Nativity of Our Lord – Christmas Day
25 December 2017
Hebrews 1:1-4 [5-12]
Stanley Hauerwas often says that we did not make up this stuff, the stuff we believe about God, the world, and us.
He means to say that the Christian faith is not merely a philosophy, or a plausible strategy (plausible it is not), some strategy of coping with life, something you find in the self-help section of the library.
Those are all things we come up with and in the process we come to believe that our way is the only way, and we don’t see alternatives, whether it is about the economy, the environment, poverty, migration, armed conflict. And that has led to a lack of imagination, perhaps especially after the end of the cold war because we saw ourselves and our way of life as having emerged as winners and stopped thinking that there may be viable alternatives. In fact, I remember, at the end of the cold war, experiencing our Western triumphalism as tragic.
The Bible would call that pride or hubris, and an abdication of responsibility.
By contrast, the Christian story is one of revelation. It comes to us as a gift, precisely because we never would have thought that the world could be redeemed through suffering. We have not even stopped to redeem it by force. We never would have thought that those who lose themselves will find themselves.
We would not have thought that God would elect the lowly, or that the meek would be blessed, or that the last would be first. We would not have thought of redemption coming through forgiveness, instead of punishment or hard work. We would never have thought that we should take ourselves less seriously.
But Hauerwas has something else in mind as well. If what Christians believe comes to us through revelation then it carries authority. Therefore, we preserve the planet not only because it’s prudent but because the earth is the Lord’s. We turn the other cheek not because it’s easier or more plausible or will lead to better results but because Jesus has commanded us to. We share of what we have not only because it’s right but because our life is in God and God provides.
We know little about the author of the Letter to the Hebrews, and little about the Hebrews, if the recipients were Hebrews.
But what we learn from the letter is that the author addresses a group of Christians that are discouraged. Thomas Long writes in his commentary on Hebrews, “This congregation is exhausted. They are tired – tired of serving the world, tired of worship, tired of Christian education, tired of being peculiar and whispered about in society, tired of the spiritual struggle, tired of trying to keep their prayer life going, tired even of Jesus.”1 If this has a familiar ring to some congregations today, it is probably not a coincidence.
It is this disposition that Hebrews addresses.
I am not sure about the church today. I know that we have lots of enthusiasm and joy in worship but the struggles described above are not unfamiliar to us. One thing is certain, at least I am tired of the endless restructuring of Synods and National Church. Besides, we worry about the world. What we know is disappearing and something new has yet to emerge. One think only of global warming and of the expired model of capitalism that has undermined our democracies with an obscenely unequal distribution of wealth. Yet instead of questioning a model that is no longer adequate, we continue to praise philanthropists.
Imagine you want to comfort and provide direction to people many kilometres away, in the days before the telephone. Even if you are there, it is a formidable task.
Hebrews begins with these words, “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.”
When you are in the midst of despair you must lift your eyes. By reminding us that God has always spoken, Hebrews makes us raise our heads. It is what we spoke of at the beginning: Revelation.
The author of Hebrews is familiar enough with the scriptures to know that God’s voice is not always heard. Think of Samuel in the temple. God spoke at a time when the word of God was rare. Thomas Long calls this God’s speech punctuating our time. It is the experience of God’s people that God speaks out of silence.
At the same time, God’s speech is almost always mediated speech. It comes to us through the scriptures, through God’s messengers, through prayer, through events in the world. Revelations of God’s presence do not contradict the scriptures but they may happen in the very moments of our lives. Think of Moses who heard and experienced God’s voice at the burning bush.
And so the author of the letter encourages his discouraged congregation by speaking of the presence of God, which may be why this reading was chosen alongside the so-called Prologue from John 1.
There is one more thing that is relevant for us today: Christian existence is framed by Christ’s first coming and the anticipation of his second coming. And yet there is a third coming that is worth paying attention to. The medieval mystic Bernard of Clairvaux speaks of it in this way:
“We know that there are three comings of the Lord. The third lies between the other two. It is invisible, while the other two are visible. In the first coming he was seen on earth, dwelling among people. . . . In the final coming all flesh will see the salvation of our God, and they will look on him whom they pierced. . . . In his first coming our Lord came in our flesh and in our weakness; in this middle coming he comes in spirit and in power; in the final coming he will be seen in glory and majesty.”
This coming of Christ to us between Christ’s first and second coming is about Christ being born in us, taking shape in us, and thus being present also in the world. It invites our participation and it offers hope in the face of despair. If Christ does indeed come to us and through us, then we are not simply “condemned” to waiting for his return at the end of time but are freed to be Christ’s presence in the world, being able to point a changing and despairing world to precisely the answers that we have found without ever having expected them:
We would not have thought that God would elect the lowly, or that the meek would be blessed, or that the last would be first. We would not have thought that by his wounds we are healed. We would not have thought of redemption coming through forgiveness, instead of punishment or hard work. We would not have thought to take ourselves less seriously.
God comes to us today in the community of the church, in our life in the world, through Word and Sacrament. May we know we belong to God, that we may receive him and that we bear his redemption in our lives so that the world may know God and may have hope.
1Hebrews, Interpretation Series, page 3