12 March 2018

The Fifth Sunday in Lent, 18 March 2018

Jeremiah 31:31-34
Psalm 51:1-13 or Psalm 119:9-16
Hebrews 5:5-10
St. John 12:20-33

Background: Melchizedek

We meet Melchizedek, “King of Righteousness” in an encounter with Abraham in the Book of Genesis. His gifts to Abraham of bread and wine tie him symbolically with the Eucharist, and thus with the ministry of Jesus. The author of Hebrews in speaking of Christ’s priesthood makes reference to this (see the Second Reading). You might want to look at Psalm 110 where the psalmist exalts the Davidid monarchy by joining it to the priestly monarchy of Melchizedek. The conjoining of these two distinct roles was common in the Ancient Near East, where kingship often functioned in a priestly fashion as well. Thus, Melchizedek also becomes a precursor of Jesus who functions as prophet, priest, and king. This complex figure adds a richness not only to the Patriarchal Saga, but to the traditions concerning our Lord as well.

First Reading: Jeremiah 31:31-34

The days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah. It will not be like the covenant that I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt—a covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, says the Lord. But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the Lord,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the Lord; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.

We have here a lovely reading from the “Book of Comfort”, and this particular pericope is known as The Oracle of Promise. We must be wary as Christians, however, from seeing in the promise of a new covenant the “New Testament” of Christianity. Perhaps a review of Romans 11 might be helpful at this point, giving you a renewed orientation to God’s intents over against Israel. This new relationship with God is formed following the punishments that resulted from Israel’s disobedience and subsequent exile. Now there is a new agreement between Israel and God, and like Melchizedek we can see in this covenant and his kingship a foreshadowing of the covenant made in Christ. What is most fascinating about Jeremiah’s promise is the interior nature of this new relationship with God. It becomes a part of the people, formed in their very bodies and souls. The implied intimacy of “Know the Lord” helps us understand the closeness of this covenant between God and humankind. It is known in God’s love for them and in the forgiveness that God offers them.

Breaking open Jeremiah:
  1. How intimate are you with God?
  2. Where in your life is God most evident?
  3. What does it mean to “Know God”?

Psalm 51:1-13 Miserere mei, Deus

     Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; *
in your great compassion blot out my offenses.
2      Wash me through and through from my wickedness *
and cleanse me from my sin.
3      For I know my transgressions, *
and my sin is ever before me.
4      Against you only have I sinned *
and done what is evil in your sight.
5      And so you are justified when you speak *
and upright in your judgment.
6      Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, *
a sinner from my mother's womb.
7      For behold, you look for truth deep within me, *
and will make me understand wisdom secretly.
8      Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; *
wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.
9      Make me hear of joy and gladness, *
that the body you have broken may rejoice.
10    Hide your face from my sins *
and blot out all my iniquities.
11    Create in me a clean heart, O God, *
and renew a right spirit within me.
12    Cast me not away from your presence *
and take not your holy Spirit from me.
13    Give me the joy of your saving help again *
and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.

Lutherans will recognize this psalm from the Offertory Verse that is often sung at the Eucharist, “Create in me a clean heart, O God…”. Others will recognize it in the Daily Office, and in its connection to Confession and Absolution. The first two verses, elided from our translation, help us in understanding the intent of the Psalm, “For the lead player, a David psalm, upon Nathan the prophet’s coming to him when he had come to bed with Bathsheba.” So we have a penitential psalm of use to anyone. The psalm quickly gives us knowledge of our general condition – the one that speaks of the need for penitence and forgiveness. “In transgression was I conceived, and in offense my mother spawned me.”[1] We are not talking so much here about original sin, but rather the author’s notion that his life is by nature sinful, perhaps stemming from the sexual act that gave him being. Nonetheless, the psalm and life itself speaks for the need of contrition and purification. The hyssop branch was used ritually to sprinkle water or blood in rites of purification. Thus the author asks not to be violently removed from God’s presence, nor to have the Spirit, the ru’ah of God be taken away, as if to take away life itself.

Breaking open Psalm 51:
  1. What does it mean to you to have a clean heart?
  2. How do you make that possible for yourself?
  3. What role do others play in that process?


Psalm 119:9-16 In quo corrigit?

     How shall a young man cleanse his way? *
By keeping to your words.
10    With my whole heart I seek you; *
let me not stray from your commandments.
11    I treasure your promise in my heart, *
that I may not sin against you.
12    Blessed are you, O Lord; *
instruct me in your statutes.
13    With my lips will I recite *
all the judgments of your mouth.
14    I have taken greater delight in the way of your decrees *
than in all manner of riches.
15    I will meditate on your commandments *
and give attention to your ways.
16    My delight is in your statutes; *
I will not forget your word.

The first verse of this pericope indicates a wisdom-like character to this psalm with the question that it poses. The young man is the “innocent” who seeks knowledge of the world and of life. This persona seeks God, and asks for instruction in God’s intents and will. The young person characterizes himself as desirous of God and delighted with what it is that God seeks.

Breaking open Psalm 119:
  1. In what ways are you an innocent in the world?
  2. What “wisdom” do you seek?
  3. What are the places in which you seek it?

Second Reading: Hebrews 5:5-10

Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest, but was appointed by the one who said to him,

“You are my Son,
today I have begotten you”;

as he says also in another place,

“You are a priest forever,
according to the order of Melchizedek.”

In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him, having been designated by God a high priest according to the order of Melchizedek.

It is helpful, I think, to read the initial verses of this chapter, the verses that immediately precede our pericope.

1.     Every high priest is taken from among men and made their representative before God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins.
2.    He is able to deal patiently* with the ignorant and erring, for he himself is beset by weakness
3.    and so, for this reason, must make sin offerings for himself as well as for the people.
4.    No one takes this honor upon himself but only when called by God, just as Aaron was.

The author introduces us into the whole notion of high priestly service so that he might then introduce us into the High Priest Jesus. All that follows in verse 5 depends on the notions that have been introduced in the first four verses. Thus Jesus himself is called by God just as Aaron was. Luke Timothy Johnson makes an interesting observation about the elevation of Jesus,

“With regard to Jesus as exalted Lord, then, the language of glory and honor necessarily has two levels of meaning: that of human status elevation, and that of entering into the divine presence.”[2]

In a way we have a reference to the two natures of Christ here in this language about the elevation of Jesus. The first quotation supporting the author’s argument is from Psalm 2:7, and the second quotation is from Psalm 109, inviting us to compare the high priesthood of Jesus with that of Melchizedek. The author will lead us in subsequent verses and chapters into the acts of this High Priest, Jesus. As we approach Holy Week, we too will be able to use this lens to see Jesus as the hymn says “victim and priest.”

Breaking open Hebrews:
  1. What does it mean to be priest?
  2. In what ways are you a priest?
  3. In what ways do you imitate Christ?

The Gospel: St. John 12:20-33

Now among those who went up to worship at the festival were some Greeks. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, and said to him, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Philip went and told Andrew; then Andrew and Philip went and told Jesus. Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Those who love their life lose it, and those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life. Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there will my servant be also. Whoever serves me, the Father will honor.

“Now my soul is troubled. And what should I say—‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it is for this reason that I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd standing there heard it and said that it was thunder. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to indicate the kind of death he was to die.

What precedes this pericope in the Gospel of John are a series of preparations for the Passion. Now, however, the hour has come. It is important that we see that it is Greeks who have come to see Jesus, and with the events of Holy Week we will need to see them as involved in its outcome as is Israel. In 10:16 we understand Jesus’ intent to unite those who do not belong with those who do into “one flock”. John points us to what the one flock is called to do, the loosing of life, the gaining of it. The notion of the dying grain of wheat is poignant and a good symbol.[3]  It is an example of what Jesus will demonstrate in moving from death to life. What Jesus experiences in Mark at his baptism, is stated again but differently here in John. One wonders if this is an interior experience much like the voice in Mark. But Jesus makes it evident to those around him, given for their sake, not just for his. Now the exaltation, the being “lifted up”, takes on other meanings and realities.

Breaking open the Gospel:
  1. What does the idea of “one flock” mean to you?
  2. In what ways is this a difficult concept for you?
  3. Who is gathered with you at the cross?

Question: What should I be doing as I prepare for Holy Week?


1.     (Jeremiah) How deeply is God’s promise written in your heart?
2.     How do we see God’s promise in our parish?
3.     (Either Psalm) How do we deal with sin in which we were conceived?
4.     Explore the high priestly duties and Jesus’ acts.
5.     Who has been invited by us into the one flock?
6.     How do we lift up Christ for them?

After breaking open the Word, you might want to pray the Collect for Sunday:

Almighty God, you alone can bring into order the unruly wills and affections of sinners: Grant your people grace to love what you command and desire what you promise; that, among the swift and varied changes of the world, our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joys are to be found; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Questions and comments copyright © 2018, Michael T. Hiller

[1]     Alter, R. (2007), The Book of Psalms, A Translation with Commentary, W.W. Norton & Company, New York, Kindle Edition, Location 4429.
[2]     Johnson, L. (2006), Hebrews: A Commentary (The New Testament Library), Presbyterian Publishing Corporation, Louisville, Kindle Edition, Location 4211
[3]     I used this image in a series of Stations of the Cross for Station IX, Jesus falls the third time. It is reproduced as an illustration above.

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