First Sunday of Christmas (Year A)

The days between Christmas and New Year’s Day see a shift from the images of angels and the manger to the annual retrospectives on the year that has passed.

December 30, 2007

Second Reading
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Commentary on Hebrews 2:10-18

The days between Christmas and New Year’s Day see a shift from the images of angels and the manger to the annual retrospectives on the year that has passed.

News magazines and television shows use collages of images to remind people of things that have taken place in the last twelve months. There are images of combat and scenes of rescue workers helping victims after a storm. There are Nobel Prize winners and political and religious leaders. And there are faces of ordinary people, who add human interest to the collages. The collages of images help to define where we have been, and give us pause to ask where we might be headed.

Similarly, Heb 2:10-18 uses a collage of images to show who Jesus is and what it means to follow him. There are four pictures in this collage. Each one helps us think about where we have been, where we are, and where we might be going.

First, Hebrews pictures Jesus as the pioneer of salvation (2:10). Central to the image is that a pioneer makes a way forward for others. Connotations include a sense of courage and adventure. The American folk tradition is filled with the stories of pioneers, who made their way westward to open pathways for those seeking a better life in a new place. The better place was often pictured as a green landscape with good farmland, or perhaps a city where work was plentiful and the shops were full of goods. Hebrews pictures Jesus as the pioneer who opens the way to God. This is indeed a vision of a better life. Hebrews even says that it is “glory.” But at the center of this glory is God, the Creator of us all. This is what God wants, namely, us to be in relationship with him. That is what Jesus the pioneer does, he opens the way to life with God.

A pioneer often suffers along the journey through rugged terrain, and Jesus the pioneer indeed suffers on his journey. Hebrews says that Jesus was made “perfect” through sufferings. The word for “perfect” is based on the Greek word teleioo, which has to do with reaching a goal. The idea is that Jesus reaches the goal through sufferings. His suffering is not the end but is part of the way to God. His suffering is unique in that it is done on our behalf, since it conveys the love and grace that create a relationship with God. And his suffering also provides assurance that even though those who follow the Pioneer will also encounter suffering, it is not God’s final word. Jesus has made a future for his followers. By grace, they too move through their suffering and into a future where resurrection has the last word.

Second, Hebrews adds a picture: Jesus is our brother (2:12-13). Rather than depicting us as people seeking life in a new future, it refers to those who need a place to belong in the family. Jesus is not “ashamed” to call us his brothers and sisters. Think of this in terms of ordinary family life. A sibling, who is about fourteen, is trying to impress peers. Then, one of the younger members of the family shows up, wanting to tag along. The result can be embarrassing to the older sibling, who wants nothing to do with the young, unsophisticated member of the household. Often the embarrassment wins out and the older sibling tells the younger one to beat it and go home. What the younger sibling wants more than anything is to be acknowledged.

Are we like the younger sibling? Most of us have little difficulty recognizing that it is best if people do not look too closely at us. Scrutiny will show that Jesus might have any number of good reasons to be ashamed about who we are. So if Jesus calls us his brothers and sisters, it is not because we are so impressive. Being called one of his siblings is an act of grace. It offers us a sense of dignity and fellowship in the family.

A third picture is that of Jesus as a liberator (2:14-16). Here the scene is more like one of the battlefield images in the year-end review. Here the need is not for acceptance but for liberation. The battles in which people find themselves are often played out in the local arenas of their own lives. Sometimes the scene takes the form of addiction. Sometimes it takes the form of dysfunctional family systems that keep perpetrating abuse. This image recognizes that people are not free agents. We are drawn into situations where evil bends our wills. Despite the fear, we cannot break free.

Here Jesus intrudes into the situation to bring deliverance. The weapon he uses against the force of evil is the love of God, which he conveys through his own suffering and death. Jesus’ crucifixion is confrontational. It shows that God is not willing to let the world remain under the dominion of other powers. In the crucified and risen Christ, God confronts evil with love and deception with truth. This is what sets people free.

The fourth image in the collage is of Jesus the high priest (2:17-18). Here people are pictured as sinners in need of atonement. By his suffering and death, Jesus conveys the sacrificial love that restores people in relationship to God. The “altar” where Jesus offered his sacrifice was Golgotha. The sacrificial victim was Jesus himself, rather than an ordinary lamb. And the reason Jesus offers himself is to convey to us the love that can bring us back into relationship with God.

This passage offers four ways of looking at Jesus and ourselves. When preaching, ask who you are preaching to: people in need of a future, people in need of belonging, people held captive by powers beyond themselves or sinners in need of atonement? In any congregation, all of these people will be present. It is easy for a preacher to fall into the habit of addressing only one situation. But this Scripture passage gives us a number of ways to look at ourselves and at Jesus. Each addresses different aspects of life. Scripture gives us the gospel in multiple dimensions. Good preaching will do the same.