Lent 5, Year B
O Little Town of Bethlehem. Not a title you expect to hear this time of year – not with snow melting, birds singing, robins arriving, not to mention Good Friday looming. I mention the title because the name Phillips Brooks means nothing to most of us without it. He wrote it, you see. That’s his main lasting claim to fame for most of us. Not just a lyricist, Phillips Brooks was a priest, and eventually the Bishop of MA. He was instrumental in the design of Trinity Church – a large episcopal church in Copley Square in Boston. The sanctuary there is massive and open, with vast areas of gold and stained glass interplaying their colors across layers of visual space. Into this huge open area, full of sculpture and glass and art and architectural nuance, Brooks introduced one additional detail. On the inside of the pulpit, seen by no one except the preacher, he had engraved the words “Sir, we would see Jesus”
This echo of the Greeks’ request in today’s lection reverberates still in our own spiritual experience – I wish to see Jesus. I wish to know Jesus. I wish to encounter Jesus. Who is this Jesus guy, anyway?
According to the Epistle, Jesus is “a priest according to the order of Melchizedek” Mmm, that certainly clears things up. “Melchizedek” – the name sounds like a Disney character – some sort of cute rodent with a mustache and a goofy accent, perhaps. He was, however, a fairly shrouded, mysterious character. Melchizedek is said in Jewish belief to have no mother, no father – no lineage. He is mentioned only twice in the Jewish scriptures. In the 14 chapter of Genesis, after a particularly bloody battle in which Abram and his allies were victorious, the text says, “And King Melchizedek of Salem brought our bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. He blessed him and said, ‘Blessed be Abram by God Most High, maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High who has delivered your enemies into your hand! And Abram gave him one-tenth of everything.”
Later in Psalm 110 the psalmist writes,
The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest for ever according to the order of Melchizedek.’
Literally, the name means “King of Righteousness.” The Genesis text identifies him as the King of Salem – Salem means “peace” – a priest of God Most High.
King of Righteousness, of Peace, Priest of God most High – the comparison may be more helpful than it seemed at first glance – giving us a description. But the lofty image of Jewish High Priest with the flowing robes and the rituals and the sacrificial attitude is a bit jarring for our image of Jesus. More telling is what Jesus does. “Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears.”
As one commentator notes, “Here is a priest not lifting a lamb or dove, or bread and wine or even an atonement for sin. Into the presence of God this priest offers weeping and screaming in the lifting up of prayers…”
“This text’s vision suggests both consolation and calling. All who have reason for tears and loud cries are addressed – mourners, the war-ravaged, the poor, the terrified, the oppressed, those who are too much alone. Their tears, cries and clenched silences are gathered into a groaning divine cry, ceaselessly rising, painfully lifting the suffering world toward hope of transformation.” (Paul Simpson Duke, Feasting on The Word). The commentator goes on to say, “The vocation of the church, in large measure, is to hear and to join in that cry.”
Phillips Brooks, an accomplished and powerful preacher, knew that every preacher needs to strive not just to provide information about Jesus, theology about Jesus, context to lessons, but to facilitate an experience of Jesus, every sermon, every homily, every service. In a world of spiritual, but not religious; in a world of entitlement and individualism; in a world of moral apathy, the need to see Jesus, to have the Word of God inscribed upon our hearts extends beyond our doors.
Linnaea asked me yesterday as I was writing the sermon, “Can it be about me this time Mumma? I like it when it is about me.” We gather together for consolation, and for nourishment. We are nourished by the scripture, by the spiritual food we take together, by connection with the body of Christ. It is about us. We are asked to go forth, fortified and fed, loved and comforted, hearts changed – to be for all the world the face of Christ, the hands of Christ, the feet of Christ. It is about all the world.
Do the people outside these walls see Jesus within us? Do they see the healer, the prophet, the servant, the champion of justice, the supplicant? May the Christ within us shine ever outward.