Sermons & services

Sermon for Lent 2: Melchizedek

Published Monday 6th March 2023, at 12:55 p.m.

We are continuing our look at the Old Testament, but reading it in the light of the risen Jesus. There’s nothing new in this. In the first three or four centuries of the Church, this is how men and women being prepared for baptism were taught about the meaning of the Hebrew Scriptures. Taught that they weren’t just edifying stories, or simply guidance for Christian living. Though they are all those things. But they also teach us something about Jesus, about our salvation, about what it means to be saved through the passion, death, and resurrection of the Lord. So last week we started in what for many people may have been an odd place: Mary and seeing her as the New Eve. And this week we’re looking at another character which may surprise some of you: the enigmatic figure of Melchizedek. It’s a name mentioned only twice in the Old Testament, and only once in the New Testament, in the Letter to the Hebrews. So who is this mysterious figure and why does he matter? After the battle against the five kings in Genesis chapter 14, Melchizedek steps out of nowhere into the story of Abraham and then vanishes again just as mysteriously. We know nothing of his ancestry, his family, or his exploits. All we know is that he was the ruler of nearby Salem—the city that would one day be called “Jerusalem”—and that he was called “priest of God Most High” (Genesis 14:18). Centuries later, after the coming of Christ, the author of the Letter to the Hebrews looked at the account of Melchizedek and drew a number of analogies between him and the ultimate High Priest and King of Jerusalem: Jesus. The Letter to the Hebrews drew parallels between the two figures, suggesting that what Melchizedek was symbolically, Jesus Christ is literally. Twice in Hebrews chapter 5 – the only book in the New Testament to call Jesus a high priest – Jesus is described as ‘a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek’. The writer is quoting from Psalm 110: thou art a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. That psalm was written for a future king, but the Church read it as typology – a prophecy of a future messianic figure who descends from the line of Melchizedek. One who has no beginning and no end: in other words, one who is eternal. The psalm says this future king will be given a greater honour, greater power and greater authority than any human king: he sits at God’s right hand, the place of highest honour as God’s vice-regent and representative (110:1). His authority is from God and as vice-regent he exercises God’s royal rule. He defeats the king’s enemies, and protects God’s people. The writer to the Hebrews concludes that this new Melchizedek is Jesus: king and priest. Hebrews chapter 5 says Jesus as high priest was appointed by God, atones for sins, deals ‘gently with the ignorant and wayward’, ‘offered up prayers and supplications’, suffered, and ultimately ‘became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him’ (5.1-10). So according to the Letter to the Hebrews, Melchizedek tells us about who Jesus is. The Jewish people of Jesus’ time were expecting a Messiah who would definitively usher in God’s rule, defeating Israel’s enemies, and renewing and purifying the worship of God in Jerusalem. But the Church said that Jesus came to do that, not just for the Jewish people, but for all people. He would defeat the enemies of God: sin and evil and death. He would usher in the Kingdom of God: the definitive rule of God for all people. And he himself would be the Temple: God amongst his people. Jesus too is a priest forever (7.17), not through the descendants of Levi (7.11) but after the order of Melchizedek: the one without beginning or end. He is the true King of peace: king of Salem because through him we have peace with God, with neighbour, with ourselves. Unlike the Levitical High Priest, Jesus doesn’t make continual sacrifices in a temple. Instead, Jesus made one sacrifice on the cross that atones for sin once and for all. Atonement. At-one-ment. Unity. Unity with God. Unity with our neighbour. Unity within ourselves. Through the prophet Isaiah, God tells us: “your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear”. However, we understand sin, it causes a separation between us and God; between us and neighbour; within ourselves. The word for priest in Latin is pontifex. From there the French get their word for bridge – pont – or in Italian: ponte. Jesus is the bridge. Jesus is the priestly mediator because as both God and human, He is the bridge back to God: He is the one who re-unites heaven and earth, the divine and the human, within Himself. He did it through his Incarnation – he is both truly human and truly God. His whole life was an offering to God, an offering of love, for love, to love, which found its fulfilment in His Passion and Death. He is the one who has reconciled us to God in one body by the Cross because he “made there (by his one oblation of himself once offered) a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world”. And that reconciliation stands eternally, never having to be repeated because he is the eternal high priest after the order of Melchizedek, and so that offering of himself which reconciles us to God is eternal and unrepeatable. The Book of Revelation shows us this heavenly presence when it describes “between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain”. When the icon of the Resurrection appears at Easter on the stand over there, you’ll notice that Jesus is shown breaking down the doors of hell. The broken down doors are Cross shaped because it is through the Cross that sin and evil and death and hell have been defeated. As St Catherine of Genoa once said: paradise now has no gates and any who wish to may enter in. Jesus, the high priest, is the one who heals the breach between us and God. He is the one who has re-united heaven and earth: restoring the bridge between sinful humanity and our heavenly home. Because Jesus is a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. As the Church sings in the Exultet at the Easter vigil O truly blessed night, when things of heaven are wed to those of earth, and divine to the human. (From The Exultet, sung at the Easter Vigil)