My church is currently working through the letter to the Hebrews in the Sunday services. I preached today and, seeing as a handful of people seemed to like it, I thought I’d reproduce it here. The Bible texts used are Matthew 17:1-9 (today’s lectionary reading) and Hebrews 7:1-28.
Close your eyes and picture the scene. You have been with Jesus for a while now and seen him do all kinds of extraordinary things. You’ve stood amazed as he healed people of diseases and deformities. You’ve gasped out loud as he cast out demons and changed the weather. You’ve been rendered absolutely speechless as he fed thousands of people with practically nothing and brought a little girl back to life. And you’ve also heard and agreed with Peter, who said: ‘Jesus, you are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ There is something about Jesus, something about what he says and what he does, that makes Peter’s words ring true. You are 100% sure: Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.
But now you’re on a mountainside with Peter, James, and John. And Jesus—Jesus, the man you’ve followed for so long, the ordinary man you have seen do so many extraordinary things—Jesus is standing before you, looking like you’ve never seen him before. He is illuminated by a light so dazzling it’s as though the very presence of God is flashing and sparkling from every pore in his skin and bathing you in its ethereal glory. And then, a voice, a penetrating voice: ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’
You are scared witless. Peter had put into words something that you’d suspected ever since you met Jesus: ‘Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God.’ But now the living God himself has confirmed this: ‘Yes, Peter—this is my Son! And he is greater than Moses; he is greater than Elijah! So listen . . . listen to him!’ As the reality of an encounter with the living God and the Son of the living God drives itself into your heart and mind, you realise you are trembling with fear, your knees are weakening, and you are collapsing to the ground, face down. You know God is the living God; you know Jesus is God’s Son; but you never expected all this to be so real. This is the kind of encounter that you hear happens to others, not to you.
Let’s step back a bit. It seems pretty obvious why Peter, James, and John were overcome with fear. Theirs was an experience of God few had faced. And I dare say that we would react in a similar way if we had such an encounter with God. Imagine if the immense and even tangible light of God’s presence suddenly burst through the window here at Holy Trinity—what would we do? I suppose many of us would be quite pleased and excited to see God so clearly and so obviously among us . . . but I think I would be like Peter, James, and John—scared and overwhelmed by fear. When God’s light shines brightly in our lives, it cannot help but cast shadows . . . and I think my life could cast a very large shadow indeed. If God’s light burst through the window here, I’d be scared and overwhelmed with fear.
But remember what God says: ‘Jesus is my Son—listen to him!’ And what is the first thing Jesus says? Jesus says, ‘Get up—and don’t be afraid!’ We have no need to fear God, despite our messy lives and sinful attitudes. And it’s all because of what Jesus, the Son of the living God, has done—and is doing.
Our series on Hebrews helps us understand and appreciate why we need not be wary or afraid of God. As we’ve been going through Hebrews, we have already heard how God has spoken to us through God’s Son, Jesus. We have already heard that Jesus has called us his brothers and sisters. We have already heard that Jesus became like us in every respect and is able to sympathise with us as we struggle through life. None of these things suggests that we have any need to be wary or afraid of God—but if God really has spoken through Jesus; if Jesus really is the eternal Son of God made flesh; if Jesus really is able to sympathise with our weaknesses; then I think we really need to listen to what God in Christ has to say to us now. We need to begin eating solid food so that we have sufficient energy to follow Jesus into the presence of God. And our reading today from Hebrews is nothing but solid food.
So what’s going on here? Why does Hebrews keep referring to this mysterious person, Melchizedek? In the Old Testament, Melchizedek appears only in two places. In the first place, Genesis 14, Melchizedek is described as the king of Salem and the priest of God Most High. And Melchizedek also features in Psalm 110, though really it’s the priesthood of Melchizedek that’s mentioned. The actual person Melchizedek is not really the focus here—and this is what Hebrews picks up on, as she reads Genesis 14 through the lens of Psalm 110. Hebrews picks up on the idea that Melchizedek seems to appear out of nowhere: he was ‘without father, without mother, without genealogy, having neither beginning of days nor end of life’.
To our ears, this sounds a strange conclusion to draw; but it serves the point Hebrews wants to make about Jesus. Melchizedek is a priest forever because there is no account of his birth, no report of how he became a priest or a king, and no record of his death—which is when his priesthood and reign would naturally have come to an end. Thus for Hebrews there is no reason why Melchizedek shouldn’t be regarded as a priest forever—unlike Aaron and his descendants, whose priesthood most definitely had a beginning and now, because of Jesus, most definitely has come to an end.
But Hebrews isn’t concerned with Melchizedek the person as much as she’s concerned with the eternal priesthood Melchizedek represents. This is the gist of Hebrews 7: that because Jesus is a priest in the order of Melchizedek, Jesus’s priestly ministry is greater than anything that could ever have come through Moses and Aaron, good though it was while it was in place. But why is Jesus’s ministry greater or better? Because Jesus has been raised from the dead and is sitting at the right hand of God. Jesus is sitting at God’s right hand as our great high priest and king of the world.
Hebrews also says that Jesus is permanently a priest because he always lives and will never again die. And Jesus is able to save completely we who approach God through him because—and this is an important ‘because’—because Jesus lives to pray for us. God in Christ loves us so much that he prays . . . for us.
This, I suggest, should help us understand and appreciate why we have no reason to be wary or afraid of God. Jesus calls us his sisters, and he calls us his brothers, and he leads us to his Father. Because Jesus has our flesh and blood, and because he sympathises with our weaknesses, he has already taken us into the very presence of God and is praying that we will all complete our difficult journeys to see God face to face. There is no need to be wary or afraid of God, because God in Christ and by the Holy Spirit has done and is doing all that is necessary to draw us closer and closer towards God.
So how should we digest this solid food? Or, to put it differently, how should we respond to this? First of all, let’s remind ourselves that because of Jesus, our great high priest, we are priests as well, serving under him. Priests represent and connect different parties to one another. In Israel, on the Day of Atonement, the high priest would enter the holy of holies, the place of the presence of God, on behalf of the people, representing them to God. And after making atonement, the high priest would leave the holy of holies and announce God’s forgiveness of the people to them. The high priest represented God and the people of Israel to one another and connected them. Jesus, our great high priest, does the same—he represents the people to God and God to the people, and he does so forever.
But because Jesus is our great high priest, and because we are his brothers and sisters, we are the priestly family serving under him. And our priestly responsibility, in the power of the Holy Spirit, is to represent and connect Jesus to the world around us, and to bring the needs and concerns of the world, including our own, to Jesus in prayer. This is why we pray in the name of Jesus—because as our great high priest, Jesus offers our sacrifices of prayer to his Father on our behalf. It might not seem like it, but this world is cared for by a loving Father who, by his Son and his Spirit, draws us to himself to pray for peace and work for justice.
So bearing all this in mind, let’s approach God with confidence! There is no need for us to be wary or afraid of God! God will hear us when we pray; God will give us strength to act. And even when we mess up or fail to pray or act; even when our indifference and apathy paralyse us; even when we sin ‘through weakness, through negligence, through our own deliberate fault’; even then, we can be sure that God in Christ sympathises with our weaknesses and still calls us to him for an honest relationship that shows the world around us that there is nothing that God cannot forgive and restore. This is our priestly calling—not to have arrived at our destination now, but to be mindful of the road that Jesus has already cleared for us, and to call others by message and example to walk alongside us as we follow him.
We have no need to be wary or afraid of God. God is awesome, perhaps terrifyingly so. God is so unlike anything we can conceive and we cannot domesticate or manipulate God. But in Jesus we see a God who loves us so much that God is willing to take on our flesh and blood, with all of its weaknesses, to draw us closer day by day to God. This is a God we can represent to the world as we present our prayers and requests to God in the name of Jesus. And this morning, as we bow in our hearts and minds before Jesus to receive his body and blood, let’s remember his words spoken to Peter, James, and John on the mountainside: ‘Get up—and don’t be afraid!’