Sermon from Sunday 14th October

Hebrews 1: 1–4, 2 :5-9


I remember young Bill from one of my previous parishes.  I was talking to his father just after he had been suspended from the local Primary School again.  Bill had what the teachers called some behavioral issues, and we can imagine what lies behind that polite description.  His father was despairing and angry and didn’t know what to do about his lad who was forever getting into trouble at school.  In the course of the conversation I asked the father if he had enjoyed school when he was a boy.  O no, he said, I was always in trouble.  I spent more time on the roof being chased by the janitor than I did in the classroom.  I’m afraid I didn’t have the nerve to suggest that there might be a connection!

It is one of the awful things about having children, that we look at them and recognise something of ourselves, and it’s not always as pleasant as we might like!  We are all more like our parents than we might like to imagine, and these days we are finding scientific explanations of why that is and how it comes about.  We all resemble our parents in one way or another, and whether we can follow the science or not - I’m sure we will all recognise the truth in that.

Yet it is a very pale reflection of the immense theological statement with which the writer of the letter to the Hebrews introduces his great topic.  He says of Jesus Christ that, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being”.  We can say that as if it is just a fact, a description,like saying he had long hair or a beard or something.  But to proclaim Jesus Christ as the son of God is not only to say something important about Jesus; it is also to say something incredible about God.  For if we say that Jesus is like God, then we are also saying that God must be like Jesus.  The resemblance works both ways,  and the words chosen to express it are deliberate and precise: the radiance of God’s glory, the exact representation of his being.

The writer of those words would have been familiar with Roman coins which carried an imprint of the head of the Emperor.  The image of the Emperor would be very carefully made by an expert craftsman and carefully carved in hard metal.  This master copy would then be imprinted on to the softer metal of the coins.  So even though the Empire was vast, and most people would never get close to seeing Emperor face to face, everyone who handled a coin in a marketplace would see this representation of him and know what he looked like.  That is far less than what is claimed here about Jesus Christ being the exact image of God, but it is perhaps the thought that lies behind the language, for the Greek word that is used is the very same word that was used for the imprint on a coin.

The claim is that Jesus Christ is the exact likeness of God, and while we can never see God we can know what God is like because we can see what Jesus is like.  This is not about mere physical likeness of course, this is deeper truth than that.  It a huge statement to make.  Firstly it is an astonishing claim to make about the man Jesus who had walked and talked and eaten and drank with fellow humans in the recent past.  Secondly it is an astonishing claim to make about God.  How can we mere mortals know what God is like?  Of course we can’t.  Or at least we couldn’t until he chose to reveal himself in the life of Jesus, who, like the son of a father bore his likeness and who came among us as one of us.  Like the son of a father – only much more so.

So we can know that the creator of all is as concerned about the practicalities of human life as Jesus clearly was, as willing to forgive those who had gone wrong as Jesus clearly was, as willing to heal those who were hurting as Jesus clearly was, s willing to share in our human suffering as Jesus clearly was.  However this, huge in its significance as this is, is only the beginning of what the writer to the Hebrews is proclaiming.  “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son”. 

The writer is saying that we can look back at the teachings of the prophets, we can look back at the whole religious tradition before Jesus that we have in our Old Testament, and we can see now that they were all pointing to something that Jesus had now fulfilled.  All those strange sounding comments about a suffering servant, all the laws about how to live in a way that honouring to God, all the prophetic calls to live justly and fairly, the instructions to care for the foreigners and the poor and the weak.  It wasn’t always clear what the purpose might be, or what it might all lead to, but now that we have known Jesus, and seen how he lived, it all begins to make sense in new way.

It is a bit like watching one of those clever films with a surprise ending.  If we watch the film again, knowing how it ends, we see things we hadn’t noticed before and see significance in a word or a lingering glance that didn’t seem to matter before.  So we can look back to the law given to Moses and while it was glorious on its own it all makes a new kind of sense now that we have seen Jesus as the living fulfilment of all the Law was trying to point us to.  Jesus is greater than the law, the message he brings about the will of God in the world is more significant than anything given in the past.

The writer to the Hebrews is packing significance into every word he uses, proclaiming a massive message in a few words, but if this were all he had to say than it might still be little more than a history lesson for us.  So here is his point.  Just as there were messages in the past that only fully made sense when Christ came, so the things that Christ said and did will only fully make sense in the future, when he reigns in the new kingdom that he so often spoke about.  “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things …”

Perhaps it seems natural enough that God should appoint his only son as his heir, after all that is how it usually works.  Yet that image only makes sense if God were expecting to die someday and leave things behind, and that seems as unlikely as it is undesirable.  The metaphor is clearly imperfect, but the vital point is that the work which Jesus began on earth was not just a way of passing time before he could be raised to glory.  What he began is something that will be seen through to completion, the concerns of Jesus are the concerns of God and the purpose of Jesus is the purpose of God.

So, this is also pointing to the future.  In one sentence the writer is commenting on the present, explaining the past and describing the future, which is a fairly ambitious way to begin a letter.  So already, in the first few verses the relevance for us of what he is writing about starts to open up.  The relevance is that we can know and we can be sure that when we join in with the work that Jesus began we are not wasting our time, we are not missing the point, we are not stuck in the past.  We are participating in the purpose of God, something that is still to come to fruition.

We might not be able to understand it all yet, and living in these dramatic days which we find ourselves in it is hard to envisage any kind of future.  Yet some day it will all make sense and we will understand and the values that we try to live will be the values that govern the universe.  Mercy and compassion will reign, the hungry will be fed, and the poor will be lifted up, and the peacemakers will be blessed, and those who mourn shall be comforted, and the meek shall inherit the earth.  For God did not subject the coming world to the rule of human beings, and he did not subject it to the angels, but he did subject it to Jesus Christ, putting all things under his feet, leaving nothing outside his control.

It is a huge vision that we are offered, it is a massive message that we are given, and that is only the introduction, only the opening verses.  Whatever we may face in these changing times, whatever the challenges that confront us or the speed of change that seems to overwhelm us, this is the faith that we are offered.  It is the faith of Jesus, and it has outlasted many changes, and it will outlast many more.