God's final word - Hebrews 1:1-4
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
One of the most popular Christmas carols of all time which rounds of our carol service here at St Johns each year is the classic ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ with the immortal lines: ‘Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, Hail the incarnate Deity Pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel’. Great words; but what do they actually mean and why do they matter? What they mean- as strange and seemingly implausible as it may sound to some, is that the Creator became a creature without ceasing to be Creator. Why they matter is because upon them rests our eternal destiny and the future of the whole universe. This is the way C.S. Lewis summarised the situation in his day which was not all that dissimilar to ours, ‘Is not the popular idea of Christianity simply this: that Jesus was a great moral teacher and that if only we took his advice we might be able to establish a better social order and avoid another war?.......It is quite true that if we took Christ’s advice we should soon be living in a happier world. You need not even go as far as Christ. If we all did what Plato or Aristotle or Confucius told us, we should get on a great deal better. And so what? We never have followed the advice of great teachers. Why are we more likely to start now?.....But as soon as you look at any real Christian writings, you find that they are talking about something quite different from this popular religion. They say that Christ is the Son of God....they say that those who give Him their confidence can also become sons of God….They say that His death saved us from our sins.’
Putting it bluntly, if Jesus is not God who became man while still remaining God, then Christians are guilty of idolatry by worshipping a man, in which case the complaint of the Muslim is upheld. If Jesus is no more than a man, but to simply be placed on the same level as Socrates or Buddha, then we needn’t give his words any more weight than any other man. But if he is God, then everything changes, for then we can say with certainty we know what God is like, we know what God wants from us and what he wants to give us. And over the next few weeks we are going to be looking at one of those Christian writings Lewis talks about which expresses in the most sublime way imaginable that which defies the imagination and which is meant to lead us to grateful devotion and genuine discipleship- Hebrews chapter 1:1-4.
Now although we don’t know who the writer of this letter is we do know what he was, namely, a preacher. All the evidence is that this is one long sermon according to chapter 13:22. In fact verses 1-4 is one long sentence in the original packed with theological dynamite. His writing style is not like any other writer in the New Testament, it very highly polished; in fact some say he is the Shakespeare of the New Testament writers- top quality. But it is not how he writes which is especially impressive, but what he writes.
Just look at verses 1and 2, ‘In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.’
As any marriage counsellor will tell you, most problems in relationships come down to a failure to communicate. ‘He never listens to me’; ‘She doesn’t understand me’; ‘It’s as if we are from different planets, if not different galaxies!’ Effective communication is vital to fostering good relationships between people. And if that is the case at the human level how much more so at the divine-human level, between God and people. So here are the 2 big questions: ‘If there is a God, how do we know? If there is a God, how can we know him?’ And for both questions to be answered positively some sort of communication has to take place and the initiative has to come from God’s side. If he is there, then he must make himself known. And the word used to describe this activity of God ‘making himself known’ is revelation- a word which in the biblical languages means a ‘pulling back of the curtain’ so that we know what or who is behind the curtain. And here our writer tells us that God has done just that in 2 very special ways.
In his funny film, ‘Love and Death’, the American comedian Woody Allen, at one point says in exasperation, ‘‘If God would only speak to me – just once. If he would only cough. If I could just see a miracle. If I could see a burning bush or the seas part. Or my Uncle Sasha pick up the bill.’
What you have there is a mixture of universal human longing and entrenched modern cynicism. People want some assurance there is a God. But then come the conditions: Allen wants God the conversationalist ‘If only God would speak’, but he has spoken, maybe not in the way some people would want, but he has spoken nonetheless. God has spoken through the cross, but Allen would prefer a cough. Allen wants God the conjurer ‘If I could just see a miracle’ but dismisses a book full of miracles. You get the impression that no matter what conditions are laid down for God to meet; further conditions will be waiting further down the line. And in every case God expected to jump through the hoops of our making at our bidding. Not so the real God. However, that is not to say that he is not exceedingly gracious in the way he stoops down to speak to us. He takes into account our frailties and so speaks in ways we can understand, using human language. He makes allowance for our rebellion too, whereby more often than not we don’t want to understand what he is saying, like Uncle Sasha turning a deaf ear so that someone else picks up the bill at the restaurant.
But here we are told God has always been the speaking God; ‘In the past God spoke’- a better rendering would be, ‘God speaking in the past’ and now ‘speaking through his Son’- it is one long continuous event. It is not that God has been silent; it is that sin shrouds our planet in silence and makes us deaf to God and blind to his works. From the very beginning God made us uniquely to know him and since the initial rebellion in Eden he has steadily been unfolding a plan of rescue that would save the world that was lost. And this passage is setting us up for the fact that God began the conversation that is Jesus Christ, long before the actual incarnation.
You see, this is special revelation we are talking about, that is, revelation which is given to specific people at specific times with specific content. Now the Bible makes it plain that the primary way God has chosen to relate to us is the same as we relate to each other- by words. Just think how the first book in the Bible begins which establishes the pattern for the rest of the Bible: ‘In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth- the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters and God said...let there be and there was.’ The Jewish Philosopher, Martin Buber, tells the story of a rabbi whose reading of the Scriptures never got beyond Genesis 1:2 ‘And God said’. The marvel of a God who speaks and whose Word was the heart of who he was, was too much for him to contemplate: He who is Lord not only lives, he speaks! Did you know that the expression, ‘Thus says the LORD’ occurs over 3,000 times in the OT? And when God achieved the greatest communication coup ever, bridging the infinite gulf by becoming one of us in Jesus Christ, we are told ‘The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us.’ It’s all about the Word, you see, the God who speaks.
Now this goes against the grain of our culture doesn’t it? It is contrary to much pagan religion in fact. We live in the age of the visual. ‘A picture is worth a thousand words.’ is taken as a truism. ‘Seeing is believing.’ is more than a cliché it is pretty well basic to the way most people operate. Well, there is only once in history where the sight and sound of God were united-in Jesus Christ- God’s Son, so that as we look at him we see the works and words of God in perfect harmony. But apart from that one moment- the emphasis is undecidedly upon verbal communication-God speaking. Even a prophetic vision is always accompanied by verbal interpretation. Now, just think for a moment of the difference between seeing and listening and you can understand why God stresses the listening.
First of all, sight is largely intentional whereas hearing is involuntary. Take sight: we open our eyes, but we can shut them too. We can turn our heads or turn them away. In other words we are the ones in control. Not so with sound. It comes to us and we receive it immediately. We are the ones addressed whether we like it or not. In other words, the speaker is mainly in control, not the listener. In the second place, sight is mainly to do with appearance whereas words are to do with meaning.
For example, imagine that you are in a supermarket and you see a man hammering away at the chest of another man on the floor. What do you do? Well, he looks like an attacker, so you call the police. But then you realise you should have called the ambulance because the man explains that the fellow lying on the floor has had a seizure and he is trying to revive him- that is, words give the correct meaning to the actions. So it is with God, he gives meaning to life, why we are here and how we are best meant to live. He speaks and it is our duty- more than that- it is our delight to listen.
So the question is: how does God speak? A contrast is set up for us in Hebrews 1.
In the past God’s revelation was fragmented but now it is fully formed. The writer says God spoke ‘at many times and in various ways’. A better translation would be ‘in many pieces and in many ways God was speaking’. Or if you like, there has been a drip feeding of revelation. Let me explain: through words and actions God has gradually built up for us a full picture of himself, what he is like, and how we are to relate to him. And the record of that self-revelation is contained in the first part of the Bible, what we call the Old Testament. I am sure you have seen those photomosaic puzzles of a face which when you look more closely you discover that each piece is a picture in itself (slide). Well, as we turn to the Bible what we find in the OT is just that, the jig saw is slowly being pieced together with little pictures until eventually we see the full face of God in Jesus- the big picture, and as we look at his life and listen to his words, all the little pictures of God in the OT are found there too.
As we shall see next week, for the Jews the question was never, ‘What is God?’ That is the philosopher’s question and usually you get a Philosopher’s answer; He is ‘the Prime Mover’- whatever that is! For the Bible it is always, ‘Who is God’; and two things about God stood out from every other religion, namely, that this One God was the creator of all things and the redeemer of all things. That is who God is! So you find statements which spell these out like Isaiah 40 ‘To whom will you compare me? Lift up your eyes and look to the heavens who created all these?’- Creator; ‘See the Lord comes with Sovereign power’- Ruler; ‘Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…. her sin has been paid for’-Redeemer. And all sorts of pictures were given by the prophets like Moses and others gradually over a period of time in bits and bobs showing us what God is like: that he is a shepherd, a king, a father, a lover; but also people and practices- priests to offer sacrifices because God is righteous, a temple in which to offer them, a king to rule them and so on. The fragments of the pieces of the jig saw slowly coming together until eventually, the picture is complete with the coming of Jesus, ‘but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.’ And where do we find out what Jesus is like and what he said? Here in these very same Scriptures, the second half which completes the first, the New Testament.
Sometimes people will say, ‘I don’t worship the Bible, the written word, I worship Jesus the living word. I want to know a person not a proposition. I don’t want an exposition I want an experience.’ Have you heard those kinds of things said? But when you think about it; they are all false options. How can you know Jesus other than by learning about him in Scripture? The Jesus of faith is the Jesus of history and we have no other access to him but by this book.
And isn’t it also the case that the words of a person reflect what the person is like? So if someone makes promises and keeps them then we know they are a reliable person. If they issue warnings and consequences, we know they are a moral person. If they offer words of comfort and love we know they are a caring person and so on. That seems to be to be a fair summary of the God of the Bible isn't it?
And we must also remember that words aren’t just about conveying information-getting things across they are about action- getting things done. Now this is vitally important, so let me explain it a little more carefully. If I say to my wife, ‘I love you’. I am not just imparting some interesting piece of information about the state of my glands. I am actually fostering love, showing care, building her up, strengthening our relationship through those words. Not only words of course, but words are a vital part of the enhancing the relationship. Well, that is what God does through this amazing book, which is why we call it: ‘The Word of God.’ This is where I hear God’s voice clearly, this is where I discover his will, this is where I learn of his ways, this is where I get to know his person, and receive his tender comfort. Where else can I go?
One time Bishop of Oxford, who was influential in the conversion of T. E. Lawrence- Lawrence of Arabia as a young man- Christopher Chavasse, wrote this which I have found so helpful, he said ‘The Bible is the portrait of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Gospels are the Figure itself in the portrait. The Old Testament is the background leading up to the divine figure, pointing towards it and absolutely necessary to its composition as a whole. The Epistles serve as the dress and accoutrements of the Figure, explaining it and describing it. Then while by our Bible reading we study the portrait as a great whole, the miracle happens, the Figure comes to life, and stepping down from the canvas of the written word the everlasting Christ of the Emmaus story becomes himself our Bible teacher, to interpret to us in all Scripture the things concerning himself.’
And when you turn to these wonderful pages and see Jesus isn’t he entrancingly beautiful? Isn’t his wisdom surprisingly delightful? Isn’t his compassion movingly inspirational? The Bible from beginning to end is fundamentally a book about God, and so about Jesus who is God, his character, his dealings with us, fallen and failing as we are, so that we can come to know him and increasingly become the people we were created to be and enjoy God as he is meant to be enjoyed.
Does God still speak through this book enabling people to encounter his Son? Most certainly! There are umpteen people here today who will testify to that. But let me tell you about the former UVF terrorist, David Hamilton, who spoke at one of our evangelistic events a few years ago. He writes: The police raided my house in the early hours of the morning, and I was arrested. When I went to court I received a total of 44 years. On the day that I was sentenced my mother called into my uncle's house on her way home to tell him the news. My mother was crying and said' You know ,there's no hope for my son because he is just caught up in this violence, and even if he was out of prison he would be involved again. He's just a hopeless case. "But there was an old lady sitting there, 83 years of age. She said to my mother' That's not true. God can change your son. "My mother just smiled and thanked her. She did not really believe there was much chance of that happening .But this old lady was able to tell my mother she would pray for me every day that God would change my heart. 14 months later I was sitting in my prison cell. There was a Christian tract on my bed. I remember thinking it was disgusting and I threw it out of the window. I went to church as a child. Prison was bad but church was worse! I sat on my bed drinking tea and there came a thought at the back of my mind to become a Christian. "This is terrible. Someone has put dope in my tea. Why am I thinking like this? I remember looking up at the shelf and seeing the Bible. I thought" Even if I wanted to be a Christian, God would say: 'Not you, you’re too bad, it is only for nice people or good people 'I lifted the Bible down and started to read some verses out of the fly-pages. Then God showed me something I'd never seen before. He showed me he'd kept me alive. The IRA had tried to kill me several times. I thought' Why should 'God not be interested in me if he's kept me alive. 'The next day I decided. I said, 'God, I know you're real, but if you are interested in me, take away the violence and the bitterness I have, and change me, .I prayed that prayer on my knees. I asked the Lord Jesus to save me. God changed me that day. I began to read the Word of God and I can honestly say my life changed. After that I led IRA men to the Lord, sex offenders to the Lord and many other men too. God showed me grace in my life.'
In these last days God has spoken to us by a Son; and you know what? He continues to speak to us by his Son.
 C S Lewis, Mere Christianity, pp 133-134
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