The God Who Stoops

Preached by Michael Cheuk, October 4, 2015
Taken from Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12

God-Who-StoopsWhat do you do when a congregation is struggling? How do you bolster a congregation’s faith? Well, that was exactly the problem that the book of Hebrews had to address. Professor Thomas Long says that while Bible scholars are not sure exactly who wrote this book nor exactly to whom, the book addresses a problem that many churches today can relate to: declining attendance and members who are tired and losing confidence. Professor Long also describes this book as more a “sermon” than a “letter,” and calls the author of this sermon, “the Preacher.”[1]

So imagine this Preacher leading worship in this congregation. As he (and during that time, this Preacher was surely a man), as he looked out, he saw many discouraged and weary faces. The congregation was going through hard times, and it needed a good word. When the time came for the Preacher to give a sermon, he slowly got up, and as he faced the congregation and felt the weight of their gaze and expectations, he began with these words: “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers [our ancestors] by the prophets, but in these last days [God] has spoken to us by his Son.”

From the get-go, the Preacher reminded the congregation that while God had spoken effectively in the past to their ancestors by the prophets, in these last days, the full and final revelation of God has been spoken through God’s Son Jesus Christ. The good word that the congregation needed to hear was not through human words, but through the divine Word of God’s own Son. For you see, during times of hardship, it is tempting to get mired in the struggle, and to focus our gaze downward on our problems. The Preacher of Hebrews reminds us to lift our eyes and focus our gaze upward on the exalted Jesus Christ. The Preacher of Hebrews is bold and brash enough to think that hearing a word about the nature of Christ is the solution to the problem.

The Preacher makes staggering claims about the superior nature of Christ. Christ is God’s Son appointed heir of all things. God created the world through Christ. Christ is the reflection of God’s glory and radiance. Christ sustains all things by his powerful word, purifies sins, and was raised up to the right hand of God. Throughout this sermon, no matter what the question is, no matter who the Preacher is talking about, Jesus is always the better answer. It reminds me of all the questions children get asked in Sunday School or children’s sermons.

So a young preacher opened his children’s sermon one time with a riddle for the children: What’s brown, furry, and eats nuts? The children nervously look at one another, but none raise their hands. So the preacher continues, “You know… it runs up trees? And hops from branch to branch?” The children looked at one another uncomfortably until a brave soul raised a hand and said, “I know the answer has to be Jesus, but it sounds like a squirrel to me!”

This story is often used to suggest that not only in children’s sermons, but in most of church life, Christians tend to say that Jesus is the answer… to everything. And that’s certainly what the writer of today’s text seems to be suggesting. But for some of us, maybe those who have experienced hardships and disappointments, or those who may be a little jaundiced and cynical, we may not be as receptive in hearing from a preacher who simply asserts that Jesus is superior to everything. For some, such a high and exalted Jesus is just too distant and “perfect” to have much relevance in the muck and messiness of our everyday lives. For others, such claims of superiority sound like boastful bluster.

The Preacher in this passage had a very difficult task. In making a case for the superiority of Christ without making him unrelatable or too triumphant, the Preacher used a familiar passage from Psalm 8 to make his point. “It’s been testified somewhere,” says the Preacher, “what is man, that you are mindful of him, or the son of man, that you care for him?” This language comes from the beautiful poetry of Psalm 8, which goes on to assert that man – or humanity – is made a “little lower than the angels.” However, in the Hebrews passage, the Preacher is not referring to the exaltation of human beings in general, but to the exaltation of the one particular Man, Jesus Christ who has been crowned with glory and honor, so that everything is subject under Christ’s feet, and nothing is left outside of his control.

On Sunday mornings, we proclaim Christ’s superiority over all things. On Sunday mornings, we worship a vision of an exalted Christ. On Sunday mornings, we focus our gaze on the Christ who has everything under his feet, subject to his command. Amen and alleluia! But on Monday mornings, what do we see? On Monday mornings, we still see a world that is being torn apart by war. We still see a country in mourning for victims of violence. We still see people hurting and suffering and dying. We still see in so many ways where things are not what they ought to be. The Preacher of Hebrews recognized this, and with no triumphant bluster, he conceded, “At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him [the Christ].”

So what do we see? What we see is only part of the story. Professor Long writes: “When all is said and done, it is the gospel heard through the ear that turns out to hold the full truth. Yes, the Preacher says, Jesus did suffer. The whole world saw that. Yes, Jesus did exhibit the weakness of human flesh. Yes, Jesus did die, sharing the fate of all humanity. But those were only the pictures; listen to my words. Jesus was made lower than the angels for a little while, and this stooping into human history was for a distinct purpose. When one hears this full message of the gospel, one recognizes beyond mere sight that the season of Jesus’ suffering was a necessary segment of the arc of grace that curves finally to the place we cannot yet see, to the place of triumph where the Son is even now crowned with glory and honor.”[2] And when all is said and done, God in Christ was not too proud to stoop down in such a manner. Indeed, Jesus so identified with us, that he is not ashamed of calling us his brothers and sisters.

“In the rich verses of Hebrews, we are given a Jesus who embodies glory and humiliation, power and suffering, authority and servanthood, radical grace and radical obedience. Each side of the paradox makes the other side possible. In stunning symmetry, we find in Hebrews an utterly majestic and cosmic God [stooping down] to touch us—up close and personal.”[3] Therefore, the polarity of the full divinity and the full humanity of Christ is not a problem to be solved. Instead, it is a mystery that we must gently hold in tension.

It’s sometimes hard to hold two seemingly opposite things together. Take sunshine and rain. I know we need both, but I prefer sunshine. Given all the rain we’ve had this week, I’m so ready for sunshine! However, Lynn Martin recently taught me a lesson about holding them both together. She told me that, as a child, when she was outside on a sunny day, she always envisioned God with arms open wide, smiling and ready to embrace her. When it rained, she envisioned God stooping down and gently touching her. She loved being out in the rain, feeling water drops on her skin, and she still does. I guess Lynn has really felt God’s presence this week!

Another way to experience the presence of God is when we gather to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. At this supper, the exalted Son of God stooped down to wash his disciples’ feet so that we may have communion with him. Jesus was not ashamed to offer such a humble act of love, nor was he ashamed to experience the brokenness of the universal human condition through his broken body and shed blood. But he also said that as we eat the bread and drink the cup, we “proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes.” We may be struggling and we may be discouraged, we may even be sick and dying, but in Christ, death and suffering will not have the final word, not in our lives and not in our congregation. No, the final word is this: we worship a God who stoops, a God who comes down to us into the messiness of our humanity. This God died, but He was raised and ascended, and He will come back in order to raise us up to a newness of life. This is not a message of success and comfort; rather, it is a message of the glory of the cross and the power of the resurrection. It is a message that the Preacher of Hebrews wanted his congregation to hear, and it is a message that this preacher needs to hear and be reminded.

On this World Communion Sunday, Christians worldwide may eat different breads, and sing God’s praise with songs drawn from different countries, but we do so today acknowledging the one Source of our salvation, Jesus the Christ. As we remember the Word made flesh that was broken, and the slain Lamb who is now enthroned in glory, as we eat and drink at the Lord’s Table, may God make us make us brothers and sisters of Christ and of one another.

Amen.

[1] Thomas G. Long, Interpretation: A Bible Commentary for Teaching and Preaching. Hebrews, p. 3.

[2] Ibid., p. 38.

[3] Susan R. Andrews, “Hebrews 1:1-4; 2:5-12,” Feasting on the Word – Year B, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ).