A sermon on Leviticus 8 by Rev Richard Keith on Sunday 30 May 2021
After almost 30 years of ministry I’ve come to realise that a lot of my job is doing what most people are afraid of. According to the internet, so it must be true, between 40 to 75% of people are afraid of speaking in public. But I do it all the time. I’m doing it right now. Standing up the front, sharing my thoughts, making myself vulnerable to the judgement of others. And apparently, some of you couldn’t do it. I believe it because sometimes I don’t know how I do it.
But over the years I’ve learned three tricks to help me overcome my fear. Firstly, be prepared. Know what you’re going to say. Make it good on paper, so it’ll be good on the day. Secondly, stand up straight, look people in the eye and trust that what I’ve prepared will speak for itself. And thirdly, when in doubt, emphasise each word and wave my hands around. Confidence is hard to feel, but if you can fake it the rest is easy.
Public speaking is hard for all of us. Believe me, I have my struggles too. In fact, I’m just a struggler who sometimes can’t avoid doing the things he’s afraid of. Because just like you, I’m only human, and if you put me on a pedestal, I will only disappoint you. It makes me realise that what you need, what I need, what we all need, is someone who understands us, but who won’t let us down. Someone who is human, but not only human. What we need is Jesus.
Today we are looking at the priesthood in the book of Leviticus and how it is fulfilled in the life and work of Jesus. And in chapter 8 we see Moses’ brother Aaron and Aaron’s sons ordained to be priests. It was a natural next step in the story of God’s people. The tabernacle, the tent where worship was to be conducted, had already been constructed in the book of Exodus. The sacrifices that the priests were to offer had already been described and legislated in the early chapters of Leviticus. The men who were to serve as priests had been selected and the ordination service had been planned. Everything was ready. It just remained for the men for the job, Aaron and his sons, to be installed into their office
The priest’s job was to officiate at the sacrifices that lay at the heart of Israel’s worship. Just as the prophet represented God before the people, so in these ceremonies the priests represented the people before God and served God on the people’s behalf. Prophet and priest, together they operated in a vital two way communication between God and his people.
But notice the two special roles that Moses played in the ceremony in chapter 8. Firstly, he acts as the Lord’s spokesman. Every step is choreographed by the Lord’s instruction. Everything is done as the Lord commanded. And every instruction, every command, is passed on by the Lord through Moses. Chapter 8 begins with the words,
The Lord said to Moses.
Moses is the Lord’s prophet and Moses’ words are the Word of the Lord. As verse 4 says, Moses said to the assembly,
This is what the Lord has commanded to be done.
And more than once, the fact that the participants in the ceremony did just as they were told was reported by the simple statement,
as the Lord commanded Moses.
It highlights again what we saw last week, that worship means coming to the Lord at his appointed place through his appointed priests. It is not for the Lord’s people to imagine what the Lord wants or to invent ways to please and impress him. Instead, they are to approach the Lord in the way that the Lord has commanded and provided.
I mean, if you lived on a property in a forest. And you made a driveway at great personal expense from the road to your house through the scrub a very specific route for friends and visitors to get to your place, and one of your friends decided that instead of using the driveway, they were going to drive their 4WD through the bush, you wouldn’t thank them for damaging their car and the environment. You would say to yourself, Why do I even bother?
In the same way, the Lord has provided a way for us to approach him. A way that he has commanded we use. He will not thanks us for thinking that we can make our own way. Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” As Christians, as people living under the new covenant and not under the laws of Leviticus, coming to God means coming to him through Jesus, the way that God has provided. Not on our own merits with our own good deeds and our own sacrifices, but on his merits and by his sacrifice.
The second vital role that Moses played in the ordination ceremony is to function as the priest, doing the things that Aaron will do once he is ordained as high priest, but can’t until he is ordained as high priest. Moses washes Aaron and his sons. Moses dressed Aaron and his sons. The breastplate that the high priest wore was made up of twelve gems, one for each of the tribes of Israel and placed near the heart to show how precious the people were to the Lord. The urim and thummim we placed in the breastplate, probably in a pouch. They were something like coloured pebbles or markers that could be taken out and one would be used for the answer yes and the other for no in asking questions of the Lord. Moses took the oil and anointed the tabernacle and the altar and then Aaron himself. Moses offered the sin offering while Aaron and his sons place their hands on the animal’s head just like the regular lay person would. For the simple reason that until this ceremony is completed and the seven day waiting period after it, Aaron and his sons are still regular lay people.
By the start of chapter 9 Aaron will be high priest. But Moses, as the Lord’s prophet through whom the first high priest was ordained, showed himself in chapter 8 to be the even higher priest. The priest to the priests.
Almost 40 years later than these events in the book of Leviticus Moses said to the people of Israel,
The Lord your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him.
This promise is fulfilled in none of the other Old Testament prophets like it was fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus who comes to us as the prophet of God, announcing the coming of God’s saving grace, and who also comes to us as a priest on the cross and in his continuing service at the right hand of the Father. In Jesus we look to the perfect priest, the highest priest. Jesus, a prophet like Moses, who as prophet represents God to us and brings us his Word, and who as priest represents us before God, bringing us atonement and forgiveness. Through him, like he did through Moses, God maintains his two way communication. Jesus, as Moses said, is the one whom we must listen to.
The ordination ceremony also highlights how Aaron’s sin must be dealt with before he can serve as priest. In verse 6, Aaron and his sons are washed. Their own sins defile them and must be purified. In verse 14, a bull is presented for their sin offering, with Aaron and his sons placing their hands on its head. In verse 15, blood is placed on the altar to purify it from Aaron’s defiling presence. In verse 23, a ram is presented and some of its blood is put on the lobe of Aaron’s right ear, on the thumb of his right hand and on the big toe of his right foot. His own sins have offended the Lord, most notably in the making of the golden calf. He is not fit to serve on behalf of others until a life is given for his life, until an offering is made, until the judgment for sin is atoned for in the blood of the sacrifice.
It reminds us that Aaron and his sons are only human like the rest of us. They are not angels. They are not robots. But flawed, self-centred, human beings who can understand the sins of the people they serve because they commit them themselves. So they cannot offer sacrifices for others until they offer a sacrifice for themselves. As Psalm 14 says,
All have turned away, all have become corrupt, there is no one who does good, not even one.
Not even the high priest.
Our ministers and pastors are flawed human beings too. They are subject to the same temptations, the same weaknesses as everyone else. Although they are called to live a life worthy of the gospel, and should be held to a higher standard, they are not worthy to stand upon the pedestal that some people put them on. Our leaders in the Christian faith will disappoint us and let us down. So we can love them, and we can try to support them, but we cannot put our ultimate faith in them. We need to look to someone better, whose example is above reproach, someone who can pull us out of the flood waters of judgment because he is not drowning in them himself. Someone who doesn’t have to take the log out of his own eye before he can take out the speck in our eye. Someone who has the right to cast the first stone, but never will. As Hebrews chapter 7 says, we need a high priest
who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people.
What we need is Jesus, who needed no sacrifice for himself but who
sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself.
Jesus, as Hebrews explains, is both sacrifice and priest. He is the offering and the one who offers it. Now last week we looked at how Jesus is the perfect sacrifice. But this new insight from today, that Jesus is also the perfect priest, adds these two points to what we’ve already learned. Firstly, it reminds us that although Jesus is the perfect sacrifice, he is not a passive victim. His life was not taken from him unjustly and against his will.
For example, if you worked for a man who told you to deliver a package as quick as possible by car to the other side of a big city and you were booked for going through a red light because of it, it might be reasonable for your boss, although he wasn’t guilty of the fine, to take responsibility for it and to pay it. But it would not be fair for your boss to lie and say it wasn’t you driving the car but another co-worker. In both cases, you get out of paying the fine, but in the second case the co-worker is being used as a scapegoat. We might say that he’s been thrown to the wolves. It’s nice to avoid the consequences of our actions, but it isn’t right for that to happen in a way that isn’t right.
Jesus, the Son of God, through whom the Father made all things, our creator, is not guilty of our sin. But on the cross he took responsibility for it. He paid the price that we couldn’t pay, by giving himself. He chose us and he chose the cross, before we chose him. His life is a sacrifice but he is not just a victim.
Secondly, Jesus work as our priest reminds us that he did not just die for us but that he continues to live for us. The life he gave was given back to him. The grave couldn’t hold him but he was raised to life. And he lives at the Father’s right hand to pray for us. And he is continually with us in the presence of his Spirit. So the atoning benefits of his sacrifice continue to be effective. We do not follow a dead martyr. We don’t need to feel sorry for Jesus like he has died and gone to heaven. But he lives for us so that the victory of his life and its benefits might overflow into our lives.
Through his cross Jesus has opened a way to God that cannot be closed. We may feel defeated by our misfortunes and ashamed of our shortcomings. But Jesus lives and continues to serve us not just as sacrifice, but as our priest as well.
Jesus is our perfect high priest. During his life, Aaron sinned. He helped build the golden calf and he grumbled against his brother Moses. He grew old and died and never entered the promised land because he was weak. His sons took his place and lived and sinned and died, because they were weak. None of them were able to offer the sacrifice that would mean no more sacrifices were needed.
Until Jesus came in our flesh, in our humanity, immersing himself completely into our experience. Walking every path in life that we do. He understands us and the choices we make. He was human, but not only human. As the divine Son of God he helps us out of our sin, because he is not overwhelmed by them himself. Ministers and priests and pastors will always disappoint us. We can love them and try to support them but we cannot put our ultimate trust in them. Let us look to Jesus, our perfect priest, who understands us and will never condemn us, the only one who can save us.