How long can a leader hold on to power for? While there are some remarkably long-lived leaders in todays world, our Queen being a supreme example, we all know that no human leadership can last indefinitely. President Mugabe of Zimbabwe tried hard to stay in power forever but was ousted at the end of last year at the age of 94. Recent reports suggest that he has not gone quietly and still questions the legality of his removal from office. In China, the communist party has just agreed that the president Xi Jinping can remain as head of the country indefinitely scrapping the previous two terms rule which had been put in place to prevent abuses of power. We can be fearful of rulers who attempt to stay in place long after their sell by date, but the bible speaks to us of an authority which is for ever about which we do not need to fear.
Today’s new testament reading comes from the letter to the Hebrews. We do not know who the author was, but it is usually assumed that he wrote to a community of Jewish Christian believers. This is because he bases so much of what he has to say on the old testament and the sacrificial system of temple worship.
In the passage this morning, (Hebrews 5.5-10) there is mention of a character called Melchizedek of whom there is no introduction. He would have been familiar to the Jewish readers of the letter, but he is less known to us. To begin to understand, we need to go back to Genesis and chapter 14. Abraham has come from Ur of the Chaldees to live in Canaan where he must do battle with the native kings. Following one such encounter, he returns to find another adversary waiting for him, the King of Sodom. Mysteriously this encounter is interrupted by another. Genesis says: ‘And King Melchizedek of Salem brought bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High.’ (Genesis 14.18) Melchizedek then blesses Abraham and Abraham gives him a tenth of everything; a tithe.
Who then is Melchizedek? The name means ‘King of Righteousness’. Salem, from which Jerusalem gets its name means peace. (Hebrews 7.2) So, Melchizedek is a figure of righteousness and peace. These belong together as there cannot be true peace without the moral virtue and truth which characterise righteousness.
We have no genealogy for Melchizedek, no family tree. The book of Genesis is very good at giving the ancestry of every character, but nothing is recorded for Melchizedek. (Hebrews 7.3)
Melchizedek is both a priest and a king. That may seem an odd concept to us, mixing religion and politics, but the joining of priest and king was certainly not unknown in the ancient world. Actually, if you dig around in the coronation service of our own monarch, the anointing of the new sovereign conveys a priestly element to the role. In Melchizedek lies both the sense of a just ‘King of Righteousness’ and one who makes an atonement, who through sacrifice makes good the unrighteousness of the world thus making peace (Ephesians 2.14). Is that not the kind of rule, the sort of authority we would be happy to have continue forever?
The writer to the Hebrews quotes psalm 110 when he says that Jesus is ‘a priest forever according to the order of Melchizedek.’ (Hebrews 5.6) This is important, although it’s meaning may not be obvious to us. The priests in the temple who maintained the sacrificial system which we talked about a couple of weeks ago were priests according to the order of Aaron and the Levites. Aaron was the brother of Moses and a descendent of Abraham. As the people of Israel began to establish themselves as a nation having fled from Egypt, it was Aaron who was called upon to act as priest to the people. After he blotted his copybook with the golden calf fiasco, the tribe of Levi took on the role and only their sons could be presented as priests. Jesus did not belong to the tribe of Levi, but to the tribe Judah. According to the rule book, he could not be a priest. But our writer today says that he is a priest, one forever, not according to Aaron and the Levites but according to Melchizedek. Why is that important? Because in our writer’s eyes, it is a far superior order of priesthood. Aaron and the Levites were all descended from Abraham. Yet, before they had even been born, Abraham had given his tithes and his worship to Melchizedek and been blessed by him as we have already seen. Because of the principle that inferior people are always blessed by the superior, Melchizedek and his order of priesthood must be superior to Abraham and his descendants argues the writer to the Hebrews a little later in the book. (Hebrews 7. 4-10) Jesus uses a similar argument against the Pharisees quoting David again in Psalm 110 when he refers to the Messiah as Lord. Thus, David makes clear that Messiah is greater than he is. (Matthew 22.44)
Don’t worry if you haven’t followed the argument or think it an odd one. The key thing to grasp is that Jesus is qualified to be the priest who in his own body makes the sacrifice which takes away the sin of the world. Jesus is not a priest by merit of his birth, or academic qualification or because he was able to get through the protracted church selection process. Rather, he learned obedience to his father, facing the bitter death of the cross despite the prayers of agony in Gethsemane. (Hebrews 5.7) He is the grain of wheat in our gospel reading which must fall into the ground and die in order to produce much fruit. (John 12.24) The fruit is the new covenant in his blood that Jeremiah foretells in the old testament reading. (Jeremiah 31.31)
Today is Passion Sunday and we contemplate the passion of Christ, that is his suffering born out of an intense love for the world. As we do that in the days which lead to Good Friday, to the mount of crucifixion, it is words from the writer to the Hebrews which remind us just what was at stake here. Jesus is not just any martyr, another good person suffering for doing the right thing. He is an eternal priest and king of the order of Melchizedek. Unlike the priests of Aaron and the Levites who had to constantly enter and re-enter the temple to deal with their sin and that of the world, in that moment of unbelievable suffering, Jesus offers the ultimate sacrifice of the new covenant or promise into which we are privileged to enter and celebrate in bread an wine as he bids us do. We can have utter confidence in his work. It is that fact which the Hebrew writer is at pains to point out.
But I don’t know about you, I am still intrigued by that character Melchizedek. Who was he really? Was he human? Was he an angel or what? Is it just possible that he was Jesus, the Lord himself, making a brief old testament appearance? When we use the words of the Nicene creed, we say that we believe Jesus was ‘begotten from the Father before all worlds’. The opening chapter of John’s gospel talks about Jesus as the eternal word having a hand in creating the world. If all that is true, it would be odd that Jesus does not make any appearance in this world until Christmas. Is the fact that Genesis records no family tree for Melchizedek a clue? Is there not a further clue in that the name, ‘King of Righteousness and Peace’ which fits Jesus so well? The blessing of Abraham with bread and wine; is that not another little give away? That the priesthood of Melchizedek is forever is surely also significant. Jesus’ perfect reign and priesthood is forever. Only he can rule immortally in righteousness and peace. Although we might fear human leaders, with Julian of Norwich, we must affirm: ‘All shall be well.’ And yet on Passion Sunday, we contemplate the death of the immortal. How can we explain that?
Charles Wesley’s great hymn ‘And can it be…’ should have the last word:
’Tis mystery all: th’Immortal dies:
Who can explore His strange design?
In vain the firstborn seraph tries
To sound the depths of love divine.
’Tis mercy all! Let earth adore,
Let angel minds inquire no more.
Passion Sunday 18.03.2018