Sunday, April 2, 2006

Fifth Sunday in Lent
Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-13 OR Psalm 119:9-16
Hebrews 5:5-10
John 12:20-33

Know Jehovah; for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith Jehovah: for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more.

Psalm 51 is a powerful passage with words of confession and supplication before God. David knew his sin. Written after Nathan confronted him about Uriah's death and his marriage to Bathsheba, David cried out to God for mercy. He recognized that his sin against Uriah and Bathsheba were not just against people, but also against God. As a matter of fact, our sin against men is even more so a sin against God. It is for our sins that Christ died, because it was only by Christ's death that we could be saved from eternal separation from our Creator. As David prayed, he asked God for cleansing and for a new spirit. He asked to be held close to God's heart and for the relationship between God and himself to be restored. He wanted to know the joy of salvation, the peace of living in God's Kingdom and the wonder of sharing God's grace with the world. David was seeking even then the covenant to come, the New Covenant, the Covenant found in Christ.

I decided to begin my research for this week's writing with Melchizedek. We know so little about this man, even though he seems to be an important archetype for Jesus, particularly in Hebrews 7. As a matter of fact, most of the biblical information we have about Melchizedek comes from Hebrews 7 and there are some scholars that believe the writer must have taken some liberties in the writing, based on the lack of information from the Old Testament.

What we do know is from the story of Abram. In Genesis 14, Lot, Abram's nephew, was captured by a group of kings battling against another group of kings who was apparently stuck in the middle. Abram heard about what happened and with just 318 trained men pursued the captors. Abram won, freed Lot and returned home. On his return, Melchizedek, the king of Salem brought Abram a meal of bread and wine and blessed Abram. Abram returned the blessing with a tenth of everything .

Melchizedek was not only the king, but also a priest of God Most High. Abram recognized the blessing as having come from God, and gave the tithe to Melchizedek in recognition of his kingship and priesthood. A tenth is the share a king would receive from the bounty taken in war. A tenth is the tithe given to God in thanksgiving and praise. Melchizedek offers for us the archetype of the king-priest that we see in Jesus Christ.

Of course, since we do not have very much information on Melchizedek, it is easy for people to take the scriptures and interpret it to their own benefit. On the websites I found, Melchizedek is often viewed as one to whom God has given an authority that reaches beyond the boundaries of the Law both religious and secular. Because Melchizedek is identified by Psalm 110:4 as "a priest forever," anyone taking upon themselves the same priesthood claims an eternal kingdom, beyond earthly limitations.

None of this has much to do with our scriptures this week, except as we establish that Christ is not like those who claim of their own volition that they are priests in the order of Melchizedek. All those websites offered nothing but earthly men who have taken a mystery of scripture and are using it for their own benefit. Jesus does not claim to be a priest He is a priest called by God. The writer of Hebrews reminds us of the words of Psalm 110:4, "Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek." In God's words spoken, "Thou art my Son," the Son is called into the priesthood to serve God. As the Son, He is the King. Thus, Jesus Christ is the true King-Priest, which Melchizedek was only the archetype.

This week's lessons are definitely a comparison of old and new. In the Old Testament lesson, Jeremiah tells the people of a new covenant. This is the only place in the Old Testament that refers to a new covenant, and it is where we get the idea that the Gospel accounts, Acts, the Epistles and Revelation are the New Testament. It is about something new. God promised something new. Jesus fulfilled that promise.

Throughout Lent we have been looking at the covenants of the Old Testament. We saw the covenant with Noah, Abram and Moses. Those covenants were made between God and His chosen people. They were defined by God's will and established with a sign. They were promises of God's love, protection, provision and mercy. They were made to the people as a group, as a nation. As such, the sins of the nation could fall on the heads of all the people, even if they were not sinners themselves. The covenant was overseen by the king and the priests offerings taken to God were necessarily taken through a mediator an Levitical priest, in the order of Aaron. Those priests were themselves imperfect persons, unable to keep the law so it became necessary for the priests to present a sacrifice for themselves before they could offer the sacrifice for all people.

This new covenant promised in Jeremiah is different, because it is a covenant that will be between God and the people, individuals. It will no longer be necessary for the people to go to a Levitical priest as a mediator because God would write the Law on the hearts of all men. God would not dwell in the Temple, but in the hearts of men. "Know Jehovah; for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith Jehovah: for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more." This new covenant is different because the sins of the father will no longer fall on the head of the son. Each man is responsible for himself and each woman for herself. This makes the relationship between God and His people more personal, more intimate, more cherished.

It would take something quite radical to establish this covenant. Through this journey of Lent, we've seen Jesus coming closer and closer to the cross, where He would be lifted up in glory and draw all men unto Himself. That's what makes this covenant even more radical. It is not just that the Son of God would die, but that He would draw all men to Himself. The New Covenant is not just for Israel. It is for the whole world.

In the beginning of this week's Gospel lesson, some Greeks read Gentiles came to the disciples and asked to see Jesus. These were most likely men who believed in the monotheistic God and the moral attitude of the Jews. Yet, Judaism was as much a nationalistic religion as it was a way to honor the One True God. Being a Jew meant being part of a whole people, not just part of a way of thinking. The Gentiles, like these Greeks, loved and feared God even though they were unwilling to take on a new citizenship.

Jesus recognized that the appearance of the Greeks was a signal of the ushering in of this new covenant. This was the hour. Everything they knew was about to die so that something new could come. Jesus, the old covenants, even the nation of Israel's special relationship with God would pass away as something new and better came into force. The work of the cross was for all men who believed and followed Jesus. The sacrifice that was about to be made was not for one sin, or one nation's sin, but for all sin. It is in this one act, this one death on the cross, that God would be glorified. This is what Jesus was praying to happen and God assured Him it would. Jesus was not afraid to die. As a matter of fact, though He wondered if He could ask God to take away the cup of suffering, He knew that it was His very obedience that would glorify God the most. He did not want it to be in vain.

In this lesson, Jesus speaks of death. He says, "Except a grain of wheat fall into the earth and die, it abideth by itself alone; but if it die, it beareth much fruit." He is the seed, and we are the fruit. But then we become the seeds, following in His footsteps we too die to serve Him and in dying, the Gospel is shared and more fruit is produced.

We are finally seeing God's plan come together, the plan that we've seen slowly revealed throughout Lent. Noah was promised that there would be no more floods, yet the flood prefigured a different kind of washing. Abram was promised that He would become the father of many nations, and now we see that the plan of God is meant to reach beyond one people. Moses was promised God's protection as long as the people honored Him in accordance with the Law. Now we understand that the Law is meant to be seen in the simplest of terms, "love God and love your neighbor." These two laws fulfill all of the law and the prophets. Jesus Christ lived fully the law of God, perfectly. He lived it so perfectly that of all human flesh, Jesus Christ is the only one who did not deserve death.

The writer of Hebrews says that Melchizedek is without a beginning or an ending. If indeed he was a historical figure, he would have had a birth date and a death date, a mother and a father. The writer took some liberties based on the lack of Biblical witness to call forth such a strong impression of the king-priest. Even Jesus had a beginning and an ending, a mother and a father. However, the Son of God is also eternal, from before the beginning to eternity. He is the true priest for ever, not because He did not die, but because He died. It was His obedience that gave Him the eternal ministry.

Jesus, as king-priest, offered the perfect sacrifice. It was not a perfect lamb as was offered by the Levitical priests over and over again. It was Himself, the Lamb of God. As both Priest and Lamb, Jesus brought the final judgment on the world. On the cross, Jesus won the victory. How odd that must seem to those who do not believe. After all, it seems like death on a cross would be a failure, not a victory. It would seem to those who do not believe that the devil, the prince of this world, had succeeded in beating God. But it is on the very cross where Jesus is lifted for all men to see. It is from the cross that all men are drawn to God. It is in death that the seeds bring forth life.

Jesus was the priest in the order of Melchizedek; He did not do so as many do today. While they take for themselves the priesthood, it was given to Him by God. His authority did not reach beyond the boundaries of the Law, but rather established forever the intent of God's Law as the True Law. While the Melchizedek's of this time and place are imperfect, Jesus was the perfect Lamb of God. His desire was not for His own life, but for God to be glorified. He was willing even to die to fulfill God's promise.

While it is generally agreed that we should put too much emphasis on the meal offered to Abram by Melchizedek, it is hard to not see a parallel to the meal given by Jesus. Melchizedek took bread and wine to Abram after he defeated the kings. Jesus offered the bread and wine as a sign of the covenant made between God and His people. Bread and wine is indeed an ordinary meal, but it is in the ordinary or the seemingly ordinary that God does the extraordinary. At the Eucharist, in the ordinary bread and wine, Jesus Christ, the priest for ever, offers us forgiveness. There need not be any more sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins, because Jesus paid the full penalty of the Law.

The passage from Psalm 119 is just a small portion of the longest chapter of the scriptures, with 176 verses. It is divided into sections, an acrostic poem using the Hebrew alphabet. Each section shows the writer's devotion to God's Law, using a combination of eight different terms to describe His Word. Torah means law; edot means statutes; piqqudim means precepts; miswot means commands or commandments; mishpatim means laws or ordinances, huqqim means decrees; dabar means word; imrah means word or promises.

In Psalm 119:9-16, the writer uses most of these terms including "imrah." "Thy word have I laid up in my heart, That I might not sin against thee." In at least one translation (the New Jerusalem Bible), imrah is translated "promises" in this passage. "In my heart I treasure your promises, to avoid sinning against you." This is how it is in the New Covenant, as it was to those of faith in the Old. Obedience is not lived out of fear of the consequences of sin; it was this Jesus came to overthrow. Rather, a life of obedience is lived in praise and thanksgiving for the promises of God, as a response to God's grace and forgiveness that is found on the cross of Christ.

In our lessons this week we see the difference between the old and the new. The Old Covenant was for a people; the New covenant is for all people. The Old Covenant was administered by imperfect humans that required sacrifice for the forgiveness of their own sins; the New Covenant is administered by the perfect Lamb, the King-Priest, the Son of God and was once for all. The Old Covenant brought limited salvation; the New Covenant brings eternal life. Christ established the New Covenant with a meal of bread and wine, making something ordinary into something extraordinary. On the cross He won for us the forgiveness that God promised through Jeremiah.

The hour has come. We have reached the end of Jesus' ministry when the King-Priest will take His final footsteps to the cross. That which is old will be made new. Soon, very soon. Thanks be to God.

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