A Priest in the Order of Melchizedek

Sermon October 25, 2015  Proper 25, Year B
Hebrews 7:23-28

Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

One of the strengths of our weekly lectionary is that we hear readings from throughout the Bible every week. One of the weaknesses of the lectionary is that we read small passages of Scripture which are often disconnected from their larger context.  We often read a mere snippet out of a longer story or argument.  This can leave us scratching our heads as to what actually is being said.

I think that today’s passage from Hebrews falls into this category. Our passage begins with the words “Now there have been many of those priests…”  The obvious question is which priests are being referred to.  We need to take a few steps back and understand the wider context of today’s passage.  What is the overall point?  What part does today’s reading play in the wider argument being made?

Hebrews chapter seven is an argument comparing Jesus Christ to the traditional Levitical priesthood of the Jewish religion. This argument is addressed to Jewish Christians who would have been familiar with the intricacies of the sacrificial system and with the Old Testament.  The author assumes a great deal of insider knowledge.  I’ll do my best to fill you in on some of the details as we go along.

To begin with, as most of you know, God had instituted a complex sacrificial system for the Israelites in the Old Testament. This sacrificial system was administered by a priesthood.  Priests in ancient Israel were drawn from the tribe of Levi, hence the Israelite priesthood was known as the Levitical priesthood.  It wasn’t like today when anyone might feel called to be a priest and then enter the discernment process.  No, in ancient Israel, if you were a boy born into a family in the tribe of Levi, you were going to be a priest.  If you were a boy born into the tribe of Benjamin or Judah or Simeon or Reuben, or any of the other Israelite tribes, then you weren’t ever going to be a priest – no matter what you felt called to.  The priesthood came through the family.

This priesthood administered a continuous cycle of sacrifices to atone for the sins of the people. You can read all about these sacrifices and their details in the book of Leviticus.  Suffice it to say that there were a lot of them and they cycled through the whole year.  It was never ending because the people sinned continually.

Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest of Israel would have to enter into the very presence of God himself in the Holy of Holies. In this room in the inner temple, he would offer atoning sacrifices for the nation.  This was a very daunting prospect for the high priest, because he was entering the presence of God and one misstep could result in his death.  And so he would spend several days in ritual cleansing and offering sacrifices in order to make himself clean and acceptable to enter the Holy of Holies.

This sacrificial system was ordained by God himself, but it was clearly very limited. The sacrifices had to be continually repeated, and the priests themselves had to offer sacrifices for themselves in order that they would be sufficiently atoned for so that they could offer atoning sacrifices for the people.  Sometimes I think what a horrible scene it must have been at the Jewish temple with so much blood and killing of animals.

Of course, God never intended that the Old Testament sacrificial system should last forever. One purpose of the sacrificial system was to continually remind the people of their sins and the very serious consequences of sin.  As I said, there would have been a lot of blood – this represented the very real consequence of sin, which is death.  The primary purpose of the sacrificial system, however, was to point forward to Jesus.  The author of Hebrews is building on this theme.

The way that the author of Hebrews does this in chapter seven is by comparing Jesus to an obscure Old Testament figure known as Melchizedek and then comparing the model of priesthood represented by Jesus and Melchizedek to the Old Testament’s Levitical priesthood. So who is Melchizedek?  Good question.  We know as much about the historical figure of Melchizedek as we do about Johnny Appleseed.  In other words – not much, other than that he existed and did some stuff.  Melchizedek is mentioned once in Genesis 14 as someone that Abraham met once, and then his name pops up again in Psalm 110.

In Genesis 14, Abraham is returning from a military victory over some minor Canaanite kings when he encounters Melchizedek. The story is so short I will simply read it to you: “Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine. He was priest of God Most High, and he blessed Abram, saying, “Blessed be Abram by God Most High, Creator of heaven and earth.  And praise be to God Most High, who delivered your enemies into your hand.”  Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.”  And that is it.  But despite its brevity, this story contains some important implications.  Melchizedek is described as being a priest of God Most High who blessed Abraham and to whom Abraham paid a tithe.  More on that later.

The reference in Psalm 110 is even shorter. In that Psalm, the future Messiah is described as a conquering king who will vanquish his enemies.  And then we hear this line “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.””  The Psalmist is making the point that the future Messiah will not only be a king but also a priest.

With this background we can turn to the seventh chapter of Hebrews, of which our lectionary passage today is the conclusion. The argument actually begins at the very end of chapter six, where the author writes “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary [of the Temple] behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”  So right at the outset, we are told that Jesus is like Melchizedek.  Chapter seven explains how this is so and why it is important for us.  Keep in mind that the style of argument used by the author here may seem odd to us.  It is not meant to be a logical one, but rather one that uses the mysterious figure of Melchizedek as an illustration of who Jesus is.

So let’s review some of the points made by the author. First, in verse 2 he looks at Melchizedek’s name.  The name Melchizedek means “king of righteousness”.  And he was the king of the ancient city of Salem.  Salem means “peace.”  Note the similarity to the Jewish “shalom” and the Arabic “salaam.”  Salem, shalom, salaam.  And so, Jesus, like Melchizedek may be thought of as the King of Righteousness and the King of Peace.  It is then pointed out in verse 3 that Melchizedek has no genealogy listed in the Genesis 14 passage, indeed no mention of father or mother.  So what?  Well, remember that under Jewish law, priests became priests only because of what tribe they came from.  In other words, genealogy and parentage would have been critical pieces of information.  And yet no such information is given for Melchizedek.  Jesus, like Melchizedek is a priest in his own right, directly made such by God himself, and not due to what tribe his father came from.

The author of Hebrews then moves on in verses four through nine showing how the story in Genesis shows that the obscure Melchizedek was greater even than Abraham, who was considered one of the greatest men in the history of Israel. The author of Hebrews is not very subtle about the point he is trying to make.  In verse 4 he writes “Just think how great he was: Even the patriarch Abraham gave him a tenth of the plunder!”  And so, the larger point being made here is that Jesus, like Melchizedek is greater than the greatest man in the history of the Israelite nation.

The author then turns to a comparison between the priesthood of Jesus and Melchizedek and the Levitical priesthood of the Old Testament. We are told that the Levitical priesthood cannot possibly be the ultimate priesthood because Psalm 110 says that the Messiah will be a priest “forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”  And since the Messiah was to be descended from David, who came from the tribe of Judah, the Messiah could not possibly be from the tribe of Levi and thus had to be a priest of a different order.  Therefore, the author reasons, the Messiah’s priesthood would succeed the Levitical priesthood.

This is where the passage of Hebrews that we heard today comes in to the argument. Before we turn to it, let’s review the points that have been made in the first part of the chapter, and which a listener would have in mind when they heard our lectionary passage.  Jesus should be regarded as a king, and not just any king, but the king of righteousness and the king of peace.  Jesus is also our high priest and not because he was from the correct family, but because he was appointed to this role by God himself.  Jesus is greater than Abraham, the greatest and most revered figure in Jewish history.  Finally, the priesthood of Jesus must succeed and supplant that of the Levitical priesthood according to the Old Testament itself.

And so we can now consider our lectionary reading from Hebrews. This passage forms the conclusion to chapter seven.  The author made a number of points, which we just discussed, but in our passage, he brings it all together and tells us why this matters.  We are told “because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood.  Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.”   Jesus will always be there to intercede on our behalf before God the Father, because he lives forever.  But this is just the beginning of what this means for us.

The author of Hebrews continues: “Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.”  This is extraordinary news and includes some very important bits of information for us.  We are told that Jesus, as our high priest, does not need to continually offer sacrifices day after day.  Rather in dying on the cross for our sins, he made the only sacrifice we will ever need.

Jesus is the one high priest who truly meets our need. He is holy, that is set apart exclusively for God’s work.  Jesus came to earth as God’s rescue mission for his people.  That was what Jesus came to do, it was what he was set apart to do.  He is blameless and pure, that is, he was without sin.  Jesus lived a sinless life, and therefore could be the perfect sacrifice for our sins.  He was set apart from sinners in that he was sinless and, even though he lived among us, he was set apart to die for our sins and take our penalty upon himself.  He is exalted above the heavens because he rose from the dead and has risen to the throne of heaven where he sits with God the Father.

The priests of the Old Testament were not sinless and the animals that they sacrificed could not take away the sins of the world. And so these priests needed to continually offer sacrifices – both for themselves and for the people.  But this system did not solve the problem.  It only served to point to God’s ultimate plan.  Jesus was sinless and offered himself as the ultimate sacrifice.  His death and sacrifice of himself atones for the sins of the whole world, for all time.  All that we need do is claim the benefits of this sacrifice, that is, come to God through Jesus.

So you can see that what might have struck you as a confusing and incomplete passage, which was part of an even more puzzling chapter actually contains great news. Jesus Christ is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for us.  He is the high priest who truly meets our need, who sacrificed himself for our sins once for all.

Let us conclude in prayer recalling the traditional words from the communion service, which is the great commemoration of the sacrifice that Jesus made for us on the cross.

All glory be to you, our heavenly Father, who, in your tender mercy, gave your only Son our Savior Jesus Christ to suffer death upon the cross for our redemption; who made there by his one oblation of himself once offered a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world; let us be eternally thankful that you are our perfect high priest. Amen.

The Sacramental Qualities of Marriage

Sermon October 4, 2015  Proper 22, Year B
Mark 10:2-16; Genesis 2:18-24

Let us pray.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, Oh Lord, our strength and our Redeemer.

I wonder how I would react if, when next I stood up in front of a class and began teaching my students about legal research, a smart aleck asked me a question in a deliberate attempt to trip me up. This is the situation that Jesus faced in our Gospel reading today.  Mark tells us that Jesus had just arrived in a new town and had begun to teach the crowds when some Pharisees came to ask a question to test him.  You see, the Pharisees had devised a question that they thought would leave Jesus in a tight spot.

“Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” This was a contested topic at the time.  One school of thought held a strict interpretation that divorce was only permitted if the wife was unfaithful.  Another school of thought held that a man could divorce his wife for any reason at all, even if she burned his breakfast.  The Pharisees figured that no matter how Jesus answered, he would surely alienate one of these groups.  But Jesus didn’t bite at their apple.  Instead, he took a step back and reframed the entire conversation.

Jesus acknowledged that Moses permitted a man to divorce his wife. In doing so, he made it clear that he understood what the legalistic rules were.  But then, instead of giving an answer that the Pharisees could use against him, he pointed back to God’s original intention for marriage.  Jesus said that God’s original purpose for marriage is the measuring stick.  And this original purpose for marriage is what we are going to look at today.

Most of us realize that marriage is in a bad state. Divorce and marital breakdown is rampant.  Courts and our cultural elites are seeking to redefine what marriage is.  Meanwhile, fewer and fewer people are actually getting married.  This has some very negative effects for our society.  Many economists and sociologists argue that one of the most accurate predictors of poverty is the breakdown of marriage.  Communities that have strong marriages have very low poverty rates, while communities that don’t, have very high poverty rates.

One of the reasons that our culture is so confused about marriage is that for many years the Church has forgotten what Jesus taught us about it. And so, when we have the opportunity to think about what Jesus says about marriage, we should do so.  In today’s Gospel passage, Jesus says “But at the beginning of creation God ‘made them male and female.’  ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ So they are no longer two, but one flesh.  Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”  In saying this, Jesus was pointing us back to the creation accounts in Genesis 1 and 2.

Over the last one hundred or so years, many Christians have badly misunderstood the purpose of the creation accounts in Genesis. These accounts were never intended to be scientific explanations of how things came into being.  Rather, the creation accounts were meant to give a theological grounding for things.  And so, when men, women and marriage is spoken of in Genesis 1 and 2, what we should be looking for is the deeper meaning of the union of a man and woman in marriage, and how that fits in with the rest of the Bible.  Asking whether Eve was an actual, literal rib taken out of Adam is missing the point completely.  And it is this deeper meaning of marriage that Jesus is pointing us to.

Some of you might have heard that the Roman Catholic Church teaches that there are seven sacraments – communion, baptism, confirmation, anointing of the sick, penance, ordination and marriage. Protestants, of course teach that only communion and baptism are sacraments.  But these other rites have an important sacramental quality to them.  Each of these rites serve as a rich illustration of different aspects of the character of God and his love for us.  Just as communion illustrates for us the sacrifice of Christ, the unity of Christians, our spiritual nourishment in Christ and so much more, so the institution of marriage points us to some very deep truths about who God is and his love for us.

The two truths we’ll talk about today have to do with how marriage illustrates the image of God and how it illustrates the relationship between Christ and the Church. Let’s look at the image of God first.  Genesis 1:27 says “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”  Jesus points to this text as being foundational to marriage.  The union of male and female is clearly an essential part of our being created in God’s image.  Jesus also points to Genesis 2, which we read today.  Genesis 2 describes how woman was created of the same stuff as man to be a suitable companion and that this “is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.”  The union of man and woman in marriage points us to the image of God.  But how?

There are four ways we can see the image of God reflected in a marriage. First, the unity in diversity of a man and a woman united in marriage is a model for us of the Holy Trinity.  Just as the husband and wife are fundamentally different yet complementary to each other in the permanent and loving union of marriage, so are the three Persons of the Trinity fundamentally distinct from each other, yet also fundamentally bound together as God.  Just as the Father, Son and Holy Spirit continually love one another, so are husband and wife to continually love each other in their unique and intimate relationship.

Second, both Jesus and Genesis teach us that both male and female are required to complete the full image of God. God is neither male nor female, and so the fullness of the image of God requires the union of one man and one woman.  Genesis 2:23 records Adam saying of Eve “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman.’”  In other words, Eve was made of the same stuff as Adam.  Living as we do in a society that is steeped in Judeo-Christian heritage, we don’t realize the impact that this teaching had in the ancient world.  This was a powerful statement proclaiming the dignity of women.

In the ancient world, women had very little social standing in the Roman, Greek and pagan societies. They were regarded as the property of men and sometimes not even fully human.  One quotation from a text from the heretical group of pagan influenced Gnostics illustrates this.  The Gnostic author wrote: “Simon Peter said to them: Let Mariham go out from among us, for women are not worthy of the life. Jesus said: Look, I will lead her that I may make her male, in order that she too may become a living spirit resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself male will enter into the kingdom of heaven.”  Jesus, of course never said this, but take note that these Gnostics thought that in order for women to enter the kingdom of God, they would need to become male.  And so, the teaching that the image of God was reflected in the union of a man and a woman in marriage spoke powerfully to the dignity of women.

The third way that marriage reflects the image of God is in the unique creative ability in the union of a man and a woman. God is a creator God.  He created the heavens and the earth.  He created us.  And, other than God, there is only one other thing that can create a human life – the union of a man and a woman united in one flesh.

The last way that the image of God is reflected in marriage is in the way that a husband and wife are the stewards of their family and household. In Genesis 1, God says “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.”  One of the main purposes in God’s creation of humanity is that we would be God’s regents on earth.  God has given us the responsibility to be stewards of his creation – to rule it wisely.  And this responsibility is especially given to a husband and wife when they become a father and a mother and must raise their children and govern their household.  They are acting as God’s regents.

Marriage also points us to the relationship of Jesus Christ to the Church. We see this idea foreshadowed in the Old Testament book of Hosea.  Hosea was a prophet who was married to an unfaithful and promiscuous woman.  In Hosea chapter three God says to Hosea “Go, show your love to your wife again, though she is loved by another man and is an adulteress. Love her as the Lord loves the Israelites, though they turn to other gods.”  And Hosea told her “You are to live with me many days; you must not be a prostitute or be intimate with any man, and I will behave the same way toward you.”  Hosea’s marriage illustrated God’s enduring love for an unfaithful people, and his promise that even after their unfaithfulness, God’s redeeming love still endured for them.

The New Testament has many examples of the Church as the bride of Christ. There is a passage in Ephesians that compares the relationship of husbands and wives to that of Christ and his Church.  This is a passage that is often badly misunderstood today, and would have carried a very different meaning in the context of the New Testament times.  Sometimes context is critical to understanding the meaning of a passage.  When Paul wrote these words to the church in Ephesus, there was no concept whatever of egalitarian marriages, especially not in the pagan culture of ancient Rome.  The husband was the lord and ruler of his household and he could beat his wife and nobody would have raised an eyebrow.  Women were little more than the property of their husbands.  You need to keep this firmly in mind when you hear what Paul writes.

He writes “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ.   Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord.”  And later he addresses husbands, saying “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”

Paul is taking the Roman model of marriage in which the husband was boss and wife was property and turning it on its head. What Paul wrote was very revolutionary for his time.  First of all, he begins by saying “submit to one another.”  Submission is not just a one way street.  He then addresses the social roles of the husband and wife at the time.  The husband, Paul says, is not to just be a selfish ruler of the wife, as society suggested, but rather was to love his wife as Christ loves the Church.  Men were to love their wives sacrificially and to care for them.  This was a new concept for men of this time.   He also gave a new rationale for wives.  No longer were they just supposed to blindly obey husbands because the husband was their lord and master, but rather, they were to submit as they would to the Lord.  And notice that this instruction to submit follows right after Paul tells both husband and wife to submit to each other out of reverence for Christ.

The takeaway from this passage is not to get bogged down in who is supposed to submit to who, and who is the ultimate boss. That is not how the early Christians would have understood this.  Rather, what Paul is saying is that the relationship between a husband and wife should mirror the sacrificial love and tenderness that Christ has for his Church.  As the roles and expectations of men and women have changed in our culture, so we need to keep the bigger picture in mind here.  Both husbands and wives should love their partners as Christ loves the Church.  This love should be sacrificial and redeeming, not self-centered.

Everyone here who is married has done something that has hurt their marriage. It might be something very serious, like an affair.  Or it might be something small, like making a cutting comment.  When this happens we may be tempted to walk away or fight back.  But husbands and wives are called on to model the forgiving, sacrificial and redeeming love that Christ has for his Church, and that we saw modeled by the prophet Hosea for his unfaithful wife.  When our spouses do something to hurt us, it is not an excuse for us to hurt back.  When we grow tired of our spouse, it is not an option for us to focus on ourselves and end the marriage so we can move on to something more exciting.

If God had that attitude towards us, where would we be? What if God said – “Oh boy.  That James has become such a dull and unexciting guy.  And he isn’t doing what I want him to do.  That’s it.  I’m ending it with him.  It’s over, he’s out of the Kingdom.”  I would be in serious trouble, and so would each one of us.  But God doesn’t say that.  God loves us unconditionally.  Christ died on the cross so that his Church could be presented “without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.”  And this needs to be the Christian approach to marriage.  Our love must be a decision, not an emotion.  It must be unconditional.  Marriage is not about our needs, wants and desires, but it is about the eternal well-being of our spouse, regardless of our emotional state.

And so what are the practical lessons from this? We’ve already discussed many of the lessons, but let’s summarize them again.  What are the lessons we learn from marriage as illustrating the image of God?  The love and intimacy between husband and wife should model the love that can be found within the Holy Trinity.  Both men and women are to hold up the dignity and worth of their mate as being essential to the full image of God.  When children come into a marriage, we can all marvel and rejoice at the miracle of new life and give thanks to God for them.  And we must realize that as we raise our children and govern our family we are doing so as God’s regents here on earth.

And what about the lessons we learn from marriage as illustrating the relationship between Christ and the Church? We are to love our spouses with a sacrificial, forgiving and redeeming love.  We need to forgive our spouses, as Christ has forgiven us.  We need to realize that marriage is not about our needs, wants, desires, or emotions.  Rather, we need to look beyond ourselves to the eternal wellbeing of our partners.

God wants our marriages to be signs pointing to the fundamental character of God as being a God of unconditional love; a God who sent his son Jesus Christ to lay down his very life for us because he loved us so much.

This is God’s purpose for marriage. Not as a shameful statistic of failure, or a way to meet our own needs.  Rather marriage is a way to love each other more deeply and intimately so that we can be the ambassadors of Christ and show forth his grace to the world.

So instead of asking “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife?” we should be asking “what is God’s purpose in marriage and how can we go about doing that?”

Amen.

Let us pray:
O God, you have so consecrated the covenant of marriage that in it is represented the spiritual unity between Christ and his Church: Send therefore your blessing upon all husbands and wives, that they may so love, honor, and cherish each other in faithfulness and patience, in wisdom and true godliness, that their home may be a haven of blessing and peace; and a witness to You and Your incredible love for us, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.