Do you envision God as being “Up there?” Most do. Medieval paintings show God on a throne, high above, surrounded by angels, and definitely not on our level. Do you feel comfortable praying to such a God, or is he too high and too exalted? A lot of people feel you have to ask someone else to pray to God for you—someone really good, like a saint, or maybe a pastor (who might be able to offer a better, more persuasive prayer).
One of the devil’s lies is that God will not listen to your simple prayers, that he will not come down to your level to listen and help. It can seem like the truth, too—because of the struggles, and seeming lack of help from God no matter how much we pray.
At Christmas we see the truth. God has come to our level. He was born as an infant in the Bethlehem manger, a true human being just like us. He is on our level.
The devil knows how powerful that truth is, and he tries to take it away from us. He suggests that God, holy powerful God, wouldn’t have become such a truly helpless infant. He is too perfect to endure all these sufferings of human life—all the sickness, fatigue, and sorrow that come with living here. He has led people to say that Jesus, the Son of God, only seemed to be a true human being, and that he only seemed to suffer. What’s the big deal? Why does the devil suggest such silly thoughts?
Because so much depends on Jesus, true God, also being a true human being. The reading from Hebrews this morning proves that he is true man: “he shared in our humanity.” I want to focus on the verse that tells us why this is so important:
Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.
The devil doesn’t want you to have this reason to believe that God will understand, hear your prayers, and help. From this verse we learn that:
1. Why he will understand.
It isn’t possible for God to be tempted, and we might think that he couldn’t understand when we are tempted. We might be afraid to confess our sins to him, and try to hide it instead, thinking that he will judge us if he finds out how we have failed. But God was born as a true man so that he could be tempted, and truly suffer. God wanted to give us this reason to believe that he would understand and listen when we need him.
Some are afraid to tell me about their sins—they tell me that they don’t want to bug me, they think I don’t have time, they are afraid that I will judge them. You don’t have to worry about that with me—I’m not perfect and I’ve been tempted and I’ve sinned too. You also don’t have to worry about any of that with God. Because he was born in Bethlehem, he has experienced all those temptations. And you can’t say that it wasn’t the same for him, because he is God and he couldn’t have sinned. It says in Hebrews that he suffered when he was tempted—those were true temptations.
Growing up, he suffered all the temptations that come to a child. When he was in the temple, he must have known that the other boys were out playing, and I suppose he must have felt in some way that it would be more fun to be playing than to be “in church” so to speak, in the temple. He must have been tempted to go play with his brothers and friends instead, but he knew that he couldn’t. He stayed in the temple and listened eagerly, because he knew that he had to do God’s work.
You have been tempted by things that seemed like more fun than being in church, you had to be dragged out of bed, and you didn’t sit joyfully. Or maybe it wasn’t worth the suffering and you stayed home—hopefully you feel bad about that, this despising of the treasures that God brings through Word and Sacrament. But you have a friend in Jesus, who will understand what was so hard about the temptation. He felt it himself. You can talk to him about it, and confess your sins in prayer.
As Jesus grew older, after he left his mother and father and began his ministry, we know that he faced real temptations that come to young adults, when the devil took him out into the desert. “Use your power to give yourself an easy life—you will have plenty of food to eat if you turn these stones to bread,” the devil told him. He was tempted to question what he knew about God, by throwing himself from the top of the temple to see if God really would rescue him. He was tempted to take the easy way instead of God’s way, by earning his crown through simply worshiping the devil instead of by suffering, death, and resurrection. Those temptations were real—Hebrews says that he suffered when tempted, and we hear that he had to be strengthened by an angel after the devil left him.
If you have been tempted to work for earthly things, to the point where you neglect the things God wants to give you in church, and it wasn’t worth the trouble to give up your sleep or give up that great job with all the money, you should feel bad. But you have Jesus, who understands, because he has felt that temptation too. If you have been tempted to question God, wonder why he hasn’t helped you lately—or maybe it has all seemed like too much to handle, and so you gave up on the church for a while, and you took out your frustration against God—you should feel bad about that, but you have Jesus who understands, because he has felt that temptation too. If you’ve been tempted to take the easy way through life instead of God’s way, and it was too much trouble to resist what joys the sinful life would offer, it was too much trouble to control your anger, or to love and forgive those who have done you wrong—you should feel bad about that, but you have Jesus who understands, because he has felt that temptation too.
If, as you get older, you find yourself fearing death, and doing everything you can to avoid it, perhaps you have been tempted to be angry at God for taking your loved ones when they died, or be angry at God if it looks like he is going to take your life in a way or at a time that is not right for you—you should feel bad for resisting God’s will, and reacting in anger to his good decisions. But again, you have Jesus who understands, because he even felt these temptations, and it caused him great suffering, though he did not sin. In the Garden, as he looked ahead to the terrible events that were coming leading up to his horrible death, he prayed that there might be some other way. Who knows how he must have been tempted to think that God had it all wrong, that there must be an easier and more pleasant way to redeem the world. Even though the temptations were real and made his soul suffer so much that he said he was sorrowful to the point of death, he did not give in and sin.
You can confess your sins to him, and know that he will understand. He has felt those temptations too.
Jesus became your brother, your trusted friend. You can talk to him. One of the things you may look for in a trusted friend is someone who is your equal, who won’t look down on you. While we aren’t exactly Jesus’ equal in terms of his divine nature, he has come down to our level. But when we pray, sometimes we treat Jesus like he is still high above us, and not on our level where he can understand what we are going through and help us. When we pray, sometimes we might think that we are informing him of our problems, or persuading him to care. Rather, when you pray, unload your burdens to this trusted friend, because he has come down to our level and promised to help. When you pray, take him up on his promise to help those who ask him. In this verse from Hebrews, it says that he is able to help because he suffered—but what kind of help is it really?
2. How he will help.
Our first thought may be that he will give us a boost of spiritual strength when we need it the most, especially if we think to pray to him and ask him for that strength. And he does work in those inexplicable, mysterious ways, but there are also some very real, very explainable ways that he helps us.
First of all, he gives real forgiveness. He doesn’t just say, “Don’t worry about it, everyone does that once in a while.” He is able to actually clear your record before God. If we look back to the context of our verse, the temptations that Christ suffered have made him a faithful high priest—one who is actually able to erase our sins and calm God’s wrath because he has brought a valid sacrifice. He sacrificed his perfect life of perfect obedience under every temptation, and God accepted it as the payment for our sins. Jesus has done what God required for our record to be cleared, and now he is able to give out real forgiveness. How does he help you when you confess your sins to him? He listens, he understands, and he wipes the record clean.
Then, he gives us a better opinion of ourselves. Psychologists and counselors will talk about this as self-esteem, and they will say that it is a key part of improving your behavior. If you think of yourself as a rotten person, you will be more likely to do rotten things. When you are tempted to drink too much, lose your temper, let awful words come from your mouth, it is going to be harder to resist that temptation if you have been used to thinking of yourself as the rotten kind of person who does those things. When Jesus forgives you, he wants you to resist the temptation the next time, and he gives you the self-esteem to be able to do it. You are no longer the addict, the wife-abuser, the foul-mouthed sailor—God’s opinion of you is that you are a citizen of heaven. Your sins have been washed away. The record is clean. Jesus, your trusted friend, shows you that having you with him was worth his trouble to take on human flesh and suffer all for you. It was worth his trouble to come down to your level, experience what you experience, be tempted like you are tempted, and then share his perfection with you through Word and Sacrament. It was worth his trouble to make it so that you belong in heaven with him. Next time you are tempted, remember God’s opinion of you, and know that it is worth the trouble to resist temptation, no matter how much it hurts, because you are a citizen of heaven.
But what if the devil succeeds, and convinces us that Jesus was not a real human being, or that he wasn’t really tempted like we are? All of this help that Jesus wants to give us would become meaningless to us. If his temptations were not real, then he wouldn’t necessarily understand what we are going through, he wouldn’t be able to offer valid forgiveness, and we would have no reason to believe that we share in his perfection or his status as a person who belongs in heaven. If he had not come down to us to join us in our sufferings and temptations, we would have no reason to believe that we belong with him now in his glory. But in the Christmas manger, God took on human flesh. Jesus, true God, was born as a real human being. He willingly suffered all that we suffer, so that he could help us in every way—so he could understand and forgive, and so that he could give us a real reason to believe that we are better than the things that we do. We are citizens of heaven through faith in him. Truly, in Jesus, God has become our friend. Amen.