Lent 5, 2021 – Sermon

(Modified 2021-03-21: Added audio)

Sermon Audio

I had a bad-attitude day on Friday.  I say a “bad-attitude day” and not a “bad day” because objectively, by every measure, Friday was a very good day.  I got to work from home.  It was a beautiful, sunny spring day.  I played board games online with dear friends I haven’t seen in person in over a year.  And I came to church in the quiet and the evening light to pray.  But despite everything objectively seeming quite lovely, I was in a snit pretty much from the word go.  I felt resentful and put-upon.  I felt smothered by obligations when all I wanted was for the world to leave me alone.  And round about the time I was dragging myself resentfully downstairs to the car to come to church for Evening Prayer, I started to lecture myself.  You have no earthly reason to feel this way, I sensibly pointed out.  You chose this work and these relationships.  And there can be no argument that by any objective measure, your life is not only “not that bad,” it’s pretty damn privileged.  So what are you whining about?

With a little bit of distance, I’ve been able to give myself an amateur psychological diagnosis.  What I’m experiencing is what’s being called “Covid fatigue.”  For a lot of people, the pandemic completely upended their lives.  People lost jobs.  They lost loved ones.  Kids and families had all their routines thrown out.  Our human need for connectedness and community has been radically tested.  But again, looked at objectively, nothing much has happened to me this past year.  I got sent home to work, but I didn’t lose my job.  The biggest changes for me have been the amount of time I spend in the comfort of my own home, and going to church online rather than in person at St. Mary’s with all of you.  For some people, what Covid has done to their lives is like if you had a bowl full of marbles and you tipped them out on the floor, to bounce and scatter.  Some parts you will be able to gather up again, but some are lost forever.  For me, what Covid has done to my life is more like twisting a towel.  The fabric hasn’t been changed, but the contours and perspectives have been set off-kilter.  Looked at objectively, I feel as though I should be able to carry on with equanimity, because it’s just a little twist.  No big deal.  But holding a towel twisted takes tension and effort.  Over time, the strain becomes more apparent.  A small twist still requires effort and energy to maintain, because it’s not a natural shape.  And after a while, that gets manifested as Covid fatigue.  I’m tired of holding my life in this unaccustomed shape.  Hence, bad-attitude days.

We experience a similar fatigue this late in the Lenten season.  We have come to the fifth Sunday in Lent.  Yesterday was day 28 of 40.  (Sundays aren’t counted in the 40 days of Lent.)  We have been holding this posture of penitence, prayer, fasting, and almsgiving for four and a half weeks now.  Feeling fatigued is understandable.  In fact, it’s part of the point of such a lengthy fast as Lent.  It should feel like work.  You should be a little tired.  And the parent of any toddler know what happens when we get tired.  Bad attitude days!

What do our Scripture lessons have to say to our tired bodies and minds and hearts today, two-thirds of the way through Lent?  God always knows what we need.  There are words of comfort here for us in our weariness, without letting us off the hook.

Psalm 51 is the prayer King David wrote after the prophet Nathan confronted him about committing adultery with Bathsheba and then murdering her husband in order to cover it up.  That’s a comic-book level of villainy most of us will never aspire to, but yet the words of this beautiful psalm speak to the universal human condition of our need to be cleansed by God from our sin.  There is no rising scale of sinfulness with God.  We may not be adulterers and murderers, but still we must all reckon with our sinfulness.  

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions.
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me.
Against you, you alone, have I sinned, and done what is evil in your sight, so that you are justified in your sentence and blameless when you pass judgment.
Indeed, I was born guilty, a sinner when my mother conceived me.
You desire truth in the inward being; therefore teach me wisdom in my secret heart.
Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and gladness; let the bones that you have crushed rejoice.
Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.
Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.

I encourage you to take this psalm and meditate on it this week.  This acknowledgement of our sinfulness and our need for God to cleanse us, because we cannot cleanse ourselves, is what the season of Lent teaches us.  Through penitence and prayer, almsgiving and fasting, God restores us to the joy of our salvation, and we are reminded that it is God who sustains our spirits.

Our New Testament lesson and our Gospel lesson remind us of the way in which Jesus is the answer to the prayer of Psalm 51.  We desire to be cleansed from our sin and to be put back into right relationship with God.  How has God made that possible for us?  Through the priestly, sacrificial work of Jesus on the cross.  

This passage from Hebrews is a bit obscure out of context.  Who is Melchizedek, and what does it mean to be a high priest of his order?  Two layers of context make sense of this passage.  The letter to the Hebrews is essentially a sermon showing Jewish Christians, (Hebrews), how Jesus fulfills the Scriptural understanding of who the promised Messiah would be.  The Jewish scriptures, that is, the Old Testament, teach that the coming Messiah would be prophet, priest, and king.  It was clear to Jewish Christians from the Gospel stories how Jesus fulfilled the role of a prophet.  He spoke truth to power, like the prophet Nathan did to King David.  And his kingship is clear as well: it is his inheritance as the Son of God.  This sermon, this letter to the Hebrews, explains how Jesus fulfills the messianic role of priest to his people.  What do priests do?  They represent the people before God.  They make sacrifices on their behalf.  When Claude stands at the altar and lifts up the gifts of bread and wine in the Eucharist, those priestly actions connect us all the way back to Moses’ brother Aaron and his sons, and the sacrifices God instructed them to make on the altar of the Tabernacle in the desert of Sinai.  But Jesus doesn’t belong to the lineage of Aaron.  How then, these Hebrew Christians needed to know, can he perform the Messianic function of priest?

The author of the letter to the Hebrews argues that Jesus belongs to an older lineage of priesthood than that of Aaron.  God made Aaron and his descendants priests for the people of Israel under the covenant God made with the people through the Law of Moses – the ten commandments, the Tabernacle and Temple, the sacrifices and cleansing rituals.  But that covenant was always meant to be not just fulfilled in the priestly ministry of the Messiah, but superseded.  Jesus is a priest, not of the order of Aaron, but of an older order.  Jesus is a priest of the order of Melchizedek.

Melchizedek is a pretty mysterious figure in the Old Testament.  He is actually mentioned only twice.  In Genesis chapter 14, a bunch of kings of the various city-states in the region of Palestine went to war against each other, and the city of Sodom was captured, and Abram’s nephew Lot was kidnapped.  Abram went after him, and won a battle against the army that had taken him, and rescued Lot and all the people who had been kidnapped.  When they got back home, they were met by King Melchizedek of Salem, who brought Abram bread and wine, and blessed him.  Genesis 14 verse 18 says Melchizedek was “priest of God Most High.”  

That’s the first mention of Melchizedek in Scripture.  The second is in Psalm 110, a prophetic psalm of King David about the coming Messiah, God’s priest-king.  Verse 4 says, “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, “You are a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.””

Hearing, then, in Hebrews chapter 5, “Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”; as he says also in another place, “You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek,”” the Jewish Christians this letter is addressed to would have understood how Jesus fulfills the prophetic description of the Messiah, who would be prophet, priest, and king.

What we need to understand is how Jesus is also our high priest.  Hebrews 5 goes on to say, “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.”  What was it we said priests do for their people?  They intercede for us with God, and they offer up sacrifices on our behalf.  Jesus is the culmination of the priestly lineage of Melchizedek, because the sacrifice he offered on our behalf was his own body; his own life.  That is the intercession we needed with God for our sins.  Now, just as Melchizedek offered Abram bread and wine as an image of the sacrifice Jesus would make centuries later, so our priests offer up bread and wine on the altars of our churches, and we partake of that symbol, to look back at the sacrifice Jesus made centuries ago, which covers us and cleanses us still before God.

We see as well the intercessory work of the priestly Messiah in our Gospel lesson from John today.  Just as Hebrews 5:7 says that “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death,” so in John chapter 12 we hear Jesus say, “Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say – “Father, save me from this hour”? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour.  Father, glorify your name.”  And just as Hebrews says “and he was heard because of his reverent submission,” so John’s gospel tells us, “Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified [my name], and I will glorify it again.”  That is to say, God was glorified, and his purpose was fulfilled, in the life and ministry of Jesus.  And God’s ultimate plan for creation, for the salvation of humankind, would be fulfilled, i.e., glorified, in the coming death and resurrection of Jesus.  This could not be without painful sacrifice.  “My soul is troubled. And what should I say – “Father, save me from this hour?”  He could have done.  That always had to be a real choice.  Jesus the man could have called it quits at any point.  But Jesus the Son of God, second Person of the Trinity, the Word who was present at the creation of the world, chose to fulfill the Father’s purpose, to glorify God’s name in his death, drawing all of us back into right relationship with our Creator.

I said before that our readings for today offer us comfort, without letting us off the hook.  We’ve been reminded of God’s purposes for us – how God made a way for us to come back into right relationship with him through the priestly work of Jesus on the cross.  We can pray with King David, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions,” and have confidence that Jesus has made the way.  But we remain on the hook, so to speak, because of what Jesus says it means to be his followers.

“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.  Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.”  

We follow Jesus into his resurrection, into forgiveness and righteousness and everlasting life.  But we also follow him into his death and Passion.  To be a follower of Jesus is to lay down your life.  What does that mean?  For some it is a literal death.  We honour martyrs in this church.  They laid down their lives very literally for their faith in Jesus Christ.  Christians still die for their faith today.  But that is not the only thing Jesus means when he speaks of laying down your life.  It also means surrendering your will to his.  It means giving up the right to choose your own path through this world.  It is the work of Lent to remind us of what it is to surrender our will, to choose to follow Jesus’ path rather than our own.  That path leads to our redemption, but the road there goes through the cross, not just for Jesus, but for us.

This isn’t an easy word.  And it’s not an easy path to follow Jesus.  It’s okay to be weary on the journey.  It’s okay to be weary two thirds of the way through Lent, or a year into a pandemic!  And like me, you’ll have your bad days, and sometimes just bad attitude days.  But what we also always have is the comfort of knowing that we’re not forging a new path through uncharted territory.  We are following our Saviour, and the end of this journey is assured.  And when you are feeling overwhelmed or tired or just grumpy on the journey, go back to Psalm 51.

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me.

Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me.

Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit.