St Michael & St Barnabas, 6th September 2015
(St Michael’s baptism service)
Readings – Hebrews 2:10-18; Mark 7:24-37
Has anyone here read the children’s book Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster?
Or who has seen the film ‘You’ve got mail’ with Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan?
If you’re not familiar with them, most of you will know the true identity of the character Darth Vader from the original Star Wars films.
What do they all have in common? Simply that the identity of one of the main characters is only revealed right at the end of the book or film … it’s a simple literary device designed to keep the reader (or viewer) absorbed in the story, as they are teased with details that give a hint to the true identity of the hero or protagonist.
The author of Hebrews uses a similar method or style as he begins this complex letter.
We heard last week that Hebrews was written in a time of persecution to those of a Jewish background who now followed Jesus. Judaism was a recognised, if not always accepted, religion within the Roman Empire … whereas Christianity, as a new religion that failed to acknowledge Roman authority, provoked opposition not only from the Roman authorities, but also from the Jewish hierarchy who saw Christianity as a perversion and feared that it threatened their own standing within the Empire.
Those who first read, or heard, this letter therefore, would have been familiar with the Jewish scriptures, our Old Testament. And the OT provides the background for all that we read in this letter. We need to remember that even if some of it seems strange to us, it made perfect sense to those to whom the letter was initially written.
In chapter 1 we are introduced to our hero, the Son. The Son reflects God’s glory and image; he is first among the heavenly beings, standing higher than the angels; he is superior even to Moses, through whom God gave his law to his people the Israelites. Not only is he the revealed glory of God, he is the creator, sustainer and saviour of the world … through his death providing purification from sins. He is God’s voice and message … so chapter 2 begins with a warning …
We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away. (Hebrews 2:1)
One of the main themes of the letter is holding on to our confidence in God and not giving up on our faith or drifting away. As we read on through Hebrews through the coming weeks, keep an ear open for the words confidence, encouragement and hope … they are there to give you too a reason to keep on going on with God.
The writer goes on …
This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. (Hebrews 2:3-4)
But who is our hero?
Now, I know that you know, and you know that I know that you know … but those who first heard or read this letter were familiar with the OT quotes our writer used, so their minds would have been focussed on the OT and the promised Messiah that was to come … so chapter 2:9 has an impact we tend to miss … after the long and detailed introduction of the so far nameless Saviour we read,
But we see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (Hebrews 2:9)
Even for those Jewish believers who knew and understood that Jesus was the Messiah, it was a powerful reminder that Jesus was the fulfilment of all their hopes and longings, the fulfilment of all God’s promises for which they had waited so long … Jesus, the carpenter from Nazareth, the healer and miracle worker, teacher and prophet … now risen and glorified.
I don’t know if you can imagine their reaction … I’m not really sure I can … but this was a profound truth, hugely significant … and just at this point, our letter takes a dramatic new direction.
This awesome and mighty saviour, the son of God, Jesus, is our brother …
Listen to some familiar words from Philippians 2 …
5 Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7 but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!
It’s easy to think that any likeness between Jesus and us is superficial … he is, after all, part of the Trinity, equally God with the Father and the Holy Spirit. But both Philippians and Hebrews insist he was made like us in every way. He came to earth as a man, choosing to empty himself of his divine nature.
That’s why our author reminds us that Jesus suffered when he was tempted … you know how hard it is to resist temptation … the easiest way to get temptation over and done with is to give in! It was no simple thing for Jesus to resist, either … he suffered because he refused to give in, because he resisted and overcame through persistence and resistance and trust, not by any show of divine power.
That’s why verse 10, at the beginning of the reading we heard earlier, speaks of perfection …
In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. (Hebrews 2:10)
This is a perfection of completeness … he was made completely like us in every way because he too suffered through temptation.
It was only because he was one of us, that he was able die for us, in our place.
And it is only because he is one of us, that he can be our High Priest … v17,
For this reason (Jesus) had to be made like his brothers 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. (Hebrews 2:17)
These two roles … saviour and priest … could only be fulfilled by a man. Look a little way ahead to 5:1,
Every high priest is selected from among men and is appointed to represent them in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. (Hebrews 5:1)
So Jesus had to become one of us in order to represent us. But unlike other High Priests, Jesus offered himself as the sacrifice necessary for the forgiveness of sins. The rest of chapter 5 expands on this … but for now, we’re focussing on this amazing relationship between Jesus and his brothers … us.
Some of you will have noticed that some bibles say ‘brothers and sisters’. In an attempt to be inclusive, such translations sometimes obscure an underlying truth. In the time and culture of the Bible, men and women were not considered equal … sons had rights that daughters were denied, including the right of inheritance. Which is why the biblical writers constantly used the male description to refer to all of us … they wanted to be sure we understand that all of us, men and women, are equal in God’s sight, each of us sharing the same privileges as his children.
And when we join the family of God, through our faith in Jesus, we also inherit the family likeness … v10-11,
In bringing many sons to glory, it was fitting that God, for whom and through whom everything exists, should make the author of their salvation perfect through suffering. Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers. (Hebrews 2:10-11)
That family likeness extends to sharing both Jesus’ holiness and his glory.
All of us who have been baptised as an act of public witness to our faith in Jesus, are part of this same family. Now it’s obvious that we are not instantly transformed into perfect little Christians … we need to grow in our faith and among our church family, developing the spiritual fruits and gifts, and growing in the knowledge of his will and purpose for us, as we gradually lay aside the sins and habits that distract and divert us … Tim talked last week about the sin, opposition and weariness that can threaten our progress … Jesus himself warned us that following him isn’t an easy option … but take a look at v18, and with this we’ll finish today,
Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Hebrews 2:18)
Jesus is family … he’s our big brother, looking after us, strengthening us, encouraging us … and our priest, praying for us, revealing God to us and ultimately overcoming death that we might be with him forever.
Following Jesus is a lifetime’s work … and it’s not something we can do alone … we need both our church family alongside us, and God’s Holy Spirit living within us. And as we shall see in the coming weeks, the rest of the letter to the Hebrews encourages us in both … baptism is only the beginning …