Monday, April 16, 2018

Messages From the First Letter of John - 2. Sins Remedy

'Sin, Forgiveness and Love '
(Messages from the First letter of John)
Readings: Psalm 4, Acts 3:12-19, Luke 24:36b-48, 1 John 3:1-10
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, April 15 2017

I was on my way to church as a pastor in Liverpool.  I went down one road. It was blocked off. I tried a different route. No, that was closed as well. In the end I had to go miles out of my way and was late for the service. When I got to church I discovered the problem.

About 45 years (or so) earlier, in the Blitz of the Second World War, the Germans had been bombing Liverpool. As the bombs fell, those who couldn’t make it to the air raid shelters, hid in under-stairs cupboards, under the kitchen table, wherever might provide some shelter. 

Sheltered under a kitchen table during a raid was a lady who still came to the church.  She remembered during a raid, hearing a bomb coming down - then waiting for it to explode - and nothing happened.  After the all clear was sounded she forgot all about it.

45 years later (or so) a council workman was cleaning out the sewers. His shovel hit something hard and metallic. He bent down to clear the muck off  it. “Now wat does dat say -’ B -O - M - B’.   “'Arry” he shouts to his workmate,  “Duz B.O.M.B. spell wat I tink it does?” Harry responds, “Call de army!” 

For 45 years there had been an active unexploded bomb lying  in the sewer and it could have gone off at anytime – especially when Harry’s mate belted it with a shovel. The bomb disposal people evacuated the area, sealed it off , and carefully removed the potential disaster.

In his first letter John pictures sin as something dangerous and life threatening that lurks below the surface of our lives - something that has to be treated with the utmost seriousness. In his first chapters John speaks of turning the ship of our lives around and actively ‘Walking in the Light’. In the third chapter he outlines for us what it means to be a child of God. In particular how being a child of God should affect our attitude towards sin and salvation.  

There were those in the church of John's day who taught a different gospel than that which he had received first hand from Jesus Christ. A particular group of people John is writing about were known as ‘Gnostics’. 

Being a gnostic implied that you were in possession of special knowledge that made you a cut above your average believer. Some believed that this special knowledge, this ‘gnosis', made them spiritually perfect. As they were spiritually perfect, sin could not harm them. They regarded sin as so ineffectual (in comparison to their state of enlightenment), that they paid no attention to their moral lives.

As they were  'perfect'... if a thing felt good....  it was good...  and they did it...and so it went on, until it became apparent to John, that some of the things they were doing, were the opposite of the things Jesus had taught him to do. He accuses the Gnostic's of making two terrible mistakes. 

Firstly, they were denying the reality of sin and evil and it’s capacity to corrupt and destroy.  
Secondly, they were failing to see the significance of Christ’s death - that He died for their sins and that unless they put their faith in Him, they would be lost.

John hits them with this argument; if they were truly born of the Spirit of God, if they were as perfect as they made themselves out to be, then fruits of the Spirit, such as love for their brothers and sisters in Christ, would be flowing out of them.  Their lives would be models of moral magnificence.
Instead their lives were producing evil things. They were spiritually proud. They looked down on those who didn't share their enlightened views. They were inconsistent in their moral behavior. The seed that was producing these bad fruits wasn't the seed of God, but the work of the devil. 

John counteracts their philosophy, with some down to earth, no nonsense talk. Verses 8-9; "The one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, that He might destroy the works of the devil. No one who is born of God practices sin."

Such a passage warns us never to become so sophisticated in our thinking that we underestimate the real power of evil in our world. Right at the start of the passage, verse 2, he points out that, Children of God are ‘a work in progress'. “Beloved,” he writes, “We are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he (Jesus) is revealed, we will be like Him, for we will see Him as He is” (v2). 

For the Gnostics this fell on deaf ears. They thought they had already arrived at perfection. As a result, they failed to see the depth and power of God’s love that was revealed to them in the Cross of Jesus Christ. After all, what good is a Savior who dies to forgive sins, if you are convinced that through your own sophistication you’ve already dealt with them? 

Over 2000 years later our sophisticated culture makes the same mistake. We are not comfortable with the concept of sin. We tend to justify our behavior in other ways. How many times have you heard these?

‘I just couldn’t help myself’
 ‘She made me do it’
 ‘He deserved it’
‘It’s just the way I am’
 ‘It’s not a problem’
‘It’s just a bad habit’
 ‘Everybody does it’
‘Don’t judge me’
‘I’m not hurting anybody’,
‘It felt so right’
 ‘Nobody’s perfect’
‘I’m no angel’

I’m sure you can think of others!
 So sophisticated have we become
 that it’s almost considered a sin
 to describe ‘sin’ as sin!

Sin is not just inappropriate behavior. It’s an enemy crouching at the door. It separates from God’s love, it cheapens life. At the end of the day it’s only pay out is death.  John pulls no punches. ‘Sin’, he says, ‘is the Devil’s work.’ Always was. Right from the beginning. 

1 John 3:8 “He who commits sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.

God’s remedy for sin is salvation. Jesus came to die upon the cross so that the power of sin may hold no sway over our lives. God calls us to put our faith in Jesus Christ, to ask God’s Holy Spirit to take up residence in our lives that we may be spiritually reborn from above. God calls us to work with the Holy Spirit in developing Christ like lives.

This is the basic gospel message.  “That God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” That “Christ died for our sins”.  As 1 John 3:5 puts it,  “You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin.

Sin is the unexploded bomb beneath the surface of our lives that is waiting to go off.  Maybe, like the lady in Liverpool who heard that bomb fall during the Blitz, we forget that it is there. It lays in the dark sewer of our souls, only to be recognized when somebody starts to dig deep down and name it for what it is. 

So hear John, as he explains that to be child of God, means accepting some fundamental truths.
  • Accepting that we are sinners.
  •  Accepting that Christ alone can be our Savior.
  •  Accepting that to walk in the light involves actively taking steps, to deepen our relationship with God in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Sophisticated? No it’s not.
    It’s the simple gospel  that has been proclaimed throughout the world.
        We are sinners who need a Savior.
            And Sins remedy is the Cross of Jesus Christ. 

Eventually an unexploded bomb causes disruption. It carries within itself all the power of destruction it has had since day one. We can excuse our sin, cover up our sin and even deny our sin. But until we confess our sin and bring it to the Cross of Jesus Christ it remains a force that can explode and destroy and wreck our spiritual walk.

Every worship service is an opportunity to renew our lives before God. To see ourselves, warts and all, in God's light. To claim for ourselves the forgiving and renewing power of the Holy Spirit. To seek for Jesus Christ  to renew us and remake us so that we can be better servants and bearers of His good fruit.

As one morning I sought to drive to church in Liverpool an unexploded bomb prevented me from reaching my destination. The army bomb squad came and the bomb was diffused. The bomb had to be dealt with before normal life could carry on.  Likewise we need daily to accept the love and life changing power of God to rise above our natural tendency towards sinful behavior that we may live every day in the light of Jesus love and peace. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J Pratt B.D.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Messages from the First Letter of John - 1. Walk in the Light

'Sin, Forgiveness and Love '
(Messages from the First letter of John)
Readings: Psalm 133, Acts 4:32-35, John 20:19-31, 1 John 1:1 - 2:2
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, April 8 2018

I must have been about thirteen years old. There was great excitement in the house. I grew up near Liverpool, England, a place which was once a bustling, active port. Sadly, by the time I came on the scene the city was a dismal shadow of it’s former self. But that day there was a big ship coming in, sailing up the River Mersey taking crude oil to one of the Oil Refineries further down stream.

This wasn’t just a big ship, it was a super tanker, a mega tanker, a monster tanker! The sort of boat that you could have five full size football fields on deck, all with games going on and still have enough room to land a Jumbo Jet. Well, maybe not quite that big, but it was the biggest thing that had sailed down the River Mersey ... ever.

So my dad drove me and my friend down to New Brighton, where you could get a good view of the river. Of course it was raining and gray and visibility was poor. Then along it came. A huge, ugly, bulk of a thing, being towed by a whole fleet of struggling tug boats, it slowly transported it’s oily cargo up stream.

I remember reading in the newspaper about how hard it was to turn this monstrous mega machine around out at sea. We’re talking a required area of many, many square miles. If you’ve ever been out on the water in just a little boat, and been going full belt, and then want to turn around and go the other way - you know how hard it is. Multiply that situation by many miles and many tons - and you get the picture. And if the boat was going with the flow and had to turn and head back against the tide, then the distances grew even greater.

The first letter of John is addressed to a church that John felt was headed at speed in the wrong direction. He knows that the inertia involved in the process was going to be hard to deal with; that turning things around was going to be a laborious process. He sets about reminding them of some of the basics of their faith.

In the first chapter (and on into the second), he recalls a fundamental Christian teaching. Humankind by nature prefers the darkness to the light. That there is in our make up, a driving force, a spirit of rebellion, a twisted desire towards unrighteousness, a bias towards what is bad rather than what is good. He calls it by a three letter word spelt S-I-N.

Sin. For John sin is not unlike the crude oil that fills the belly of the mega tankers. If ever you have been on a beach that has suffered the catastrophe of a large oil spill then you will be aware of crude oil's capability to cling and spoil and destroy.

It’s a heart breaking sight to observe sea birds trying to get the oil off themselves, trying to prune themselves and in the process covering their beaks, just becoming more and more overwhelmed by the oil, coating their wings so they can’t fly, in their eyes, in their mouths and into their bodies, slowly they die. Their only hope is for some animal rescue organization to take them to a safe place, and over a period of time clean the oil off with detergents and chemicals, until, stained, but capable of survival, they can be set free.

John use two words to describe sin. He firstly uses Greek word ‘skotos’ which means 'darkness'. He recognized such darkness within himself. He felt he had lived much of his life in the dark when it came to the things of God. He felt it was a universal human failing that we turn a blind eye to the needs of others and focus just on ourselves.

Secondly John uses the Greek word ‘harmatia’. 'Harmatia' meant 'going beyond the boundary line' or 'trespassing'. In many traditions when they say the Lord's prayer they say, forgive us our 'trespasses'. Forgive us when we overstep the mark, forgive us those times when we deliberately and purposefully choose to act in ways we know aren't right. He tells us that we are driven by sins that we commit because we can’t seem to help ourselves (we are in the dark) and we are driven by our desire to do the wrong thing (we trespass).

Because of sin, because of the darkness in our lives, we don’t walk in the light. We cherish the shadows. We are content with our masks, and our excuses, and our false reasoning, and our blind spots.
We are ships headed in the wrong direction and it takes more than high ideals to turn us around.

John really hates what sin does to our world. He saw how sin destroyed and polluted all creation. He saw how it was such a powerful thing that many people didn't even recognize it in themselves. He tells us “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8). We have this tendency when talking about 'sinners' that we mean somebody else other than ourselves. We like to shift the blame. Here's John saying, “Don't play that game, take the blame!”

You may have seen the Harry Potter books or movies. The death eaters are the dark spirits dispatched by Lord Voldermort to create havoc at Hogwarts. In Harry Potter terms sin is like your own personal death eater. Sin is a dark disturbing and destructive power.

Most of all John hates sin because it is a joy killer. His whole reason for writing his letter is stated in verse 4. “These things we write to you that your joy may be full.” (1 John 1:4 NKJ). God's people were meant to be joyful. And when they walked in the darkness rather than in the light, then the joy quickly evaporated from their lives and the life of their churches.

The dilemma is 'How do we turn this ship around?
How do we get out of the darkness
And ‘Walk in the Light’?'

John’s remedy is that there was no way of turning around, no remedy for the condition of sin - other than the forgiveness and grace found at the Cross of Jesus Christ. That there's nothing we can do to help ourselves. That we are like those seabirds coated with oil, we need an external agent to cleanse us and free us. That just as the only way crude oil becomes useful is when it becomes refined, so the only way our lives become the sort of lives God wants us to have, is when we are refined by the Grace of God we discover in Jesus Christ.

In the King James Bible Verse 2 of 1 John Chapter 2 reads, “Jesus Himself is the propitiation for our sins”. Propitiation. Not a word you hear very often! “Jesus is my Propitiation.” It’s not the sort of slogan you find emblazoned on Christian T-Shirts and Bumper Stickers or put on church noticeboards. Propitiation. 'Jesus is the propitiation' What does it mean? Propitiation means "getting something out of an impossible situation."

When John speaks of Jesus ‘being the propitiation for our sins’, John is telling us that 'Only Jesus is the One who can get us out of the impossible situation that sin creates'. Jesus Christ, and He alone, is the One who can turn the big, ugly, ship of our lives around. Jesus is the only one who can cleanse our lives from sins pollution. That the answer to our darkness and our trespass is found at the Cross.

Other translations use the phrase 'reconciliation' or 'atoning sacrifice'. Again the meaning is that Jesus has done for us at the Cross what we could never do for ourselves. His death reconciles us to God. His death means we can be in fellowship with God. We have through Jesus 'At-One-Ment'.

How do we make the forgiveness offered at the cross our own? Again John offers the solution. 1 John 1:9 “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

Another way to think of confession is to see it as admitting to something. Sometimes you will hear people involved in a confrontation and one will challenge the other, 'Come on, just admit that you messed up, then we can start putting things right!”

That's what it takes to allow the grace of God to impact our lives. That we admit to ourselves, to each other and to God that we are messed up and need all the love and hope and healing and forgiveness that God offers to us at the Cross of Jesus Christ. To admit that it was because of sins like ours that Jesus was crucified. To get down off our high horse and admit that unless God helps us through we are lost.

When we take that step, God shines light on our path. How? God offers us the presence of His Holy Spirit as a comfort and a helper and a Guide. We read God's Word in scripture and it starts to come alive and make sense. We find that worship in church is not a matter of dull repetition or duty but a living inspiring encounter with Jesus whom we know as our Lord and our Savior.

We see people in need not as a nuisance but an opportunity to serve our Lord. We find that issues become not a matter of who is right or wrong but we dream of how peace or reconciliation can be found. In moments of tragedy we do not despair but recall how death became a place for resurrection and a cross became an empty tomb.

And we find mixed up in all this... moments of indescribable joy... because we know that God is our God and we are God's children and that somehow all of this is related to the death of Jesus on the Cross, the reconciliation, the atonement, the 'propitiation' that God in love created there.

It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time. It takes consistency. Like that monstrous mega super oil tanker I saw heading up the River Mersey a long time ago, we are a tough vessel to turn around. But in the hands of the right captain, it’s amazing what can be done.

John invites us 'Walk in the light'.
Rejoice that through Jesus we can live free and forgiven.
But don't take it for granted.
Show you are truly thankful by working with God
to be all that you can be,
to the glory of God's name.


The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D

Monday, April 2, 2018

Easter Day "Bang, Woosh, Kapow!"

Readings: Isaiah 25:6-9 , Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 , I Corinthians 15:1-11, Mark 16:1-8
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, April 1 2018

Da-Da,Da-Da,Da-Da,Da-Da; Da-Da,Da-Da,Da-Da,Da-Da; BATMAN!
Bang. Woosh. kapow!
"Holy Empty Tombs, Batman, What's Going on here?"
"It's called Easter, Robin, An annual Celebration of the Resurrection"
"Quick, To the BatMobile!"
Da-Da,Da-Da,Da-Da,Da-Da; BATMAN!
Bang. Woosh. kapow!

I used to think Batman was so cool. Not the more recent Batman Movies, where he's all broody and serious and twisted, but the old television Batman and Robin series, where the lines were corny, the fight scenes punctuated with 'Bangs, Wooshes and Kapows' and where the Baddies, like the Penguin, the Riddler, and the Joker, had even cheesier lines to say than the Caped Crusader and the Boy Blunder.

As a kid it didn't take much to play Batman. You're imaginary friend could be Robin. Mums dressing gown could be the cape. A brown paper bag with a couple of eye holes cut in it made a great mask. Put on your sisters high heel boots and your underwear over your pants - and, “Bang. Woosh. Kapow”, you were off to save the inhabitants of Gotham city from certain doom. Who needs games consoles and 3DTV when you've got a brown paper bag, a few old clothes and a vivid imagination?

Easter Sunday. The Resurrection Was it all just the disciples vivid imaginations? Did Jesus become their imaginary friend on a mission to save the world? Is what we are doing here simply a childish response to our unfulfilled dreams? Where is the reality in all of this?

To help us answer that I'd like us to think about the documents that witness to the Resurrection, the gospels and writings of the New Testament. The Four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, tell the story of Jesus from four different perspectives.

Matthew is keen to relate the links between the Old Testament and the Coming of Jesus and appears to have a Jewish audience in mind. Luke explains a great deal more and gives us a second volume in the Book of Acts that describes the growth of the early church. Mark is like the Readers Digest - the Condensed version. John gives the expanded version with all it's cosmic implications.

Picture this if you can. The Four Gospels as four sides to a mountain. On the top of the mountain is the Cross of Christ. They start out from different viewpoints. A lot of the time they share a common view, but sometimes from their differing perspective they tell us things the others have missed.

But as they reach the top of the mountain, as they approach the Cross, their viewpoints become extremely similar.. each of them relating the crucifixion account with less variations. One tells us what the criminals say, but the other seems to have missed it. One picks up on some of Jesus' last words, another focuses on what the crowd are saying. It's what you would expect from the perspective of four reporters standing around the cross.

But after they speak of the Cross and the Burial - something happens. It's almost as if this mountain they have built has turned out to be a Volcano. On Easter Sunday, Resurrection Day, the whole thing erupts. “Bang. Woosh. kapow!” The blinding light of unexpected revelation.

This eruption sends such bright sparks of light, that not only the gospel writers had trouble seeing clearly, but sprinkles fragments and recollections of the awesome event throughout the rest of the New Testament.

In each of the Gospels the accounts of the Resurrection read like the memories of those who struggled to comprehend the awesome reality of what they witnessed, people blinded by the light. One says, "Remember it was Mary, went down to the tomb"; the other, "No... I remember there was some other women, there!"; One says, "They met a young man". Another corrects.. "It wasn't just a man... he was an angel!"

One has Mary being confronted by Jesus, another of Peter being the first to see the folded grave clothes. And it is as though they are saying... the details aren't important... just believe us. This really happened. We were there. But it's hard to explain. And it was so unbelievable that all we can truly tell is that it was awesome!

As the Bible unfolds more recollections are given. One remembers a meal of fish down by the sea. Another an encounter with two men on the Emmaus Road. One speaks of a time when there were 500 of them on a mountain and Jesus came and taught them.

This was no comic book hero. This "Bang. Woosh. kapow!" of Resurrection was beyond their imagination. The message that unites them is that the Jesus whom they had seen tortured, crucified, dead and buried, was alive. They ate with Him. They talked with Him. They touched Him and He touched them. And now, the reality of His resurrection love inspired them to live and die for Him. Eternity had invaded their lives and nothing could ever be the same again.

The latest of all the apostles, Paul writes "If Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is in vain” (1Corinthians 15:14). " If the Resurrection holds no more validity than a Super Hero in a Comic Book then we better leave right now, shut the doors behind us, and never return. But the message that he proclaims, the message that is being proclaimed from thousands of pulpits and being embraced by millions of people throughout the world at this very moment, proclaimed as it has been in confidence and power for over 2000 years, the "Bang. Woosh. kapow!" message, is this, "Christ is Risen... He is Risen Indeed!"

One thing I love about the resurrection stories in Scripture is that they are not all the same. Every person experiences the living love of Jesus in a different way. The women in Mark have one sort of experience, Peter has another. The disciples down by the beach in John's gospel experience it one way. Paul, at a much later date, on the road to Damascus, experiences the resurrected Jesus in yet another way.

It's not a one off, one-way, isolated experience. Everybody understands it differently. And there's room for all those different stories and understandings and people. In today's church it is no different. From the most liberal to the most conservative of theologians and preachers everybody has a theory as to what happened on that first Easter morning. And there is room for them all.

What seems to be the unifying factor is the idea that whatever happened 'back then' can be a powerful force that can impact the way we live our lives today. That somehow whatever and whoever God maybe, what happened to Jesus in that tomb on the first Easter morning changes everything.

Truly it is a 'Bang, Woosh, kapow” moment. The challenge the scripture lays before us is plain. Have we allowed the "Bang. Woosh. kapow!" message of the Resurrection to erupt within our own hearts? The Resurrection is not simply a doctrine in a book or a belief we give assent to with our minds, but a living experience.... or to turn those words around... an experience that can live in us and change the way we see the whole of our lives.

On Easter Day we have the opportunity to ask God to “Bang. Woosh. kapow!" us in the Holy Spirit. Easter Day is a day to invite Jesus to come afresh into our life and live in our heart. To ask God to make resurrection a part of our life today.

This is the day of Salvation. This is the day of resurrection. This is the day that the Lord has made
And we shall rejoice and be glad it. Ask God to make Resurrection love, a living part of every day you have left to live on this planet. Ask God to fill your life with the Holy Spirit. Surrender your will to God’s will.

There's a moment in an old Batman episode where the caped crusader is seeking to save the day by shooting down the enemy. His young accomplice Robin turns to him and says, 'That's an impossible shot, Batman”. And Batman responds, “That's a negative attitude, Robin”.

Today is not a day for negativity but a day to embrace the positive joy proclaimed by the message of resurrection. Today is a day for believing. Today is a day to allow the living love of Jesus Christ, the love that defies death and blazes forth from an empty tomb, to transform our lives in such a way as nothing remains the same. And Scripture pictures Jesus as inviting us to experience His love with words like these:-

Ask and you shall receive. Seek and you shall find.”
"Behold, I stand at the door and knock.
If anyone hears My voice and opens the door,
I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.”
To God’s name be the Glory."Bang. Woosh. Kapow!" AMEN

The Reverend Adrian J Pratt B.D.

Monday, March 19, 2018

On the Easter Road 5 - Riding Into The Storm

Readings: Psalm 51:1-12, Hebrews 5:5-10, Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 12:20-33
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, March 18 2018

I want to reflect on some words that Jesus speaks about His mission recorded for us in John 12:27; "Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.” It is quite clear from this statement that Jesus knew His life was riding into a storm. He did so for a purpose.
  • So that we may know that God stands with us in the storms of our lives.
  • To save us from sin.
  • To bring glory to God.
Let us think about each of these in turn.

1) Jesus rode into the storm so that we may know that God stands with us in the storms of our lives.

We live in a world that always asks "Why?" particularly in the face of suffering or death. Why is a teenager killed in an auto accident? Why do the majority of airplanes or trains go along without any problem, but some, with some particular people on board, become disasters? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why can't all the rotten things happen to the rotten people and then there would be some sense in trying to be good? And … the question that we fall into in our melancholy moments… "Why me?”

I will tell you this straight. If Jesus hadn't ridden into the storm I would find it hard to believe in any kind of loving God. For when you look around the whole structure of our lives, our world seems to be going from bad to worse. It seems almost stupidity to suggest that there is a guiding hand over and above, ordering things to happen, bad as well as good, earthquakes as well as sunshine, war as well as peace.

Were it not for Jesus riding into the storm, the idea that God could be love, would make no sense to me. It would seem that although God was some great creative force, in the creation of the world He had made His greatest mistake and was now toying with us in a sadistic and haphazard manner.

When I look to Jesus, my whole conception of God is changed. When I look to Jesus my whole perception of the world into which we are born is shifted and turned upside down. It is changed by the simple fact that Christ suffered; that in Christ the very heart of God experiences the pain and confusion and striving of creation.

That does not give a neat and tidy answer to every "Why?" question that comes into mind but it does throw overboard totally the idea that God is not involved or doesn't care. Because Christ struggled and wrestled with Gods' will I know that God totally understands the confusion and pain and desire we have not to accept the sufferings of our lives. I know that although the situation of doubt or conflict which may come to us may be different in kind, it is surpassed by the suffering of Christ in depth.

You know how it is when you have a problem;-
  • One person comes along and says, "Oh, I'm sorry, that must be terrible."
  • Another comes along and says, "That's bad," and they weep with you and enter into the situation.
  • But often the only person who can really help is the one who says, "Believe me, I know how you feel, I've been into that storm as well, I rode through and came out the other side."
That is precisely the sort of person Jesus is. Whatever storms attack our lives, Christ can say, "Yes, I know, I know exactly how you feel...... now let me take you through it." And Christ alone is the only one who can tell us that about death.

He rode into the storm so that we may know that God stands with us in the storms of our lives, that God is no stranger to the realities of our existence, but One able to identify with our weaknesses in an active and positive way. This brings us to a second thing.

2) Jesus rode into the storm to save us from sin.

Sin wouldn't be much of a problem if we could drown our consciences. If it wasn't for the fact that somewhere built into us was a hint of the good and the bad (and probably the ugly) then sin wouldn't be a problem. But it is a problem. Like Jiminy Cricket in Pinnochio that little song keeps nagging at us, "Always let your conscience be your guide." So we have to deal with it.

Some try to rationalize it. "We are all in the same boat, aren't we... I mean I'm only human, what do you expect?"

Some try to deny it. "What me worry?" If you work at it, you can stifle the inner voice of conscience. You can convince yourself that your sin isn't really sin at all.

The Christian response to sin is neither to excuse it or to deny it, but to recognize it and deal with it. Why was Christ prepared to ride into the storm? In Romans 3:25, Paul explains it this way:- "God offered Him, so that by His sacrificial death He should become the means by which peoples sins are forgiven through their faith in Him".

Paul tells us that if we believe that Jesus died for our sins we are forgiven and set free. It is as simple and as complicated as that. It is simple, in that all faith is simple. It is complicated in that we like to be so sophisticated that we overlook the simple message of the gospel. People go around for years and years, being guilty, carrying around regrets and fears over past sins. Jesus, through His death declares them dealt with, but people don't let Him take care of them.

It is almost like ... I remember having a wart on my thumb. And although it wasn't very nice, it was in a strange way comforting. If I was a little bit nervous, I used to fiddle with the wart, I got used to it being there. In medical terms it was an affliction. If it wasn't dealt with it could spread. So I obtained some stuff from the drugstore which removed it. And at first, although it was something horrible and infectious, when it was gone I missed it.

We treat sin like that wart. Although we know that if we carry on in such a way we are heading for trouble, it's strangely comforting, it's what we are used to. But sin spreads. It's an infectious disease. It needs a cure, it needs cleansing. It leads to separation from God and alienation from real love. We need saving from it. And Christ has come to do just that. He rode into the storm to save us from sin. But there’s more to this than just salvation from sin. A third point needs to be made.

3) Jesus rode into the storm to bring glory to God.

Let us look at the verse from John 12 which follows the one I mentioned at the start of this message. John 12:27 "Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.” John 12:28, "Father, glorify Your name." Jesus was prepared to ride into the storm because He was convinced that such an action would bring glory to God.

That raises a question. What should be the purpose of our lives, our witness and our worship? Anything that falls short of the ideal of "Glorifying God" just doesn't make the grade. Glorifying God was the number one priority in the life of Christ. It should also be the prime consideration of those who are known as Christ’s disciples.

What brings glory to God? The answer is simple enough. People who want, more than anything else, to do God’s will. People who are prepared to go where God says go, do what God says to do and act how God says act.

Sometimes it may involve resting by the clear cool waters at other times it may involve riding into the storm. Most of the time it will just meaning giving your best shot at whatever you're doing right at that moment and in doing so give God the glory.

Anyone remember that song, "Riders on the storm?" Take courage. Jesus didn’t ride on the storm, Jesus rode through the storm. On a previous occasion He calmed the storm. For sure the storms of life will rage and thunder, but we have a Savior who set His heart on glorifying God, who died that we may be forgiven, and whom, because He faced the darkness of death and undeserved suffering can enable us to battle through the storms that come to us.

As we endeavor to live lives which glorify Him, may we discover that He rides through the storms of our lives, that our faith may be strengthened and renewed... particularly as we travel along the Easter Road and recall afresh the glorious message of His death and Resurrection, a message which continues to change the world.

To God's name be the Glory!


The Reverend Adrian J Pratt B.D.

Monday, March 12, 2018

On the Easter Road 4 - Surrounded by Love

Readings: Psalm 107:1-3, Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21; Ephesians 2:4-10
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, March 11 2018
How do you define a classic? What makes a classic anything? If you had to list 10 classic TV shows or name 10 classic automobiles or 10 classic breakfast cereals or 10 classic pieces of classical music, what criteria would you use? According to ‘Webster’s New Expanded Dictionary’ for something to be classic it has to be "Of the first rank; Timeless; a Masterpiece."
I want to look with you today at a classic bible verse… John 3:16.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son
So that everyone who believes in Him
Should not perish but have everlasting life.
"For God so loved the world ..."
That God loves this world is a stunning insight. Why? Because there is much not to love about this world. Suffering and violence and war to name but a few things. There are parts of the world that we don't like. There are places that we avoid because we don't want to go there. There are people, some times whole groups of people, whom we don't want anything to do with.

But God
so loves the world God created. God is not blind to its pain or its sin or the stupidity of its inhabitants. Those are things that happen in spite of God’s love. God’s love towards the world remains solid as a rock. We live as though God’s concern didn't really count for much. This verse reminds us that because God so loves this world, so we should be concerned about the way we live our lives in this world.
John explains a few verses later that we love the darkness rather than the light. We may sometimes think that we love the light more than we love the darkness, but our actions give us away. Whilst we say things like, "You know money can't buy you happiness" we then go on to daydream about riches or power, about what we'd do if we won the ultimate lottery prize. We are captivated by the thought that our deepest needs can be met without having to involve God.

We say that we think the world would be a better place if folk were more forgiving to each other, but ... hey… don’t cross me… something goes wrong, someone hurts us and instinctively we cherish the hurt and plot retaliation. We love the anger, we harbor the revenge, we want to take control and get even.
What’s more we hate the sins of others far more than we hate our own. We learn to live with our own sins. We don't like it that way, but it's easier to accommodate our shortcomings than to change.
If you are talking about sinners, let's talk about that woman up the road who can't control her tongue, or that man on television who did that awful murder, or those torturers in that country who act so inhumane. There's always someone we can point at to make our darkness look bright.

That's the sort of world we live in and that's the sort of people we are. We stumble about hardly considering that God might be concerned about the state of things in our lives. God’s up there doing holy stuff with the angels and chatting with the saints and doing whatever God does all day. You can't seriously believe God is actually concerned with the nitty-gritty of life on this planet?

Such is exactly what this classic text is telling us. That God loves this world and the people who inhabit this world. Is there anybody here who is not a member of the human race? Any Martians, or Venusians or Plutonians?
Being a British citizen I do have a Green Card that explains that I am actually an alien, but only an alien to the United States. I am a citizen of planet earth and like every one of you God does not want me to have a life that is alienated from God's love. ‘God so loves the world’ means that God so loves you... as an inhabitant of the world… that God does not want for you to live a single moment that is not surrounded by God's love.
That’s good news. No wonder this verse is a classic. It tells us that the depth of concern God has for our lives is mind-boggling in its intensity. But let’s move on. God so loved the world;

That He gave His only Son...” Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:19 writes; "In Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself" ‘In Christ’ God purposefully entered into the world’s pain and hurt and took it on. He is God with us and God for us. God knows exactly what it feels like to live as a vulnerable human being in this world.

John’s gospel links this verse to the story of Moses lifting up the bronze snake in the desert and telling the people of Israel to look upon it and be healed. Now remember… Moses was the one who came down from the mountain with the commandments saying… "Have no idols, make no images". Then, there he is saying "Look at this bronze snake and be healed". It doesn't make sense. Why doesn't God stick to the rules?

Why? Because God is the God who goes far beyond the rules, beyond even the expectations of love. To make us God’s own, God has done the unthinkable. God gave us His only Son.
I can think of many things that I might give to somebody to try and convince them of love. Chocolates maybe. Or flowers even. Buy them a car. Give them a diamond. Take them on a cruise. I wouldn't try to convince anyone of my love by arranging that they take my only son, and mock Him and torture Him and murder Him. And if my son, Matthew were here, I think he would be glad to hear that!
Think about what a shocking, unthinkable, mind boggling picture of God's love towards us that this classic verse gives. God does the very thing He forbade Abraham to do with his only son Isaac. God gave His son to die upon a Cross.
But why? Why would God do such a thing? What does it mean? We need to complete the verse. God so loved the world that He gave His only son...

So that everyone who believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
The Greek word used here for perish ‘apoletai’ (avpo,lhtai) means "shall not be ruined or destroyed; shall not be brought to nothing; shall not cease to exist or be deprived of reward."
There’s a huge paradox here. This world, the world that God loves, is also the world that is destroying and ruining us. The way of this world is not the way of God’s Kingdom. We are called by God to be in this world… because God loves this world, but not of this world… because the way of this world is a destructive way that can only offer emptiness and fruitlessness and which ultimately ruin us. “What good will it be” asks Jesus in Matthew 16:26 “For a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?
The Cross is the place where Jesus Christ perished. The Cross was the place where the world sought to ruin and destroy and bring to nothing and cause to cease all that Jesus came into the world to do. As they nailed Jesus Christ to the Cross the forces of evil in the world laughed out loud and said “That’s it. It’s over. We win. We don’t need God”. When Jesus cried out ‘It is finished’ they thought that it was.
But we read John 3:16 in the context of the Resurrection. ‘We are an Easter people and Hallelujah is our song.’ Three days after He was murdered there was a rumbling and an earthquake and a startling report of Good News that could only be accepted by believing in it. Three days later the message started to be proclaimed, ‘He is Alive!

At the end of his gospel account John tells us that his whole reason for writing was “That you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” (John 20:31).
"In Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself." In Christ’ God has made it possible for us to no longer be dominated by the ways of this world that bring us to nothing, that destroy and steal from us all that is good and true and holy, that ruin us and cause life to be a matter of little more than pointless survival.
On the Cross, In Christ, God took the force of that world upon Himself, so that, In Christ, we don’t have to. So that in this world we can live lives that are free and forgiven and being made new by the work of the Holy Spirit, revived, recreated, renewed, revitalized by the love of God.
The way, the only way, we can do that, is by believing. Who in this classic verse gets to receive and experience and know the love of God? “Everyone who believes in Him”
Do we understand that? I’m not sure that everybody realizes that this, although a classic, is a highly exclusive verse of Scripture. It is a verse that speaks of tremendous blessings for those who believe, and it is truly a classic invitation for all to believe. But there’s reverse side to this. For those who don’t, it’s a picture of total despair.
Those who don’t believe, they don’t get to experience the love. They remain alienated from the love of God. They are outside of it. They will perish. They do not have everlasting life. Move on down to John 3:18 and it tells us plainly, “People who believe in God’s son are not judged guilty. Those who do not believe have already been judged guilty, because they have not believed in God’s one and only Son”
One of the pictures of God’s salvation in the Old Testament is that of Noah’s Ark. In the story of Noah there are only two types of people. It’s not the wealthy and poor, or young and old, or clever and stupid, or any other man made division. It’s between those who believed and got on the boat and those who didn’t believe and drowned in the flood.
Our response to this classic verse is meant to be one of belief. Belief that Jesus died on the Cross for our sins. Belief that God raised Him from the dead. Belief that without Him we are lost. Belief that if we ask Him into our hearts we are saved.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that everyone who believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
We have touched this morning on the very heart of the gospel. May these heart words touch our hearts. May we come back to them time and time again and discover fresh meaning in them. That's what makes a classic a classic. A classic captures for us, something that words can't adequately explain. We feel that here is something that is written just for us. Here is something that can shape our lives, that inspires us for the future, and helps us through each day. John 3:16… a classic verse that invites us to participate in the love of God. Pay no attention and we will be lost. Believe it and we will find that every day we live on this earth is a day to live surrounded by love.
The Reverend Adrian J Pratt B.D.

Monday, March 5, 2018

On the Easter Road 3 - Clear The Way

Readings: Exodus 20:1-17, Psalm 19, II Cor. 1:18-25, John 2:13-22
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, March 4 2018

Observing the ups and downs in the financial world must be a scary business to folks who have significant investments. That old Dow Jones index has been bouncing like a beach ball. The financial crash of 2008 was only 10 years ago. I have a friend back in the U.K, who when the market started to fluctuate called his adviser. His financial adviser assured him it was just a “blip.” Ten years on he's still not back where he was following that particular financial collapse. He also has a new financial adviser.

Back in the time of Jesus there was a big business in Jerusalem that was about to experience a collapse. It was called the Temple. The place where the deals were taking place was the Gentiles Court. The temple complex was a lofty institution that covered some thirty acres. Its inner sanctuary was the Holy place where only the High Priest could enter on special occasions.

Beyond that were a number of courts to which access was granted according to status. The Temple court, then the Court of the Priests, then the Court of the Israelites, then the Court of the Women and then finally, the largest area, the Court of the Gentiles.

Everybody was allowed to enter the Court of the Gentiles. It was designed to be a place of prayer and preparation for all people. A place where those denied access to other areas of the temple could seek and find God. A place where those who had the privilege of entering deeper into the temple could prepare their hearts for worship.

Important for worship in those days was paying the temple tax. The temple tax was equivalent to about two days wages and every Jew was expected to pay it. You couldn't pay your temple tax in any old currency. It had to be paid in Sanctuary Shekels. At Passover time Jews from all over the world, with Greek, Roman, Syrian, Egyptian, and Phoenician coins jangling in their pockets made their way to the Gentiles Court.

Before they could pay their taxes, money had to be exchanged. So, the money-changers set up their stalls in the Court. To change your coins into sanctuary shekels, a fee equivalent to half a days wages would be charged. If you didn't have the exact coinage, then you'd be charged another half a days wages. There were various other rates and schemes that all involved money flowing into the money-changers pockets. And this was before you'd paid a penny of your tax.

Along with temple taxes, worshipers would also bring an offering. This could be an oxen, or a sheep or, if you were a poorer family, a dove. You could buy a dove down at the Jerusalem market quite cheaply. However, there was a law about temple sacrifices that said that a sacrificial victim had to be without blemish. In the Gentiles Court there were appointed temple inspectors to examine the offerings and see if they came up to the grade. The strange thing was none from the market ever did.

So they advised worshipers to buy their sacrificial animals from the selection they had in the Gentiles court. The difference was that an animal purchased there could cost as much as twenty times more than one purchased down at the market.

That day when Jesus went to the temple to pray and prepare Himself for the difficult days that were ahead, did He find things as they should be… did He find a place of prayer for all nations? "No" he said, "It's a den of thieves." Far from being a place of spiritual richness it was nothing more than a market place. Financially it was doing fine. Spiritually it had collapsed.

The sellers were trying to exact as high a price as possible. The pilgrims would argue and defend themselves with an equal fierceness. The oxen would be mooing, the sheep bleating, the doves cooing, beggars begging, the children running wild.

And Jesus got mad. Real mad. The theologians use the words "Wrath" or "Righteousness indignation." He overturns the money-changers tables, scattering the coins all over the floor. He drives out the animals. He tells the ones selling the Doves, "Take these things out of here. Stop making my Fathers House a marketplace."
  • Nobody lifts a finger to stop Him because everybody knew He was doing the right thing. The temple authorities knew what was going on, but it brought in a lot of much needed revenue, some of which paid their wages, so they turned a blind eye.
  • The money-changers justified their practices because a lot of their earnings were being siphoned off by the people they had to pay for permission to put up a table in the court.
  • The temple inspectors justified their refusal to allow offerings in the temple that hadn't been purchased there, by saying they were ensuring God got the best.
  • The people went along with it because it was easier to put up with the way things were than dare challenge those who had the power to make their lives very uncomfortable. Everybody knew it was wrong, but no-one did a thing to make it right.
Except for Jesus!

He had the authority to put things right. This was His Father's business and His Father's house that they were fooling with. In the words of John’s gospel He was ‘consumed with zeal’ for His Father’s House.

Jesus claimed the temple as His own. He uniquely identified Himself with the temple. He said to the Jews who questioned His authority, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up" using a figure of speech to point towards His own death and resurrection. He spoke of the temple as His own body. He claims our lives for His own. Paul tells us, in 1 Corinthians 3:16, "Do you not know that you are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?"

This passage about Jesus cleansing the temple invites us to us consider the temple of our own lives. Are there things about us that Jesus could justifiably be mad at? Are there things that we need to clear out of the way as we travel down the Easter road?

What really angered Jesus that day was the cold-heartedness. Here was something beautiful that had turned ugly, something sacred that had become profane. A place of prayer and peace had become a place of pandemonium.

Why shouldn’t God be angry when we take gifts God has given us and misuse them or waste them? The greatest gift of all God has given to us is the gift of life itself. Yet many go through life divorced from any sense of its mystery or its wonder or its sacredness. Life becomes cheap, people become numbers or objects to be manipulated for others ends and any sense of meaning or purpose goes out of the window.

As Christian people we have a particular responsibility. People look for us to model Christ-like living. "Judgment" Peter's first letter instructs us, "Begins with the house of the Lord." We are that house, we are that people. "You are a temple of God" says Paul.

But what sort of temple? The season of Lent is a time when we are called to examine our hearts in the light of God's love. And that takes time. It means taking “Time Out” of the normal routine to do so.

Did you know that one of the days when no trading takes place, one of the few weekdays that the New York Stock Exchange closes is Good Friday? If you go to the visitor’s center at the Stock Exchange and ask “Why?” they will tell you that since 1864 the Exchange has closed its doors on Good Friday for religious reasons.

If the guide is a Christian they may even add they are closed on Good Friday because that was the day when a man, who once threw money changers out of a temple, was crucified. That impressed me. That in New York, the place some call the most happening city in the world, at the financial core of the Big Apple, they take a ‘time out’ on Good Friday.

We know that the state of the money market effects the way we live our lives. Back in 2008 when the market collapsed it touched a lot of folks lives in a very negative way. We know that. What we forget is that life isn’t about wheeling and dealing and acquiring and selling. That at the last day, whether we have 2 cents in our pocket or 2 billion dollars in platinum reserves such can’t offer us a single ounce of hope for eternity.

Clear the Way!’ Anything in your life that you think that Jesus could justifiably be mad at is something you need to talk to God about and walk through with God. One of the works of the Holy Spirit in our lives is to bring conviction, to bring to our minds and consciences things that are getting in the way of our walk with God. As we realize that there are blockages there, we should pray to God to ‘Clear the Way!’

One of the biggest killers in medical terms is blockages. Blocked arteries starve the heart of blood, starve the lungs of oxygen, physically prevent us from functioning and if not dealt with what happens? We die! Physical blockages cause death. Spiritual blockages are equally perilous to our spiritual health.

The recently departed, at the grand old age of 99, Dr. Billy Graham, once told a group of young people.I urge each of you to invest your lives, not just spend them. Each of us is given the exact same amount of seconds, minutes, and hours per day as anyone else. The difference is how we redeem [them]. You cannot count your days, but you can make your days count.”

We must seek God to clear out from our lives all that is other than what God requires for us. To clear out from our lives all the junk, all the vain ideas, all the hopeless little schemes that may look good to our own eyes but in comparison to the work of God are laughable.

Allow Jesus to do some spring cleaning. Get rid of all that stuff that God could justifiably be mad at. All that cheapens. All that distorts. All that ends in dust and decay. Our lives are little temples… meant to be places of prayer, places where Christ is honored and God’s Word is known, places where others can find God, places that shine light into this worlds darkness.

Clear the Way!’ because your life, your spiritual journey is important to God. God has a plan. A plan to bless others through our lives. For that to happen we must subject our lives to the scrutiny and authority of God that we find in Jesus Christ. To the authority of God’s Word. To nurture ourselves in worship and through service.

As I read about Jesus clearing the Temple I am challenged to seek God to “Clear the Way!” for His love to be shown in clearer ways in my own life. I pray that as you consider areas of your life that could justifiably attract God’s anger rather than God’s praise, you will likewise be challenged to “Clear the Way” for a deeper relationship with our only Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. To His name be the glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J Pratt B.D.

Monday, February 26, 2018

On the Easter Road 2 - Which Way Should We Go?

Readings: Psalm 22:23-31, Genesis 17:15-19; Romans 4:18-25; Mark 8:31-38
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, February 25 2018

Late in the Fourth Century, there lived a young man called Telemachus. Telemachus believed that God was calling him to a life of service. He believed that Jesus wanted him to do something with his life that would bring glory to God. But what should he do? There were so many things that a person could do. There were always people around to tell him what he should do. Which way should he go?

The town where he lived wasn't a bad place. It had its faults and it had its strengths. Maybe God was telling him to stay where he was and just get on with living his life as best as he could. So, for much of his life that is exactly what he did. He worked. He played. He prayed. He involved himself in the life of his growing church community. He liked people and people liked him. But inside he was kind of restless. Although God was blessing him, He felt that where he was, wasn't where he should always stay. He kept searching for the right way.

He talked it over with some of his friends. He talked it over with some of the church people who's advice he respected. Should I stay or should I go? Some people said do this, some people said do that. He was very impressed by some of the monks at the monastery out in the desert. Those guys had given everything up for God. "That must be it," he thought. “That's what I'll do with my life.”

So he told his friends and his family and his church that he was joining the order and that things were going to be different from now on. Some of them were happy for him. Some were disappointed because they liked him being around. Others shook their heads and said, "Nothing good will come of this".

The community that he joined were big on silence and isolation. Telemachus threw himself into a life of prayer and meditation and fasting. He sought to do nothing but spend time in contact and deep fellowship with God. He knew that some great things had come to the world through the lives of those who showed such whole hearted commitment. Some had written books about their experiences which had blessed so many others. Some had experienced moments of revelation that they shared with the world and which changed the way people thought about God. There were amazing stories going around of the miracles that God had done in answer to the prayers of the faithful.

In isolation and silence Telemachus continued to seek his God. At first he was real good at it. The disciplined lifestyle suited him. There was a real bond of fellowship between the brothers. Although they spent much time alone, there were times when they got together and shared their experiences. They were really going places with God. But as Telemachus read his bible and prayed and did all the things a good monk was to do good, he became uneasy. There was something wrong.

So, again, he talked things through with some of the brothers. Some said, "It's the devil. Jesus wants you here with us. You are doing a great thing." Others said this, others said that. Which way should he go?

He had a lot of time to think things through. He had all sorts of questions in his mind. Why was he in the monastery? Was it for his sake, or was it for God's sake? Was it selfless devotion that drove him along, or was it selfish love? As he meditated on the bible he noticed that, yes, there were all these wonderful teachings about unceasing prayer and withdrawing to quiet places and about the God who sees what you did in secret rewarding you in secret ways. There were also a whole host of other passages about the way Jesus interacted with the crowds, went to peoples houses and to their parties and to their towns and to their cities.

One day he rose from his knees, went to see the head of the monastery and told them he was leaving. If he was to serve God, the desert was no longer the place. The cities were full of people needing a Savior and they weren't going to find out unless someone went and told them. Of course some of the brothers weren't so pleased. Some would miss him. Some thought he was doing the wrong thing. Some thought he was trying to tell them that what they were doing was the wrong thing. And just like when he had gone into the monastery, there were those who said "Nothing good will come of this."

Now which road should he take? He'd taken a vow of poverty when he went into the order, so he didn't have two cents to rub together. Where should he go? Back home maybe? No, it would be hard to explain. How about that town in the neighboring province? Or what about heading West? No, let's think big. Where is the biggest, most powerful, most sinful, most needful city in the world?

At that time it was Rome. Rome was miles away but he would get there. All roads led to Rome. So that's the road Telemachus chose to follow. He begged and borrowed, took a job for a while here and there, managed to work his passage on a ship across the seas. It took a while. By the time he got there, he was an older and wiser man and Rome had officially become a Christian city. Hmm. That wasn't one of his expectations. He was going there to help save their souls. Now what would he do?

A great Roman general, Stilicho, had gained a mighty victory over Rome's enemy, the Goths. Stilicho wanted to give thanks for the triumph. There were processions and celebrations and Stilicho rode through the city in triumph, with the young emperor Honorious at his side. It was a bit like the old days, with one exception. Now the crowds poured into the Christian churches to give thanks and not to the pagan temples. Telemachus arrived in the middle of these celebrations.

"Wow!" was his first thought. "This is great!" The Kingdom of God has come and arrived in Rome. A holiday had been proclaimed and a big show down at the Arena. Eighty thousand people gathered at the arena, and this time no Christians were thrown to the lions. Telemachus thrilled to see the chariot racing, but noticed a disturbing change in the mood of the crowd as it came to the grand finale, the Gladiatorial contests.

Although Rome had declared itself Christian, some of the barbaric practices of the old Rome remained. One of those was that at the climax of the games, some of the people captured in war would have to put on the gladiators costume and fight. But this was no game. This was to the death. They were to kill each other to satisfy the blood lust of the crowds.

They came into the arena and Telemachus was appalled. This wasn't right. Was not Rome now a Christian City? If so, how could this entertainment be glorifying to God? Men for whom Christ had died were killing each other for the amusement of an allegedly Christian populace!

"Let the Games commence!" shouted the Games Master. The crowd roared their approval. With hardly time for a thought of what he was doing, Telemachus leaped over the barrier. He was standing there between the two gladiators. "Get him out of there!" the crowd yelled. The gladiators pushed him aside.

"Stupid old man" shouted someone. Somebody else threw a stone. This was good sport. More stones, more shouts of abuse. Telemachus just ran between the gladiators and held up his hands, as if to speak to the crowd. He was ruining their fun. The commander of the games gave an order; a gladiators sword rose, and flashed and stabbed; and Telemachus lay dead on the ground.

At this point something strange happened. The crowd started to become quiet. All of a sudden, although there were eighty thousand people in the arena, the silence was so intense that if one of them had dropped a pin it would have sounded like a thunderclap. Nobody said anything but there was a mass realization that something dreadful had taken place; the killing of a man who had compassion for his enemies .

Some made the connection between what they witnessed in the arena to what they had learned of Christ in their churches. Some wept because a holy man had challenged them in a way words never could do. That was the last day the gladiatorial games were ever held in Rome. Telemachus, through his death, had put a stop to their barbarity.

A famous historian, Gibbon, wrote of him, "His death was more useful to mankind than his life." By losing his life he had done more than he had ever done if he had stayed at home or confined himself to a monastery in the desert.

In our reading from Marks gospel this morning we heard Jesus telling His disciples, "Whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel's shall save it." (Mark 8:35).

Many voices around us are telling us that we should go their way and that following their path will lead to happiness and satisfaction.

When Jesus started to tell Peter and the other disciples that, from then on, His road would involve being murdered and betrayed and rejected, it was too much for Peter. He couldn't see how that sort of losing your life could help anybody. He took Jesus aside and tried to put Him right. Instead Jesus put him right (and how!) "Get behind Me, Satan; for you are not setting your mind on God's interests but man's."

He wasn't saying that Peter was the Devil. He was saying that for Him to not go to Jerusalem and complete the work He came to do was precisely the thing that the Devil would have loved to have seen happening. God was interested in the salvation of mankind. Peter was only thinking about his personal salvation. Further down the road, he would see things differently.

One commentary on this passage makes the simple statement, "God gave us life to spend and not to keep." If we live in such a way as we are always thinking first of our own profit, ease, comfort and security; if our sole aim in life is to make it as long and trouble free as possible, then we are losing life all the time and we are missing out on the "abundant" life that Jesus would have us discover.

If we spend our lives for others, if we forget health and time and wealth and comfort in our desire to do something for Jesus and for those for whom He died, then we are winning life all the time. If we keep our focus on Him and the things He is calling us to do in the different situations and circumstances of our lives then although our actions will be misunderstood by some, in ourselves we'll know the real blessings and love of God.

Back in the Fourth Century, Telemachus didn't travel to Rome with the intent of stopping the brutality of the arena. He was just someone who went through their life trying to figure out which way to go. When it came to a time he felt he had to make a stand, then for a fleeting glorious moment he came out of the crowds and something totally unexpected and amazingly wonderful took place.

In your own life seek the direction and purpose of God. Try to discern His voice among all the others. Now there's a real challenge! There's always those who will say, "Nothing good will come of this." Sometimes, as Peters untimely advice to Jesus shows, even those closest to us don't really understand the choices we are facing. Sometimes, as Abraham and Sarah, who laughed in disbelief when God said they would have a child in their old age, God's Spirit takes us totally by surprise.

If you walk the Easter Road you will reach those intersections where you say, "Which way do we go now?" Trust in the capacity and grace of God to lead you. Remember, that even when we don't know what He's doing and can't understand why something bad may be happening, He is still in control. At least that's how it seemed to Telemachus, and who am I to disagree?

The Reverend Adrian J Pratt B.D.