Before we dive into the sermon, I want to talk about the scripture we'll be exploring over the coming weeks. Hebrews is a tricky letter. We don’t know who the author is. The earliest outside mentions of Hebrews by ancient Christians include debates over whether it was written by Paul… Barnabas… or Apollos… or someone else entirely. We also don’t really know what city the letter was first sent to. As for its readers, it’s extremely likely they were Christians converts from Judaism, as the book relies heavily on Old Testament references and symbols. Hebrews assumes you already know the basics of faith, because its central focus is convincing you to stick with Christianity. Hebrews even remarks that its original readers have already endured persecution, so clearly they have been at this for awhile. As for when the letter was written, again we don’t know for sure. But we suspect it was written sometime in the 50s or 60s AD, based on historical events it mentions and doesn’t mention. This complex letter deals with heady topics, using often archaic images. We’ll be talking about priests and blood sacrifices, kings and prophecies, ancient covenants and weighty commandments. So don’t fret if you feel overwhelmed at times: this is a dense book, especially for us modern Christians so far removed in history from the Old Testament. Yet for all that, in this time of disease and distancing, uncertainty and unease, I believe Hebrews has something valuable and comforting to say. So join me as together we explore God’s Word in the letter to the Hebrews.
Both Jews and Gentiles alike in the ancient world had a fascination with angels, those spiritual messengers from heaven above. Sure, we today like angels too, whether little cherubs on Valentines cards… or the Irish lady in that 90s show Touched by an Angel… or even Charlie’s angels. But in ancient times, sightings and stories of angels—among both Jews or pagans—were signs of heavenly authority. In those days, religion was filled with bombastic pageantry: blood sacrifices on temple altars, triumphal marches into cities, miracles and, yes, angels too. Outward pomp and circumstance were often as important as personal piety.
But where several pagan temples rank among the seven wonders of the ancient world… and where the one Jewish Temple in Jerusalem had its own ornate rituals, priestly bloodlines, and holy scriptures dating back to the times of Moses… Christianity had… house parties. The Church was very much the new kid on the block. The New Testament wasn’t codified yet, so there wasn’t an official Christian holy book beyond the Old Testament. Most congregations were based out of homes, not fancy buildings. If they were lucky, maybe Christians could use the local synagogue on Sundays, since in those days Christianity was more of a subgroup of Judaism than a separate religion. But still, there were no dedicated buildings for worshipping Jesus: usually church was just held in your house. --Not that we’d know anything about only being able to do church at home-- So comparing those two options—giant temples, venerable synagogues, ancient scriptures, rituals and laws… and 1st Baptist of Steve’s basement on the other—it’s no wonder many early converts felt unimpressive and uneasy. They missed the pageantry! The angels! The spectacle! The music! The beautiful buildings! Like that warm fuzzy feeling you get when Christmas carols play on the radio and you know you’re spiritually home again… the ancient readers of Hebrews missed the special hallmarks of the faith they were moving away from. Thus many were tempted to drift away from Christianity back to what they knew.
The world is in the midst of a pandemic right now. Church will not be like it once was. Even as churches discuss when and how to reopen, it will not go back to the way things were, not right away. As I said in my last public sermon in March (click here to see it), this is a very normal church response to disease outbreaks. The pioneer of the Protestant Reformation, Martin Luther, in the 1500s even wrote letters warning churches about what to do when plague was near. Luther advised, yes, trust God will protect you, but also don’t put God to the test. Show Christian duty and compassion towards your family and fellow citizens, engaging in work if it’s essential to survive, but also follow the directions of medical and political authorities. Church in the 1500s had to adjust for the health of its people, just as Church must today. Historically, this is a common church adaptation. It’s just we in the States are less used to it. But on top of that, our own congregation cannot do church like we used to, since our sanctuary is currently under a thick layer of tarps and construction gear as our plaster continues to be rennovated. Instead we’re having to do church through phone calls, internet shows, web-cameras, and glass windows. We miss the big music. We miss the stained glass. We miss the people. We miss the activities. We miss Church and life as we once knew it. And we don’t know how or when we can get it back.
But there’s a further problem I’ve noticed during the pandemic isolation. People are not at their best right now. We only rarely leave our houses, so tensions can rise at home as we see the same set of people all day, day in and day out. With this global cabin fever, it’s easy to image folks might get on each other’s nerves: we’re all pressurized like a shaken soda can. But conversely, even when we do break our isolation bubble, it can still be hard. Subtlety and meaning get lost when you must speak through letters, texts, or over the phone. The body language that differentiated joking sarcasm versus bitter insult is gone, leaving only uncertainty. The ebb and flow of groups—where if a conversation grew stale you both just moved around but the party kept going—has been replaced by group calls where half the time is spent figuring out who you’re even talking to. When there’s no body language to read, no facial cues to pick up on, no hugs or touch to reassure… we lose half our toolbox for communicating. Even before this pandemic, people weren’t the best at talking, since misunderstanding, gossip and grudges still ran amok. But now it’s as if we’re talking with one hand—one lip?—one hand behind our back. We’re all under pressure, and the cracks are showing as we move closer to month three.
The letter to the Hebrews doesn’t address these problems head-on. It begins instead by telling us about Jesus. Early Christians were drifting away because they missed the sights, sounds and spectacles of their old religious life. They miss the angels and prophets and oracles. Hebrews replies, “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. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.” Hebrews is telling its first readers in their little house churches, “Sure, you may not have the outward grandeur and glory of other faiths yet… but you have Jesus! He is so much more glorious than any angel, more powerful than any emperor, more cosmic than any vision, more pure than the best priest from the holiest priestly bloodline.”
One Christmas I gave my cousin’s son a toy train, and my uncle took the bow off the wrapping paper and stuck it on the boy’s head. The train was instantly forgotten, because this bow on his head was now the most fun thing in the world. For those with pets, who can count the times you buy a new toy for the dog or cat… only for them to be more interested in the box. That’s kind of what the author of Hebrews is saying about angels and prophets, the sights and music of fancy worship buildings, the stories and glories so many people latch on to. Hebrews reminds us that those things are merely the wrapping paper… but Jesus is the gift. Wrapping paper isn’t bad: it’s often quite good. But wrapping paper exists to get you to the gift inside. Angels are fine, but Hebrews reminds us that angels exist to “worship” and “serve”. Only Jesus is the true Gift from Heaven, “the reflection of God’s glory and exact imprint of God’s very Being… [who] made purification for sins.” Fancy buildings to worship in are nice… but the building is only there to get you to Jesus. If you’re stuck worshiping at a house church while your pagan Roman neighbor worships in a golden temple for Zeus, who cares? As long as you hold onto Jesus, whether you do so in a tiny home church or a giant cathedral filled with people… as long as you get to Jesus, that’s what matters. The rest is mostly wrapping paper: good and helpful… but all in support of Jesus, the true gift, the true king.
Church has been different these past two months, and it’s going to be different in the months ahead. Even if we reopened tomorrow, that fact would remain: things are going to be different for a long while. That’s the way of the world: mortal things change. But remember what Hebrews says, “[The earth and heavens] will perish, but God remains. They will all wear out like clothing. Like a cloak God will roll up [heaven and earth], and like clothing they will be changed. But Jesus is the same, and his years will never end.” Church will be different—life as a whole will be different for many months—but Jesus never changes. Christianity has evolved from house churches to cathedrals to a congregation on every corner, and now by necessity we return to house churches again for a little while. But it is the same Christ worshiped and glorified.
People will disappoint you. People will frustrate you. Fellow Christians will do you wrong, even though we are called to be Christ’s hands and feet. But the Christians we meet, they and we are kind of like wrapping paper too. We are not Jesus. But the shoddiness of the wrapping paper never tarnishes the amazingness of the gift. Indeed, a good gift often makes its wrappings better than before, like a diamond necklace wrapped in old newspaper. So when we disappoint each other, when we grow irritated at each other in isolation, when we hurt each other… remember that we too are passing things. But the love of God in Jesus endures forever, makes us better than we once were, and gives us grace to show each other.
Hebrews 1 is a celebration of who Jesus is, a reminder that Jesus is far greater than any angel, and he is and does all this for our sakes. Jesus is the Son of God… who became human for us. Jesus is the heir of all things… that we might inherit salvation. All things were created through Jesus… including you and me. Jesus continually wills creation’s existence at every moment… that life endures despite all things. Jesus is the firstborn of a new creation… that all things might be made new. Jesus is the reflection of God’s glory, the exact imprint of God’s Being… that we might see and know God. Jesus purifies us of sins… that we might exist forever. Jesus is anointed, eternal, and worshiped by angels above that we might know he is King of Kings and Lord of Lords… who rules for our sakes. Angels are nice, but they are merely servants of heaven. Christ is heaven come to earth, that we might have both forever.
So if in this time of disease and distancing, shutdowns and downheartedness… know that you have something far greater than a guardian angel: you have a guardian Jesus. You have something more beautiful than stained glass windows: you have Christ, the exact imprint of God’s inner Being. You have something far more pure and holy than fellow Christians who often go astray and do wrong: you have Jesus, who created you, sustains you, purifies you, and gives you life, hope and light. Times are different right now. But Jesus never changes. So hold on to Hebrews’ glorious vision of God incarnate in Christ… and now that you always have hope, always have a comforter, always have a God who is with you in all things. Praise be to God for the gift of Christ, our guardian Jesus now and always. Amen.
 The full text of Martin Luther’s letter can be found here, hosted by The Reporter (the official newspaper of the Missouri Synod Luther Church), shared with permission by Fortress Press. Please note that Luther lived centuries before the invention of epidemiology (i.e. the medical/scientific study of how diseases spread), so while his advice provides an interesting historical perspective to help inform our modern spiritual response, please do not take his ideas as the final word or as exactly how you should respond. Again, the best advice for how to respond wisely to this pandemic comes from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention, World Health Organization, and Michigan’s state-level coronavirus response team.