Monday, November 14, 2016

Jesus as Priest

Here is my sermon from Sunday. The text was Hebrews 7:11-28:

Historically, there have been three offices, or roles, that have been given to Jesus, and they are prophet, priest and king. There are three ways in which to understand Jesus, his ministry and his relation with us as disciples. They are also historic roles that act as a continuation of God’s work as found in the Hebrew scripture, but also reestablished and given new meaning because of Christ. Last week we looked at Jesus as a prophet, and if you missed that message I would encourage you to go and watch it. Today we look at the second office and that is Jesus as priest, but not just any priest, but as the High Priest. The role of priest is also one of the historic roles that was found in ancient Israel. In the stories of the patriarchs, the priestly roles were undertaken by the male head of the family, whether Abraham, Isaac or Jacob. They acted as intermediaries between God and their families, which is the historic role of priest: an intermediary an intercessor.

As the society got larger and more complex, the need for this mediator to be moved outside of the family to a centralized leader to provide greater continuity became more important. We can begin to see this in Moses himself as the people tell him, in one of my favorite passages, “We don’t like it when God talks directly to us, so tell God to stop doing that, and instead you talk to God and then tell us what God says.” This could be what we see as the beginning of prophecy in scripture, one person speaking for God, but it is also the beginning of someone acting as a clear mediator between God and the people, although it will be through Moses brother Aaron, who is the first priest of the Israelites, and then through the tribe of Levi, who become the priestly class, that the priesthood truly comes into its own as a separate occupation. But, it should be noted that these are still people who are called into their role by God, like the story we hear in 1 Samuel of Samuel himself being called by God to become a priest, even though he had already been given over by his parents to Eli to serve as a priest.

The priests serve several different roles for the people and for the rulers. They acted as diviners of God’s will. So, for example, the king might come to a priest and ask if they should go make war on some other tribe, and the priest would seek God’s guidance and then say “yes, your efforts will be successful,” or “no, God will not be with you and you will be defeated if you do that.” They act as teachers, and this is especially true after the exile and the rise of what we know as the rabbinic class of teachers. If you know or remember the story of Jesus in the temple at the age of 12, after he has given his parents a heart attack by staying behind when they left Jerusalem, he is found at the temple sitting at the feet of the teachers. While this passage does not say explicitly they are priests, that was one of the roles of the priesthood. A third role was overseeing and participating in the sacrificial rights. There are long lists of rules about what is sacrificed and when these sacrifices are to be made, in order to restore purity for people, and to celebrate or to make other offerings to God, and all of these are done by the priests. People would bring their offerings to the priest at the Temple, and the priest would make on offering their behalf. But, before that was done, the priests would also make an offering on their own behalf for the sake of their own sins. Ritual purity became a major part of the priestly role as a way of reminding people of God’s purity and holiness. These sacrifices and these acts helped the priests to maintain and mediate the covenantal relationship between God and the people, and it is in this intercessory role that priests had their greatest function. They act as the go between humanity and God, advocating and acting on humanities behalf to God, especially in the sacrificial model of seeking forgiveness, but also advocating on God’s behalf to the people.

Now one the biggest problems of the old priestly, sacrificial model, at least as we understand it through Christ, is that the priests could never lead the people to perfection, they could never fulfill the law, because they too fell short of the glory of God. As I already said, in addition to making sin offerings on behalf of the people, the priests also had to make sin offerings for themselves to try and purify themselves before making the sacrificial offerings for others. The same thing happens today. When we say the prayer of confession before communion, I offer you pardon for your sins, and you in turn offer me pardon for my sins. That means that ultimately I am making the same mistakes as you, and I fall just as short as you, and therefore I cannot bring perfection or wholeness to the system, because I too am broken, so what is the alternative to that system? How is that system made whole? Well the obvious answer is to say that we need someone different as a priest, someone who doesn’t have the same hang-ups and problems that we all have, which is exactly what the author of the Letter to the Hebrews is arguing. But before we get into that, there is one other piece of information that is important to know as the early church understood this role and position, and that is of actual priests and in particular of the High Priest at the time of Jesus.

By the time of Jesus’ birth, the role of High Priest was not one someone was called to by God, but instead appointed to based on political ramifications and importance. In fact, it was an argument over who would be the Head Priest that got the Romans involved in a governmental role in Israel. Two brothers were squabbling over who should be the High Priest, and the Romans recognized that religious turmoil could cause political turmoil and so they stepped in and ended the Hasmonean dynasty, and this was the last time that Jews ruled Palestine. Over the next 107 years, there would be at least 60 different High Priests, and for those not good at math, that’s a new High priest every year and a half or so, all of them owing their allegiance not to God, or to the people, but to the people in power who put them there. So there is a definite desire amongst the people for something and someone different to be leading the Temple and the religion. There were many different things that people meant when they talked about the Messiah. One was a great military leader who would come in and throw the Romans out and restore Jewish rule, and in particular to put someone of the David line on the throne, which was the second expectation that the messiah would be a great political ruler. The other expectation was that the Messiah would be a religious leader who would restore everything back to God’s chosen order, and there was considerable overlap between these three, with some holding that the Messiah would be all three. So that is the background that also surrounds the expectation of the great High Priest who is to come, and the church saw Jesus as that person, but in a very unique way.

One of the major claims against Jesus as the High Priest was the fact that he did not come from the house of Levi. Levi, who was one of the 12 sons of Isaac which formed the 12 tribes of Israel, was the priestly family, and they are called out to that role following the story of the making of the golden calf in Exodus 32, and they are the only family not granted any land in the promised land because of their role as priests and because the other tribes are to provide them support in that role. But Jesus doesn’t come from the line of Levi, instead, as a descendant of David and a member of his royal lineage, which we will get into next week when we look at Jesus as King, he comes from the line of Judah. But the writer of Hebrews says “Of course he comes from the line of Judah, or at least a different line, he couldn’t come from the line of Levi because they weren’t able to bring about perfection because they had to make sin offerings on their own behalf, and not just once, but continually. Thus a new priesthood had to arise, a new line had to come about which could change all that, and so a priest has arisen from the order of Melchizedek.”

Now I know all of you know exactly who Melchizedek is right? It’s okay that you don’t as his name only occurs 12 times in scriptures and 10 of them are here in Hebrews as part of his argument about Jesus.  The first mention comes back in Genesis chapter 14 when Abram, as his name has not yet been changed to Abraham, and after rescuing his nephew lot from captivity, in the valley of kings he encounters this rather strange figure who we are told is the king of Salem, the priest of God most high who greets Abram with bread and wine and gives him a blessing and in return Abram gives him a tenth of everything he owns, a tithe, and then Melchizedek disappears from the story. So some crucial points, the first as we are in our stewardship campaign, is to remember that a tithe in giving is the scriptural witness because we clergy have expenses. (that’s a joke). But more importantly, salem means peace, or also wholeness, completeness, so the King of Peace meets Abram with bread and wine and blesses him. Does that figure possibly remind you of anyone? Yes, there is lots of speculation that this person could be Christ, or at least it is the promise of Christ, because the next time he appears is in Psalm 110, a psalm which Jesus himself quotes, about sitting at the right hand of God, and the psalm says that God says that God’s High Priest, the one who sits at the right hand, is “a priest for ever according to the order of Melchizedek.”

If you remember back to last week when we talked about the prophets, what the disciples of Jesus argued, found in the gospels and in the early church writings, was that Jesus was not just a prophet, but the prophet and he was greater than all the prophets who had come before. The same thing is being done here. The Levites may have been good, and Aaron good guy, the best, loved his work, but he simply doesn’t measure up. Why? Because first of all they die, and so they are replaced by someone else, and second they have to make offerings for their own sins. But Jesus, he died, but then he was resurrected, and so his priestly office is forever, but even more importantly, Jesus was tempted, but didn’t give in. This is a very important piece of the puzzle, because in order to be able to understand us, in order to be able to be a mediator for humanity, Jesus had to understand what it was like to be tempted, to truly know that feeling. But then, Hebrews says, if he had given into that temptation, like Moses and Aaron did, then he would not be able to bring about the fulfillment of the law, he could not bring about a perfected order, he could not give us the example of what perfection and righteousness truly looked like. And so Jesus is able to offer sacrifices for the people, but does not have to make a sacrifice for himself, and because of that his sacrifice is good for all time, all other sacrificial practices go away because one sacrifice is all that’s needed and Jesus offered himself. One sacrifice to unify us with God, to bring us into right relationship with God and right relationship with each other. One sacrifice that not only changes the law, but fulfills the law and eliminates the law because it institutes a new covenant and makes Jesus the mediator, the priest for all time, because he sits at the right hand of God the Father.

Now I know many of you, maybe all of you, are wondering what does all this mean for us? It means several things. The first is that Jesus acts as our intercessor with God, which is the role of the High Priest. Every time that we pray and we say something like “in Jesus’ name we pray” that is invoking Jesus as High Priest. See you’ve been doing it all the time and you didn’t even know. Whatever it is that we are praying for our about, we are saying to Jesus, please make my desires and needs known to God the Father, be an advocate on my behalf, and to recognize that we can make such an appeal for ourselves. You don’t need me, or anyone else to take your concerns to God. When Jesus dies, we are told that the curtain in the Temple, the Holy of Holies, was torn in two, meaning the role the priests had played has been eliminated, that barrier has been removed, and now Jesus plays that role for us.

But more importantly for us is the sacrificial role that Jesus has played and continues to play. As I have said several times already, the problem with human priests is that they must make sacrifices for themselves first before they can make sacrifices for others, and seek forgiveness for others, and these offerings must be made again and again because the atonement is only temporary. But Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice, by giving of himself, not just once but for all time, no other sacrifice is ever necessary. Which means that not only are the sins we have already committed been forgiven, but the sins we have yet to commit have also been forgiven when we seek that forgiveness. It is also in Hebrews that we read that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever. (Heb 13.8) Part of what this statement means is about the eternal nature of Christ’s sacrifice and the eternal nature of Christ’s mediation on our behalf, and this is all possible because Jesus is “holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinner, and exalted above the heavens.”<

This may all seem obvious to us now because we have 2000 years of thinking this way, well at least 1800 years, but perhaps we take it too much for granted, we take for granted that Jesus advocates on our behalf with God, that we don’t have to seek out special mediators, that we don’t have to make imperfect sacrifices that will never bring healing and restoration to our lives or to our relationship with God. But we shouldn’t. Instead, we should remember and celebrate, as we hear in the 4th chapter of Hebrews, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. 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.” (Heb 4:15-16) I pray that it will be so my brothers and sisters. Amen.

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