In the name of the Father and of the ✠ Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Our gracious God has brought us to the beginning of another Lenten Season to meditate on the solemn mysteries of His Son’s holy Passion. His Holy Spirit enlighten our understanding, and direct our will, that we may hear the story of our Savior’s sufferings and death with our minds disengaged from all worldly distractions and bent solely upon contemplating in devout reverence, and for our own salvation, the wonders of His love, into which even the angels desire to look. By His leading, let us realize both the enormity and the bitterness of our sins, for which He was wounded, that we may repent of them, and the unfathomable depths of our heavenly Father’s grace, for where sin abounded, His grace does much more abound, that we may be comforted.
“The reason for the season” is a phrase usually reserved for the Time of Christmas. It’s heard during the season of Advent (which the world regards as “the Christmas season”) and up to Christmas itself. What is “the reason for the season” of Lent? The reason for these seasons is to focus us on the Person and work of Christ Jesus. The reason for our Savior’s holy Passion, His bitter sufferings, death, and burial, is the same as the reason for our Savior’s holy Incarnation, His conception, birth, and circumcision: that He fulfill and carry out His work, His mission, His purpose, “for us men and for our salvation.” Our focus, meditation, and contemplation is especially to be on His priestly work on our behalf. The Writer to the Hebrews exhorts, “Since then we have a Great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession” (Heb 4:14). From the beginning, even eternity, Jesus is that priest, as Chad Bird put it in his hymn: “The infant Priest was holy born / For us unholy and forlorn; From fleshly temple forth came He, Anointed from eternity” (LSB 624.1). As an infant but eight days from birth, Jesus suffered pain and shed His holy, precious blood in His circumcision, and this was part of His priestly work for us. Now we meditate on Him as a full-grown man, about 33 years old, as He is preparing and being prepared to make His greatest priestly offering, which He alone can offer.
Ask a group of people, What does a priest do?, and you will probably get a number of answers: Preach, teach, admonish sinners to repent, and so on. That’s what happened in one of my classes at seminary. The professor asked us that question, and we gave those and any other answer we could think of … except for the right answer! The Rev. Dr. Roger Pittelko, our instructor, had to say most firmly, “No! A priest offers sacrifices.” That’s it. Quite a simple, straightforward, four-word job description. Oh, there were more details given for Aaron and his sons to follow in the Books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers; but, all of them had to do with the offering of sacrifices under various circumstances and at different times.
Our Psalmody and our Readings speak of this priestly work. Psalm 134 (which, by the way, is the Psalm for the Feast of St. Matthias, February 24, the Apostle who took Judas’ place) addresses those who serve “in the house of the Lord,” namely, the priests, whether they be those who actually offer the sacrifices, or those who inspect the offerings brought for sacrifice, the temple musicians and singers, those who tended to the furnishings, or even the doorkeepers, whose work is mentioned in Psalm 84, “For a day in your courts is better than a thousand elsewhere. I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of wickedness.” The antiphon for our psalmody is [the first verse] from Psalm 133, a short companion to the equally short 134, and its priestly ties are even stronger:
Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!
It is like the precious oil on the head, running down on the beard,
on the beard of Aaron, running down on the collar of his robes!
It is like the dew of Hermon, which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.
The “precious oil” is anointing oil, which was used to consecrate priests, as well as kings and prophets, to serve God in their sacred offices. God appointed several different garments to be made for the priests to wear as they would come before His presence in the tabernacle and then the temple. These garments were to be worn by the priests lest they come before the Lord dressed only as themselves—sinful, unholy, unworthy. To wear the robes did not make the priest sinless, holy, or worthy in himself; for that he needed to offer sacrifices to cover his own sin, and then the sins of the people. Wearing the appointed robes, the priest showed his regard and reverence and fear toward God and His holy Word. The last line of Psalm 133 gets at the reason for offering these sacrifices: “For there the Lord has commanded the blessing, life forevermore.” Aaron was commanded to speak a blessing over God’s people Israel, that He bless and keep them, make His face shine on them and be gracious to them, and lift His face toward them, showing them His favor, and give them peace.
How can we have “life forevermore”? In ourselves we can’t, and no mere earthly, human priest can give it to us. As sinners, we and such a priest are incapable of attaining eternal life. “Snares of death surround us.” The purpose of the priestly work was to offer sacrifices for sin. Not all offerings presented by the priests of Israel were of a sacrificial, sin-removing character. Some were given as thank-offerings for the firstfruits and then the later gatherings of the harvest. Others were fellowship offerings, indicating the fellowship, the communion, between God and His people, which He restored, and among His people. All the sacrifices which the Lord had ordained Israel to keep were given to depict for His people the person and work of The Anointed One, the Great High Priest, Jesus.
In our First Reading, we heard Abram being blessed by Melchizedek, who was “priest of God Most High.” He calls God Most High “Possessor of heaven and earth.” The Hebrew word translated Possessor is qonēh, from the verb qānāh, which means “ to buy, purchase, get, create,” as well as “possess.” Yes, the true God is Creator of heaven and earth, and they are His possessions by virtue of that. Yet He is also the Purchaser of heaven and earth, or we could say Redeemer of heaven and earth, the title which Christ Jesus earned by His Passion. “You were bought, purchased, with a price,” the Apostle Paul says, and that price is the holy, precious blood and bitter sufferings and death of God’s beloved Son.
What does the priest of God Most High bring out to bless Abram? Bread and wine. In His holy Supper, Jesus, the Priest who is God Most High, brings out bread and wine, but He doesn’t leave it as mere bread and wine, of course. By His own holy Word He consecrates it to be a blessing far beyond even the choicest earthly foods. For by His Word the bread and wine become His body and blood, “given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.” What greater blessing could our High Priest give us? None! “For where there is forgiveness of sins there is also life and salvation.” Moses writes, “And Abram gave [Melchizedek] a tenth of everything.” Now here is the One “in the order of Melchizedek,” as Hebrews 5 and 6 declare, and it is He who gives everything! For you. He has given His whole being, body and soul, into suffering and death, to take away your sins. His body and blood in the Supper are His last will and testament, His inheritance left for His heirs. And just as Aaron and his sons and their families were permitted to eat some of the food offered as sacrifices, so our Great High Priest has given His priestly people, you and me, His choicest food to eat and to drink.
On that night when Jesus instituted the Supper, He also washed His disciples’ feet. The exchange with Peter is interesting. Once again Peter seems to show his stubborn streak, and that some things went right over his head—at least for a while. Oh, not that he was alone in being a “brickhead” that night. All of the disciples were a bit on the clueless side right then (and many times before as well). We also can be quite thickheaded and stiff-necked in understanding the person and work of Jesus. When Jesus got up and girded Himself with a towel to wash their feet, and He came to Peter, Peter said, “You shall never wash my feet!” Remember when he had made that great confession, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God”? What did Peter say soon after, when Jesus told them of His coming Passion? “No, Lord! This shall never happen to You!” Back then, Jesus rebuked Peter harshly, “Get behind Me, Satan!” On this night, the Lord is gentler, but no less solemn: “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.” Why did Jesus wash His disciples’ feet? As an example to them, how He wants His disciples to treat and regard one another, to love and serve one another, even as He has loved and served us. He speaks also of another purpose, though. It was to clean them, not altogether, not the whole body, but just inasmuch as they had been polluted walking through this world. For Aaron and his sons, the Lord had appointed Moses to make a basin of bronze filled with water, in which the priests should wash their hands and feet before going near the altar to offer food offerings, lest they die. The foot-washing has been described as a form of Holy Absolution. The washing of the priests’ hands and feet absolved them to walk before the altar and to offer the sacrifices, to make them clean before the holy God, so they could do their priestly work. In the washing of the disciples’ feet, Jesus takes a basin filled with water and prepares them to walk with Him, the Lamb of God, the Sacrifice for sin, to the altar of His cross, and to be that “royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light,” as the Apostle Peter would later write (1 Pe 2:9).
To this holy, priestly calling your Great High Priest has called you, in your daily life, your various vocations, to be His priests, offering spiritual sacrifices to His God and Father, your God and Father, through Him. In the washing of water and the Word He robes you in His righteousness and anoints you with His Holy Spirit to declare you holy, pure, innocent, worthy to offer such sacrifices to God. And in the Supper He sustains you with the very body and blood given and shed for you on that altar-cross on Calvary, brought to you here, “The body of God’s Lamb … priestly food and priestly meat” and “His quenching blood that life restores.” As He is holy, and as you do have part with Him, so you are holy, declared so by Him, ready to do your priestly service, His love to your neighbor.
In the name of ✠ Jesus. Amen.