’s language? What language does God use to try to communicate with us? This is the theme of our first reading this evening, from the New Testament letter to the Hebrews. How is it possible for us to know anything about God? We sometimes hear the phrase ‘the human search for God’, but if you think about it, the idea of humans searching for God is a bit like the idea of humans using a radio to try to pick up TV signals!

Think of some of the barriers we have to get over in order to find out anything about God, or in order to pick up a message from God. We are physical beings; we hear messages from each other because sound waves resonate against our eardrums. How can we hear sound waves from God? God is purely spirit, with no physical body. And we are limited by time and space - I can only be in one place at once, and I move through my life in time, looking back on the past, experiencing the present and worrying about the future. But God is not limited by any of this. God is present in every part of creation, and God is outside of time. So many words in our language have no meaning in God’s experience; ‘before’, ‘after’, ‘hurry up’ and so on! Communication between God and us is very complicated!

Nonetheless, the author of Hebrews assures us that God has spoken to us. He has spoken to our ancestors through the prophets, and then finally he has spoken to us through his Son Jesus. And the reason why this passage from Hebrews is a Christmas reading is that this is the big picture behind the Christmas story. The real significance about the birth of Jesus was that it showed the extreme lengths to which God was prepared to go in order to communicate with us; he was willing to be born himself as a human baby and open himself to all the pain and suffering of our human existence. Such is his love for us.

The writer of Hebrews tells us that God’s communication to us has been a two-stage process. First, he says ‘Long ago God spoke to our ancestors by the prophets’ (verse 1).

I once knew a man who claimed to be a prophet. He was the pastor of a church of another denomination, and one afternoon when we went for coffee he proceeded to tell me exactly what God wanted me to do in a certain situation. Now I don’t know about you, but I’ve always been a bit sceptical about people like that - and in this man’s case, my scepticism was well founded.

Nonetheless, we need to realise that this was exactly what the Old Testament prophets claimed; God was speaking through them to his people. The Bible tells us that Moses knew God face to face and gave his message to his people. He told them that they had been created by one true God, that they were made in God’s image, and he gave them the Ten Commandments and other laws to guide them into God’s will for them. Later on in the history of Israel, when the people were deviating from God’s plan, God sent them messengers like Elijah or Isaiah or Jeremiah to call them back to his ways. In difficult times they needed words of encouragement, and in those situations too God spoke to them through the prophets. That’s what the word ‘prophet’ means in the Bible - not so much ‘one who foretells the future’ as ‘one who speaks to the people on God’s behalf’.

We would love to know how those people received God’s message! Sometimes it was by dreams or visions; sometimes by direct words. All that the writer of Hebrews tells us is that God’s word came to them ‘in many and various ways’.

Were there other ‘prophets’ outside the Hebrew tradition who also spoke messages from God? I once heard Anglican Bishop Gordon Beardy referring this verse to the traditions of his Cree ancestors, saying that all that was good and true in their teachings also came from the one true God. Another New Testament writer, Paul, tells us that all people in the world know instinctively what is right and good, because God has put his law within them. We know that all truth is God’s truth, and so all that is good and true in other traditions also comes from him.

However, we must also say that all these revelations are incomplete. The writer of Hebrews wants to show us that the message that came through the prophets was not completed until, ‘in these last days, (God) has spoken to us by a Son’. Jesus is the culmination of the story; he is the highest revelation of God to us. And so we go on to the second stage of God’s revelation to us, the stage when ‘in these last days, (God) has spoken to us by a Son’.

I’ve noticed that kids love ‘show and tell’ games. Words can wear on you after a while, but when you combine words with something you can see and touch, the message is much more compelling. The ministry of the Old Testament prophets was mainly in words, and Jesus continues this. But he is also God’s message to us made visible; Hebrews tells us ‘He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being’ (v.3). He not only speaks God’s message; he also is God’s message to us. When we see him caring for the poor and needy, or speaking the truth fearlessly to the authorities, or loving his enemies and forgiving those who crucified him, we are seeing a portrait of what God is like.

Who is the baby in the manger? Look at some of the incredible things Hebrews has to say about him. He is ‘the heir of all things’ (v.2); he is the son of a King, but the King of everything that exists in the entire universe! He is the one ‘through whom also (God) created the worlds’ (v.2) – in other words, Bethlehem was not the real beginning for this little baby. He was present and active at the creation of the whole universe. He was there at the big bang!

The writer goes on to say that Jesus is ‘the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being’ (v.3). He is God made visible for us; in God there is no un-Christlikeness at all, because Jesus is in fact God with a human face. And he continues to be active in the universe; Hebrews says ‘he sustains all things by his powerful word’ (v.3).

These are incredible things to say about a man who had died on a cross outside Jerusalem less than forty years before this letter was written. President Franklin D. Roosevelt died over sixty years ago, and yet there are enough people still alive who knew him to be able to refute any outrageous claims about his divinity that his enthusiastic fans might want to make! The same could be said for spiritual leaders like Gandhi or Martin Luther King, both of whom died some time ago. And yet less than forty years after the death of Jesus, our writer is claiming that he is ‘the exact imprint of God’s very being’. What kind of person provokes this kind of language? Obviously the baby in the manger is no ordinary baby!

If this writer is telling us the truth - if God has in fact come to live among us in the baby in the manger – then what does it mean for us as we go into 2009? Two things:

First, it means that God has lived our human life in all its pain and squalor. Think of the things that Jesus went through in his short life. The circumstances of his birth were such that people sometimes questioned his parentage – was he really the son of Joseph, or was the truth much darker and more scandalous? As a child he had to flee his country as a refugee to escape King Herod’s death squads, and so he spent the first part of his life as a stranger in a foreign land. He seems to have lost his earthly father at an early age, and so he is no stranger to the pain of bereavement. He had to earn his living just as we do. He experienced the rough and tumble of family life as we do – in fact, the New Testament makes it plain that he was misunderstood and slandered by members of his own immediate family. He was persecuted by powerful people, and eventually was tortured to death on a cross. This is a God who can understand our human life. This is a God who understands our language. This is a God who has become one of us.

So God has lived our human life in all its pain and squalor. The second thing the passage is teaching us is that Jesus is God’s love made visible for us. We live in a culture that has become jaded with words. We’ve heard too many false promises from politicians and too many false guarantees from businesses assuring us that their job was to give us ‘customer satisfaction’. We know how easy it is to say ‘I love you’ – and how hard it is to actually put that into practice in our daily lives. And a God who simply says to us “I love you” from the safety and security of heaven, far removed from our human suffering – that kind of God has little credibility for us today.

But what about a God who loves us so much he is willing to leave the safety and security of heaven and make himself small and vulnerable? The one through whom the worlds were made now needs a human mother to wash him and feed him! The source of all life and health now takes a form that makes him susceptible to pain, torture and death. And he does all this because he loves us and wants to save us from our sins. If God is willing to go to these extraordinary lengths, we can well believe him when he says to us “I love you”.

So God took the time to learn our language – that is, to become one of us and live our life – so that his communication would be understandable to us. And what comes across most clearly in this story is the incredible love God has for each of us. We will give and receive many gifts this Christmas time, but the greatest gift of all is the gift of God’s Son who became a human being and moved into our neighbourhood. In him we see what God is truly like. Through him we receive God’s clearest revelation of his will for us. And when we welcome him into our hearts and live with him at the centre of our daily lives, we receive the one Christmas present which will never wear out, but will last throughout our earthly lives and on into eternity.

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