THE GREAT HIGH PRIEST
TEXT: Gen. 14:17-20; Hebrews 4:14-5:10
The book of Hebrews is the only book of the Bible thought to be a sermon. The preacher isn’t named in the text, but many think that the writer is Apollos, a contemporary of Paul’s who traveled as Paul did to strengthen existing churches and to found new ones. He sends the sermon to a group of Jewish Christians, which is why it begins and ends as a letter, but the main purpose is to teach in the way that a sermon would.
The issue Hebrews is trying to deal with sounds kind of mundane to Gentile Christian ears. The topic is the priesthood of Jesus and the problem for Jewish Christians was the promise of Scripture that priests would come from the tribe of Levi. Apparently many were rejecting the notion of Jesus as our High Priest because he came from the tribe of Judah and not Levi. So the writer of Hebrews is trying to show that there is biblical precedent for another priestly line, one established in Genesis through King Melchizedek.
Melchizedek gets attention for two reasons. First, none other than Abraham brings him the sacrifice of a tithe…a tenth of what he had. Melchizedek is called a king, but it is the job of the priest, not the king, to receive the tithe. So if the great Patriarch of the Jews is bringing a tithe to this guy, he must be something special. The other reason Melchizedek gets attention is that he seems to come out of nowhere and then disappear just as quickly. Important people in the Bible are introduced with geneaologies, so all can be sure of their pedigree. Somebody that Abraham would bring a tithe to surely would warrant a genealogy and further history about who he is and what became of him. But we have nothing.
And so the word began to get out that Melchizedek was more than a mere mortal. He had an eternal character…someone with no genealogy…no account of birth or death. So Apollos, or whoever wrote Hebrews, makes the case that there is a special kind of priest that does not come from the tribe of Levi or really from anywhere except directly from God…a priest in the order of Melchizedek.
Now for most of us, knowing that helps us follow the argument in Hebrews but it doesn’t really take us into flights of religious ecstasy or give us a reason to show up here again next week. But I think what does deserve our attention and what does help to deepen our spiritual lives is some intentional thinking about what it means to name Jesus as a great high priest.
The word “priest” comes to us pretty well filled with baggage. So I want to give you an example of what a priest does in a context that has nothing to do with religion. It happened this past Tuesday night, on Halloween, in my brother’s haunted barn out in Townsend. Rob has loved Halloween since childhood and now he provides scary entertainment for the town on Halloween night by transforming a neighbor’s small barn into ghoulish fun. And I am his resident witch.
On Halloween night you can find me there in my witch costume with a witch puppet in my hands beckoning children to reach into my large, smoking cauldron which is where the candy and glow sticks reside. I also make sure they talk to Harry, the life-size skeleton in the coffin in the corner, and my brother carries on a conversation through remote cameras and microphones. I have a foot pedal to drop a large spider on people’s heads, and there are many other effects and embellishments around the room.
It’s always fun, but this year I was especially struck by the encounter with a young boy in a batman costume. He was about 3 years old, and despite his superhero status, he was not at all sure he wanted to set foot in the haunted barn. His dad was with him, but still he stood at the door, fighting back tears and pulling in the other direction. And so I went to work with my puppet.
I went to the door and in my cackly voice told batman how glad I was that he had come because it was scary in there and if batman was here, I could feel much safer. He began to interact with the puppet. Bit by bit I coaxed him over to the cauldron hanging from the ceiling…fake fire underneath but lots of dry-ice steam pouring out. I told him about the candy inside. He wasn’t sure. I told him about the glow sticks. His dad picked him up so that he could reach in, but with the steam hiding the contents, he was not any more ready to reach in and get the candy. So I reached in with my puppet, pulled out a bag of candy and a glow stick and gave it to him.
Batman lit up like a light bulb…grins from ear to ear. I put out my witch puppet hand to see if he would shake it. He did. “I’m pleased to shake Batman’s hand,” I said. He started jumping up and down. “She’s pleased to shake Batman’s hand!” he shouted with glee. With a smile from ear to ear he put the glow stick around his neck, clutched his candy, took his father’s hand and practically danced out of the barn. And I thought…I may be dressed as a witch, but I was a priest just now! It was a holy moment, and it was not the only one of the evening.
The role of the priest is to provide a safe way for people to approach the frightening vastness of God and to discover that what seems fearsome from the outside is actually a place filled with gifts for those who will trust the provider. Little Batman saw unfamiliar and frightening things when first he looked…he could not come in on his own. But with my help…even though I was initially part of the scary scene…he gained the courage and the trust to enter. He couldn’t get the gift himself…it had to be given to him…but once he received a gift from my hand, all was well. And when I said I was pleased to shake his hand, he ceased to be a frightened boy in a Batman costume and became the superhero he was intended to be.
The role of the priest is to connect us to God when we cannot do so for ourselves. There are many reasons why we find ourselves unable to reach God. Fear is one of them. We read about this when Israel was in the desert and came to Mt. Sinai to receive the Ten Commandments. The mountain is shaking and smoking and making all sorts of noise and the people push Moses out in front saying, “OK, Moses, you go talk to God. We’re going to stay back here a bit. You go talk to Him and come tell us what He has to say. We don’t think we want to go near that mountain.”
Another reason we have trouble connecting to God is sin. God is complete and total righteousness. God is also complete love and forgiveness. But where love exists in its fullness, neither fear nor sin can enter. It’s not that God says, “No, keep out,” it’s that it’s a physical impossibility for both things to exist in the same space. Sin and God are like matter and antimatter coming together. Love is such a massively good and powerful force that fear and sin get exploded off the map if they try to come near.
That’s where the High Priest of the Jewish tradition comes in. Many priests helped people approach God and offer their sacrifices day after day. But it was only the great High Priest that could offer a sacrifice for the sins of the nation. Once a year, on the Day of Atonement, the High Priest went in alone to the Holy of Holies…the innermost part of the Temple…to offer a sacrifice of atonement for all the people. He wore special garments with jewels that had the names of the twelve tribes of Israel on them, so the names of all people were symbolically brought before God.
Only the High Priest could enter the Holy of Holies…ever. And everyone knew it wasn’t entirely safe in there. That’s where the ark of the covenant was…the ark that was often captured and taken to other cities, bringing plagues to enemies and blessings to the towns of Israel. If it was touched, even by accident, by someone other than the High Priest, they died on the spot. Sometimes the High Priest would receive visions at this time, as Zechariah does when he is told that his wife Elizabeth will have a child that he is to name John. He doesn’t believe God and God makes him mute until the child’s birth.
Only the High Priest can make atonement for all of the sins of all of the people. An interesting piece relates to the cities of refuge. The Law of Moses specified that if you killed somebody, you could run to certain identified cities…cities of refuge…and as long as you remained in those cities, no one could seek vengeance on you. When a High Priest died, all of those who had escaped to a city of refuge were allowed to return home without harm. The life of the High Priest bought their forgiveness.
I hope you can see what the writer of Hebrews is trying to say about Jesus. The great High Priest is a metaphor for Jesus…just as the good shepherd, the vine, the lamb, and the light of the world are metaphors…but it is one that adds to our understanding about what the life, ministry, and death of Jesus is about. Jesus serves as a great High Priest for us. He helps us to connect to God, and we trust him because he has been one of us. He has compassion for our weakness and ignorance because he has lived it. I first got through to little Batman because I said I was afraid, too. As it says in verse 15: “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.”
When sin is blocking the way, Jesus walks into the presence of God with our names engraved on his shoulders to make atonement and in his death, all is forgiven. When we are too fearful to approach the vastness of God, Jesus provides a friendly face to guide us closer, and if we can’t reach in ourselves to take the gifts God has for us, Jesus will reach in for us and present them to us. When we think we are small and don’t count for much in the eyes of God, the High Priest shakes our hand and says he’s proud to do so. Because of the great High Priest we can enter the presence of God and come to know our own great worth.
One of the rallying cries of the Protestant Reformation was the tenet of “the priesthood of all believers.” While the Roman Catholic church claimed that only a priest appointed by the church could connect people to God, the Protestant church took seriously the notion of all believers as part of the Body of Christ. That means that any one of us can become a priest for another. Any one of you can help someone who is frightened of God come across the threshold and see that there are wonderful gifts waiting for them. Any one of you can listen to someone confess their sins and help them realize God’s forgiveness. And we can each do that because we are hanging onto the hand of the great High Priest who in turn atones for our sins and enables all of us to stand in the presence of God.
Jesus is our great High Priest. Already this morning we have remembered the forgiveness that we obtained in Jesus’ death as we shared in his broken body and shed blood. We no longer must hide in the cities of refuge. We can go home again, free men and women. We have experienced his welcome and affirmation as we feasted at the Lord’s table and have discovered that what seemed like a grisly, frightening ritual of death actually contained joy and love. The great High Priest has made atonement for us.
And so we come to the last function of the priest, and that is to receive the gifts of the people. While there were sacrifices brought daily to the priests to atone for specific sins, there were also the thank offerings and the wave offerings; the offerings for special needs in the temple and for the needs of widows and orphans. It was the job of the priests to receive these gifts of gratitude and sharing and present them to God. This was a God of two-sided relationship. God gives and the people respond in thankfulness, affirming their desire to keep the covenant and to continue to be God’s people.
Today is the day that we bring our good faith promise of the gifts we will bring throughout the coming year. Some of you have been thinking about this for a number of weeks, some may have just received the pledge card this morning. Some of you have mailed them in already, and some of you may need to take the card home and pray about it more. But during the mediation time in the next few minutes, I invite those who are ready to come and bring your faith pledges to the front and place them in one of the baskets as a sign of our gratitude for what God has done for us. We’ll take up the regular offering later, this is just for the pledges for the coming year or years.
At this time I invite those with the baskets to come forward and stand at the front. As you are ready and feel moved, please simply get up and bring your pledge forward. If you need someone to bring yours up for you, just lift a hand and someone will help you. Then we will place the baskets on the altar and our great High Priest will offer them to God. Amen.
Sermon © 2006, Anne Robertson
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