Monday, October 26, 2015
Wednesday, October 21, 2015
Readings: Psalm 104:1-9, Job 38:1-7 (34-41), Mark 10:35-45, Hebrews 5:1-10
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, October 18, 2015
I was reading the small ads in the back of one of the religious magazines. There were all sorts of courses you could apply for. Very impressive qualifications were on offer. A doctorate in this. A certificate in that. It appears that, if you have the money, you can become a well-qualified religious professional without ever having to open a book or attend a course.
It wasn’t that way in Old Testament times. In Old Testament times the ministry was a closed shop. Being a priest was not a profession you could buy your way into or a job that you chose. You had to be born into it. You were chosen by divine appointment.
And if you were chosen you had to have the right attitude towards your calling. Humility was a definite requirement. A spirit of compassion was essential. You had to be one of the people, able to empathize with their problems, yet be set apart your work in such a way that the people would understand that God was an awesome and holy God.
The Book of Hebrews gives us an image of Jesus as 'The Great High Priest'. If being a priest was a high privilege then being ‘The High Priest' was just about the greatest honor any priest could be awarded with. To be the one who offered the sacrifice in Jerusalem during the holiest of feast days... that was special. Yet Jesus, (the writer of Hebrews tells us) is greater than any High Priest that ever walked upon the face of the earth.
Greater even than the mysterious Melchizedek. Who? Melchizedek! Melchizedek is a shadowy figure who makes a fleeting appearance in the book of Genesis at the time of Abraham. He comes out of nowhere and disappears into eternity.
Melchizedek’s significance is that Abraham, the Father of all the Israel, who carried in his person the seed of all the priests that were ever called to serve before the altar of Almighty God, saw fit to pay tribute to Melchizedek, after he had rescued his brother Lot and a whole crowd of other folk, from capture by the enemy.
Melchizedek, (also described as the 'King of Salem' or 'King of Jerusalem') comes along and shares bread and wine with Abraham and grants to Abraham Gods blessing. In response Abraham takes a tenth of all that he has and gives it to Melchizedek. (Now bear in mind this was before anybody had heard of tithing, yet alone of celebrating the acts of God through bread and wine, as we are used to doing in our communion service.)
Melchizedek was seen as even greater than the High priest – in that Abraham, the Father of all priests, high or low, honored Melchizedek, above and before all others. The author of Hebrews... 'Now that I’ve explained just how great Melchizedek was, you know what? Jesus is greater!'
This is the argument right through the preceding chapters in Hebrews. Jesus is the Greatest. In the prologue (we looked at a couple of weeks ago) Jesus is described as greater than any of the prophets or any angel. In chapter three Jesus is declared greater than Moses. Now He is described as greater than any priest, even greater than the mysterious Melchizedek. Jesus is given the title 'The Great High Priest'.
But what’s so significant about being the ‘Great High Priest?’
In the first place, like the priests of the Old Testament, Jesus was divinely appointed. The mission that Jesus accomplished had been a part of God’s will from the beginning of time. He was born into it.
The author of Hebrews applies two Old Testament scriptures to Jesus from the Psalms. One verse pictures God addressing Jesus with the words, ‘You are my Son, today I have begotten you’. The other verse reads ‘You are a priest forever, according to the order of Melchizedek.’ Christ’s ministry had always been a part of the Divine plan.
Here we see a common New Testament theme. (John 15:16) 'You didn’t choose me, I chose you'. That doesn’t just apply to Jesus or to priests serving in a temple. It goes for us to. It’s not that we have chosen God. It is God who has chosen us. And only from out of God’s love are granted to us the gifts of grace that we need to be disciples.
We are followers of Jesus through the Grace of God. If we forget that, faith can easily become something that is centered on ourselves rather than on God. I remember singing in Sunday School...
'It’s me, it’s me, it’s me, Oh Lord
Standing in the need of prayer,
Not my brother, not my sister but it’s me Oh Lord,
Standing in the need of prayer'
But compare that with the prayer of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. He says ‘Not me…’ ‘Not my will, but thy will be done Oh Lord'. We hear Jesus praying, Although I want this cup of suffering to pass from me, what I really want is that through my life my brothers and my sisters in this world are blessed. That’s why I’m here, that's why I came”.
It is my understanding that whilst we are saved only by the Grace of God, where we exercise our free will is in how much we allow the Grace of God to change our lives, how prepared we are to turn from our self and put the requirements of God and the service of others at the center of things, rather than pursuing our own narrow agendas for this life and the next.
‘To find yourself' encouraged Jesus, 'Lose yourself.' Allow God’s grace to sweep over you like a fresh breeze. Let it wash over you like a warm shower. Accept it. Believe it. Go with its flow. 'You did not choose me, I chose you.' It as though God’s Spirit says to us, 'Just as Jesus was God’s chosen one for the salvation of the world, so you are chosen to be THE bearers and carriers of God’s love to others.'
Jesus is the great High Priest because he was chosen and ordained by God to be the Savior.
Secondly, Jesus is the Great High Priest, because whatever we go through in life, Jesus knows how to get us through it.
When we see somebody going through a hard time, if we can, we’ll try and help them. Yet often we can’t help because we haven’t been in the place of suffering where that person is. There are times when the only person who can really help is the one who can say, 'I know ... because I’ve been where you are right now'.
Jesus knows what’s it like to be human. In our Christmas celebrations we rejoice in the message about God becoming man and dwelling among us. Hebrews tells us that because Jesus, as a man, Jesus suffered, then He can help us through our hardest times.
He knew what it was to be rejected. He knew what it was to have lies told about Him. He knew what it was to be totally misunderstood. He knew what it was to be betrayed. He knew what it was to be unappreciated, to do a task and never receive any acknowledgment, to do something that was completely the right thing to do but receive nothing but criticism, to be unjustly hated and mistrusted and despised. He knew about being tortured.
He knew what it was to be a child. He knew what it was like to be a teenager. He knew what it was to face responsibilities within a family. He knew what a hard working day was. He knew what being tired was. He knew about stress. He knew about hunger. He knew what being a refugee was. He knew what living in a land occupied by a foreign power was.
He knew how hard it was to go the way of God when your whole being cried out to go in the opposite direction. He knew what it was to be tempted by the most tempting temptations that life brings our way. He knew the deceptions and attractions of evil. He knew about physical pain. He knew about grief and anger and frustration and tears and struggle. He knew how to live and He knew how die.He knew what the effects of sin were. Not because He was a sinner, but because on the cross He took the pain of our sins and sorrows and sickness upon Himself.
Whatever we are going through we have in Jesus one that we can turn to, one who knows. Yet so much more than simply having the knowledge of how it feels, as the Great High Priest, He is also the one who can help.
The third function of the Priest was to be a bridge between God and humanity.
He is the High Priest who made a sacrifice on our behalf before God, His sacrifice upon the cross. He is the High Priest who intercedes on our behalf before the Father. He is the Healer, the One who can still the storm and calm the waves, the one who casts out the demons and despair that inhabit empty lives. He is the deliverer who sets people free from destructive lifestyles and habits. He has the Words of life, which will never pass away.
His Holy Spirit offers Kingdom life. He promises peace. He surprises us with joy. He melts our hard hearts with love. He inspires. He upholds. He comforts. He leads. He Calls. He encourages.
Jesus is the Great High Priest. Greater than prophets, greater than angels, greater than Moses or Aaron or Levi or any of their priestly line. Greater even than the mysterious Melchizedek.
I encourage you then, to live your life under the ministry of the love of Jesus. He has chosen you to share that love with others. You don’t need to apply to any dubious college to get a certificate or a doctorate to do that! All you need is a heart that desires to do the will of God.
Jesus is the great High Priest.
He is divinely appointed by God to occupy that role. So God calls us and appoints us to particular areas of service within His body, the church.
Jesus is able to help us through whatever life brings our way. He went there. He stands with us by the clear cool waters and in the valley of the shadow. Jesus understands what ever it is we are going through. He wants to be let in on our problems and hurts. So share them with Him.
His love is the bridge that connects us with God. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit may continue to guide us and lead us, that we may live to the glory of His Holy name.
Let us rejoice that Jesus is our Great High Priest’.
The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.
Tuesday, October 13, 2015
Readings: Psalm 22:1-15, Job 23:1-9, 16-17, Mark 10:17-31, Hebrews 4:12-16
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, on October 11, 2015
It's a story you may have heard before, but as we look today at these few verses from Hebrews, I'll share it anyway. There is a man out walking out in the mountains, when a bear appears out of nowhere. Terrified, the man runs away as fast as he can.
Unfortunately the man doesn't look where he is going and runs right over the edge of a cliff. He does, however, as he falls, manage to catch onto an overhanging ledge. As he hangs there he is relieved to hear the bear departing, but very much aware that now he is going to need somebody to pull him back up onto solid ground.
He shouts out. 'Is anybody there?' No reply. Again he shouts, 'Is anybody there?' No reply. Again 'Is anybody there?' The voice of God addresses him. ' Just let go and I will catch you if you fall.' The man goes silent for a minute and then shouts 'Is anybody ELSE there?'
Observing the scene one angel whispered to another, 'And to think God just saved him from the bear, you'd think he'd be getting the hang of it by now!' The other one responded “Hah-Hah. 'Getting the hang of it'!”
All of which is by way of introducing Hebrews 4:12-16 which could be subtitled 'Holding On'. When life becomes confusing and we are not sure which way to turn, it is hard to make faith decisions. Such was the predicament of the church addressed in Hebrews. There were some strange teachings doing the rounds. The society around them was becoming increasingly hostile towards those who sought to be faithful. So in verse 14 they are encouraged 'Let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.'
These verses speak of three particular things we can hold on to.
- Hold on to God's Word
- Hold on to Jesus
- Hold on to Grace.
Hold on to God's Word. Verse 12: 'For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart.'
In the current social climate of skepticism and unbelief, I've observed people writing things like, 'Why on earth would any sane person trust their lives to the guidance of some 2000 years old book of myth and fairy tales'. The collection of 66 volumes we know as the Bible is often dismissed as being an authoritative source by which to live our lives.
By contrast the book of Hebrews describes God's Word as being 'Alive and active. Sharper than a two-edged sword'. How do we bridge that great gulf of opposing viewpoints? How can scripture become something we hold onto?
In my own life, it has worked like this. Once I had established a living relationship with God, then the words of Scripture started to come alive for me. Before that time they did indeed seem to be just ancient texts with very little relevance to my daily life. However once I had sensed the call of Jesus Christ to be a disciple then the experiences of faith I found in those 66 books had a startling relevance.
The great reformer John Calvin wrote that the only way to encounter scripture was through the testimony and witness of God's Holy Spirit. That the Holy Spirit worked as the lenses, the glasses if you like, by which Scripture had to be understood. Without looking to Scripture through the lens of the one who gave the scriptures then the view was out of focus.
Scripture is sometimes described as being a revelation of God's purposes. Many, many, many people of faith testify that, under God's touch, it becomes exactly that. A word that reveals the deepest needs and attitudes of their hearts. A word that changes everything. It becomes something more than an intellectual understanding but a divine encounter through which God speaks and directs our lives.
Now I don't know where you stand on that 'useless old book' v. 'divine word of God' spectrum. But it is probably true that where you stand on Scripture directly relates to how you feel you relate to God. If God is a living reality then I suspect you are hungry for His Word. If you are still working things out and are not really sure how God even fits into the picture, then maybe that's not where you are.
So this. That when Jesus speaks about seeking and asking He is serious. If we are genuinely searching and prepared to take God on God's terms rather than our own, then the Holy Spirit will guide us. And one of the ways that God will guide us will be through words contained in the Scriptures.
Sometimes we may not like what we read. It can cut through our pretensions and touch us at our most vulnerable. Other times we'll wonder how we ever manged to get through the day without it!
When it comes to the New Testament, the books are united by one theme alone. They point to Jesus Christ as the source for living a meaningful life. The things He does and the things He says are the things that define authentic Christianity. Everything that comes before points to Him, everything that comes after points back to Him. So the second thing here...
Hold on to Jesus
The author of Hebrews speaks of Jesus in terms that would have meant a lot to the original readers, but maybe are not as clear to us. He (v14) is the 'great high priest who has ascended into heaven'. He (v15) is the One who has been ' tempted in every way, just as we are--yet He did not sin'.
Let us unpack that a little. In previous chapters the author has been explaining how great some of the priests, prophets, and even the angels were. Yet, the greatness of Jesus surpassed them all. He was above them in so many ways. He is the 'great high priest who has ascended into heaven.'
He is inviting us to hold onto the thought that with the guidance and strength offered us in Jesus Christ there is the glorious possibility that we can rise above whatever challenges being His disciple may bring our way. Sure it is going to be tough. There are things that will drag us down. We all stumble. We all make mistakes. But not God. Jesus was 'tempted in every way, just as we are' but unlike us He did not give up or give in.
If I made that into a poster it would say 'Stay calm and look to Jesus'. Our great high priest is not someone remote and uninvolved in our situation. Jesus took on our humanity and became like us. He has gone before us, suffering and facing the very temptations, doubts and fears that we face. He faced the devil in the wilderness, yet in His life there was no compromise, no doubting, no cursing of God, no rebellion. He is totally able to empathize with us in our troubles. So lift your sight beyond your self, and look to what God can do. Look up! Say a prayer. Get some help.
Remember the guy hanging off the cliff? 'Is anybody else there!' If you are connected with Jesus you don't need anybody else. But it is always be hard to let go. Christian growth is like that. We have those moments when God comes through for us. Hey... the guy had been saved from the bear! But in the moment of struggle or crisis we forget what God has done for us in the past and are totally consumed by the challenge of the present.
No wonder the Psalmist wrote; “Praise the LORD, my soul, and forget not all his benefits-- who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion, (Psalm 103:2-5). Only Jesus can do that. That's what the author of Hebrews is getting at. Jesus is the greatest. No other name, no other sacrifice, no other love is like His. So listen for God's living active word, hold on to Jesus. Finally...
Hold on to Grace.
Verse 16. “Approach God's throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” There's a hymn we sometimes sing. "Trust and obey for there's no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey." I get the trust bit. It's the obeying bit that makes things difficult. We know that there has to be a relationship between faith and obedience. The trouble is, when it comes to obedience, we constantly fall short. In the end, we can be so overwhelmed by failure that we just give up on faith.
I love the way this verse is phrased. It doesn't say 'Find your confidence in your ability to do everything God asks you to do'. It doesn't say 'Only super-Christians find super blessings'. It doesn't say, 'Be all that you can be' or 'Man-Up' or 'Get over yourself' or 'When the going gets tough, the toughs get going'
It says 'Approach God's throne of grace with confidence'. Put your confidence, not in what you can do, but in what God can do. Why that way? 'So that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need”.
Again, let go of that self-sufficient, self-satisfied mindset. Repeat after me. 'There is a God' 'And it isn't me'. I was thinking of the story of the man hanging on over the cliffside when I came across this sentence in the commentary I was studying. 'In the face of our frail humanity let us look to the one who will hold firmly to the thread of our faith. He will never let us go, so trust in Him'.
How much faith do we need? That commentator speaks about a threads worth. That doesn't seem much to hang onto when our life depends on it. Yet Jesus also said that all we need is a mustard seeds worth. For the rest, His grace is sufficient to get us through.
Hold on to God's Word. Allow the Holy Spirit to interpret scripture to your situation and try and act upon what you learn. 'For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword'
Hold on to Jesus. Lift your sight beyond your self, and look to what God can do. Look up! Say a prayer. “Forget not all his benefits-- who forgives all your sins and heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the pit and crowns you with love and compassion”
Hold on to grace. Approach God with prayerful confidence that in the midst of our troubles, weaknesses and all the rest of the stuff that often makes up for our daily lot, His grace can get us through, in ways we never even dare imagine.
To God's name be all glory. Amen.
Monday, October 5, 2015
Readings: Psalm 26, Job:1:1;2:1-10, Mark 10:2-16, Hebrews 1:1-4, 5-12
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, on October 4, 2015
It wasn’t too long after the church was born that some of those who had been ‘born again’ became 'bored again' and were attracted to things other than what the church had to offer. Many of them left the church.
There were reasons that influenced their decisions. The church, constantly struggling with what it actually believed, didn’t always provide the answers people were looking for. Whilst those struggles formed the Creeds that today guide our belief, if you were caught up in them, they seriously challenged your faith.
There were other religious influences on offer that seemed to present a less complicated way of believing. These included what were known as the Gnostic religions. In many of these angels played a significant part. If you could connect with your guardian angel, then they would take care of things... be your short cut to the good things in life.
The underlying argument of Hebrews is that in Jesus Christ you find one who is unique and without comparison. Greater than all others. Greater than angels. To abandon faith in Jesus is therefore a negative and dangerous thing to do, for having once tasted the truth and rejected it, a person runs the risk of believing in things that will ultimately cause them tremendous harm.
Listen again to the words of the prologue, Hebrews 1:1-5.
“In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days God has spoken to us by a Son, whom God appointed the heir of all things, through whom also God created the world. He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of God’s nature, upholding the universe by his word of power. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has obtained is more excellent than theirs.”
Hebrews starts with God. The writer bases his argument upon the historical acts and concrete actions of the living God through which people had come to faith.
This is the God who had spoken to Abraham, who had blessed the people of Israel, and had given the Ten Commandments. This is the God who revealed God's way through the prophets; prophets like Isaiah who had an overwhelming sense of God’s holiness, like Elijah and Elisha who worked miracles in God’s name, like Amos who called the people to practice social justice, like Jeremiah who spoke of God’s forgiveness and lamented over the hard hearts of those who turned away.
“In many and various ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days God has spoken to us by a Son.” “In these last days” not in the sense that time was running out, but that, in Jesus Christ, all that the prophets had dreamed and demonstrated and spoken of had found fulfillment' "Do not think” says Jesus in Matthew 5:17, “That I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish, but to fulfill.”
We read in the gospels how that fulfillment took place. Jesus worked miracles. He healed the sick. He gave dignity to the downtrodden. He offered God’s forgiveness and wept over hard hearts that rejected it. He went to the cross and became, as the prologue tells it, ‘purification for sins’. He revealed God’s holiness like no other ever has, before or since.
Jesus, claims Hebrews, is the "heir of all things, through whom also God created the world.... upholding the universe by His word of power." Mohammed was a great prophet. The Buddha had a profound sense of the sacredness of all life. Confucius said many wise things. Moses had a face that shone with the Glory of God.
Only about Jesus is the claim made that the one who walked upon the shores of Galilee was the same one who flung the stars and planets into space and whose life is intimately involved with the creation and preservation of all life on earth.
Hebrews is not alone in speaking of Jesus this way. Consider the prologue to John's gospel, "In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God... All things came into being by Him..... And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory" (John 1:1, 2, 14)
Among all creation, mankind is unique in that we seem to be the only species on the planet that asks, "Why are we here?" My dog Harpo does not spend his days contemplating the answer to life, the universe and everything. All he wants to know is, 'When do we eat?' 'Can we go for a walk now?' Life’s a blast. There's bad guys like squirrels and anybody who rings the doorbell, but the rest of the time you just sleep easy.
But humans! We have this unquenchable sense that there's something more, that the truth (whatever that maybe) is out there. On TV in any given week there will be programs about ghostly encounters, psychic messages from the other side, alien abductions and autopsies, U.F.O’s, Turin Shrouds, unexplained mysteries and miracles, all kinds of weird and wonderful stuff, including, encounters with angels.
As I said earlier, angels were big back in the days Hebrews was written, particularly among religions that seemed to offer a shortcut, through secret knowledge 'gnosis' concerning the ways of angels.
Angels are a part of the biblical story of both Old and New Testaments. But they are always an aside concern, not at the heart of things. The word ‘angel’ in Greek simply meant, "Messengers". But for some within the church at the time Hebrews was written, angels had moved from the outfield to the center. Paul, in Colossians 2:18, speaks of those who had given up on Christianity in favor of the 'worship of angels'. They seem to be paying more attention to 'the messengers' than 'the message'.
'Come back'' Hebrews encourages us, 'Reconsider who Jesus is. You want a cosmic Savior? You can't get more cosmic than the Word through whom all things were created and by whom all things are sustained; you want a God with a human face, then look into the eyes of Jesus!'
Back to the prologue. "He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of God’s nature".
To know what God is like we need look no further than Jesus. If we want to discover what sort of things are God’s priorities then we can look to the things that Jesus did. If we want to find a purpose and a meaning to the question of our existence then we can find it in Jesus Christ.
Lose our focus, become focused only on each other or on particular issues that we allow to become distractions, then like looking down the wrong end of a pair of binoculars, Jesus looks a whole lot smaller. Get the view right, fix our eyes on Jesus, and the things of God start to make sense. Prayer becomes not a task but a conversation. The Bible becomes not a collection of old religious books but an album of God’s messages to our hearts.
For sure much can go wrong in church life. For sure there are many things in which we could believe. U.F.O’s. The Loch Ness monster. Ghosts. Big Foot. Angels. Yet none of those things can be our Savior. None of those things can provide the connection with God our hearts so desperately desire. None of those things deal with the alienation that sin causes to our relationships with each other and with God.
Jesus does. Jesus died on the cross that sin may be overcome. He was raised to show us that God’s love has no limit. God sends the Holy Spirit to renew our lives with Christ’s loving presence. Through worship, through prayer, through meditating on God’s word, we can discover the true greatness of Jesus Christ. Reliant on God’s grace we can live for God’s glory.
Don’t spiritually speaking ‘short change’ yourself. Fix your eyes on Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who, in the words of Hebrews 12:12 “for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”
The right hand of the throne of God! Now that’s greatness! And that is the same Jesus who wants to be our friend? That’s the One who died on the cross to remove our isolation from God. That’s the same Jesus who wants to share in our lives and be in on all that we are doing. That's the One represented in these symbols of bread and wine.