Sermon for the Fifth Sunday in Lent
March 18, 2018
Jesus Is Our Great High Priest
When we think of the president of the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod, we typically think of an elected leader that is the administrative head of the church and the leader of the church’s bureaucracy. He is responsible for overseeing the many programs and boards of the Synod as well as setting the course or direction of the Synod’s efforts. We think similarly of leaders of other church bodies as well, whether called pope, bishop, apostle, or cosmopolitan who are elected to their posts by democratic or republican means. In truth, they are bureaucrats in our modern sense and politicians that use their people skills to bring unity and accomplish goals.
The high priest that served God’s church from Aaron onward was no such bureaucrat. No matter how elected, his purpose was clear. He was to stand between God and the people. He was an intermediary, administering the Divine Service not a bureaucratic infrastructure. He was to intercede on behalf of the people in prayer and in offering sacrifices. In this way he was beseeching God to forgive sins and in turn was offering assurance to the people of God’s acceptance of the sacrifices on their behalf. He wasn’t a CEO. He was a priest that was to be concerned with the holy things associated with worship as God had instituted it.
As concerns his representation of the people before God, his duties were prescribed. He was not to be innovative or creative. HE was to simply do as his calling dictated according to God’s Word given to Moses. As concerns the high priest’s representation to the people of God’s good will and forgiveness, the author of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us of his own humanity and weakness. Precisely because the high priest was human, he knew what temptation was and how deceitful the devil could be. He understood very well the draw of sin and how insidious is guilt associated with transgression. As a result, he could sympathize with those bringing their offerings and sacrifices. He could be compassionate because he too suffered under the weakness of his own flesh. When a member of the congregation brought a sin offering and confessed their guilt, he could deal with them gently, conveying the love of God with his words and in his demeanor. The author describes somebody quite the opposite of the Pharisee that stands aloof, presenting himself as more righteous than the next.
The high priest was a sinner just like every other member of the congregation, and as such, he had to offer sacrifice for his own sin. He had to be forgiven and cleansed before he could perform his duties on behalf of the people. In fact, the sacrifice offered for himself was just as weighty as the sacrifice he offered for the congregation. He is made to be aware of his own insufficiency and dependence upon God’s mercy for himself foremost that he might perform those duties to which he had been called and appointed by God. In the realities of his own weakness, he could be gentle with others in theirs. Because he had been dealt with mercifully, he could deal mercifully with those that came to him seeking forgiveness.
I suppose God could have appointed and angel to serve as the high priest for mankind but imagine the difference in the character of that office if He had. Gone would be the understanding and the compassion. Holiness and perfection would greet the sinner and terror would be in the congregation. The worship of God would break down because the people would be too afraid of coming to the temple. The intercessions of the angel would lack compassion and understanding in seeking forgiveness in the manner that Moses pleaded on behalf of the congregation in their wilderness wanderings.
And so, we see a glimpse into the divine conversation of the Holy Trinity as the Father appoints the Son to the office of high priest where His duties are to intercede for the congregation. His office is compared to that of Melchizedek, the priest and king of Salem that blesses Abram and receives his gift. He was a priest of God that served before the Law was given on Sinai. He had no “Apostolic Succession.” He stood in the midst of paganism as one appointed by God to serve in a ministry of blessing and forgiveness as an intercessor for the people.
Here the author of the letter brings home the fact of Jesus’ humanity. He was appointed from eternity for humiliation as man. His ministry would be made perfect in that He would assume flesh. He would not simply stand over man with the holy Law and give decree. He would learn to sympathize as He would undergo temptation and suffer the everyday common troubles of humanity as well as the great struggles against doubt and sin. He would learn the Scriptures as a young boy just as every one of us must learn them even though He was their content. He would struggle with the sticks and stones and name calling of peer rejection. He would know the weakness of the human body and its frailty under exhaustion and hunger. He would weep the tears of sorrow and loss that comes with the death of ones loved. Although He is the Son of God from eternity, He would earn obedience and faithfulness through His suffering in common with us.
Amidst all the suffering that He endured and the rejection that He bore, He continued to intercede. In fact, it is in part how He was interceding. From the moment of His baptism to the time of His death, He stood before God, not as the perfect Son or even the cleansed sinner but as the guilty sinner, the one deserving of condemnation and death. In this way, He served as high priest, standing between God and the congregation, beseeching God for mercy on behalf of the congregation and providing comfort and assurance to the congregation of God’s mercy. He stood in between as the presentation of man’s holiness to God and the presentation of God’s love and grace towards man.
As we grapple with what it means for Jesus to learn obedience, it might be helpful to set up a comparison to the Son of God in heaven without human flesh to the Son of God on earth with human flesh. In the first instance there is perfection in and through and all around the relationship. No suffering, no turmoil, no challenges to the relationship. In the latter, we have everything that besets man trying to break down that relationship. Everything from the physical limitations of the body that gets cold and hot, hungry and thirsty to the limitations of the mind that contrives all kinds of theories based on what it observes even if those theories oppose God’s revelation to man. Even spiritually, He waged battles against devil and doubt. In all these ways, Jesus suffered just like we do. He learned what it is to be man and demonstrated obedience through all that suffering.
The language of verse 9 is difficult for us as we try to understand what it means for Jesus to be made perfect. It is the challenge we face in translations as the English language continues to change. We should understand the phrase “being made perfect” in the sense of having perfected His calling or having brought it to completion. In less than two weeks, we will hear the words of Jesus from the cross as He declares that, “It is finished” (Jn 19:30). Another way to translate that would be, “It is perfected.” It is in His final suffering upon the cross in His earthly ministry that His calling and appointment is perfected or completed. It is in His crucifixion and death that His service as our great High Priest is made perfect. While all of His sufferings contributed, it was not enough for Him to be hungry or sorrowful or tempted to sin. He needed to die as the sinner before God. He had to stand completely in the way of God’s wrath against sin. He had to be the perfect high priest that would not flinch in the presence of God and would not waver in compassion towards the congregation.
In this way, Jesus has been designated as high priest for more than just a generation. He stands as high priest for more than just a few and for more than just a time. He is designated as high priest for all mankind from every time and every place. He is the High Priest over all the Church and is the only One through whom access to God is possible. He stands, even now, between God and our sins, covering us with His righteousness as He presents us to the Father and turning towards us a divine smile and acceptance in the forgiveness of our sins.
“We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb 4:15-16).
In the name of Jesus. Amen