The Fifth Sunday in Lent, 21 March 2021
or Psalm 119:9-16
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.
If we are going to talk about Melchizedek, then we must talk not only about his name and character but about El Elyon, whose priest Melchizedek was, and a bit about Abram as well. If you are interested in this character, who will appear in the Second Reading for today from Hebrews, you might want to look at Genesis 14, specifically at verses 18-20. Melchizedek was the King of Salem, later Jerusalem, and was also priest of El Elyon. The combination of “priest/king” was common in the ancient near east, even in Israel. In II Samuel 6:17, David is portrayed as offering up a two different sacrifices (a burnt offering and a communion offering) to YHWH. Melchizedek is a priest to El, the Canaanite sky god with the appended Elyon. The translation of this name in Hebrew is “God, Most High.” There are several “El” names in the Hebrew Scriptures: El Olam, El, El Roi, El Bethel, and El Shaddai. Melchizedek congratulates Abraham on his success in the battlefield and accepts from him a tithe of his winnings in the battle. The insertion of this story into Genesis may have been a foreshadowing of the kingship of David in Jerusalem. In Genesis, Abram does not see El Elyon as the Canaanite god, but associates the god with the God of Israel, see Genesis 18:22, where Abram makes this association evident to the King of Sodom, “I have sworn to YHWH, God Most High, the creator of heaven and earth…” The commentary on the Second Reading will discuss Melchizedek’s role in Christianity.
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.
The Covenant had been in Israel’s mind for an eternity – first to Abraham, and then to his children, to Moses and the chosen people – this covenantal tradition was remembered through the ages. Now it is Jeremiah who remembers it and who sees it in a new light. He sees it as an agreement that will be an internal understanding on the part of the people, and evidenced in the laws of the fixed order of the universe. You might want to read beyond the reading assigned for today, looking at verses 35 and 36:
Who gives the sun to light the day, moon and stars to light the night; Who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar, whose name is L of hosts: before me - oracle of the L - Then would the offspring of Israel cease as a people before me forever.”
Jeremiah sees beyond the traditions of the covenant, cut in the animals in Abraham’s sacrifice, written in the Law of Moses, celebrated in the blessings given to David. Jeremiah sees and internalized covenant known by all. The evidence will be seen in creation – in the moon and stars. The fixed order of the universe will speak to the covenant that is eternally made between God and God’s people.
Breaking open Jeremiah:
1. In what ways do you know God in your heart?
2. How does creation speak to you about God?
3. In what ways have we forgotten God’s covenant with us?
Psalm 51:1-13 Miserere mei, Deus
1 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.
It is helpful to know the ascription of this psalm, “For the lead player, a David psalm, upon Nathan the prophet’s coming to him when he had come to bed with Bathsheba.” The situation will make certain passages and the general tenor of the psalm more understandable. Lutherans will recognize in the last three verses of our psalm the passages that form one of the Offertories that are sung as the gifts of bread and wine are brought up to the altar.
Should you want to understand the situation with David and Nathan the prophet better see II Samuel 12, and read the story (actually a parable) there. The psalm itself is confessional in nature, with David asking God for forgiveness for his adultery with Bathsheba. This is, however, a frame into which the author places his text on the lips of David. It was most likely composed a great deal of time after David. We have a clue in the 20 verse of the psalm, “Treat Zion kindly according to your good will, build up the walls of Jerusalem.” The reference to the rebuilding of the walls might reflect the period after the conquering of Jerusalem in 586 BCE, and the return to Israel (see Ezra and Nehemiah).
There is almost a chronology of sin and forgiveness in the psalm: “a sinner from my mother’s womb,” “you look deep within me,” “make me understand your Wisdom,” “purge me…wash me,” “that the body you have broken may rejoice.” There are seven penitential psalms used in the Liturgy of the Church, and this is a primary example. For Jews, the 13th verse is used to introduce the penitential prayer during Yom Kippur. This psalm underscores the importance of forgiveness in both the Jewish and Christian traditions. The creation of a “new heart” is well stated after hearing of the internalized covenant that Jeremiah proposes.
Breaking open Psalm 51:
1. How do you deal with sin when you are made aware of it?
2. When have you experienced a “new heart”?
3. Whom do you need to forgive?
Psalm 119:9-16 In quo corrigit?
9 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 alternate psalm for this day is the Beth section of Psalm 119, an acrostic Wisdom psalm. There is an intimate character to it, quite different than the regal nature of Psalm 51. Here it is a young man who confesses. He needs to know how the world operates, and asks God to teach him God’s ways and will. The psalmist sees God’s law and commandments as a centering point in life. The words of the law are seen as riches, and worthy of meditation. These words, this advice, is seen as eternal, just as it is seen in Psalm 51.
Breaking open Psalm 119:
1. How did you come to grips with the reality of the world in your youth?
2. What would like to do over?
3. How did your faith help or hinder you?
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.
The author of Hebrews looks at Jesus through two lenses. The first lens is the psalms where he quotes Psalm 2:7, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you,” and Psalm 110:4, ‘’You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.” The second lens is that of suffering as the author depicts Jesus at prayer in the midst of his suffering. The Melchizedek reference is understandable in so many ways. First, he was the “King of Righteousness.” Such a reference not only connects Jesus to the Davidic tradition, and the hopes for a righteous and just king, but also to Jesus’ offering of himself in death on the cross. As the hymn says, “both victim and priest”. Secondly there is the remembrance in the Abram story that Melchizedek greets Abram with both bread and wine. The author of Hebrews sees in that scene a Eucharistic connection. The priest, Jesus, offering both body and blood in the bread and wine of the Eucharistic table. In this Hebrews sees Jesus as the “source of eternal salvation.”
Breaking open Hebrews”
1. Where in the Hebrew Scriptures do you find Jesus?
2. Where do you see Jesus as suffering?
3. What does the Eucharist mean to you?
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.
It is quite telling that this Gospel reading which signals Jesus’ approach to final things, is witnessed by Gentiles, believers who are seeking Jesus. So we see here Jesus’ ministry to both Israel and to Gentiles who seek him. We hear more of this in John when Jesus talks about the “one flock” into which all peoples will be invited. There is also the sense of the time, and the plan that has been made evident, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” So we are at the cusp here, and next Sunday in the Liturgy of the Passion we will follow Jesus in his journey to the cross. This first section has a verse to which I am very much attracted, “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.” Some years ago while serving as Interim Rector at Saint Mark’s Church in Berkeley, California, I decided to draw some Stations of the Cross. I remembered this verse and used it as an illustration for the Ninth Station – Jesus falls the third time. The grain, the gospel, the Christ, the soil – all seemed to speak to me at this station.
The next paragraph in this reading is a fine meditation on life and death. Not only must Jesus deal with the reality of his dying, so must we all. It has been even more clear to us as we press to live during this time of Pandemic and trying to survive. How many things and situations that we took for granted have been wrested from us, and how many people and connections have become dearer to us. We have been detached from a great deal, and now we can in our Lent and the coming Holy Week meditate not on what we have given up, but what has been detached from us. Our service now is following Jesus on his journey of suffering and his departing from only knowing his own grief.
Even here there is temptation, “Father, save me from this hour?” No, Jesus embraces the cross and is destiny. And in the midst of this temptation and conundrum, Jesus hears the Voice again, “I have glorified it, and will glorify it again.” It is good to see Jesus in the grain, to see him in his humanity, in his weakness – for in all of that we can begin to see our redeemed selves. Jesus will be lifted up, and in being lifted up will be seen by all, and all will be drawn to him. There will be not only the lifting up on the cross, but also the being lifted up in the resurrection. That is our hope – the grain bearing fruit.
Breaking open the Gospel:
1. Do you meditate on your own death?
2. What is your hope about death?
3. What kind of fruit do you hope to bear?
General idea: Borne in our hearts
Idea 1: How do we examine ourselves to see the faith and the Covenant that is within us? (First Reading)
Idea 2: How do we examine ourselves to know confession and then forgiveness? (Psalms)
Idea 3: How do we examine ourselves to see priestly actions that we can give to others? (Second Reading)
Idea 4: How do we examine ourselves to know that we are journeying with Jesus? (Gospel)
Questions and comments copyright © 2021, Michael T. Hiller