Sunday, March 18, 2018

Fifth Sunday of Lent
Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 119:9-16
Hebrews 5:1-10
Mark 10:[32-34] 35-45

I will delight myself in your statutes. I will not forget your word.

Who is Melchizedek? We have so little information about this man, but his name is found several places in the scriptures. 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. Psalm 110:4 says that he was “a priest forever.” 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. 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. There are organizations that claim to train people in the order of Melchizedek, with secret priesthoods that hold to the cosmic laws and their own inner vision and sacred purpose. Those that take on the role of Melchizedek in their ministries claim a kingdom beyond earthly limitations. 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.

I saw that a lot when I was doing online ministry. I spent time in Christian chat rooms and loved the discussions on faith and theology. It seems like there are a million different ways to understand the Bible and I think I ran across every one of them during my wanderings. Some of our differences were minor and often based on our own unique perspectives. We each look at the text from our own point of view, understand it from our own experience and see it as we need to see it in our current circumstances. Sometimes, however, I ran across people who saw God’s Word in a way that could be considered heretical. All too many believed they have “special knowledge” of the scriptures and claim that if others do not understand then they have not been blessed by God. They never try to explain, but instead insist that the listener “Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal it to you.” They believed they were superior and simply dismissed others that refused to believe what they said.

Jesus Christ is not like those who claim of their own volition that they are specially called and gifted. They are nothing more than earthly men and women who are using a mystery of scripture for their own benefit. Jesus does not claim to be a priest; He is a priest called by God. The writer of Hebrews says of Jesus, “You are a priest forever, after the order of Melchizedek.” In God’s words spoken, “You are my Son. Today I have become your father,” 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. He humbled Himself and served those to whom He was sent.

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 fell on the heads of all the people. The covenants were mediated by the king and the priests. They were themselves imperfect persons, so it was 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 between God and each individual. The New Covenant promised that we would no longer need a mediator. God promised to write the Law on the hearts of all people; He would no longer dwell in the Temple but in the hearts of men and women of faith. “Know Yahweh; for they shall all know me, from their least to their greatest, says Yahweh: for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin will I remember no more.” The sins of the father no longer falls on the head of the son; each person is responsible for his or her own failing.This makes the relationship between God and His people more personal, more intimate, more cherished.

What an incredible promise! This promise was fulfilled in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, in His death at the cross. His resurrection and ascension gave us the hope of eternal life. He forgave our sins and promised that we would live in His light and life by His Power. He gave us that power at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit came upon all flesh. Now God dwells within the hearts of His people, those who believe in Him, molding and reforming us each day. We know Him because He has written Himself into our hearts and our minds with His Word.

The writer of Hebrews reminds us that Jesus Christ the one and only Son was obedient, giving up the glory of heaven to become flesh to live, serve and die for the sake of the world. “Having been made perfect, he became to all of those who obey him the author of eternal salvation...” Our obedience to God’s Word is our response to that which He did for us. The source of our salvation calls us to a life of humble service; following in His footsteps, perhaps even to our own death.

We don’t choose our calling. We simply choose whether or not we will be obedient to the will and purpose of God. In doing so, we receive all that He has promised.

I get why some of these people easily follow organizations that make great claims. We all want to be important. We are blessed throughout our lives with opportunities for positions of authority whether in the church or the world. We are sometimes given the responsibilities of leadership. As such, God expects us to manifest our relationship with Christ in the way we take upon those responsibilities. We aren’t called to these positions to rule over people; we are called to serve. Jesus Christ was the Servant King, doing more for God’s people than He ever asked of His disciples. He even went to the cross die. Now those of us with faith, forgiven by His blood, walk in His light and do His work with joy. We should never allow our position in God’s Kingdom make us think we are more important than another. We are called to be servants, knowing that Christ did it first for us.

James and John were important to Jesus and they were witnesses to the miraculous and incredible things He did. They immediately left their father Zebedee to follow Him. They were part of Jesus’ inner circle along with Peter; they were witnesses to the Transfiguration. They are often known as the Sons of Thunder because they asked Jesus if they should call down hellfire on a Samaritan town that rejected Him as they were going to Jerusalem. They were zealous and loyal. They believed and lived their faith passionately. They also thought they were important enough to have Jesus give them special consideration when He entered into His Kingdom. They wanted to sit at His right hand and left hand. They wanted to be on the dais with the King, sitting beside His throne.

Jesus had authority over heaven and earth but He could not fulfill their wish to have such seats of honor. The reality, which they did not yet understand, is that the seats they desired would never exist. They thought Jesus would be an earthly king like David, who would rule over Jerusalem and Israel to save the people from the oppression of the Romans. The irony here is that Jesus just finished telling the disciples that the Son of Man, Himself, had to suffer at the hands of the world and be condemned to death. He told them that He would be mocked, spit upon, flogged and killed in Jerusalem. Jesus would never sit on the type of throne they expected and desired. His throne would be a cross, and those on His right and left would be common criminals facing the same punishment for their sins. They had no idea that His cup and baptism would offer only suffering and pain. They were willing to follow Jesus anywhere, but they did not expect that it would mean following Him to a cross. They told Him they were able to follow Him. Jesus said, “You will.”

This came true for James. Just fourteen years after the Jesus’ death, James was beheaded in a lame attempt to halt Christianity. He was the first Apostle to be martyred, the only one of the eleven whose death was recorded in the scriptures. He indeed did drink the same cup and suffer the same baptism as Jesus. James boldly asked Jesus for the wrong thing, but he continued to live out his life of faith and then he died for the sake of the Gospel. We may make the same mistakes, thinking our position or our experiences merit us greater attention or honor. Jesus teaches us a different way.

Jesus called the twelve together and said, “Jesus summoned them, and said to them, “You know that they who are recognized as rulers over the nations lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you, but whoever wants to become great among you shall be your servant. Whoever of you wants to become first among you, shall be bondservant of all.”

Jesus was not self-appointed. He was called by God, called the Son of God with God’s own voice. He was not following His own will but the will of the Father. Because of His obedience, God made Him Priest and King over this New Covenant. He did not choose these roles; God fulfilled His promises in Jesus. These were not earthbound titles given for a brief period of time; He is Priest and King forever.

The journey we’ve traveled during this Lenten period has helped us see, and accept, that we have truly sinned against God. We have done what we should not do and failed to do what we should do in thought, word and deed. While our sins are against our neighbors, the root of our problem is that sin keeps us separated from God. Our failures make us unable to pay the debts we owe one another and our God. But God promised to take care of it all and He fulfilled that promise with Jesus on the cross. We do not need a priest or a king to intervene on our behalf because we have Jesus. God forgives our iniquity and forgets our sin because He was obedient.

We are still going to sin. It’s a fact of life that our flesh is weak and susceptible to temptation. Every day we will fail to do what is right. These sins are rarely anything major; we seem to be good and upright to the world. But sin is sin, and the effect of sin reaches far beyond our own lives. Though the work is complete, we still have reason to pray for God’s grace and forgiveness. We need Him to change us. He teaches and guides us through His Word; His Word is found throughout the scriptures.

Psalm 119 is the longest of the psalms; it is an uncomfortable psalm for many of us, first of all because it is twenty-two stanzas of eight verses each that seem to say the same thing over and over and over again. How many times can someone say “I love your law,” especially those of us who understand God's grace? However, the psalmist is not repeating the same words over and over again. Each word has a unique and different meaning, though it is hard to see in the English translations. There is repetition, but not as you might think. Each stanza gives us a fuller understanding of what it means to be obedient to God. With words like statutes and commandments, it might seem like it is simply about obeying rules, but the reality is that it is a far more, all encompassing trust and obedience to God and His Word.

Let’s look at Psalm 119:9-16 a little more closely, seeing the words more clearly to understand how it helps us be more obedient to God as we come to the end of our Lenten journey.

“How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word.” The word translated “word” in this passage is a Hebrew word that means “spoken word.” In other words, the speaker understands that following God means hearing and obeying that which has been spoken about Him.

“With my whole heart, I have sought you. Don’t let me wander from your commandments.” The word translated “commandments” is best translated “all God’s law.” This refers to everything God has commanded, not just a specific set of rules. This is about more than being a perfect law-abider; it is about being all God has created and redeemed us to be.

“I have hidden your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you. This word is the best verse in this stanza, it is where we find God’s grace. “Word” in this verse should be translated “promise.” We can’t be perfectly obedient to anything on our own strength or power, but God has promised to guide us and lead us in the right way. He has also promised that He will not abandon us when we fail.

“Blessed are you, Yahweh. Teach me your statutes.” This word translated “statutes” refers to the boundaries. It is often used in reference to the ritualistic law, but God lays out all sorts of boundaries for us in His Word. Those boundaries are given to keep us safe, to set us on the right path, to keep us close to Him. We all need boundaries and we ask God to teach us the limitations of our humanness.

“With my lips, I have declared all the ordinances of your mouth.” This word, “ordinances,” refers to justice. True justice, biblical justice, is that which adheres to what God intends for His people. As much as we do not like to consider it, God has returned a verdict: we are sinners in need of a Savior. That’s what Lent has been all about - discovering the truth of our failure to live up to being the people whom God intends us to be.

“I have rejoiced in the way of your testimonies, as much as in all riches.” The word “testimonies” refers to the work of God in the world, the witness of all the good God has done. When we are troubled by our sinfulness, we can look back to the story of God and His people and see that He is faithful to His promises. He will save us because He has promised.

“I will meditate on your precepts, and consider your ways.” Here the psalmist makes a commitment to be obedient to God’s authoritative rule. The “precepts” are official orders properly appointed by God. He is the authority over our lives and His Word is the one to give our full attention.

“I will delight myself in your statutes. I will not forget your word.” Here we return to the words used in verses 9 and 12. Obedience to God’s boundaries and spoken word is not a burden; it is a joy and a delight to follow God, no matter where He leads and no matter what He calls us to do. And sometimes He calls us to do very hard things. But when He does, we can trust that He has given us all we need. His Word is enough to keep us on the right path and take us where He wants us to go.

We do a lot of things wrong. That’s our human nature: we are sinners and we fail to live up to God’s expectations. When we do, we can trust in God’s faithfulness to keep the New Covenant. Our Lenten journey has led us toward repentance, turning to Jesus for His forgiveness. He has led us to the point that we can delight in His statues and never forget His Word. In His great mercy and love, Jesus has provided for our reconciliation with God the Father, which then makes it possible for us to reconcile with our neighbors and all creation. He forgives us, forgets our sin and dwells in us, guiding our resurrection journey along the path He has ordained for each of us.

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