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by KK in Brookfield

Brookfield, Illinois: First United Methodist Church - April 9, 2000 Revised common Lectionary, year B: fifth Sunday of Lent Today's sermon text is fronm the epistle reading. Jeremiah 31.31-34; Psalm 119.1-16; Hebrews 5.5-10; John 12.20-33

Have you ever wondered about Melchizedek? ... I thought not. Few people have. Melchizedek is a topic of concern in cults or evangelical / Pentecostal churches. The truth is I paid him no notice until one day twenty years ago when some friends popped in and asked me what I believed about Melchizedek.

My "friends" were the mother and step-father of a seminary friend, Sandra (though not my other seminary friend Sandra who was once the pastor of 1st Church in LaGrange). They had come to visit more than to learn about Melchizedek. Twila had been a telephone operator in their hometown of Carrollton, Ohio, and Bob had been a cross country truck driver. They were driving west on a vacation. But right in the middle of the five cent tour, Bob asked me what I believed about Melchizedek. The new pastor of their church in Carrollton had everyone talking about Melchizedek. At that moment Twila, with a devilish twinkle in her eye, chimed in, "Yes, tell him. You learned everything about the Bible when you were in seminary."

Well, my school would like to think that was so, but whatever they taught about Melchizedek went in one ear and out of the other. All right, I confess, I let a lot of seminary stuff do that. So I told Bob and Twila the little I remembered: Melchizedek was a character from the stories of Abraham and Sarah. That was not what Bob wanted to heart, but friends forgive one another. They also probably wrote me off as a hopelessly liberal, give-away-the-barn-with-the-horse, Christian. Oh well, I am that. And proud of it, too! But as soon as a reading about Melchizedek came up in the lectionary, I paid attention.

It was several years before I saw Bob and Twila again. By then they lived in New Mexico and cared little about Ohio things, and besides I forgot to mention what I had learned about Melchizedek. We had other things to talk about and Melchizedek is easily forgettable; but let him appear in our lectionary and I'm ready to tell anyone what I know about Melchizedek. He's here today, so like it or not ... ...

... In Genesis(1) Melchizedek is the king of Salem and a priest of the Most High God. Salem, the capital of the Jebusites was conquered by David and renamed Jerusalem. The Jebusites believed in one God, probably the same God Moses met in a burning bush, or so our ancestors assumed. Genesis says that once a group of kings, perhaps we should say tribal chieftains or family heads, formed an alliance and then set out to fight other such alliances. In the following war King Chedorlaomer conquered Sodom and took both its people and its wealth. Only one person escaped. He fled to Abram – God had not yet changed his name to Abraham – and told him that his nephew Lot was a prisoner. So Abram went to war -- that seems not the right term, but it is what Genesis uses – against Chedorlaomer and prevailed. Abram set the Sodomites free and claimed their wealth for his troubles.

But then, he was visited by the kings of Sodom and Salem. The king of Sodom should have been grateful for getting his kingdom and populace back, but he wanted his money too. Accordingly, Abram gave it back lest posterity say he got his wealth off the misfortune of another. Meanwhile, Melchizedek, the king of Salem, perhaps enlisted as moral support, brought and shared bread and wine with Abram. He also blessed Abram. Then Melchizedek and the greedy king of Sodom went on their way. ...

... The next mention of Melchizedek is in the 110th Psalm. It is neither used in our lectionary nor is it found in our hymnal psalter. In the first century it seems to have been used by some rabbis, and also by Jesus, to refute any who believed that the messiah would come from the family of David. Mark, Luke, and Matthew record this saying from Jesus, even though Luke and Matthew elsewhere in their Gospels went to great pains to say Jesus was descended from David.(2) Oh well, many folks cannot resist the temptation "to eat their cake and have it, too!" The psalm, however, was written to give some king courage to go off into battle, not to define the ancestry of the messiah.

At the end of the psalm Melchizedek appears: Adonai has sworn an oath and will never retract it, "you are a priest for ever of the order of Melchizedek." The king is sacred in God's eyes no matter what happens. What the "order of Melchizedek" means we are not told In fact nothing more is said about Melchizedek. What scripture does not supply, however, the imagination is free to invent, ... or to forget. ...

... By the early second century of our Common Era when both Christianity and Judaism were in turmoil and popular symbols and traditions had been shattered by Roman oppression, an anonymous Christian revived the priestly order of Melchizedek. It was too good to pass up. Since scripture's first mention of Melchizedek tells of gifts of bread and wine it can be no coincidence that bread and wine were Jesus' last gifts to his believers. That was one of Jesus' few priestly acts.It was enough, so we read: In his life Jesus made his prayers and requests with loud cries and tears to God, who could save him from death. Because he was humble and devoted, God heard him, But even though he was God's Son, he learned through his suffering to be obedient. When he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all those who obey him, and God declared him to be high priest, in the priestly order of Melchizedek. If second century believers compared Jesus to the priests of their age, the Hasmoneans, and to the other families of priests that had ruled over the Temple, what better Biblical image for a priestly Messiah than one who blesses us with gifts? one who is not tainted by human grasping for wealth, prestige, and position? Such a priest could only be of the order of Melchizedek.

While some Christians wanted to believe Jesus was a descendant of David, no one before Hebrews was written, assumed he had come from a priestly family. Indeed, Jesus had fought against the priests and lost. If he was priestly it had to be of a spiritual, not worldly, nature. Thus the anonymous writer of Hebrews claimed Jesus was a high priest of the order of Melchizedek and, therefore, the true high priest for all time and for all peoples. There is no way to prove or disprove such a claim. There never was. Such a priesthood exists solely in the imagination of faith. ...

... Well, that is all there is to know about Melchizedek and his order of priests. Already you may have decided I was right the first time to forget whatever I was taught about Melchizedek. Let me claim the wisdom of age to urge you not to forget him. Some, today, use the image of Melchizedek to speak of Christ. It represents for them a religious figure untainted by this world, or our grasping for wealth, fame or power. Likewise, Christians, they say, should fix our faith on higher, eternal matters, not those things of this earth. So what if others want money? Let them have it! Or power? It's theirs! True believers see how the things of this earth pass away, but our God is for ever. Those who trust in God have no need for that which is fleeting.

At the same time others drag out the Constitution of our nation, adopted by our sainted founders, and its first amendment which forever separates church and state. That, also, is proof enough that the eternal and the temporary must not intermingle. Never mind that the founders of our nation did not worry about keeping religion pure from the taints of this world bur rather they worried that organized religion, then controlled by folks in England from whom we had just won our freedom, would try to take our newly won freedom away from us. The separation of church and state is a political act.

Jesus, however, said that you cannot separate religious matters from political matters. One day, you remember, someone tried to trap him with a question about whether it was lawful for a believer to pay taxes to a secular, worldly government. In turn Jesus asked for a coin from a purse. "Whose likeness do you see on it?" he asked. And when they replied, "Caesar's," he responded, "Well, then give to Caesar that which is Caesars, and to God that which is God's."(3)

If Jesus is, as Hebrews says, our high priest, then being a priest of the order of Melchizedek, based on Jesus' own actions and teachings, is not isolation from the world but a balancing of worldly and eternal concerns. Did not Melchizedek use a political occasion to bless Abram in the name of God without denying the purpose of the visit? Likewise, Jesus knew what was God's, and what was Caesar's. He taught each must be given its due even if that displeased those who wanted life one way or the other.

The order of Melchizedek is the very opposite of its modern use. The legacy of Melchizedek and Jesus says that no time or occasion is inappropriate for prayer or for blessing. Religious convictions can never override one's political responsibilities. ...

... I'm sorry I never got to tell Bob and Twila the importance of Melchizedek for Christian believers. Instead I've told you what I should have told them. But had I told them I suspect they would have preferred the advice of their sainted pastor over mine. I mean, if, as the ads allege, New Yorkers cannot make good salsa, can anyone who went to seminary in New York City(!) know anything about spiritual matters? Amen.

1. The whole story is told in Genesis 14, a passage scholars regard as very ancient and independent of the usual writers of Genesis. The portion of the story concerning Melchizedek is found in verses 17 through 24. 2. cf. 12.37b-40; 20.41-44; 23.41-46 respectively - any one will do, these are parallel accounts. 3. Mark 12.13-17; parallel accounts are: Luke 20.27-40; Matthew 22.23-33