Christ’s Priestly Work - A Sermon for Lent 5B
|Abraham and Melchizedek|
There were Greeks who came to Jerusalem for the Passover festival. They went up to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and they said to him: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus” (Jn. 12:20-21). As we continue our Lenten Journey, with Palm Sunday on the near horizon, is this not our request as well? Don’t we wish to see Jesus?
The author of Hebrews introduces us to Jesus in the form of the great high priest who sympathizes with us in every respect. Hebrews tells us that Jesus has been tested as we have in all things, but is without sin (Heb. 4:14-15). Priests serve as mediators between God and God’s people, bringing sacrifices, prayers, and supplications to God on our behalf. No one takes up this responsibility unless God issues a call, as God did with Aaron and Aaron’s descendants.
God called Jesus to be our high priest, but he isn’t a descendant of Aaron, which makes him a different kind of high priest. According to Hebrews, he is a priest according to the “Order of Melchizedek,” who is a priest forever. As our high priest according to the Order of Melchizedek, “he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:20-25).
Now you might be wondering who this Melchizedek is. The truth is, we don’t much about him. All we know is that Melchizedek was the priest-king of Salem who appeared out of nowhere, received offerings from Abraham, blessed Abraham, and then disappeared from the story (Gen. 14:18-20). By appealing to Melchizedek, however, Hebrews reveals that Jesus’ priesthood is, in the words of Donald Senior, “unique, without precedent, or succession” [Feasting on the Word, p. 137]. It is as our great high priest that we encounter Jesus today.
But what does this mean for us?
On Tuesday morning, Cheryl asked me what I was going to preach on this week. I told her I was preaching from Hebrews 5, so I knew the text, but I wasn’t sure what word would emerge from it. There are weeks when I sit down on Monday morning, print off the text for the week and prayerfully read it over, putting down my initial notes, and immediately see a path forward. There are other weeks, when it takes more time before I discern that path. Each week, I come to the text expecting to hear a word for the church in the reading from Scripture, then I spend the week with that text. I read it, reflect on it, and then at some point I begin writing the sermon. Sometimes it takes longer than others to get to that point, but I go into this process believing that there is a word for the church present in the reading for the week. This was one of those weeks where the path forward took longer to emerge, but I believe that a word will go forth.
Getting back to that request made of Philip in the Gospel of John, I believe that Hebrews offers us some insight. We ask: “Who is Jesus?” That is always the question we bring with us. Next Sunday, when we celebrate Palm Sunday, we will sing about Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. We will join the crowd in proclaiming Jesus to be the Messiah, the Son of David, king of Israel. That is a designation we might be more familiar with. This morning we hear a different answer. Hebrews reveals to us that Jesus is a priest, and if he is a priest, then he is a mediator who goes before God as the one who is “in charge of things pertaining to God on [our] behalf,” offering “gifts and sacrifices for sins.” In his capacity as high priest, Jesus intercedes on our behalf, offering up “prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.”
Once again we encounter difficult words that may cause us to stumble. Hebrews tells us that Jesus “learned obedience through what he suffered.” This sounds to some like divine child abuse. Some Christians teach that Jesus obediently suffered God’s punishment for our sins, so we can be spared God’s wrath and receive eternal salvation. In other words, God killed Jesus instead of us. Some Christians have used passages like this to oppress marginalized people. I can’t read this in that way. It doesn’t fit my understanding of the God whom Jesus reveals. So, there must be other ways of reading a passage like this.
Following the lead of Martha Moore-Keish, we might want to keep three things in mind as we read this passage. First, remember that Hebrews is trying to make sense of a senseless death. Second, submission here isn’t groveling. It is reverently bowing before God. Finally, if Jesus is in any sense God, then God has experienced our suffering. “The promise of this passage is that because God in Christ endured suffering, the way to eternal life is opened up to us” [Feasting on the Word, p. 138].
As our high priest, who has been tested as we have, Jesus can sympathize with us. Because God is in Christ, God is not aloof from our experience of suffering and grief. It is out of this experience with life in its fullness, including experiencing our suffering, that Jesus offers prayers of intercession for us. Out of these prayers, God brings healing and wholeness to our lives. That is, God brings eternal salvation.
There may be another word for us here as well. Just as Jesus is our high priest, we have been called to a holy priesthood. We’re not priests according to the order of Aaron or Melchizedek, but we have own priestly calling. As we read in 1 Peter: “Come to him, a living stone, though rejected by mortals yet chosen and precious in God’s sight, and like living stones, let yourselves be built into a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:4-5). It is within his calling as high priest that we take up our own priesthood and offer prayers of intercession to God through our high priest, Christ Jesus.
When we lift prayers to God, we don’t go with timidity. No, as we read in Hebrews 4:16, the verse that sets up our passage for the day: “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Yes, let us go before God with boldness, laying out our cries for help, even as Jesus “offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears.”
The good news here is that we are not alone. We have an advocate, Jesus, our high priest. He understands our realities. He has experienced human suffering and death. Having overcome the sting of death, he intercedes on our behalf and opens the path of salvation to us.
I like this word about the passage offered by Jennifer Kaalund:
Jesus, then and there, as well as here and now, prayed for us, makes intercession on our behalf. Having someone in our corner, being our rock when we find ourselves in hard places provides an example for how we are to act likewise. Can you be a rock? Will you build a bridge? [http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3583]
Here is the invitation. Jesus is our high priest who intercedes on our behalf, making it possible for us to boldly approach the throne of God, making our own prayers known to God for ourselves and for one another through the mediation of Jesus.
And what does prayer accomplish? I came across these words attributed to Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel:
Prayer invites God’s presence to suffuse our spirit; God’s will to prevail in our lives. Prayer may not bring water to parched fields, nor mend a broken bridge, nor rebuild a ruined city. But prayer can water an arid soul, mend a broken heart, and rebuild a weakened will. [Quote in Barry Schwartz, Path of the Prophets, p. 189].
Who is this Jesus, whom we have been traveling with in the desert? He is our high priest. He prays for us and empowers us to do the same. May our souls be watered, our hearts mended, and our wills rebuilt, as we continue the journey with Jesus, our high priest.
Picture attribution: Bouts, Dieric, 1415-1475. Abraham and Melchizedek, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=49150 [retrieved March 17, 2018]. Original source: www.yorckproject.de.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)