Blog Space of Rev. Adrian J. Pratt B.D, pastor at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, Ellicott City, MD

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

How Much More?

Over the past few weeks in our services at Mount Hebron Presbyterian we have been looking at passages from the New Testament book of Hebrews. (Last weeks message can be found here). We have seen how the author seeks to explain that Jesus Christ has a significance that is far above that of any other religious figures. He is greater than angels, greater than prophets that came before Him, and by virtue of the fact that He was the Son of God who gave His life upon the Cross to free the world from sin, greater than any priest that had ever served the people.

In the passage we will be thinking about this week (Hebrews 9:13-15) the writer tells us that if Jesus is so much more than those who came before, then He is also so much more able to help us travel through whatever life throws at us.

Here's part of that passage from 'The Message'. “If that animal blood and the other rituals of purification were effective in cleaning up certain matters of our religion and behavior, think how much more the blood of Christ cleans up our whole lives, inside and out. Through the Spirit, Christ offered Himself as an unblemished sacrifice, freeing us from all those dead-end efforts to make ourselves respectable, so that we can live all out for God.

We all have times in our lives when we ask ourselves 'How more can we take?' There are situations that come our way when we ask ourselves 'How much more can I be expected to give?' We are sometimes in relationships, at work, with family or even with friends, when things become strained and we ask, 'How much more do you want from me?'

This passage speaks about the God of 'How much more'. It speaks about how, if we can but recognize it, the love and grace of Jesus Christ are more than enough to carry us through every challenge that we face and every situation that life brings to our doorstep. To apply that thought to our lives we often have to take a step back, take a deep breath and offer up a heartfelt prayer, yet as we consider the lengths that Jesus went to prove to us we are loved by God, it can grant us a fresh perspective on our trials and concerns.

Central to that picture is the Cross. The Christian claim for the death of Christ is that, as the Message Bible tells us, 'The blood of Christ cleans up our whole lives, inside and out'. To put it another way, whatever is going on around us or within us, God has got it covered and can help us through it. If we feel like all our efforts are leading us down a dead end street, then, in the light of the resurrection, we see that 'dead-ends' can sometimes turn out to be glorious new beginnings!

So if you are in one of those 'How much more can I take!' weeks, turn to the God who can give so much more than we dare imagine, the God who came to us in Jesus Christ and promises to send His Holy Spirit to accompany us as we journey beside cool clear waters or through deep dark valleys.

One of the most popular contemporary Christian songs of recent days has been Hillsong's - 'Oceans (where feet may fail). The lyrics speak to those times when we feel totally out of our depth and the ability of God to not allow us to be drowned in a sea that is more than we can handle. “I will call upon Your name, And keep my eyes above the waves, When oceans rise, My soul will rest in Your embrace, For I am Yours and You are mine.” 

(If you ever check out the comments section following 'youtube' videos, there are many postings following the song from folk struggling with what life has thrown at them.  As with all unfiltered internet conversations, some are random, some are just strange, but among them are some inspirational thoughts on how the God of 'how much more' has helped people through difficult days.)

Rev Adrian J Pratt B.D.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Once. For All.

There is always a sense of satisfaction whenever a project is completed. The greater the task, the greater the sense of relief. If I reach the end of a lengthy novel, finish up a series of studies or even get to the end of a lengthy movie I always feel like I can give myself a pat on the back and say 'Well... that's it. Done with.'

One of the things the biblical book of Hebrews suggests to us, is that during His earthly life, Jesus completed the task God had set Him to do. According to John's gospel some of His last words upon the Cross were 'It is finished'. (John 19:30)

The author of Hebrews spends a lot of time explaining how the greatness of Jesus surpassed that of all those who had come before Him. (See last weeks sermon here). He was greater than Abraham, Moses or David. He was greater than any angel, prophet or priest. What He did through His life was greater than the things they could do.

In chapter 7 (which we'll be looking at this coming Sunday in our worship service at Mount Hebron Presbyterian) the author compares the ministry of the High Priest in Jerusalem, who had to every year go back into the temple and make a sacrifice for his personal sins... and for the sins of the people... to Jesus, who made a 'once and for all' sacrifice of His life upon the Cross.

Hebrews 7:27 '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. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when He offered Himself.

O.K. So what has that got to do with our lives? I like to think of it this way. We often live with feelings of 'incompleteness' or a sense of being 'unfulfilled'. We tend to stumble from one crisis to the next. We are aware that a lot of the dissonance in our lives is due to our own shortcomings and mistakes... our 'sins'... if you prefer to paint such things in religious terminology.

The good news of the faith message found in Jesus Christ is that we don't need to let such things hold us back. We don't need to stay at the level of our inability, because, through what Jesus achieved upon the Cross, God has got it covered. Jesus died once. An unrepeatable action. God's final action in the campaign waged against all that can separate us from God's love. Jesus died for all. 'All' is an inclusive enough term to apply to every one of us. We all have the potential to be set free from wallowing in our past failure and to explore the new horizons of an unknown future.

The challenge in all this, is believing enough in the greatness of Jesus Christ, in all that He did and can do, and applying it to our own circumstances. We are invited to trust that God is greater than our failures, our sins and our mistakes to such an extent that we are freed from them, rather than indulging in the constant temptation to revisit them.

Once. For All. Was the death of Jesus Christ really the final answer to our sin? Are we among those God wants to set free to live lives that are abundant with grace and love? According to the author of Hebrews... a huge big … 'YES'. Jesus died once. Jesus died for all. 

For some music...Laura Story singing  'He is Mighty to Save'
Rev. Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015

Calling All Priests!

We recently began a sermon series in church on the Book of Hebrews. Last week message about 'Holding on to Faith' can be found here. But this week we move on to a consideration of priests.  If you can join us, we would love to welcome you, but if not, well... we send our greetings via the internet. So then. Priests.

Back in the Old Testament days, if you needed any kind of religious service taken care of, you had to call a priest. The office of priest was not just for anybody. It was a hereditary appointment. You needed to be a descendant of Aaron. You had to be anointed with special oil and approved by various governing bodies. There were different ranks of priesthood, the greatest of them being the 'High Priest' who had the special job, once a year on the day of atonement, of going into the most holy of holy places, to offer a sacrifice for the forgiveness of peoples sins.

There was a lot of sacrificing to be done. Every infraction of the laws of Moses incurred some kind of penalty that meant some poor animal had to be offered up as recompense. Barbaric as it might seem to our minds today, it was a powerful reminder that when we don't do things God's way, there is a price to pay. Sin was a matter of life and death.

The New Testament teaches that, with the coming of Jesus Christ, a huge change came to the idea of priesthood. Hebrews 9:26 tells us about Jesus that 'He has appeared once for all ... to remove sin by the sacrifice of Himself.' From the earliest days the church taught that because Christ died for our sins, the system of sacrifices and priests has been superseded by Jesus. Hebrews describes Him as 'Our great 'High Priest' who gave His life as the ultimate sacrifice.

So what became of the idea of priesthood? Over the centuries different denominations have viewed priests in different ways. The Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches retained the idea of priesthood. In their traditions the priest remained an intermediary between God and God's people. The priest has to fulfill certain obligations and perform certain duties, such as hearing peoples confession and offering the Mass.

Many Post-Reformation churches have a doctrine known as the 'Priesthood of all believers'. In my own Presbyterian Church we often put the phrase in our bulletins, 'Ministers; The Congregation'. The idea is that as Jesus is our great High Priest, we don't need any intermediary before whom to confess our sins, nor do we need anybody to make a sacrifice or say a prayer on our behalf. Through Jesus Christ we all have direct access to the heart of God.

Most reformed denominations do though still have an ordained ministry of some kind. They may be described as 'Priests' or 'Clergy' or 'Ministers of Word and Sacrament' or even - in my own PC(USA) - 'Teaching Elders'. Though we acknowledge that all Christians are called into God's service, we still set aside some folk to perform certain functions, such as administering the sacraments of baptism and communion, leading worship services and preaching. We often add to that expectations of pastoral care and taking responsibility for governance within a particular church.

I'm not trying to put myself out of a job.... but I do like that concept... of every Christian being part of the new priesthood instituted by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. 1 Peter 2:9 tells us 'You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people!'

In practical terms I understand that as meaning that every person who belongs to a church has a unique role to play within their faith community. While some folk may well be set aside for particular roles, the life and health of the church depends on every body playing an active part.

That can happen in so many ways! Through prayer, Through giving. Through service in the community. The list is endless and there are things on it we have yet to think of! So.... 'Calling all priests! Calling all priests!' Your church needs you. Now.

For some music, a classic hymn 'All to Jesus, I Surrender'. See, that's another thing about priests. They have to allow God to work through them if they are to be effective ministers of God's love and grace. But that's another story....

Rev. Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

All Dogs Go To Heaven

Recently our household lost a family member, our 14+ year old cross boxer/St Bernard dog called Harpo. It's amazing how a family pet can occupy such a huge place in your heart and you certainly grieve for them when they have gone.

At a time in history when we are hearing of school shootings, floods, a huge refugee crisis, folk battling terrible diseases and dealing with all kinds of bereavements, the death of a pet seems like it should be a minor consideration. Yet whenever you lose a relationship with anything in your life that has been a source of love and comfort it takes a while to adapt to the changes.

As a pastor, a question I am sometimes asked is 'Do our pets go to heaven?' The eternal destiny of our furry friends is not spoken of in Scripture. However, the Christian hope has always been that one day there will be a new heaven and a new earth where everything finds it rightful place and in which justice and righteousness reign supreme.

It does not seem unreasonable to suggest that, if God designed a creation that has within it as a positive thing, pets who tug at your heart strings and bring great joy to your life, that any future creation would have similar features. Heaven is often pictured as a place of reunion where we are reunited with those we have loved and lost and once again experience the joy of their fellowship.

Of course if you are allergic to cats or afraid of dogs, this thought may not bring you much comfort! But to pet owners everywhere it appears a positive sentiment. A 1989 animated movie made the bold claim that 'All dogs go to heaven'. For some of us the idea of a new creation without our furry friends seems untenable. As with many things in life we just have to trust that God has got that whole eternity thing sorted – both in regard to humanity and ALL of creation.

In our services last week we began looking at the book of Hebrews. (First sermon in the series can be found here). It is written to a church community going through some disturbing changes. It seems some folk are being persecuted, others being led astray by weird and wacky teachings and yet others are simply giving up on believing.

The overall message of the book seems to be 'Hold on to faith'. Such is a message that we often need to hear. Be it in times of personal loss and change, or as we consider the pressing issues of the day, that challenge – to hold on to faith – resonates in so many different ways.

The writer of Hebrews is insistent that whatever crisis we are traveling through, the love of God that can be found in Jesus Christ, is greater than any obstacle that comes our way. God's Spirit is greater than our weakness and with such strength empowering us we are encouraged to hold on and keep pressing forward.

Of course that is never easy. Loss is never easy. Change is never easy. Solving the great dilemmas of the day is never easy. Letting go is never easy. Holding on is never easy. Yet somehow, if we can find a space each day to be thankful for the many blessings that we receive and add to that the hope that God actually does have a clue how all things can work out... then I think we can find a faith to carry us through. 

For some music, a song called 'Hold On' by a band called '33 miles'. 'Holding On' will also be our sermon this coming Sunday. Check back next week, or maybe even come and join us at Mount Hebron Presbyterian this (or any other) time! 

Rev Adrian J Pratt.