1st Sunday after Christmas A
December 26, 2016
Author: Scott Hoezee
There’s nothing like kicking off a new year with a story about slaughtered babies . . . But there it is. New Year’s Day 2017 falls on a Sunday, and if bleary-eyed people who stayed up for champagne and the Times Square ball-drop manage to get to church the following morning—it’s really the same morning—and if their pastor follows the Gospel Lectionary, then they will get jolted by a story about dead babies. Happy New Year!
But wait, wasn’t it just Christmas seven days ago? Didn’t we all just get to visit the manger again, sing all those wonderful carols, feel aglow in the wash of twinkling lights and glimpses of angels fluttering overhead? But now Matthew, fresh off his exceedingly short birth narrative in chapter 1 and then the Magi story at the head of this second chapter, gives us THIS story? Clearly the Gospel writers were not nearly sentimental enough. It’s still “the holidays” after all and we’re not quite ready to let down from all the good times and Normal Rockwell-like dinners and all the Currier & Ives moments by the hearth.
Yet there it is: the neck of the woods that first welcomed God’s own Son, Jesus, was rocked some while after his birth by the deaths of many infants who were about the same age as Jesus, give or take a few months. Matthew 1 told us that this little one would be Immanuel, God with us. But God no sooner arrives “with us” and the worlds of many families get turned upside down through the tragic, brutal murder of toddlers and infants who had done nothing wrong but who very much found themselves in the wrong place and at a profoundly wrong time.
It was Herod who went crazy, of course, and of course that stands to reason as Herod was crazy just generally. To put it mildly, the Magi had most definitely set a spark to a very bad powder keg. “You’d be better off as one of Herod’s pigs as one of his sons” the Caesar himself is said to have once remarked after hearing that the paranoid man on the throne had wiped out yet another heir apparent whom Herod regarded as being altogether too eager to take his father’s place on the throne. Herod definitely was one of those nutty loons who fancied he might just live forever—he didn’t—and so would brook no rival to his position.
A ”king of the Jews” was out there somewhere, the astrologers from Baghdad had told Herod. Who knows where these pagans got their theology from but weird and discredited though their pseudo-science was, they got that much right. Alas, they had no GPS to help them on the final leg of their journey and so they stopped off at the palace for some help. Surely the palace would have some experts who could lend a hand to help them find the king. It’s not clear how much actual help they got—it was again the star that re-appeared and led them the rest of the way to Jesus—but first they had tipped off the wrong man.
Fans of the Star Wars films may remember from a year ago when the new film came out that the dark character of Kylo Ren twice in the movie threw a meltdown hissy fit after something did not go his way. He activated his light saber and–even as he screamed “Noooo, Nooooo, Noooo” over and over–he used his laser sword to slash through walls and computer consoles, causing all around him to scatter. I imagine this was Herod after hearing a new king has been born.
And so it was that after having just punched a few holes in a wall and after having kicked the cat clear across the room, Herod managed to smooth back his hair, wipe the furious sweat off his brow, straighten up his royal robes, and re-appear before the Magi with the hollow words, “Well, good luck to you, gentlemen, and once you find the king you’re looking for . . . um, er, let me know where he is. I have a little something for him myself. Can’t wait to give it to the little fellow . . .”
God was several moves ahead of Herod and so the Magi are tipped off to scurry back to Baghdad by another way. Once Herod figures out he’d been out-foxed, he kicks a few more walls and throws another hissy fit before issuing a dark decree: kill all the babies in this area of a certain age and with luck, we’ll take out this wannabe king while we’re at it.
“The first martyrs” they have been called, those babies who were run through with Herod’s bloody spears. The title doesn’t really fit since a martyr is literally a “witness” who dies on account of not recanting his or her witness to the reality of Jesus as God and Lord. The babies in question—and their parents for that matter—had in fact never heard of Jesus, had no faith to profess or recant. All they could do is suffer a cruel fate for reasons many of those parents may never have come remotely close to figuring out.
Why? Why must the world react to the advent of the Christ with violence? Then again, why not? Let’s admit that this is a horrible story. But let’s acknowledge that every day the news is filled with the same thing. Oh, maybe not in direct response to Jesus or the Gospel but the children of Aleppo have been dying for a long time now. So have children in and around Bethlehem; in Juba, South Sudan; in Darfur; in . . . well, you fill in the blank. It’s not difficult to do.
If a preacher is brave enough to use this text on New Year’s morning 2017, it will not be difficult to look back on the year 2016 just gone by and see it as another bloody year of travail, murder, suffering, sorrow. This part of Matthew 2 is not the exception to the rule in this fallen, broken world. It is the rule. The fact is that Jesus and his parents barely escaped with their lives, and the Christmas story cannot really be told in all its brutal fullness without acknowledging that even the very salvation of this world could not come without being surrounded by the very mayhem and evil that Jesus came to fix.
But if you cannot or will not do that—if you insist that the advent of God’s Messiah stay ensconced in a pretty and twinkly narrative of all sweetness and light—then you are missing the real punch of the narrative, not just of the Christmas story but of God’s wider story that gets narrated from Genesis 1 through to Revelation 22. It’s a brutal world God came to save. It’s a world a holy God would have had every right to turn his back on—as he nearly did once in a time of a great flood—but God stuck with the world anyway. He made a promise to save. God knew it would not be easy. Not by a long shot. God knew that it would never work to wait for his creatures to get their acts together and meet him halfway, or a quarter of the way, or a tenth of the way, or a micro-fraction of the way. God was going to have to do this bloody work himself and the Slaughter of the Innocents is proof positive of both the long odds God faced and at the same time the very reason the work had to be done by God’s Son in the first place.
A popular John Lennon song that often gets played around this time of the year has as its refrain “A very merry Christmas, and a Happy New Year. Let’s hope it’s a good one, without any fear.” But who are we kidding? The new year will have plenty of fear even as the old year did. We can wish it were not so and maybe New Year’s Day is the day for optimism but . . . it may also be as good a day as any for some Gospel realism, Matthew-style.
The Good News that emerges from the Horrible News is that even as Herod’s evil did not undo God’s plan or wipe out God’s Christ, so God is still marching on toward that day when a child will lead them and when God will declare “Behold, I make all things new.” We cannot do that. God can. God will.
In the Movies for Preaching part of this website, Roy Anker highlights the excellent film The Innocents. The title of the movie is clearly designed to evoke Matthew 2. The story is set in post-World War II Poland in a convent that has experienced grave evil. Invading Russian soldiers had repeatedly raped the hapless nuns in the convent, resulting nine months later in one pregnancy after the next by women who had sworn themselves to chastity. The Mother Superior of the convent tries to help but, in fact, makes matters much, much worse and inadvertently perpetuates the bad momentum of the evil done to them.
Yet through a series of events and people—heroes both likely and very unlikely—the kingdom of God bursts through in the end. Like Matthew 2, so also here: God is not undone by the evil that threatens our lives. If we cannot possibly explain why such horrid things happen to innocent people and babies, we can at least rejoice that God is not evacuated from the scene due to human evil. In Christ, there will be healing. In that is all the hope of the Gospel.
Author: Doug Bratt
Does anyone know what time it is? The rock group Chicago sang a song entitled, “Does Anybody Know What Time It Is?” It’s about people who have watches but don’t really know what time it is: “People running around everywhere, Don’t know what way to go … Don’t know where I am. Have no time to look around. Just run around, run around, and think why?”
Nearly all of us have deadlines to meet, trains to catch, a papers to turn in. As a result, suggests a colleague, calendars and clocks have become society’s modern masters. So does anyone know what time it is?
The Old Testament text the Lectionary appoints for today helps answer that question. It’s part of the Old Testament genre that’s called Wisdom Literature. That means Ecclesiastes 3 is mostly interested in describing what the Teacher has learned from careful observation, years of experience and accumulated wisdom. It’s mostly interested in life and what we learn from living it.
In Ecclesiastes 3 the Teacher insists, “There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.” So we need to know what time it is. Whether it’s “A time to be born,” or “A time to die … a time to weep [or] a time to laugh … a time to mourn [or] a time to dance.”
Our text’s list of times is partly descriptive. They reflect on the way life goes. So, for example, Ecclesiastes 3 reminds us that there are times when children enter the world and there are times when we leave this world. Of course, we don’t get to choose some of those times. Few of us would, for example, choose to weep with pain, mourn with sadness or even die. And, frankly, none of us chooses our time to be born.
Often we can’t understand why God lets happen what happens. We’ll never understand, for example, why there must be a time for a parent to bury a child or an aunt to grieve a young nephew’s death. We don’t choose those things. They, as a colleague points out, in some ways, choose us.
Yet we do get to choose some of the times the teacher describes. We don’t usually get to choose when we must mourn. However, we do get to choose, at least to some extent, when to dance again. Things happen to you and me that make us weep. But we get to choose, at least to some extent, when we’re ready to laugh again. Evil makes us hate it. But we get to choose when we will love rather than hate.
God gives us the freedom to make choices about how we respond to what God chooses to let happen to us. We can choose to live into the time we’ve been given, and to find the holiness that exists in nearly all of it. Ecclesiastes’ Preacher reminds us that God is the initiator. We are the responders. God is the author not just of grace, but also of every good gift. We respond to those gifts with our faith that is yet another good gift from God.
The wise person always knows which time is which. As my colleague Scott Hoezee points out, “It’s not just that now and again a war comes up and that in between wars there is peace. A wise person knows when it’s time to fight them.” In a similar way, it’s not just that there are times when we’re talking and times when we’re quiet. Wise people also know when it’s time to just listen in silence and when it’s time to speak into that silence.
We know there are times when we can say something that will help. Yet wise people also know that no matter what we say, sometimes speaking only makes things worse. They know what time it is.
The rest of Ecclesiastes 3 reminds us that our time is short. If we’re alive, we were born. But if we were born, we will also, unless Jesus comes back first, die. Period. The time between the maternity ward and the funeral home is what Hoezee calls “a kind of in the meantime” scenario. It’s really little more than the blink of an eye. So what we will do with that little bit of time God gives us?
In verses 12 and 13 the Teacher invites us to “be happy and do good while” we “live … [to] eat and drink and find satisfaction in all” our “toil.” We sense he’s describing two kinds of general activities here.
On the one hand, the Preacher invites us to “do good” and “find satisfaction” in our work. On the other hand, he invites us to “be happy” as well as “eat and drink.” Wise people know when it’s time to do one or the other. Yet we also know that we need to do both. The wise person looks for work that’s meaningful and will put bread and wine on the table. However, the wise person also makes sure that he or she finds the time to enjoy both that bread and wine.
So on the first day of the year of our Lord, 2017, Ecclesiastes 3’s preachers and teachers need to know what time it is. We ask our hearers and ourselves if need to take more time this year find satisfaction in our work. Or do we need to take more time to enjoy God’s gifts?
Historically, many people have chosen work over enjoyment. How many of us don’t, for example, wrestle with the specter of figuratively if not literally absentee parents? How many of us sought attention elsewhere because our parents didn’t or just couldn’t take time away from their work?
“Workaholic” became a kind of catchword in the 20th century. It referred to people who worked nearly as compulsively as some people abuse drugs or alcohol. Some did so because they felt guilty if they didn’t somehow work long hours. Others worked long hours because they enjoyed it. Still others worked long hours because their bosses expected them to do so.
Now, perhaps, however, the greater danger is that some people are choosing pleasure over work. It’s not just that countries like the United States has a large population that’s chronically unemployed. That, after all, is often shaped by factors beyond our control.
However, some people have simply chosen to not work so that they can stay home and enjoy themselves. There are disturbing statistics about college graduates who are choosing to live in their parents’ basements and play some kind of games all day.
This morning Ecclesiastes’ Teacher reminds us that truly wise people know when it’s time to work and when it’s time to enjoy the fruits of that work. But he also throws a kind of wrinkle into promoting such wisdom. In verses 10 and 11 the Teacher adds, “I have seen the burden God has laid on people. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men.”
Ecclesiastes’ Teacher reminds us that God created us in time to make us, in many ways, creatures of time. Yet smack in the middle of that discussion he throws in the word “eternity.” And this eternity is that which begins now but it largely spent in the new creation. We are in time that in some ways limits us as it does all living creatures. But unlike other living creatures, in that time we also have a sense of eternity. God has given us a sense of something more.
We sense there’s something beyond our watches, calendars, cell phones and history books. Time will not stop. Yet there’s no way around the fact that we will die, unless Christ returns first. That death will be for each of us ether the end or a beginning. It’s that eternity that gives that death’s beginning meaning.
I’ve always wondered what it’s like to die while ignoring that sense of eternity that God puts in our hearts. How can life be fully meaningful in the short term if in the long run it simply disappears, never remembered by God and soon forgotten by virtually everyone?
Hoezee makes the analogy of watching someone enjoy a steak dinner, but then also sadly watching that person die because the steak poisoned her. Would you say, “At least her steak tasted good. That’s something, isn’t it?”
Death still sometimes packs a powerful wallop, a venomous enough sting even for those who recognize the eternity God has set in our hearts. But finally that wallop and sting can’t help but feel fatal for those who choose to ignore eternity.
We can’t fully understand what God does from the beginning of measured time to its end. Yet we can move into a new year in faith that God is at work, in time and in eternity. And because we know God is at work, we can enjoy what we’ve got during the time we have it. We can give thanks to the God who graciously gives it to us. And we can move ahead into the time God gives us, knowing it’s just the beginning of a glorious eternity God has graciously prepared for us.
In the 21st century, the line between work and pleasure seems to be thinning. In his article, “Why Do We Work So Hard?” in the April/May 2016 issue of The Economist, Ryan Avent writes, “You might have thought that whereas, before [the 1970’s], a male professional worked 50 hours a week while his wife stayed at home with the children, a couple of married professionals might instead each opt to work 35 hours a week, sharing more of the housework, and ending up with both more money and more leisure.
That didn’t happen. Rather, both are now more likely to work 60 hours a week and pay several people to care for the house and children … Why? One possibility is that we have all got stuck on a treadmill. Technology and globalization mean that an increasing number of good jobs are winner-take-most competitions …
The dollars and hours pile up as we aim for a good life that always stays just out of reach. In moments of exhaustion we imagine simpler lives in smaller towns with more hours free for family and hobbies and ourselves. Perhaps we just live in a nightmarish arms race: if we were all to disarm, collectively, then we could all live a calmer, happier, more equal life.
But that is not quite how it is. The problem is not that overworked professionals are all miserable. The problem is that they are not … Here is the alternative to the treadmill thesis. As professional life has evolved over the past generation, it has become much more pleasant.
Software and information technology have eliminated much of the drudgery of the workplace. The duller sorts of labor have gone, performed by people in offshore service-centers or by machines. Offices in the rich world’s capitals are packed not with drones filing paperwork or adding up numbers but with clever people working collaboratively…
It is a cognitive and emotional relief to immerse oneself in something all-consuming while other difficulties float by. The complexities of intellectual puzzles are nothing to those of emotional ones. Work is a wonderful refuge…”
Author: Stan Mast
I was meditating on the words of verse 4, “what is man that you are mindful of him,” when I saw her picture—a lovely blond, her eyes closed in obvious contentment, a blissful smile on her lips, the perfect picture of serenity. She was on the cover of Time magazine with this headline next to her peaceful face: “The Mindfulness Revolution: The Science of Focus in a Stressed-out, Multi-tasking Culture.” Have you heard about the mindful revolution? I had, a little, but not much. So, I read the article inside. It was fascinating and helpful, especially in giving me a new angle on a familiar text.
Mindfulness, said the article, is learning to think about one thing at a time, learning to quiet a busy mind so that we are aware of the present moment and less caught up in what happened earlier or what’s to come. It pointed out that technology has made it easier than ever to fracture attention into smaller and smaller bits. We answer a colleague’s question on our phone as we watch a children’s soccer game; we pay the bills while watching TV; we order groceries while we’re stuck in traffic. In a time when no one seems to have enough time, our devices allow us to be many places at once—but at the cost of being unable to fully inhabit the place where we actually want to be. Sounds true, doesn’t it? So, said the article, if distraction is the pre-eminent condition of our age, then mindfulness is the most logical response. The ultimate goal is to give your attention fully to what you’re doing.
The Mindfulness Revolution is sweeping our land because it promises a more peaceful and purposeful life. Some research suggests that it can actually do that, and that’s a good thing. But I want to suggest a better thing, the best thing. Let’s invite our congregants to join another mindful revolution, a way of thinking about God that will enable us to live more peacefully, more purposefully, and, best of all, more praisefully. Let’s use Psalm 8 as the basis for a mindfulness revolution that will enable us to start and end each day with the words that bracket this great Psalm. “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.”
This revolution is based in those words of verse 4 that are addressed to God. “What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care about him?” Hmmm. The mindfulness of God. What can it mean that God is mindful of us? Well, it means that God never gets pre-occupied with the affairs of someone else’s life and forgets about you, that God never dreams off in the middle of a conversation with you and just watches the TV, that God’s attention is never distracted as he drives your life with the result that accidents happen. God’s attention never wavers from your life, even as he multi-tasks in his providential care of the universe. God always gives his full attention to each one of us. To paraphrase country singer Willie Nelson, we are “always on his mind.”
Now, of course, by itself that isn’t necessarily a comforting thought. I mean, a psychotic stalker might have a laser-like focus on the object of his sick attention so that he can hurt her. Some people are most uneasy that God is always thinking of them, because they have a guilty conscience or because they have experienced some awful things in life. They picture God the way a Far Side Cartoon did a few years back– a beady eyed CEO hunched over a heavenly computer with his finger poised over the SMITE button ready to devastate our sinful lives at any moment.
The mindfulness of God won’t lead to a peaceful and purposeful and praiseful life unless we believe what the Psalmist says next in verse 4. God cares for us. That’s such a familiar idea for all of us that it evokes little more than a bored smile or bitter skepticism, but it is an idea so ridiculous to many people that it evokes blistering scorn. Going all the way back to the Deists of the 18th century, people have looked out at the infinite vastness of the universe that runs like clock according to unbreakable laws, and they have looked at the billions of puny humans who populate this tiny grain of sand, and they have said, “God couldn’t care less about us.”
In another issue of Time, there was an article about a scientist named Lisa Kaltenegger who is a leading researcher into the question of life on other planets. She and her fellow scientists claim to have found over 1,000 other planets. In a galaxy of over 300 billion stars, they say, there are surely more planets capable of sustaining life. In this immense and complicated universe, how can we claim that God, if there is a God, cares about these tiny hairless bipeds we call human beings? God might be mindful of us in the way we might think once a decade about a third cousin twice removed. But he certainly doesn’t care about us individually.
As he tended his sheep, the Psalmist gazed up at the same heavens, the moon and the stars that God set in place, and asked that same question. “When I consider the work of your fingers, what is man that you are mindful of him and the son of man that you care for him?” But he gave a very different answer than Lisa Kaltenegger does. God does care, and Lisa Kaltenegger is the proof. Lisa Kaltenegger has been placed in a position where she can put the universe under a microscope and study it through a telescope.
This tiny bit of carbon based life is able to take charge of the world, because, says the old Psalmist, God made us only a little lower than the heavenly beings, and crowned us with glory and honor. “Heavenly beings” there is actually the word Hebrew word Elohim, usually translated “God. It harks back to the creation story in which God created us in his own image and gave us dominion over all the earth. We’re not just floating particles of protoplasm. We are princes and princesses. “You made us rule over the works of your hands.” That’s how much God cares. Out of nothing, he made us to be his royal children.
The problem is that we don’t feel like royal children much of the time. We feel more like the pauper than the prince. If I’m a child of the king, why is my life so hard? If I’m crowned with glory and honor, why is my life filled with misery? So, it doesn’t seem like God cares. It seems like we’ve been forgotten and forsaken by God. We feel like that homeless man in that famous picture from several winters ago. During a terrible cold blast in January, the nation’s attention was captured by a picture of a homeless man, a scruffy looking young man bundled up against the killer cold, huddled over a steam vent in a large Eastern city. The picture was distributed everywhere as a portrait of hopelessness. Here was a young man about whom no one cared. He might have been someone’s son once, but now he was forgotten.
Except that thousands of people did care, including his family, who had been thinking of him constantly. When they saw his picture, they said, “That’s our boy!” They found out exactly where he was. They sent word that they were coming. They turned over heaven and earth to get to him. And they welcomed him home. He was not a forgotten person about whom no one cared.
Neither are you and neither am I. God has done exactly what those parents did, and more. Psalm 8 points to the majesty of humanity as proof of God’s care, but Hebrews 2 uses these very words to talk about the mercy of God as an even greater proof. According to Hebrews 2 these words about the son of man who has been made little lower than the angels are finally about Jesus. Indeed, says Hebrews 2:17, “he had to be made like us in every way.” God didn’t just send word that he was coming to take us in out of the cold and bring us home. God’s Word actually became flesh and dwelt among us, shivering in the cold, huddling by the steam vent, a forgotten, God forsaken Son of Man.
God showed how much he cares about us not only by elevating us to positions of royalty in his world, but even more by lowering himself to the position of servant and criminal. Phil. 2 puts it in terms of mindfulness. “Have this mind among yourselves which you have in Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross.” That’s how mindful God is of us. That’s how much God cares about us.
I think again of that lovely blond on the cover of Time, a model of the mindfulness revolution that actually has its roots in Buddhism. She’s peaceful and productive, because her attention is focused on one thing at a time. That’s good. Wouldn’t it be even better if her mouth were opened in praise to Jesus, because her attention is focused on the one God who is always mindful of us? Let’s invite our people to take the mindfulness revolution to its theological conclusion and focus on the one who demonstrated once and for the heart and mind of God on that cross.
That’s not easy to do. It is frightfully hard to keep your mind on God. We get distracted by the pleasures and pains of life, and we lose our focus on God. Here’s where the mindfulness revolution can be helpful to us. We need to train ourselves to be mindful of Christ, as the early Christians were. Col. 3:1 says we must “set our minds on things above where Christ is….” We need to learn to empty our minds of all distractions and focus on Christ. When we are convinced God has forgotten us or we are doubtful that he cares, we must “set our minds on Christ….”
Here’s how you do that. As you huddle over the steam vent of your life, over whatever it is that gives you peace and purpose in a hectic multi-tasking world, look up at the cross. Set your mind on the Crucified One. Then get up on your feet. Come back to Christ. Regain your place as one of the rulers of his world. Then give him the praise.
When mindfulness fails you, you can count on this. The Lord, Jesus Christ, is mindful of you. Nothing can distract him from paying attention to you and nothing in all this world can keep him from caring for you. “O Jesus, our Lord, how majestic and merciful is your name in all the earth.”
I’m not much of an opera buff, but a while ago I was privileged to attend a performance of “Madama Butterfly.” It is the tragic story of a young Japanese girl who is swept off her feet by a dashing United States naval officer who is visiting Nagasaki. Though he is simply impetuous, she falls deeply in love with him and they marry. To cement their relationship, she leaves Buddhism and converts to Christianity. A large cross displayed in an important part of her house symbolizes her new faith and her love for her husband. His ship soon sails, and he is gone for three long years.
Every day she scans the horizon looking for his ship. Every day she prays to the Christian God for his return. After three years, she begins to waver. “The Japanese gods are fat and lazy, but does the Christian God even know where I am?” Then her husband returns, and she is overjoyed– until she meets his new American wife. In a fit of rage and grief, Madame Butterfly sweeps the cross from its place in her house, smashing it to the ground. And then she kills herself.
Only if we keep that cross at the center through all the disappointments and disasters of our lives will we be able to begin and end each day with the words that bracket that great Psalm. “O Lord, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth.”
Author: Scott Hoezee
God’s power cannot cut it. That’s both the bottom line and the upshot of this part of Hebrews 2. Isn’t that weird, though? Isn’t that counter-intuitive? How often haven’t most of us said or thought something along the lines of “If only I were in charge . . . If only I were in control . . . If only I had the power and the authority . . . why then, I could fix stuff, make good things happen, whip these folks into shape and usher in a better day!”
That’s how we think most of the time. Maybe it’s an inept boss or manager under whose weak leadership we chafe that makes us wish the reins of power passed through our hands instead. Maybe it’s politicians who strike us as not up to the jobs to which they got elected that tempts us to get our own names onto some yard signs and run for office ourselves. Whatever the cause, though, the fact is that we are pretty sure that the solution to making things better in the office or that the pathway for a stronger nation involves power and the proper channeling of that power.
Sometimes in this world that’s right, too. People who run for high office are sometimes accused of being overly ambitious, of being “power crazy” and unduly hungry for authority. And at times these people are that but just as often it is the case that if you genuinely want to make a difference for the country, the state, the county, the city, you need to get elected to do it because only then are you in a position to help the most people the most effectively. You need power to get things done in this world.
But the great irony and paradox of the Gospel is that although no one had a bigger set of problems to solve than God did in considering how best to save this cosmos, at the end of the day God concluded that his omnipotent power alone was not enough to seal the deal. Oh, the author to the Hebrews muses, maybe power would have been enough to save angels or something but it would not be enough to save flesh-and-blood human beings. No, these folks will need to be saved by another way and in the great reversal of all our normal thinking on such matters, the way forward for that salvation was going to lead smack through the way of weakness.
God was going to need some power, yes, it’s true. But the greatest display of that power would come when he had to raise a limp, dead-as-a-doornail human person from the grave. Up until then it was the frailty of a real human life that would be the epicenter of all things salvific. As it turned out, God could not zap the worst thing that threatens fallen humanity—namely, death itself and the devil who wields that death—by remote control. Flinging down lightning bolts from on high was not going to do the job. No, this was an enemy that had to be met on its own turf for some reason. This was a sickness that had to be healed from the inside out.
In fact and as Hebrews 2 makes abundantly clear, the One who would bring salvation had to do the hard thing not just of dying before it was all said and done but of suffering a very great deal all the way along. And here’s another really weird thing about the message of Hebrews 2: Jesus is depicted not just as suffering—a shocking enough revelation all by itself when you are dealing with God himself—but as having been made perfect through that suffering.
Hold on, though. Time out. Isn’t God (as God) already perfect? I mean, doesn’t that go with the package: perfect, holy, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, and all the other things that attend the definition of the word “Divine”? Didn’t Jesus have perfection pretty well wrapped up from the get-go as God’s own Son? Well, as the God-Man who was born of the virgin Mary, apparently not. Maybe as God alone Jesus had been perfect but once he took on a human nature as well and held it in tension inside his one person with the divine nature, a new dynamic opened up that required some suffering to bring about a perfection of Jesus that would not exist without it.
The bottom line of Hebrews 2 is that this is good news for us because we can know for sure that our Savior identifies with us, sympathizes with us, weeps for us and stands with us in the crises that can make our lives so unhappy and miserable at times. And preachers tend to focus on that part of this chapter. Pastorally that’s a fine thing to do.
But let’s not rush past the really curious things we learn about how God pulled off salvation that come up along the way. Power was not enough. Weakness was needed for salvation. Perfection as a divine being was not enough. A perfection-through-suffering was needed to be achieved for the Divine-Human being that Jesus became the moment he was conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of Mary.
Small wonder that in the course of his life and ministry, the Jesus who literally embodied all of these paradoxes told so many parables of reversal, said again and again that the greatest realities in the world were the things that could get hidden in dough or that you’d just stumble upon in a random field somewhere. Small wonder that the likes of Pontius Pilate could not make heads or tails of this man and that even the disciples—focused as they were for so long on restoring the political power of Israel—kept misunderstanding half of what Jesus said to them. The world just doesn’t work this way ordinarily. When we run up against these weaknesses, these sufferings, these paradoxes in Jesus, they call us up short. THIS is how salvation comes?
It’s a lesson the church keeps having to re-learn too. Over and again in history and right up to this present moment too many leaders in the church and too many ordinary members of the church are just sure that we will make the greatest impact for Christ by accessing political power, business clout, and any number of strategies for “success.” In truth, it all cuts against the Gospel grain and will never work. Hebrews 2 makes that much clear.
This reading is assigned in the Year A cycle for January 1, 2017, or New Year’s Day. We are still flush with all things Christmas even as we bid farewell to a hard year and hope for a better one. But before we walk away from the birth of the Messiah for another year, Hebrews 2 calls us up short, confronts us with the paradoxes of God’s plan of salvation, and so gives us another chance to re-orient our thinking and our ways of operating as we enter this new year. Whether we will take our cues from God himself or fix our eyes on the usual ways of getting ahead remains to be seen. But Hebrews 2 calls for us to go God’s way and not the way of the world.
Earlier in Hebrews 2 and as part of the run-up to this passage about weakness and suffering, the author of Hebrews admitted that at present we do not see with our physical eyes a world that looks like it’s under God’s control or under the Lordship of Jesus. And indeed, we wonder why God does not thunder in with great power and just clean house. Why does Jesus so often opt to be present in our weakness and in our sufferings instead of just wiping those things out in the first place? We don’t know the answers to such hard questions but the fact that weakness, suffering, and empathy are part of Christ’s way of being with us for now are all amply demonstrated by Hebrews 2. It reminds me of a story I have used before when preaching on Hebrews 2—a true story that reveals again how Christ gently comes to us.
A little boy of perhaps 6 or 7 years of age was in the hospital suffering greatly in end-stage leukemia. The pain he endured apparently caused some hallucinations, one of which was of a strange man who appeared in the doorway of his hospital room, causing the tyke to call out in alarm and requiring the soothing reassurances of his mother.
One afternoon as the mother cradled her mortally ill child in her arms, his body stiffened once again in alarm. “That man is back, Mommy” he cried. The mother was about to reassure him that no one was there when suddenly the boy’s thin body relaxed. He looked his mother clear in the eyes and said, “Oh, Mommy. I didn’t recognize him before but it’s Jesus. I have to go now.” And in great peace he died.
We don’t always know why Jesus meets us in our weakness and sorrow instead of waving them away with the power of his omnipotence. But we know he never leaves us and never will. The arc of his saving life assures us of this both this day and even forevermore.