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Christmas Day 2nd Reading

James Matthew Price

It’s the time of year again. Every year after such a long drought of remembering and surmising what might come next. Many people have invested years of their lives, and multiple billions of dollars on telling and re-telling the story. The next chapter in the Star Wars saga is about to be released during the Christmas holiday season in the United States. (Maybe you thought I was talking about another story?) According to at the end of 2017, the Star Wars franchise has already earned in total over $39.5 billion dollars. That will buy a lot of droids, Uncle Owen.

Liturgically(as much possible), a globalized core of human society that believes itself to be mostly irreligious will increase these dollar amounts by gathering in large crowds in darkened temples of visual and aural sensory stimulation, along with small offerings of corn-inspired, carbo-loaded snacks, and gasp in unison as the brass section of John Williams’ orchestral anthem punctuates the silence as the congregants read the scrolling prelude of a saga from “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.”

I realize the previous paragraph is only one sentence, and it is intentional. The confluence of the modern day mythology found in the Star Wars Universe and the telling of the Christmas story is hardly an accident. The single sentence in the previous paragraph describing the release of a new Star Wars film, usually during the north American holiday season, is an echo of the single sentence at the beginning of the Epistle of Hebrews, the second reading for Christmas Day this year.

The human race has always yearned for a story that captures its imagination and arranges its lives. The writer of the letter to the Hebrews creates an opening prelude to the majestic Story of Jesus the Savior that rivals, and in fact, supersedes, any ancient or modern epic.

The writer wastes no time in the succinct staccato of the single sentence of the original Greek rendering that has been enumerated into four verses that begin this letter. In less than 75 Greek words, the arc of the Savior’s narrative is presented. The four verses at least give the hopeful exegete a chance to catch one’s breath in examining the riches of the salvation Story to be excavated here.

In verse one, the author immediately connects the word of creation having been spoken by God at the beginning in Genesis 1:1 to the Word definitively spoken in the person of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. The aorist participle (“having spoken”) is dependent on the main aorist verb (“has spoken”) in verse 2. The Good News has been told all along in some way since the first breath animated all creation, and now the climactic redemption sought throughout this Story is now told with an exclamation point, once for all, in the incarnation of the Son of God.

The triple alliteration is lost in English but in Greek the first four words of verse one read, “polymeros kai polytropos palai” or “Many times and various ways, long ago.” The God Who speaks now has done so in the past, from the beginning, and is not to be left unheard or unremembered. Whether to Moses in the thundering smoke at the summit of Mount Sinai or to Elijah in the gentle breeze at the mouth of a cave in Mount Horeb, God has spoken. Whether in the battle cries of David or in the dreams of Daniel, God has spoken. Whether in the laments of Jeremiah or the rebuke of Habakkuk, God has spoken. God is not a faraway landlord but presently engaged in the lives of people chosen to hear these words.

As Thomas Long, commented, “God is pictured not as a silent and distant force, impassively regulating the universe, but as a talker, as One who has been speaking, arguing, pleading, wooing, commanding, telling stories, conversing, and generally spinning words across the lines between heaven and earth since the beginning of time” (1997, p7).

H. Orton Wiley, noted mentor to early generations of Nazarene and holiness preachers, wrote about verses 1 and 2: “Words may tell us something about the truth but only as they become spirit and life does the glory of the Revealer burst through the veil. Then only are we brought into the presence of the Him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. If therefore there is to be a perfect revelation of God to [humanity], there must be a perfect medium of communication through which God can reveal himself [sic]. The perfection of the Son in whom God spake makes the message perfect. As a word, spoken or written, is an audible or visible representation of an invisible thought, so Christ as Son is the visible Image of the invisible God” (1959, p27-28).

The breadth of this work in the life and ministry of the Son Jesus Christ is the first and last word spoken over all creation. There is Christ from the radiant brightness of the first Light to the culmination of all things into the shalom of God. This is the scope of salvation that arrives on Christmas morning in the Son of God, Savior. The limits of redemption are not bound by a particular time or specific space or a certain people. The Revealed One in Jesus Christ is the Redeemer for all creation. Christ is not just an heir to a myopic religious saga important in a long-forgotten time and worn-out place. The Son is “heir of all things.” (v2). The incredible audacity of the author of Hebrews also names the Heir as the Maker of all worlds, literally rendered from the original language as “the Poet of all times.”

Without taking a breath, the author continues by using two very specific words to describe the Son. In verse three, “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” The Greek words apaugasma (reflection) and charakter (exact imprint) are only found here in the New Testament.

The reflection, brightness (KJ21) or radiance (NIV), of God’s luminous Presence emanates into the darkness in the Person of Christ. In Against the Arians by Athanasius, this is written about the Son’s radiance, one of this early theologian’s favorite references for Jesus Christ:

Since he is God’s Word and own Wisdom, and, being his Radiance, is ever with the Father, therefore it is impossible, if the Father bestows grace, that he should not give it in the Son, for the Son is in the Father as the radiance in the light . . . And again as when the sun shines, one might say that the radiance illuminates, for the light is one and indivisible, nor can it be detached, so where the Father is or is named, there plainly is the Son … For the Son is in the Father as it is allowed us to know because the whole being of the Son is proper to the Father’s essence, as radiance from light, and stream from fountain; so that whoso sees the Son, sees what is proper to the Father, and knows that the Son’s being because from the Father, is therefore in the Father. . . 3:3” (Cited in Paulson, cf. Hay, pp. 11-15, 41-48).

The intense radiance of the Son may leave an imprint upon the gaze of the creature, a reminder of the Divine Presence.

The phenomenon of photo-bleaching occurs when someone looks at a light source so long that it temporarily impairs the photo pigment in the retina. The temporary blotches occur with the rods and cones which have been over-exposed to bright light. Dark spots appear until the pigment is replenished, but there is also serious risk of permanent damage to the rods and cones of the retina. ( The light leaves a tangible imprint upon the eye of the beholder.

Also in verse 3, the singular use of the Greek charakter is specialized vocabulary related to imprinting coins, such as pressing into coins the image of an emperor overseeing the imperial treasury. For the writer of Hebrews, Christ is the exact imprint of the substance—Greek, hypostaseos—of God (cf. John 1:2; Philippians 2:6; Colossians 1:15). Christ is the Authority of God into the realm of creation. John Wesley’s understanding of the witness of the Spirit in Romans 8 points to the impression left by the Holy Spirit upon the children of God, the “co-heirs” of Christ’s inheritance of salvation (vv.14-17) (Notes on St Paul’s Epistle of the Romans). The character of God’s people becomes a tangible witness of Christ’s entrance in the Incarnation and continual presence through the Resurrection in the world of Creation, “sustaining all things through his powerful world.” (v3a, cf. Colossians 3:4, 12-15.)

Frederick Buechner in his book Wishful Thinking (1993), describes God’s final revelation in Christ:

“‘God never seems to weary of trying to get himself across. Word after word he tries in search of the right word. When the Creation itself doesn’t seem to say it right–sun, moon, stars, all of it–he tries flesh and blood.

‘He tried saying it in Noah, but Noah was a drinking man…He tried saying it in Moses, but Moses himself was trying too hard; tried David, but David was too pretty for his own good. Toward the end of his rope, God tried saying it in John the Baptist with his locusts and honey and hell-fire preaching, and you get the feeling that John might almost have worked except he lacked something small but crucial like a sense of the ridiculous or a balanced diet.

‘So, he tried once more. Jesus as the mot juste of God’” (p. 97 cited in Long, 1997, p. 11).

The likeness of Christ’s presence is also known through the work of the Son on earth as well as in heaven (v. 3b). The Son makes possible the reality that the entropy of sin is not the final destiny of the cosmos. The pollution found in the disobedience of the creature is now counteracted by the purifying work of the Creator’s ordering and re-ordering of creation in Christ Jesus. The work of moving the created order to a purposeful end is an attribute of divinity, according to Jewish writings of the time (Guthrie, p48). The role of the Son of God in this purifying work is a key element in the Book of Hebrews (9:1-10:18).

Purifying sin is a manner of forgiveness—a universal human need. In his work among the Maasai of eastern Africa in the 1960s, Father Vincent Donovan noted that historical Christian teaching sometimes emphasized sin so much that forgiveness became an afterthought. In describing a man that had been a polluted outcast from his tribe, the missionary priest wrote, “That man and his people knew all about sin. What they did not know about was forgiveness of sin. They did not even know it was possible.” (Donovan, p45). The Savior brings forgiveness here and now.

The righteousness brought by the presence and power of the Son on earth extends into the furthest reaches of the cosmos when “he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” (v3b) The “right hand” is the overarching power of God at work in the world; it is Christ that holds this position in the Godhead. The title “Majesty” is a “reverential periphrasis” for God in the context of first-century Judaism, since the most devout Jews believed they could not utter aloud the name of God (Guthrie, 49).

Above whom there is no other Name under the earth, on the earth, or above the earth (cf. Philippians 2:9-11). Christ is “superior” to all (Greek, kreitton) (v.4), Christ is