Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, October 30, 2016
Taken from Hebrews 2:10-18
We clergy folks so often find our ministry taking place within the setting of hospitals and medical clinics. The great majority of our daily prayers are for members facing medical tests and procedures and treatments of every kind. At times, I envy the doctors with all their diagnostic equipment.
You know, if clergy were like medical clinicians, people would come our office and say things, like, “Pastor, I’ve been having these weird symptoms lately. I’m going along like normal and suddenly I’ll start feeling all loving towards people, even the mean ones.”
“Pastor, sometimes I get the urge to bow my head and be real still, and other times I get this urge to raise my head up to the sky and shout, ‘Thank you!’ to no one in particular. It’s all very distressing, Pastor! What do you think it might be?”
And, then, I could do what the doctors do. I’d get out this tube of spiritual goop and squirt it all over you and then take out a special God-scanner gizmo and scan you all up and down. I’d watch a little screen, and say, “ Uh huh… uh huh…uh huh. Let’s see…yeah…yeah…bingo! See it there on the screen, right around the heart? That little something there? Looks like you might have a touch of Holy Spirit in you!”
“Well, it’s nothing to worry over for now. It’s just a small spot of Holy Spirit. We’ll just keep an eye on it for now. Generally, the symptoms pass and most people can get on with their lives as usual. But, sometimes, it can end up with some real life-altering consequences. In its most extreme state, folks with this condition are often confused for Jesus, if you can imagine that!”
Then, you know, we could get together once a week on Sundays and sometimes twice a week if you count Wednesday nights, and I could check to see whether your Holy Spirit condition is going dormant or if it seems to be progressing.
I could help you find a H S C S support group…that stands for Holy Spirit Chronic Symptom support group. The spiritual lay person often refers to them as Sunday School classes or small group Bible studies, but we religious professionals prefer the more clinical phrase, Holy Spirit Chronic Sufferer support group.
You remember that public service announcement that use to come out about drug abuse? The shot would open with some guy standing in his kitchen next to the stove holding an egg. The guy would hold up the egg and say, “This is your brain.” Then, he’d crack the egg open and plop into this sizzling hot frying pan and as the egg sizzled in the hot grease, he’d say, “This is your brain on drugs.”
What if we could just do a Christian version of that PSA. You hold up your egg and say, “This is your soul.” Then, you could say, “And this is your soul on God.” And then you’d crack open the egg and out would fly a white dove, or if you’re of the Monty Python Holy Grail persuasion, out would fly a swallow.
But, we clergy people don’t get to do any of that. There’s no God-scanner gizmo that lets us look inside to see if anybody’s got a touch of the Holy Spirit. There’s no identifiable God-part inside the human body to dissect and expose. There’s nothing about us to crack open and out swoops God. For that matter, no one has ever seen God.
Except! Except, we have this ancient book of testimony that says a people long ago met a man, a Jewish rabbi from Galilee, by the name of Jesus. As they got involved with Jesus and started listening to what Jesus was telling them about God and then started imitating Jesus, something happened inside them. They began experiencing what they could only describe as God coming alive within them and among them.
Our Epistle reading this morning from the Book of Hebrews is as fine a distillation of their witness as we’ll find in Scripture. As the writer describes in chapter 2, verse 14, speaking of Jesus, Since therefore the children (that is, us) share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same (mortal) nature….
Christian theologians roughly fall out in their theologies between what’s called a “low Christology” and a “high Christology”. The low Christology folks focus on Jesus the mortal man in whom other people perceived the eternal God in such a way that they could only conclude Jesus was God in the flesh.
High Christology folks focus on the Eternal Son of God who became a fully mortal, flesh and blood man for a while before returning to assume his place in the Divine Perfection known as the Trinity.
Mark’s Gospel account is written from a low Christology perspective. Over and over, starting immediately in chapter 1, Mark quickly lays out all these amazing signs that Jesus performed along with his teaching. What conclusion could one draw from all that about this man from Nazareth, Mark is asking, but that God was uniquely present in him.
John’s Gospel account, on the other hand, is written from a high Christology point of view. Right from the get-go in chapter 1, verse 1, John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
And so John continues on about this Pre-Existent Word of God until he reaches verse 14, “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.” That’s a very high Christology kind of introduction.
The Apostle Peter’s speeches and sermons recorded in the Book of Acts usually start off from a low Christology point. Peter would start off, “Here was this man, Jesus; he performed all kinds of acts that could only originate with God. But, then, you crucified him. But, God resurrected the man Jesus and exalted him and restored him to his rightful Lordship over all things.”
The great hymn which Paul recites in Philippians, chapter 2, verses 5-11 is high Christology, “Have this mind among yourselves that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not consider equality with a God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taken the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of mortals….”
The writer of our Book of Hebrews was definitely of the “high Christology” camp. Plus, Hebrews wants us to get a handle on all this high Christology in terms taken from the ancient Jewish high priesthood that served in the Temple of Jerusalem. Over and over, the Book of Hebrews takes some central aspect of the ancient Jewish priesthood, holds it up, and then says, here’s a way to understand Jesus.
I don’t know about you, but the ancient Jewish high priesthood and the old Temple that once stood in Jerusalem just don’t do it for me. Instead, I do better thinking about all this in terms of Spartacus. Do you remember the old movie, ‘Spartacus’? 1960, Kirk Douglas, Lawrence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Tony Curtis…all those very Mediterranean-looking actors.
Kirk Douglas, of course, is Spartacus. He’s successfully led a group of slaves in revolt against the forces of Imperial Rome. Finally, though, the Roman army overwhelms the slaves, and they’re eventually captured. The Roman General, played by Lawrence Olivier, promises the slaves, “I will not crucify you. I will allow you to return to your masters. Only you must turn over to me your leader Spartacus!”
Kirk Douglas, in order to spare his followers that brutal death, is about to step out and acknowledge, “I am Spartacus.” But, before he can speak, another slave stands and shouts, “I am Spartacus!” And then another slave and another slave and another until all the slaves are claiming they are Spartacus.
Imagine, though, a slight twist of the plot. Suppose the Roman General had called out the name of one of the other slaves, and before that slave could step forward, Spartacus himself had stood and said, “I am he!”
Hebrews chapter 2, verse 14, essentially says, that Jesus was like that: Jesus, willingly stands with you and me saying, “I am she!” “I am he!” Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature. “I am now as they are,” declared Jesus. It’s the mystery we call incarnation. Jesus whom we call the Christ, Jesus stood up then and there among his first followers, and Jesus continues to stand up here and now beside us and say, “I am—insert your name here.”
Now, let’s be clear. God is not like Lawrence Olivier’s Roman general, out tracking us down in order to re-enslave us or to crucify us. God is not in the business of dehumanizing humanity. God is not in the business of capturing and crucifying. We do all that very well on our own, to ourselves and to others.
What is God doing? Hebrews chapter 2, verse 15, says God is in the business of delivering all those who through fear of death were to subject to lifelong bondage….delivering us mortals who through fear of death are subject to lifelong bondage.
Fear of death, inevitably, leads us into bondage of all kinds. We seldom recognize the complexities of this fear of death for what it is. But, we constantly act out our bondage to that fear, to our own hurt and to the hurt others.
You’ve all seen opossums. They’re funny little animals, aren’t they, the way they waddle along dragging their long rat-tails and the way they hang upside down in trees. But, let me tell you, you do not want to corner a possum. That’s a serious set of teeth on a possum.
When I was a boy, I would sometimes go with my Papa Dalton to check his rabbit traps laid out in the woods. These were lives traps, meaning they captured the rabbit unharmed. They were simple boxes with a trap door that would drop down trapping the rabbit inside the box. So, if my Papa Dalton saw a trap with the door tripped, he’d up-end the box, slide open the trap door, reach in, grab the rabbit and pull it out.
I was very curious to see the rabbit in the bottom of the box. So, on this one occasion, Papa saw a trap with the door sprung shut. He up-ended the box, and I got right over it so I could look in to see the little bunny. He slipped the door open and, man, all I could see was fangs and claws of one angry possum in the bottom of the trap. Papa smacked the trap door back shut in a hurry. He put the box down pointing the other way, pulled the door open and then we left.
We’ve each got our own opossums trapped down deep in our brains. Sometimes, when our personal possums are threatened, they just play dead. But, sometimes, they come out all fang and claw ready to chew somebody up until the danger’s gone.
Carl Sandburg has a poem along those lines called “Wilderness”. Here’s an abbreviated version:
“There is a wolf in me…fangs pointed for tearing gashes…a red
tongue for raw meat….I keep this wolf because the wilderness
gave it to me and the wilderness will not let it go.
There is a fox in me…a silver-grey fox…I sniff and guess….I circle
and loop and double-cross.
There is a hog in me…a snout and a belly…a machinery for eating
and grunting….I got this too from the wilderness and the
wilderness will not let it go….
Sandburg goes on to describe the fish and the baboon within him, the eagle and the mockingbird, too, and then he concludes:
O, I got a zoo, I got a menagerie, inside my ribs, under my bony
head, under my red-valve heart—and I got something else:
it is a man-child heart, a woman-child heart: it is father and
mother and lover: it came from God-Knows-Where: it is
going to God-Knows-Where—For I am the keeper of the zoo:
I say yes and no: I sing and kill and work: I am a pal of the
world: I came from the wilderness.”1
Truth is, we are very poor keepers of the zoo, these brains and bodies forged in the ancient wilderness of time; fact is, our deeply hidden menageries do what they will, dragging us along, hostages rather than keepers of the zoo.
Jesus’ brain, his body, were forged in the same ancient wilderness of time. He had the very same menagerie prowling around deep in him, too. As verse 17 says, “Therefore he had to be made like his sisters and brothers in every respect.” In every respect, Jesus was mortal. Jesus could die; Jesus could be killed.
Yet, Jesus discerned his Creator and his God in a way we fail to do. Jesus let God teach him when to say yes and when to say no. Jesus let God teach him how to be the keeper of the zoo.
Folks watched Jesus and followed him, they imitated him and sometimes they were crucified for remaining true to him. They were mocked as being “Christians”, roughly translated, meaning “little Christs”. Those early followers accepted the name. They would not dare stand and say, “I am Christ”, of course, but they were willing to stand and say, “Yes, I am a little Christ.”
They experienced what it was for the Christ to live within them and bear witness, “I have become you, so you may become me.” That is the power of the Gospel to transform us, us “little Christs”, us younger brothers and sisters of Jesus, us children of the Living God.
1 Carl Sandburg, Harvest Poems, Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc. 1960, p. 47