Pastor Chris Tweitmann
Like it or not, ready or not, Christmastime is here. (SLIDE #1)
The truth is the Christmas season already began creeping into our lives
long before the month of December rolled around.
Christmas decorations started popping up, not just in shopping centers,
but across the street in the neighbor’s front yard long before this weekend.
All those familiar seasonal jingles already have been playing in a loop
as the background music in the coffee houses and grocery stores, we frequent.
Soon, if not already, the holiday rush will be upon us.
In the coming flurry of shopping and wrapping, decorating and baking
that is set to commence, our lives are about to get busier, noisier,
and even more congested than they normally are – and that’s saying something!
More and more, through it all, we find ourselves bombarded with
lots of competing and mixed messages as to what this – Christmas – is all about.
Consider the following samples from recent Christmas advertising campaigns.
In particular, notice how they often contrast with each other. (SLIDES #2 – #11)
Christmas comes but once a year, so straighten up because Santa is near!
Is it too late to be good? Be naughty, save Santa the trip.
If Christmas isn’t found in your heart, you won’t find it under a tree.
Unwrap the feels.
Here’s to peace on earth. Or at least at the mall.
Santa stuffs the stockings and we get to stuff our faces.
At Christmas you are supposed to get presents. Not extra pounds.
It just isn’t Christmas without your family and friends.
Santa Claus has the right idea – visit people only once a year.
A good conscience is a continual Christmas. Giving is better than receiving.
You’re the reason for the season. If you don’t believe, you won’t receive.
In the midst of all these conflicting ideas about Christmas,
there is a decidedly different message to be found in the pages of the Bible.
Over these next few weeks, as the hustle and bustle of the holiday season picks up,
we are going to cocoon ourselves in the slower, anticipatory rhythms of Advent,
in order to reflect on this counter narrative – this alternative version of the Christmas story.
We will be undertaking this journey together through
the first three chapters of what is known as the letter to the Hebrews.
This anonymous letter is unlike most of the other letters we find in the NT.
There is no specific audience or community addressed from the start.
It is only as one gets further into the letter that it becomes clear,
the writer is addressing Jewish Christians – specifically, Hellenistic Jews,
sons and daughters of Abraham who, in addition to the Way of Moses,
had adopted the habits and mindset of the Greco-Roman world all around them.
We’ll also notice this letter doesn’t begin with any of
the customary greetings or prayers we find in the letters written by Paul or Peter.
Instead, this author dives right into the message he or she has for this community.
And as we’ll soon discover, there is no overt mention of the kind of things
we normally associate with Christmas in this letter.
Nonetheless, in all of the urging and encouraging for this community
to hold fast to what they believe in the midst of rival messages all around them,
we too can recall, rediscover, or perhaps realize for the first time,
what Christmas is really all about. (SLIDE #12 – #14)
In the original language this letter was written, Greek, what modern translators
have broken into four verses was originally a single, intricate sentence.
From the outset, a central, driving idea is being established that will continue
to be unpacked and considered through the remainder of this letter.
It is the message not only of this letter
but as we shall soon see, the real message of Christmas. (SLIDE #15)
“In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets
at many times and in various ways…”
This letter begins with the recognition that we engage a God who speaks to us.
A basic principle of communication dictates
any message requires a sender and a receiver.
We do not look up to the heavens and encounter a detached, aloof, or muted God.
We are tapped on the shoulder, there is a continual knocking on the door,
by the God who initiates, who repeatedly reaches out to speak to us.
This is an important reminder because sometimes
we perceive God as being distant, being silent.
Some of us even question whether we’ve ever heard God speak at all in our lives.
For many of the original recipients of this letter, this also was their point of view.
All of them had grown up as part of a generation, actually,
the fourth or fifth generation, in which God was perceived to have been tight lipped.
Since the prophet Malachi last uttered his messages from God,
there had been no prophets until John the Baptist arrived.
It had been 400 years since the Lord had last spoken through a prophet.
Since then, it seemed as though there had been nothing but deafening silence.
But was God really silent? Or had God said all that God needed to say, for the moment?
Having the experience in a conversation when we continue on and the other person
doesn’t say anything – doesn’t write back, doesn’t call back, doesn’t text back
– and we question their silence.
The other person responds, “I’ve said all I have to say. I have nothing more to add.”
In other words, what I’ve already said is enough for now. Let’s leave it at that.
Most of us are uncomfortable with silence in a conversation, so much so, we can be tempted to start talking for the other person, filling in their part of the conversation
– what we think they would say or worse, what we think they should say.
And this always gets us into trouble. Confusion, not understanding, results.
This is what happened to Israel. God had been speaking. God had spoken.
But people weren’t getting the message.
Uncomfortable with the silence and not content to trust in the word
the Lord had given them, lots of people, claiming to be speaking for the Lord,
tried to fill in the perceived gaps in what God already had spoken and thus
ended up adding things to the conversation the Lord never communicated at all.
The writer of this letter seeks to get us back on message – not what we think we hear or want to hear God saying – but the message of what God actually has said,
by reminding us God has never had problem initiating a conversation with us.
In fact, we have a long history of that ongoing conversation
(“at many times and in various ways”) we can refer back to whenever
we begin to believe God hasn’t ever spoken to us or isn’t speaking to us now.
God reveals Himself through His creation, through the sunrise and sunset,
through the sun, moon and stars, the rainbow that comes after a storm.
God spoke to Joseph through his dreams and to Moses through a burning bush.
He spoke to the Israelites from the smoke and fire on the mountain.
He spoke to Elijah in a still, small voice, to Isaiah in a vision in the temple.
The Lord spoke to Hosea through his family circumstances
and to Amos in a basket of summer fruit.
The Lord spoke to Jeremiah through a potter’s clay
and once, God even spoke His message through a donkey.
Be it in Canaan, Egypt, Babylon, or Israel, God has been speaking His message
through visions & dreams, angels & symbols, natural events & many other means.
God has been speaking throughout history in a variety of places
through many different means in order to reveal Himself to us.
He wants us to hear Him, to know Him, to understand Him, to experience His love.
(SLIDE #16) “…but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son,”
“But” implies a comparison between THEN and NOW.
The comparison between THEN and NOW is not between BAD and GOOD;
it is between GOOD and EVEN BETTER.
Having first established the message being brought is in continuity with
an ongoing conversation God has been having with His people, the writer of this letter shares there is a new element to God’s correspondence with us.
First, there is the strong emphasis put on what time it is: “in these last days”
In other words, the end is near. The clock is ticking.
We are closer to the conclusion of this message
that we are to the start of when this word was first given.
If we haven’t been paying attention, now is the time for listening and receiving
all the Lord has been trying to communicate to us.
Everything we’ve known hinges on what came next in the conversation.
Everything we have been met to understand about God
is to be understood in light of what God has just said.
Previously, God had spoken to us through prophets
– in other words, middlemen, go-betweens, liaisons,
representatives who both declared and interpreted the word of the Lord for us.
But now, God has addressed us more intimately, more directly,
not through a directed messenger but by means of a direct message
delivered to us face-to-face through God’s own Son.
What does this mean? How is this any different?
Weren’t the prophets of old, sons of God – meaning, children of the living God?
That something totally different is in play here,
that someone entirely distinct from anyone else who has spoken before
is indicated by the rest of the description that follows.
“whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe.”
This Son is the appointed heir and an heir is invested with everything
– full authority to do and to act on behalf of the Father.
To interact with this Son is to interact with the Father – to engage with God.
While the prophets of old claimed to speak the word of God,
none of them, through their physical presence,
claimed the sort of authority being identified with this Son.
But this Son is not just an heir – one who will inherit everything from God.
This Son is credited as being in union with the Father in creating all life as we know it.
Therefore, this Son is eternal or as the Bible uniquely expressed it elsewhere,
the Alpha and the Omega – the beginning and the end of all things.
In other words, this Son of God though coming to us as human being is also fully God.
To really drive this mind-blowing revelation home, the writer goes on to declare,
(SLIDE #18) “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory…”
This Son is – not “is like” but is the shekinah glory of God,
the shining, visible manifestation of the presence of God that
descended from Mount Sinai before the Hebrews newly liberated from slavery in Egypt,
that filled the Temple in Jerusalem once Israel at last became a unified nation.
This Son is the Light of the World, the Light the darkness cannot contain or snuff out.
(SLIDE #19) “and the exact representation of his being…”
No human son is the EXACT representation of his father.
But this Son is divine, the “exact representation” of the being of God.
However, this is not just a statement about the Son’s full divinity;
this is pointing to the Son’s exact, full expression of God’s character.
The implications of this are important. We don’t look through the Father to know the Son.
We look through the Son to know the Father.
This Son is the lens for us to fully know who God is.
While there may be many access points to find God,
there is only one Way, Truth, and Life – only one means by which
God has reached out for, come down to us – through His Son.
(SLIDE #20) “…sustaining all things by his powerful word.”
Only God creates by speaking.
And yet this Son not only creates – “made the universe,” this Son just by speaking wields the power to sustain, to preserve, to heal, to reconcile.
How does the Son accomplish all of this – sustaining life eternally – before death itself?
(SLIDE #21) “After he had provided purification for sins…”
By cleaning up our mess – not just yours or mine but all of it
– repairing the breach, healing the brokenness, righting every wrong, that results
from our rebellion against God, our rejection of each other, and our addiction to self.
The specifics of HOW this Son cleans everything up will be addressed later in this letter but what matters, what changes everything is through this Son, we move & have
our being, through this Son, we find forgiveness, salvation, and abundant life.
(SLIDE #22) “…he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.
So, he became as much superior to the angels as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs. For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father”? Or again, “I will be his Father, and he will be my Son”?
This Son was with us for a time – a season – to accomplish all of this
but now, we are told this Son is back where He belongs, at the right hand of God,
as the head over all things – all creation and all life.
The two OT passages quoted here, in their original context,
describe the enthronement of the King of Israel.
Interestingly, one of the OT psalms being quoted here is the very same one used
in the prologue of John’s Gospel, a passage we frequently read at Christmas time.
The writer makes these references in order to express the conviction that this Son
is the ultimate son of David, the true King of Israel, the long-awaited Messiah.
Back then and still today, lots of would-be Messiahs – often assume that title,
frequently claiming the ability to do the job, to have all the answers,
to be able to set things right and always claiming to have been sent by God.
Then and now, we always end up being disappointed or worse, dangerously led astray.
What the writer of this letter wants us to understand is
this Son is different and not like the rest. This Son is the real deal.
This is not another messenger. This is more than an angel. This is not a son of God.
This is God’s own son – a manifestation of the divine presence of the Lord,
not metaphorically – LIKE a rock or a refuge,
not elementally in the form of a pillar of fire & smoke,
but in person as a human being, divinity incarnated in flesh and bone.
Surprisingly, and I wonder if you noticed, the name of this Son
is not given at all in these verses. In fact, His name will not be given until 2:9!
This is because everyone knows who is being talked about here, who this Son is.
Everyone has heard this Son, the Son of God, the Son of Man, is Jesus Christ.
Everyone knew His name. Everyone had heard about Jesus.
But not everyone believed in who Jesus is, in what Jesus had done for all the world.
Nostalgia for the past along with stress or disillusionment in the present had caused many to embrace a smaller, more manageable, more adaptable version of the story.
Rather than getting the message of the Gospel,
many found themselves customizing their own version of the good news.
This very same temptation is alive and well in our world today – especially at
this time of year, as we are encouraged to keep Christmas in our own way.
Everyone knows who is being talked about in many of those Christmas songs.
Everyone has heard Jesus is the reason for the season.
But many will allow the message and meaning of Christ’s birth
to get drowned out by the news of the world.
We will sing of peace on earth and goodwill to all humanity even as
we continue to spew anger & hatred toward those whom we fear & views we oppose.
We will whisper of Jesus being born into poverty and starting life as a fugitive,
even as with the same breath, we decry and curse the homeless
who litter our streets and the refugees who seek sanctuary within our borders.
But the true message of Christmas is, in the midst of all the darkness and despair
that marks our human existence, God came near – as close as God could possibly get
– so that we could draw near to Him and experience His light and life.
In a world of hatred and violence, where many are excluded or treated unjustly,
a world that hasn’t changed much in over two thousand years,
God came to all people – not just the rich but especially the poor,
not only for the haves but most definitely for the have nots.
The Lord of all creation came to us – not in power but in weakness,
not with privilege but in poverty, in vulnerability as a child – to begin to teach us
not to live for ourselves but to give our lives for the least of these
regardless of economics and politics.
For if anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need
but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person,
how can we claim to get the message of Christmas?
Are we getting the message yet?
Others of us will be seduced to fuse the message and meaning of Christ’s coming
with the marketing and sales campaigns that lay claim to this season.
We will tell each other that Christmas doesn’t come from a store, that in fact, Christmas means so much more, while just keep buying and consuming
more than we need and more than we can afford to spend.
We will talk of the joy of giving to others while at the same time,
judging our value or worth to others through what they give or do not give to us.
Beloved, if the version of Santa Claus we’ve crafted for our children
borne out of Coca-Cola and commercialism is to be believed,
if Christmas is about whether we are naughty or nice,
about reconciling the ledger of whether we are good or bad,
then getting a lump of coal in our stocking is the least of our worries.
We’ve got bigger problems if our lives are ultimately defined
by what we earn, achieve, or accumulate.
Because worldly reputation and success are both fleeting,
death makes no allowance for carry-on luggage,
and the divine standard for righteousness is not graded on a curve.
All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.
But the true message of Christmas was never about
the measure of one’s worth being based on whatever we either give or receive.
Christmas is not about giving to others but God giving to us.
Our inestimable value is reflected and secured in the God who comes not
to give us presents by to give us His presence – to be not only with us but for us.
Grace is what we are given at Christmastime.
God graces us by speaking to us – not because we always speak kindly, respectfully,
or appropriately to God – but because God desires to be in relationship with us.
God graces us by speaking to us in a language and a manner we can understand
– by becoming one of us.
God graces us by doing for us what we cannot do for ourselves – making things right, cleaning up what’s wrong, bringing us together, enabling us to become our best selves,
and carrying us beyond death to life that is everlasting.
None of this is within our reach. All of this is beyond our ability. On our own, we are hopeless.
But the message of Christmas is the small infant’s hands that later will be nailed
to a rugged, wooden cross are the hands of hope and promise for all humanity,
for they are the hands of God who lovingly reaches down to pick us
during the difficulties of this life, that unrelentingly purpose to carry us home.
Are we getting the message yet?
Some of you this past year have received messages
that have certainly changed your life.
You got the message from the doctor when he said, “There is nothing more we can do.”
You got the message from your boss, “We are going to have to let you go.”
You heard the message from your spouse, “I don’t love you anymore, I want a divorce.”
You got the message from that person or maybe just from that nagging voice in your head,
“You’re not good enough. You’re not welcome here. You’re a failure.”
As a result of getting messages like these your life has changed.
But in the midst of all life’s betrayals and bitter messages,
there is another, far more important message you need to get.
From the first piercing cry of babe borne in a manger
to the last, gasping breath of an innocent man dying on the Cross,
God calls out to you, to us, declaring
“Nothing whatsoever can ever separate you from my love.”
“Trust in Me with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.
In all your ways acknowledge me, and I will direct your paths.”
“I will not leave you or forsake you. I am with you always to the very end of time.”
This is the message of Christmas – the greatest message ever proclaimed.
And neither the skeptic’s doubt; the mocker’s scorn; the public’s apathy;
the crowd’s ridicule; the executioner’s sword; or the Devil’s lies
have or can ever diminish either its truth or its meaning.
For this is no cheap talk. This is not an empty promise.
Because Jesus Christ did more than just proclaim God’s message. He is God’s message.
Jesus is God’s message, delivered in person, and repeated over and over again,
through the person of the Holy Spirit. God with us. God for us. Christ in us.
Forever and ever. Amen.