Sunday, October 28, 2018

Sermon - Who Touched Me? - Unnoticed Grace


You can listen to the audio here.

One cold January morning in a Metro subway station in Washington D.C., a man removed a violin from its case and began to play. He performed six complex Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, rush hour, thousands of people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.
Three minutes went by before a middle-aged man noticed there was a musician playing. He slowed his pace and stopped for a few seconds and then hurried to meet his schedule.
The violinist received his first tip when a woman threw a dollar into his case without stopping her walk. A few minutes later, a man leaned against the wall to listen briefly but quickly looked at his watch and started to walk again. Clearly, he was late for work.
The one who paid the most attention was a 3-year-old boy. His hurried mother dragged him along, but the kid stopped to look at the violinist. Finally, the mother pushed hard, and the child started to walk again, turning his head all the time. This action was repeated by several other children. All the parents, without exception, forced them to move on.
In the forty-five minutes the musician played, only six people stopped and stayed for a while. About twenty gave him money but continued to walk their normal pace. He collected thirty-two dollars. When he finished playing and silence took over, no one noticed. No one applauded, nor was there any recognition.
There is a great YouTube video of these events. I will be happy to send you the link if you want it. [https://video.search.yahoo.com/search/video?fr=tightropetb&p=joshua+bell+washington+post#id=2&vid=563be6fa3e657bf71850a77d4fc710d4& action=click]
No one knew or recognized violinist Joshua Bell, Grammy Award and Avery Fisher Prize-winning professor at the Royal Academy of Music, Music Director of the Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, and one of the best musicians in the world, who has played with every major orchestra on six continents and before three American presidents. In the subway station, he played six of the most intricate pieces ever written on an instrument worth nearly four million dollars.
Two days before playing in the subway, he sold out a theater in Boston where the average ticket cost a hundred dollars.
Bell’s playing incognito in the Metro station was organized by the Washington Post as part of a social experiment about the public’s perception, taste, and priorities. The question posed by the experiment was this: In a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive genius? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize the talent in an unexpected context? In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, does beauty transcend? Bell did not play “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” or “What Makes You Beautiful,” popular tunes whose familiarity alone might have drawn interest. That was not the test. These were masterpieces that have endured for centuries on their brilliance alone, soaring music befitting the grandeur of cathedrals and concert halls. [https://www.washingtonpost.com/lifestyle/magazine/pearls-before-breakfast-can-one-of-the-nations-great-musicians-cut-through-the-fog-of-a-dc-rush-hour-lets-find-out/2014/09/23/8a6d46da-4331-11e4-b47c-5889e061e5f_story.html?utm_term=. d364af70b8a2]
One of the possible conclusions from this experiment could be: If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?
 And when Jesus had crossed again in the boat to the other side, a great crowd gathered about him, and he was beside the sea. Then came one of the rulers of the synagogue, Jairus by name, and seeing him, he fell at his feet and implored him earnestly, saying, “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her, so that she may be made well and live.” And he went with him. And a great crowd followed him and thronged about him. And there was a woman who had had a discharge of blood for twelve years, and who had suffered much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had, and was no better but rather grew worse. She had heard the reports about Jesus and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his garment. For she said, “If I touch even his garments, I will be made well.” And immediately the flow of blood dried up, and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. And Jesus, perceiving in himself that power had gone out from him, immediately turned about in the crowd and said, “Who touched my garments?” And his disciples said to him, “You see the crowd pressing around you, and yet you say, ‘Who touched me?’ And he looked around to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling and fell down before him and told him the whole truth. And he said to her, “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.” [Mark 5:21-34]


This is the Gospel of Grace for the People of Christ. Thanks be to God.
Did Jesus not know who touched Him? Were there things about the people in His path that Jesus did not comprehend?
You might want to answer “Yes” because of passages like Mark 6:6, which says that Jesus was “amazed” at the lack of faith of Jews from His home town. Luke 7:9 (the same as Matthew 8:10) says that He was "amazed" at the faith of the Gentile centurion. Does amazement mean surprise? Does it indicate lack of knowledge?
Think of your reaction the last time you saw a sunrise, were in the room when a baby was born, or smelled a rose. Perhaps you have seen the pyramids or watched Michael Jordan soar. Some writers call these “Aha moments.”
You have had “Aha moments.” The hymn-writer says that we stand amazed in the presence of Jesus. We wonder how He could love us – that wonder does not mean we are ignorant and need information; it means that we are awestruck by it all. I think Jesus was amazed in that sense, not in ignorance, but in awestruck astonishment that people can see the miracles of God and not believe. I was amazed at the concert Gena and I got to attend this week when I heard Josh Groban and Idina Menzel sing. But that does not mean that I do not believe that Groban or Menzel can do what they do. I believe it, and I understand it, but I am still amazed. Jesus was amazed, not perplexed.
The story of the woman who touches the hem of Jesus's garment is familiar. As Jesus is on His way to Jairus's home in order (as we find out in a few verses) to raise the man's daughter from the dead, His clothes are touched by a sick woman. She is immediately healed. Mark tells us that Jesus feels power go out from Himself and turns and asks, "Who touched my garments?"
I have often wondered about this little story. Why would Jesus ask this? As I mentioned earlier, a popular explanation is that the crowd around Jesus is so pressing and so large that He simply does not know which person among many has touched His clothes.
There are many who conclude that He asked this question out of ignorance in order to find out information, just like we do. It follows, then, that His asking who touched Him is a result of the fact that the crowd is so big and so dense that He just does not know who touched Him, probably could not even feel her touch His garment, so He does not know whom He has healed when power flows out. I have read many commentators this week who take just that approach. One talked about how “surprised” Jesus must have been that some unknown person was healed.
That explanation does not work for me. If Jesus does not know who has reached out to Him, then the healing is simply an impersonal passing of power from the Christ to a sick person, transmitted through touch of fabric by happenstance, without Jesus's independent knowledge of the faith of the one seeking the healing… sort of like people sending a handkerchief through the mail to a televangelist so that he can bless it and send it back to them to rub on their injuries. That interpretation, that Jesus felt power go out of Him and was confused and surprised and therefore was asking who the lucky winner was, sells Jesus short. Mark and Luke both tell us that the crowd was pressing around Jesus, so clearly many were touching Him; yet curiously no one else was healed.
This woman reached out to Jesus. English translations attempting to provide a clear and understandable story don’t give us the dramatic way the scene is described in Greek. In a more literal rendering, you should hear the string of participles that build up, finally culminating in the woman's action: "And a woman – having been bleeding for twelve years, and having suffered greatly from many physicians, and having spent all she had, and having benefited not one bit but rather having gone from bad to worse, having heard about Jesus, having come in the crowd from behind – touched his cloak." … What does it mean for this woman to tell the whole truth? Is she confessing something about her plan and her confidence in Jesus? Is she telling the truth about herself? Professor Mark Hoffman imagines her saying something like, "I was desperate, and you were my last hope." [http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=335]
 I imagine her, in her own way … tentative, unsure, without drawing attention … saying “Precious Lord, take my hand. I am tired. I am weak. I am worn.”
The healings of Jesus are personal extensions of Himself. I cannot accept the explanation that he was baffled by the identity of the person He had just healed. Jesus acts neither blindly nor randomly. The control of the when and how of His miraculous work is not ceded by Jesus to any person who happens to choose to reach out and touch Him at a coincidentally correct time.
If the Lord heals, even once, without knowing, without doing it intentionally, without choosing to extend healing to one who Jesus knows has reached out in faith, then everything we know about Jesus is wrong. That would mean that Jesus does not act out of love. It would mean that His extensions of grace are accidents.
But, of course, everything we know about Jesus is not wrong. He knows us and loves us and extends grace to us out of His immeasurable kindness. He tells the woman that He has healed her precisely because of her faith. There is a balm in Gilead.
Of course, Jesus knows immediately who has touched Him. He cannot be asking “Who touched me?” in order to find out information.
So, then, the issue becomes one that is interesting to me: Why does Jesus ask a question if he already knows the answer? Are there other examples of questions Jesus asks?
So, I counted. I bet I could have found something on the internet where someone else had done it, but I did it myself. Not counting repeated questions in parallel accounts, and not including questions asked by characters within parables, I count 175 questions asked by Jesus in the Bible. As I read them, not a single one is a question that Jesus asks out of ignorance or limited knowledge.
As I mentioned in a sermon back in the spring, the questions of Jesus fall into six categories. 90 of them are teaching devices, 31 are rhetorical questions, 30 of them are challenges, 13 are essentially "parental" questions, 10 are devices to set up miracles, and one is not really a question at all but rather a cry of anguish.
First are the teaching questions, devices to get the audience to think through issues: Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?... If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? … Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? …  Which of these three proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers? … Saul, why are you persecuting me? 
None of these arises from a need to know an answer.  Each of them instead, like the query of a law professor using the Socratic method, is meant to force the hearer to think through a proposition and learn something important.
Next are the rhetorical questions. These are not asked to gain information, for it is obvious from the context that Jesus knows the answer and is using them to make a point: Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles? ... Who are my mother and brothers? ... Why do you call me good?
The rhetorical question technique of Jesus reminds us of “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” from Shakespeare or even “How do you solve a problem like Maria?”  Jesus’s use of the device is much more serious, but the tactic is the same.
Then, there are the challenges, designed to make the recipient of the question step up to the plate, as it were, and make a decision or face facts: Who do you say I am?... Do you betray me with a kiss? ... Woman, why are you crying? Who are you looking for? … Do you believe I am able to do this?
One does not hear that and decide there is a need to explain anything to Jesus. You hear that question and look deep into your own soul.
I identify a lot with the next group, the “parental” questions. These are statements of fact put into a question, such as, "Jocelyn, don't you know that broccoli is good for you?" or reactions to situations others have gotten themselves into, akin to a mother’s reacting to her son with "What are you up to now?" or my asking my daughter Annessa, “Are you ever going to straighten up your room?" That question is not meant to illicit the answer "Why, yes sir, at 7:47 p.m. on Thursday I shall begin the cleaning process." These Biblical questions are in a similar vein: How long shall I put up with you? ... Didn't you know I would be about my Father's business? ... Can't you stay awake with me? ... Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and not do what I say? … Why does this generation seek a sign?
There is the cry of anguish. "Eli Eli, lema sabachthani?" is not a request for an explanation or for information. Yes, it has a question mark on it, but Jesus knows the answer. This is a very human moment, but the limitations here, on the cross, are death and pain, not ignorance.
Finally, then, as in our scripture today, there are the miracle setups, like the question from the hem of the garment story, the “Who touched me?” question. These are not seeking information. These are questions used by Jesus to set the stage for what He is about to do or to explain what He has just done. At Cana, when He asks Mary, "Why do you involve me? My hour has not yet come," He is not literally asking her to explain herself (obviously, since He does not wait for an answer). Instead, He is making a point. Similarly, at the feedings of the 5000 and 4000, "How many loaves do you have?" is not asking for data, as if the key to whether or not He will perform a miracle hinges on whether there is enough bread; instead, Jesus is asking them to notice the paucity of raw materials they have so that what He is about to do is clear. There are many other examples: To the man who sees what look like trees walking, the Lord asks, “Do you see anything?” He is not checking to see if He has botched a healing. He is asking the recipient to narrate the experience of being healed as it occurs. When Jesus asks, “How long has your son been like this?”, He does not need that intelligence report in order to heal, nor is He engaging in small talk. He is making a point to those around Him. When He asks, “Where have you laid him?”, Jesus does not need directions to Lazarus's tomb. This is classic scene setup. Think about questions like “What do you want me to do for you?” or “Have you caught any fish?”
The question is not answered by information but is instead part of the event.
In our scripture for today, when Jesus turns to say, “Who touched my clothes?”, He knows very well who touched Him. Jesus is making a point.
Do you know? Did you notice? Who touched me? 
Jesus, who is on His way to the house of an important man with an urgent need, pauses that journey and (first!) heals a person who would be considered "unimportant" by virtually everyone around, and then Jesus takes the opportunity to teach. One lesson, of course, is that He wants a woman – this woman - to be noticed. He knows that her faith is exemplary, and He wants us to see it.
Another lesson is that her uncleanness does not dissuade Him from touching her, for Jesus is stronger than any affliction. He is not afraid of becoming unclean Himself. Despite what the Jews believe and fear about touching the unclean, Jesus is greater than their fears. When Jesus touches, He makes her clean.
But there is a much more nuanced lesson that we must not miss. Stopping His important trip, having quietly healed the formerly-bleeding woman, Jesus asks the question to make the point that only He had noticed her. He says to those with Him - undoubtedly Peter and Thaddeus and Judas and Matthew and the rest - "So, did you see? Are you aware? Of this whole crowd, who reached out to me? Out of these good people, whom did I heal? In the midst of this group, did you observe the power of God displayed?  Were you conscious of the genius right next to you playing Bach on the multimillion-dollar Stradivarius?”
The disciples are clueless. “Master, there are an awful lot of people here. And besides that, we are focused on the important job of getting to this important man's house. You can't have expected us to notice anything else.”
Jesus could ask – and I believe He does ask – the same question today. We churchgoing Christians rush around on crucial errands. We direct Jesus in the way we want Him to go, aiming Him at the right person who has asked in the acceptable way for proper help. On the way, we are surrounded by many others, some of whom desperately need the touch of the Master. He gives just that touch right in our presence, and we are none the wiser. The greatest violin player the world has ever seen is playing the most awesome music that could ever be written, while dunking like Michael Jordan and singing like Josh Groban – all at the same time – and we do not sense it. We miss the Aha moment. 
We do not stand amazed.
The sick and the seeking are stepping out in faith right under our noses. Triumphantly, Jesus sees them and their faith and responds as only He can. Tragically, we too often do not notice.
Maybe it is because we are distracted with serving Christ in a different way. Like the priest and the Levite who pass the wounded man in the Good Samaritan Story, we are too busy going to Jairus’s house. Too often, I fear, we miss the work of God because we are preoccupied with ourselves, our politics, our problems, our narrow views of how God works … our so-called important stuff.
The real possibility of unnoticed grace is a major reason our Catholic and Episcopal friends have developed a system of sacraments – tangible expressions of grace. For a Catholic, experiencing the Eucharist or confession and penance or receiving last rites is a physical manifestation of grace they don’t want to miss.
My late uncle, Dr. Charles Wellborn, entitled one of his books Grits, Grace, and Goodness. His title comes from the story of the traveler making his first visit to the South, eating breakfast at a diner in Georgia. When the plate came, there was a side dish he could not identify. Told by the waitress that it was grits, he responded that he had not ordered grits. Her response – a truism any Southerner would understand without being told – was, “Oh, Honey, you don’t have to order ‘em. Grits just come.” Compelled by the universality of the image, Uncle Charles wrote that grace, like grits with your ham and eggs south of the Mason Dixon line, “just comes,” whether we order it or not. 
There is, of course, Grace with a capital G. It is the “Amazing Grace” that saves us, the “marvelous, infinite, matchless Grace” that is greater than all our sin. We do not order, request, or earn saving Grace. It just comes, offered freely to all. It is up to us to respond to it.
There are many other kinds of grace, with a small g, ranging from the little to the mighty, from the unnoticed to the obvious, from the natural to the miraculous. This grace with a small g comes often, and it comes to point the way to Grace with a capital G. 
God repeatedly sends capital-G Grace our way to give us every possible chance to accept the free gift of eternal life; and little-g grace comes every day because the kingdom of God is at hand. God loves us so much that He lavishes His unmerited favor on us in ways too numerous to quantify.
We do not put in a request for it…. Grace always comes, but we do not always acknowledge or even recognize it. Like the power that saved the bleeding woman, grace can go unnoticed. Maybe because we cannot earn it or work for it or deserve it – no matter how many good things we have done this week … maybe that is why we can miss it.
Once you start asking the question of what some Biblical examples of unnoticed grace are, you will find many of them. Think of manna. Think of Saul’s confusion that allowed David to escape, or Ezra’s finding amongst the rubble the book of the law to read to the people who have never heard it. The still small voice that came to Elijah. A plumb line. New grapes on the vine. The leap of a baby in the womb of an older mother-to-be. A way to shore for a wrecked ship. A vision for an exiled apostle.
To be sure, there are some divine actions that we can never ignore. Earthshaking movements of God like the raising of Lazarus or the parting of the Red Sea are impossible to overlook. We can reject them if we want. We can call them "natural" and choose not to see God's hand in them. We can even claim credit for them ourselves. But we cannot simply miss them.
But for every resurrection and each calming of the storm, there are thousands – if not millions – of discreet acts of grace that God carries out every day, and they indeed can go unheeded. Lamentations tells us that they are "new every morning." Carl Wesley Anderson defines this phenomenon of unnoticed grace this way: “The idea that your Heavenly Father has gone before you on your journey and prepared a surprise person or people, in the normal circumstances of life, to stumble upon.” Anderson calls it “holy coincidence.” [https://borntoblaze.com/2017 /02/05/holy-coincidence-batman/]
A mistake in the roll call at the concentration camp that lets Corrie Ten Boom walk out. The decision to look up into the sycamore tree at just the moment the short man happens to be perched there. The survival of St. Paul’s Cathedral through the bombing of London. The fireman who gave his life in West, Texas so a few dozen others could survive the explosion. And on, and on.
Human history's first example of a simple act of unnoticed grace comes in the third chapter of Genesis, the passage that Debra read for us earlier. As you know, the first chapter tells the story of creation, and the second chapter tells us of the formation of Eve and the placement of the first humans in the garden.
We generally think of Chapter 3 as the story of the Fall, and indeed it is. It is the story of the first temptation, the first sin, and the first punishment for sin. But buried (to those who are not looking for it) in there is also this early act of grace, one that is unnoticed by so many. 
Verse 7 tells us that Adam and Eve, having sinned, suddenly realize their nakedness. Verse 21, which comes before the banishment from the garden, tells us that God “made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them.” They did not ask, and they certainly did not deserve, but grace, like grits, just comes.
Do you see it? Our loving God is always on the move to repair the damage that sin has done, usually before we are even aware of it. Where sin makes us naked, God makes us clothes.
Where sin increased, grace abounded all the more. [Romans 5:20] Paul said it, but he learned it from Genesis 3.
Do you notice the clothing you have received to hide your nakedness?  Do you hear the music of the great violin?  Do you see the people all around you asking for – and receiving – the touch of the Master while you drive right on by?
Why does Jesus ask, “Who touched me?”
“Who touched me?” is not a request for information - Jesus already knows the answer. “Who touched me?” is a quiz, a rebuke to those followers of Jesus who wouldn't know a miracle if it happened in front of their face.
Jesus is acting around us all the time, rewarding faith and touching the needy. Do you notice? Do you stand amazed? If Jesus asks you where you have seen Him work today, will you have an answer?

Sunday, October 7, 2018

Sermon - Radiance and Representation

You can listen to the audio of this sermone here.

In the past, God spoke to our ancestors through the porphets 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 thigns, and through whom also He made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God's glory adn the exact representation of His being, sustaining all things by His powerful word.  After He had provided purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesy in heaven.  So He became as much superior to the angels as the name He has inherited is superior to theirs. - Hebrews 1:1-4

Do you ever wonder what was going through the minds of the angels before the birth of Christ?
In the Old Testament, angels are humanlike messengers of God. They appear at times in order to make announcements of God’s plans. Cherubim and seraphim are pictured as winged heavenly beings who are a part of God’s entourage. As time passed, speculation about angels exploded, particularly with influences from other cultures like the Greeks and Persians filtering in. By the time of the first century church, one of the issues concerned the hierarchies of heavenly beings, where angels fit in that hierarchy, and whether angels were in fact the mediators between God and humanity.
We can picture first century Christians speculating about angel conversations with God about the fate of mankind.
The Book of Hebrews makes it clear that Jesus Christ is the mediator of God’s new covenant, the great high priest who brings us to God. [Hebrews 9:11-15] This is one example of the primary purpose of the Book of Hebrews – to tell us who Jesus is.
If we cut through all the politics and the ritual and the trappings, it is the most crucial question facing most of the world today: Who is Jesus?
You will find many, many people who will readily acknowledge the greatness of the man Jesus, calling Him a moral teacher, a great leader, one worthy to be followed, an admirable martyr for the cause of the poor and the downtrodden. Just don’t suggest anything supernatural, anything divine. That’s crazy talk.
In Tim Rice’s lyrics in “Jesus Christ, Superstar,” the repeated theme, whether sung by Judas or Mary Magdalene, is “He’s a man, he’s just a man… I don’t know how to love Him… If you strip away the myth from the man, you’ll see. Jesus, you’ve started to believe all the talk of God is true. You’ve begun to matter more than all the things you say. I remember when this whole thing began. No talk of God then, we called you a man. Jesus, do you think you’re what they say you are?” [Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber - “I Don’t Know How to Love Him,” “Heaven on Their Minds,” “Superstar” from “Jesus Christ, Superstar”]
I want you to think back to your earliest idea of who Jesus is. Perhaps it came from stories told by your mother, and your view is of the Good Shepherd. Being born in the 20th, or for a few of you, in the 21st century, you may not have had much of an idea of what a shepherd actually is, but it sounded nice and peaceful and comforting.
If you grew up in the church, your view may come from the classic paintings that were on our Sunday School class walls when we were children – you know, blue-eyed Jesus with long light brown or dark blondish hair and a beard that looked a little like it belonged on people your parents did not associate with but somehow, on Jesus, looked just right. Maybe you remember flannelgraph pictures of Jesus with the same general features as the famous paintings. Many of us grew up thinking those must have been based on an actual photograph.
If you did not grow up in the church or with a mother telling you Bible stories, your view of Jesus may be quite different. You came to Jesus as an adult, and your picture of Him may be starker, more physical, more realistic.
For some of us, when we view Jesus, we picture the cross – complete with crown of thorns, nails, blood, and torn tunic.
Some of us picture the scenes of the gospels as told through Renaissance artwork – you know, muscular Jesus surrounded by a paranormal aura, perhaps with a halo and with cherubs fluttering in the background.
Maybe your view is the baby staring lovingly into the eyes of the surrounding friendly beasts.
Whatever, I expect that when you picture Jesus, your view is very human, very relatable, very personal. And that is entirely appropriate. Jesus is the human person of the Godhead, taking on, as the ancient hymn that Paul records for us says, the form of a servant. [Philippians 2:6-8] Jesus is indeed personal and relatable, the way we see God and, for many of us, the best way we have to understand and to love God.
I too view Jesus this way, and I believe it is the way that scripture portrays Him, although I don’t really know about the blue eyes and the style of his hair. There is no doubt that Jesus was a man, a person like you and me. He slept and ate and got hungry.
So, please do not lose that view of Jesus or think that I am in any way casting aspersions on it during the rest of this sermon. I have a concern that I want to address, and that is this: because we are so taken with Jesus as a man, we, like the characters in the rock opera, too often think of Jesus as just a man. A very, very good man who did great things, of course, and a man worth looking up to; but nonetheless, just a man.
When Jesus is our best friend – which He is – we can subconsciously compare Him to our earthly friends.  When Jesus is a man bleeding on the cross, we can remember other martyrs, others who have paid a great price for a cause.
Even when we picture the Renaissance figure with the glow about Him, our tendency is to compare Him in our minds to other great heroes, real or fictional, and pretty soon He is in the same category with Christopher Columbus stepping off the Santa Maria and St. George fresh from killing the dragon and Mother Teresa walking the streets of Calcutta. We can think of Jesus as a version of Indiana Jones or Iron Man or Atticus Finch.

Who is Jesus?
Who is this man, this hero, this baby, this one who died on a cross?
The writer of Hebrews is addressing this issue, this tendency we have to categorize Jesus into some box we can understand. Specifically, Hebrews addresses two heresies that were arising in the early church: the comparison of Jesus to human prophets – Moses and Elijah and Isaiah – and to angels. The writer of Hebrews uses these two exalted positions – prophet and angel – as contrasts with Jesus, who is so much more.
Jesus is God.
Let that sink in. Yes, He took on human form. Yes, He was called the Son of God even as He called Himself the Son of Man. Yet, the writer of Hebrews pulls no punches. Look again at verse 3: Jesus is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact representation, the exact imprint, of God’s nature, and Jesus upholds the universe by the word of His power. After He had made purification for our sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.
The technical term for this study is Christology. What do you believe about Jesus? Who and what is He?
We start with the doctrine of incarnation – that Jesus is God in a body. You know what reincarnation is, the idea that after death your spirit returns into a new body. Incarnation means coming in the flesh; for us, it is John 1:14, that the Word became flesh. Jesus is God walking.
Theological scholars will discuss this idea in terms of method, asking if you approach Christology “from above,” meaning that you start with a creedal or religious statement like “Jesus Christ is true God and true man” and then work backward to how this teaching arose through New Testament scriptures, or you can approach Christology “from below,” beginning with the factual data from the Bible and tracing your understanding to the statements of faith. Your Christology can be ontological, meaning, concerned with Christ’s transcendent relationship with God, with the world, and with the church; or it can be functional, meaning that focus on the daily biography of what Jesus did on earth. In other words, is Jesus called the Son of God because He saves us, or does He save us because He is the Son of God?
We can run ourselves in circles with questions like this. Passages like Hebrews 1 and John 1 are undoubtedly ontological, expressing grand descriptions of the divinity of Jesus; yet if you approach from below, as we usually do in worship, studying the individual actions and sayings of Jesus as recorded in the gospels like we did last week in Mark 9, I am convinced you will end up in the same place.
A little background. While the word trinity does not appear anywhere in scripture, the idea of the triune God, God in three persons, is both integral to our faith and maddeningly difficult to grasp. The historical basis of Muslim rejection of Christianity is the Islamic insistence that we are in fact polytheistic, that we worship three different gods. In our own development, it can become easy to categorize the Father as in charge, Jesus as His right-hand-man, and the Holy Spirit as some sort of servant helper carrying out important individual missions for the team.
Scripture is different. Scripture tells us that God, who is so far beyond what we can comprehend, takes different forms to relate to us in many different ways.
Our scripture starts with telling us that Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory. That is poetic church language, and it is easy for us to decide that it is nothing more than poetic church language and therefore does not really mean anything, is not worthy of our trying to figure out.
You may have heard the word Shekinah to discuss God’s glory. That word does not appear in scripture either, but it is the transliteration of the Hebrew word that early Jewish rabbis used to embody this difficult concept of the glory of God. It means “that which dwells” and speaks to us of the nearness of God, the presence of God. It is the idea of the Shekinah filling the holy of holies in the temple or spreading throughout the tabernacle; it is the attendance of God. We know that even Moses could not see it directly, having to be hidden in the cleft of the rock lest he be consumed by the glory of God, the weight and majesty that accompany the presence of God. [Exodus 33:18-23] Radiance is brightness, light, brilliance. It is what we can see. To say that Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory is to tell us that looking at Jesus is the way we can see God. God shines through Jesus. The nearness of God, the very presence of God, is in Jesus. God the Father, who is spirit and must be worshiped in spirit, is nonetheless visible in Jesus.
When God took on this servant’s form, He did not lose His God-ness. Jesus tells His disciples, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.”  [John 14:9] This is not speaking of resemblance, as if you say that you see Dad in me. Dad and I may share a characteristic or two, but we are different people. (I am of course far better looking.) You do not see Dad in me; you see me, albeit with some physical similarities and some things that Dad has taught me and some behaviors that I learned from him (for better or for worse). But that is not what either Hebrews or Jesus means. They mean that when you look at Him, you are looking at God. He says “if you have known me, you have known my Father also. From now on, you have known Him and have seen Him.” [John 14:7] Jesus’s response to Philip, when Philip says, “Show us the Father,” cannot be mistaken: “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? [John 14:8-10] Paul says, “For it is God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” [2 Corinthians 4:6]
In the gospel’s marvelous prologue that Mary read for us, the Evangelist tells us that the Word was with God, the Word was God, and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. [John 1:1, 14] That is the incarnation.
No doubt, Jesus was a man. He spoke of being sent by the Father, He prayed to the Father, and He was tempted and wept and, ultimately, died. It is difficult for us to understand and remember that He is God, since His human self interacted with the Father. Taking on the form of a servant meant that, while in this form, Jesus had human limitations, including limitations of His omnipresence (He was in only one place at a time), of His immortality (thus He was able to die), and His omniscience (there were things He did not know, and He prayed to God asking for things to happen). We accept on faith that the greatness of God allows God the Son to coexist with God the Father as the great purpose of salvation plays out. That is why the writer starts this explanation with the ultimate point – Jesus, who walked as a human being, is the radiance of God’s glory. When you look at Jesus, God Himself shines through.
Then, Hebrews calls Jesus the exact representation of God. Some translations use the term “image” or “imprint.” When you see Jesus, you see God. Everything there is of the Father is in Jesus. In Colossians, Paul puts it this way: “He is the image of the invisible God… In Him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” [Colossians 1:15, 19]
Jesus said more than once that if those around did not believe Him because of His words, they should believe because of the miracles, because of His works. [John 10:37-38; John 14:11] No mere man walks on water [Matthew 14:25], cowers demons in their steps [Matthew 8:28-32; Luke 4:41], calms storms [Luke 8:24], feeds thousands from one lunch [Mark 6:35-44], or knows where Nathanael was sitting [John 1:48-49] or how many husbands the woman at the well has had. [John 4:16-19] And, of course, no mere man conquers His own death. As human as Jesus was for those 33 years, Jesus is God.
The third point that the writer of Hebrews makes in verse 3 is that Jesus upholds the universe by His word. While we usually speak of the sustaining face of God as the Holy Spirit, we here learn that it is Jesus who keeps the planets spinning, who mandates the law of gravity, who speaks with unfathomable power. Father, Son, and Spirit are three sides of the same God. We cannot draw it; we may not even be able to explain it. But the fact that we humans cannot verbalize it does not make it untrue.
In Colossians, Paul tells us that it was by Jesus that all things were made, that by Him all things were crated in heaven and earth, and that it is through Him that all things hold together. [Colossians 1:16] Romans 11:36 tells us that all things are “from Him and through Him.” Paul tells the church at Corinth that it is the Lord Jesus through whom are all things and through whom we exist. [1 Corinthians 8:6]
Jesus’s conversation in John 8 with the Jews who did not believe in Him is terribly important. They rejected Him and claimed to follow Abraham in worshiping God the Father. Jesus responds this way: “If God were your Father, you would love me. Truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” [John 8:42, 58]
This is crucial. If you limit Jesus to just His humanity, He becomes your buddy and your role model, but He is not worth worshiping. If He is merely a man on whom God bestowed some temporary power, then He is just a glorified Elijah or Peter – after all, Elijah raised from the dead [1 Kings 17:22] and made the flour last for years [1 Kings 17:13-16], and Peter healed the lame. [Acts 3:7] Even the magicians in Pharaoh’s court could turn a rod into a snake. [Exodus 7:11-12] Jesus is not just a man with some cool powers.
If your view of Jesus is anything less than God, then Jesus is not worth worshiping, and then He is not worth following. Instead, you can learn some of His words and stories the way we study the words of David and the stories of Isaiah – and the words of C.S. Lewis and the stories of Shakespeare, for that matter – while you try to worship God the Father. That is not Christianity. This in fact closer to Judaism, to what those critics of Jesus in John 8 were attempting. It does not work for us. For those of us who have met Jesus, trying to worship God without worshiping Jesus is fruitless. Jesus came to earth to seek and to save us, to bring us salvation because we were miserably failing at trying to follow God.
Throughout the Old Testament, the oft-repeated covenant between humankind and God was that we were to follow, to keep His commandments, and He would be our God. [Jeremiah 7:23] And we proved again and again that we could not keep our end of the bargain. So finally, as Jeremiah tells us, God authored a new covenant, one where we would no longer have to tell each other to know God, because we would all know Him. [Jeremiah 31:31-34] And the way we know Him is through Jesus, the Messiah, the Son of God, God Himself in human form.
Which brings us to the fourth thing the writer of Hebrews says, after “radiance of God’s glory” and “representation of God’s nature” and “upholder of the universe,” when He tells us that Jesus provided purification for our sins.
Jesus is not just a martyr, not just a man who died for a cause. Many have given themselves for the faith, and they should be honored, but Jesus is so much more. Jesus did not die a victim; Jesus died on purpose, taking the sins of the world on His shoulders, becoming sin so that we could become the righteousness of God. [2 Corinthians 5:21] He did what no mere man could do. He took the sins of the world on Him to provide atonement for the world. [1 John 3:5] To die the death that we deserved for our sins as a substitute, a sacrifice, bridging the gap and making a way for us to live with God forever.
There is much Christian philosophy and writing and preaching today that wants to water down the atonement. We know where this comes from – how could God be so cruel? If the wages of sin is death, how could God send His perfect, beloved Son who never sinned to the cross to pay the penalty for someone else? No, so this line of thinking goes, the cross was not a substitutionary atonement arising out of the wrath of God, because God is too kind for that, God would not do that to innocent Jesus; instead, we are told, the cross was Jesus’s modeling selflessness for us all. We are to look on the cross as the ultimate picture of giving and kindness.
Well, if you don’t understand that Jesus is God, then it is disconcerting to picture God foisting the cross on His Son. You can understand why some reject a God who would be so mean.
But if you do understand that Jesus is God, then the cross is not a cruel act by a Father to His innocent Son but is rather God sacrificing Himself, taking on the only form that can die and still save the world, becoming the purifier because only God can do that. Yes, it is the picture of goodness and kindness and giving and selfless sacrifice, but it is so much more. The cross is the act of God.
This doctrine of atonement means much to us. You know what it is to atone for something, to pay for what is broken. You do not atone for your mistake by simply saying that you are sorry; you atone for it when you make it right. John writes in his first letter that God loved us and sent His Son to be, depending on your translation of scripture, either the “propitiation” or the “expiation” for our sins. [1 John 4:10] Propitiation is a word that means something like appeasement or soothing – it is the idea of easing the tension. The problem created by sin is smoothed over, is calmed, is appeased by the work of Jesus.  Expiation carried the idea of erasure, or repairing, of the sense of John the Baptist when he declared Jesus to be “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.” [John 1:29] The editors of the New International Version and the New Revised Standard Version chose not to draw distinctions between these two similar but slightly different translations and instead translated John’s epistle with the term “sacrifice of atonement” or “atoning sacrifice” as a way of combining and communicating both the ideas of propitiation and expiation. When the writer of Hebrews says that Jesus made purification for our sins, all of these ideas are included – atonement, with its meaning of making right; propitiation, denoting healing of the injury; and expiation, telling us that our sins have been removed as far as the east is from the west. That is what Jesus came to do.
If you think a mere human could do that – even a really nice, really well-behaved, really smart human – then I have some ocean-front property in Amarillo to sell you. The cross is nothing less – indeed it cannot possibly be anything else but – the divine work of the supernatural God of the world. Nothing else could undo the damage we have done.
Finally, the writer of Hebrews wraps us this description of Jesus by telling us that He is seated at the right hand of the Father, the Majesty on high. I suppose you can read this to find a separateness between Jesus the Son and God the Father, that Jesus has been relegated to the children’s table, or the second throne, or the not-quite-best chair. In fact, the point is to differentiate Jesus from the angels, to emphasize that Jesus is part of the Godhead and not a creature, not a subordinate. It is an expression of power, a physical alternative to the spiritual, unembodied God. Charles Degner says: “When the Bible says that Jesus is ‘sitting at the right hand of God,’ it is not describing where Jesus lives. It is telling us that God has given his Son, Jesus, all power and authority in heaven and on earth to carry out his threefold office as our Prophet, Priest, and King.” [Charles Degner, pastor, St. Peter Lutheran, https://www.sermoncentral.com/sermons/jesus-is-at-god-s-right-hand-charles-degner-sermon-on-god-in-the-hardships-58236?page= 4&wc=800]  
The idea that Jesus was merely a great teacher, a moral leader, and an example is ultimately blasphemous, for it denies this divinity, this radiance and representation. Jesus is the way to God because He is God reaching down to us. He is Jacob’s ladder. He is Messiah. He is the way, the truth, and the life.
Ultimately, all of this matters because we Christians declare that we trust Jesus with eternity, and if He is not God, then He is not big enough to hold eternity. If He is not God, He cannot save us, because death would overcome Him. If He is not God, then the powers of age and disease and wasting away are beyond Him.
But He is God, and so we place our faith and our trust in Him. We believe with everything we have that He holds our futures and will guide us safely to eternity.
And then we discover that this Jesus, this human version of God, not only has our eternity, but He has our right now. He has already conquered death, and He lives right now. We sing that He lives within our hearts, and that means that He inspires, that He teaches, that He leads. He walks with me and He talks with me, and He tells me I am His own.
This Jesus to whom we trust eternity, this person of God, has the power to make our every day better. Pope John Paul II said it this way: It is Jesus in fact that you seek when you dream of happiness; He is waiting for you when nothing else you find satisfies you; He is the beauty to which you are so attracted; it is He who provokes you with that thirst for fullness that will not let you settle for compromise; it is He who urges you to shed the masks of a false life; it is He who reads in your hearts your most genuine choices, the choices that others try to stifle. It is Jesus who stirs in you the desire to do something great with your lives, the will to follow an ideal, the refusal to allow yourselves to be grounded down by mediocrity, the courage to commit yourselves humbly and patiently to improving yourselves and society, making the world more human and more fraternal.” [Pope John Paul II, http://w2.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/speeches/2000/jul-sep/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_20000819_gmg-veglia.html] 
It was a dark night. The angels were worried. The great creations, the apple of Father’s eye, were not doing any better. Prophet after prophet had come to bring Father’s word, and prophet after prophet had been ignored, or laughed at, or imprisoned, or run out of town, or killed. The angels were pretty hopeless. They convinced Michael to approach Father, to see what He had in mind. Michael mustered up his courage and volunteered to take his turn down on earth, trying to get the children to open their eyes, but Father said, “Thanks but no thanks.”  “Why not,” said Michael.
“Because,” Father said, “I have a better idea…  I’ll go.”
In the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
SILENCE
 So what do you do with all this? I want to suggest a couple of things.
First, you have to take Jesus seriously. Brushing Him off into the category with other great philosophers, or teachers, or friends, or martyrs is simply not an option. For, as C.S. Lewis said, if Jesus is not God, then He is either insane or incredibly dishonest, for He certainly claimed to be God; and neither a lunatic nor a pathological liar would be a great anything, much less moral teacher or leader.
Second, you have to decide about worship. Is Jesus worthy of your worship? Do you kneel before Christ? If not, you relegate Him to a lesser role – that of messenger or prophet or errand boy for the Father – and you lump yourself in with so many others who do not call themselves Christian.
Third, you have to decide about relationship. If Jesus is God, then he is God reaching down, condescending to take on a form that we can understand; and you have to ask yourself, “Why?” The only answer is that God loves you so much that He wanted relationship with you, wanted to walk and talk like you so that you would welcome Him. Behold, He stands at the door and knocks.