Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year B, RCL
Jeremiah 31:31-34, Hebrews 5:5-10, John 12:20-33
When we think of Jesus, we often think of him being amongst the people. We find him in the temple where people are listening to him curiously. On the streets, people come up to him wanting to be healed. In houses, there are lines of people waiting to be helped. But today is different. Some Greeks are seeking him but instead of finding him directly, they speak to Philip first. Phillip then speaks to Andrew, and together they tell Jesus that some guys are here to see you. We don’t even know if these men ever meet Jesus but it sounds unlikely. What we do know is that Jesus takes their visitation as a sign that the times have changed. Much as the wise men were a sign to King Herod that a new era is beginning with the birth of a king, baby Jesus, the Greeks were a sign to Jesus that the world now knows who he is. His fame has gone beyond local villages and the Jewish people.
As Christians, we have some idea of who Christ is, but our readings today are attempting to give us some specific details. The Hebrews passage tells us that Christ did not glorify himself in becoming a high priest in the order of Melchizedek. The author of Hebrews is quoting from the psalmist to show us how special Jesus really is. The psalmist speaks of Melchizedek, an obscure character of which little is known, and he is likely referring to the King of Salem who is not only a king but also the “Priest of the Most High.” We find this king and priest back in Genesis, where Melchizedek is the one who brought bread and wine to Abraham and offers him a blessing. In return Abraham gives him 10% of what he owns. It is also possible that the psalmist was talking about the first king of Jerusalem who united priestly dignity with royalty. [i] Outside the book of Hebrews, these are the only two places where Melchizedek is mentioned. In either case, Melchizedek is kingly, priestly and of high authority. This is the imagery that the author of Hebrews wants us to have when we think of Christ. He is more than a king, more than a high priest. What he is, does not come from ancestry but something more elusive and rare. He is the Messiah.
The author of Hebrews establishes Jesus as the Messiah and we are then brought into traditional imagery of Gethsemane. “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.” We almost feel the anguish that Christ is experiencing and we are all but waiting for the line we read in, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.” Yet even in his anguish, Christ is still obedient to the Father. “Yet not what I want but what you want.”
But John won’t let us bring Christ down to such human standards. In John’s account, Christ says “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. A voice that is reminiscent of Jesus’ baptism or the transfiguration. In these accounts, God’s affirmation seems to be directed at Christ. “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you, I am well pleased”[ii] But in John’s account, we have God's voice thundering out in agreement of what Christ says. According to John, Christ doesn’t need God’s affirmation. God’s voice affirms to us that He and Christ are of the same mind. It is us, the people, who need help recognizing who Jesus is.
We all experience life differently. Even if we witness the same event we may have different perspectives. Lawyers know that several witnesses to the same crime may recall what happened very differently, occasionally even contradictory to each other. Some people witnessed God’s voice like thunder. It wasn’t a voice of any kind just a natural phenomenon. Others thought it sounded like an angel speaking to Jesus. However the people heard this voice John makes it clear that the voice was intended for us, not Christ. The voice was a sign for the people that something new is happening and that Christ is no ordinary human being.
All three of today’s passages are telling us that Christ is a new beginning and Christ’s death and resurrection mark the establishment of a new covenant with all humankind. Under the old covenant, the law was handed down from one person to another. The law was available to those who heard it or read it and accepted it. For some people, it was viewed as a burden in which no one could follow. But to Jeremiah, there is a new covenant that puts the law within everyone. It is not written on scrolls of parchment but on our hearts. The main change in the law was accessibility. With the law being within us, each of us has equal access to the law. Each of us is in a covenantal relationship with God even if we hear God’s voice differently. Or as Jeremiah says, “they shall all know me, [no matter what their status in life,] . . . for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” As Christians, we read this passage as a prophecy about Christ in which we are offered a new beginning every time we turn to him.
Here in Lent, we may feel like the Greeks who have come to talk to Jesus. We are waiting to hear what he has to say. But instead of talking to us, we are put on hold. For in a few days’ time, we will witness a sign that completes the new covenant. On Easter morning, after his death, we will find an empty tomb. This is the sign that God’s grace is manifold and that we will experience life everlasting.
[i] Jewish Encyclopedia http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/10602-melchizedek
[ii] Mark 1:11 & Luke 3:22