While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing Podcast Services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
We don’t read from the book of Hebrews much in Western Christianity. That’s because when the books of the New Testament were being collected together, there was some horse trading going on between East and West. The Latin West wanted to include the Book of Revelation, while the Greek East wanted to include Hebrews. To this day, neither half reads from the other’s favourite very often.
Hebrews is sometimes called a letter but it is really more of a sermon. It lays out a theology to shape Christian understanding and it is fascinating because it reveals that the early Christian church didn’t all agree to the same doctrines.
Our lesson today is at the core of Hebrews and it talks about Jesus as the Son of God in his role as a high priest of the order of Melchizedek.
The wording is revealing: there is no sense of a virgin birth. Instead, Jesus became the Begotten Son of God when God declared it at Jesus’ baptism. This is very much like the way Mark’s gospel tells it and is close to the Adoptionist Heresy except that in this case God “begets” a grown man as a son instead of adopting him.
There is also a clear sense that the writer sees Jesus as imperfect to begin with, and being made perfect by God. That’s the major advantage of a High Priest, the writer says: to be aware of the flaws of the people because of his own flaws and to seek reconciliation with God for his own failings at the same time as for others.
Over time the western church has re-positioned this to say that Jesus is sympathetic to our weaknesses but that he experienced all the temptations of the flesh without giving in to any of them. This passage of Hebrews would disagree.
There is some ancient thinking going on here that would be good to have explained to a 21st century audience:
The idea that we can approach God directly is one that has challenged people in all cultures over history. The idea of an all-powerful divine being can be terrifying, especially today as we learn more and more about the universe; as those stars that were once dots of light in a dome are now known to be vast nuclear furnaces at impossible distances.
How can someone so vast, who has created all this, comprehend the needs of jumped-up apes on a tiny planet on the edges of a minor galaxy? The gap feels too huge.
That point is made in our Job lesson. I’ve made reference to it in recent weeks: a fair bit of God’s answer to Job’s complaint is that Job, or any other human, simply can’t understand God’s perspective.
Some cultures dealt with this concern by making their gods as human as possible: powerful, certainly, but often no better than actors in a soap-opera or super-heros in comic books.
Others, like Judaism, elevated the understanding of God the Creator to a place so high as to be terrifying: perfect and almost inaccessible.
That’s where priests come in. Priests are called by God to act as intermediaries, people apart from the people but still representing the people to God and God to the people; with prayers and sacrifices going up and guidance, blessings and judgments coming down.
In that understanding, the High Priest has the most direct line to God and has the most central role of explaining to this infinitely powerful being how we, God’s creatures, are feeling.
This language isn’t very familiar to us in the Reformed Tradition because 500 years ago we did away with priests. We took passages like our Hebrews lesson and concluded that Jesus had stepped into this role permanently so that none of us ever had to make another sacrifice on the altar again. That’s why we don’t have altars: we have communion tables instead.
In Christian traditions that still have priests, part of their understanding is that in the Lord’s Supper the priest is sacrificing Jesus on God’s altar over and over again, either symbolically or literally depending on the theology.
The Reformed Tradition has rejected all of that and as this Hebrews reading tells us, we can approach God through Jesus because we have a permanent High Priest in place.
All of this may seem a bit out-dated: based in ancient perceptions of God that don’t fit in today’s world. But consider: the fundamental questions haven’t gone away; people still feel tiny and lost in a vast universe, afraid that the universe doesn’t care about them, worried that they are screwing up and that their mistakes will haunt them forever. Whether they talk about God or not, the concerns are still there.
People still have trouble connecting the vast universe with an image that feels like home. We scoff at the “beard in the sky” images of God that Christian artists borrowed from Greek mythology, but they are a clear indication of the way that we need to put a human face on a universal power; a way to connect our very human experience with a universe so vast and powerful it can feel overwhelming.
One of the things I find most comforting about this lesson and the understanding behind it is not the particular role granted to Jesus, is not the High Priest of the order of Melchizedek. Rather, it is the clear understanding that God knows that we need this and did something about it. The feeling that we are terrified about approaching God directly, so someone, Jesus, was given the job to interpret for us, to be our intermediary.
To me, this says that the need for an intermediary was never God’s. God understood us before we had figured out our own needs and the role Jesus is assigned in this and similar passages, is for our benefit.
The fundamental message is that it’s okay to approach God; that however powerful and mind-blowing our creator is, we are not cut off, we are not insignificant. Rather, we are loved and understood and given another chance.
And as the Reformers have been saying for five centuries, we don’t need someone else to get in-between us and God because God has already taken care of that: we can believe the theology that puts Jesus in the role of intermediary, or we can believe that God’s understanding that we needed someone to bridge that gap for us is evidence that God already knows us so well and loves us so much, that we can approach with confidence, knowing that God will hear us.
Either way, we are reassured that we are not alone. We do not have to face the challenges of a complex universe without support. God invites us close; God gives us company, in the community of faith and God embraces us as beloved children.
Thanks be to God.