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Numbers 3: 1-10 Hebrews 5: 1-10
Christ The Priest
May the Lord be with you! (And also with you…)
At our bible study this past Tuesday morning, before we read our Scripture, ..and I do realize that I do love to use sometimes the things said in that group because they’re really just so genuine, but I asked the group to tell me the first thing that came to their minds when hearing the word ‘priest’. And Mary Jane, bless her heart, blurted out the word ‘pervert’. Now I tell you this certainly not to embarrass Mary Jane or to shock anyone, her response was genuine. But moreover I tell you what she said because I know that she is by far not the only person that would have that same exact word come to their minds when first hearing that offered term. Unfortunately of course, because of the various scandals that have happened throughout the years in the Catholic Church and in others, the end result has been that Mary Jane’s word has turned into something of a stereotypical definition for clergy; not un-similar to those common for police as crooked, politicians as liars, or bankers being labeled as greedy. And then the other word that came up really quickly for the group was itself ‘Catholic’.
Now with this one I realize that this is essentially because in our society and culture when we hear the word ‘priest’ we do automatically think of the Catholic Church, and so that’s not unjustified. However, when skipping right to that thought, we are also skipping over the fact that all of the Orthodox churches do refer to their pastors as priests too, as does the Episcopal Church as well. We Reformed Christians like to use the term ‘minister’, because we ‘administer the sacraments’. But all in all, it’s really just having multiple terms for the same thing. I actually do everything that a Catholic, Orthodox and Episcopal priest does at a similar size church. So…the real question is about exactly how we define a priest, what is the role of a priest and then also, why is it that we do refer to Jesus Christ as our high priest; for in Scripture it is said in a number of places that Jesus Christ is our High Priest in the line of Melchizedek. ..(Just as a very side bar note, Melchizedek was the king of Jerusalem before it was Jerusalem and he prayed over and blessed Abraham in Genesis 14. There’s lots of discussion of just what he represents, but that’s a different story for a different day.)
So how do we define what a priest is? According to our Old Testament lesson a priest are those who are sanctioned with the responsibility of performing sacred duties in and around the tabernacle. For the Israelites the tabernacle is that large gold box that contains the ten commandments, and for the Catholic and Orthodox churches the tabernacle is that covered medal box that has a door on it that the Eucharist is kept in, it’s usually placed behind the altar in the church. In both traditions, the tabernacle is ‘that which contains God’; in the Reformed Church we refer to our hearts as our tabernacle. In all traditions though, at the end of the day, what the job of the priest is, is to care for that which is holy or belonging to God, and to teach as widely as possible about all of those subjects that pertain to all things divine. The priest is then also responsible for making sacrifices to God; sacrifices that may be for the purpose of thanks and praise, or may be for the purpose of penance due to some committed sin. And lastly, it should be noted that the priest is generally thought to be more closely connected to God due to their call by God to that specific work while here on earth. This is seen as a great privilege of course, but then also as just as great a responsibility. And so now, we could ask, how did this develop, how does this all translate to our every day, and how does the responsibility and the role of the priest play out practically?
Well, let’s see, we have to start at the very beginning. In ancient times, and I mean in ancient times well before Abraham even, people didn’t have the knowledge that was naturally acquired by us over time. They would see a great storm rolling in and that storm would then cause destruction and then their natural mind would ask, “Why is this happening?” Likewise, the birth of a child or something else wonderful might take place, like a rain storm when water was desperately needed, and people would also ask why that was happening. At some point they surmised that there must be some great power that’s controlling all of this, thus the concept of a God or gods developed. Then, it was further surmised that when something of violence and destruction occurred, it must be because this great power was upset or angry with them. And likewise, when something good happened, it would have to be because the god or gods were happy and satisfied. Now, as anyone or any thing would prefer, it is much nicer to have nice things happen, instead of negative things, and so the next question became, “How do we please our god or gods in order to have only good things occur?” And then, and then it was reasoned that there must be a person or persons who would have, as their job, to figure out just exactly what it is that would have to be done to keep these gods or god happy so that the benefits would far outweigh the opposite. And, I will add here, that this was the logical progression of religion throughout the world in essentially every human society, this was not something that was only happening in the Middle East. For instance, this was the same process that the Mayans and the Aztecs went through in which they ended-up figuring that in order to ‘keep the gods happy’ that they had to make human sacrifices, ..and that really was happening in those communities.
And so, we have the development of an actual vocation now since man has almost walked upright. It was a practical vocation, as well as a vital vocation for society, because it was those chosen priests who developed what was proper and improper behavior, for adults as well as children. Whereas the standard community leadership may be guided more by self-greed and want, the priests were essentially trained to see the world differently. And that doesn’t mean that they were always peaceable, but it does mean that they were not supposed to see themselves as the sole focus of what was good or bad or needed. A very important distinction there, because it was they who really became the authors of what we refer to as morality, that sense that can make man, on occasion, more advanced than the wild beast.
And so now to review before moving on here; one, a priest is any person that has been called to the duty and responsibility of translating to their community the expectations of God, and, to be the person that carries out the various ceremonies that please God that also then draw man closer to their God. Two, the vocation of the priest was developed by man in ancient times in order to interpret God and man’s relationship with God. And three, it was those early priests who developed our early senses of morality because they were looking at life through a much wider lens, one that was generally not self-centered.
Okay, so now we come to the place where Judaism begins to develop, people are figuring out that there really is just one powerful force, even though that one powerful force does wear many hats, man is advancing. Abraham comes along and there’s the development of a personal relationship ability with God. And then after some more time, Moses is approached by God in the desert to fulfill a special role, and that role is much greater than simply getting the Israelites out of Egypt away from the Pharaoh’s slavery. Moses, having been trained in law when growing-up in the house of Pharaoh, puts into a law form what it is that this god, who is now known as the God of Israel, wants from his people. The personal relationship is clearly developing and an understanding too is developing that the benefits of your relationship with God are not just for this life on earth, but actually go much farther. And it is for this reasoning that a priesthood is seen as needing to be developed for Judaism specifically. Same reasoning as pagan theologies for having a priesthood, but now the personal relationship is emphasized more than it ever has been before. Priests are fulfilling what is believed to be life and death responsibilities, responsibilities that without them being fulfilled, man would essentially revert backwards into chaos. And so the practical reasoning and purpose of and for the priesthood was incredibly essential and continuing to develop.
Now, granted this has changed pretty dramatically over time as our educations have advanced and intellects have hopefully deepened. And unfortunately, as this has happened, people have most often come to think that not only are priests perverts, but that the relationship with God is something that is antiquated and also negated by just how darn smart we’ve become. But, we also have to recognize that we who do still believe in having a relationship with our creator God have also developed intellectually too, it’s not as if we today are still believing in the same ways that were standard two or three thousand years ago or even fifty years ago. And for the general populace to understand that, we still do need those of the priesthood to fulfill that purpose that has been needed since the beginning of the vocation. And I dare say that our society is paying something of a price for ignoring what most all of us here, I’m sure, see as essential.
Interestingly, in Paul’s letter to the Hebrews, he has pretty much this same message as I do today. He defines what a priest is and what it is that a priest does. He reiterates what God has instructed through Moses for his people to do. Paul states also that the priest will present gifts to God, that he will deal gently with people, will offer sacrifices, will teach the people about their relationship with God and that they must be called and directed by God to do this work. In my role, and in every other priest or ministers’ role, this is essentially what we do. We present gifts to God through the work of the church, not just by way of our tithes, hence the doxology being able to be used on multiple occassions, we deal gently with people – even though there are times when we’d rather not, we offer sacrifices – of course our celebration of the Eucharist is how we practice this in our service of worship, it is a ‘sacrifice of praise’, and then we also sacrifice from ourselves to God for either thanks and praise or penance, and of course, we hopefully teach our brothers and sisters a thing or two about our relationship with God, we work to spread the Gospel message.
And then, after Paul’s verses to the Hebrews, he puts out to whoever is reading these words an invitation to grow in the spirit, proclaiming that we all together are responsible for our relationship with God through Jesus Christ and that it’s really not just the sole responsibility of a few specific people. But that if we want to be known as responsible children of God, that we must do all that we can for God, all that we can to show our appreciation to Jesus Christ, our clearly high priest above all other priests.
And I realize that you may still not see why we refer to Jesus Christ as our high priest, but think about it like this. One, Jesus came among us to explain and interpret God’s will to us. He was and is God’s chosen – therefore he was certainly called to his role, he came to explain the law as intended by God, because we could not accept the interpretations of man and certainly not of the priests in the temple who’d been completely corrupted by their own humanity. Jesus taught people what God wanted us to know. Two, Jesus also was gentle with the people, especially with the children, showing love and performing miracles, even raising a few people from the dead. And then three, and more than anything else, he made an incredible sacrifice, a sacrifice of himself, as penance for the sin of man, a penance for our ignorance and stubborn natures. Jesus performed all of these duties and, of course, more, in care of what is most precious to God the father – and that would be us.
Jesus was our prophet because he told us of the future and about what all that could mean to us. And he was our priest because he corrected us through gentle teaching, prayed for us, loved us and sacrificed for us.
And so I think today, the only real question that remains in front of us, is to figure out just exactly how it is that we respond to Christ and all that he has done for us. Do we consider ourselves as a part of the ‘priesthood of all believers’, as any good Reformed Christian would consider themselves? Or do we simply come to the church to see what it is that we can get from it and then not really acknowledge what it is that we know Christ has done for us? Do we allow what Christ has done for us to affect our lives the way we know we should? The answer is up to each and every single one of us. Who and What will you be in return for all that which Christ has done for us? Take some time, especially over this Advent season, and answer it seriously, don’t rush into an answer that you know you really won’t hold yourself to. And my simple request is this, when thinking about your response to Christ and his sacrifice for us, don’t allow yourself to become perverted by the society around you as most have. Take the question seriously, and then live your life faithfully to your answer.
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.