High Priest

Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost
October 17, 2021
Hebrews 5:1-10

Let’s start with a little historical lesson. There was an ancient heresy of the church called, “Marcionism,” named after this guy, Marcion. Roughly put, Marcion argued that because of Jesus, we could get rid of the Old Testament. Marcion went so far as to say that the God of the Old Testament was not the same as God who is revealed in Jesus Christ; that they were different gods.

Now, Marcion had many followers. For centuries there were Marcionite sects throughout the ancient world. They held on to the idea that the god of the Old Testament was not the god of Jesus Christ. The Old Testament itself could be thrown away. Now, eventually, the Marcionite churches all died off. Because there are still many of us today who are functionally Marcionites.

I’m sure you’ve heard something along those lines – “the God of the Old Testament is just so mean.” “With Jesus came around, God softened, became nicer. With Jesus, God thought more about love and kindness.” “God in the Old Testament was about sacrifice and blood, Jesus is about being nice.” Even the phrase, “Old Testament,” has become a euphemism for violence or destruction. Like, “I’m going to go ‘Old Testament’ on you.” As I said, many of us are functionally, though not technically, Marcionites.

This is to our detriment. I believe that understanding the Old Testament is critical for us to understand the New. You won’t understand the Gospel of Matthew if you haven’t read about Moses. You won’t understand the Book of Revelation if you haven’t read the prophet Daniel. Christians have known this forever, and in a way, we can read the New Testament book of Hebrews as a Christian introduction to the Old Testament. Call it, “Old Testament for Dummies.” So let’s dig in to what is going on here in our reading from Hebrews chapter 5. You can look at it if you want.

Look at the end, at the last verse – “[Jesus] having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5:10). This is massively important. Melchizedek shows up in Genesis chapter 14. The patriarch Abraham has just earned an important military victory. Then Genesis says, “King Melchizedek of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God most High.” And Genesis says, Melchizedek blessed Abram (Genesis 14:18-19a). Alarm bells should be going off. Salem was another name for Jerusalem. Bread and wine. Melchizedek is both King and Priest. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that this is a linking of the Old and New Testaments. Think of what we say about Jesus – he blesses us with bread and wine. Jesus is enthroned as King in Jerusalem on the cross. Jesus is the great high priest, the one who offers himself as a sacrifice for our sins. Marcion, eat your heart out. The ministry and identity of Jesus as King and Priest of God is not something new it is something very, very old. 

Then comes the natural next question. Who cares? Who cares about all this bible stuff? What does Melchizedek as King and Priest have to do with my life? What does Jesus as King and High Priest have to do with you praying for your parent who is sick? What does this have to do with you trying to quit taking pills? What does this have to do with you trying to make ends meet every month? What does this have to do when you’re concerned that your kid might have a learning disability? Who cares about Marcion and Melchizedek and weird Old Testament stuff when we’re drowning in sin and fear and worry?

Well, I think it does matter. Jesus as a High Priest in the Old Testament tradition means a lot. Remember what the priests of the Old Testament were tasked with. They would offer the sacrifices of the people to God Almighty in the Temple of Jerusalem. They would deal with the blood, and fire, and incense. They would enter into the most sacred of places, the Holy of Holies, just once a year to make an offering of bread to the Lord God Almighty. The high priest would offer atonement for their sins and the sins of the people. The high priest would beg mercy from God for all they had done wrong and would charge the people with living righteously. 

The ministry of Jesus, then, is not some innovation. It is something very old. Jesus takes our sins and offers them as a high priest. Jesus enters into the Holy of Holies, the very sanctuary of the Living One and offers himself as living bread for the people of God. As the high priest would beg mercy from God, Jesus intercedes on our behalf, crying aloud from the cross in all the pain and agony of our sins. That habit that you can’t kick – Jesus takes that with him and sacrifices it. Kills it. Bleeds it out on the the altar of God. That inner voice telling you that you’re not good enough, or smart enough, or rich enough – Jesus screams those screams out loud on the cross so that it no longer has any power over you. The hunger you have – the hunger for meaning, and connection, and community – Jesus feeds you with the bread of life, his own flesh. Don’t tell me that your life doesn’t have anything to do with the Old Testament or all those old, silly sacrifices and rituals. Your life has everything to do with it – because Jesus the great high priest is taking all of those and offering them before the throne of God.

A high priest according to the order of Melchizedek. Jesus, the one who blesses us with bread and with wine. This meal that we eat, this thing that we gather for – it is not simply to remember Jesus. It is not just about remembering how much Jesus loves us. It is not just about Jesus hanging out with his buddies and having one last meal together. Make no mistake – this is a meal from the heavenly courts. This bread and this wine is a tearing open of the heavens so that the true nature of God would be revealed to us. When you eat this bread and drink this wine you are inviting this God of power, this God of might, this God of old to come into your heart. And I cannot promise that when God does enter into your heart that your ailing parent will be made well, or that you’ll break that addiction, or that your terrible diagnosis will go away, or that you’ll have all the money you need. But I can promise that you won’t be alone in whatever horror you are living through. Because the great high priest, Jesus, has offered himself to you, and you have eaten and drank of his never-failing mercy. Jesus, the great high priest, has heard your cries and has carried them with him into heaven. 

I know, this is not the type of stuff we’re accustomed to hearing in modern Christianity. We hear about love and family and kittens and butterflies. But the holy scriptures talk about sacrifice and offering and blood and fire and smoky mist. I believe this is who God is. Not a God who wants to pat us on our heads and hold our hands, but a God who wishes that our old selves would die so that we can rise anew with Jesus. And it should make all the difference in the world to us. This should shape our lives so that we can be free – free to live in love. Free to live in faith because Jesus has blessed us with bread and wine. This is the work of Jesus, our great high priest. 

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