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Relatable Jesus

A sermon on Hebrews 2:14-18 and Luke 2:22-40

(for an audio recording of this sermon, click here).

A couple of years ago, Ellen DeGeneres came out with a new stand-up special (her first in 15 years). The special was titled “Relatable.”[1]

As she explains at the beginning of the show, this title came from a conversation with a friend who had expressed some doubt about her proposal to come back to stand-up after so many years.

Apparently, his response, when she told him her plans, was to say: “Do you think you’re still relatable?”

What follows is an extended and hysterical bit in which Ellen shares her feigned confusion at this idea, while highlighting all the ways in which her current life of privilege and wealth is, indeed, a bit “un-relatable.”

But what really shines through the show is her humanity…

Through her description of the anxiety she feels when waiters won’t write down your order, but insist on just memorizing it;

and her recognition of how absurd it is to wordlessly send dancing bird videos back and forth with her wife who is sitting only 4 feet away while they both stare at their phones;

and in her sharing of the pain and fear that she faced when she came out as gay, and couldn’t get a job for three long years;

and, of course, in her ability to see the humor in the everyday moments to which we all really can relate.

For all her jokes about multiple butlers and 30-foot long bathrooms, Ellen IS relatable, because she’s human, and she is willing to share the kind of vulnerability that lets us into the humanness of her life.

I was reminded of Ellen’s special this week by our reading from Hebrews, which tells us that:

since… the children share flesh and blood, (Jesus) himself likewise shared the same things….” (Heb 2:14)

and “he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God…”(Heb. 2:17)

and “because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested” (Heb. 2:18).

What the author of Hebrews is essentially saying is that Jesus is relatable. Even though his reality is much farther removed from ours than Ellen’s is. Even though he is the Son of God. Even though he has existed since the before time, the Word that spoke the universe into being. Even though his Truth is beyond our wildest imagination… he is also, really and truly, human.

He knows the intense vulnerability of having a fragile and imperfect physical body. He knows, through daily exposure, the thousand ways in which human souls desperately need mercy. He knows – from the inside – what it feels like to suffer… what it feels like to endure pain, and betrayal, and loss that we don’t know how to survive. He knows what it is to be human. And that’s a really important thing for us to understand, because that relatability is how he saves us.

Now, the language of “saving” takes a little unpacking…it’s one of those churchy words that is not terribly relatable in everyday life. Because – apart from either medical, or first-responder type situations – we don’t often talk about being saved in non-religious contexts. And, so, the language of “saving” begs the question… what does Jesus save us from?

The churchy answer is that Jesus saves us from our sin, but what does that mean? How is sin a danger from which we need to be saved?

The answer we are probably most accustomed to hearing focuses on eternity, on what happens to our souls after death, and our fears about our sin condemning us to eternal damnation. The reading from Hebrews does talk about death, but notice what it actually says. It describes Jesus’s incarnation and death as the means by which he can “destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15).

The focus in this reading is actually not on eternity… it’s on what happens in this life, and on the way in which the fear of death enslaves us. Fear is one of the most essential and controlling of all human emotions. It focuses us in on ourselves, on our own self-protection, and it cuts us off from concern for or connection with others and God. It produces the turning in on self that is Martin Luther’s very definition of sin: incurvatus in se, being curved in on oneself.

And so, the fear of death… the fear of the one inevitable end that none of us can avoid is – clearly – something from which we DO need to be saved.

But how? How does Jesus save us from the fear of death?

Well, we fear things that will harm us. So, in order for the inevitability of death NOT to cause us fear, we need reassurance that in death we will not experience harm. We need the reassurance that when we meet our maker, that meeting will be an occasion for rejoicing, not for fear.

And I think, Jesus offers us that reassurance through his relatability.

That’s why the author of Hebrews emphasizes that Jesus shares in our humanity… in our flesh and blood fragility, in our suffering and testing…in “becom(ing) like his siblings in every respect” (vs. 17). Because it is in becoming LIKE us that he reveals God’s heart to us, by revealing that God isn’t waiting in anger to condemn us! Rather, God is willing to enter into our brokenness to be reunited with us!

Let me say that again: Jesus SAVES us by REVEALING God’s will to be WITH US.

We can see that understanding of salvation most clearly in our gospel story today, in the words of Simeon when he sees the infant Jesus. Simeon has already experienced God’s will for connection with him – The Holy Spirit rested on him! But he couldn’t go to his final rest, to his final, perfect reunion with God because he was waiting to see God’s salvation for others. The Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would not die until he saw God’s anointed… the one sent to save God’s people.

And when he sees the tiny baby in Mary’s arms, he praises God: “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” (Luke 2:29-30).

Simeon sees the vulnerable, 40-day-old baby Jesus, and he describes him as God’s salvation. There, in that moment he is ALREADY God’s salvation for all people.

He is God’s salvation because he is “a light of revelation” – in the human frailty of his infant life he reveals God’s mercy to all of humanity. He is the light that illuminates the truth our fear would not let us see…the light that penetrates the shadow of our separation from God and all the terror and suffering that causes us.

Because he is human. Because God chose to be impossibly, intimately, relatable.

How can we possibly fear death when God chooses to become human in order to be reunited with us?

In her comedy routine, Ellen proves that the circumstances of her life as a celebrity cannot truly break our connection with her, because she’s still human… she’s still vulnerable to the anxieties, and frustrations, and idiosyncrasies, and pains that we can all relate to. It’s through her vulnerability that we relate to her.

And, in a more important way, the same is true with Jesus. He chose to share our flesh and blood, to share our testing and our suffering, to become like us in every respect. And through that relatability, he is the light of revelation. The light that reveals to us and to all people the unconquerable love of God for us.

Thanks be to God.


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