Thursday, December 10, 2009
Sermon - Advent Midweek 2 - Matthew 2:10-12
Midweek Advent 2 – December 9, 2009
“Frankincense for the Priest”
This Advent, we've been taking a closer look at the three gifts brought by the wise men to the infant Jesus. In particular, we're paying attention to what these three gifts say about the one who receives them – how they show him as our Prophet, Priest, and King. Last week we considered the gift of gold, and its association with royalty. Jesus is our king, but he is a different kind of king. He redeems us not with gold, but with something more precious – his blood shed for us. He's our king.
But the next gift mentioned is the frankincense. Tonight, let's consider the frankincense along with Jesus' role as our great High Priest.
Frankincense has been used for thousands of years. It's an aromatic ingredient in perfumes, but more than just the “yankee candle” of its day.
It's made from a milky tree-sap that was sometimes difficult to harvest. One story from southern Africa says the trees that were tapped for it were also home to highly venomous snakes. The natives would smoke the snakes out of the trees in order to collect the sap.
In any case, this substance was greatly valued by the ancients. Frankincense was one of the treasures found in the tomb of king Tutankhamen, for instance. So along with the gold Jesus received, it was a thing of value. But this sweet smelling substance also had a religious significance.
Frankincense was a major ingredient in the incense that was burned for the various rituals at the Tabernacle. It was associated with the prayers of the people and the sacrifices. “Let my prayer rise before you as incense” the Psalmist writes, and the picture was of the people's prayers rising like the smoke of the sweet smelling incense, the aroma of which was pleasing to God above. Some Christians still use incense, even today, to signify our prayers ascending to God. As the smoke of ancient burnt offerings arose, it was also mixed with the desirable scent of frankincense. And so both the prayers and the sacrifices were offered to God, on behalf of the people, by the priests.
To present Jesus with frankincense is a not-so-subtle reminder that he is a priest. Not just any priest, but the great high priest. A better and more important priest than any other. The priest to which all other priests point, and from whom they derive. But what is the role of the priest?
The priest is, chiefly, a representative. Someone who stands in the place of the people before God. An intermediary figure. A go-between.
We need a go-between because of sin. Sinful people like you and me can't stand on our own in the presence of God, for he is holy. We need a buffer – a mediator – a priest to get us there. And God, in his grace and mercy, provides the priests to stand in the gap and deal with those sins.
When the high priest of the Old Testament transferred the sins of the people to the scapegoat – he was doing it for all the people of Israel. When the blood of the bull was sprinkled on the Ark of the Covenant, it was for the sins of all the people. Everyday Israelites didn't make their own sacrifices. They bought or brought animals and grains and such, and these were offered on their behalf by the priests.
So too Jesus acts on our behalf. He is our representative, taking our place, before God, in life and death.
He lived for us. There's a reason he didn't come to Earth in majesty and glory, but as the humble babe of Bethlehem. There's a reason he took on human flesh, born of a virgin. He came to live a human life – as a priest – to walk the walk of humanity in order to redeem it. He lives the perfect human life we all fail to do. He upholds the law of God to a tee. He is like us in every way, yet without sin. And as our representative, he earns for us a righteousness we could never earn on our own. And his good works are pleasing to God, like the pleasing aroma of incense. God smiles on Jesus, and on us.
And Jesus died for us. The irony is that the priest is also the sacrifice. The Lamb of God who offers himself on the altar of the cross. Jesus' death is also a pleasing aroma to God, and as he commits his spirit to the hands of his Father, again it is for us. The price of God's wrath is paid by his substitution in our place. He took the punishment we deserve. He paid the debt we owe. And again, God is pleased with us, because of Christ.
Jesus rose from the dead, and thus shows that God accepted his sacrifice. Which is good news for us! Jesus rose from the dead and shows that we too will rise to eternal life. He's not only the priest, but also the fore-runner, the first born of the dead, the priest who lives forever.
And Jesus is still our high priest, even now. Seated at the right hand of the Father, we understand he does so also for us, as our representative. His prayers for us still rise to God's ears, his intercession for us as pleasing incense to the Father. Jesus continues to serve as our go-between, bringing our prayers and petitions to God. That's why we pray “in Jesus' name”. That's how we can have confidence of our standing before God.
Jesus received gold, for he is the king of kings. He receives frankincense, for he is the priest of priests. He is the one who sacrifices himself for us. He is the one who intercedes for us. His person and work are a pleasing aroma to the Father. And through our Great High priest, we approach that same heavenly throne.
Thanks be to God for Jesus Christ, our prophet, priest, and king! Amen.