Hebrews 5: 1-10
A Priest and a Rabbi were eating together when the priest started to tease the Rabbi. ”Wow, this ham is really good,” he said licking his lips. “I know it’s against your religion, but when are you going to break down and finally try some pork?” The rabbi smiled and said to the priest: “At your wedding!”
Priest, rabbi, and minister jokes have gone around the world for ages. They sometimes are hilarious, sometimes crude, and often reinforce stereotypes. Today let’s look at the purpose of priests and why Jesus is, for us, the Great High Priest.
First, two groups that have historically had priests are first century Jews for one, and Roman Catholics through the ages for the other. One group of Jews in the first century, the time when Jesus lived, were called Sadducees; they were the priests of the Temple. They would decide what sacrifices were appropriate for Passover and Yom Kippur. They would guide traveling Jews who came to the Jerusalem Temple about entering the mikvah pools (precursors for Christian baptism) for cleansing before they approached God’s house. It was claimed that God dwelled there in the most sacred room of the Temple, the Holy of Holies. Priests would offer incense, or frankincense on the altar of God, allow the fragrance to fill the small room, pleasing God. The sacrifice would symbolize a cost to the families that paid for it; priests were also responsible for naming how much sacrifice was sufficient to pay the price for the family’s, or the individual’s sins. This was the Temple system and priests were vital. They were the ones who would hear confessions, decide appropriate responses, and name the appropriate price to right a group of wrongs. You’ll recall that, in Luke chapter 5, Jesus came into a city and found a man filled with leprosy, a dreadful skin disease. The leper fell on his face before Jesus and said, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” The leprosy left him. Then Jesus told him to do this: “Don’t tell anyone what just happened, but go show yourself to a priest and make an offering for your cleansing, as proof to the people.” Or in Luke 17 Jesus, on his way to Jerusalem, passed between Samaria and Galilee and he came upon ten other lepers who called out to Jesus: “Master, have mercy on us.” “When Jesus saw them he said to them, ‘Go and show yourselves to the priests.’ And as they went, they were cleansed.” In both cases these were not Christian priests or Catholic priests; they were Jewish priests. A priest is very important in first century Judaism.
The second group of people who still have priest are the Roman Catholics. These Christians for centuries have supported a system of sacrifice and forgiveness like the first century Jewish priests did. A priest today will oversee confession of sins and decide what action should be taken to make reparations for the sin. A priest today oversees the altar of a church or a cathedral, re-offering the sacrifice of Christ’s body and blood on it regularly. A priest today has the power to administer the seven sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church, deciding when and who may receive them. Priests, you see, are granted great powers- powers that include enforce moral fences and offer gracious direction for life.
So if priests are so wonderful, why don’t Protestants have one? We do. Our priest is the Christian Priest; the great High Priest of the New Testament described in today’s passage from Hebrews. He is Jesus. He is great; he is powerful; and he is both sacrificial lamb and Good Shepherd; he is both victor and victim. Jesus is our “all in all.” We count on him; and only through him do we get his counsel, his advocacy, and his offered salvation before we approach the Throne of Judgment. Jesus meets us there, pleading our case before the Almighty One. It is he that is our go-between; the one who makes the sacrifice for us; the one who announces that we are clean. When he was on the earth, he had to send people to priests who had the power to pronounce them clean. After he left the earth and went to be seated at the Right Hand of Power, he himself received that power; he does not need to send you, or me, to anyone else to pronounce us clean or forgiven. All he needs to look at our hearts; even after looking at our record of life. For our Great High Priest, our choices later in life count more than our choices early in life. They exhibit understanding; remorse; and a desire to turn toward the path of life. And most importantly and simply, he calls your name; and he calls my name: and he asks: “Do you love me?” And if our answer is “Yes!” he tells us to take care of his flock. And so we do. We care about the world, but we care for his flock. And we keep inviting people into the flock, which is the Church. We want them to have this priest; we want them to have this love; we want to have this eternal life. There are so many confusing stories that go around about what we need to do to right the wrongs of our lives. Some say you take “an eye for an eye;” some say “you killed my child, for that you must die.” Some dole out prescribed things to say or do. And then there is what Jesus, the Great High Priest, did. He believed in the system he learned as a young Jew, but with a twist. Forgiveness best received comes after remorse, repentance, restitution, and re-connection. At the Temple in Jesus’ day, on the Passover day the traditional unblemished lamb was slaughtered by priests in the Temple at the prescribed time of 3:00 p.m.; it powerfully paid the price for the sins of the Jews. At that exact time, however, outside the city walls, our Savior Jesus became a different sacrificial lamb. His death would pay the price for the sins of the whole world. At exactly 3:00 p.m. on that day, when the lamb was slain in the Temple, the Lamb of God was slain on the cross. Jesus, by being faithful, ascended into Heaven and took his place in victory. That’s what’s been described in Hebrews chapter 5. As High Priest, Jesus acts on behalf of human beings in relation to God. In his earthly life he offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears to the one who could have saved him from death. And yet he suffered, and died, and arose from the dead to take a place in Heaven not only as friend, not only as Savior, but as our Great High Priest. If you didn’t think so before, perhaps today you will think this: We need such a priest; we need Jesus to do priestly things for us. It saves us and pays for our sins.
This picture of Jesus can get confusing. Back in the 19th century, William Chatterton Dix tried to explain this confusion with the hymn we will sing in a minute: Alleluia! Sing to Jesus. “Alleluia” means, “Praise the Lord!” Alleluia sing to Jesus, his the scepter (the princely staff) his the throne; Alleluia his the triumph, his the victory alone (No other victory has granted us forgiveness; only his victory.) Jesus out of every nation has redeemed us by his blood (like the one lamb did for the Jews, the Lamb of God has done for the world.) Other words in that hymn include “intercessor” that is, someone who hears your cries to God and amplifies them. “Earth’s redeemer,” that’s who Jesus is. And the last verse says of Jesus “born of Mary, earth your footstool, heaven your throne,” a brilliant description of God in Christ. Then comes very priestly language, pulled from the Temple imagery: “As within the veil you entered, robed in flesh, our great high priest;” and then this final line: “here on earth, both priest and victim, in the Eucharistic feast.” Eucharist is Communion but it means “meal of thanksgiving.” As Priest, Jesus hosts our communion meals; as victim, it is his body that was broken and his blood that was shed. What a wonderful book Hebrews is. What tremendous understanding can come to us if we read it with new eyes. Jews from ages past counted on priests; Roman Catholic brothers and sisters count on priests even today. And now we too are reminded that we have a priest, and we need a priest. We count on him; we need him. His name is Jesus.
Let us pray:
Holy Jesus: you fulfill so many needs in our souls. And if we are honest with ourselves, we need you. We come to you today not just needing a friend, or a Savior, but a great High Priest. Carry out your role for us as we live as your disciples, trying day by day to follow your light and to share it with others. Thank you, loving Jesus. Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner October 18, 2015