Sunday, March 29, 2009

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

If any man serve me, let him follow me; and where I am, there shall also my servant be: if any man serve me, him will the Father honor.

The scriptures tell us that David had a heart for God. As a matter of fact, David was chosen to be king of Israel because God could see that his heart was in the right place. God doesn’t look for the strongest, or the most intelligent, or the most beautiful people to do His work; He looks for those who love Him and trust in His promises. David was a man like that, but he was also a sinner. Psalm 51 was sung by David in response to Nathan’s accusation in 2 Samuel 12.

See, David fell in love with a married woman. He invited her to His palace while her husband was serving in David’s army on the front lines of a war. She became pregnant and David felt such guilt that he brought Uriah home to have sex with his wife so that it would appear to be his child. Uriah felt too much guilt about enjoying time with his wife while his fellow soldiers were dying on the battlefield, so he refused to lie with her. David knew no other way to solve his problem, so he sent Uriah back to the front lines and ensured his death. Bathsheba the widow was brought into his home as his wife and the child was accepted as his.

Psalm 119 was not written by David, but he could have sung the words. He believed in God and sought God’s mercy and grace. In Psalm 51, David cries out “Against thee, thee only, have I sinned, and done that which is evil in thy sight.” He sinned against others: against Uriah and Bathsheba. He even sinned against his people because he lied to them and he stole one of their own from their midst. But David understood the reality of our sin: no matter what we do, no matter whether or not our sin is ‘victimless’ or affects a nation, our sin is against the Lord. When we do what is wrong, we break our relationship with God. Even from birth we are broken and in need of God’s grace.

So, David asks to be cleaned; he asks for his heart to be made pure. We know that God saw his heart and that God knew he was righteous, but God also knew the deepest secrets of his heart. It seems contradictory, but it is the reality of our existence. We are saints and sinners, righteous by God’s grace, yet still capable of sinning against God and one another.

So we, like the psalmist, ask the question found in Psalm 119. “Wherewith shall a young man cleanse his way?” How do we keep our way pure? God has given us a path to follow. He’s given us a book to read. He has given us His word to dwell in our hearts so that we will be strengthened to try to be all that He has created and called us to be. We are righteous in our hearts because of what Christ has done, and with those failing hearts we seek God. We beg that He will help us walk rightly, that He will teach us to do that which will glorify Him in the world. Jesus obeyed unto death, glorifying God on the cross. By His grace we can at least treasure the Word He has placed in our hearts and constantly seek what that Word means in our daily lives.

God was available to His people from the beginning of time. We hear in the scriptures that He can be seen in the creation, in blooming flowers and magnificent sunsets. His strength can be seen in the high mountains and His power in the rolling ocean. Yet, God has had a special relationship with people since the days of Adam, Noah and Abraham. This is especially true of Abraham and his offspring. Throughout the Old Testament we can see God interacting with His people, giving to them His promises and guiding their footsteps. He gave them the Law, anointed their leaders and led them to a Promised Land. In those stories we can see that certain people had a special relationship with God, like Moses and David and the prophets. They had God’s Spirit to guide them, to give them His words and to teach them how to live. Those special people were then given the task to share it with God’s chosen people.

The average people didn’t mind having a ‘go-between.’ They were afraid of hearing God’s voice for themselves or seeing God’s glory. They thought they would die if they did. So, God gave them leaders to teach and guide them along the way. Yet, having someone to teach and guide did not make it easy for them to stay in a right relationship with God. They fell hard and they fell often, doing their own thing and going their own way. It was especially difficult when the leaders and teachers did not even follow the path God had ordained for their nation and their lives.

So, God promised that one day it would work in a whole new way. One day everyone would have that Spirit of God in their hearts and in their lives. The Word would not be given to them by certain people who were called to be leaders and teachers; they would have it for themselves. Instead of pushing them from the outside, God’s Word would drive them from the inside. They could study and know God for themselves, hear Him and follow Him without the need for someone to do it for them. God was planning to create a whole new relationship with His people: a personal, intimate relationship with every individual believer.

We must be careful, however, to note that this does not mean that there will be no teachers or leaders. We are faithful in a community with others who can help us to learn and grow and mature in our faith. We need one another, to keep each other accountable to the true Word of God, to keep from interpreting God’s Word to meet our own desires. In giving us the Spirit, God did not reject teachers and leaders. But we can know God ourselves, hear His voice and respond to our own personal call to faithful living. Through Christ we are all made insiders, and by the power of the Spirit we are drawn into those relationships so that we might live and learn and grow together in forgiveness and peace.

A few years ago, I spent a great deal of time online in chat rooms. I loved talking with others about scripture 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 we might even be able to call it heretical. All too many believe they have been given “special knowledge” of the scriptures and claim that if others do not understand what they are saying that they have not received the same ‘gift.’ “Ask the Holy Spirit to reveal it to you,” they would answer, and then walk away as if they were superior.

Some of these folk found themselves unable to cope in a regular congregation of believers. Their ideas were so different and their attitude so haughty that they found fault with everything and everybody. So, instead of being involved in a local congregation, they created their own, calling themselves priests and prophets and gathering a few people, either in their homes or on the Internet, who would follow their teachings. They had nothing good to say about the visible church on earth, and felt that they were the chosen ones, a remnant anointed by God to declare the world’s sin.

One such woman granted me a great deal of respect in the beginning of our conversations. She told me that she was taking courses on how to be a prophet and that she was starting a house church where she was preaching to a few followers. She emailed me one of her sermons. This writing was so full of error that it made me sad for those who were attending her meetings. She misquoted the scriptures, misidentified the passages, and her interpretations were far from reality because she was mixing ideas and themes from completely unrelated texts. Since she had asked for my opinion, I made some notes on the writing. What she really wanted was for me to tell her that the sermon was terrific, that it was a new and important word from God. She was so offended by my response that she answered me with a warning that she was one of God’s prophets and that I should beware.

I don’t know what happened to her, but I do know she was not a prophet. At least she was not a prophet like those we read about in the Old Testament or those who are called in today’s world to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ. She was self-appointed. She was twisting God’s Word to fit into her meanings and her agenda. This was true of that woman, though it is not true of all people who disagree with us on scripture and theology. We have to be on communication with other faithful people to hear God’s Word and to know what He is calling us to do in our world. Perhaps that was her biggest problem. She’s disconnected from the Church God had given to us to help us grow and mature in faith, and she went her own way.

It is difficult to know for sure. I’m sure that the Jews of Jesus’ day and during the days of the early Church must have thought the Christians were going on a strange and dangerous path. As a matter of fact, in the time when the book of Hebrews was written, there was a resurgence of Jewish faith. There was a question whether or not ‘the Way’ was real or acceptable. Many people were willing to fall back into the pagan roots or return to their Jewish heritage because everything was so different. There may have been good reason, after all, people have always offered ‘new and important’ ideas about God. False religions pop up constantly. False teachings are a dime a dozen.

The writer of Hebrews, however, tells us that Jesus was not like that woman I met online or those who begin false religions. He was not self-appointed. He was called by God, called the Son of God by God’s own voice, and He was not doing His own will but the will of the Father. He was obedient, glorified not by what He did, but what God did for Him. He was Priest and King not because He decided he wanted to be, but because God promised that He would be.

Things are not always as we see them to be. Our passage for today is the beginning of the end for Jesus. He tells the disciples that “the hour has come.” The catalyst seems to be the coming of some Greek believers who are in Jerusalem for the Passover. They are looking to meet with Jesus. They aren’t necessarily from Greece, but are from the Greek speaking world, which is separate from the Jewish world. Jesus is having such an impact on everyone, all the nations, that they are beginning to seek Him out. The world is ready to judge Jesus for His work. The Jews will judge that He’s not from God because He doesn’t do what they expect. The Greeks will judge that He’s not credible because the things He says and the things He says must happen are foolish. Everyone will judge that He’s a threat to what they expect and they will work to stop Him from continuing His work in this world.

However, we know that what is really happening is that God is about to judge the world for the works of fallible human beings. The “ruler of this world” is about to be defeated, not with military might but in the death and resurrection of Jesus. The world thinks they are casting out a troublemaker, crucifying a rebel, but in reality God is destroying the hold of sin and death on His beloved people. We look at the story of Jesus and are saddened by the necessity of His horrific death on the cross, and yet in that very death He was glorified and God was glorified by His obedience. It seems like the end of a story we do not like, but we know the rest. We know that Easter will come. And when Easter comes, the world will see God’s grace and mercy.

Jesus’ credibility comes from the fact that He did not make Himself a priest or a king. He certainly had the opportunity. The people would have crowned Him king when He fed the five thousand, and they respected him as a rabbi more than any of the other priests. But Jesus was given those roles by God, no by any act of His own. He was the fulfillment of yet another promise: the promise that there would be a king/priest in the line of 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.

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 that God fulfilled all His promises and glorified Christ once and for all. It is from the cross that all men are drawn to God. It is in death that the seeds bring forth life.

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.

He did this so that we would no longer need a ‘go between’ to know God and to live according to His Word. He did this so that we would be free from sin and death to live and glorify Him. He did this so that He could plant the Word in our hearts and teach us His ways, calling us to serve Him with our bodies and spirits. 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.

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