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Monday, March 22, 2021

"The Perfect Priest" (Hebrews 5:1-10)


Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 24, 2021

 watch it here -

            A Methodist pastor and two Baptist pastors, along with an Episcopalian priest and a Catholic priest walk into a room.  It’s not the start of a joke.  It’s the people in the prayer group I attended many years ago.  The Catholic priest and I became friends.  Too often, Catholic priests are associated with sexual exploitation scandals.  That wasn’t Father Tuck, my friend.  Sure, he wasn’t perfect.  None of us are.  But he was truly a gentle, humble servant of God, who wouldn’t hurt anyone and did not fit media or movie stereotypes of what priest is.  He is someone I admire.

            What is a priest?  What does a priest do?  We’ll come back to this.

            Before we do, consider something churches did before social distancing: the children’s sermon.  The pastor calls the children around him or her, very close.  The pastor says, “I am going to describe something.  You tell me what it is.  It is green and slimy.  It hops around.  It says, ‘Rib-it.’  What is it?”  He asks, smiling at the children.

            A boy raises his hand and says enthusiastically says, “Jesus!” 

The puzzled pastor looks at the boy and says, “Really?  Are you sure?”

            The boy responds, “Well yeah.  I mean, it sounds like a frog, but we’re in church, so the answer has to be ‘Jesus,’ right?”  That, by the way, was a joke!  But isn’t it always the case?  In church, the answer is always Jesus, right?  Actually, this morning, I am going to propose that, indeed, the answer is Jesus. 

            Inside and outside the church, from the writings of theologians who are devoted believers, and from the works of theologians and Bible scholars who aren’t believers at all, as well as in casual conversation among church goers and church avoiders, the debate about who Jesus is seems to never end.  Who is Jesus in relation to God?  Who is Jesus in relation to us?

            Thus, our invitation to explore our own faith through wrestling these questions: What is a priest, and what does a priest do?  And, who is Jesus?  How do these questions come together, and do they matter?

            Hebrews 5:1 says, “Every high priest chosen from among mortals is put in charge of things pertaining to God on their behalf, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.”  While the priest in 1st century Judaism was not equivalent to Catholic, Anglican, and Orthodox priests today, the priestly function is similar.  Offerings had to be made to God because of sin.  Our willingness to disregard God’s ways and try to be masters of our own fate leads to fatal consequences for us.  We need someone in a priestly role to stand between God and our sins.

Sin is the refusal to live the way God intends humans to live.  Sin is doing harm to others.  Sin is seeking one’s own gain at the expense of others.  Sin is seeing people in need and refusing to help, even when we are able to help.  Sin is greed, rage, gossip, gluttony, and deception.  Sin is living as if God’s will doesn’t matter.  Sin is denying that God is Lord and master of our lives.  Self-harm is sin because God has created us for purpose and for relationship.  When we self-harm, we act as if the relationship with God doesn’t matter and as if our lives have no purpose.  God says they do.  Ignoring God is sin because God won’t be ignored.  Hedonism and excess are sins.  God wants us to experience delight, pleasure and extravagance within the limits God sets, and with what God gives as the source of our delight and pleasure. 

The priest brings God’s word to us and approaches God on our behalf.  In Genesis 18, when God is about to destroy two cities, Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham bargains with God in order to try to save those cities.  In Exodus 32, God threatens to destroy the Israelites in the wilderness because they have created a calf made out of Gold and worshiped it instead of God.  Moses pleads with God on the people’s behalf and God changes God’s mind and does not destroy the people.  Abraham and Moses function in priestly roles standing between a sinful people and a holy God. 

Hebrews 5 tells us this is what the priest does.  However, the priest is no holier than the people   Someone says a priest “is a holy man,” or “a man of God.”  Verses 2-3, however, clearly show that the priest is as sinful and in need of mediation as anyone else.  Hebrews 5 implies that priests and pastors should be the most compassionate of all people, because they themselves are sinners.  God has no patience for pastors and priests who thunder down in judgmental, condemning tones.  We clergy must be patient, gentle, and kind.  We know how much people need God’s grace because we see our own need for it.

So, we have the answer to one of our earlier queries.  What is a priest and what does a priest do?  A priest, or a pastor carrying out a priestly function, stands in the gap between an angry, holy God, and the sins of the people.  The priest prays for the people.  The priest comes before God on behalf of the people. 

What about our second question?  Who is Jesus and what’s he got to do with this conversation about priests?

The dual nature of Jesus – fully human and at the same time fully God – defies understanding.  Hebrews presents all aspects of the paradox.  Hebrews chapter 1 describes Jesus as “the reflection of God’s glory” (v.3) and the one worshiped by angels (v.6).  Psalms 45 and 102 are quoted in Hebrews 1 to explicitly state that the Son is God and Lord.  In other words, the second person of the trinity, Jesus, is fully God. 

At the same time, Hebrews 5 shows that God has become human.  Jesus’s humanity was no illusion which he could step out of at time.  Verse 7 describes his humanity as “the days of his flesh.”  He emptied himself of divinity and lived as a human being (Philippians 2).  Jesus, though, did not sin. 

He never hated anyone, not the religious leaders who challenged him, not Judas the disciple who betrayed him, nor Peter the disciple who denied him.  He loved each one, each Pharisees and temple priest who, feeling threatened by his wisdom, did everything they could to take him down.  He loved all the disciples who abandoned him.  When Herod mocked him, Pilate condemned him, and the Roman soldiers flogged and then crucified him, he asked God the Father to forgive them all (Luke 23:34).  He demonstrated complete obedience to God and absolute love for all people.  Jesus is the only person who never needed a priest.  In this respect, he is not like any of us. 

Jesus never felt the guilt of hurting someone else with a lie, petty jealousy, neglect, greed, or exploitation.  He never coveted what someone else had.  He never acted out his anger with abusive violence.  He never objectified anyone. 

Yet when this sinless one accepted his calling, to be the sacrifice that would atone for humanity’s sin, he feared the abandonment, abuse, death, and separation from God as much as anyone would.  In fact, his grief and fear exceeded what ours would be because he knew God the Father so intimately.  He knew what he was losing, even knowing the resurrection would soon come.  To take all the loss sin brings on himself, even for a few days, was devastating for Jesus.   Hebrews 5:7 says he prayed with “loud cries and tears to the one who was able to save him from death.”  God heard his prayer “because of his reverent submission” (v.7).  God the Father heard Jesus’ plea, loved him, and then let him die.

Jesus asked to be let out of death, but submitted himself to God’s plan.  We read that he “learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (5:8).  Did Jesus need to “learn obedience?”  Does God learn things?  Hebrews says, yes, when that God becomes human, he does learn.  Suffering was Jesus’ teacher.  Isn’t God always whatever it is we think God is?  Through the school of pain, Jesus learned the cost of our salvation.  Knowing it, he willingly paid it. 

This is why Jesus is the perfect priest.  With his sacrifice of himself, made on our behalf, we never again need a sacrifice.  Pastors and priests encourage us, pray for us, pray with us, teach the Bible, and lead the faith community.  Pastors and priests have a role in the church.  That role is in service of the perfect priest, Jesus. 

He covers sin and he conquers death.  Moreover, he knows our struggles because he’s been through them.  God the Father appreciates our pain because in order to secure our eternity, He had to accept the death of His beloved son in our place.  God has walked in our shoes. 

For this reason, we can approach God with absolute confidence.  Whatever we carry that holds us down – guilt, loss, regret, broken dreams, disappointment, fear; whatever it is, God in Jesus has overcome it.  We can receive salvation and believe with confidence that we are sons and daughters of God, loved completely by God.  That’s the hope our priest secures for us. 

More than half way through Lent, with Good Friday and Easter on the near horizon, we know the God we worship.  We know the Jesus we follow.  We can grow in our knowledge as we debate finer points of theology, or we can rest easy in the salvation He has secured.  Either way our perfect priest is for us, all the way.  Because of Him, we have life.


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