Christmas – the purpose. That’s our theme this evening as Christmas Day approaches ever closer. If we conducted a voxpop in Northumberland Street I wonder what answers we’d get if we asked shoppers the purpose of Christmas? Well based on a newspaper survey yesterday these are the likely responses: presents, family time, holidays, making and spending money, a time for children and baby Jesus – in that order. Going by one school Christmas production I saw last week the purpose of Christmas today for some is simply to have a Winter Festival as our council and other councils now call it. They’ve done away with Jesus and the main characters are now Jack Frost, Santa, Dr Who, Shrek, John Lewis and the X Factor winner. And they’re happy to set their lives and futures by the Golden Compass movie – there is no God and there is no future beyond this life. So eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. But that’s a pagan Winter Festival which at best can offer us an imaginary saviour of the world in the form of Dr Who or retail therapy until you realise how much you’ve spent. Yet there is growing evidence that people want more than that.
Christmas is about Christ, the true Saviour of the world, about God coming into the world in the person of Jesus Christ, and the great message of salvation, of liberation from our chief enemies – sin, death and the devil. And the writer to the Hebrews calls us to hold fast to the Son of God and his message and not to drift. Not to drift away from the true message of Christmas and buy into the commercial one, not to forget the central character – Jesus himself – but to pay careful attention to him and his word. Look at v1 of chapter 2 of Hebrews:
“1We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.” (Hebrews 2:1)
And Christ came into the world at the very first Christmas, fully man and fully God, to rescue us, to liberate us,
“to bring many sons to glory” (2:10).
That was God’s original purpose. But why, how and what does it mean for us today? Well those questions are what the writer to the Hebrews now addresses as he argues that God the Son, Jesus Christ, had to share our humanity, to suffer and to die, so that we might share in his glory. So why? What happened such that we find ourselves in need of rescue, of true liberation? Well, the writer gives us a clue by the frequent mention of that great taboo - death. In v9 of Hebrews 2, he speaks of
“Jesus suffering death and tasting death for everyone.”
In v14 he emphasises Jesus’ humanity made of flesh and blood
“14…so that by his death, he might destroy the one who has power over death - the devil and so set us free from the fear of death.” (Hebrews 2:14)
Put simply, the reason why things are not as they were or 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, a malign angelic being called the devil. And death is the ultimate reminder that we cannot be our own Masters; that things have gone wrong and things 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 this malign angelic being who over the centuries has enticed men and women to carry out the gas chambers of Auschwitz and the killing fields of Cambodia, 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? From a human point of view it seems impossible. But what if God has taken the initiative? Then it is not impossible. And that is exactly what he has done in Jesus. Look again at v8-9 of Hebrews 2:
“Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. 9But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.” (Hebrews (2.8-9)
For a short period the eternal Son of God 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. He had to put up with noisy neighbours and grumbling relatives. But at the same time he began to show what man was meant to be like. He used his powers for the benefit of the weak and dispossessed. He tamed nature by calming the storm. 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 all of that was to change one Friday afternoon, when “he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone” with the result that he is now raised from the dead himself with a glorious resurrected body and exalted to the position above the angels seated 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 to my second heading
JESUS THE GREAT LIBERATOR V14-16
“14Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death - that is, the devil- 15and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. For surely it is not angels he helps, but Abraham's descendants.” (Hebrews 2.14-16)
In March 2005, Ashley Smith made headlines around the globe when she was taken hostage by an alleged killer for seven hours in her suburban Atlanta apartment. The 27-year-old widowed mother of her six-year-old girl had just moved to Atlanta, got a job, enrolled in a medical assistant training program, and was beginning to find her way when Brian Nichols took her hostage. Just hours earlier, he'd allegedly shot to death a judge, a court reporter, a deputy, and a federal agent, and escaped in a stolen vehicle. Ashley had paid only passing attention to media coverage of the unfolding manhunt. Now she found herself face to face with Nichols, a desperate, heavily armed man with nothing left to lose.
What a terrifying situation to be in. It was a very traumatic ordeal. Now in the end Ashley managed to escape with God’s help. Miraculously she was able to talk her way out of the hands of alleged courthouse killer Brian Nichols. Her faith helped her survive and bring the killer's murderous rampage to a peaceful end. But the writer to the Hebrews here 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, says our writer. He is Jesus Christ. And how he liberates! As we have seen, 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 is as human beings that we sin and it is 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 is more than a human being, a sort of representative, an infinite being who could pay for infinite sins. There is 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 he might die and “by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death – that is the devil.” We can only be released from Satan’s power and freed to serve God by the forgiveness or cleansing made possible by Jesus’ death. Jesus removes the threat of judgment and condemnation for those who trust in him and gives the assurance of life in the world to come. And in this sense too we are not inferior to angels, according to v 16, it is Abraham’s descendants he helps, not angels. Angels cannot be redeemed, but we can.
And 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 asserted that before Christ comes into our lives, our greatest fear is that of death. A truly committed Christian has no need to fear death. Commenting on these verses Martin Luther wrote:
“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…”
Last Friday I took the funeral of Elsie Sewell who until her death was the longest standing member of Jesmond Parish Church. She was baptized here in 1918 and was married here in 1942. Elsie did not fear death. She knew that God was with her. On Christmas Day last year I’ll never forget going to visit Alice Curbison in the General Hospital. Alice had cancer and was dying. But she was beaming and she said to me Jonathan, I’m not scared of dying. I know Jesus now. I know I’m going to be with him. She had been coming to church for a while with her daughter and son in law and then earlier that year she also came to some lunches and the Summer Special. At that she and an old friend of hers signed up for Christianity Explored and through that she came to have a real faith in Jesus Christ as her Saviour and Lord. Her faith along with the support of her family kept her going through some very painful times during her illness. You see as 1 John 4:18 says:
“18Perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.” (1 John 4.18)
Alice knew the love of God, she knew Jesus the great liberator who by his death and resurrection has defeated sin, death and the devil. As Paul puts it in 1 Corinthians 15:57:
“57Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15.57)
But some of you might be thinking, ‘Yes, but if Jesus has defeated the devil why is the devil still active, tempting us and wanting to devour us?’ Well one writer who used to be 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 has bitten us it’s usually because we have been far too near.” All of which brings us finally to
JESUS THE GREAT SYMPATHIZER V17-18
“17For this reason he had to be made like his brothers in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people. 18Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” (Hebrews 2.17-18)
In the OT the High Priest had to be blood kin to the people he represented. He offered animal sacrifices on their behalf. What is 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 was not supposed to do so in some morally superior way, rather he was to be tender hearted towards God’s people, feel for them, because he being one of them understood them so well. But now we have Jesus as our high priest. He was both priest and victim on the cross. And now in glory we can come to him in prayer when in need with the confidence that he knows full well what we’re going through because he’s been through the mill himself. I don’t know about you but I need a God like that. Someone who is near and compassionate, who will draw close and get me through. Well, I do have that someone and he proves himself reliable over and over again when I’m fearful and when I’m being tempted to drift. Again 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. As we’ve already seen he helps those who are afraid – afraid of the future, afraid of death. 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 expiation (atonement) or propitiation (appeased God’s wrath) for the sins of the people (v17). The just wrath of God was exercised toward men on account of their sin. But Christ dealt with that situation. He made the propitiation that was necessary, and so sin is no longer operative. If we’re trusting in Christ, in his death on the cross, then our sin has been dealt with past, present and future.
I’ve also known his faithfulness as I’ve struggled with temptation and he’s helped me to resist. He is a faithful as well as a merciful High Priest who comes to our help when we’re tempted. He also shows us how to react to suffering. And he doesn’t just show us and teach us – he also supports us and strengthens us when we’re right in the midst of it. Many of us have experienced his grace, mercy and strength in very difficult times. At almost this time last year a baby was born to a couple from this congregation. It was discovered within hours that he had a major heart problem and had to be rushed to the Paediatric ICU at the Freeman Hospital. After much prayer and medical skill Andrew was miraculously able to have a heart transplant and will be celebrating his first birthday next weekend. His parents John and Sarah went through many emotions and questions. No doubt at times they feared Andrew might die. But through it all they were able to turn to Christ who is near and know his help, his strength, his faithfulness, his instruction and care. They personally know Jesus - the great pioneer, the great liberator and the great sympathizer. Do you? And if you do are you turning to him for help? If you don’t know him but want to; or if you have questions sign up for the Christianity Explored Taster Session with a meal on Wednesday January 23rd or Thursday January 24th at 7.30pm in Jesmond Parish Church.