The Miracle of the Message
When I was studying to be a counselor, one of the professors designed an activity where people from another culture would come in and pretend to have an issue in their marriage or family and, speaking in another language, tried to communicate to us what issues they were having. And we had to try to understand what they were dealing with without being able to speak the language. As you can imagine, the results were typically pretty funny. Two people came in and pretended to be a mother and daughter having some issues in their relationship, and although they communicated only in sign language, they were both professional interpreters who could hear, and they got a big kick out of our attempts to understand what they were talking about. As it turned out, they were presenting as a mother and her adult daughter who disagreed as to how the adult daughter was raising her child. The poor counseling student trying to follow along thought the mom was calling the daughter a “big baby” and went that direction with the counseling session. But that wasn’t the issue at all. The problem was disagreement as to how to care for a baby. She wasn’t calling her daughter a big baby. But when the mother pointed at her daughter and then made motions like she was rocking a baby in her arms, that’s what he thought.
Lots was being said, but was anything being communicated? No! Communication happens when the message being sent is the same as, or at least closely approximating, the message received. The key to effective communication is to learn to say what you mean to say well, and to learn to listen, really listen, to what is being said, checking in to make sure that you are really getting the point, because we all hear through filters. We’ve all had those times when we’ve heard ourselves speaking, or read a message we’ve sent, and realized, “Whoa, that came out really wrong.” Or maybe you’ve been the victim of an embarrassing autocorrect blunder while texting on your phone. We’ve all miscommunicated at some point in our lives. Sometimes the results have been funny. At other times, the results may have been sad, caused problems in a relationship. You see, that’s what communication is about – relationship. And we have a God who desires a relationship with us, and so God communicates with us. The question are, what is God saying, and are we listening?
If you have a Bible with you this morning, turn to Hebrews 1:1-3. Here’s a little background on Hebrews. Unlike Paul’s letters, which were written primarily to non-Jewish Christians who were being pressured by Jewish Christians to convert to Judaism, Hebrews was written to a group of primarily Jewish Christians whose world was falling apart. And they were probably located in Rome, given the names that the writer includes in his closing of Italian Christians who were with him. These Jewish Christians had never seen Jesus personally, and yet had come to accept him as Lord and savior. But their conversion had brought nothing but hardship and persecution, tempting them to renounce their faith in Christ and return to their Jewish roots. They were being abused and mistreated by authorities, and their new faith set them up for the loss of their property and any privilege they might have had, and now, as Emperor Claudius ramped up his efforts to stamp out their faith and have them removed from Rom, their lives were in danger as well, although none had as yet been killed. Later, in Hebrews 10, the writer recalls their initial commitment to Christ in the face of opposition: “… recall the former days when, after you were enlightened (came to faith in Christ), you endured a hard struggle with sufferings, sometimes being publicly exposed to reproach and affliction (likely public beatings), and sometimes being partners with those so treated. For you had compassion on those in prison (they were imprisoned simply for following Christ), and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property (the authorities were taking their property away), since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one.”
When they had first believed, Emperor Claudius had expelled all Jews from Rome, taking property from and imprisoning anyone who resisted. And now, about 15 years later, Nero is beginning to persecute Christ-followers in Rome. The believers to whom this letter was sent had a double mark against them – they were Jews, already viewed with suspicion, and they followed Jesus. With the great fire in Rome in A.D. 64, a fire many suspect was actually started by Nero, Nero made the Christians scapegoats to take the suspicion off himself. He blamed the fire on them, and began putting Christians to death. The writer tells says in Hebrews 12:4 that “In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” Their blood had not been shed. Yet. But that danger was now real, and becoming more and more likely with each passing day.
Ever feel like them? Like all you’ve gotten for your commitment to Christ is a bunch of pain and sadness and trouble? In America, right now, we don’t face the kind of persecution that these Christians faced, but in other places in the world, Christians face exactly what these followers of Jesus faced. And even here in America, we do face difficulty. Not necessarily persecution. But we face trouble. Becky and I have held two of our sons in our arms as they died – Corin, who was less than an hour old, and almost-seven-year-old Zeke. Don’t think there haven’t been times when Becky or I or the two of us together haven’t wondered, “What the heck, God? Here we are, serving you, following you, and this is what we get? No thanks.” And that’s exactly what this small band of persecuted Christ-followers was beginning to think. And then this letter arrives, and with it these magnificent words of hope and comfort. In these words, we are brought face to face with a God who wants us to know him just as he knows us. We are brought face to face with a God who speaks to us. Read text.
It is popular today to talk about God speaking to us through the world, and the cosmos, he has made. Who of us hasn’t seen a breathtaking sunset, or a majestic mountain vista, the world awash with colors in the fall, and been left in awe at the glory of God? I like to watch birds. And in the summer, we have tons of hummingbirds at our feeders. In her book Birdology, naturalist Sy Montgomery describes the beauty and intricacy of an ordinary hummingbird. “Hummingbirds are the lightest birds in the sky. Of their roughly 240 species … the largest, an Andean “giant,” is only eight inches long; the smallest, the bee hummingbird of Cuba, is just over two inches long and weighs a single gram.
Delicacy is the trade-off that hummingbirds have made for their unrivaled powers of flight. Alone among birds, they can hover, fly backward, even fly upside down. For such small birds, their speed is astonishing: in his courtship display to impress a female, a male Allen’s hummingbird, for instance, can dive out of the sky at sixty-one miles per hour … (Diving at 385 body-lengths per second, this hummer beats the peregrine falcoln’s dives … and even bests the space shuttle as it screams down through the atmosphere at 207 body lengths per second.)
Hummingbirds’ wings beat at a rate that makes them a blur to human eyes, more than sixty times a second …. They are little more than bubbles fringed with iridescent feathers—air wrapped in light …. In most birds, 15 to 25 percent of the body is given over to flying muscles. In a hummingbird’s body, flight muscles account for 35 percent. An enormous heart constitutes up to 2.5 percent of its body weight—the largest per body weight of all vertebrates …. A person as active as a hummingbird would need 155,000 calories a day …. Each [hummingbird] is just a speck … yet each is an infinite mystery. Montgomery doesn’t discuss her stance towards faith, but she often expresses her awe and wonder in the presence of God’s beauty and creativity. At one point Montgomery quotes a woman who works with baby hummingbirds who says, “You know that kind of awestruck feeling you get when you look at a great work of art? That sense of wonder, that sense of connection to something great and mysterious? It’s the same feeling looking at a … hummingbird.”[i]
God has left evidence of himself, his fingerprint, on his creation, but the voice of God speaking to us through creation is often difficult for us to wrap our minds around. The Old Testament book of Job says “He has inscribed a circle on the face of the waters at the boundary between light and darkness. The pillars of heaven tremble and are astounded at his rebuke. By his power he stilled the sea; by his understanding he shattered Rahab. By his wind the heavens were made fair; his hand pierced the fleeing serpent.” God’s voice speaks in the majesty and beauty and immensity and miracle of creation. But now Job says this: “Behold, these are but the outskirts of his ways, and how small a whisper do we hear of him! But the thunder of his power who can understand?” (26:10-14). God’s voice in creation is but a whisper of all that God wants to communicate, and we can’t even comprehend that. And God’s revelation of himself, of his power and creativity, aren’t what the author of Hebrews is thinking of. He is thinking of something much more specific. Look at V. 1.
God might whisper to us through the world he has made, but he has spoken more clearly through his word – the Bible. He spoke through the Old Testament prophets. God spoke to Moses at Mt. Sinai in thunder and lightening with a voice that sounded like a trumpet. And then he whispered to Elijah in the wilderness in a “still, small voice.” God spoke to Ezekiel through visions and to Daniel and Joseph through dreams. He appeared to Abraham in human form, although he was only permitted to see the back of the head. He revealed himself in the law, through prophetic warnings, by teaching, and by parable.
Pastor and author Tim Keller said, “As a young Christian, I found the Old Testament to be a confusing and off-putting part of the Bible.” (Ever been there? Ever had a New Year’s resolution to read through the Bible in a year, and then quit in February when you got to Leviticus?) But while he was at a study center someone asked the great Bible scholar Alex Motyer a question about the seeming disjointedness between the Old Testament and the New Testament. Keller writes: “I will always remember his answer … [Dr. Motyer] insisted that we were all one people of God. Then he asked us to imagine how the Israelites under Moses would have given their “testimony” to someone who asked for it. They would have said something like this: We were in a foreign land, in bondage, under the sentence of death. But our mediator—the one who stands between us and God—came to us with the promise of deliverance. We trusted in the promises of God, took shelter under the blood of the lamb, and he led us out. Now we are on the way to the Promised Land. We are not there yet, of course, but we have the law to guide us, and through blood sacrifice we also have his presence in our midst. So he will stay with us until we get to our true country, our everlasting home.” Then Dr. Motyer concluded: “Now think about it. A Christian today could say the same thing, almost word for word.” My young self was thunderstruck. I had held the vague, unexamined impression that in the Old Testament people were saved through obeying a host of detailed laws but that today we were freely forgiven and accepted by faith. This little thought experiment showed me, in a stroke, not only that the Israelites had been saved by grace and that God’s salvation had been by costly atonement and grace all along, but also that the pursuit of holiness, pilgrimage, obedience, and deep community should characterize Christians as well.”[ii]
In 2 Timothy 3:16-17, Paul writes that “All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.” God is speaking to us through his Word. That is why we place an emphasis not only on sitting under good preaching, but growing in your own ability to study and understand the Scriptures. That’s why we have Bible studies and classes and the Apprentice series. Through his Word, God is speaking, but are we listening?
Now, look at Vv. 2-3. Jesus is the ultimate communication of God to us. Jesus is God’s final word. We call the act of God becoming like us, taking on a human form, the incarnation. And Jesus, and Jesus alone, is “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” When Jesus was asked by one of his disciples, Phillip, to show them the Father, Jesus declared, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’?” (John 14:9). “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature.” “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.” In the incarnation, God is getting on our level, making sure we can understand. Speaking clearly, not in the language of God, but in our language. Matthew, quoting the Old Testament prophet Isaiah writes, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel,” and then adds in parentheses so that his readers will understand – “which means, God with us” (Matt. 1:23). Until recent times, names often had some kind of significance. Sometimes they still do. The one who is Emmanuel, God with us, was actually named Jesus. Ok, that’s an English version of the name. His name was actually Yeshua, a shortened version of Yehoshua, which is translated into English as Joshua and means “the Lord saves.” There is no actual meaning to the English word Jesus. Yeshua was translated into Greek as Iesous, and from Greek into Latin as Jesu, which became Jesus in English. But his Hebrew name, Yeshua, what he would have been called by his mother, by his siblings, by his friends and his enemies, means “he will save.”
So what is God saying in the incarnation, the birth of the Son of God? What is God saying in the babe in a manger who we celebrate during the Christmas season? What is God whispering in his creation, speaking through his Word, and shouting through Jesus? That you are loved. More deeply than you can imagine. That you are worth dying for. That you matter. Your life matters. That God sees you. Knows you. And knows what it’s like to be you. That’s something absolutely no one else can say. God knows your hurts. Your fears. Your joys. And your tears. And he is here. Emmanuel, God with us. You see, the babe in the manger is also God on a cross. Christmas and Good Friday are inextricably linked. Christmas and Easter are two sides of the same coin. The message of Christmas, of Jesus Christ, isn’t simply peace on earth and goodwill toward men. It is “peace with God, so goodwill toward men, toward one another.” We love one another because we are loved and forgiven by God, in Christ.
The following Buddhist poem was written in the 12th century by Saigyo Hoshi after he visited a Shinto Grand Temple:
Who can know?
Yet I sigh
and tears flow
tear on tear.[iii]
Can you feel his honest longing for true knowledge of God? He yearns to experience God and God’s presence but he can’t know for sure. God has revealed himself in the presence and person of Jesus Christ. In Christ, we can know that God is with us.
[i] Sy Montgomery, Birdology (Free Press, 2010), pp. 78-103
[ii] Justin Taylor, “Alec Motyer (1924-2016),” The Gospel Coalition blog (8-26-16)
[iii] Tae Aung, “The Study of World Religions in a Time of Crisis,” Books and Culture (May/June 2016)