A Perfect Priest (Hebrews 7.23-28) [Sermon 10-25-2015]

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October 24, 2015 by jmar198013

The manuscript of my sermon for the week of October 25, 2015. Proper 25.

The texts behind this sermon are:

Jeremiah 31.7-9

Psalm 126

Hebrews 7.23-28

Mark 10.46-52

The common thread I found woven through the texts was restoration. We see that in homecoming for exiles in the Jeremiah and Psalms reading. We see that in recovery of sight for blind Bartimaeus in the Mark lesson.

In this sermon, I use the Hebrews lesson to explore restoration of communication–of relationship–between people and God. I frame sin as a breakdown in communication between us and God. This communication breakdown accounts for the human condition. Jesus, our great high priest, is the agent of restored communication between humans and God.

A Communication Breakdown

When I was a kid growing up in the church, we were always encouraged to read the Bible for ourselves. We were told that its truths were so simple, any honest person could understand them. That disagreements over interpretation most often involved intellectual dishonesty. Because God would not give us a Bible with loose ends. God wouldn’t leave us with a revelation that confuses us. The Bible, we were told, is actually written on a sixth-grade level. So if we read it honestly and with an open mind, we would be able to understand it and obey it.

I really wanted to believe all that. So I would sit—holed up in my room, with my maroon, patent-leather King James Bible—and read it for myself.

More often than not, I came away from the experience confused.  It felt like the authors were trying really hard to convince me of something, but I only understood every third sentence.

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My experience of trying to read the Bible for myself was one of fear and shame. I didn’t understand most of what I was reading. And even when I did—when I came across some memory verse or proof-text I recognized—I often had a hard time seeing how it meant what our preacher said it meant.

So I read the Bible for myself because I was told it was a good thing to do. But it was often a pretty traumatic experience.

This was especially true with the letter to the Hebrews. Total communication breakdown there.

You know how I said when I read the Bible, I maybe only got the point of every third verse? With Hebrews, it was more like I only got one or two verses a chapter. And those were usually, once again, the proof-texts I’d heard all my life. Stuff like:

Hebrews 9.27: It is appointed unto men once to die, but after this the judgment. So reincarnation is right out. So is purgatory.

And, of course, Hebrews 10.25: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching. Typically used to shame members who didn’t show up for Sunday and Wednesday evening services.

The place where our New Testament reading for today begins—Heb. 7.23—was one of those rare moments when I could understand exactly what was being said. And it wasn’t even a memory verse or a proof-text.

Heb. 7.23 says: The others who became priests are numerous because death prevented them from continuing to serve.

In other words, there was this never-ending succession of priests before Jesus because they all died. People die, even priests. It’s kind of a no-brainer. Why even mention it?

To complicate matters even more, the world of priests and sacrifices and sin-offerings and the inner-workings of the temple—these were completely foreign to me. But I soon realized that Hebrews was impossible to understand unless you had at least a basic working knowledge of those things.

Unfortunately, what we were taught about that stuff could fill a thimble. We were basically told that priests and sacrifices and tabernacles were relics of the past that Jesus had rendered obsolete. End of story. Nothing to see here. Thank God we’re not carving up live goats anymore and smearing their blood all over. Because of Jesus, the messiest you’re going to get in church now is if you spill grape juice on your pants when you receive communion.

And, honestly, we really didn’t explore the priestly metaphors for Jesus that much. Probably because we didn’t know how. We stuck to Son of God, Son of Man, Lord, Savior. We had better hooks for those hats.

When it came to Hebrews, the author may as well have been speaking in tongues for all I understood. And to quote brother Paul: if I don’t know the meaning of the language, then I will be like a foreigner to those who speak it, and they will be like foreigners to me (1 Cor. 14.11).

The letter to the Hebrews was a foreigner in my Bible. A stranger. I had no idea how to relate.

Jesus Restores Communication

Truth is, Hebrews leads us into a strange land. A twilight place of fragments and ruins. An ancient place that smells of blood and sweat and incense.

A place of arcane ritual, scattered with the carcasses of sacrificial victims.

And yet, it is our heritage as Christians. Because being a Christian means trusting your salvation—and the redemption of all of creation—to Jesus Christ. It means relating to God through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of one particular man—Jesus.

And Jesus was Israel’s Messiah. He cannot be the savior of us all without being Israel’s Messiah first.

And being Israel’s Messiah meant that Jesus inhabited this fleshy, earthy, bloody world of priests and temple and sacrifice. That’s the context in which he makes sense. That’s the place where he communicates from.

And if we can’t get some sort of grip on it, we’re going to miss the meaning of Jesus. We’re not going to be able to hear the message of his life, death, resurrection, and ascension. And that’s a big problem, because the first words of the letter to the Hebrews are: In the past, God spoke through the prophets, but in these final days, he spoke to us through a Son.

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We are not able to understand what God is saying through his Son without understanding what it means for his Son to be our high priest. The one who stands for all humanity for God, and stands for God before all humanity.

In our lesson this morning, Hebrews says this about Jesus, our high priest: He doesn’t need to offer sacrifices every day like the other high priests, first for their own sins and then for the sins of the people. He did this once for all when he offered himself.

A couple of weeks ago, we looked at Yom Kippur—the Day of Atonement, or Reconciliation—in Leviticus 16. We saw that when the high priest smeared the blood of the lamb on the altar, that was a way of representing the people offering their lives to God. We saw that its purpose wasn’t just about dealing with sin, but about reestablishing, reaffirming, reconciling the relationship between God and his people.

So Hebrews’ point is this. This Day of Reconciliation happened every year. And there were other purifications that had to be offered daily. So there’s this constant reminder that things aren’t right. That humans are estranged from God. And because we are estranged from God—from the very source of our being and life and purpose—we can never quite be who we were always meant to be.

So what happens with the high priest Jesus, is that he offers this sacrifice to end all sacrifices. Now here is the logic of Hebrews that we most often miss. It will come up again in the letter. In Hebrews 10.4, the author says: these sacrifices are a reminder of sin every year, because it’s impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.

But in our reading today, Hebrews tells us that Jesus doesn’t need to offer sacrifices every day like the other high priests, first for their own sins and then for the sins of the people. He did this once for all when he offered himself.

The point we tend to miss is that Jesus wasn’t a perfect sacrifice because he was God’s Son; or because he was sinless; or because he was better than a bull or goat. I affirm all of those things, but that’s not what Hebrews is getting at.

Hebrews’ point here is that Jesus is a perfect priest because it was his own life he offered.

We often talk like the cross—Jesus’ death—was the only thing that mattered about his life. As if his obedience to God—which took the form of welcoming strangers and healing diseases and standing up for widows and feeding hungry people—was this kind of legal formality. God needed a perfect sacrifice, so Jesus was perfect.

In truth, the cross was one final, glorious, climatic act of obedience—of offering himself as a sacrifice to God—in a life that was, in the words of Eugene Peterson, a long obedience in the same direction. His death is the victory of his life, and our victory, too. Hebrews tells us that Jesus died so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil (Heb. 2.14 NRSV).

The resurrection and ascension of Jesus are victories, too. And again, they are just as much our victory as they are his. Because God vindicated his obedient life with resurrection and ascension, Jesus is our high priest who continues to serve forever. This is why he can completely save those who are approaching God through him, because he always lives to speak with God for them. The life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus are all victories for all of us. They make it possible for us to be reconciled to God. To freely offer our lives to him as Jesus did. They heal the communication breakdown between us and God.

So long ago in the garden, we chose to cut God out of the conversation. And this estranged us from the source of our life. We were told that cutting off communication with God would bring freedom, but it has brought confusion. It has brought fear. It has brought death. We find ourselves trapped—walled in by our choices. Furthermore, we find ourselves trapped by the choices of others. We realize that we are giving our lives to empty pursuits and to people who are just as trapped as we are. In our more lucid moments, we cry out for salvation—for true freedom. For honest conversation. For something, or someone, trustworthy to give our lives to.

God continues to call out to us, pleading with us to come back. Promising us we can trust him with our lives, since he is the source of all life. But we have not heard. His voice is often drowned out or hijacked or muffled by the wall of sound that is our sin.

And so the only way to reestablish communication with us is to send his Son, through whom he created the world (Heb. 1.2). This Son, Jesus, who was made lower in order than the angels for a little while (Heb. 2.9). In other words, he became human. He was made out of the same stuff we are, this living and active Word of God. He lived in complete solidarity with humanity. And this Son—this Word from God—Jesus, learned obedience from what he suffered (Heb. 5.8).  He was tempted in every way that we are, except without sin (Heb. 4.15). His giving of himself, even in suffering and death, has made him the perfect pioneer of salvation.

Salvation from what? Salvation from being trapped by our choices. Salvation to hear and respond to God’s voice inviting us to return to him. Salvation to freely offer ourselves to God like Jesus did. This salvation belongs to many sons and daughters whom he’s leading to glory (Heb. 2.10).

We are saved in order to give our lives to God and our neighbors and the tending of God’s good creation, just like he made us for.

Never forget that God’s salvation—God’s rescue, liberation, and freedom—is never just about being saved from something or somewhere. It’s about being saved for a purpose. Saved to join God’s holy insurrection against sin and death and the devil. A holy insurrection begun in the life of Jesus.

Jesus, our high priest who freely offered himself to God, can completely save those who are approaching God through him, because he always lives to speak with God for them. He lived, died, was raised, and reigns with God for us. He makes it possible for us to follow him in also offering ourselves freely to God.

He makes it possible because we see him offering his life to God, even though it kills him. But we also see God vindicating his obedience. We see him made perfect.  So we freely offer our lives to God through him. We are able to trust God with our lives because we have seen God restore life to his Son. We are able to trust God with our lives because we know that God does not allow death to have the final word over the lives of his sons and daughters.

Hebrews says that Jesus’ death sets free those who were held in slavery their entire lives by their fear of death (Heb. 2.14). It is that fear of death that prevents us from willingly, freely giving our lives. Because we know life is a precious commodity. And we cling so tightly to our lives that we end up wasting them, anyway. Jesus’ death—as the climax of a life spent giving himself—sets us free from clinging so tightly to our lives because we fear death or suffering or even just looking foolish. In Jesus’ death, we learn the truth that God wills for life to have the final say.

Jesus remains forever, God’s living and active promise to us that lives given to God are never really lost. Jesus heals the communication breakdown between us and God, and God speaks life and hope where their has been death and fear.

Jesus, our high priest, is the line of communication between us and the one who speaks all life into being.

The Content of Restored Communication

So Hebrews wants us to understand from our reading today that our high priest Jesus holds the office of priest permanently because he continues to serve forever. Forever he is this open line of communication between humans and God. Forever he makes it possible for us to offer our lives in obedient communion with God. Forever he has set free those who were held in slavery their entire lives by their fear of death. Because through his death he destroys the one who has the power of death forever. She wants us to know that he can completely save those who are approaching God through him, because he always lives to speak with God for them.

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The question we must ask ourselves and each other, then, is this: Given that we have Jesus as our high priest—who has set us free from the fear of death by his own death; and who continues to give his life to God and to us forever—what do we do, now?

I think knowing Jesus as our high priest who has tasted death for us all; whose death has defeated the power of death; and who lives forever to keep up the conversation between God and us is what makes discipleship make sense. We draw courage and power and creativity to live faithfully from our eternal high priest, Jesus.

You know, one of our missionaries, Roberta Edwards, was murdered a few weeks back as she pursued her vocation in Haiti. Roberta spent twenty years being a mother to dozens of orphaned children there. She fed over a hundred children more each week. And what thanks did she get? Somebody gunned her down. Some would say she should have clung more closely to her life. That if she had chosen a safer path where she could give less of herself away, she might still be alive. I say, Roberta’s life makes sense in light of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. It might not make a lot of sense in another context. In fact, I suspect that if more of us trusted the promises God makes through our crucified and resurrected high priest, we’d see a lot more Roberta Edwardses among us. She actually lived the sort of life that makes Jesus real and tangible to the people who knew her. You could say she reflects his glory as the moon reflects the sun.

I think of Levi Schwartz and his family. How when local boys killed his baby girl by thoughtlessly throwing a rock into their buggy, the Schwartzes went to visit them in jail to extend forgiveness and reconciliation. Who does that? Who shows such care for the lives of people who showed so little care for the life of your child? I think you learn to do this, and you are given the courage to do it, when you see that your relationship to God comes through his murdered child. And he reminds you, through his crucified and resurrected Son, that he didn’t even let the murder of his child have the final word in his relationship to the world.

I think of the second-century Christian martyr Polycarp. How when Roman soldiers came to arrest him, and take him to his execution, he went peacefully. He didn’t turn it into some siege or standoff. His only requests were that he be given time to pray, and that the soldiers let him make dinner for them before they put him in chains. I suspect that he had the courage to behave this way only because he lifted his prayers to the one who can completely save those who are approaching God through him, because he always lives to speak with God for them.

Because the message that comes back from God through our crucified-and-resurrected high priest Jesus, is always: Whoever tries to preserve their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life will preserve it (Luke 17.33). In other words, to save your life, you must offer it.

The message from God through our high priest Jesus is: God caused the one who didn’t know sin to be sin for our sake so that through him we could become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5.21). The righteousness of God is displayed most graphically and vividly in the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of his Son. Jesus lives forever on our behalf so that we could be a cross-shaped people. A reconciling people. A people who are willing to suffer and even taste death for others—like Jesus.

The restored conversation between us and God through our high priest Jesus always affirms, always promises, always offers hope that lives given to God; lives given for others, are never lost. And never wasted.


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