March 29, 2009 - Fifth Sunday of Lent
A slobbery tennis ball is dropped in your lap or at your feet. There’s something joyful about the game that almost every dog owner has played over and over. You throw the ball or the stick or the rawhide bone, and your pet charges after it with every ounce of energy in his little body. He jumps over furniture, runs through mud and weeds, even dives into the water to retrieve your thrown offering. Then he grabs it and rushes just as enthusiastically to return and give it back to you. It’s a satisfying experience for you both.
That dog-like experience of playing fetch is just what God meant for Him and us to enjoy together. Our text from Hebrews this morning centers on the idea of priesthood. At root, a priest is someone who makes sacred offerings. A priest gives back to God what God has given. That priestly activity is what God intended for all humanity from the beginning.
God placed human beings in the heart of His beautiful creation, “in the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it,” we’re told in Genesis 2:15. Take what God has given and offer it back to Him in joyful work and care. That’s what we were made for. And that’s what is so terribly wrong about our failure to protect this world from the ravages of our own need and greed. We have taken God’s gift of a beautiful creation and run off with it on our own, ripping it apart for own ends, and offering back pollution and extinction and ugliness. We have failed in our priesthood for the earth.
We were also made for a kind of priesthood to each other as human beings. Adam was given Eve to care for and to help him. Together they were given children to nurture and lead back to God. And that priesthood has also failed, from the very beginning. Adam and Eve led each other astray and away from God. And in the very attempt to make an offering to God, Cain failed in his priesthood for Abel, murdering him and saying “Am I my brother’s keeper?” denying his priestly responsibility to care for and give back to God his own family. Like disobedient dogs, we’ve taken the tender sticks of each other’s lives and slunk away to quietly chew our family or friends to shreds.
You might say most of the history of religion is an attempt to repair and restore our broken human priesthood. Throughout the ages, we’ve recognized our failure to join in the joyous game of fetch that God meant for us. So the role of priest has been institutionalized, assigned. God even allowed and directed this. For the Hebrews, there were appointed people especially designated to do what God meant for us all to do, to offer back to Him pure, holy and beautiful sacrifices of the blessings He has given us. But as the history of Israel demonstrates clearly, that specially appointed priesthood was as faulty and corrupt as the general human priesthood.
Our priesthood fails because we all, including whatever priests we appoint, are sinful. We’ve failed to play the joyful game of receiving and giving back. We’ve disobeyed. Psalm 119, verses 9 and 10, told us this morning that the way to be pure is to live according to God’s word, to not stray from His commands. But we all run off to our own ways instead of returning with our priestly offerings to God. As Jeremiah 31:32 said, we’ve broken God’s covenant, played our own games instead of his.
So the writer to the Hebrews says in verse 3, just before our text, that human priests had to offer sacrifices for their own sins. They were failures as much as those they were supposed to represent. Verse 4 tells us that no one can take the honor of priesthood on himself. You can only be a priest by the call of God. No one can make himself a priest because, in general, no one is really worthy of it.
Which all means that religion, in and of itself, is not going to restore what we’ve lost. Even by choosing and appointing priestly representatives to do what we should have been doing all along, offering God’s gifts back to Him, we can’t become what we were meant to be. It’s like thinking we can all become athletic by sending off a few fine physical specimens to the Olympics every four years. Even if they win, and most of them won’t, their performances won’t make you and I into athletes.
Neither does the performance of sacrifices by a religious athlete, by a priest or pastor or whatever you call it, transform us back into the priests God intended us to be. As most of you know way too well, clergy have their own failures. And even if they succeed a bit in living according to God’s word, it doesn’t change the rest of us.
That’s why our text today opens verse 5 with the one exception to all this priesthood gone bad. Christ Himself became a priest, and like anyone else, He did not take it upon Himself. Even though He deserved it and was more qualified than anyone, He became our high priest by the call of God. Jesus accepted God’s desire that He offer back to God the gifts that we have all been given. But Jesus is a priest with a difference.
The writer validates the extraordinary and different priesthood of Jesus by quoting two psalms in verses 5 and 6. In verse 5, in a quotation from Psalm 2:7, we learn that Jesus is not only priest, but the very Son of God. In verse 6, quoted from Psalm 110:4, we’re told that He is not only a priest, Jesus is a priest forever, “in the order of Melchizedek.” By making His own Son our priest, and by making Him our priest forever, God created a way to bring you and I back into the priesthood we were always meant to have.
What’s going on here is that God recognized that we weren’t playing the game anymore. As I said, we’re like bad dogs told to go fetch. We keep running off with the ball and doing what we want with the blessings God has thrown to us. We’ve all seen the ridiculous comic figure of a man who teaches his dog tricks by doing them himself. Here it’s as if a man taught his dog to fetch by sending his child running after the stick.
God sent His own Son running off into our world to find and fetch back those things God expected you and I to return to Him. God’s Son became His priest. In doing so, God let His own Child become a dog.
That’s why in verse 7 we find the author of Hebrews describing what we are remembering in Lent, the sufferings of Jesus. The divine Son, God’s own child, came down to where we are and offered up agonizing pleas to God above. “He offered up prayers and petitions with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death.” The offering this Priest made was His own tearful agony in the garden and on the Cross.
What Jesus ultimately offered back to God was what you and I should have been offering all along, obedience. Verse 8 says, “Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered.” It was humble, dog-like obedience that Christ gave back to God, obedience even, as Philippians 2:8 tells us, even to the point of death, even to the point of an excruciating, shameful death by public execution. God’s Son came running to grab hold of that stick we call the Cross and to carry it back to God in faithful obedience.
The good news for you and me is that what Jesus came to fetch for God was not just His own obedience and priestly role, but ours as well. In humbling dying on the Cross, Jesus offered not just what God expected of Him, but what God expected of us as well. Jesus came to die in perfect obedience, but verse 9 explains that, “once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” What Jesus fetched for God in the end, was you and me.
As our perfect priest Jesus not only caught hold of the stick of the Cross to bring it back to God, He caught hold of us as well. When He rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, Jesus Christ was trotting home with you and I held gently between His teeth. Jesus was bringing us home to God. That’s why He said in our Gospel text in John 12:32, “when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw all people to myself.”
Jesus is our high priest. He sacrifices to God all the obedience we’ve failed to offer up in our own priestly roles. All the blessings and people that God has tossed our way and that we’ve failed to carry back to Him, Jesus catches up in His own dash for the Cross and triumphantly carries them home to His Father through His resurrection. Whatever you and I were meant to give, Jesus gave it. Whatever sacrifice you and I were to make, Jesus sacrificed it. Whatever duty you and I were meant to perform, Jesus performed it. Whatever we were supposed to fetch, Jesus fetched it, and in doing so He fetched us. He drew us to Himself.
Humbly, patiently, obediently, Jesus played the good dog for all of us who’ve been bad dogs. As our perfect Priest, He played the game God has always wanted to play with you and me. For us, Jesus returned all the blessings we’ve been given but have run off with and ruined. He took those blessings and sacrificed them back. He dropped the soggy mess of our lives back into the hands of God. And by doing so, Jesus brought us home. He saved us.
In The Gospel According to Peanuts, Robert Short argues, as I’m suggesting today, that a dog is not a bad image for Jesus Christ and especially for a Christian. There is something about the humility and faithfulness and loyalty of a dog that evokes the very best of humanity, the very kind of beings you and I were meant to be. Yet I need to tweak this canine metaphor just one bit to tell the whole story of how the priesthood of Jesus works to bring us salvation, to bring us back to God.
I know it’s silly to say so, but every smart aleck sophomore will tell you that in English “dog” spelled backwards is “God.” But if we’re going to play with this image of Christ as faithful four-legged friend, then we need to play it the whole way. In all His dog-like humility, Jesus was hiding His divine nature. Jesus is a priest forever because He is the One who is forever, the Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. The Dog who came to fetch us for God is Himself God. And as God, Jesus is eternal. What He is and does is forever. His priestly offering of obedience in our place goes on and on, without end. “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.”
I’m not too afraid to engage in a little play with this image of Jesus as a dog fetching us for God, because the author of Hebrews played around a little himself. This whole business of Melchizedek is a riff on the fact that in Genesis 14:18, the mysterious figure of Melchizedek, “priest of God Most High,” simply appears to receive offerings from Abraham. We’re told nothing about Melchizedek, where he came from or how he became a priest of God or how he ended up. And so in Hebrews 7:3, the writer imagines it’s as if Melchizedek has no father or mother, no genealogy, no beginning or end, as if he’s somehow eternal. It’s just imaginative fooling around in regard to Melchizedek, but it’s the sober truth about Jesus. He’s a dog spelled backward. He’s God. He really is eternal. His priesthood really is forever. Which means He can be the source of a truly eternal salvation for you and me.
That’s almost enough today, to leave you with this image of the God-dog Jesus Christ coming into the world to retrieve you and me. Francis Thompson picked up this picture in his poem, “The Hound of Heaven,” imagining Jesus like a hound pursuing each of us, wanting in relentless love and tenderness to catch us and carry us safely to heaven. If you take nothing else away than that, that God has come after you to save you, come after you with all the tenacity of a faithful dog willing to endure all sorts of suffering and humiliation to bring you home, then that’s almost enough. I pray that you will respond to Him. I pray that you will let Jesus catch you up in jaws of grace and bring you back to the Father who is waiting to receive you.
But there’s just a bit more we can remember today. Remember that God’s intent all along was for you and I and all human beings to be priests. That was the way He designed us, to continually and eternally offer back to Him the good things He gives us. He meant for you and I to play the holy game of fetch with Him every day, going after whatever blessing He throws out and retrieving it to Him in loving sacrifice.
It’s not just Jesus who is the priest, who is the dog in this game. Verse 9 says He “became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him.” That’s how it’s supposed to turn out. As Jesus offers back to God the obedience we’ve failed to offer, He carries us back to God to begin a new life of our own obedience. Just as in our text from Ephesians 2 last week, the grace we receive in Jesus is meant to blossom into our own good works. By fetching us for God, Jesus enables and teaches us to fetch for God ourselves, to be the priests we’re meant to be.
So I ask you to think today about your own priesthood, your own sacred game of fetch that you were meant to play. What might you be retrieving from the field of your own life and giving back to the God who saves you? It probably begins with simple obedience, offering back a change in your actions, the forsaking of bad habits and the cultivating of good ones. The first thing to fetch back to God is our own selves.
You may also want to offer someone else back to God. That’s part of what forgiveness is, to let go of anger or jealousy or resentment and simply let a person who has hurt you be in God’s hands rather than in the grip of your own teeth. Or it may be that you just can’t help someone you love and care about any longer. All you can do, all God wants you to do, is play the dog, play the priest, and offer them up in prayer.
Lastly, we may all want to reflect on how we can offer this world back to God. We were meant to be priests of creation, stewards for God of everything He has given us, whether it’s houses and cars or mountains and rivers. Christ died and rose to fetch both us and our world home to God. We can join in the game by making our own joyful and even playful offerings of this world and each other back to Him. So let’s be priests. Let’s go fetch for God.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2009 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj