August 3, 2008

Listen Up


It’s funny to me how different sayings can become immortalized in our culture.  For example, I think most of you who have cell phones get your service from either Verizon or Alltel (which was recently bought by Verizon, so pretty much everyone uses Verizon here).  A few years ago, they came up with an advertising campaign to convince people that they have the best coverage of any of the major carriers.  What they created became a cultural cliché that will probably take a long time to go out of style.  Say it with me: “Can you hear me now?”  That nerdy looking guy goes all over the place with “The Network” asking someone on the other end of the line that question.  The funny thing about this question, though, is that it assumes that the person on the other end of the line is really listening.  They may hear everything he is saying, but aren’t really listening to any of it.  In the same way, how often do we have break downs in communication with various people in our lives not because we are not hearing what they are saying, but because we aren’t really listening to it?  The message might be clear; we just aren’t listening very closely.  Now, while that guy from Verizon certainly seems to be always talking to someone, even he goes home when the camera stops rolling.  There is another person, however, who is always trying to communicate with His people.  His messages are clear, but His people aren’t always listening.  That person would be our heavenly Father.


This morning and for the next few weeks we are going to be taking a look at the book of Hebrews and what this Spirit-inspired author understood as perhaps the most important message God ever spoke to His people.  Not only that, but the author also has a lot to say about what we should be doing with this message, or rather, things we should not be doing with it.  The message is fundamentally about Jesus Christ and how awesome He really is.  In reality, Hebrews, which reads an awful lot like a sermon, contains some of the loftiest Christology (that’s the study of who Christ is) in all of the New Testament.  This morning we are going to be taking a look at the first section of the letter from 1:1 to 2:4, if you would like to turn there with me.  These verses speak of the response we should have to the message of God’s truly glorious Son Jesus Christ.  This message may come in a variety of different forms, but its import is never in doubt.  Thus I urge you this morning: listen closely because the message is clear.


Before we dive right into the text, a couple of background details will be important to help you get the most out of this text.  Hebrews was written by someone whose identity we don’t know to a group of Jewish-Christians who were probably in the region around Rome sometime in the 60s.  Some of these believers had not been following Christ for very long and so they were struggling with wanting to fit Jesus into the religious mold with which they were accustomed.  As we will see over the next few weeks, the writer goes to great lengths to show that Jesus is greater than anything their old world had to offer.  In fact, all the rites and symbols they held dear were actually fulfilled in Christ.  Thus to make this point, the writer starts at the beginning when God first spoke to His people.  As this author said to his readers, I say to you: listen closely because the message is clear.


Now, if you are at all like me, the first question that comes to your mind is this: what exactly is the message?  The writer of Hebrews, though, started somewhere slightly differently.  He begins with how God communicates to His people.  Though He has spoken in different ways in the past, God now communicates to His people through His glorious Son Jesus Christ who is superior to all the angels.  Listen to what the word says: “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…” (TNIV) When you look at the record of the Old Testament, you do indeed see God speaking in a variety of different ways.  His primary method of communication was the prophets, but He was (and is) not limited in the ways He proclaims His word to us.  Think about the implications this last part: God speaks through His Son.  All the words Jesus spoke are the very words of God.  Furthermore, Jesus promised to send us His Spirit to teach us even more.  We can communicate with God on a very intimate level.  We just have to be listening.


The author of Hebrews does not merely stop there, however.  He goes on in the rest of v. 2 to proclaim how awesome this Son of God is.  The person who walked around on earth with us for a time was the agent of creation.  He created those with whom He walked.  Indeed, nothing was created apart from Him.  So what does this mean exactly?  Well, it means that Christ is equal in nature with the glorious Father, and has a powerful role in the sustaining of creation.  As one translation puts it: “This Son perfectly mirrors God, and is stamped with God’s nature.  He holds everything together by what he says—powerful words!” (Msg) You see, Jesus was both 100% human and 100% divine.  Both natures co-existed in unity in one body.  The Greek word for this is homoousion.  So, if you play Theology Trivial Pursuit anytime soon, you have a leg up on the competition. Some critics question this and argue that Jesus Himself noted His dependence on God.  This was merely a functional subordination, though.  Functionally—in His actual working—He is subordinate to God.  But ontologically—the core of who He is—He is equal in nature with God.  For Christians, this fact is one of the most important we must understand.  It sets us apart from all the other religions in the world.  Other religions have stories about a god becoming like a man or vice versa, but none of them have anything approaching our doctrine of the Trinity.  So while other parts of Hebrews will focus on Jesus’ humanity and our ability to relate to Him at a very intimate level, this intimacy is often overstressed by the modern American church to the point that we some times forget that Jesus is also fully divine and glorious.  We should relate to Him with all the reverence He deserves.  The fact that “He sustains all things by His powerful word” means that He is connected to and cares deeply about every single aspect of your life and the lives of everyone else in the world.  Because of this exalted position, merged perfectly with His humanity, He was able to perfectly make purifications (cleansing) for our sins, after which He took His rightful place at the Father’s side.  As we will see in a few weeks, Jesus is able to relate fully to our situations and as we see right here, He has the Father’s ear all the time—indeed, the President’s Chief of Staff has unlimited access to the Oval office.  Jesus is even closer to God than that!  The Son has the attentive ear of the Father and is always actively praying to God on your behalf.


Now, the next thing the author says sounds a bit strange to us, but I think when we look a bit more closely, it makes good sense.  “So he became as much superior to the angles as the name he has inherited is superior to theirs.” (TNIV) Whenever we encounter something in Scripture that seems weird, we have to remember to look at the text through first century eyes.  This means doing a bit of homework—but it’s worth it!  In the first century, there were religions which sometimes tried to pass themselves off as Christianity that worshiped angels.  The reality is, while there are not many religions today that actually worship angels, there are some New Age religions that worship different spirits and aspects of creation or even themselves.  Thus, there are many people who think Jesus is just another god among the host of those available to be worshiped.  As we see right here, though, Jesus is far superior to any of these things.  They don’t even come in a close second.  For example, there are several folks at Central who own their own business.  When you need to get a special project done exceptionally well for an important client, you do it yourself.  For God to do some of His most important work, He didn’t just send a messenger.  He sent His Son—He came Himself.  He wanted to make sure that the message—the good news of the Gospel—was really clear.  Are you listening?


What comes next is, again, a bit strange to our ears.  But, when we understand the purpose of v. 4 as I just explained, we see that the author is going to great lengths to make sure that this point is very clear.  Let’s take a quick look at just how this is done in vv. 5-14.


In order to help us to see the real importance of these next few verses for our lives, whenever I read the word “angels” think “spirits.”  Be it some spirit of the earth, or our own personal spirit (how many people actually worship themselves as gods?), Jesus is utterly superior to all of them.  The author begins this section by pointing out that God says things about Jesus that He has never said about any of the angels or spirits.  “Did God ever say to an angel, ‘You’re my Son; today I celebrate you’?  Or, ‘I’m his Father, he’s my Son’?  When he presents his honored Son to the world, he says, ‘All angels must worship him.’” (Msg) That doesn’t sound like just another spirit to me.  All the various spirits that people try and worship today are actually commanded themselves to worship Christ.  As v. 7 points out, all these different spirits are merely God’s finite servants.  Quoting from Psalm 104 the author argues that “The messengers are winds, the servants are tongues of fire.” (Msg) These things are temporary—wind blows and is gone; normal fires consume all their fuel and go out.  Compared to God’s infinite nature, everything else is merely a vapor, a passing mist, utterly temporary.  This helps us see how awesome it is that we can share in the eternal life of Christ when we give Him our lives.  As opposed to the temporal nature of angels and spirits and powers which are not loyal to God, the Son is equal to the Father in righteousness and eternality.  This is the basic message of the next two quotes from Psalm 45 and 102, respectively.  Ultimately, Christ’s glory will outstrip even this heaven and earth.  “Earth and sky will wear out, but not you; they become threadbare like an old coat; you’ll fold them up like a worn-out cloak, and lay them away on the shelf.  But you’ll stay the same, year after year; you’ll never fade, you’ll never wear out.” (Msg) This is further described in Rev 20 and 21 when the old created order passes away before the coming of the new.


Through a literary device called an inclusio (which repeats something at the beginning and then end for emphasis) which draws attention to the things said about Christ in the OT we just mentioned, the last couple verses of this section repeat the idea that God said things about Christ that He simply never said about angels or spirits and that their role is actually as His servants.  This repetition, a literary device called an inclusio, helps bring emphasis to the section.  As a note on v. 14, which argues angels are servants of those slated to inherit salvation, while the whole idea of guardian angels is often blown out of proportion today, the basic concept is legitimate.  God does send His servants to help His people as we need it.  I nearly drowned at a water park when I was little.  I was in the wave pool without an inner tube, unable to reach the ground, and surrounded by people who kept pushing me away from theirs.  Out of nowhere, some kid came crashing through everyone, pulled my arm up on his float, pulled me to the shallows, and when I turned around he was gone.  That might have just been an attentive kid, but I wouldn’t take too much convincing to believe it was an angel.  So I ask again: the message of Christ is important and clear; are you listening?


Okay, I’ll confess, this sermon has been a bit heavy on the details so far.  This is tough stuff to make sense of and I want to make sure you do.  The question you should rightly be asking is so what?  Why does this matter?  What comes next, I think, will help make sense of why we have been talking about all this.  If all these things are true, what does it mean for us?


Well, it means this: listen closely because the message is clear.  We must hold tightly to the message of salvation which was delivered by the angels and confirmed by God through various sources.  Listen to this last part of the passage; it’s especially important: “It’s crucial that we keep a firm grip on what we’ve heard so that we don’t drift off.”  We must watch carefully to make sure that we do not fall away.  When I grew up, I played the piano for several years.  It’s been several years since I’ve played and having not done so, the skills I once had have almost entirely gone by the wayside.  It’s the same way with the armor of God described by Paul in Ephesians 6.  If a soldier doesn’t take active steps to keep his armor in good shape, it will not be useful when it is really needed.  Or perhaps resolutions to exercise will help round out the picture.  Often they start strong, but gradually fade out as we neglect our resolutions.  One more note on v. 1: the word translated “pay the most careful attention” is from the Greek prosechō.   This is not merely sitting idly by and watching something, but an active attention—like that given to a small child.  A minute of neglect can lead to great harm for all parties.


The author doesn’t stop there, though.  “If the old message delivered by the angels was valid and nobody got away with anything, do you think we can risk neglecting this latest message, this magnificent salvation?”  The messengers God sent to bring the message of salvation were proclaiming the law of the Lord.  This message was completely valid.  The words were legitimate and intended to be obeyed.  Because of this, every transgression of that law will be dealt with appropriately.  In Revelation 20, John tells us that people will be judged on the basis of what they have done.  This is why it is so important for us to have a saving relationship with Jesus Christ (which is indeed the basis of the message): then we will be judged on the basis of His perfect works and not on our evil works.  Because salvation is only by grace, if we reject God’s way out from the debacle of sin, how on earth do we expect to make it?  Pride leads us to reject God’s humble plans that glorify Him.  We want to have a part in our salvation, but every time we try and do it on our own, we mess things up.  Can I get an amen to that?  After all, it is our sinful nature—in other words, something deeply part of who we are—that got each of us into our mess in the first place.  Imagine the idiocy of passengers on a sinking ship rejecting the available life boats because they are trying to build their own before the ship goes under.


This incredible message of salvation is clear.  The question is: are you listening?  Listen to the rest of the passage: “First of all, it was delivered in person by the Master, then accurately passed on to us by those who heard it from him.  All the while God was validating it with gifts through the Holy Spirit, all sorts of signs and miracles, as he saw fit.”  God never even sent His messengers, the angels, to fly solo.  He proclaimed it first Himself, and as soon as His messengers proclaimed the message, He backed it up with signs and wonders; then, after Christ went back to heaven, with the various ministries of the Holy Spirit.  We have a clear record of God’s message, backed up by witnesses to His power and then confirmed by His own signs and wonders as recorded in Scripture.  A quick survey of the Old Testament proves this: Noah’s rainbow, Joseph’s dreams, the Exodus, Joshua’s sun standing still, the ministries of Elijah and Elisha, the disciples, and Jesus Himself.  We even have the ministry of the Holy Spirit and His help to know the message well.  A part of this ministry is wrapped up in spiritual gifts given by the Holy Spirit to all the children of God to be used in the furthering of His kingdom.  We must actively seek to use our gifts to the extent He has enabled us so that we don’t lose them.  Remember the parable of the talents.  For the servant given only one talent, even a little bit of growth would have been preferable to none.  The somewhat unsettling reality is that a permanent lack of use of spiritual gifts, a permanent neglect of the message of salvation indicates we never really had them in the first place.  So I say again: The message is clear; are you listening?


God really could not have been any more clear regarding the message He wanted to communicate to His people of the incredible gift of life He was offering as a way out of the gross entanglements of sin.  Like the Verizon guy, God keeps asking us: “Can you hear me now?”  Except God’s is probably a lot deeper.  He wants so badly for the answer to be yes that He sent His own Son to die and live again so that His reception might be crystal clear.  Verizon may have “the Network,” but God has “Creation.”  There are a lot of critics today who proclaim loudly that Jesus was nothing special.  He was just another teacher in the complex group of first century philosophers.  The simply reality is that Jesus is nothing like anything else on earth (or in the whole universe for that matter).  If we miss out on this message, we’re not just missing the boat—we’re missing the whole ocean.


As we look forward to ministry together, I believe that as we listen closely, God will be very clear about the direction He wants us to go together.  Let us listen closely—this is an active listening that involves doing what He says—because the message is clear.


God, we thank You that You go to such great lengths to make sure Your message is crystal clear.  Give us ears and hearts acutely attuned to what You want to tell us.  Teach us to listen well and obey joyfully.  In Jesus’ name and the Spirit’s power, amen.


If anyone here has been listening closely to God lately and would like to talk to me about what He’s been saying—be that about joining our family here, giving your life to Christ in full embrace of the message, or anything else—I’d love to hear about it.  Come as we stand to sing HYMN 358.