Hebrews 1:1-3 (NIV) 1 In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. 3 The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.
My dear friends in Christ,
Do you recognize this Olympic skater? How about now?
His name is Eric Heiden. In the 1980 Olympics at Lake Placid, Eric won an unprecedented five individual gold medals in speed skating. He set four Olympic records and one world record. If you didn’t recognize him or his name, it could be because he was overshadowed by the “Miracle on Ice,” when the U.S. hockey team beat the Russians to advance to the gold medal game.
Let’s try another one. Do you recognize this Olympic skater?
You might remember Dan Jansen. He competed at the 1988 and the 1992 Winter Olympics, but failed to medal at either competition. At the 1994 games in Lillehammer he won a gold medal in the 1000 meter speed skating event, and set a world record in his final Olympic race.
How about these Olympians? If you watched the snowboarding halfpipe competition you saw Chloe Kim and Shaun White win gold medals and celebrate their victories. Chloe is the youngest woman ever to win an Olympic snowboarding gold. For Shaun White, it’s his third Olympic gold medal in 4 Olympic competitions.
What do all four of these athletes have in common?
- Gold medals
- The greatest in their sports
- Their success won’t last forever
That’s true for everyone, isn’t it? We are born. We grow and mature. We learn. We work hard. We experience some success, whether in sports, with our family and friends, on the job, or in our hobbies. We celebrate those successes. We pin papers up on the wall, take pictures and post them on Instagram and Facebook. We build a shelf for trophies. We invest the money we earn from our successful work. The success we experience in this life doesn’t last forever. We have to say, “Eric Heiden and Dan Jansen were great skaters.” In a few years we’ll say, “Chloe Kim and Shaun White were great snowboarders.” Someone will say at our funeral, “He or she sure was a great person.”
Ash Wednesday is a visual reminder of that grim truth. Abraham said it this way, “I am nothing but dust and ashes” (Genesis 18:27 NIV). At the end of the service, many of you will come forward and hear me say, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” Why spend the time today reminding ourselves that death is just another step, another heartbeat away?
Because we know it’s true. We’ve been to enough funerals and experienced enough grief to know it’s true. “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 NIV). It’s true for Olympic athletes who are on the podium one day and finished with their careers the next. It’s true for grandpas and grandmas, moms and dads, children, even little ones who have barely begun to live. We are nothing but dust and ashes. Jesus is greater than Olympic athletes and every other human being. He is and always will be the greatest. “In these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe” (Hebrews 1:1–2 NIV). Jesus made the universe? Jesus made it all! The apostle John wrote, “Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:3 NIV). From the vast expanse of the sky filled with uncountable galaxies, let alone uncountable stars to the most minute particles—Jesus created it. That would qualify him as great, wouldn’t it?
How about the next verse? Listen to his greatness! “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:3 NIV). We just experienced Jesus’ glory on the Mount of Transfiguration. Jesus, God’s one and only Son, shone like the sun! He proved his greatness by giving us a glimpse of his divine majesty. Jesus is the only way for us to see God as he is—the exact representation of his being. As God’s almighty Son, he keeps the universe spinning, the earth rotating, the seasons passing, the tides rolling in and out, our hearts beating and our lungs breathing with his powerful Word. Jesus is great, and his greatness isn’t going anywhere!
Verse three points to Jesus as our great High Priest: “After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven” (Hebrews 1:3 NIV). The people who read this letter and were raised during the time of the Old Testament Scriptures knew that God called the high priest to provide purification for sins. When the LORD gave instructions for the great Day of Atonement in Leviticus 16, he explained the result of the elaborate rituals the high priest performed that day: “On this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the LORD, you will be clean from all your sins” (Leviticus 16:30 NIV). Jesus came as the perfect High Priest—to cleanse and purify the world from sin. He has all the qualifications needed.
Even so, he doesn’t look like the greatest. We saw him tonight—a teacher and his ragtag bunch of followers celebrating Passover in a new and different way. “This is my body, given for you... This is my blood, poured out for you” (Luke 22:19,20 NIV). Maybe it doesn’t look like it as he exchanges his outer garment for a towel, then bends down to wash his disciples’ feet. They needed purification, cleansing, and didn’t realize it. We heard Jesus say it—“Unless I wash you, you have no part with me” (John 13:8). Jesus wasn’t just talking about washing feet; he was talking about washing them clean of sin. To provide that purification, Jesus would stoop far lower than the floor to wash feet with water and dry them with a towel. Jesus would stoop to dying in shame on Calvary’s cross, and by his death there, he would provide purification for the sins of the world—yours and mine.
That’s what makes Jesus our Great High Priest. He was willing to do all of this to purify us from our sins. Sins? What sins? Just look around the upper room. Jesus acted the part of the servant while everyone else sat around and watched him do it. Do we ever imitate the disciples? Do we sit back, resting on how great we are? Do we wait for mom or dad to clean our rooms, make our beds, and get lunches ready for us every day and then complain that it isn’t what we wanted, the way we wanted it? Do we ever act the same here as part of God’s family? Do we sit back and watch a few carry out the work, then complain when it isn’t done the way we think it should be done?
That’s why we need Jesus, who is our great High Priest to purify us. He did just that! When he offered his life on the altar of the cross, his blood flowed for us. His blood covers our sins. We are clean. We are purified. All because Jesus is our great High Priest and will be forever!
Why would Jesus do all that? It’s Valentine’s Day, and one word that dominates this day answers our question. Jesus’ love. Love that is desperate for us to be with him in heaven. Love that eclipses every Valentine’s Day flower, card, and gift. The hymn writer put it this way: “See, from his head, his hands, his feet, Sorrow and love flow mingled down. Did e’er such love and sorrow meet Or thorns compose so rich a crown?” (When I Survey the Wondrous Cross; CW 125:4). Jesus’ love and perfect sacrifice prove that he is and always will be the greatest—the greatest High Priest. Amen.