[This was prepared to be shared during worship with the people of Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]
When I was in the ninth grade at Westmoor Junior High School in Columbus, I took Drama class. We read and analyzed plays, designed sets, learned the nomenclature of theater, and created skits and monologues.
I wasn’t a very good drama student. But I do remember one point that Miss Snead drummed into our heads about a good dramatic presentation: The final act of a good play is the part where all the threads of the story get pulled together. The resolution toward which the plot of the play has been leading becomes clear. Everything that precedes it readies an audience for the last act. The best is saved for last.
The New Testament book of Hebrews, from which our second lesson is taken, is a sermon delivered by an unknown preacher to a group of Jewish believers in Jesus, who were being tempted to turn their backs on Jesus and Christ’s Church by authorities of the Roman Empire under which they lived.
The Roman government had never been kind to Jews, often subjecting them to persecution. But the Jews never threatened the very foundations of worldly power the way believers in Jesus did. When men or women realized that they had an everlasting relationship with the one God of the universe simply by turning from sin and believing in God the Son Jesus, they were freed from the pressures to conform exerted by all the cults of the Roman gods and by the government.
When the first Christians came to believe that Jesus had destroyed the power of death over their lives, threats from Roman emperors, governors, and centurions lost their power. Like the apostle Paul, they lived in the assurance that there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” and that nothing “in all creation [is] able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” They realized that death is not the worst thing that can happen to a Christian.
When, through Jesus Christ, a person is free from the fear of dying, dictatorships, political correctness, and other earthly powers cannot control them.
Confounded by the first Christians’ stubborn allegiance to Jesus, the leaders of the Roman Empire panicked as despots and dictators always do.
They decided on a strategy that they thought would divide and destroy the Christian movement. They promised to let Jewish believers in Jesus live in peace, without harassment, without the threat of death, and with no requirement that they acknowledge Roman gods, if they would only renounce their faith in Jesus.
All the Christians had to do was pledge their ultimate allegiance to the emperor and disavow belief in Jesus as the Son of God Who gives eternal life to all who repent for sin and believe in Him, and go back to the rites and customs of Judaism they and their families had known for centuries.
It’s into this situation that the preacher of Hebrews, himself clearly a Jewish Christian, steps, urging his fellow Jewish Christians not to cave into the tempting offer of acceptance and freedom from persecution offered by the Roman authorities.
He does so by reminding them that as Jews, members of God’s chosen people, descendants of Abraham and Sarah, they knew about the opening act of the salvation drama that has been playing out in human history ever since the first human beings, Adam and Eve, bit into fruit pulled from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil in the garden of Eden.
But he also reminded them that, through Jesus, the final act of that drama was (and is) being played out.
Pull out the Celebrate inserts and turn to the second lesson and read the first two verses aloud with me: “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.”
The first act of the salvation drama is recorded in the Old Testament. God is both the playwright and the leading actor.
The last scenes—the last books—of the Old Testament find God using prophets to drop hints of what’s to come in the second and final act.
Through Isaiah, for example, God said that in “the latter time” He would make His glory fully known in “the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.” And then speaking of the future in the past tense, we’re told in Isaiah, chapter 9: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who have lived in a land of deep darkness—on them a light has shined…For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests on His shoulders; and He is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace…”
Through Jeremiah, God said, “The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign…”
And, as we remembered last evening, through Micah, God promised, “But you, O Bethlehem Ephratah…from you shall come forth for Me, One Who is to rule in Israel, Whose origin is…from ancient days.”
In the opening verses of his sermon, the preacher in Hebrews reminds his fellow Jewish Christians of how God spoke through many prophets to point them to the coming of the one anointed King of kings, the Savior of the world, God in the flesh: Jesus. Now, he says, in the last days—in the second and final act—that started when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, God speaks to us directly, intimately, personally through His Son, Jesus, through Whom God created all the worlds.
And just so we understand that Jesus isn’t second-fiddle to God the Father, but is God Himself in the flesh, look at what the preacher says of Jesus in verse 3: “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and He sustains all things by His powerful word.”
As the second act of God’s salvation drama began two thousand years ago, the Author Himself came onto the stage, taking on the role of a human being Who would speak God’s call to repentance and belief to us directly and repeatedly and then, go to a cross in order to set the stage for the final scene of His great drama.
That’s what the preacher addresses next in the rest of verse 3. Look at what he says: “When He had made purification for sins [that is, when the Savior Jesus offered up His sinless body on the cross as the perfect sacrifice not for any sins He committed, because He committed none, but for our sins], He sat down at the right hand [that is, the power hand] of Majesty [God the Father] on high, having become as much superior to angels as the Name He has inherited is more excellent than theirs.”
Through Jesus Christ, we know now how the play is going to end.
Sin and death will end!
Tears and suffering will be no more!
But there is one last scene to be played out.
It’s the scene of the drama in which the Jewish Christians to whom the book of Hebrews was addressed were then participants.
It’s the scene in which you and I find ourselves today.
It’s the scene in which followers of Jesus, filled with His desperate love for all people, share His call to repent and believe in Him and so, live with God forever.
It’s also the scene in which you and I are tempted, as were the first century Jewish Christians, to choose between the Jesus road and the easy road.
The easy road is the one we taken when honor God with our lips, but keep our hearts far from Him.
The easy road is the one we take when see trouble, pain, sorrow, or grief as a reason or an excuse to give up on God.
Jesus says that “the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.” Jesus and trust in Jesus, no matter what life may bring us, is the only way to God, the only way to life.
The path of faith in Christ will sometimes lead us through adversity and pain. As surely as sin, death, and the devil ran Jesus through their gauntlets, as we follow Jesus, we too, will go through the same gauntlets.
But if we will seek God’s strength, the power of His Holy Spirit, to keep following Jesus—to keep on keeping on in faith—we will have God’s peace and help and the presence of the risen Jesus, in our lives right now.
And when the last scene of the last act plays out, we will be with Jesus in eternity, along with all those who have believed in Him. Jesus promises us that “the one who endures [in faith] to the end will be saved.”
Pastor Joe Stowell wrote in Our Daily Bread this past week that “Christianity is unique among all religions for it is about God’s pursuit of us to draw us to Himself” and not, like other religions, about the human pursuit of deities or harmony with the universe.
In the drama of salvation, God is both author and star. But God is no egotistical actor looking for close-ups and glory for His own selfish ends.
On the first Christmas, God became a helpless baby.
When He grew into manhood, He took on the role of slave, servant, and condemned criminal just so He could die and rise and welcome all who believe in Him into a new life now and into life as it was meant to be for us—a life without disease, suffering, death, oppression, or hardships—in eternity.
On this Christmas Morning, 2011, ask God to help you make and keep a vow to never more be part of the audience observing God’s salvation drama, a pew sitter who leaves Jesus at the church door, but a participant, taking any role God and His Church may give you that will let you join the saints and angels in proclaiming, “To the One seated on the throne and the Lamb [Jesus] be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
Dearly loved people of God, merry Christmas and God’s blessings to you now and through the coming year! Amen!