December 14, 2015
Luke 1:39-45 (46 - 56)
Author: Scott Hoezee
We like musicals. Back in the day Hollywood turned out a great many films in this genre, though in recent years the movie musical has been pretty well restricted to Disney films like Beauty and the Beast and Aladdin. Musicals on Broadway, on the other hand, are as popular as ever. When I was in New York City in April, I was surprised to see people still lined up around the block to see Les Miserables even though it is now 30 years old and a film version of it came out three years ago, too. But we like musicals. There is something striking about them, something oddly charming about seeing the Mother Superior in The Sound of Music burst into song as she counsels her confused postulant Maria. “Climb every mountain” she croons in splendid full soprano glory. And when a Broadway star—or in the movie version Anne Hathaway—breaks into “I Dreamed a Dream” in Les Miz, it’s just stirring.
But we can all readily admit that if in the break room at work one day one of our colleagues decided to tell a funny story about his daughter by singing a song about it, we’d all quietly begin exiting the room one by one! In recent years we’ve seen the “flash mob” phenomenon take off as pre-planned groups of people infiltrate places like Grand Central Station or a shopping mall and suddenly burst into song. Onlookers stop and stare, mouths agape, until they realize what’s up and then the cameras come out and the crowd gathers round and everyone has a good time.
Still, the reason even such flash mob musicals arrest people’s attention is because this is just not typical. It’s not even all that common in the Gospels, with the giant exception of the opening chapters of Luke where Luke all-but morphs into Andrew Lloyd Weber, having his characters—from Zechariah to a whole host of angels—bust out in song again and again.
But no song is quite as startling as the one young Mary sings after meeting up with her pregnant older cousin Elizabeth. C.S. Lewis famously labeled this “a terrible song,” playing on the Latin word terribilis, which means “dreadful, frightful, fearsome.” The lyrics themselves shake the foundations of all we know—more on that in a moment—but the fact that they emanate from the larynx of such a young girl as Mary stuns our imagination on yet another level. Sometimes in TV dramas or in a movie a very young child will deliver a stunning indictment or offer a bone-chilling prophecy of some kind, and even were it the case that those same words would startle no matter who in the movie said them, it’s the spectacle of a little child uttering those ideas that makes you hold your breath as you watch.
In this part of Luke’s sprawling opening chapter, Mary reveals that the recent cosmic events in which she has been caught up have taught her a thing or two as to what God is up to and how God just generally operates. Mary is aware of her humble status in her time and culture. She was property as much as anything, belonging first to a father and then later to a husband (a husband who could divorce her at will in ways she herself could never initiate no matter what her circumstance). She didn’t belong to a famous family, hadn’t grown up in a big city, and had absolutely no prospects whatsoever to make a mark in the world or to ever be remembered beyond the next generation or so. Yet miraculously and startlingly, God had visited her with news so stunning, it would take at least the rest of her mortal days to understand it all.
But that reversal of circumstances, that lifting up of the lowly, that exaltation of the humble, told Mary that this is how God works. Maybe she remembered her Bible stories, remembered how it was Abram and Sarai that God picked out to begin the covenant, remembered how God in Genesis was forever choosing the younger child over the much more highly regarded older child, remembered stuttering Moses and vulnerable Ruth and the baby of the family named David. Perhaps she recalled how God had chosen Israel and not mighty Babylon with its hanging gardens or impressive Egypt with its towering pyramids.
Perhaps she remembered all this and then connected all the dots to the child growing in her belly, a child so important that even her older cousin Elizabeth had just referred to him as “my Lord.” Mary was bearing Elizabeth’s Lord!! She was bearing the Savior of the nations!! Her. Little Mary. Mary the meek and mild.
And as she pondered all this and treasured all these things in her heart, she connected a few more dots to see that those who for now in this world fancy themselves as captains of industry and masters of the universe—those with enough money to cause others to kow-tow to them in one spectacle after the next of sheer sycophancy—these allegedly rich and powerful folks, Mary now knew, would be on the losing side of history if at the end of the cosmic day their wealth and worldly power were their only comfort in life and in death. They might gain the whole world, Mary perhaps thought in anticipation of some words her own son would one day speak, but if in so doing they forfeited their own souls, they’d be sent packing, empty as a pocket and without hope.
“What happened to me” Mary as much as sang in her terrible song, “is a sign of what will happen to the whole universe one day.”
Mary could see it. Mary saw it with startling clarity. God loves the poor, favors the disenfranchised, has keen eyes to spy the invisible members of society. And in the kingdom of that God’s Son, all the wrongs that produced the perpetually poor and the perennially invisible would be righted. All the injustices under which people suffer now would be ironed out in a righteousness that would landscape the whole earth.
Mary could see it clear as day.
The Advent question that is so properly bracing for all of us as Christmas comes once again five days after this Fourth Sunday in Advent is: “Do we still see this, too?”
[Please Note: Advent and Christmas 2015 Resources are available on CEP, and these include ideas for preaching on Christmas Day: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/resources/advent-2015/ ]
It is interesting to note that Elizabeth is said to have called out to Mary “in a loud voice.” That is curious to see in that so far, most all of the action in Luke has been in the quiet shadows. Zechariah emerged from the Temple mute. When Elizabeth became pregnant, we are told she stayed in seclusion for five months. Mary likewise does not appear to have made any public pronouncements about what Gabriel had said to her—indeed, she likely did not dare to speak of it at all. In fact, she may have visited Elizabeth because she was the only person she could trust. But once Mary arrives, those things that had been done in secret are revealed in a public way. Elizabeth is not shy to proclaim God’s truth with a loud voice.
Maybe that’s where her boy John got his preaching voice from!
Scientists tell us that there is a most amazing, and thus-far inexplicable, phenomenon called “quantum entanglement.” If two particles of energy are kept in close proximity to each other for a long time, they form a relationship, a kind of bond that defies the imagination. The connection between these two particles is so strong that if you take one particle to a laboratory in Los Angeles and remove the other one to a lab in New York City, whatever you do to the particle in L.A. will instantly happen to the one in New York, too. Einstein called it “spooky.” It also defied his theory that nothing can travel faster than light. Somehow, however, once particles form this kind of bond, it cannot be severed no matter how great the distance between the two becomes.
A similar but opposite thing happened between Mary and Elizabeth. In this case, two separate people formed a relationship across a great distance—a relationship that finally drew them together. Yes, they were cousins to begin with, but you get the feeling that the difference in their ages meant they had never been all that close. You know how it goes at family get-togethers: the cousins already in college hang out together while the younger elementary school-age kids do the same and the two groups don’t mix and mingle much. Mary and Elizabeth also did not live terribly close by each other. But something remarkable—something filled with holy mystery—happened to both of these women and so despite their geographic and chronological distance from each other, these two formed a bond across that distance—a bond that would last the rest of their lives.
Author: Scott Hoezee
When the Lectionary dishes up just 3.5 verses, skipping the first verse of a chapter and stopping just halfway through the fifth verse, you just know it’s like putting blinders on us readers to keep us from seeing something on either side of the lection. I don’t know why they made this choice but lyric and lovely though verses 2-5a are of Micah 5, we cannot ignore that the happy news here is nestled in some sad news.
We cannot pretend that the verses surrounding this lection do not exist. Micah’s prediction of a ruler who would be Peace incarnate gains in brilliance and in realism when we see that he has to speak this promise right in the middle of a dark prediction of Israel’s impending military defeat and the suffering it would bring.
But then again, when CAN WE EVER speak of the Prince of Peace who is Christ the Lord without doing so from a context of surrounding darkness? When can we proclaim the gospel without having to do so in ways that stand in tension with the pain and suffering that are not just all around us in the wider world but that are quite literally right in front of us in even the church sanctuary on any given Sunday? Is anyone is unaware of the significant surrounding darkness here in Advent 2015? Our world is gripped by fear, is in mourning over victims of recent terrorism, and is engaged in what looks like a never-ending warfare.
Can the Prince of Peace be celebrated in a world at war?
Of course. This is WHY we celebrate God’s Christ.
When my students preach sermons in class, the one area of fairly consistent weakness is in the category of the sermon’s “Pastoral Care” dimension. Students just have not been pastors long enough yet to realize to whom they will preach their every sermon. Too often, then, their sermons come off as treatises about the problems and disappointments of life without necessarily evincing the sense that they are preaching directly to people who know such things intimately and from the inside (and who may well be experiencing them at that very moment, too).
But those of us who know our congregations pretty well cannot forget that our people know hardship—we can even scan the pews and name any number of very specific pains people bring with them into church each week. We preach into that pain, not despite it (and not, one hopes, by bracketing it!). People hardly need reminders of the darkness that surrounds them. What they do often need, though, is an honest acknowledgment of that painful darkness. Preaching rapidly grows hollow when it fails to embrace those tensions.
Micah has a hard word for his audience in Micah 5, and although he provides also an incredibly bright promise in the midst of it all, only those who can understand and (ultimately) experience the difficult parts of Micah’s message can appreciate just how luminous the promise is, too.
Sometimes those of us who preach think we’re doing people a favor by being upbeat, by relegating suffering to something long ago and far away. People need hope, we think. They need grace. They need direction. All true. But the adjective “realistic” should be set before those words or else it’s just so much church talk. People should not have to hang up their cares in the narthex along with their coats just to enter the sanctuary or in order to understand the messages that we preach.
Few times of the year tempt us more in that direction, however, than Advent and Christmas. I suspect that I need not detail the reasons why. But it’s a temptation to resist at this time above all times. If Christ cannot be incarnated into our real world and into our real families and all the hurts they know so well, then Hallmark wins and the whole season is a faux bright spot in the midst of the surrounding darkness. Then Advent/Christmas is a season that comes and goes but without much lasting effect on anyone. The Scrooges of the world may or may not wake up as all new people on Christmas morning but if there is one thing we know for sure, it is that most of this world’s Scrooges can breeze right through the holiday season with nary a change. And we might all feel a tidge more generous for a few weeks, but most people won’t act on that generosity, and before Epiphany comes, it’s all forgotten anyway.
Only if Christ Jesus the Lord, who is our Peace, can enter our darkness so as to make an everlasting change in our condition does the season have any meaning worth talking about (much less preaching about). So let’s not let Micah 5:1 or the other part of 5:5b have the last word. By no means! But let’s not disallow it from having any word, either.
Three years ago when we were last in the Year C Lectionary cycle, the Sunday that featured this text came a scant 5 days after a class of Kindergarten students had been shot up in a place called Newtown, Connecticut. This year we are still reeling from San Bernardino, Paris, Beirut . . . the list goes on (and will be added to no matter what we do).
There is a reason God had to go so far as to incarnate himself into this world to save it. The problem of evil is THAT bad, THAT tortured, THAT unresolvable from our side of things.
Immanuel means “God with us.” That’s the message we need. It also deepens the urgency of our call for that second Advent of our Lord: Maranatha, Come, Lord Jesus. Come.
[Please Note: Advent and Christmas 2015 Resources are available on CEP, and these include ideas for preaching on Christmas Day: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/resources/advent-2015/ ]
In one of her most memorable sermons (and that’s saying something given the quality of her work!) Barbara Brown Taylor begins by talking about a ruined church she once saw in old Ephesus when she took a tour of Turkey/Asia Minor. Most of the church was gone save for a part of a mosaic that had once been the backdrop of the chancel area. The mosaic was of Christ the Lord looking out over the church with his hand raised in blessing. But in the ruined church only half the face remained and part of the hand-raised-in-blessing was gone, too. This became a metaphor for Taylor of Jesus’ constant blessing of—and his constant gaze out over—what is as often as not a church in ruins (and lives in ruins within that church, too).
But it was her closing illustration that sticks with anyone who has ever heard this sermon. For in it Taylor tells us of a woman, still recovering from a very intensive round of chemotherapy to treat an aggressive cancer, who did one of the Scripture readings at a Christmas Eve candlelight service. The woman lugged a small oxygen tank with her to the lectern and as she read words of gospel hope, that tank hissed rhythmically. And there was just something of that mixture of brokenness and hope, of the ruination of cancer and the Word of life that is the message of Christ’s incarnation that summed up the hope we hold to as Christian believers. We cannot shut the ruins of life out of the church. Indeed, we must not. For into that situation Christ himself came down here once upon a time to shore up flagging spirits, to lift up drooping hands, to stabilize wobbly knees, and to declare a promise that, as Micah reminds us, really does extend to the ends of the earth: “Behold, I make all things new.”
Author: Doug Bratt
While we sometimes think of Christmastime as making some things in our families, circle of friends and church right again, Mary’s song suggests Christmas actually turns the whole world upside down. The world about which she sings in our text is, indeed, a world turned on its head.
Yet few people would call this a psalm. It’s Luke’s record of Mary’s hymn of praise to God upon learning that she’s pregnant by the Holy Spirit with Jesus. Since it’s quite familiar, Luke 1:47-55’s preachers and teachers may need to think about some possible “entry points” into leading people through it.
In verse 48b Mary sings, “from now on all generations will call” her “blessed.” In doing so she rejoices in the prominent place God has given her in salvation history. The Roman Catholic Church has long recognized and celebrated that prominence. However, Protestant Christians have sometimes shrunk back from Mary’s perceived veneration. So those who preach and teach this text might ask how we could recover the idea of Mary as “blessed” by God. How might we restore her to the place God has given her? And might God’s exaltation of Mary have implications for Christians’ own sense of vocation?
Christians rejoice in God’s exultation of Mary and other “lowly” people. Yet some seem to shrink back from the implications of the reversals about which she sings. We naturally wrestle with pride in our “inmost thoughts” (52). Many worshipers are also numbered among the “rich of the world” (53b). So how might we think about this perhaps jarring reversal in ways that prepare us to celebrate not only Christ’s first coming, but also his second?
In verse 49 Mary rejoices in the “great things” God has done for her. Yet with those great things come likely also whispers and insinuations about her pregnancy out of wedlock. Mary also seems to experience at least some rejection by her son. She must, further, endure the unspeakable heartache of watching her relatively young son unjustly arrested, tortured and crucified. This might lead those who preach and teach this text to ask whether God’s “great things” always come as unmixed blessings.
Finally, there may be some fertile soil worth tilling in asking if God’s reversal of fortune has implications for the way Christians treat those whom God exults in our text. It might also be worth exploring how God’s reversal of fortune blesses not only those at the bottom of society’s heap, but also at its top.
Mary’s song itself moves from a focus on herself to God’s adopted sons and daughters. She begins, after all, by singing, “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior … the Mighty One has done great things for me” (italics added). Yet in verses 52-54 she moves on to sing of how God has “lifted up the humble … filled the hungry [and] … helped his servant Israel.” So she recognizes that the amazing thing God has done for her has implications especially for society’s most vulnerable members.
The first thing Mary celebrates in her song is not her conception, as we might expect, but “the Lord.” If you don’t think that’s unusual, ask yourself how often birth announcements begin with something like, “God has done a great thing in our lives. God has given us a baby.” Yet that’s basically what Mary does. She, first, glorifies the Lord.
Then in verse 48 Mary celebrates God’s “mindfulness” of her “humble state.” This suggests that she’s a very ordinary person, perhaps a teenager, whom others largely overlook. Even if people paid attention to her, they’d never think of unwed Mary as the world’s Savior’s mother. Yet God, sings Mary, has looked kindly on her. “The Mighty One” has done great things for her.
However, the Spirit has empowered Mary to recognize that she’s not the only ordinary person on whom God has smiled. After all, in verses 50-55 she reflects on God’s mercy to all sorts of vulnerable people. God has shown mercy, Mary sings, to those who fear the Lord. God is, in other words, kind to those who live in faithful and obedient respect for who God is. This mercy, Mary sings in verse 50, extends “from generation to generation.” So while human mercy is, at best, temporary, God’s mercy is persistent and multigenerational.
What’s more, at the end of verse 52 Mary sings of the way God has “lifted up the humble.” Scholars suggest that the “humble” to whom she refers here are those who are poor. The psalms often refer to the “humble” as God’s children of Israel. These are the people who have little choice but to depend completely on the Lord. In speaking of God’s lifting of them up, Mary evokes an image of people who are flat on their faces in humble dependence on God for their well-being.
Yet Mary also speaks of God’s mercy that is the “bringing down” of those who are at the top of society’s heap. We don’t have to wait long to hear from Luke the names of some of those people. When, after all, he announces Jesus’ birth, the gospel writer refers to Caesar Augustus and his governor Quirinius. These people who don’t think they have to bow down to anyone are precisely the kinds of rulers Mary sings God has brought down. Mary also sings of how God scatters those whose are “proud in their thoughts” (51).
It’s worth contemplating what kind of mercy God shows by bringing down mighty people. Might Mary be singing that God forces them to rely on God rather than their own devices by “scattering” them and sending them away “empty”? Is there a mercy in moving people to rely not on themselves, but on the only One whose resources never run out?
The tense of the verbs Mary uses in verses 51 and following are notable. They suggest actions that God has already done sometime in the past. Yet how, as Stephen Farris asks, can we say all of the wonderful things about which Mary sings have already happened? The people with the most money, biggest arsenals and fullest pantries still seem to run the world. What’s more, the world still overflows with needy people.
Some scholars suggest that Mary’s use of aorist verbs points to what God constantly does. God is, according to that interpretation, always reversing fortunes. Others suggest that Mary’s so confident about what God will do in the future that she can sing as if it’s already happened.
Farris, however, suggests what he calls a more nuanced reading of those aorist verbs. He says that Mary looks back on her pregnancy that reveals God’s reversal of her own fortunes as a sign that God will keep her song’s other promises as well. Just as the Spirit has fathered Mary’s child, God will also raise up those who are humble, hungry and waiting, with her, on the Lord.
In the light of what Mary’s son Jesus has already done in his life, death and resurrection, Christians too can be confident that God will reverse human fortunes. In Christ the humble have already been exulted, the spiritually hungry have been fed and the spiritually poor have been made rich. What’s more, because all of God’s promises are “yes!” in Jesus Christ, one day in the new creation God will make all things new.
In her Mrs. Piggle Wiggle stories, Betty MacDonald writes about an upside down house. Children love to visit this amazing place because it floors stretch overhead, while its ceilings lie underfoot.
The piano that dangles from Mrs. Piggle Wiggle’s house’s floor is difficult to play because people must swing from a trapeze in order to do so. Couches and chairs also hang from the floor above in this upside-down house. This, of course, makes it hard to sit in them.
People who want to open a cupboard, use the bathroom or even heat something on Mrs. Piggle Wiggle’s stove must carefully plan how to do it. Nothing, after all, is quite where you expect it in this upside down house. Surprises await anyone who’s careless in it.
As Neal Plantinga has noted, the world about which Mary sings in our text is a bit like Mrs. Piggle Wiggle’s upside down house. Things in its world seem upside down too. Surprises also await people who are careless in it.
Author: Stan Mast
Sometimes you just have to wonder where the inventors of the Revised Common Lectionary got their ideas for the choices they made. I mean, here we are, 5 days away from Christmas, surely one of the most pregnant times in the church calendar. The other readings for this Fourth Sunday of Advent are clearly about the impending birth of the Messiah, but the epistolary reading is this obscure passage about sacrifice and obedience in Hebrews 10. What on earth were they thinking in choosing this text for this day? What does this have to do with Advent?
Those were my thoughts as I turned to this text, but then I saw what they were thinking when I noticed the two occurrences of “come.” “Therefore, when Christ came into the world (verse 5)…. ‘I have come to do your will, O God (verse 7).’” Not only is this text about Christ’s Advent, but it also gives us a profound perspective on the reason for his Coming. For centuries believers have asked the question at the center of the Incarnation. Cur Deus Homo? Why did God become human?
In Hebrews 10 we get the answer straight from the lips of the Christ. In fact, you can almost read this text as the first words of the baby Jesus. That’s how our writer says it: “when Christ came into the world, he said….” Here is Jesus’ explanation for his Incarnation, the first words he ever spoke. I don’t mean that literally, of course, but that would be an interesting, even arresting way to preach this Advent text. This text sheds the proper, albeit sobering light on the event that has become a sentimental, almost silly holiday; it was all about sacrifice and obedience, body and blood and atonement. In these words of Jesus, the atonement explains the incarnation.
The problem, of course, is that we have no record of Jesus ever having spoken these exact words. But that need not be an insurmountable problem if we believe Jesus’ promise that he would send the Spirit of Truth, who would lead his disciples into all the truth about Jesus (John 16:12-15). We find this sort of thing all through the New Testament, as the writers of Gospels and Epistles reflect on the meaning of Jesus life and death in the light of the Old Testament. That’s exactly what Jesus encouraged them to do in one of his post-Resurrection appearances. (Luke 24:44, 45)
So here the writer of Hebrews once again reaches back into the Old Testament to convince his readers that Jesus was better than anything the Jewish faith had to offer. (He had done this in 2:8-9, 3:16-19, 7:2-3.) In Hebrews 10:5-7, he takes the words of David in Psalm 40:6-8 and puts them in the mouth of the Son of David, because in his Spirit-inspired mind those words capture perfectly what the coming of the Christ meant. In John 16:14, Jesus said that the Spirit “will bring glory to me by taking from what is mine and making it known to you.” So the writer of Hebrews could legitimately claim these words of David as the words of the Son of David.
Be aware, however, that our writer uses the Septuagint version of the Old Testament throughout his letter. That Greek translation differs in some significant points from the Hebrew version. Most important here is the last line of verse 5. While the Masoretic text says, “ears you have dug for me,” the Greek says, “a body you have prepared for me.” Some scholars go to great lengths to show how the Greek and the Hebrew are related; the ear is part of the body, the open ear is necessary for the obedience that is central to the mission of the Messiah, etc. But the simplest explanation is that our writer only had access to the Septuagint, so that is what he used. And the concept of a “body prepared” is central to his argument, because it was through the sacrifice of Christ’s body that “we have been made perfect….”
Textual issues aside, the point of our text is very clear. The sacrifices of the Old Testament have been fulfilled and replaced by Jesus. Using four different words (sacrifices, offerings, burnt offerings, and sin offerings) our writer sums up the entire sacrificial system of the Old Testament. He makes shocking statements about them. God did not desire them. God was not pleased with them. Even though the law of God required them to be made, they have now been replaced by Jesus. Jesus “sets aside the first (the sacrifices) to establish the second (his obedient sacrifice).” One cannot imagine a more direct offensive against another religion. In our day, such an attack might be labeled a hate crime.
But our writer does not hate Jews or the Jewish faith. Indeed, his whole purpose is to insure the ultimate salvation of his Jewish readers. And, as I’ve said, his tactic is to show that, although the Jewish religion is wonderful and helpful and God given, God has now done a new thing that makes the old obsolete. That new thing is summarized in those first words of the Christ in verse 7. “Here I am…. I have come to do your will, O God.” Israel waited for years in the silent God-forsaken darkness, but then the Son of God (cf. Heb. 1:1-4) bursts on the scene. “Here I am.” After God’s people tried and failed to do God’s will for centuries, God’s Son comes “to do your will….” This is not an insult to the Jewish people; it is the best news they (and we) have ever heard. God has come to do for you what you could not do for yourself.
What did the Christ come to do? To do God’s will, to follow Torah to the letter and in its spirit. That’s what verse 7 means when Jesus says, “it is written about me in the scroll.” Some see that as a reference to the multiple prophecies about the Messiah in the Old Testament, some of them obscure until illumined by the life and Spirit of Christ (as here with Psalm 40). But given the context here, it is more likely that Jesus is talking about Torah as the script for his life. Torah describes my life. To keep Torah is my written duty. Obedience to God’s will written in the scroll is the way I will save you. What you could not do, I will do perfectly. I will stick to the script(ure).
So does that mean that we are saved by the life of Jesus? Can we do away with that horrible business of his death? Can we finally dispense with all that talk about his sacrifice on the cross and atonement through his blood? All the negative talk about sacrifice here in our text might seem to lead in that direction. But our writer is very clear that Christ’s obedience also involved his death, as Philippians 2:8 put it (“he became obedient unto death, even death on a cross”). Verse 10 makes that crystal clear. “By that will (that is, by doing that will), we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ.” It was God’s will that Jesus not only live by Torah perfectly, but also that he die on the cross as though he was a lawbreaker of the worst sort. We are made holy not only by his holiness, but also by his cursedness. (Older theologians refer to Christ’s active obedience and his passive obedience.) What we should experience because of our sin, he experienced for us in spite of his sinlessness. If that seems a bit of a stretch, see the following verses where the writer explicitly speaks of the effectiveness of Christ’s sacrificial death as opposed to the ineffectual sacrifices of bulls and goats.
A couple of questions beg for an answer. If the sacrifices that fill the Old Testament were ultimately ineffective in saving anyone, why did God require them? One reason is found right before our reading. Verse 3 says they were “an annual reminder of sins.” Lest people forget that they have sinned against a holy God, God gave these sacrifices to remind them that they were sinners in need of salvation. They also called people to cleanness, as they provided external purification. Further, those sacrifices gave tangible expression of a devoted and obedient heart. They were, in other words, a sign of a sacrificed life, a la Romans 12:1, “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God….” And finally, all those sacrifices pointed ahead to the Great Sacrifice that would be made by God’s own Son. They were types without which the antitype would have been incomprehensible. How would anyone have known why that little baby was born in Bethlehem and why the grownup Jesus died on Calvary if the whole idea of obedient sacrifice had not been revealed so vividly in the Old Testament sacrifices?
Second, if “we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all,” why are we still so unholy? One of the greatest arguments against the Christian faith is that Christians don’t seem all that different than anyone else. It would seem that the work of Christ was as ineffective as those Jewish sacrifices. C. S. Lewis answered that objection by pointing that Christ doesn’t necessarily make Christians better than non-Christians; he makes Christians better than they would have been if they weren’t Christians.
That’s interesting and true, but that’s not how Hebrews 10 answers the question. It points to the “already, but not yet” of salvation by using two different verb tenses in verse 10 and 14. We “have been made holy” and we “are being made holy.” We are positionally holy in Christ, but we are not yet personally holy in our lives. Or put it in terms of justification and sanctification. We have been declared righteous, so we are holy in God’s sight. But we haven’t yet achieved personal righteousness, so we are unholy in the eyes of the world (and in our own eyes). We wait, as the Christ does, for the completion of our redemption, for his Second Advent, when” all his enemies [shall] be made his footstool.” (verse 13)
All of this theologizing puts Advent and Christmas in a different light, doesn’t it? All of the hoopla in the world’s celebration of Christmas has little to do with Christ, except maybe a sentimental nod in the direction of an innocent babe cooing in a manger. Our text reminds us that this innocent came into a world that seemed to be God forsaken. Into the silent darkness came the Son of God exclaiming, “Here I am…. I have come to do your will, O God.” “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those with whom he is well pleased.”
[Please Note: Advent and Christmas 2015 Resources are available on CEP, and these include ideas for preaching on Christmas Day: http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/resources/advent-2015/]
Most parents look forward eagerly to their child’s first word and they remember it forever after. Was it “mama” or “da?” Our older son’s first word was unusual. We lived in a parsonage on a busy four lane road, and he loved to watch the cars and truck whiz by. He would stand by the window for hours, dancing with glee for every passing vehicle. We would join him, shouting “car” and “truck.” So it’s not surprising that his first intelligible word was “fruck.” Cute, but hardly profound, unlike the first words of the Christ in our text. “Here I am…. I have come….”