First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Christmas 1

William Loader

Christmas 1:  1 January Hebrews 2:10-18

The preacher whose written sermon circulates in the form of "Hebrews" appeals to good sense. Thus 2:10 introduces the notion of appropriateness, as will 2:17. This is a way of faith reflecting on faith. Hebrews gives major emphasis in its opening chapter to Christ's exalted state before God. Using what formed part of that tradition of thought, the author then expands the reference to Psalm 8 backwards so that it now alludes not only to God putting all things under the feet of Christ (8:6, echoing Psalm 110:1), but also to Christ's humanity (8:5). Thus immediately before our passage Psalm 8:4-6, originally about human beings in general is taken to refer to Christ and the words "a little lower" become "a little while". The question in 8:4 becomes a question about why God exalted this Jesus. The author uses Ps 8:4-6 to turn to the hearers' attention to that "little while" when the now exalted Christ came as a human being and was made lower than the angels.

Now in 2:10 he draws the hearers' attention to why this was so fitting or beneficial. For it meant that he became like us. At one level this act of solidarity was one of leadership. He joined us so that he could lead us along the pathway to God, the goal of the journey. That is probably the main focus of the statement here about perfecting. It has less to do with moral improvement than it has to do with bringing someone to the goal of their journey. God brought Jesus to the goal of his journey and in doing so made him the pioneer or leader of all other human beings, who can also be called God's children, although in a different sense than Christ is, according to the author.

One might imagine that this is, itself, a point worth making. He became like us to lead us on the journey. That is a central theme underlying Hebrews, which sees spirituality in terms of a journey through this life to the presence of God in the next. But that is not the real focus of 2:10. It is rather what it presupposes. The emphasis in 2:10 lies on the fact that God brought Jesus to the goal via the path of suffering. 2:9 already points in this direction: Christ suffered death in the process of tasting death for all. Why is it so fitting or appropriate in the author's view that Christ should have had to suffer in the process? The answer becomes very clear in 2:17 and 18. Because he suffered, he is in a position to understand what it is like when we suffer, including suffering that might tempt us to give up. He faced suffering and was tempted to give up, but did not do so. He thus became an example for all of us, but, more important, someone who appreciates what we are going through when we face similar situations, as the hearers of the letter clearly were.

Later the author will speak of Christ as praying to God on behalf of those still on the journey (4:16; 7:25). He is a compassionate high priest who knows what it is like. That is a great help (2:18). This idea of Christ praying for his own in their journey should not be confused with the notion in 1 John 2:1-2 of Christ praying for our forgiveness when we fail. In Hebrews the focus is on prayer to help us not to fail. Thus 2:17 and especially 2:18 echo 2:10 and show why all this was so appropriate and useful. The in between verses underline the solidarity. We belong together with him, children of God as he is (possibly, but less likely: children of Adam as he is) (2:11). For the author he is God's Son; we are brothers and sisters given to him by being adopted into God's family (2:12-13). 2:14-15 repeats the notion that this act of solidarity was about liberating us from the fear of death and giving us confidence in a future with God. 2:16 echoes chapter 1 is stressing that God was not preoccupied with favouring angels (as perhaps some were thinking), but was acting in compassion for people, expressed in Jewish terms, as the people of Abraham.

Hebrews then begins in this passage one of its first creative themes: Christ really understands what it is like to be human and prays for us as we face hard times and are tempted to give up. He's been there before us and he now prays for us to help us reach the goal of the journey, too. The framework of thought sees life's meaning as a journey through this world to the goal of the heavenly city, the heavenly temple of God's presence. Its focus is not on the process, the journeying, but on reaching the goal.

In its simplest form it can be reduced to a belief that we must endure this life in order to get to the next. Perhaps that is not so unreasonable if people's lives in the here and now seem filled with adversity. Even then there are other strands in scripture which encourage us to think that living in the here and now is something more than passing through irrelevance and adversity. Similarly we may find it just as challenging and comforting to emphasise that God's presence is not just beyond this life but deeply within it.

All metaphors and images have their limitations. The underlying journey metaphor is certainly one of these. On the other hand within its imagery the author highlights for us some central themes which transcend this particular model. One is that God is engaged with us in compassion. Trinitarian thought can locate that compassion centrally within the being of God, reflected in the action of the Son praying in solidarity to the Father. It certainly helps us reflect on compassion as the heart of God's being and that includes a sense of solidarity which we can trust. That is good news for the future, but also for the present. The author thus brings us back from a way of thinking about Christ or God which could remain obsessed with images of power and glory and remoteness. God is engaged with us where we are - and wherever we are on the journey.

Gospel: Christmas 1:  1 January  Matthew 2:13-23

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