Sunday, March 25, 2012
Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent (March 25, 2012)
“Our Humble High Priest” (Hebrews 5:1-10)
All this talk about high priests and sacrifices is foreign to us. It conjures up images of men in elaborate robes, ornate headgear, temples, incense, candles, altars, blood. We’ve heard about it in the Bible. Exodus. Leviticus. Numbers. Deuteronomy. But it all seems so primitive. Barbaric. It makes us uncomfortable. Especially when it comes to killing animals. Now I’ve never met anyone who belonged to PETA … the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals … but I assume they must be uncomfortable with those portions of the Bible which speak of animal sacrifice. I assume they would distrust a god who would demand that animals be treated in such a way.
Oh, yes, we are much more enlightened today. None of that primitive Old Testament stuff for us. Let’s just talk about love. Peace. Tolerance. But sin? That seems so old-fashioned. Judgment? That seems so, well … judgmental.
But sin is real. It is both ignorance of God’s commands and being wayward from him even when we should know better. The bloodied hands of the high priest teach us that sin is a bloody mess. The dead animals teach us that God is deadly serious about disobedience to his commandments. Death – temporal and eternal – is the punishment for sin. Moreover, no high priest dare appoint himself to the office. He, too, is a sinful human being, beset with sinful weakness. That’s why the Lord commanded that the high priest had to first offer sacrifices to cover his own sins before he could approach God in the temple and offer sacrifices for the sins of the people.
As sinners, you and I are ignorant and wayward, beset with weakness. We are spiritually weak and powerless because of our fallen nature. We assert ourselves over against God and his Law. We like to conveniently ignore the rules we don’t like. We like to hold others to a higher standard than we hold ourselves to. We are far from obedient and reverent. We exalt ourselves over others.
Consider James and John in today’s Gospel reading from St. Mark (Mark 10:35-45). Jesus had just told the disciples about his impending crucifixion, with all the attendant mocking, spitting, and flogging. Then these guys (and their mother, too, as we learn in Matthew’s Gospel [Matt. 20:20-21]) have the nerve to ask Jesus for positions of power and authority in his kingdom. Why did they think they deserved it more than the other disciples? First come, first served. You snooze, you lose. That’s the way the world thinks. That’s the way we think. Jesus turns this all on its head. “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45).
Jesus did not exalt himself among men. He came as a servant. He came to be our mediator, our intercessor. Blemished by sin, we need a priest to offer an unblemished lamb. Jesus is that perfect priest and unblemished lamb. Unlike all other high priests before him, he had no need to offer sacrifices for himself. Without the stain of sinful weakness, he offered himself up as “a ransom for many.”
Jesus humbly received his priesthood and suffered for us and for our salvation. Chosen from among men, he did not assert his rule, but came in all humility. At his baptism, he was publicly declared to be the Messiah and the Son of God. “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” in the words of the Psalmist … or as the Father said in the voice from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
Jesus is much more than a merely human high priest. To explain this point further, the author of Hebrews compares Jesus to that mysterious figure in the book of Genesis, Melchizedek. He quotes Psalm 110:4, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” Chapter 7 of Hebrews explains this comparison further: “For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, met Abraham returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him, and to him Abraham apportioned a tenth part of everything. He is first, by translation of his name, king of righteousness, and then he is also king of Salem, that is, king of peace. He is without father or mother or genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life, but resembling the Son of God he continues as priest forever” (Heb. 7:1-3). Like Melchizedek, Jesus is both king of righteousness and king of peace. He is without beginning and end. He is divine. He is eternal. Therefore, his priesthood is unique. He is greater than all other high priests who ever served in the temple. His sacrifice is sufficient for all people of all time.
The author goes on in verses 7-9, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.”
Our prayers often cease when we suffer. The going gets tough. We grumble and complain, but we forget to pray. But Jesus never ceased praying, even in the midst of the worst agony imaginable. Knowing what was ahead of him, he prayed in Gethsemane, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will” (Mark 14:36). Abandoned by his Father on the cross, feeling the wrath of God over the sin of the world, Jesus could still pray, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” … “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” … “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Mark 15:34; Luke 23:34, 46).
Jesus learned obedience through what he suffered, that is, he learned absolute trust in his Father, even in his darkest hours. He was made “perfect,” not in the sense that he was at one point imperfect. Rather, his work of Savior was brought to completion. Everything necessary for our salvation – his keeping the Law, his suffering and death – was completed. “It is finished,” Jesus cried out from the cross. He was heard because of his reverence, our text says. Today’s Introit also reflects the faithfulness of Jesus: “The snares of death encompassed me; the pangs of Sheol laid hold on me; I suffered distress and anguish. Then I called on the name of the LORD: ‘O LORD, I pray, deliver my soul!’ … For you have delivered my soul from death, my eyes from tears, my feet from stumbling” (Ps. 116:3-4, 8). God the Father listened to his Son’s faithful cries from the cross and vindicated him by delivering him from the “snares of death” on Easter morning.
Jesus completed his work of salvation for you. Now, he brings you to completion, perfection, through your connection to him in Baptism and by faith. Like a compassionate high priest, Christ deals gently with us … he understands … he forgives. Hebrews 4:15 says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15-16). The king of righteousness gives you his righteousness. The king of peace earned for you peace with God. He makes you to be a part of his eternal kingdom and promises you life everlasting. The Holy Spirit instills faith in you to obediently trust in Christ’s saving death. By faith, the humility, reverence, obedience, and perfection of Jesus is yours. Now, you learn obedience through what you suffer … that is, you learn to continually trust in your Heavenly Father’s care no matter what may be going on around you, no matter what troubles come your way. Now, you learn servanthood through the servanthood of Jesus who humbled himself and gave his life for you.
Yes, all that talk about high priests and sacrifices … and even Melchizedek … is all a bit far removed from us. It’s foreign. It’s bloody. But if you ignore this business about priests and sacrifices, then you must ignore the cross, too. God prepared us for the New Testament sacrifice of Jesus by the Old Testament sacrifices in the temple. So you can’t ignore this talk of priests and sacrifices. It’s here where you learn how Jesus became the source of eternal salvation for you.