Christmas Day: Nativity of Our Lord (III)

People experience the Christmas season differently.

The light shines in the darkness
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. - John 1:5 (Public domain image; licensed under CC0)

December 25, 2017

Second Reading
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Commentary on Hebrews 1:1-4 [5-12]

People experience the Christmas season differently.

For some, it means joyous celebrations with family and friends. For others, it’s a time when the loss of loved ones, financial hardships, and battles with depression or loneliness become even more painful. And the cultural ritual of heightened consumerism, from Thanksgiving through the New Year, may leave some feeling stressed out and empty, wondering if there is something more to life than pursuing a good deal on a big screen television by shoving other customers out of the way.

In such situations, reconnecting with the “big picture” of life can make a difference. Hebrews 1:1–4 helps us do just this.

These opening verses of Hebrews, which itself functions as a homily, remind the Christian audience of what they already know. Apparently of Jewish background, hearers would know that God spoke to their forebears by the prophets (Hebrews 1:1). They would also be aware that their identity as Christians stems from God reaching out to them in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God’s own Son (verses 2–4). But it seems that they needed to connect with these truths once again — perhaps even to be jolted by them in the midst of their ordinary routines, as the cosmic scope of the passage suggests.

Why would they need this?

While we do not know the precise identity of the intended recipients of Hebrews, the text indicates that they had suffered for following Jesus. They were exposed to public abuse and persecution, and even joyfully accepted the plundering of their possessions (Hebrews 10:32–34). They have struggled with sin (12:4), and can expect more trials to come (12:7).

Another threat came not from external persecution, but rather from discouragement and weariness on the journey of faith (for example 2:3; 12:12), and a lack of proper growth (5:11–6:2). The author likens the audience’s pilgrimage to the forty years that the Israelites wandered in the wilderness (3:1–4:11). Though the Israelites had seen God’s marvels that freed them from captivity in Egypt, the trials of the wilderness hardened their hearts. They doubted God’s promises, and ultimately, their generation was prevented from entering the Promised Land (see also Numbers 14). The author warns the audience of Hebrews not to let the same happen to them, losing confidence and disobeying God when the goal of their faith seems far away.

Whether enduring trials or spiritual apathy, Hebrews 1:1–4 speaks powerful truth to people who might benefit from seeing beyond themselves and their current circumstances. For example:

  • God is committed to pursuing relationship with fallible human beings.

Hebrews 1:1–2 shows God’s initiative across the centuries to speak with people. Such communication is key to establishing and maintaining relationship. God reaches out to us again and again, despite our wavering faith.

  • God is faithful to God’s promises.

Through the prophets and Scriptures, God promised humanity a Messiah. God fulfilled this promise, and by exalting Jesus from death to God’s own presence as “heir of all things” (Hebrews 1:2), God also fulfilled the promise that an heir of David would inherit the nations (Psalm 2:8). This God can be trusted to follow through on the promises that God’s people are still waiting to be fulfilled.

  • Jesus has dealt with sin once for all.

Temptations to go our own way instead of the way of Jesus and the cross still loom, but Jesus, both high priest and ultimate sacrifice, has purified us from sin once for all (Hebrews 1:3; 7:26–28). Since Jesus lived not only as divine but also as fully human, he sympathizes with out weaknesses, so that we can boldly approach him for help in our times of need (4:14–16). He continues to sustain all things (1:3).

  • Jesus leads the way on our pilgrimage.

Jesus’s perfect obedience to God on earth, even during suffering, makes him our forerunner (Hebrews 2:10; 6:19–20) who helps us persevere in the goal of eternal salvation (5:8–9). The one through whom God created the universe (1:2) is both the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. We can look to Jesus in the midst of joy and hardship (2:10; 12:1–2).

  • God is greater than we can envision.

Human capacity to understand God is limited, but Hebrews 1:1–4 gives us a glimpse of God’s glory by lifting our minds from the mundane to where Christ shares in God’s own life, exalted above the angels. This Christ is the same Jesus who lived on earth as a human being, revealing to us the very being of God (1:3a). This extraordinary God is the same one who meets us in our very ordinary lives.

How such insights might be applied in a sermon depends on the audience.

Unlike Christians in many parts of the world, I venture to say that, generally speaking, the more pressing issue for Christians in the United States is spiritual complacency, rather than persecution for our faith. Our lives may be comfortable enough on the whole that we do not feel an urgency about clinging to God’s promises in Scripture and sharing them with others. Church may feel like just another part of the weekly routine, and perhaps even like an unwelcome interruption to our hectic Christmas schedules of shopping, cookie baking, and family gatherings. Maybe we should invite the disruptive vision of Hebrews 1:1–4 into our lives, letting it remind us that the source and goal of our lives is the eternal God it presents.