12/20/2021 10:27:49 AM
Rags to Riches
Pastor Kyle Bitter - The Fourth Sunday in Advent - Sunday, December 19, 2021
In the mid-1960s, a girl was born in England. Her parents named her Joanne. By many measures, Joanne was born in ordinary circumstances. Her father was an engineer at a factory and her mother worked for a school science department. Her childhood was relatively unremarkable, but things were challenging in her teen aged years. Her mother was diagnosed with a serious illness, and she became estranged from her father. Adulthood didn’t get any easier. A troubled marriage ended in divorce, and Joanne was left to raise her daughter alone. She struggled with mental health issues of her own, bounced around from job to job, even trying to write a novel but being rejected by a dozen different publishers. She stayed afloat due to various government programs, and was in her own words, “poor as it is possible to be…without being homeless.” Finally, one publisher agreed to publish a limited print run of 1000 copies, and the tide started to turn. Fifteen years later, J.K. Rowling was a multi-millionaire as the author of the wildly popular Harry Potter book series. Her story is a true rags to riches story – from the humblest of beginnings to tremendous wealth and fame.
Stories such as this one have a lot of appeal to them. How many movies have been made around a similar storyline? It’s an inspirational message: if you keep working hard and just don’t give up, eventually things will start breaking your way. And it gives reason for optimism about the future…but I think you know as well as I do that it doesn’t always turn out quite that smoothly. Consider a few examples.
Perhaps you’re a student, and when you look at the school semester as it is winding down, you realize that you may have taken on more than you should have. Maybe exams and projects haven’t been going as well as you thought they would because you feel like you’re in over your head. Or maybe you did make it ok but were left so stressed out and exhausted that you’re wondering how you’ll start the same thing again in just a few weeks with the new semester! Will your abilities and stamina be up to it? Or maybe you were optimistic about moving your career forward this year, but shortages of workers and supplies have stretched your workplace and instead of rebounding from the pandemic it seems like despite your best efforts you’re still just hanging on for survival. Or, maybe it’s happened to you that during a time of year that is intended to be joyous and happy, the general stress of society seems to be bringing out the worst in everyone even more than usual. Most depressingly, you know that despite your own best efforts it’s been affecting you too – perhaps more than you’d like to admit! And then, if all that weren’t enough, you realize that it’s already the final Sunday before Christmas and you’ve put precious little thought into the spiritual side of what’s to come – you’ve just been distracted far too frequently by everything else that’s going on. You’ve put in your best efforts…but the realities of life have been humbling, because there are some problems that you just can’t fix.
That very same truth had become painfully clear for God’s Old Testament people over the ages – including back in Bible times. Reading Bible stories shows us the big characters – the prophets, the kings, and the like. But there were also a lot of ordinary people, and even during the difficult times there were some who were trying to follow God. There were some who celebrated the festivals, and there were some who continued to offer the sacrifices, there were some who tried to rest on the Sabbath. But over the years, they had been forced to see the reality: No matter how hard they worked, generation after generation watched as their nation slid slowly into rebellion against God, as the prophetic warnings were ignored and the people suffered at the hands of their enemies, and later when Jesus did come, many of God’s own people weren’t even interested in him! All that hard work, all those sacrifices, all that attention to detail, all that careful obedience – it hadn’t fixed the problem.
Unfortunately, sinful people have a hard time learning that lesson. Among the first century Christians who first read the letter to the Hebrews, it seems as though there were some who just couldn’t get their minds around how fruitless their own best efforts had been! Perhaps it was because of rising persecution against Christians, perhaps it was the natural appeal of being able to do something to fix problems, but some were considering abandoning Christianity and returning to the sacrifices and rituals of the Old Testament – even though those very efforts had been fruitless in the past! The same temptation is still around today – we are tempted to take responsibility on ourselves instead of turning to Jesus. And so, we tell ourselves: I just need to work a bit harder, I just need to take better care of myself physically or emotionally, I just need to separate myself from people who cause conflict – if I just get things in my life set up correctly, then I can work my way past what’s bothering me! It’s a natural way to think, and it might even seem as though such steps get you heading in the right direction. But steps like those, beneficial though they might be in some ways, don’t address the underlying problem of sin! Today the writer to the Hebrews points out that expecting such efforts to fix our problems is not only a recipe for frustration, but also something that threatens to rob us of the blessings God’s been trying to give us all along!
In today’s sermon text, the writer shows us the true rags to riches story as God tells it – a story that hinges not on the efforts of people or the happenstance of good luck and being in the right place at the right time, but one that depends on Jesus, the sacrifice he offers, and the new life he brings. Best of all, it’s a Rags to Riches story that doesn’t happen to just a select few – in Jesus it’s true for every one of us!
The writer makes his point by comparing Jesus and what he does to the sacrifices and rituals that God’s people had invested so much effort in over the years. He makes his point by quoting a few verses of a psalm written centuries earlier by the great King David – a psalm that found its final fulfillment in Jesus’ entry into this world as the child born on Christmas. The writer points out that in coming down to our world, Jesus made a sacrifice that was totally different from any sacrifice that had come before. Jesus humbled himself completely – not just stooping to the distasteful task of slaughtering an animal but becoming himself the actual victim of the sacrifice! He writes: “Therefore, when Christ came into the world, he said: “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased.” (Hebrews 10:5-6 – NIV84). A body you prepared for me. Jesus took up that body that was prepared for him, and he made his dwelling among God’s people, humbling himself to live among people, to be brought up by people, to be cared for by people, to be mistreated by people, and finally to sacrifice himself for those very same people!
This would accomplish God’s will in a way that nothing else has, before or since. The psalm quotation continues: “Then I said, “Here I am – it is written about me in the scroll – I have come to do your will, O God.” Then the writer explains what that means: “First he [Jesus] said, “sacrifices and offerings, burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not desire, nor were you pleased with them” (although the law required them to be made).” (Hebrews 10:7-8 – NIV84). Even though these sacrifices and burnt offerings and human efforts were required by the Old Testament law – finally when all was said and done, they weren’t enough – God was not pleased! Even perfect obedience to those sacrifices – had the Old Testament people actually managed to accomplish that – wouldn’t have fixed the problem of sin! In the same way, our efforts – even if we were to be perfectly obedient to everything God says for the rest of our lives, from this day forward – even that won’t fix the problem. There’s simply no way we can undo what’s already been done…but Jesus can. The writer to the Hebrews continues: “Then he [Jesus] said, “Here I am, I have come to do your will.” (Hebrews 10:9a – NIV84). I have come to be what those sacrifices would never and could never be, I have come to humble myself and take on the body you have prepared for me, to live as the Savior the world needs, to die as the sacrifice God demands so that the people God loves can be with him forever in eternity. From Jesus’ perspective, it’s no rags to riches story – in fact it’s the opposite. Riches to rags. Jesus putting aside his riches and clothing himself in the rags of humanity to be your Savior. But in that New Sacrifice, never before seen in the history of the world, you have been made rich, and that brings you an entirely New Life!
The writer to the Hebrews puts it like this: “He sets aside the first to establish the second.” (Hebrews 10:9b – NIV84). Jesus put aside those old useless sacrifices that were nothing more than symbolism to establish the second – the real sacrifice that actually pays for sin. For the Hebrew Christians, the point was this: why would you even consider going back to those old ways? They didn’t fix the problem, and they’ve been replaced by something better! For us today: Why would we go back to putting pressure on ourselves to perform? Why would we go back to tying our identity and the meaning of our lives to our own accomplishments and abilities? Why put such pressure on ourselves when the reality is this: Jesus already fulfilled God’s will in our place! The writer to the Hebrews describes the new live that brings: “And by that will – by the will of God that Jesus completed in every way – And by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” (Hebrews 10:10 – NIV84). His sacrifice made you holy, and what’s more, his sacrifice doesn’t need to be repeated – you were already made holy when Jesus died the first time. You’re already fit for life in the presence of God. You’re already clothed with the robes of perfection. You are already acceptable before God. And not just acceptable, but perfect. Holy. Complete. Missing nothing. Exactly the way he wants you to be.
And that is the ultimate rags to riches story. Your rags, exchanged for Jesus’ riches. He became poor, so that you and I can be rich. Think about what such riches include. Not rich with money and fame that last for a few years, but something far better. You and I are rich with the peace of knowing that even when we take on a little more than we can handle and are humbled in finding out what our limitations actually are, we have a limitless Savior who has already made us everything we need to be. We are rich with the joy of Christmas, even if we struggle with the tension and stress that permeates society in so many ways, even if we take part in some of that ourselves, because at that first Christmas Jesus made himself poor – he took on the rags – so that you could enjoy his riches. And you are rich in knowing that even when you are distracted by the frenzies of the world around, even if you are a week out from Christmas and have spent shamefully little time preparing spiritually, Christmas has not changed. Your Savior still came, and he made the sacrifice you need, and now you don’t live under the pressure to perform – instead you’re free to serve God in thanksgiving as he has equipped you to serve until the day when he comes to take you home to heaven! Jesus’ New Sacrifice brings about a New Life, and that New Life is a Rags to Riches story beyond any other. As we count down the final days to Christmas, may God grant us the joy of being reminded once again how he put his riches aside and made himself poor so that we might be rich beyond anything we can imagine. Amen.