What for you sums up 'Christmas'? It could be joy or happiness. It could be the joy of giving and receiving of presents. It could be the happiness of seeing members of the family. But for some people the celebration of Christmas can be hard. For the isolated and those living alone. Living with memories of Christmas past – and dreading the prospect of Christmas present. For them, not joy but pain. For some people to celebrate Christmas is a very stressful time. Cooking and entertaining turns some into resentful Marthas. No time for themselves. No time to enjoy the festivities. No time ... for Jesus.
And sometimes in being in close proximity to members of the family, tensions and arguments come to the surface. Being nice is hard work! But thankful Christmas will soon be over for another year! Put back in a box in the attic for another year!
So then for you what word sums up 'Christmas'? May I suggest to you that the one word should be 'Jesus'? He is, or should be, at the heart of our celebration of Christmas. Not in the dressing room! Not in the wings! Not 'he's behind you' – but he's right in front of you – centre stage! Of course sometimes Jesus can be obscured or even forgotten. Did you read the Archbishop of Canterbury's Christmas article in the Radio Times? While Rowan Williams refers to 'this particular baby', and to 'the power of the creator' sadly he forgot to mention the name Jesus! But it is this blessed One who is at the heart of our celebrations.
Today I want to speak to you about him. And Jesus not from the familiar birth narratives of Matthew and Luke, or from the profound theological reflection of John. But I want to speak to you about Jesus from the book of Hebrews. Hebrews presents us with God the Father sending God the Son. Of a Jesus who is the superior, sinless Saviour. Of a Jesus who is our great high priest. Of a Jesus who died once and for all - and who rose again from the dead, and who one day will return. Of a Jesus who is like us concerning his humanity but unlike us concerning his divinity. From first to last the book of Hebrews is all about Jesus. The writer puts Jesus centre-stage. And the challenge addressed to each one of us is clear. Is he centre-stage in our hearts, and in our grasp of the truth concerning the Christian faith?
Now I would be the first to admit that the book of Hebrews isn't the easiest book in the NT to understand. But it does include a great 'Christmas' message for each one of us. And that message concerns Jesus. In fancy theological words, the book of Hebrews unfolds to us a profound Christology.
In Hebrews we encounter a Jesus who is both human and divine. The majestic Son of God is also the compassionate Son of Man. As Evangelicals we rightly stress the doctrine of the Atonement. But how much emphasis do we place upon the doctrine of the Incarnation?
After all the message of Christmas concerns the birth of the Saviour, of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. Of God become man. The season is not about the death of Jesus but it's about his wondrous birth. And that is something to celebrate and to affirm. The theologian James Denney referred to Hebrews as 'in many ways one of the most perplexing books of the NT' (The Death of Christ, 1909, p204). Perplexing- yes; frustrating – yes; difficult – yes – but also profoundly illuminating and challenging.
What do we make of Jesus? What do we learn about him? What is the impact of his coming upon our lives? In the book of Hebrews we come face to face with the reality of Jesus. But not of baby Jesus meek and mild; not of a nice nativity story; but of Jesus as the incarnate Son of God.
So then, I want us all to 'fix our eyes on Jesus ... [and] to consider him' (Heb 12:2-3).
1. To consider him - who is in every way superior
Over a dozen times in the book of Hebrews, Jesus is described as being 'better' or 'greater' or 'superior' to what had gone before. That becomes obvious as we read Hebrews. And as we travel through Hebrews we discover just how superior Jesus is. Superior in every way. Superior to all that had gone before. (6:9, 7:7, 19, 22; 8:6; 9:23; 10:34; 11:16, 35, 40; 12:24). The writer of Hebrews was addressing converted Jews who were tempted to return to Judaism. They were Christians who were looking back. Not a sort of Lot's wife who hankered for the old life – but of believers who wanted to return to the old securities – rather than to follow the life of faith. To follow Christ demanded too much of them. And the writer of Hebrews attempts to turn their thinking upside down. He encourages them to look to Jesus who is greater than all that had gone before. So the writer provided a mini commentary on the OT - a commentary that looked at what had once been, and was now eclipsed by the coming of Jesus.
That's true isn't it? It's certainly true as we read scripture. At the end of the day each one of us is to become more like Jesus – in our hearts and minds – in our thinking and in our lives. Jesus came that we might have life and to enjoy it in all its fullness. To know him as our Saviour and to submit to him as our Lord. Is that your experience? Turning to Jesus? Trusting in Jesus? Believing in Jesus? Living for Jesus?
In the book of Hebrews the writer tells us just how superior Jesus is. He points out that Jesus was superior to the angels and to Moses, and to Joshua. He points out that the old order – whether of the covenant or the temple sacrifices – was now obsolete. They were things of the past. He tells us that Jesus is the great high priest, whose priesthood is eternal - not imperfect and defective but complete and final.
Yes, we greatly value the OT – and we read the OT through the filter of the NT. And always the OT points us forward to the NT. All that went before points us forward towards the coming of Jesus from his first coming to his second coming. Perhaps during the Christmas break, could I encourage you to read through the book of Hebrews and to discover how Jesus is presented as being better than all that had gone before.
2. To consider him - who is both human and divine
As he begins his letter the writer of Hebrews begins with a reflection. And we are invited to reflect with him. That in the past God had spoken to us in many ways, and through many individuals. But now God has spoken to us by his one and only Son. Once the revelation had been distant and impersonal – but now it is manifest to us in a form that we can best understand. As a man speaking to men.
We are told that the Son is the exact representation of the Father. Like the die that is identical to the coin that is cast, so is the Son identical to the Father. When people say to you 'What is God like?', 'Show him to me', the answer is simple. The Father reveals the Son. The Son reveals the Father. The invisible God is made visible in the incarnate Son. Look no further than the Son and you will see the Father.
Christmas is about the Incarnation. That is that the divine being is made known to us in the birth of the child in the manger. And wasn't that beautifully portrayed in the recent BBC film 'The Nativity'? Wasn't it a moving presentation?
We ask the simple question. Why did Jesus come? Not simply to be an example. Not just to teach and to heal. But Jesus came as the Saviour – to demonstrate the love of the Father - in dying for our sins on the cross. He took our place. He bore our guilt and sin and shame. He died for you and for me. Since we are thinking today about the Incarnation (that is that God became man) then what can we learn about Jesus from the book of Hebrews concerning that Incarnation?
2a. Jesus is like the Father in every way. That makes sense. Its relatively straightforward. He and the Father are one. There is a unity of persons. Jesus is other than us, because he is himself divine. We bow before him because he is not like us. He is other than us. He is holy and righteous and good. And since we are none of those things (and he is) then he is certainly not like us. It is only by the grace and love of God that we are invited to know him as our Saviour and to submit to him as our Lord.
2b. Jesus is like us in every way. Now for some people that's much more difficult to grasp. Impossible to believe that if you are a Muslim. Impossible to believe that if you are a Jehovah's Witness. Both the ancient faith and the modern cult cannot conceive of a God who has become incarnate. For them God is one and distant, not close and accessible. Not God with us – but god set apart from us. Not a God who is alongside us, but one who is far removed from us. Not one whom we might know and be known by name by him.
If you are a Christian it's surprisingly easy to believe in the Incarnation. For here we have a Saviour who is not distant and remote. Indifferent to our hopes and fears. Untouched by our joys and sorrows. For here is One who has been here. Working at a carpenter's bench – he knew all about the world of work. Living in an occupied country – he knew about political oppression. He knows what it meant to be tempted -so he understands us when we are tempted. He is one who was bereaved – touched by death and parting. He was opposed and rejected. He understands how we can face opposition. He is one with us in our joys and happiness. Our pain and sorrow. Our disappointments and frustrations. Too often we Christians over emphasise the divinity of Christ and forget to believe in the humanity of Christ.
Jesus is like us in every way, said the writer to the Hebrews. And then he goes onto disclose something that takes our breath away! Jesus is like us in every way, yet he was without sin (4:15). That makes him different. That makes him superior. That makes him unique. That sets him apart from us. That differentiates him from all self-proclaimed mystics and madmen; self-improvement gurus; cult leaders and fraudsters. No other faith presents a sinless Saviour who took our sins upon him, and carried them for us, and suffered for us. No other faith presents a figure who warms our hearts and satisfies our minds more than Jesus. The Incarnation concerns the birth of a sinless Saviour.
The questioner asks us - 'What is God like'? 'Show him to me'. And our answer is this, that God the Father is like God the Son. God the Son is like God the Father. Today could I encourage each one of you to look to the Father through the Son. And to be assured afresh that you can only come to the Father through the Son. There is no other way!
3. To consider him - who was incarnate, who died, rose again, ascended and who one day will return
Christmas is only part of the story. And as the Christian year unfolds we travel from the wooden manger to the wooden cross - from the uninviting stable to the empty tomb - from the resurrection and ascension - to his return when every eye will see him. The scriptural narrative too takes us from the tree of death to the tree of life. And as pilgrims we travel from the city of destruction to the celestial city.
The three ancient creeds are a useful summary of biblical teaching. They all speak with great clarity concerning the Lord Jesus Christ. They provide a simple summary of his birth, death, resurrection, ascension and return. In the creeds we echo the faith of earlier generations of Christians. In the creeds we express the faith of the worldwide church. The creeds reflect the teaching of scripture. And all that we recite in the creeds we can read about in the book of Hebrews. Certainly that Jesus was incarnate; that he was born to take away sin. That his death on the cross was once and for all. That he is both God and man, human and divine. But much else too. The writer tells us that Jesus died, rose from the dead, ascended into heaven and one day will return.
The book of Hebrews has a high Christology because only in Jesus we have light and life; can experience forgiveness, know peace and have a sure and certain hope. We who only deserve death and judgement, are through Christ - forgiven, restored and made secure in him. He who was born of Mary is the sinless Saviour. He who bore our sins upon the cross died and rose again. He who ascended into heaven will one day return. These are all familiar truths expressed in the creeds. And these are the great truths that are unfolded to us in the book of Hebrews.
The message of Christmas tells us about the Incarnation (of God becoming man and living among us) and it also points us forward from Jesus' birth to Jesus' death; from Jesus' resurrection to Jesus' return. So to fix our eyes on baby Jesus meek and mild is only part of the story. It may elicit nice warm feelings but the birth narratives only tell us part of the story. For the good news is that the baby in the manger will become the man on a cross. And the one who died will be raised from the dead. And the one who ascended will one day return.
Once opened the book of Hebrews unfolds the essential truths we need to know about Jesus. But not just abstract truths that we tick off on a list of doctrines, but of a Saviour who reveals the very nature and the character of God. The challenge addressed to each of us is clear. Do you know Jesus for yourself? Is he your Lord and Saviour? Have you committed yourself to him? Are you growing in Christ-likeness?