There’s a song in Gershwin’s opera, Porgy and Bess, called “It Ain’t Necessarily So.”
Old Jonah he lived in a whale Old Jonah he lived in a whale he made his home in that fish’s abdomen, Old Jonah he lived in a whale. Methuselah lived nine hundred years Methuselah lived nine hundred years but what’s good a’livin when no girl will giv’ in to no man what got nine hundred years!
It ain’t necessarily so!”
That was in 1935 and yet today the lines are severely drawn between the Christians who are literalists and those who are singing “It ain’t necessarily so.” Well, you know which side of this debate I’m on, but did you know that while Jonah didn’t really live in a whale, and Methuselah may not have lived almost a thousand years, there’s more important things in the Bible that are necessarily so. I want to argue with the character, Sportin’ Life and sing, “It is so. It is necessarily so!” There’s truth in the Bible that is necessarily so and we need to concentrate on that more than we concentrate on human theories about the Bible. Here’s one of those more essential biblical statements: Jesus is a high priest in the order of Melchizedek forever.
The writer of Hebrews compares Jesus to a priest back in the Old Testament from the time of Abraham. His name was Melchizedek. This is my second most favorite Old Testament name with the first being Methuselah. Old man Methuselah lived almost a thousand years; Melchizedek came from nowhere, went somewhere and was without days, eternal in the heavens. I like Methuselah and Melchizedek. Melchizedek is mentioned twice in the Jewish scriptures: After Abram and his allies had defeated four kings, the fourteenth chapter of Genesis says, And King Mechizedek of Salem brought our bread and wine; he was priest of God Most High. He gave Abram a blessing and Abram gave him one-tenth of everything. In Psalm 110 is written, “The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind, ‘You are a priest for ever according to the order of Mechizedek.'”
The Rabbis taught that Melchizedek was without lineage; this they deduced because the Jewish Bible doesn’t mention his parents. Christians see this as foreshadowing Jesus, Son of God. The author of Hebrews believes that Jesus gives us what we need, an eternal High Priest who offers ultimate sacrifice. Add in bread and wine in the Genesis reference alongside the meaning of the names used – Melchizedek means King of righteousness and Salem (Shalom) means peace – so Melchizedek, King of Salem, is a king of righteousness and peace, and the author’s argument is complete. Jesus, our High Priest, is King of righteousness and peace.
Now, this may not seem like much to you, but no priest, no mercy. No priest, no forgiveness. No priest, no peace. No priest, no righteousness. No justice, no righteousness. Baptists shy away from priests, but our aversion “ain’t necessarily so.” “Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession.”
As St. Paul puts it, “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
Paul is saying there are the arrows and swords of life that pierce us so deeply that we can’t utter words. Our mouths are shut and we can only sit in sackcloth and ashes in silence. If we try to pray, our lips move, but no sounds are emitted. The pain is too great for prayer to form on our tongues. Then the Holy Spirit intercedes for us. The Spirit of Jesus, the High Priest, picks up the prayer and delivers it to the throne of grace. The Holy Spirit brings the prayer to the Father and so we have the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit praying for us, helping us in our weakness. Let Sportin’ Life sing up a storm, but this is necessarily so. The undivided love of the Trinity is shared with us as we participate in the life of God. The reason Jesus can pray like this is because he always prayed through pain. “Father if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” And this prayer was so painful it seemed like great drops of blood came out of his forehead. Hebrews says “In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears.” Anybody can pray a prayer that sounds like tutti fruitti with a cherry on top. Not everyone can pray when the pain cuts off breath and shuts down speech. “Father forgive them for they know not what they do,” cried Jesus from the cross.
There are burdens too heavy to bear. You may have heard that God doesn’t put more on us than we can handle, but that is rather strange theology. First, God doesn’t go around the universe loading down his people with burdens to test how strong we are. Second, there’s no rule anywhere that says there’s a limit to how many burdens may hit us at one time. I know folks who have been through so much that someone needs to be flagged for piling on. What God gives is maximum support. The burden may not disappear but God will lift our hearts.
Jesus calls us to the priesthood. We are priests after the order of Melchizedek. We have a priestly ministry to the nation.
In one sense this shouldn’t be news. Baptists have always insisted on the priesthood of believers. Being a priest is about having a ministry, a vocation, a calling. We are called to offer our gifts to the world. We are called to offer the forgiveness of God to our enemies. We are called to pray for our enemies. Don’t talk to me about your Christianity until you are prepared to pray for your enemies.
In I Peter we are told that we are a nation of priests. How’s that for a vocation Church? I must tell you that when I say “America,” priest is not the first word that jumps into my mind. We are to be a nation of priests, praying through the pain.
And whatever else it means to be a priest, it means a lot of down-on-our knees praying. After all, prayer is the language of the Church. So I hope when you are asked about your day you might say, “Well I was praying for George and Bill and Ellen and Sue.” Praying is one of the habits Christians develop that is crucial to sustaining life. We must continue to pray with or without answers. Pray like that nagging woman who kept going to the judge and crying for justice until he gave in and gave her justice. “It’s me Lord! I’m back!” If we really want justice, we will pray for it every day. God expects us to be a people of prayer. Jesus taught us to pray. It is necessarily so!
A faithful priest wrote, “Your prayers are necessary and if you will not bother to intercede you are refusing someone a source of strength and help. Consider this world in the present – the fear, the starvation, the many kinds of distress, and our terrifying weakness. Some of the trouble exists because Christians are too damned lazy to pray – and I mean that literally.”
Stanley Hauerwas, Duke professor says: “Prayer is the heart of Christian speech. Like all Christians you are called to a life of prayer. You are called to help others learn to pray.” There can be no higher calling than being called to be a nation of priests. My prayer is for America that we might be a nation of priests rather than the self-absorbed, money-absorbed, status-riddled, anxiety-filled, self-centered people nation we are this morning.
In my biblical imagination I have drawn a connection between our priestly ministry and the divided nation that is today the Dis-United States of America. Let me take you back to the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel and offer you a suggested paraphrase of Ezekiel 37:15-23 on how to put America back together again:
Ezekiel says that God showed him two old sticks and he was to write on one “Israel” and on the other “Judah.” Then God will merge the two sticks. I have imagined this as God speaking to America. Thus says the Lord God: I will take the people of America and I will make them one nation in the land. Never again shall they be divided into two kingdoms. They shall never again defile themselves with their idols and their detestable things, or with any of their transgressions. I will save them from all the apostasies into which they have fallen, and will cleanse them. Then they shall be my people, and I will be their God.”
The divisions, animosity, fragmentation, separation, brokenness, isolation, incivility, crudeness, and meanness have spread like a toxic over our land. We have an epidemic of division in our midst. And the churches are participating in it. The preachers are spreading the toxicity with an air of dogmatism and certainty. Some preachers routinely condemn folks to hell as if they have the inside information from the throne of grace and even though their mamas taught them not to talk bad about the dead. I’d rather join Catholics in praying for the dead than a bunch of Baptist preachers condemning the dead to hell. I thought it was tasteless last week when some preachers insisting on posting that the world’s greatest scientist, Stephen Hawking, had gone to hell. Why say that? Why? What if “It ain’t necessarily so”? What if God’s love trumps everything for eternity? What if God’s love doesn’t end at the grave?
We know that we will not put our nation back together again by continuing to bash one another in the vain hope that one morning all the bashing will have damaged the brains of the other side and they will wake up in full agreement with the side they have been bashing. Liberals will not change because some people call us nasty names every day. Conservatives will not change because we call them nasty names every day. It’s time for us to put down our sticks and when we pick them up again, God will have transformed them into the rod of God. This is necessarily so.
Where is the energy for the kind of praying that we must be doing for America? If you love our nation, if you really insist that you are a patriot, then you need to start praying some real prayers with some life and strength and determination and grit in them. I’m not talking about flowery prayers. I’m not talking about religious, pious, moralistic prayers. I’m not talking about self-centered prayers that do nothing but brag about what wonderful Christians we are. I’m talking about prayers of agony and tears. I’m talking about prayers that begin with “My God, my God.” I’m talking the prayer that begins, “How long, O Lord, will I cry to you violence, and you will not hear?”
I’d like to start an argument with the folks who think that all our fighting and bickering is the order of the day. I want them to know “It ain’t necessarily so.” James Forbes said in a sermon “I think Sportin’ Life has held a secret meeting with Congress” and told them that what I’m telling you about a priestly ministry ain’t necessarily so.
My prayer is that these two old sticks will merge and in the hand of God they will become a rod of power, justice, and mercy. My prayer is that the divine purpose will overcome our present subjugation to demonic values – lies, ugliness, injustice, hate, and indifference and replace them with a mode of life based on truth, beauty, goodness, justice, and compassion. My prayer is that God will beat my old stick into a rod of compassion and make of me a priest of healing of divisions. After all, with God all things are possible.
We have a high priest. His name is Jesus. He has made us his body. We are now his priests in the order of Melchizedek. Let the gut-wrenching, painful, suffering praying begin for our nation. Let us learn by what we have suffered and pray through the pain. It is necessarily so!