Christmas Day afternoon can be the hardest time to think about Christ. Turkeys and TV saviours of the world seem to take over. And apparently for some filling in their Tax Return – last year 2,044 people submitted theirs on Christmas Day! But this year the Queen put Christ at the centre of the afternoon by stating her clear belief and trust in Christ in her Christmas message. Christmas is about Christ, the only Saviour of the world, about the wonderful miracle of God coming into the world in the person of Jesus, and the great message of liberation from our chief enemies – sin, death and the devil. Hebrews calls us to hold fast to God the Son and his message and not to drift. Not to drift away from the hope of Christmas and buy instead into the commercial message which can lead to debt and fear. Verse 1 should read:
"We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we've heard, so that we do not drift away."
So it's right that we have a service this evening. And there's a loving warning here in verse 3 to those who don't yet believe – don't neglect the great salvation Jesus offers otherwise you will face judgement. Christ came into the world fully man and fully God, to rescue people from judgment and so "to bring many sons to glory" (verse 10). That was God's purpose. But why and how? Well Hebrews argues that the Son of God, Jesus Christ, had to share our humanity, to suffer and to die, so that we might share in his glory. So first,
Jesus the Great and Perfect Pioneer (v1-13)
So why and how? What happened that we find ourselves in need of rescue, of true liberation? Well, the writer gives us a clue by the mention of that great unmentionable - death. In verse 9, he speaks of "Jesus suffering death and tasting death for everyone." And in verse 14 the writer emphasizes Jesus' humanity:
"He himself likewise took on flesh and blood, so through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, and set us free."
Put simply, the reason why things aren't as they should be is because human beings have introduced a moral and spiritual infection into the world called sin - a deliberate going it alone as rulers without God and so as a result placing ourselves under another influence, the devil. And death is the ultimate reminder that we can't be our own Masters; that things have gone wrong and need to be put right.
But how? How can this messed up world ever get put back on course so that we become the people we were originally meant to be? How is the devil, who over the centuries has enticed men and women to carry out the gas chambers of Auschwitz and the mess that is Syria, to be overthrown? More pertinently, how is the ultimate insult which makes a mockery of all our hopes and achievements - death - to be removed and reversed? Humanly it seems impossible. But what if God has taken the initiative? Then it's not impossible. And that's exactly what he's done in Jesus.
Look at verses 8-9. For a short period Jesus, God the Son, was made a "little lower than the angels" for he was clothed in human flesh and blood. He grew tired and weary. He was limited by time and space. But at the same time he began to show what man was meant to be like, and who he really is. Those oppressed by demonic powers he set free, and those whose hearts were broken by loss and grief, he mended by raising their loved ones from the dead. But even then not everything was subject to Jesus. The Romans still ruled. The devil's power still held sway. But that was to change one Friday afternoon, when "Jesus suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone" (Hebrews 2:9), with the result that he's now raised from the dead himself with a glorious resurrected body and exalted above the angels, at his Father's right hand, crowned with glory and honour.
Death was the pathway to such glory for Jesus but, by the grace of God, his death is also the way to safety and freedom for us. As our great and perfect pioneer (v10-13) Jesus had to meet the sinister powers of sin, death and the devil and it was necessary for him to take on the same nature (v14) as ourselves in order to deal effectively with them, which brings us secondly to:
Jesus the Great Liberator (v14-16)
"Jesus likewise took on flesh and blood, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those [you and me] who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery."
In 2005, Ashley Smith made headlines when she was taken hostage by a murderer for 7 hours in her apartment. The 27-year-old widowed mother of her six-year-old girl had only recently moved in when Brian Nichols took her hostage. Just hours earlier, he'd shot dead a judge, a court reporter, a deputy, and a federal agent. Ashley had paid scant attention to coverage of the unfolding manhunt but found herself face to face with Nichols, a desperate, heavily armed man with nothing left to lose. What a terrifying situation to be in. Ashley managed to miraculously escape but only with God's help.
And Hebrews brings home to us the unpleasant truth that humankind is subject to a spiritual enslavement. The kidnapper, if you like, is Satan. He exercises his hold over people by the use of fear, the fear of death. We can't escape this ourselves, we need someone to set us free. Well, the liberator has come and He is Jesus Christ. And how he liberates! If we sin we pay the penalty, and the penalty is death. But what if there was someone else who could pay the penalty instead on our behalf? Of course, he would have to be one of us, since it's as human beings that we sin and it's as human beings that we pay the price. But he would also have to be the perfect human being who had no sins of his own to pay for. More than that he would have to be someone who's more than a human being, a sort of representative, an infinite being who could pay for infinite sins. There's only one I know who fits that bill and that is the Lord Jesus Christ - perfect God and perfect man united in one person. The purpose of his incarnation – was that "by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is the devil" (Hebrews 2:14). We can only be released from Satan's power and freed to serve God by the forgiveness and cleansing made possible by Jesus' death. Jesus removes the threat of judgment and condemnation for those who trust in him and gives assurance of life in the world to come
So for those who trust in him and follow him, the devil loses his grip. What was once a dungeon - death - is transformed into a doorway - a doorway into glory. Verse 15 asserts that before Christ comes into our lives, our greatest fear is death. A Christian has no need to fear death. Martin Luther wrote on this verse:
"He who fears death or is unwilling to die is not a Christian to a sufficient degree; for those who fear death still lack faith in the resurrection, since they love this life more than they love the life to come…"
Just before Christmas years ago, I took the funeral of Elsie, the longest standing member of JPC. She was baptized here in 1918 and married here in 1942. Elsie didn't fear death. She knew God was with her. On Christmas Day the year after I'll never forget going to visit Alice in hospital. Alice had cancer and was dying. But she was beaming and said to me, 'Jonathan, I'm not scared of dying. I know Jesus now. I know I'm going to be with him.' Yes "perfect love drives out fear" (1 John 4:18). But you might be thinking, 'Yes, but if Jesus has defeated the devil why is the devil still active?' Well a postman put it this way:
"Once I opened a gate only to find myself confronted by the largest and most vicious dog I had ever seen. It barked furiously and then leapt towards me. I stood there helpless and terrified until, to my immense relief, I saw that this massive, angry dog was chained to a huge stake set in concrete. The chain was a long one and the dog had considerable freedom, but not enough to reach me. I saw I could easily deliver the letter and did so. Whenever I had to visit that house I took little notice of the aggressive dog, instead keeping my eye on the strong stake! At the cross the enemy of souls, the devil, was made impotent, limited and chained down. When he's bitten us it's usually because we've been far too near."
And so finally,
Jesus the Great Sympathiser (v17-18)
"Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted."
In the Old Testament the high priest had to be blood kin to the people he represented. He offered animal sacrifices on their behalf. What's more, the high priest knew what it was like to be weak and tempted and so when he went into the temple to do his duty he wasn't supposed to do so in some morally superior way, rather he was to be tender-hearted towards God's people, because, he being one of them, understood them. But now we have Jesus as our high priest. He was both priest and victim on the cross. And now we can come to him in prayer when in need, with confidence that he knows what we're going through because he's been through the mill here himself. I need a God like that. Someone who's near and compassionate. Well, I do have that someone who proves himself faithful in the face of temptation and through times of suffering, of loneliness and loss. But only because, he shared our nature, experienced human frailty and suffered when he was tempted, is he able to provide the appropriate help to those who are being tempted and suffering.
A few Christmases ago a baby boy was born to a couple from JPC. It was soon realised that he needed a heart transplant. His parents feared for his future but they turned to Christ who was their strength and miraculously a new heart was found. As well as helping those who are afraid of the future, he also helps us by showing mercy. If death is the fear of the future, guilt is the fear of the past. Through his great salvation Jesus has made propitiation or appeased God's wrath for the sins of the people (v17). If we're trusting in Christ, in his death on the cross, then our sin has been dealt with past, present and future. Do you know Jesus - the great pioneer, liberator and sympathizer? And if you do, are you turning to him for help?