This sermon, the first of two on today’s scripture, is about an unpopular subject: the wrath of God. As I explain in this sermon, if God truly loves us, then that means that he will also have wrath toward sin. At the same time, God made a gracious provision to save us from his wrath. Every sin will be punished, scripture tells us, either through Christ on the cross or through us in hell for eternity. The choice is ours.
Sermon Text: Hebrews 2:5-18
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We don’t know who the author of Hebrews is. He’s anonymous. But we know why he’s writing this letter. He tells us at the beginning of chapter 2: He’s concerned that these Christians, who have undergone great persecution and suffering for their faith, are in danger of “drifting away from it.” Later, in chapter 6, verses 4 through 6, he issues the following warning:
For it is impossible, in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the Son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt.
These people don’t sound so different from us: like us, they had “once been enlightened”; like us, they had “tasted the heavenly gift” of salvation; like us, they had “shared in the Holy Spirit.” Like most of us, they were genuine Christian believers. But they drifted away—they fell away—from the faith. And now they’re lost; it sounds like they’ve passed a point of no return and are beyond hope.
Could this happen to us… If we drift away?
Although we Methodists share much in common with our fellow Protestants, one non-essential doctrine over which we disagree with some of them—including Presbyterians and many Baptists—is the doctrine of “eternal security” or “perseverance of the saints”—sometimes called “once saved, always saved.” We Wesleyan Christians believe that “backsliding” is possible—that it’s possible that even after receiving God’s gift of salvation—being justified, being born again, receiving the gift of the Spirit—we can lose our salvation. I don’t believe it happens easily. I hope it doesn’t happen often. And I believe that if we are genuine Christian believers the Holy Spirit “himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,” that we’re saved, and that we have great security and assurance of salvation so long as we continue to repent and believe and “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” But I’m afraid I would be guilty of pastoral malpractice if I didn’t warn you of the danger that we all face.
Don’t drift away, the author of Hebrews says. Your very soul is at stake!
How can we avoid drifting away? By paying much closer attention, the author says, to “what we have heard.”
And what exactly have we heard? The gospel of Jesus Christ, which the author summarizes for us in today’s scripture. He reminds us of what Christ has accomplished for us, and how he has done so. And I hope you’ll agree, after hearing this message, that Christ has done everything necessary for us to be saved. This is the good news—this is the best news of all.
The author begins by quoting Psalm 8:
What is man, that you are mindful of him,
or the son of man, that you care for him?
You made him for a little while lower than the angels;
you have crowned him with glory and honor,
putting everything in subjection under his feet.
This psalm looks back to Genesis 1 and 2, and the special vocation that God originally gave us human beings who were specially created in God’s image. God gave us this world to care for, to cultivate, to nurture. We are his “vice-regents,” working on God’s behalf in the world. We are supposed to work for justice, for prosperity, for the wise stewardship of the resources God has given us, and for peace. We have a job! That’s what we’re made for.
My family and I were in Washington, D.C., last July, and we went to the Lincoln Memorial. Most of you have seen this statue: It communicates Lincoln’s strength, wisdom, steadiness, and faith. It inspired me to spend at least 20 minutes thinking about Lincoln and the principles for which he stood. But you know what I didn’t think about for a moment? The marble out of which the sculpture was made, how much it cost, when it was created, the biographical details of the sculptor who created it—I don’t even know his name—or how difficult it must have been to create. However important those details are, I thought only about Abraham Lincoln, the man in whose image the sculpture was created.
We are made in the image of God: When people look at us, they ought to “see” God; they ought to learn something about who God is, and who Jesus is. They ought to see God’s glory rather than our own glory. They ought to praise the One in whose image we’re made, rather than praising us.
How are we doing at that task?
Obviously, when we look at the news in the past couple of weeks—the massacre in Las Vegas, the pattern of rape and sexual abuse and harassment in the entertainment industry—and dozens or hundreds of people who looked the other way, out of greed, for decades—the constant threat of nuclear war and terrorism—well, it’s obvious we have failed to be the people that God created us to be.
Far from putting everything in subjection at our feet, the way God intended, we human beings are being subjected—subjected to Satan and evil spiritual forces, subjected to sin, subjected to fear, especially the fear of death. From the moment of the world’s very first sin, when Adam and Eve decided that they should be in control instead of God, we have been out of control. The moment we decided to glorify ourselves instead of God, we lost the glory that God intended for us. So the words of Psalm 8, it seems, have been badly unfulfilled.
This is what the author of Hebrews points out in verse 8: “At present, we do not see everything in subjection to him”—him meaning mankind. But do you know what we do see? We see Jesus. Verse 10 calls Jesus the “founder” of our salvation. Other translations call him the “pioneer” and the “perfect leader.” One Bible scholar says that the best translation is to call Jesus the “champion” of our salvation. A champion, in ancient times, was a military leader who represented his nation in a fight against another nation’s champion: Think of David and Goliath. Goliath was the champion of the Philistines. He was looking for a champion from Israel to fight. If a champion from Israel could defeat this champion of the Philistines, then Israel would win the war—and spare the lives of a lot of soldiers and civilians who would otherwise die. And of course, that’s exactly what David ends up doing. He is Israel’s champion. He represents all of Israel. When he defeats Goliath, he wins the war for his people.
In the same way, Jesus is humanity’s champion. He represents us sinners. He does for us sinners what we are unable to do for ourselves—what Adam and Eve were unable to do in Genesis 1 and 2. He lives a life of perfect obedience to God on our behalf. We couldn’t do it ourselves. We failed miserably. Jesus did it for us.
But not only that: The author of Hebrews tells us in verse 9 that Jesus “tasted death for everyone.”
Later, in verse 17, the author makes a similar point when he says in that Jesus is our “merciful and patient high priest in the service of God,” who makes “propitiation for the sins of the people.”
The Old Testament describes how once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would enter the “holy of holies” in the Temple, where God’s presence dwelt in a special way, and the high priest would sacrifice a goat and sprinkle its blood on the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant—to atone for the people’s sins. This action turned away God’s wrath toward sin and made forgiveness possible. This turning away of God’s wrath is what the word “propitiation” means.
I’ve often said in sermons that sin is the biggest problem we human beings face. And that’s true—but it’s true because our sin kindles God’s wrath toward us. God is righteously angry because of sin. And something needs to be done to turn this wrath away. In other words, because of our sin, we have a problem with God. And God has a problem with us. And that problem is wrath toward sin.
And I get it: God’s wrath is not a popular concept these days. God is love, the Bible tells us, and if that’s the case then we sometimes mistakenly believe that God’s love is at odds with his wrath—if God is loving he wouldn’t have wrath, we think. Earlier this year, an Episcopal church in Sandy Springs changed its name: It used to be called the Episcopal Church of the Atonement, but it changed its name to something else. A newspaper article describes the reason for the change. I’m quoting it here:
[I]n Christian theology, “atonement” refers to Jesus suffering on the cross for all of humanity’s sins. [The ministers at the church] call that a “dark” interpretation and would rather have the revived church focus on love and community.
Do you see that? They’re pitting God’s love against God’s wrath. The article quotes the church’s vicar:
“I think the doctrine of atonement is just too dark…,” adding that some of his Candler School students say the name is off-putting. “Sometimes a rebranding is necessary.”
Candler School students… bless their hearts! I say that as a Candler School graduate myself.
But they’re right about one thing: atonement is dark because it deals with sin and wrath. Which is incredibly ugly and unpleasant. But it’s also about God’s love.
Consider this: Didn’t it make you angry two weeks ago to think about those 58 men, women, and children in Las Vegas who were brutally cut down in the prime of their lives by a sniper’s gun? Of course it did! You’re angry not because you’re unloving, unfeeling, uncaring—the very opposite! You’re angry because of your love. You’re angry because of your sense of justice. You’re angry because of your compassion. Your anger goes hand in hand with love. You think of the lives of these people who died through no fault of their own and you think, “This is deeply unjust! Something must be done for them to make this right!” You feel this way because of love.
And if you want a loving God, you also—whether you know it or not—want a God who has wrath toward sin and evil. A God who punishes it, who holds perpetrators accountable for it, and who sees to it that justice is fully and finally done. The alternative is unthinkable: that God could look at sin and evil, and think, “This isn’t that big of a deal.”
This kind of sin and evil is a big deal, the Bible says again and again, and it must be punished! And it will be punished—it will either be punished through God’s Son HRuss on the cross or through us in hell for eternity! The choice is ours.
A couple of years ago there was a controversy about God’s wrath involving that magnificent contemporary hymn called “In Christ Alone.” The Presbyterian Church U.S.A wanted to include it in their new hymnal, but they didn’t like a particular line in the song. One stanza of the song says, “Till on that cross as Jesus died/ The wrath of God was satisfied/ For every sin on Him was laid/ Here in the death of Christ I live.” The offending line for these Presbyterians was “the wrath of God was satisfied.” They wanted to change it to “the love of God was magnified.” They asked permission of the authors. And the authors said no.
And good for them, I say! Of course the “love of God was magnified” on the cross. That’s true! But how was it magnified? It was magnified because Christ alone willingly and out of love bore our sin and suffered God’s wrath, in our place, so that we wouldn’t have to! That’s the greatest demonstration of love in the history of the world. By all means! But the cross demonstrates God’s love because of the way that God uses it to rescue us from God’s wrath.
If God’s wrath isn’t the problem, then the cross doesn’t demonstrate love at all. Suppose your house is on fire. You and your family are out of the house. Everyone’s safe. But suppose I say to you, as it’s burning to the ground, “I’m going to show you how much I love you.” And I run into the burning building and die. How does that show you love? That would be pointless. Suppose, by contrast, that you have a child who’s still in the house, and I rush in to save him or her. Have I demonstrated love in that case? Of course I have!
The cross only demonstrates God’s love because of the way that God himself, in the person of his Son Jesus, rescues us—and rescues us from something far worse than a burning building. It rescues us from God’s wrath.
So the author of Hebrews compares Jesus to the high priest in the Old Testament. Except instead of offering the blood of a goat—he offers his own blood. And unlike the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, Christ’s blood provides forgiveness for all of our sins—past, present, and future—no matter how serious those sins are. Forgiveness is available to everyone because of what Christ has done.
Let me close with this: Let’s look at verses 14 and 15. I talked about how Jesus was our champion in doing what needed to be done to turn away God’s wrath. Listen to what else our champion does for us: “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, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”
So Jesus Christ our champion defeated Satan. Now Satan, of course, is still alive and active in the world. God has granted him a constrained amount of power. But because of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, even Satan knows that his days are numbered. When Christ returns he will be fully and finally defeated. But those of us who are in Christ get to experience some of that victory in the here and now. Why? Because we no longer have to fear death.
The author of Hebrews says this is the main tool that Satan gets to use against us: our fear of death. What happens after I die? How can I know I’m saved? What do I need to do in order to be saved? If you watch any TV show or movie that deals with the question of heaven, the answer that they always give is, “You have to be good enough.” You ask most Americans—surveys show that even among Americans who identify as Christians, they will say that the way to go to heaven is to be good enough.
But that answer, when you think about it, which sounds very inclusive, ends up being very exclusive. Because how good is good enough? How do I know whether I’ve been good enough? How can you live your life with any kind of peace while never knowing if you’re good enough? Am I as good as Mother Theresa? Do we have to be that good? Is she the standard? Is Billy Graham the standard? What about Osama bin Laden? Is he the standard? What are the rules here? And yet, the message we constantly get is, “Be good enough. Just be good enough. Don’t worry about it!” The devil loves for us to think that!
But the gospel—the real gospel, as opposed to this phony kind of gospel that says, “Be good enough”—is, “You don’t have to be good enough!” God loves you and saves you through faith in his Son Jesus Christ because of what Christ has done on the cross and through his resurrection! In spite of the fact that you’re not good enough, all of your sins, past, present, and future, are forgiven! All you have to do is receive the gift! Just hold out your hands in faith and receive the gift! He’s done it all for you! Amen?
1. John Ruch, “As Easter arrives, a church attempts its own resurrection,” 1 April 2017, reporternewspapers.net. Accessed 14 October 2017.