23 March 2015

Sermon – “The Eternal Priesthood of the Only-Begotten Son” (Hebrews 5:1-10)

Those of you who have been keeping up with the Encounter With God daily devotionals will over this past week have been reading from the Book of Leviticus. I am disappointed that Scripture Union has chosen not to follow Leviticus chapter by chapter, but is leaving large sections unread. On the other hand, I fully understand their predicament. It has been my experience that when people start reading the Bible cover to cover, even with the best of intentions and firmest discipline, there are many who fall by the wayside at Leviticus. Chapter after chapter is taken up with detailed instructions on the legal and sacrificial system of ancient Israel: burnt offerings, grain offerings, fellowship offerings, sin offerings, guilt offerings, dietary laws, holy days, defilements and purifications, penalties and punishments. For us living three thousand plus years later, it is all a bewildering maze. Way back in the early third century the great biblical scholar Origen moaned, “If you read people passages from the Bible that are good and clear, they will hear them with great joy… But provide someone a reading from Leviticus, and at once the listener will gag and push it away as if it were some bizarre food.”[1]
If Leviticus has an equivalent in the New Testament, it has to be the Letter to the Hebrews. The reason, of course, is that so much of the logic of Hebrews is built upon the ceremonies and regulations of the Old Testament Law. All of this makes Hebrews a challenging read. Yet, if we are patient and persistent, we will find in it some of the most precious gems that the Bible has to offer. In spite of his disparaging remark, Origen also wrote this about Leviticus: “We must entreat the Lord himself, the Holy Spirit himself, to remove every cloud and all darkness which obscures the vision of our hearts hardened with the stains of sins in order that we may be able to behold the spiritual and wonderful knowledge of his Law”[2]. And of course the same can be said for Hebrews. With these thoughts in mind, then, let us turn to the fifth chapter of Hebrews, and let us earnestly seek what the Holy Spirit may have to reveal to us there.
If we were to encapsulate the message of the thirteen chapters of Hebrews into a single phrase, it might be something like “Jesus, our Great High Priest”. The whole point of Hebrews is that it is Jesus, and Jesus alone, who is able to bring us into a relationship with God. Through his sacrificial death on the cross Jesus has done for us what no earthly priest could ever achieve—and as he is writing to a largely Jewish audience, the author of Hebrews naturally uses the Old Testament Law to make his point. So what does he have to tell us in this fifth chapter?

The sorrow of Jesus

The first qualification of priests, he reminds us, is that they are chosen from among the people. Priests are not some special breed of superhuman beings. They are not Captain America or Spiderman or Thor. They are ordinary individuals like you and me. And there is a reason for that. It is so that they may deal gently, that is, with understanding and sympathy, with those who are ignorant or who are straying in their faith. The word translated “deal gently” in verse 2 is found only in this one place in the New Testament. Literally, it means to have “measured feelings”—that is, not to fly off the handle or go berserk when someone comes to you with a problem or a failure. We all know people that we wouldn’t go to under those circumstances. It’s not that we are necessarily looking for someone to take our side, but that we want someone who is prepared to listen, who seeks to understand. And more often than not those are people who have tasted life, who have encountered some of the same obstacles, who are aware of their own weaknesses and foibles. And this is what we find in Jesus. As the old gospel hymn puts it,
Can we find a friend so faithful,
who will all our sorrows share?
Jesus knows our every weakness;
take it to the Lord in prayer.
As evidence for what he is saying, the author of Hebrews in verse 7 takes us to a scene in Jesus’ life. It is of Jesus, his hands upraised in prayer, in the Garden of Gethsemane. “There,” he tells us, “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears…” I believe that those tears were not for himself, but for those he came to save, for you and for me, as he contemplated the tragic and wanton destruction of our sin and as he prepared to take that sin upon himself at the cross.
Three times in the gospel records we find Jesus in tears. The first was as he gathered with those who were mourning outside the tomb of his friend Lazarus. There, John’s gospel tells us not only that Jesus wept, but that he was overcome with emotion. “Greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved,” is the way the passage puts it (John 11:33). The second occasion was as he approached the city of Jerusalem for what would be the final time. Luke tells us, “As he came near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, ‘If you, even you, had only recognized on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes…’ ” (Luke 19:41,42). And now, in today’s reading, we find him in the Garden of Gethsemane as he prepares to take the full brunt of our sins upon himself.
I suspect that, like his temptations, which certainly were not limited to three, neither were Jesus’ tears. I imagine him weeping for the paralyzed man by the Pool of Bethesda who had sat waiting to be healed for thirty-eight years; for the Samaritan woman at the well and her five failed marriages; for the man tormented by so many demons that they called him “Legion”; for the woman who secretly clasped the hem of his garment in the hope that she might be healed; for the rich young ruler for whom luxury was a greater priority than eternal life; for the Pharisees and the Sadducees and all the other religious officials for whom attention to details and perpetuation of traditions had become more important than a living relationship with God; and not least for his own followers, who demonstrated themselves again and again to be of such little faith. In Isaiah’s words, “He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). And I don’t think we are stepping outside the bounds of orthodoxy to imagine that our Great High Priest has shed tears for you and for me as well.

The suffering of Jesus

The second aspect of Jesus’ ministry on which this morning’s passage focuses is his suffering. We read in verse 8, “Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.” When you allow yourself to think about it for a moment, this is a profound statement. As Son of God, I suppose we could say that Jesus knows everything that goes on inside the human mind and heart. As King David put it in Psalm 139,
Lord, you have searched me and known me…
you discern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path…
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue …,
you know it completely. (Psalm 139:1-4)
In the Gospel of John we read much the same thing about Jesus. John writes, “Jesus … knew all people and needed no one to testify about anyone; for he himself knew what was in everyone” (John 2:24-25). Now it is one thing to know something about others through book learning or through what others have told you about them or even through observation and listening over long years. But we move things to an altogether different plane when we actually share their experience. Dutch theologian Henri Nouwen drew attention to this in his little book, The Wounded Healer. He wrote of
… the basic principle that no one can help anyone without becoming involved, without entering with his whole person into the painful situation, without taking the risk of becoming hurt, wounded or even destroyed in the process. The beginning and the end of all Christian leadership is to give your life for others. … In short: “Who can take away suffering without entering it?”[3]
Even though Jesus may have known all that it is to be human simply by virtue of being the divine Son of God, it was necessary that he also learn obedience through himself entering our human experience, actually suffering in his own person. Our season of Lent began with the account of Jesus being tempted by the devil. And the four gospels offer us glimpses of when he was tired, grieved, unjustly treated, hungry, thirsty and even angry. Yet Jesus’ full entry into our human experience would only come at Calvary, as he shared not only our life but also our death.

The salvation of Jesus

This, I believe, is what our passage this morning intends, as the author goes on to affirm that “having been made perfect, [Jesus] became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him”. It may seem a little odd to us—perhaps even bordering on the heretical—to think of Jesus being made perfect. After all, wasn’t he perfect from the beginning? Wasn’t he the sinless Son of God? Doesn’t Hebrews itself describe him as “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Hebrews 1:3)? All of that is true. And I believe that the key to understanding it and putting it all together is the verb that the author uses here. It is the word teleioo, which means to complete, to accomplish, to bring to an end. More significantly, it is closely related to the word that we hear from Jesus’ lips in John’s gospel, as he utters his final cry from the cross: “Tetelestai—It is finished.”
Jesus’ work was not completed, not perfected, until he had carried his cross through the dusty streets of Jerusalem, until the nails had been driven through his hands, until the beams had been hoisted up from the ground, until he painfully gasped for his last breath. At the cross Jesus did more than sympathize with us. He did more than personally enter into our suffering. At the cross he took the full load of it upon himself. It was there, on the cross, that Jesus completed the work he came to do. It was there that he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.
The Communion service of the Kenyan church gives recognition to this in its exuberant final blessing, when we proclaim together,
All our problems… we send to the cross of Christ.
All our difficulties… we send to the cross of Christ.
All the devil’s works… we send to the cross of Christ.
As Jesus said to the Greeks at the festival who wanted to see him, “When I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.” As we enter Holy Week in a few days’ time, may each of us find ourselves being drawn once again to the cross of Jesus. There may we bow in profound adoration and thanksgiving before the one who is not only able to deal gently with our weaknesses, but who has taken our very sins upon himself to destroy their power and banish them for ever—Jesus, the source of eternal salvation.

[1]     Ephraim Radner, Leviticus, 17
[2]     Homily 1 on Leviticus
[3]     page 72

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