The Permanent Priest Whalley Presbyterian Church Emery Cawsey by csgirla


									                                   The Permanent Priest
                                 Whalley Presbyterian Church
                                       Emery Cawsey
                                     December 16, 2007
                                       Hebrews 7:20-28

        Human beings long for permanence. In fact one could argue that the desire for
permanence is an instinct that lies right within our D.N.A.
The tl,h,qo qoheleth {ko-heh'-leth}, or teacher of Ecclesiastes describes this phenomenon by
Ecclesiastes, 3: 10-11
10 I have seen the burden God has laid on men.
 11 He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men;
yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.

       The teacher describes this reality of eternity being on the hearts of men as a burden
because as he notes they are unable to peak into eternity, they cannot know beginning to end, and
alongside their own temporal existence the knowledge of ‘eternity’ to the teacher becomes a
great weight for those who cannot control what happens at least from an eternal perspective, like
human beings.

         Thus, unlike the other animals, humans have to try and balance the knowledge of
‘eternity’ within the reality of their own personal temporality in this creation and it leads to much
anxiety. It is this knowledge of ‘eternity’ that leads to the natural human desire to create ones
own permanence, alongside a strong fear of losing permanence. Psychologists note that almost
all of human neurosis lies in a deep seeded fear of the loss of permanence expressed most
profoundly through the fear of death. This makes sense, as to human beings within this creation.
As it is, ‘death’ is the ultimate reality that shows that we are not inherently permanent, and thus
this fear eats at human beings…to the point where a persons psychosis becomes damaged. In a
rare moment of honesty, radical feminist and proud atheist (these two go hand in hand) Greta
Christina, commented about the reality of facing death from her perspective and through this she
showed her deep fear of loosing this permanence-

       Death can be an appalling thing to think about. Not just frightening, not just painful. It
       can be paralyzing. The fact that your life span is an infinitesimally tiny fragment in the
       life of the universe, that there is, at the very least, a strong possibility that when you die,
       you disappear completely and forever, and that in 500 years nobody will remember you
       and in five billion years Earth will fall into the Sun, this can be a profound and defining
       truth about your existence that you reflexively repulse, that you flinch away from and
       refuse to accept or even think about, consistently pushing it to the back of your mind
       whenever it sneaks up for fear that if you allow it to sit in your mind even for a minute, it
       will swallow everything else. It can make everything you do, and anything anyone else
       does, seem meaningless, trivial to the point of absurdity. It can make you feel erased,
       wipe out joy, make your life seem like ashes in your hands.
        It seems that this longing for permanence, for eternity is leading to a new strange
phenomena, originating, surprise, surprise, out of Holly wood. In a cemetery known as
‘Hollywood Forever”, (note the name) tombstones are being upgraded. The 64 acre cemetery is
        located next to Paramount Studios, and now the tombstones produce multimedia
narratives that can be viewed on the front. The narratives are on the face of the tombstones and
include music playing while still pictures of the deceased are viewed. Following this you get to
watch interviews with friends and different film clips. If one decides to make visiting this
cemetery part of their holiday down to California, they can look forward to seeing mini-
biographies of such Hollywood greats as Rudolf Valentino, Cecil B. DeMille, Douglas
Fairbanks, Jayne Mansfield and 1,500 others buried there. Their sales line on their webpage says
they are the ‘Resting Place of Hollywood’s Immortals”. The creators of this phenomenon hope to
move way beyond Hollywood stars, and provide this service (for a not so small fee) to anyone
wanting to be immortalized in this way on their tombstone. Apparently there has been no lack of
interest in this kind of ‘permanent presence’, for the creators are swamped with demands from
the living to ‘immortalize them.

        There can be no doubt that this human longing for permanence, for eternity lies deep in
our soul causing us to act quite strangely and to engage in some bizarre activities like those
mentioned above. As you know it is the longing for permanence that drives many people into
religious practices. All religions to some degree have written within their dogma some story
about eternity and the divine, and within that offer some form of hope from the faithful that if
they act in whatever ways are appropriate, not only will life go well in the here and now but there
will be some form of eternal hope for ones being. The difference within the different religions in
terms of what that ‘hope’ might look like is as diverse as one can get. For the pure Buddhist, the
hope is such that one will eventually be free of consciousness and enter into the bliss of what
they call the divine energy or the oneness that binds us all together. The Muslim, as is so well
known through the media, post 9-11 promote visions of eternal hope that range from walking
across the sword of Allah to ‘heaven’ to being welcomed in as a ‘martyr’ to receive 72 virgins.
Jewish eternal hopes as you are well aware are far more this worldly in their focus than any of
the other great religions. The problem in trying to nail down Jewish eternal or eschatological
hopes is post the early second century, Jewish theology with the destruction of the nation of
Israel by the Romans changed dramatically. The religious outlook of what has become known as
Rabbinic Judaism which means post temple Judaism became far more individualistic and insular,
leading to far more vague ideas about eternity.

         During the time of the ministry of Jesus and during the time that “the letter to the
Hebrews” was written there was a far more defined and agreed upon eternal hope for the Jewish
people. Put simply it was a hope that was based around a divinely inspired militant deliverer who
they called ‘the messiah’ or ‘the king’. This militant deliverer would come and through the
power of God bring wrath on the pagan oppressors and the evil elements within the nation of
Israel (there was much disagreement amongst the different Jewish sects as to who the ‘evil
elements’ were within Israel as humorously was noted in Monty Pythons movie ‘The Life Of
Brian’). When this militant deliverer brought in the kingdom of God, a new age would come
forth, an age of prosperity and hope within this creation, the dead would be resurrected, some to
eternal life within this new kingdom like the Martyrs who fought for YHWH against the hated
pagans (see the books of Maccabees, for an articulate presentation of this hope), some to eternal

        Jesus came within this world and, as you know, proclaimed in word, action and symbol
that he was the one true messiah, who would fulfill the hopes of Israel. What stunned those
around this Jesus was the fact that he did not act in any way like the longed for messiah was
supposed to. He hung around with the wrong people (the evil elements within Israel), he
proclaimed blessings upon the evil pagan oppressors, he did not carry a sword, and when
challenged he spent most of his time denouncing the ‘arrived’ ones within Israel. This of course
lead to the leaders of Israel doing the amazing action of working with their hated enemies, the
pagan dogs (as they would have called them) the Romans, to kill this would be messiah.
Amazingly, this messiah, though killed in a way that led everyone to see him as cursed by God
was resurrected from the dead and through this resurrection he overcame, in the eyes of his
disciples, sin, death and the devil, opening up a new hope of eternal life for those who would
follow him.

         Quickly a new church formed around this messianic figure, surprisingly full of both Jews
and Gentiles (non-Jews). The belief that was held by this new group was that this messiah figure
having conquered death was going to overcome all evil, restore creation, and return resurrecting
all of the faithful servants of this sacrificial God. The early church both Jew and Gentile
struggled on how to journey through this new found faith, as the epistles of the Apostles
universally show. One area that these Apostles felt they needed to keep the early church focused
on was the reality that this new faith was based on a hope of resurrection life given freely
through the forgiveness of sins through the sacrifice of Jesus of Nazareth on the cross. It was
living within this eternal hope that the Apostles found the foundation of the Christian faith. Paul
for his part said to the church in Rome these profound words, Romans 8:24 For in hope we were
saved. Living in hope meant, for the Apostles, looking beyond this world as it is to a time when
God through Jesus would fulfill his promise to make things right.

         Being that the faith was based on ‘hope’ there is an obvious assumption that lay within
this statement that life in the here and now may not reflect the eternity that is going to break in.
Certainly this is the experience that the church in which the sermon which we call the letter to
the Hebrews is written into. It seems that the joy of encountering this forgiving and sacrificial
God in Jesus Christ has been wavering as the reality of being persecuted by the larger
community has become a reality. It seems that the larger community, representing most likely
first century second temple Jews, though potentially low level Roman officials have found the
new community a threat and are using negative reinforcements to try and get the faithful of this
church to abandon this faith and return to their fold. This persecution has been demonstrated
through public humiliation, loss of personal property, and even the incarceration of some of the
church. The persecution it seems has taken some effect as some of the people who used to be
faithful within the community have now stopped meeting together and this action, to the
preacher of Hebrews was paramount to them abandoning the faith as the preacher of Hebrews,
like the other N.T. writers, had no paradigm for a private Christian faith, rather saw Christianity
based around the formation of a new humanity built solely on the grace and mercy of Jesus of
Nazareth, including male and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, in other words everyone.
The idea that one was a Christian outside of being part of a larger community was simply not
even a concept the biblical writers could imagine, and really is a recent phenomena birthed by
the influence of enlightenment philosophy.

        Well the writer has gone to great pains to get the faithful to repent from thinking of
leaving the community. He has done this in two ways; first he has tried to highlight just how
great a salvation that they have embraced, hoping that this would lead them to embrace the
fullness of this faith and see leaving it as the greatest loss that they could have; secondly and on a
negative side the preacher has tried to show this early church that to abandon this faith is to make
a decision with colossally negative consequences. The preacher in trying to get the church on
track has used biblical rhetoric, platonic imagery, and Greco-Roman rhetoric. Because of the
brilliance of the writer, and his use of genre’s and techniques foreign to our modern minds the
sermon can seem very difficult to comprehend.

        Last week we saw just how difficult the letter of Hebrews can be to comprehend, for
within last week’s scripture the preacher went into depth as to how Jesus was the true high priest
in the order of Melchizedek and why that made him so significant. Without going into depth on a
very difficult text, suffice it to say that the preacher has argued that a priest who comes from the
line of Melchizedek is greater than a priest who comes from the line of Levi. This is important
for the preacher for he notes that Jesus is from a far greater priesthood than the Levites and
represents thus in his words a greater hope for the faithful. In today’s scripture the preacher is
going to begin to point out what he means by Jesus as a priest of Melchizedek being able to give
the faithful a better hope, and through doing this, hoping that the faithful will realize how great a
salvation that they have inherited, and stay within the faith and love that Jesus of Nazareth offers.

        Continuing with his argument of the greatness of the Melchizedekian priesthood over
against the Levitican priesthood, he notes that the Melchizdekian priest is promised by an oath
by God (Psalm110: 4 The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind, "You are a priest
forever according to the order of Melchizedek.") In contrast with this, the Levitican priests, the
preacher notes, are not sworn by an oath, thus they do not have the same level of blessing as
Jesus, the one who is found as the eternal priest in the order of Melchizedek. With this in mind
the preacher can say why, through Jesus, the faithful have Hebrews 7:19 a better hope, through
which we approach God. This better hope, he says, lies in the fact that they have a better more
secure covenant, a covenant that is based on God’s oath, his faithfulness, not on the faithfulness
of a human of this worldly priesthood.

         The preacher building on this wants the church to note that the Levitican Priesthood is
far less stable than the priesthood of the one who comes in the line of Melchizedek, that being
Jesus of Nazareth, as is seen by the fact that they are always having to be changed because of
their temporality, their mortality, whereas Jesus as high priest in the order of Melchizedek is
guaranteed to last forever. With this in mind Jesus can do what the Levitican priests could never
dream of doing, that being able to save those who approach God through him, for he is able as a
good eternal high priest to make intercession for those who would come to God through him.

        To understand what the preacher means here one has to understand that it was the job of
the priests to make intercession for the people of God within the temple. Through interceding
and through offering sacrifices the people then could be pure for that time to be set right with
God and come and worship him within the temple grounds. The sad reality is, because of human
weakness and sinfulness the act of interceding and sacrificing was a regular occurrence, and a
priest could only enact these sacrifices as long as his mortal life lasted. Once a priest died,
obviously a person could not rely on that figure to set them right with God anymore and thus
would have to hope that another such figure would be established from among the people to do
these acts for them. With this in mind and keeping within the temple imagery of interceding and
sacrificing the preacher notes that this preacher in the order of Melchizedek (Jesus Christ) is
eternal, is without end, thus they can rely on him for eternity to be able to make intercession for
them and to save them, for he is a permanent loving figure.

        Not only can they (the disciples within this church) rely on Jesus because of his
permanence and thus his eternal ability to intercede for them, but as the preacher will go on to
note, because of who Jesus is in Character. On this, the preacher notes that it is ‘fitting’ or right
that Jesus is the one they can trust in as the good high priest because he was qualified by the
divine (holy separate), because he was qualified morally (blameless), because he was qualified in
terms of cultic purity (undefiled), because he was separate from sinners (thus he was able to
stand in the gap for them and take on as a true pure sacrifice their sin), and because he is exalted
beyond the heavens, (the Godhead has recognized and praised this priest for his action).

         This priest according to the preacher is the one to truly trust, for unlike the other
(Levitican) high priests, this high priest has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his
own sins and then for those of the people. The preacher is offering hyperbole here for the high
priest actually only offered a sacrifice for his and the peoples sin once a year. The preachers
point though is not to be missed, the Levitican high priests have to offer sacrifices on a regular
basis because they and the people that they are serving are constantly bound up in sin and
weakness, whereas this high priest as the true pure priest has offered up the one sacrifice that can
cover all sins (obviously Jesus did not have to cover up any of his own sins as he had none) once
and for all when he offered himself. Interesting to note that the idea of one person being able
through self-sacrifice take the sins of others upon themselves, was well established within the
Jewish scriptures, the most notable being the well known suffering servant psalm found in Isaiah.
         Isaiah 53:4-5 4 Surely he has borne our infirmities and carried our diseases; yet we
         accounted him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted.
         5 But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was
         the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed.
         Extra biblically one can also find this ideology found within the famous inter-testamental
books of Maccabees, we find one of the figures upon his martyrdom asking God to use the
sacrifice of his life as a means of forgiving the people. Even though this was a well known idea,
the first century, second temple Jews on a whole could not comprehend God moving in such a
way and thus dismissed Jesus as being the messiah who could bring forgiveness of sins to the
people of God.

        The preacher though, is one first century, second temple Jew who has no problem seeing
Jesus as the one who could and did offer the one sacrifice when he offered himself for their
sakes. Thus with all of this in mind the preacher can end this mini-section of his larger argument
about the greatness of the priesthood of Jesus by making one last comparison with the Levitican
priesthood. The preacher notes that the law, wherein the Levitican priests get their authority
appoints high priests who are subject to weakness for they are mere humans, unable within
themselves to bring the presence of God to the people. Unlike this, the one who the preacher
calls the word of the oath (again the oath he speaks of is out of Psalm110: 4 The LORD has
sworn and will not change his mind, "You are a priest forever according to the order of
Melchizedek.") came after the law or in other words trumps the law according to the logic of the
preacher, appoints not just some weak human priest, but a Son who has been made complete or
perfect forever, and thus able to bring the presence of God to the people and able to fulfill the
task of the high priest, that being to set the people right with God.

        Being that human beings have eternity so set in their hearts it is amazing to some that
they are so happy to become fixated on the temporal. I don’t think that this is actually that
amazing at all. I think that feminist writer had it figured out pretty well when she said of staring
into the face of death (or in other words having to face the temporality of her existence), this can
be a profound and defining truth about your existence that you reflexively repulse, that you flinch
away from and refuse to accept or even think about, consistently pushing it to the back of your
mind whenever it sneaks up for fear that if you allow it to sit in your mind even for a minute, it
will swallow everything else. I think it is actually the desire to avoid the reality of who we are in
light of this eternity in our hearts that leads us to worship the things that are temporal with such a

         Just look at how most people, at least in the west, approach the holiday season. For most
of those celebrating the season, the focus is on temporal things. Whether that be material
possessions or human relationships, these become the focus of what our world generally sees as
‘Christmas’. The commercials all are focussed on either the purchasing of products or the
consumption of products. The overall theme being presented is… this is the season where you
show your love to those around you, by what you get them. There is one particular commercial
making the rounds where a couple comes into the store and the man asks the clerk where they
can find the product that will lead to their son saying, “oh my gosh, this is the greatest gift ever,
you are the best mom and dad!” The clerk replies oh that is found down isle 5 or something like
that. The woman then asks the clerk where the product is for her daughter that will have her say,
“this is unbelievable, oh my god (interesting addition of the name of the divine), I can’t believe
you would do this for me, you love me so much…etc.” Again the clerk calmly sends the parent
down the isle where this magical item is supposed to appear.

        The sad part of this reality is, the season offers so much more than the temporal things
this age offers us, even relationship with our loved ones. As the writer of Hebrews is stating
throughout this section, the amazing, stunning, wonderful truth, is we have a God who is eternal,
who is not fleeting and temporary. What Christmas is about is the story about this God coming
into creation, breaking into the human existence, embracing it fully, not simply so he might do a
few nice acts to those around him while he lived on earth, not merely to teach a few timeless
truths about the divine so one might have a bit of a better existence through their temporal
existence, no matter how much the liberals might yell in the opposite direction, but so that he
might come alongside us, become one of us, become our priest, setting us right for eternity, and
offering us the ‘better hope’ of an eternal existence in a kingdom of love, grace, and mercy.
Because this god who our culture gives some lip service to, did act in this way, we as human
beings are welcomed to stand up an cheer for the fear of death has been lifted, for the one true
creator God did become fully human, and as the pure, undefiled, blameless one, was willing to
lay down in an act of pure selfless sacrificial love, his life so that we for no other reason than his
mercy alone might have eternal life. This is amazing news, which if properly understood should
transform ones existence.

        Sadly it doesn’t, for to most people to accept what Christmas is about means that one has
to relinquish control and come to the living God by faith, and hope alone. The story itself does
not promise that ones temporal existence will become instantaneously better, with one achieving
health, wealth and happiness, but promises that God has overcome and simply longs within his
deep sacrificial love to be trusted. For many people that is not good enough, and with their
longing to be in control and hold whatever values or passions they believe are important. So they
turn to try and work it out for themselves and the temporal becomes the center. Oh the burden or
eternity (and their lacking the ability to attain it in and of themselves) is still on their hearts, but
like the feminist lady from the beginning they simply push that aside, embracing more fully the
things of this age that might medicate them through the awful feelings. Oh this is not to say that
they will not ‘celebrate’ Christmas, but it will be in the cultural way of seeking after feelings of
nostalgia, and embracing more stuff. As for the God of which the season claims to celebrate,
well that God must be pushed aside for one needs to hold one’s own values, morals and ethics,
and one cannot have a higher being dictating, even if it is loving, how one should be and the
things one should embrace.

        As sad as it is for the average person to come into the season with this view of life, what
is even sadder is when Christians come to the season, missing either through ignorance or
arrogance the depth of what this celebration actually means. It is so easy to read a text like the
one we went over today and miss what an amazing truth lies within it. It is so easy to miss the
wonderful truth that because of the birth of Christ we are no longer bound by a system but are
bound in love by a saviour; that we are no longer wrapped up in a religion but are wrapped up
into a relationship. The truth that the writer of Hebrews wants to get across here to that church is
don’t go back to some two bit religion when you have before you such an amazing God, such an
amazing high priest who offers such a better way. Don’t go to some human priests who are
sinful, who are temporary, who are weak so that you might get a blessing in hopes that your
temporary earthly walk might go better, rather run to the one true high priest who wants to hear
your prayers directly, who can and does stand up for you for eternity in the very throne room of
God. I know that this might go against some of you who were raised in different traditions, but I
must, with all due respect to my Christian brethren who practice their faith within those
traditions state this truth, the days of having human intermediaries between God and the people
of God are over, in other words there is no more use for human priests, post the incarnation of
Jesus of Nazareth, for the true high priest has come and alone performs the task to completeness.
The great Swiss theologian Karl Barth on this rightfully noted,

        In His (Jesus) ministry, unlike other priests and high priests, He cannot and need not be
        replaced by any other priestly person. He does not have and exercise this office within
        the framework of an institution, as one of its many representative, but on the basis of an
        oath which God swore by Himself, and therefore as a Priest forever…In this way the
           work of Jesus Christ is at once the essence and fulfilment of all other priestly work but
           also that which replaces it and makes it superfluous…”1

         With this in mind it is imperative that Christians, when they come to the Christmas
season and throughout their Christian worship, abandon ‘religion’ and the trappings that lie
within it both of the individualistic and corporate or institutional variety and embrace the truth
that they each and as a group have a high priest. There is no need then to seek the right system or
the right holy person to stand in the gap for they have the very God of heaven standing in the
throne room of God constantly standing up for them and longing for relationship with them.
Thus when they come to celebrate his birth they don’t come to engage in some religious act
consecrated by some religious institution, whether that be the Presbyterian, Baptist, Catholic or
whatever other church, but they come as children of the most high, celebrating freely the truth
that God has broken in through this stunning way of becoming fully human, being born in a
manger, of walking through this world full of thistles and thorns, sin and death, freely giving up
his life so that he could overcome these things and bring forth through his resurrection a new

         With this in mind, this Christmas eve we don’t come together to simply commemorate a
religious event that occurred thousands of years ago, as if it really has nothing to do with who we
are now or how we act, outside of some vague sense of commitment to remember the faith of our
forbearers. No we come this Christmas eve to celebrate the absolute truth that God is Emanuel
(God with us), that he has transcended the barrier and now is in our midst. We come in awe and
worship before the throne of God who has become our great high priest, throwing all to the wind,
even his own earthly life so that we might live forever through him. When we stare into that
manger we do not stare simply at a helpless child with some vague religious significance as the
pagans do during the season that surprisingly has been dedicated to Jesus, rather we stare into the
reality that we have a high priest who is not ashamed of us, that we come to the real living God,
who, rather than longing to destroy us because of our weaknesses, longs to embrace us and call
us again his children, pouring out upon us grace and mercy because he has experienced what we
have and knows just how much we suffer, and struggle in our weakness. Yes this is ultimately
what Christmas should mean to us. We give lip service religiously to ‘joy’ in advent season but
most believers, because of a complete lack of understanding of the divine have absolutely no
idea why in God’s green earth, as it is, we should have ‘joy’ with the birth of Christ, because to
them they have no idea the depth of what this birth means. To so many God is still their enemy,
not their friend, he is one who truly cannot save them, rather one who longs for them to save
themselves, he is the fickle no god of fundamentalism and liberalism so well spewed out into our
minds this past century! Sadly far too many Christian people have become disciples of ‘Calvin’,
Wesley’, ‘Schleiermacher’, ‘Finney’ ‘Willard’, ‘Borg’, Crossan’, or say ‘Piper’, and miss
becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ.

        Oh how the world longs to hear about the truth of Christ found through the writing of our
friend longing to bring that church back to order in his sermon we have chosen to name ‘The
Letter to the Hebrews’. How many people are out there lost and confused without a hope longing
to hear just about a high priest, a God who rather than longing to smite them, intercedes for those
who come to him by faith alone. How many long to encounter a God who looks at them with
    Barth, K., Church Dogmatics: Index Volume p. 369
love, not worrying about how many social justice events they have been apart of, how rightly
they have memorized the text, how well they can recite the confessions, but simply worrying that
they realize his love, abandon themselves and run into his arms.

         I know it is a pipe dream, but it is this dream that keeps me moving forth as a person
called by this God of grace alone to teach and preach this gospel. It is a dream that people will
abandon religion and her trappings and come to this amazing God who encountered me by grace
alone, and come to the realization that through faith in him alone they have salvation, a great
high priest, an eternal high priest, far greater than some religious figure than me, for truly
through him they have a high priest who can, Hebrews 7:25 save those who approach God
through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. Please do not think that I am
deluded! I am quite aware that many will come to this season missing the amazing truth I have
just reiterated through the preacher of Hebrews to you. I have no doubt that for many two bit
religions, or alongside our feminist lady at the beginning, bull faced human centered arrogance
will reign this season. Having said this I have hope that those who know Christ who have
encountered him will be reminded of the amazing ultimate truth of this story and will come with
a depth of worship this season that they have never felt before knowing his love, and alongside
this, that those who have never encountered his love will realize through his Spirit alone the
amazing love of this God!

        It is true that some people will be satisfied with their permanence coming from an audio
visual display on a worn out tombstone, or something even less than this. The good news is this,
it does not have to be this way, peace, hope, joy, and love has broken in, a high priest has
arrived, has done what for humans is impossible, set humanity right with God, forgiven sins, and
brought a high priest who is eternal and who cares before the throne of the living God. With this
in mind, I will choose to come this season with the amazing truth on my heart that makes me cry
out, Halleluiah, for unto us a son is given, praise God, Emanuel has come, the one who truly can
save me for he is the good God who will never abandon us, and who will bring us into his
kingdom forever.


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