This sermon is from Sunday, October 3, 2021 and it was originally preached at St. David’s by the Sea Episcopal Church in Cocoa Beach, FL. where I serve as Rector. I focused on the Gospel text, specifically Hebrews 1:1-4, 2:5-12. You can listen to the sermon here.
Within the wide world of sports, it has become common to debate who is the “Greatest Of All Time” to ever play the game. It is no longer sufficient to describe players as being the best active player, the best player in the league, or the best player of their generation. Constantly saying “the Greatest of All Time” can be exhausting, so a shorthand has been developed: GOAT. It is all too common these days to refer to these individuals as “the GOAT” or to go a step further and use 🐐emoji when typing.
If you have no idea what I am talking about, let me ignite some friendly debate. Who is the greatest quarterback of all time? Joe Montana, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady? Who is the greatest baseball player of all time? Hank Aaron, Lou Gehrig, Ted Williams, or Mike Trout who is currently playing today?
These debates are raging today with some of the best athletes still playing their beloved sport. As fans, we are left to decide between Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus as the best golfer; Michael Jordan, Kareem Abdul-Jabaar, or Lebron James as the best basketball player, Cristiano Ronaldo or Leonel Messi as the greatest soccer player, and so on and so forth.
Of course such irrelevant and time-consuming debates over meaningless topics is like asking the question of how many angels can dance on a pinhead. Why would we waste our time debating over the greatness of a single athlete? These debates are not limited to sports, however. How many times have we argued about who was the greatest president in US History? The greatest monarch to rule England? The greatest impressionist painter, American novelist, or jazz musician?
(George Washington, Queen Elizabeth II, Vincent Van Gogh, Ernest Hemingway, and Thelonius Monk, obviously.)
There is something innate to our humanity that desires to create lists and structure hierarchies of greatness and excellence. There is something in us which yearns for and aspires to be “the best of the best,” “the crop of the crop,” or “the greatest of all time.”
And this innate desire leads us into the heart of Hebrews.
This morning we begin our new 7-week sermon series on the book of Hebrews. The title for our series is Great High Priest and if you’ve ever read the Book of Hebrews you will know that it is full of rich imagery from the Old Testament and it proclaims Jesus’ superiority over all things. Because we are going to spend 7 weeks in Hebrews, I feel it necessary to get some of the obligatory ahem, “throat clearing” out of the way.
Scholars are actually certain of very few things about Hebrews. The author’s identity is unknown. Attributing Hebrews to Paul is no longer in vogue and has long since been debunked. Whereas the author discloses that they are not one of the apostles and that they received their instruction from the Apostles, Paul is bold to say that he received his instruction from the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus. It is most likely that the author was a companion of Paul or familiar with the Pauline school of thought. More specifically, the author was well read in Greek philosophy and logic as is demonstrated throughout the book, and he/she is extremely familiar with Israel’s scriptures.
The most likely potential authors are Barnabas, Apollos, and Priscilla. I am most persuaded by the idea of Priscilla. Priscilla had experience leading a house church in Rome, bringing Apollos to faith, and she was close to Paul in Corinth and Ephesus and her husband, Aquila, was a Jewish Christian (read: understanding of Old Testament). Because of this, I will be using the pronouns she/her when talking about the author of Hebrews.
You do not have to share that conviction with me; there is plenty to be said in favor of Barnabas and Apollos. At the end of the day, it doesn’t actually matter who the author is because Hebrews is still an authoritative piece of divinely inspired writing.
The audience, date, and origin of Hebrews are also all unknown. We have reason to believe that it was composed as a sermon to a house church in Rome between 45-90AD. We know that the Emperor Claudius kicked Jews out of Rome in 49AD (Acts 18:2) because of their belief in Christ–we also know that Priscilla and Aquila were among those who were exiled and that they would then show up in Corinth when Paul arrived in 51 AD. Suetonius’ records it this way, “He expelled from Rome the Jews constantly making disturbances at the instigation of Chrestus.”
The audience was clearly familiar with the Old Testament because the author quotes Israel’s scriptures at length. The ethnic background of the recipients of Hebrews is not actually important, what we should be focusing on is “the complex way in which they would have related to the dominant Greco-Roman culture, Jewish subculture, and Christian community” around them.
In short, Hebrews is a sermon written by someone with a pastor’s heart to a house church with special attention to Jesus’ superiority and what it meant to live as a Christian within the larger Greco-Roman world and Jewish subculture. The author’s primary tactic was to show various high points of the Old Testament and of Israel’s beliefs and to then demonstrate how Jesus suprasses them all.
In Hebrews, we are told:
Jesus is greater than the sacrifices of Israel
Jesus is greater than the angels
Jesus is greater than Moses, Abraham, Aaron, and Melchizedek
Jesus is greater than Israel’s high priests
One could argue, in contemporary language, that Jesus is the Greatest of All Time. Our image, painted by James Tissot, shows Israel’s “all stars” welcoming Jesus into heaven after the crucifixion. Jesus is the GOAT.
This is where we are going over the next 7 Sundays. My throat has been sufficiently cleared–we may dig in!
In order to set the table this morning, I want us to work through the opening 4 verses of Hebrews 1 line by line because I think the author is doing so much incredible work in this section that we need to give it our utmost attention.
We begin with verse 1: Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets. Let’s stop there. This is our first indication that the audience might be Jewish Christians and that the author is familiar with the Old Testament. The reference to “our ancestors” demonstrates a shared ancestry based on the teachings of Israel’s prophets.
The author invites us to think about Israel’s prophetic tradition. She will quote the prophets Moses, Nathan, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Habakkuk, and Haggai throughout the sermon. She will also quote David’s psalms, Abraham, Aaron, and Joshua, all of whom played a prophetic role in Israel.
The author begins her sermon with God’s words spoken to Israel through the prophets because those words encapsulate the whole of the Old Testament. Even if each prophet only proclaimed a piece of the message, their collect witness presented the whole picture of God’s love.
She continues, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son. The reference to “these last days” is made over and against her previous reference to “long ago.” Something has shifted human history separating then from now. This is an eschatological term, that is, it describes “the last days,” and it is used here to demonstrate that this new form of speaking is definitive and authoritative.
We are told that God is now speaking to us “by a Son.” Don’t be confused by the use of “a” instead of “the.” This is not suggesting that there are more than one son, but rather a way of highlighting the numerous prophets of old and the singular son of now. This Son is the final word from God.
Who is this son? First of all, she writes about him: whom he appointed heir of all things. The language of heirs, testaments, and testators was common in this culture, but this is unique because here we find a son who inherits without the death of the testator. That is, we know that we only receive an inheritance from parents and grandparents upon someone’s death, but this Son was able to inherit without his Father’s death. We will be told later that the Son’s inheritance is made possible by the Son’s death rather than the Father’s; indeed that our inheritance is made possible by the Son’s death.
through whom he also created the worlds. Lest we begin to think that the Son is mortal, fallible, and temporal, the author shows that He is eternal. This language is intentional and it should take our minds immediately to Genesis 1 and John 1 where we find the divine logos of God, the second person of the Trinity, present and active as the world is being created. This Son who is the spoken word of God and who is the heir of all things was also present for creation, thus being an eternal being. Can you begin to see what our author is setting up??
Our author isn’t done yet; she goes on to describe the Son as the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being. Glory, imprint, and being are terms that Jewish Christians would have understood. The Old Testament in general, and the Pentateuch specifically, are replete with references to God’s glory. Moses’ face shone and radiated God’s glory after meeting with YHWH atop Mt. Sinai; Moses says to YHWH, “Show me your glory” and YHWH passed by him. No mortal could see the full glory of God and live…and so God was imageless and invisible. Israel was commanded that she could not make graven images of God–this is why the imprint of the Golden Calf is such idolatrous sin…and here we are told that the Son is the reflection of God’s glory and the very imprint of God’s being. When one sees the Son one sees God.
and he sustains all things by his powerful word. Because this Son reflects the glory and is the imprint of God’s being, he has powerful words that sustain all things. That is, Jews believed that YHWH upheld the entire created world by his word, by his presence, by his very being, and our author now attributes that live-giving, and world-sustaining power to the Son as well.
When he had made purification for sins. This is where things get interesting and we will be returning to these themes of purification, sins, and sitting down throughout our sermon series. The Son made the purification for sins because he was the purification for sins. Like I told you last week, Israel was used to making daily burnt offerings, weekly sabbath offerings, occasional sin offerings, and one annual offering for the atonement of sins. The Son makes the definitive, once-and-for-all purification for sins.
What does he do afterward? he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. This is significant for two reasons. First, this is imperial power language. Emperors and supreme leaders would often sit while their subjects stood in their presence. The right hand was the seat of power and the fact that Jesus occupies that seat and is seated in it means that he has incredible power and authority. As we know from the Nicene Creed, it is the place from which he is presently reigning and ruling over all things. Second, and of equal import to Hebrews, and this is something we will talk about more in the coming weeks, but Israel’s high priests had to perform the rituals, sacrifices, and offerings day after day, week after week, year after year. There was no time for sitting down. The high priest was always standing up, always offering, always working because their offerings were insufficient. As the Great High Priest, Jesus is able to sit down because his offering is once and for all. Period. No additives, no extras, no fine print.
This son has been elevated to a high level, for4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. This verse is the crucial point that takes us into chapter 2. The author is comparing Jesus to the angels and showing that Jesus is superior. What did the angels do? It was believed in Israel that the angels gave the two tablets to Moses. The entire law, the entire writing that would encompass Israel’s spiritual, civic, religious, and moral life was handed over from God to people by angels. There are angels seated on the top of the ark of the covenant, on the mercy seat where YHWH would reside…and Jesus is greater than the angels. Can you believe that? This is our first taste of the author taking something from Israel’s past and making the argument that Jesus is superior.
This is quite the opening 4 verses to this sermon. I have just spent more than 10 minutes walking through verses which would have taken 30 seconds to read. They are that rich and robust.
When we move into our verses from chapter 2, we are again met with this idea of Jesus being superior to the angels. The author begins with a quotation from Psalm 8, “What are humans that you are mindful of them? You made him a little lower than the angels,” something highly familiar to the Hebrews. Even though humanity is lower than the angels, and remember that Jesus assumed our humanity and is therefore “for a little while lower” than the angels, God entrusted the world to humans.
I’m not even going to let you ask the question, why does any of this matter? because our author answers it for us: Jesus is elevated higher than the angels through his suffering, crucifixion, and saving work.
Jesus is “crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death.” God is glorified in Christ crucified as Christ was enthroned upon the cross. The crown of thorns and the robes given in mocking jest by the soldiers betrayed a deeper truth: the king of glory was hanged upon the tree and there we see God’s glory truly reflected. Remember that from the first few verses. The impress and imprint of God is made manifest most fully through the suffering servant who “tasted death for everyone.”
Jesus suffers and dies so that he may bring many sons and daughters to glory. This is the Good News, my friends. This is why we are the church. This is why we are here this morning. Jesus’ death was intended as once-and-for-all in order to bring men, women, and children into God’s glory. Jesus is the pioneer of salvation and he has paid the price so that we don’t have to. Jesus has died the sinner’s death that we might enjoy eternal life in the presence of the Trinity.
So why does it matter that Jesus is greater than the angels? It matters because he is elevated through his sufferings, he is made perfect through his sufferings, we are made perfect and saved through his suffering and death…and because of this we are able to call him brother, we are able to refer to God as abba, father. We are the sons and daughters brought into glory. Your job, beloved, is to bring more sons and daughters into glory by introducing them to our Great High Priest, the one who holds all things together, the one who has been elevated to be higher than the angels, the one who is seated at the right hand of the Father, the one who has offered himself as the sacrifice for sins once-and-for-all, that we may not die but live forever. Amen.