A sermon on Hebrews 2:10-18
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
December 29, 2019
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
Here we are on the Sunday after Christmas. By now, the relatives have mostly all gone home. (For some of us, that no doubt is a good thing…) The brightly colored Christmas gifts have been opened and are being enjoyed. There are only a few of the leftovers from Christmas dinner to be eaten. Special seasonal programs at school and other places have been performed and enthusiastically received. The round of Christmas parties is now over. And after weeks of being on display, the Christmas tree in the family room is drying out some and is beginning to look a little bit worse for wear.
We had some great times at First Baptist this month. We were able to show our church off to good effect during the “Historic Downtown Church Open House Tour” on the 14th. By doing so, we helped to raise over $1000 for Interfaith Outreach. And then on the next day, our Chancel Choir and cellist Anna Hutcherson blessed us with wonderful Christmas music, highlighted by Caleb’s memorable performance of “O Holy Night.” And then we followed that by the reception in the Fellowship Hall. (Such good food…I do not think that anyone went away hungry that day! I certainly know that I didn’t!)
And then there was the Christmas Eve service. We had a nice attendance where we welcomed several guests and friends and family that we had not seen in a while. Honestly there’s nothing like the feeling when you get when you reverently sing “Silent Night” while holding a lighted candle in the darkened beauty of the First Baptist Church sanctuary. That whole experience takes on an almost mystical quality. I do not know about you, but I do not think that Christmas celebrations get much better than that…
And so we put Christmas 2019 in the books. From my experience, the Sunday after Christmas is inevitably something of a letdown after all the excitement, activity and anticipation in the run-up to Christmas. Although it sometimes brings a sigh of relief to us, it can also bring a note of sadness…
Fred Pratt Green was one of the most prolific and noteworthy of hymn writers in the latter half of the 20th Century. After retiring from the Methodist ministry in 1969, Fred turned his attention to hymn writing as an avocation. The best of his hymns are of such quality that few hymn books nowadays do not contain some of them. (Even though our hymn book was published in 1986—long after Mr. Green had become established as a major new hymn writing voice. Incredibly, our hymn book does not include any of his work…) He is the author of such hymns as “When the Church of Jesus,” “When in Our Music God is Glorified,” (perhaps the best hymn ever written on the importance of music in worship), and “For the Fruit of All Creation,” a wonderful Thanksgiving hymn. Those songs are now regularly sung in many churches across the denominational spectrum…
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` In 1975, Fred wrote a poem that he included in his Christmas cards that year. The poem was titled “A Carol for the Sunday after Christmas.” In it, he captured the feelings that many of us experience after the rush and excitement of the holiday season is over. The first two stanzas of this poem go like this:
There’s snow on the mountain and ice on the pond;
The Wise Men are home now in the back of beyond;
The Shepherds have left us; the heavens are dumb;
There’s no one to tell us why Jesus has come.
The tree drops its needles, a sign we must go;
But the long road to Egypt is covered with snow;
And wherever we travel, the food will be dear:
Who knows what’s before us this coming New Year?1
The writer of the book of Hebrews in today’s passage wrestles with the question of “So what?”—in much the same way as done in “A Carol for the Sunday after Christmas.” Okay—yes—God has come to be among us in the person of Jesus Christ to bring us salvation. That is why he came. That is the meaning of “the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.” But so what? What does that really mean in our day-to-day lives? How does the knowledge that Emmanuel—“God is with us”—which is one of the great and wonderful promises of the Christmas season—shape our lives for post-Christmas living? Good question…
Hebrews 2 gives us four images of who Christ is and what it means to follow him. Each one helps us to think about where we have been, where we are, and where we are going as believers in Jesus. Each one helps to answer the question “So What?”
Verses 12 and 13 tell us that Jesus is our brother. It says, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters…and here am I and the children that God has given me.” The scripture proclaims that we are no longer outsiders in God’s family, but that we have a place amongst God’s children. We are related to God’s own unique son, Jesus. And if Jesus calls us his brothers and sisters, it is not because we are so impressive in our lives…or not because we deserve to be…or not because we have somehow earned it by doing enough good deeds. No—none of those things can ever be true. But here’s the good news: they do not have to be true in order to be right with God. Instead Jesus calls us his siblings solely as an act of God’s grace. He desires to connect with us on a more personal level. We can enjoy that kind of relationship with him—as close and intimate as the best of family relationships can be. That is what it means to have Jesus as our brother…
1 Fred Pratt Green, The Hymns and Ballads of Fred Pratt Green (Carol Stream, IL: Hope Publishing Company, 1983), 78. I am not aware that any hymnal has included this poem, but if you are daring enough, perhaps you would like to sing it softly to yourself using the tune for “Away in a Manger.”
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A second image of who Jesus is can be described as that of a warrior, a champion fighting on our behalf. Verse 14 tells us that, through his death, Jesus has come to destroy the power of death and be our liberator. Yes—our liberator. Verse 15 says that he came to “free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.” And the writer of Hebrews goes on to state that God did not do this for angels. NO. Not at all. Instead he did this only for humans—people just like you and me. The fear of death has been one of the things that humanity has feared since the dawn of time. I guess that is because, from all outward appearances, death seems to be the end of our life. Everything that we have worked and striven for is swept away in death. And aside from some hints and clues that are given in the scriptures, no one knows for sure exactly what lies ahead after we die.
And yet, by defeating death—the greatest enemy of all—Jesus also defeated and freed us from all of the things which would seek to capture and control us. This includes those things which we choose and those things which happen to us over which we have no control. Whatever the darkness that we face in our lives, Christ has defeated them all. And his power is available to us as his followers to prevail over whatever would seek to exert its power over us.
A third image in this passage is that of Jesus as our high priest. Verse 17 tells us that “he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people.” In this verse, Jesus is portrayed as both a high priest and the sacrifice which the high priest offers to God on behalf of the sins of the people. And verse 18 tells us that, because of his suffering, he is able to help those who are tempted.
Unlike others in the Christian household of faith, in the Baptist church, we do not have ministers designated as “priests.” That is because the definition of a “priest” is someone who speaks to God on behalf of the people—and who also speaks exclusively to the people on behalf of God. A priest is, therefore, a go-between between God and the people.
As Baptists, we hold strongly to a precious core belief known as “the priesthood of the believer.” A high-sounding theological concept which means simply this: as Baptists, we believe that you do not need a person to speak to God on your behalf—nor that God can only speak to you through an ordained minister. NO. A thousand times “NO.” What we believe is that the Bible teaches that every person is able to speak to—and to listen for—God for himself or herself. We believe that there is no need for a go-between between you and God. You are fully competent to stand before God and you have complete access to God without any interference from anyone else.
But while we do not have earthly priests who are go-betweens between us and God, Hebrews teaches us that Jesus Christ himself is one who acts as a high priest on our behalf. It is Christ who speaks to God on our behalf…and also speaks to us on God’s behalf.
In Romans 8:26-27, the Apostle Paul unpacks some of this mystery when he tells us that it is the Holy Spirit who works within in us on our behalf to act as go-between between us and God. There the
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scripture says, “In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.” Even when we go astray…even when we go off the rails…even when we fail to do what God wants us to do as his people, we know that our high priest Jesus pleads for us on our behalf…and speaks to us on God’s behalf in order to get us back on the right path…
So far this morning, we have briefly discussed three images that Hebrews 2 shows us that describe the work of Christ in our lives—Jesus as our brother, Jesus as our warrior and liberator, and Jesus as our high priest. In the time that we have remaining, I want to focus on the one other image in this passage. It is mentioned in verse 10. It speaks of the image of Jesus as “the pioneer of our salvation.”
The Greek word translated here as “pioneer” is the word archēlos. It is a word rich in meanings that is used four times in the New Testament. In the first two instances in Acts, it is translated as “prince.” There is one other place in the New Testament where it is used. It is also in the book of Hebrews—a well-known verse in chapter 12: “Let us look to Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.” In addition to those variants, archēlos is variously translated in other non-Bible 1st Century writings as “leader,” “founder,” and “originator.” So let’s ask the question: What does it mean when the writer of Hebrews describes Jesus as the “pioneer of our salvation?”
The word “pioneer” is defined as “a person who is the first or the earliest to explore or settle a new country.” When I hear the word “pioneer,” I immediately think of the American Old West. And it reminds me of the Oregon Trail.
The Oregon Trail was the first of the main trails that brought settlers from east of the Mississippi River to the west coast of America. The trail began in Independence, Missouri, wound its way through a number of unorganized territories, and eventually ended in Oregon City, Oregon. To travel the entire trail was to cover some 2,130 miles. It was established in the 1830’s, initially serving as a footpath mostly used by trappers and hunters. But by the late 1840’s, the trail had been enlarged and improved in order to accommodate the increasing number of wagons and wagon trains heading west. These wagons were filled with people who were hoping to make a new life for themselves in the newly opened territories of Wyoming, Colorado, California and Oregon. In the minds of many of these pioneers, traveling West was something like the journey in Exodus through the Wilderness in order to get to the Promised Land.
Life for these pioneers traveling the Oregon Trail was hard. It was a long arduous journey, and the way was fraught with danger. Many of them were ill-prepared for what they encountered, even though there were plenty of guide books available to help them get ready. It is estimated that not quite 10% of all the people who traveled the Trail died before they reached their destination. Diseases like cholera, dysentery, scurvy, and hypothermia all took their toll. Attacks from Native Americans were an ever-present danger and they significantly increased after 1860. Robbers and bandits considered the
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pioneers to be easy targets—especially if they were foolish enough to travel alone. Accidents involving firearms, tools and wagons also claimed a number of lives. And there was little hope for the wagon train that failed to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains ahead of the winter storms. There are stories of whole caravans freezing to death in the brutal winter months in the mountains.
In doing the research for this sermon, I discovered that a whole economy grew up around items that were discarded by pioneers traveling the Trail. When they started out, many pioneers would bring furniture and other family heirlooms with them in their wagons. They intended to use them to furnish the new homes that they would build once they arrived at their destination. But as the hardships increased, space in the wagons was needed for essentials like food and fuel. Consequently much of the furniture and many of these prized possessions were eventually cast off and abandoned by the side of the road. These items would be later claimed by others who would sell them at local trading posts… or they would auction them off to other pioneers who had stopped and decided to settle nearby.
The writer of Hebrews writes that Jesus is the pioneer of our salvation. In considering the nature of being a pioneer, it seems to me that the writer intends for us to know that Jesus was a trailblazer. A pathfinder. No one else had been able to show us the way through the spiritual wilderness. No one else before Jesus had been able to do what he was able to do to bring us salvation—to reconcile us with God—to truly demonstrate what it means to live a godly life. Jesus braved the dangers—both physical dangers and the spiritual dangers in his life—to show us how to deal with the forces arrayed against us. He suffered so that he might be able to teach us the way of serving God. Jesus took away the fear of death by exposing it for what it is—that death, the great enemy, is ultimately powerless over the child of God. He became an example to us of what the Spirit-filled life looked like.
And he also showed us what is needful as we seek his presence in our lives. A lot of people carry with them baggage that hinders—and does not help—their relationship to God. Just like the furniture and family heirlooms that the pioneers of the Oregon Trail wound up abandoning by the side of the trail, Jesus demonstrated that we too do not need to keep excess baggage in our lives—excess baggage like the painful memories of sin and failure, the striving to work our way into pleasing God in our own strength, the meticulous and soul-killing observance of a list of laws and rituals. Jesus did not need those things in order to live a life completely dedicated to God. And he demonstrated that we too can unburden ourselves of them as well. We too can cast them out of our lives. They are no longer critical in serving God. They were no longer necessary to what it means to live the abundant life that Jesus promised his followers. We can say with the writer of Hebrews in Hebrews 12:1-2, “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. And let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith…” 2
2 Here I have followed the lead of the New Revised Standard Version which translates archēlos as “pioneer” as it does in Hebrews 2:10.
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Early on in the sermon, I read to you the first two stanzas of the poem “A Carol for the Sunday after Christmas.” So now, as the sermon draws to a close, let me share with you the third and final stanza:
But God’s in his heaven, and Jesus has come
To show every sinner he’s welcome back home,
To be this world’s Saviour from hunger and fear,
And give us new courage to face the New Year.
To God alone be the glory…and all of God’s people said, “Amen.”