Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, 2but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. 3He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
I have a real groaner of a joke this week but the few verses in this morning’s passage gives me little to work with so bear with me. A chauvinistic husband and his godly wife were preparing to have breakfast when the wife asked, “Why do I always have to make the coffee?” The husband answered, “Because you’re the wife, that’s your job.” The wife replied, “Well, the Bible doesn’t say it’s the woman’s job to make the coffee, it’s the man’s!” Taken aback by this, the husband demands to see where in the Bible it states that he should be the one to make the coffee. “Well, here it is,” the godly woman replied, “Hebrews!”
And so we head off into a new sermon series exploring the wisdom of the book of Hebrews. It is one of the more complicated books in the Bible for a number of reasons. It doesn’t offer the rich wisdom and history of the Old Testament book nor does it present anything new about Jesus or the early church as revealed in Paul’s letters. No one knows quite who the author was and it is dated to between 65 and 70 A.D. By then, several congregations had been established and the Roman empire had become quite anxious over the growing Christian religion. Recall that the temple of Jerusalem was tragically burned down in 70 A.D. so tensions were running high when this book was written. As it’s title suggests, the intended audience of this book were Hebrews; more specifically, Jewish Christians. They were the 1st and 2nd generations Christians who still clung to their Jewish heritage. They weren’t fully convinced Jesus was their Messiah but were open to the possibility. The God they knew and trusted was the God of the Old Testament, not necessarily the God of the New Testament: Jesus. They were more comfortable with God’s laws and justice than with his grace and mercy. The author of Hebrews knew this was his audience, a people not completely sold on who Jesus is and the love he has to offer, and he had the goal of getting them to commit to Jesus’ lordship.
The opening verses of the book give a glimpse of how author set about reaching that goal. The author writes, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the world.” Jewish tradition had it’s purpose. It gave the people of Israel a foundation built on shared experiences and governing laws. The ancestors of old—Abraham, Moses, Jacob—they formed the people of Israel by leading them out of slavery and giving them structure and purpose. But they didn’t reveal much of God’s love and grace and mercy, at least not to the degree that Jesus does. No, we needed Jesus to reveal to us just how much God loves us. Jesus frees us from something greater than Egyptian slavery. Jesus frees us from slavery to sin and death. And Jesus gives us a greater purpose than just to live in cooperation and harmony with each other as laws are designed for. Jesus teaches us we must actually love each other! And he is the “heir of all things.” What a blessing! He rules over all of creation and he does so not with an iron fist but with love. Not all heirs oversee their inheritance with love. Many use their inheritance to wield power and subjugation. But not Jesus. Jesus oversees all that the Father has given him with love.
The author goes on to say how Jesus “is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.” Jesus is the embodiment of God’s glory. The prophets and leaders of the Old Testament all, in one way of another, revealed a portion of God’s glory. But they themselves were not God’s glory. No, God’s full glory is best revealed in Jesus. And Jesus’ very words are words of live and growth. They sustain us and all things in this world because they are rooted in love. Jesus, the great heir and sustainer of all things, is even greater than angels as the author goes on to explain. His death and resurrection illustrated a power much greater than anything angels can do. They can’t die and come back to life the way Jesus did. He is the great victor over sin and death, something no angel could ever claim.
Yes, in these opening verses, we can see the author wants us to see just how superior Jesus is: the great, loving heir, the sustainer, the victor. The author wanted those early Jewish Christians to see that their Jewish customs and traditions went only so far in creating and sustaining faith. They, and WE, need something more than laws and wisdom and history to know true joy in this world. We need God’s love and grace and mercy! We need Jesus! What Jesus has to offer is far better than any law or teaching or experience has to offer. The rest of the book of Hebrews will continue to show how superior Jesus is to Jewish customs and traditions in revealing the full glory of God.
Praying on this passage earlier this week, I couldn’t help recalling other passages from Scripture that illustrate the awesomeness of Jesus. We hear in the book of John how “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” There is great grace and truth in Jesus. He forgives and admonishes, both with equal love and support. And that amazing passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “[Jesus,] though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (2:6-11) This is the one we claim as Lord and Savior! No law, no teaching, no wisdom, no experience, could ever illustrate the sheer power of God’s glory as found in the life and death of Jesus!
The book of Hebrews is a complex book only because it’s trying to bridge the gap between law and gospel, two things us Lutherans have a long history of holding in tension. We need the law and tradition to maintain harmony but we also need love and grace to maintain joy. Let us appreciate the gifts of both and continue to hold them in tension throughout this sermon series. After all, it’s the Lutheran way!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.