Field of Dreams: if you build it, they will come!

Epiphany 2: Evensong
January 17, 2012, 9:56 am
Filed under: Sermons

A sermon preached at All Saints, Clifton, 15th January 2012

Ps 96: Sing to the Lord a new song, sing to the Lord all the earth. Is 60.9-22: Jerusalem among the nations. Heb 6.17-7.10: Abraham and Melchizedek.

It is always something of a challenge, to see whether the various bits of Scripture that we are given for one service can be woven together to offer us a coherent message. The Psalm, and the two readings tonight, seem at first sight to have little in common. There’s the challenge!

Let’s start with Abraham and Melchizedek, the subject of the second Lesson, from the Epistle to the Hebrews. One of the principle points for discussion in the New Testament writings is how Jesus relates to what had gone before, in the Old Testament. To what extent is there continuity, to what extent is there discontinuity? To what extent does Jesus fulfil what has been prophesied, to what extent does he replace what has hitherto been laid down?

The writer to the Hebrews, whoever he was (no author is given in the opening, indeed it does not read like a letter at all, like the other Epistles), says, “So when God desired to show more convincingly to the heirs of the promise the unchangeable character of his purpose, he interposed with an oath.” Clearly the author here wants to emphasise the continuity of God’s purposes: they are unchangeable, and God wished the heirs of his original promise to Abraham to understand this. It becomes clear from what follows that the oath the writer has in mind is the one referred to in Psalm 110: “The Lord sware, and will not repent: Thou art a priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek.” In fact, he quoted these very words earlier in the Epistle.

Psalm 110 has always been regarded as addressed to the Messiah: “The Lord said unto my Lord, sit thou on my right hand.” It is the Messiah, the descendant of David, who is “a priest after the order of Melchizedek.” But who was Melchizedek? What has he to do with Abraham and his descendants? Apart from the Psalm and Hebrews, all we know is contained in a very short passage in Genesis chapter 14. Abram (his name had not yet been changed to Abraham) had been engaged in battle with some petty local rulers who had kidnapped Abram’s nephew Lot and taken all his belongings. Abram and his servants chased the raiding party, defeated it and rescued Lot and his goods, and returned to his camp at Mamre, not far from Salem, later Jerusalem. “And Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High.” He blessed Abram in the name of God, and Abraham gave him a tenth of what he had won in battle. That is all. Scholars have puzzled over this enigmatic passage. Some have speculated that when David conquered Jerusalem centuries later, he took over some of the titles and functions of the earlier kings. “Melchizedek” means literally “King of righteousness”, or “Righteous King”, probably not just a personal name, but a title. David’s priest Zadok has a name of similar form, and there has been speculation that there were two lines of priesthood, one descended from Aaron and so from Abraham, the other connected with the surviving line of Melchizedek. Probably we shall never know for sure.

Psalm 110 probably implies that the Kings of David’s line were seen as having some priestly character, though not of course the Levitical and Aaronic priesthood of the Temple. For the author of Hebrews, it is a foreshadowing of the High Priesthood of the Messiah, which could not be descended from Abraham. His argument is involved, and follows Rabbinic methods of reading Scripture, but the upshot is that Christ’s authority, as priest and king, is not simply a matter of human descent, but is of divine origin. The author did not have the vocabulary and the concepts of later centuries to speak of Christ as God Incarnate, both divine and human, but he is trying to express this thought as best he can. Melchizedek as he appears in Genesis comes from no-where (no parentage is given, as would be usual), blesses Abraham, and is heard of no more! No beginning, no end! The author takes this as symbolic of Christ, who as divine has no beginning or end in a far more profound way.

In this way, the author suggests that although there is continuity between Christ and Abraham, there is also something radically new. In his own way, six centuries earlier, the writer known as the second Isaiah was wrestling with the same problem. After the Exile, there was a real conflict between those who thought that the way forward was by a narrow and exclusive approach to the Law, which led ultimately to the Pharisees, and those who accepted a broader understanding of Israel’s role  in God’s purpose for all mankind. It is the second approach that we see in Isaiah. Jerusalem is still central to to God’s plan, the Holy City in which he dwells, but all nations are to be drawn towards it in order to share in the worship of God.

Isaiah’s language is echoed in the Book of Revelation, where the City of God comes down from God, a city that has no need of the light of sun or moon, because the glory of God himself enlightens it. This belongs to the End-time, the World-to-come. There is continuity between the world-that-is and the world-to-come, because the former is a foreshadowing of the latter. The People of Israel, the Davidic kingship, the Temple, the priesthood: all of these are brought to fulfilment in the priestly kingship of the Messiah, and the Holy People which is itself the City, Temple and dwelling-place of God, precisely because God has taken human nature to himself.

That is why we are told to “sing unto the Lord a new song,” to “declare his honour unto the heathen [the Gentiles].”

“Ascribe unto the Lord, O ye kindreds of the people: ascribe unto the Lord worship and power.

“Ascribe unto the Lord the honour due to his name: bring presents and come into his courts.

This is Isaiah’s vision, that the nations should bring their tribute to God in a renewed Jerusalem.

“O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness: let the whole earth stand in awe of him.” The well-known hymn makes the meaning explicit:

“Fear not to enter his courts in the slenderness of the poor wealth thou wouldst reckon as thine: truth in its beauty and love in its tenderness, these are the offerings to lay on his shrine.

O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness! Bow down before him, his glory proclaim; with gold of obedience, and incense of lowliness, kneel and adore him, the Lord is his name!”

Truth and love, obedience and humility: these are the gifts of Christ our High Priest according to the order of Melchisedek, the sacrifice he makes to the eternal Father, and in which he enables us to share.


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