Christmas 1A

December 23, 2019

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 2:13-23

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Isaiah 63:7-9

    Author: Stan Mast

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 148

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Lectionary Epistle

    Hebrews 2:10-18

    Author: Doug Bratt

    Near the beginning of measured time, God created the heavens and the earth.  God also created our first parents for fellowship with each other and the Lord, as well as to help care for what God makes.

    Adam and Eve, however, chose to do the one thing God explicitly asked them not to do.  Then they tried to hide from God while God searched the garden for them until way past dark.  Not long after that most of Adam and Eve’s descendants forgot all about God.  We got so busy making, growing, buying and selling things that we assumed we no longer needed God.

    As a result, God, says Barbara Brown Taylor to whom I’m indebted for some of this Starter’s ideas, “shouted at” us.  God used floods, famines, messengers and manna to call people back to himself.  God even invaded peoples’ dreams and, if that didn’t work, woke us up in the middle of the night.

    People, however, stubbornly chose not to listen.  Those God creates in God’s image, instead, went right on hurting and hating each other.  People just kept right on rejecting God and worshiping what God had made, including ourselves, rather than God who made everything that has been made.

    So what did God do?  Christ Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, was, as Paul writes, “in very nature God.”  Yet he surrendered his heavenly glory to make himself “nothing,” taking the very nature of a servant.  The Son of God became Immanuel, God come to make God’s home among us, to draw us back to himself.

    The  Epistolary Lesson the RCL appoints for this Sunday, however, makes a perhaps even more remarkable assertion.  It, after all, insists that Jesus is not only God with us, he’s also God just like us “in every way,” except, of course, that he was perfect.  Jesus had to be made like his brothers in every way . . . Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted (17)

    Both Hebrews’ proclaimers and hearers may be so familiar with that concept that we forget just how shocking it is.  That’s why I appreciate C.S. Lewis’ assertion that if we want to think what Jesus’ incarnation would be like, we must imagine ourselves becoming slugs.

    Though people didn’t naturally recognize it, we desperately needed Someone to save us from our sins, to rescue us from the punishment we deserve.  We needed someone, as our text notes, “to make atonement for the sins of the people.”

    Because people can’t save ourselves.  In fact, even God’s adopted sons and daughters only increase our guilt every day.  What’s more, no other creature can rescue us.  Nothing and no one else could bear the full brunt of God’s righteous fury over our sins.  People needed a Savior who is truly human and truly God.

    So into our rebellious lives and world steps that Someone: our Lord Jesus Christ.  He had to be made like his brothers in every way . . .  Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.  Jesus Christ alone is, in a way we can’t fully understand, both God and human in every way.

    On this last Sunday of 2019 (as well as every day), this is great gospel.  The Christ whose birth at Bethlehem we’ve just celebrated was, by God’s great grace, like us in every way in order to set us free and make us right with God.  So those who have received God’s grace with our faith now have eternal life that includes reserved spaces in the new heaven and earth.  Because Christ suffered for us, God will eventually bring Christ’s adopted brothers and sisters to what our text calls “glory.”

    Along the way to that glory, however, God has chosen God’s dearly loved people for obedience.  By becoming just like us, Jesus Christ has marked the year 2020 (as well as every year) not for Jesus’ followers’ slavery to the power of death, but for joyful obedience to him.  After all, because of what Christ has done, God is making God’s adopted sons and daughters more and more holy.  The Holy Spirit through God’s Word is transforming God’s children to be increasingly like the Jesus Christ who was like us in every way except that he was perfect.

    So God, in Christ, has the first claim on Jesus’ followers’ lives during this coming year.  God gave God’s people our gifts and talents for God’s use in our world.  Even the possessions we managed to accumulate during 2019 belong to the Lord.  So during this coming year God’s people will seek to be obedient stewards of all those good things God has given us.

    Of course, following Jesus Christ in this way won’t be any easier in 2020 than it was in 2019.  After all, while Christ has freed his adopted siblings from slavery to Satan, sin and death, we still grant them immense power in our lives.  Thankfully, then, Christ, our elder brother, understands all this.  He was, after all, like us in every way – except that he was perfect.

    Of course, Jesus didn’t experience some of the things that come with being female, married or elderly.  Nor did he have to deal with dementia or, apparently, other destructive illnesses.  Yet Jesus did experience the things that often trouble his adopted brothers and sisters most: rejection, persecution and death.  He dealt with all sorts of threats, disappointment and frustration.  So God’s people who experience any of those or similar things this coming year can know that Christ has already experienced them and understands our struggles.

    Perhaps even more importantly, however, because he was like his followers in every way except that he was perfect, Christ also experienced intense temptation.  Throughout his life, but particularly at its end, Satan and his allies mercilessly tempted him.  They especially threw everything they had at Jesus on the cross.

    What’s more, Jesus at least felt like his Father in heaven abandoned him during much of that assault.  Yet he remained faithful to his mission, resisted temptation and saved God’s children from our sins.  As a result, Christ is both willing and “able” to help us when Satan and his allies are tempting us.

    Of course, even Christians sometimes assume that we don’t need Christ’s help to resist temptation.  We’re naturally independent people who are reluctant to turn anywhere for help.  But do we need look much further than just the past few days to see how vulnerable to temptation we are?  Jesus’ followers profess that by ourselves we’re too weak to hold our own against Satan’s temptations “even for a moment.”  What’s more, we also profess that our enemies, sin, Satan and death, which are determined to destroy us never stop attacking us.

    Thankfully, Hebrews’ author promises, this Jesus who was like us, even in our temptation, is able to help his adopted brothers and sisters when we’re tempted.  When Satan tempts God’s dearly beloved people to swerve from the baptismal vows we’ve made, Jesus Christ helps us.  When Satan tempts people to love God and each other with less than our whole hearts, Jesus Christ helps us.  When Satan tempts us to break the promises we make to our spouses, children, friends and neighbors, Jesus Christ helps us.

    The Jesus Christ who proved himself to be completely faithful faithfully gives his followers the strength we need to resist temptation.  He faithfully gives his strong and reliable support, his great and available power.  Jesus Christ faithfully keeps his adopted brothers and sisters from spiritual collapse so that he can present you and me to his heavenly Father as God’s redeemed children.

    Illustration Idea

    Kim Jong-Il called himself North Korea’s “dear leader.”  Yet he was radically different from the people he “led” with an iron fist.  A series of droughts combined with Kim’s farming and economic policies intensified North Korea’s decade of famine.  South Korean intelligence agencies estimated that nearly three million North Koreans also starved to death over the course of just four years.

    Yet even as his followers were dying en masse, Kim Jong-Il, according to the October 30, 2004 edition of Der Spiegel, drove fast cars, gorged himself with gourmet foods and guzzled expensive liquor.  While his country plunged into deeper and deeper poverty, he built at least ten palaces, complete with golf courses, stables and movie theaters.  Kim also filled his garages with luxury cars, and foreign bank accounts with as much as four billion dollars.

    Contrast Kim’s story with the hero of the parable I read a number of years ago.  After an incorrigible man died and went to hell, his sad fate worried his friends.  When they visited him in hell, his misery touched them even more deeply.  So the man’s friends rattled hell’s gates, shouting to whomever might be listening, “Let him out!  Let him out!”  Their pleas, however, went unanswered.  Hell’s great iron doors remained tightly shut.

    The man’s friends next summoned a dazzling array of rich, powerful and famous people.  All of them stood at hell’s gates, shouting out a variety of reasons why Satan should let the man out of his lonely torture.  Some claimed that the evil one had not followed due process when he condemned the man.  Others appealed to Satan’s sense of fair play and compassion.  The massive iron gates, however, remained unmoved.

    In desperation the tormented man’s friends summoned his pastor.  When he approached hell’s gates, he shouted, “Let him out.  This man wasn’t really such a bad guy, after all.  He contributed some money to our church building fund and once even worked at a food pantry for us.  Let him out.”  Hell’s gates, however, didn’t budge.

    Eventually all the condemned man’s discouraged friends and supporters left him.  At that point the man’s old father appeared at hell’s gates.  He stood there, hunched over and weak.  He was only able to softly whisper, “Let me in.  Let me in.”  At once hell’s massive gates swung open and the condemned man was free.