Sermon October 25, 2015 Proper 25, Year B
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.