The Feast of the Presentation of our Lord, 2 February 2020
A Sermon on Hebrews 2:14-18 by Samuel David Zumwalt
Hebrews 2:14-18 English Standard Version, © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers]
14 Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, 15 and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. 16 For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. 17 Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. 18 For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
LIGHT OF THE WORLD: DELIVERED IN HIM
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Today’s celebration is a belated Christmas gift to you and me, because we can open this gift without all the emotional baggage associated with the holiday we celebrated just six weeks ago. Yes, today, we remember Jesus again as a child, this time at forty days after birth, when the Incarnate Lord comes for the first time to His Temple. According to the ritual law, His mother receives a purifying bath thirty-three days after the circumcision of an eight-day-old son (Leviticus 12:2-8). Mary and Joseph bring a sacrifice for a priest to offer. But as the elderly Jewish saints, Simeon and Anna, filled with the Holy Spirit, foretell, the true sacrifice they are bringing is the One who is both High Priest and Victim. Let’s go deeper into the Hebrews text.
We are not gods, you and I. We are mortals. The unbelieving world has many stories about mortality. The fatalist says, “Life sucks, and then you die.” The hedonist says, “You only go around once in life, so grab for all the gusto you can.” The Woodstock generation says, “We are stardust. We are golden. We are billion-year-old carbon. And we’ve got to get ourselves back to the garden” (Joni Mitchell). The existentialist says, “We live. We die. We become compost.” And, then, other faiths propose alternatives as carnal as 72 virgins awaiting Muslim male martyrs, to the more sobering idea of only living on in the memories of others, to becoming part of the cosmic energy of the universe. It’s like the old Sheol, where nobody knows your name.
We are mortals, you and I. The great metanarrative, the grand over-arching story of the Bible, says we are mortals, because our first parents lost Paradise by trying, in the time of testing, to make themselves gods. And, every mortal since struggles with the rebellious spirit that lies in our very DNA. Because we are flesh and blood, because we are mortal and not gods, we die, and we fade in-and-out of consciousness about our mortal state. Let’s be honest about grief. We grieve not for our dead but grieve for ourselves without those dear ones in our life. Indeed, each loss that comes our way in this life is a rehearsal for the death that awaits each one of us.
When the baby takes her first step, she will never again be that little one we carry in our arms. When she loses her first tooth, she is growing older. When he goes to another’s classroom without us, he is out of our sight and care perhaps for the first time. When he overnights at a friend’s home or goes to camp, he is becoming independent. When she takes driver’s education and gets her license, now she has taken herself even further from our protection. When she leaves home, we know we will never again be the same kind of parent to her. We are growing old all the while. Whatever pride we take in her achievements, whatever hurt we share in his losses, they are becoming adults for whom we are less and less essential. We are mortals.
The fear of death lurks just below our consciousness until it jumps out into the room to terrify us. Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins famously wrote of these intimations of our mortality, “Tis the blight man was born for” (“Margaret”). So, then, what are we Christians to do about it?
We confess it. That is how we begin each Eucharist. We confess that we are in bondage to sin and cannot free ourselves. Sin brings death. The fear of death brings more sin. And so, the Lord God, who hates nothing that He has made, takes on our flesh and blood. He enters into our mortality in order to destroy the one who has the power of death, namely, the ancient evil foe.
God is a community within Himself. He is not like us, and so we grapple with the very notion of the Holy Trinity, the Three-in-One, because, in our mortality, we begin with ourselves to try to imagine God. It is a monstrous folly, because beginning with our mortal state, we can never imagine the God, who has no beginning and no ending. God is a community within Himself. He is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, one God, not three; one Father, not three; one Son, not three; one Holy Spirit, not three. If the notion of God is unreasonable, it is because we begin with our mortal state. If the notion of God as a community within Himself is unreasonable, it is because we do not have the brains to grasp it. How can mortal humans ever comprehend God?
The mystery of the incarnation, the mystery of God taking on our flesh and blood in the Virgin Mary’s womb, is a mystery we cannot solve. God must reveal Himself to us. This is at the root of our celebration of the Presentation of our Lord today. The Lord God is carried into His Temple at forty days after birth, and only Simeon and Anna, two elderly Jewish saints, can see Who He is and understand what He must do to deliver, to release, to set free those in bondage to sin, death, and the old evil one. He has come to set free the seed of Abraham. As the Child of the Promise to Abraham and Sarah, the Lord Jesus has to come to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth.
The only way for God’s Son Jesus to accomplish the redemption of His and all people was to be made like His brothers. He was duty bound by the death verdict that His Father had pronounced on His rebellious creatures to become like us in every way but sin. Only, in this way, could God’s Son become the merciful and faithful High Priest who would offer His own blood as a sacrifice for our sins and those of the whole world. On the 8th day at His circumcision, Jesus shed His first blood for us. Here on the 40th day after birth, the Lord has come to prepare His sacrifice.
According to the Lord Jesus, everyone needs to be baptized, not merely as a purification rite as His mother received on the 40th day, but to be joined to His saving death. Only in Baptism can we receive the propitiation, the mercy of God for sinners, by being covered with Christ’s blood.
The Greek word (peirázō) translated “tempted” can also be translated “tested.” We find the same verb used in Matthew 6:13, which we typically translate as “lead us not into temptation.” We can also translate it as: “do not put us to the test.”
We Christians remain in mortal bodies, and so we must remember that as Christ Himself suffered, so we must suffer. The deliverance from suffering that God’s incarnate Son brings is not for this mortal life. We may get temporary relief, but we await our release, our deliverance. Christ has died. We must die. Christ is risen. We will rise. Christ will come again. We will go with Him into the joy and peace that awaits those who now share in the eternal life and love of the Triune God by our Baptism into His Son’s saving death and glorious resurrection.
We preach Christ crucified and keep His crucifix before our eyes, not because we do not believe in His resurrection or ours, but because, in this mortal life, we continue to be tested by suffering and death. And, we must say that such testing often becomes the occasion for tempting, for being drawn away from the grace, mercy, and peace of God right back into the same old fear of death.
I ask you, again, a necessary question: “Why do we practice the faith?” So that it will be there when we need it. And…when don’t we need it? Sometimes, we need our faith most in the easy times when we are not suffering, when we are not grieving, and when we are not afraid of death.
I am not surprised, nor should you be, that the baptized often fall away from the Christian faith. Both Judas and Peter walked with the Lord Jesus every day for three years, and, yet, in the hour of testing, they gave in to the fear of death. They each abandoned their Lord and Master. Judas, of course, left just after the Lord’s Supper, and went out into the dark. Later that same night, Peter stood out in the dark trying to draw warmth from a fire instead of from the Light of the world. Peter denied His Lord, not once, not twice, but three times. After Easter, he was restored.
How are you being tested at this time? Is it through fear of death? Through grief after a loss? Or, are you being tested by an easy life? Is your child in trouble? Is it your spouse? Are you fearful of the future and what it may hold for your, for a loved one, perhaps, even for this congregation?
Name the testing, the tempting, that is going on inside you. But do not leave it locked in that place of gnawing anxiety and fear. Come into conversation with the Triune God. Call upon your Father, who wants to hear from His child. Call upon your elder brother, the Son, who wants to help you in your time of trail. Call upon the Holy Spirit, who wants to strengthen your faith.
If you are not baptized, or your child is not baptized, obey the Lord’s command that all people be baptized into His saving death and glorious resurrection. If you are baptized, do not miss one opportunity to receive the Lord’s true Body and most precious Blood. We celebrate the Eucharist each week on Saturday, Sunday, and each Wednesday at noon. You need Jesus, and so do I.
This time of testing can be a time of great growth as a child of God. Do not stay in the dark. Do not remain in fear or anxiety. Do not listen to false stories. Trust the only One who can deliver you from the fear of death, the yawning chasm of the grave, into forever Light, Love, and Joy!
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
©Samuel David Zumwalt
St. Matthew’s Ev. Lutheran Church
Wilmington, North Carolina USA
Light of the World: Delivered in Him
Almighty and everliving God, we humbly pray that, as your only-begotten Son was this day presented in the temple, so we may be presented to you with pure and clean hearts by Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen (The Daily Prayer of the Church, p. 1514).
Hebrews 2:14 “Since… the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things…”
St. Cyril [Early 5th century Patriarch of Alexandria, Egypt]: “…If the only begotten Word of God did not become human, but rather united to himself the external form (prosōpon) of a man, as is the opinion of those who define the union only by good pleasure and by an inclination of will, how would he be likened to ‘his brethren in all respects’?” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Hebrews, 44).
Hebrews 2:15 “…and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”
St. John Chrysostom [Late 4th – early 5th century Patriarch of Constantinople, Turkey]: “Therefore, do not be grieved, saying, ‘Why do we suffer such and such things/’ For so the victory becomes more glorious. And it would not have been glorious unless by death he had destroyed death; but the most wonderful thing is that he conquered him by the very means by which he was strong, showing at every point the abundance of his means and the excellence of his plans. Let us not then prove false to the gift bestowed on us…Let us stand then nobly, laughing death to scorn” (48).
Hebrews 2:16 “ For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham.”
St. Cyril of Alexandria: “The Only Begotten operated not through his own nature, for that would in no way have improved our state, or through the nature of angels; but he operated through ‘the seed of Abraham’ as Scripture has it. For in this way and no other could the race, fallen into corruption, be restored to salvation” (49).
Hebrews 2:17 “a merciful… high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins….”
St. Ambrose [4th century Bishop of Milan, Italy]: “Seeing then that God had rejected the blood of bulls and goats, the High Priest was indeed bound to make passage and entry into the holy of holies in heaven through his own blood in order that he might be the everlasting propitiation for our sins” (46).
Hebrews 2:18 “… he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted …”
St. John Chrysostom: “Now he is not ignorant of our sufferings, not only because as God he knows them, but also because as man he knows them through the trial with which he was tested” (50).
1. Do I understand what wondrous love the Lord God shows us by the mystery of His incarnation?
2. Have I grasped to what lengths God has gone in order to deliver me from sin, death, and Satan?
The Lord’s Prayer (from Luther’s Small Catechism)
As the head of the family should teach it in a simple way to his household.
For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever and ever. Amen.
What does this mean?
This means that I should be certain that these petitions are pleasing to our Father in heaven and are heard by Him; for He Himself has commanded us to pray in this way and has promised to hear us. Amen, amen means ‘yes, yes, it shall be so’” (Luther’s Small Catechism).
1. Pray daily for every unbaptized child you know and for the child’s parents, too.
2. Pray daily for your unchurched loved ones and friends. Invite one or more of them to worship with you next weekend as part of striving to “encourage spiritual growth in others.”
3. Discuss with your spouse, your family, or a friend how calling upon a loving Father in prayer leads to a greater confidence in His unfailing love for His dear children. Ask how that gives focus to our striving to “pray daily.”
4. If you haven’t signed up to serve in one of the many worship ministries of our congregation, please do so as part of striving to “serve at and beyond St. Matthew’s.” God is calling you!
5. If you aren’t already attending Sunday School or Bible study at St. Matthew’s, please do so as your palpable indication that you are striving both to “worship weekly and read the Bible.”
For Husbands and Wives
Repeat daily: “I (name) take you (name) to be my wedded wife (husband), to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish until death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance, and thereto I pledge you my faith.”