Monday, July 17, 2017

“The Courage of Abigail" (Pre-VBS Outdoor Service)

Introduction

Vacation Bible School begins tomorrow. We'll be looking at famous Bible characters who were real heroes. People like David and Jesus and disciples like Peter and Paul. But there's one we don't often hear about. And her name is Abigail.

First Reading: Our first reading introduces us to the characters in this biblical drama! A mean man called Nabal, his wonderful wife Abigail, and how things went wrong with future King David.

Read: 1 Samuel 25: 2-13 “Setting the Scene”

A certain man in Maon, who had property there at Carmel, was very wealthy. He had a thousand goats and three thousand sheep, which he was shearing in Carmel. His name was Nabal and his wife's name was Abigail. She was an intelligent and beautiful woman, but her husband was surly and mean in his dealings--he was a Calebite. While David was in the wilderness, he heard that Nabal was shearing sheep. So he sent ten young men and said to them, "Go up to Nabal at Carmel and greet him in my name. Say to him: 'Long life to you! Good health to you and your household! And good health to all that is yours! "'Now I hear that it is sheep-shearing time. When your shepherds were with us, we did not mistreat them, and the whole time they were at Carmel nothing of theirs was missing. Ask your own servants and they will tell you. Therefore be favorable toward my men, since we come at a festive time. Please give your servants and your son David whatever you can find for them.'" When David's men arrived, they gave Nabal this message in David's name. Then they waited. Nabal answered David's servants, "Who is this David? Who is this son of Jesse? Many servants are breaking away from their masters these days. Why should I take my bread and water, and the meat I have slaughtered for my shearers, and give it to men coming from who knows where?" David's men turned around and went back. When they arrived, they reported every word. David said to his men, "Each of you strap on your sword!" So they did, and David strapped his on as well. About four hundred men went up with David, while two hundred stayed with the supplies.

Part One – DIFFICULT PEOPLE!

Like it or not, in life, we come across people, who are well... “Difficult” to deal with. They can be young or old, rich or poor, strangers or family. In our first reading the difficult person is a rich middle aged man, who lives in a place called Maon and whose name is Nabal. Mean, mean Nabal is scriptures verdict upon him.

Here's a bit of the story we didn't read... to set the scene a little more. Some of Nabal's workers had been in the land where David's shepherds used to work. Now David, when he was younger, had been a shepherd himself, and David knew what a hard job it could be. The days could be long and tiring and hot. Sheep could be stupid and needed a lot of looking after. So when some of Nabal's workers, who were shepherds, were working near some of David's workers, who were also shepherds, David told his men to be kind to them.

And they were. They looked after them. Shared their food and drink with them. Protected them from enemies nearby. Trusted them not to take anything that wasn't theirs. It had been a a good and satisfying experience working with them. Now, the tables had turned. It was sheep shearing time, a very busy time in a shepherds life, and David's men were working near Nabal's men.

So David sends a message to Nabal. “Hey, Nabal. Remember when your shepherds, were working near my shepherds. Well, we treated them right. Please treat my men the same! We just heard in our reading that “He sent ten young men and said to them, "Go up to Nabal at Carmel and greet him in my name. Say to him: 'Long life to you! Good health to you and your household! And good health to all that is yours! "'Now that it is sheep-shearing time.... be favorable toward my men, since we come at a festive time. Please give your servants and your son David whatever you can find for them.'"

How does Mean Mean Nabal react to David's men? He's horrible. “Who is this David person? And who is his father Jesse? I don't care how he treated my servants. I'm not giving his men bread and water. Why should I? I'm Nabal. I'm important. So important. I don't have to share anything with David... whoever he may be!

Well.. “Whoever he maybe David” was somebody destined to be King of all Israel and you didn't speak to David like that. When David hears what Nabal has said about him, he's mad. Really mad. David puts an army together. Tells his army, “Strap on your swords, we are going to teach meanie Nabal a lesson!” Uh-Oh. Trouble coming!

I'll be honest with you. I don't understand why people like Nabal can be so difficult. I don't understand how they get it into their head that they are so important. And that the rules that apply to everybody else somehow don't apply to them. Maybe they get so used to bossing other people around that they think they treat anybody that way.

But I just hope, one day, that they wise up and realize, that in particular before God, we are none of us THAT important. Because in life, often, what goes around comes around, and we reap the consequences of our actions, no matter how important we mistakenly believe we are. “Meanie Nabal” was about to discover that!

Right now, is a good to take a pause before we move on with the story, and move into that part of our service we call “Our prayer of confession.” Because I suspect we have all at some time or other fallen into behavior not unlike Nabal.

Isn't God awesome? Always offering a chance to be forgiven and start over again.

The story continues....
Second Reading: 1 Samuel 25:14-31 The Courage of Abigail

One of the servants told Abigail, Nabal's wife, "David sent messengers from the wilderness to give our master his greetings, but he hurled insults at them. Yet these men were very good to us. They did not mistreat us, and the whole time we were out in the fields near them nothing was missing. Night and day they were a wall around us the whole time we were herding our sheep near them. Now think it over and see what you can do, because disaster is hanging over our master and his whole household. He is such a wicked man that no one can talk to him." Abigail acted quickly. She took two hundred loaves of bread, two skins of wine, five dressed sheep, five seahs of roasted grain, a hundred cakes of raisins and two hundred cakes of pressed figs, and loaded them on donkeys. Then she told her servants, "Go on ahead; I'll follow you." But she did not tell her husband Nabal. As she came riding her donkey into a mountain ravine, there were David and his men descending toward her, and she met them. David had just said, "It's been useless--all my watching over this fellow's property in the wilderness so that nothing of his was missing. He has paid me back evil for good. May God deal with David, be it ever so severely, if by morning I leave alive one male of all who belong to him!" When Abigail saw David, she quickly got off her donkey and bowed down before David with her face to the ground. She fell at his feet and said: "Pardon your servant, my lord, and let me speak to you; hear what your servant has to say. Please pay no attention, my lord, to that wicked man Nabal. He is just like his name--his name means Fool, and folly goes with him. And as for me, your servant, I did not see the men my lord sent. And now, my lord, as surely as the LORD your God lives and as you live, since the LORD has kept you from bloodshed and from avenging yourself with your own hands, may your enemies and all who are intent on harming my lord be like Nabal. And let this gift, which your servant has brought to my lord, be given to the men who follow you. "Please forgive your servant's presumption. The LORD your God will certainly make a lasting dynasty for my lord, because you fight the LORD's battles, and no wrongdoing will be found in you as long as you live. Even though someone is pursuing you to take your life, the life of my lord will be bound securely in the bundle of the living by the LORD your God, but the lives of your enemies he will hurl away as from the pocket of a sling. When the LORD has fulfilled for my lord every good thing he promised concerning him and has appointed him ruler over Israel, my lord will not have on his conscience the staggering burden of needless bloodshed or of having avenged himself. And when the LORD your God has brought my lord success, remember your servant."

Part Two – FINDING COURAGE

You may recall from our first reading that while Nabal is described as“surly and mean in his dealings” his wife Abigail was described as “an intelligent and beautiful woman.” But she was a lot more than just clever and good looking. We'll be celebrating in VBS that she was also courageous.

One of the servants explains to her how David had been offended and was on his way with a whole company of soldiers to attack them, because Nabal had been so outrageously disrespectful towards him. The servant has tried to do something, but he says of meanie Nabal “He is such a wicked man that no one can talk to him.

So Abigail does something very brave. She decides to take action without consulting her husband. Now... in our day.. that might not seem such a big thing to do. But back then? It was unheard of! Particularly if you were the wife of somebody as powerful and mean as Nabal. One can only imagine what he might have done had he found out what Abigail was up to!

What was she up to? Well she's gathering together supplies to offer David and his men in the hope that doing so will change their mind about attacking them. That was a huge risk to take. Not only was it going against her husband, but there was absolutely no guarantee that David would even listen to the plea of a woman like her, the wife of somebody who was now his enemy.

She loads up donkeys full of good stuff and approaches David. She can tell how mad he is. He's absolutely fuming! He's raging..."It's been useless--all my watching over this fellow's property in the wilderness so that nothing of his was missing. He has paid me back evil for good. May God deal with David, be it ever so severely, if by morning I leave alive one male of all who belong to him!" What was she to do?

She gets off her donkey and bows down before him. She tells David... “Don't pay any attention to Nabal... do you know what Nabal's name means sir? It means “Idiot” or “Fool” and he's living up to his name right now! Don't waste your time dealing with a loser like him! Don't spill innocent blood on the account of such an idiot.”

Then she talks to David of how she knew that God was on the side of right, and that David was always doing the right thing and how God would always bless David. She even hints that she thought one day David would be King! This vengeful killing of Nabal wouldn't be helpful. If David was acting out of anger then he would regret what he did. If he left Nabal alone she says; “My lord will not have on his conscience the staggering burden of needless bloodshed.”

Wow! That was brave! Telling somebody you thought would one day be the King how to think? Advising him to change his plans? Abigail's courage just jumped up another notch. If you didn't do things without consulting your husband, even less did you go around telling future royalty how to think! It could all go very wrong very quickly. We'll find out in the next reading how things turn out.

The source of Abigail's courage was that she trusted in God. She knew that it wasn't right that her servants and family should be destroyed because of the actions of one stupid person. A very rich, powerful person though he was, meanie Nabal wasn't greater than God... and God was on the side of right. She knew also that God had blessed David and felt that David was somebody who could be trusted to do the right thing.

It's not easy to stand up against powerful people. It's not easy to call out a bully or challenge somebody who is doing wrong, especially when everybody else seems to let them get away with it and go along with it. It's never easy to come out of your comfort zone and risk your own reputation. But that's what Abigail did. She did the right thing because she trusted that God was on the side of right.

She must have been a person of prayer. Prayer strengthens us to do the right thing. One of the songs we are going to learn this week tells us “Strength will rise as we wait upon the Lord.” The chorus teaches us about God; the God who is on the side of right. “You are the everlasting God, You do not faint, You won't grow weary, You're the defender of the weak, You comfort those in need, You lift us up on wings like eagles.”

Third Reading:1 Samuel 25:32-42 Abigail's Vindication

David said to Abigail, "Praise be to the LORD, the God of Israel, who has sent you today to meet me.
May you be blessed for your good judgment and for keeping me from bloodshed this day and from avenging myself with my own hands. Otherwise, as surely as the LORD, the God of Israel, lives, who has kept me from harming you, if you had not come quickly to meet me, not one male belonging to Nabal would have been left alive by daybreak." Then David accepted from her hand what she had brought him and said, "Go home in peace. I have heard your words and granted your request." When Abigail went to Nabal, he was in the house holding a banquet like that of a king. He was in high spirits and very drunk. So she told him nothing at all until daybreak. Then in the morning, when Nabal was sober, his wife told him all these things, and his heart failed him and he became like a stone. About ten days later, the LORD struck Nabal and he died. When David heard that Nabal was dead, he said, "Praise be to the LORD, who has upheld my cause against Nabal for treating me with contempt. He has kept his servant from doing wrong and has brought Nabal's wrongdoing down on his own head." Then David sent word to Abigail, asking her to become his wife. His servants went to Carmel and said to Abigail, "David has sent us to you to take you to become his wife." She bowed down with her face to the ground and said, "I am your servant and am ready to serve you and wash the feet of my lord's servants." Abigail quickly got on a donkey and, attended by her five female servants, went with David's messengers and became his wife.

Part Three – THE GOD WHO LISTENS

Things turn out pretty well for Abigail. David is amazed by Abigail's courage and wisdom. He thanks God for her. He tells her that if she hadn't come along, he would have killed every man belonging to Nabal... and done so out of anger, which wouldn't have been right. He thanks God that he had taken the time to listen to what Abigail had to say instead of striking her down. The “LORD, the God of Israel, ...has kept me from harming you.” He sees how the courage of Abigail had been an action that was rooted in her faith in God.

But now Abigail had to go home. When she gets there, it's not good. Nabal has thrown a party, is acting like he was the king, completely oblivious to the fate Abigail's actions had just saved him from. He really was living up to his name of being a “fool.”

When he's sobered up, in the morning Abigail explains what had happened. Nabal does not take it well. He has a heart attack and dies a few days later! It's a shame that he only realizes what an idiot he's been when it was to late!

I guess Abigail really made an impression on David when she went out to meet him with those donkeys and supplies. Now free from mean old Nabal, she receives a proposal of marriage from David. She seems happy to accept the offer and rides off to start a new life. And they all live happily ever after. Well they do in storybooks, but for David and Abigail there were crazy days ahead. Abigail is kidnapped by enemy forces. David rushes to save her.... but … no that's for another time! For VBS purposes our story about the courage of Abigail has been told! What can we learn from it?

I wish I could promise every lady here that if they do the right thing they will be free from all the difficult people in their lives and end up marrying a man destined to be the most powerful king the nation has ever seen... but, for so many reasons, that's not going to happen.

The perspective this lesson does offer to us is that when we listen to God and seek to do the right thing, God honors our decisions. Faithfulness takes courage. As we wait upon the Lord we find ourselves strengthened to do the things God calls us to do.

And you know.. it's often the little things that make the big difference. They may not be as dramatic as saving our whole neighborhood from destruction by a vengeful army, but it's living faithfully every day, in all that we seek to do, that builds us up and bless peoples lives.

There are those occasions when we are called to take direct action. I believe God is able to prepare us for such times and grace us with whatever we need to get through them. But such moments tend to be the exception, not the stuff of everyday life! This story is a call for us to build up our lives through faithfulness, so that we are always ready to act when God has need of us.

Such was the same thing Jesus taught His disciples. They spent a lot of time learning and listening, learning how to pray, listening to His teaching. It wasn't all action, but day by day discovery of God's ways and desires for their lives.

Let us pray that this years VBS will be an opportunity for everybody involved, organizers, students, teachers and helpers, to learn more about what it takes to be a disciple of Jesus Christ in today's world! May we live up to the theme of being “Hero Central – a place to “Discover Your Strength in God!” To God's name be all glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J Pratt B.D.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Patriarchal Ponderings - Rebekah and Isaac

Readings: Psalm 45:10-17, Genesis 24:34-67, Romans 7:15-25, Matthew 11 16-30
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, July 9 2017

The last couple of weeks we have been looking at passages from the Book of Genesis. Today we learn about Abraham’s search for a wife for his son Isaac. If I could choose just one word to describe the whole account it would be ‘Providential.

It’s a refreshing passage. As a church we are embracing new ways of doing things. It can feel a bit like we are trying to redesign the bicycle while continuing to ride upon it. You have doubts about this and that and “What now? and “How come?” questions arise.

This very human process of reorganizing and coming up with different strategies can sometimes make you question where God is within the process. Nobody likes change and churches... in particular... would like everything to stay as it was, or at least be given direct instructions and an actual map of the way ahead!

Which brings us to Isaac and Rebekah. The story of Abraham’s search for a wife for his son Isaac is one of the longest narratives in the Old Testament. Abraham had been promised that he would be the father of a great nation. Against the odds, his barren wife, Sarah bore him a son. But now Sarah had died and Isaac remained unmarried. Abraham needs to be sure that God’s promises will be fulfilled, before he too is buried with his ancestors.

We meet a number of characters in the story.
  • Firstly there is a faithful servant, entrusted by Abraham to find Isaac a wife.
  • Then there is Rebekah, the daughter of a wealthy family living in the homelands.
  • We meet Rebekah’s brother Laban who serves as a go-between on behalf of Abraham’s servant and the rest of Rebekah’s family.
  • Finally we of course get to hear of Isaac himself.

As the drama unfolds there is an air of uncertainty and numerous crossroads where events could take unexpected courses. These pivotal moments cause the reader to ask “What if?”

What if Abraham, despite all his wisdom and wealth, is now forcing the issue? He had made some telling errors of judgments in his past, particularly when it came to the women in his life. He had twice passed off his own wife as being his sister to save his own skin. He was so unsure of God’s promises that he had fathered a child through his slave girl Hagar before Sarah had become pregnant. Was sending a servant laden with gifts and promises of blessing truly the best way to find a wife for a son of God’s choosing?

And what if the servant proved not up to the task? Sure the servant prayed, but we’ve all prayed to God and not seen the specific thing we sought actually take place! So Rebekah turns up at the well whilst the servant is praying. Hey... coincidences happen all the time. It could be a trick of fate. It sounds just too good to be true.

And what if Rebekah doesn’t want to be betrothed to some family that had left town for new lands? What if her family don’t approve? What if they interpret the gifts as either being too little or too much? What if Laban turns out to be the over protective brother and does everything in his power to keep his sister near home?

And what if after all that has taken place, Abraham sending, the servant searching, Rebekah arriving, Laban negotiating, Isaac takes one look at Rebekah and says, “Come on Dad, she’s not my type. Instead of hanging out in this so called land of promise I think we should go back to the homelands where I’m sure I can do better for myself!”

Despite the “What if?” questions, the providence of God takes precedence over the pitfalls in the plan!
  • Abraham is shown to be faithful and insightful;
  • His servant is shown to be completely trustworthy.
  • Rebekah proves to be a most suitable bride and to be at a stage of life where she is ready to move on.
  • Laban is the most diplomatic and practical brother who sees in the events something more than just a marriage.
  • And Isaac… well Isaac is bowled over when the beautiful Rebekah comes into his life!

And they all live happily ever after. Well kind of… but not really…as you'll learn if you read the chapters ahead.

The Providence of God is the theme that lies at the back of the story. Everything that happens, happens because behind it all God is working out God’s purposes. And even as I say that... I know that very statement... is raising questions in my mind. What if people hadn’t co-operated? Would God’s plans have been negated? Is God dependent on us doing God’s will to make things happen? Or are we just puppets in some cosmic drama whom really have no say and no role to play?

These are just the kind of questions that float in and out of this story of Abraham finding Isaac a wife. The cynic may wish to take God out of the story all together. The cynic may say that Abraham was simply shrewd enough and rich enough to manipulate events in such a way as he could die happy.

They cynic may point to Rebekah being a savvy girl who recognized a good deal when it came her way. They may suggest that Laban's actions had more to do with self-interest than any notion of God’s goodness. The cynic may suggest that Isaac had to marry somebody and the fact that it turned out to be a pretty, well connected girl from the homelands was just good luck! Eliminate God from the picture and it’s just one of those tales whose only moral is “Well… that’s life, sometimes you get the good breaks, and sometimes you crash and burn.”

I vividly recall in 2008 participating in one of the extended meetings of our denomination, the General Assembly. We Presbyterians insist on holding to this notion that none of us has the whole truth and that God's Holy Spirit works through the corporate body of Christ. The cynic may suggest that God has very little to do with the proceedings of such meetings. That they are driven more by peoples self-interests and politics and insecurities than by the work of an awesome holy God. At times such criticism may be fair comment. But it’s not the whole story.

There were, I clearly remember, those other times. When grace broke through. When healing took place. When laughter and tears become the carriers of good news and vehicles of heartfelt praise. Such also applies to our lives.

This is the mystery of God’s providence. There are times when we look back, and… well at the time we thought we were calling the shots… but in retrospect… if it hadn’t been for the work of God in our midst… our whole structure would have collapsed into dust.

Then there’s those other times, when we were floundering around like a fish out of water, running around like headless chickens, banging our heads against imaginary brick walls… but through it all, a grace greater than our gravity, did something unbelievable.

If I could define how providence works out, on the basis of this story, on the basis of life experience, I can best put it like this. At every crossroad of uncertainty there appear events that may not be accidental. I'll repeat that. At every crossroad of uncertainty there appear events that may not be accidental.

Abraham’s servant was uncertain how to proceed. Yet as he prayed along came the ideal partner for his Masters son. Rebekah was sure of many things, but as she helped a stranger water his camels there was a feeling in the air that more was at stake than hospitality. Laban held the best interests of his family close to heart.

Yet there was something more to the events around him than exchanging goods and observing traditional customs. Isaac presumed that there would come a time for him to begin a family. As Rebekah approaches, his heart skips a beat. Something more than coincidence was taking place.

At every crossroad of uncertainty there appear events that may not be accidental. It is easy to look at the church of today and despair. Here at Mount Hebron we have our fair share of uncertainty about what our future church may look like. We easily become frustrated at our lack of growth and the drift of folk to congregations that offer a different way of doing things.

We can look back and say “What if?” We can look at our current circumstances and presume that God is not working in our favor. But you know, and I know, the gospel story is one that's all about letting go and things that die and become resurrected by grace... and about a God that constantly reinvents life in forms that are unfamiliar and strange.

Remember when we looked at “The Story” and talked about there being an “Upper Story” … basically the way God sees things, and a “Lower Story”... the limited perspective that often becomes our personal focus? The challenge? How do we align our lives with the “Upper Story” of God's way, rather than continuing to pursue our own agenda and trust only in our own solutions?

In this account of Abraham finding a wife of Isaac we see demonstrated the peculiar audacity of exercising faith in God to work things out. While there are promises of faith that we are to keep in mind; there are never any guarantees of outcome. We are called to trust in the providence and ability of God to do what God wills to do. As Jesus prayed in the garden of Gethsemane, “Not my will, but Thine be done, Father God!”

And as we consider the gospel message; was there ever such a mission surrounded by “What if’s?” as that of Jesus Christ? What if the disciples didn’t believe? What if He were not raised? What if His death were just another pointless and regrettable blip upon the pages of humankind’s gory history?

We are here to proclaim the God of providence acted in an unprecedented way through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are here to seek for God to send the Holy Spirit to be in and around our lives that we may know the purposes of God for our own lives. We are here to pray, to seek God's way, to abandon our personal agendas and seek the new beginning God desires.

We cannot fathom all the mysteries of God’s purposes, nor explain the contradictions of faith. At every crossroad of uncertainty there appear events that may not be accidental. We commit ourselves to doing our best, knowing that it will always be an inadequate expression of God’s creative work. At the same time, we trust that God can take the fragile abilities and yearnings of life that echo in our soul, and do so much more than we dare imagine.

To the God who alone turns uncertainty to possibility we give all praise! Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Patriarchal Ponderings - Mount Moriah – Place of Sacrifice

Communion Service
Reading: Psalm 13, Jeremiah 28:5-9, Matthew10:40-42, Genesis 22:1-14
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, July 2 2017

This morning’s scripture reading gave us the familiar, but nevertheless shocking, account of God’s call for Abraham to sacrifice his son of divine promise, Isaac. What kind of father would consider actually going through with such an act? What kind of God would ask that of anybody?

In our contemporary setting, it is probably this aspect of the story that troubles us more than others; that Abraham is prepared to kill his child and do so with the justification that “God told him” to do it. At first glance it seems scandalous to suggest that we can learn anything from this passage about the love of God or the responsibility of those who put their faith in God.

But we need to dig deeper. We need to allow this account to speak to us from within its historical context, not interpret it according to the morality and expectations of the 21st Century. This is not an account that seeks to justify the abuse of children. On the contrary the climax of the story is the fact that Abraham does not go through with the murder of his son.

This is not an account that seeks to reveal the character of God, other than to suggest to us that God is more “unknowable” and “unpredictable” and a lot less “safer” than the Deity we sometimes seek to define and imprison within our carefully worded theologies and doctrines.

The core of this story is that it’s about sacrifice. It suggests that to fulfill our destiny as the people of God, requires surrendering our dreams to God. It is a passage echoed in the words of Jesus to His disciples “To find yourself, you have to lose yourself”.

Applying this bible passage to the story of our own lives, it suggests to us that if our dreams are ever to be fulfilled then we need to let go of them. This fly’s in the face of conventional wisdom which tells us that if we are going to achieve anything great in life we have to hold on to our dreams with all that we are!

Why this back-to-front teaching? Last week we were considering some of the mistakes that Abraham had made. The time he passed his wife Sarah off as his sister, because he was afraid that if Pharoah thought that she were his wife he would kill him. The time Abraham and Sarah couldn’t wait for God to fulfill the promise of a son to be born to them, so Abraham went and fathered a child through Sarah’s slave girl, Hagar.

Abraham, though possessed by a dream – a dream that he was to be the father of a great nation – a dream that through his son Isaac such things were to be fulfilled – Abraham was not to put his faith in the dream, but in the God who gave the dream. Abraham had to take a ‘hands off’ approach if ever that dream were to become a reality. This was not something, as we’ve already seen, that Abraham was good at.

It’s a spiritual principle that is hard to see. We so easily confuse our own desires with what God desires for us. It’s a spiritual principle, that before God can truly use a gift God has given us, we have to be prepared to give it up.

In my own life the thing that comes to mind is my music. I was weaned on the Beatles and in my teens lived to go to concerts and loved to play in bands and dream of maybe one day making a living out of it. Some of the folk I grew up with succeeded in doing just that. A couple I grew up with have had their music in Hollywood movies, toured the world and recently did a sell out show at the Royal Albert Hall in London. I had an email from somebody, who knew me back in my rock band playing days, and they said “Man, we thought that was the kind of life you wanted.” Maybe. But that wasn’t what God knew was best for me.

Now becoming a Christian didn’t mean my musical gifts went away. On the contrary I then had the desire to use my skills for God’s glory. This was back in the seventies where in the area of Britain I lived in the idea of Christian Contemporary music hadn’t even been dreamed up. So I formed this Christian band.. and everything went really well and I thanked God for giving me this ministry of music which excited me and seemed to be raising Christianities profile!

No sooner had such thoughts entered my mind then the whole thing fell apart. I felt God calling me to a ministry of the Word and Sacraments and I didn’t see how the two could work together. And I was really mad about it. This had been what I lived for up till then. The band. The music. I loved it!

This is what happened. I reached a point where I got on my knees and said to God, “O.K. Lord. I don’t see the sense in this. I don’t understand why you would gift me with something and then take it away.. but go on.. take it… I’ll rip up every song I’ve ever written, I’ll sell the guitar and the instruments and I’ll never play a note again.”

I wasn’t fooling. I wasn’t playing games. I loved to play, but I loved God more. I sensed that spiritually if I didn’t sacrifice what I felt was one of the most important gifts God had given to me, then I could no longer be of use to God or anybody else. So I was convinced that I had to give it all up.

Having reached that point where I was prepared to give the whole thing up, it was as though God said, “Just Testing. Just wanted to see what was really important in your life. Music or me! Now that we’ve set that straight, you can keep the guitar, O.K?”

The crazy thing is that since that time hardly a week has gone by when music hasn’t played a part of what I’ve been doing. These last few years I’ve found myself playing music, writing theme songs, leading worship at Youth Retreats, in all sorts of unexpected little ways music has been a part of the ministry God has called me to.

Once I’d abandoned the dream of music being “My amazing ministry” God was able to use my musical abilities in the way God wanted to. As long as my hand was on the wheel, it was an idol, a sacred cow, a passion not under God’s complete control. I had to let it go!

Something of that seemed to have been going on with Abraham. He had to let go of the dream before it could ever be fulfilled. Nothing could be allowed to take the place in the heart that God was meant to occupy. Abraham needed to see that. We need to see it too.

This account is about “Seeing God”. Through his willingness to sacrifice what was closest to his heart Abraham broke through to a deeper revelation of God and to a heightened sense of God’s presence around him and within him.

The action takes place specifically on a mountain named ‘Moriah’. In Hebrew Moriah translates as ‘The Lord Provides’ or ‘The Lord Sees.” On a number of different occasions in the passage the idea of ‘seeing’ is mentioned. This ‘seeing’ is both on the part of God and the part of Abraham.

It is God who sees the place and the content of Abraham’s sacrifice. It is God who directs Abraham towards that place. It is God who looks deep into the heart of Abraham and sees that this test of faith that he is being subjected to will result in Abraham having a deeper fellowship with God than he had yet experienced.

Abraham’s seeing comes by the way of obedience to what he believes God is showing to him. Abraham goes to the place God has shown him. Abraham recognizes the importance of sacrifice in this meeting he has with God. At the stories conclusion, Abraham clearly sees that God did not require the sacrifice of Isaac, and it cements his trust in the God whom he had now encountered in a deeper and more powerful way than ever before.

In the context of what I was saying earlier about my musical dreams, my music was my ‘Isaac’. I had to be bought to a hard place, a place where I was prepared to sacrifice it, before God could really use me.

As you think about your life, do you have an “Isaac”? Is there a dream that is in your heart that takes precedence over doing the will of God? Where’s your passion? What has God gifted you with? And … what if God wants something more for you? Are you prepared to lay your heart on the altar and do with your life whatever God wants?

Or are you setting the conditions? Is your commitment to God along the lines of “God, I’ll do whatever you want me to, I’ll go wherever you want me to, I’ll be whatever you want me to… just as long as I get to set the terms and define the conditions and specify the game-plan!” Whose hand is on the driving wheel of your life? Who’s steering your course? Who’s the Lord? Who’s the Master? Jesus told His disciples “To find yourself, you have to lose yourself”.

I do not believe that God would call us to do anything as strange as sacrificing one of our children. We live in different times than Abraham. I do believe that God calls us to sacrifice our dreams on the altar of His love, in order that our whole lives are under God’s care and guidance.

What does that mean for us as a church? I have a church directory in my drawer from 2011. It has 50 photographs of folk and families who were part of the church back then. Of those, 8 are pictures of young families who choose no longer to be part of our faith community or are very seldom seen in worship. There are 9 pictures of people who have either moved away or joined other congregations. There are 6 pictures of families that have suffered bereavement and among those we've lost, are folk who were key leaders in the life and mission of the church. So... the pictures, nearly half of them, are of folk no longer with us because of a whole host of reasons.

When I arrived here and we spoke about New Beginnings... I don't think that was the scenario any of us quite envisaged. But it does remind us that we have to let go of the vision of what we thought the church might become, and embrace an unknown picture of what God has in store for us. It is both scary and exhilarating. Scary, because the past can be one of those “Isaac's” we don't want to sacrifice. Exhilarating because it means we really have to trust God that God knows what's next. But it's hard to let go.

Mount Moriah was the place of sacrifice. It was the place where Abraham drew nearer to God than he had ever done in his life. May there be “Mount Moriah Moments” in our spiritual journey; moments when we realize that God sees and knows what is best for us and we, correspondingly are prepared to give our best to God.

And as an inspiration consider these elements of bread and wine. Jesus sacrificed all that He was in order that we may know God's salvation. Never was such love as this! We taste and see right here the mystery and awesome commitment of God towards us. Yes... God will stretch us and challenge us and convict us as to the importance of putting His love first in our lives.

But here around this table we find strength for the journey and seek to move on more step along the road God has in store for us.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, June 26, 2017

Patriarchal Ponderings - Hagar and Ishmael (and Abraham and Sarah and Isaac)

 
 
Readings: Psalm 86:1-10, Romans 6:1-11,Matthew 10:24-39, Genesis 21: 8-21
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, June 25 2017

Not that I’m an avid watcher of them myself, but there are those who find themselves faithful devotees of afternoon soap operas with titles such as “The Bold and the Beautiful” and “Bored and the Braindead.” There have been occasions when I’ve watched an episode, and I’ll be honest, it’s hard to figure out what exactly is going on.

All those relationships and so-and-so having something going on with somebody who is actually somebody elses half sister twice removed and then some dark figure from the past appears and upsets the whole thing… and all this in just the first five minutes.

Yet truth can be stranger than fiction, and our Bible reading this morning gave us a plot just as thick with twists and turns as your average afternoon soap. A tale of family betrayal, jealousy, separation and survival against the odds.

There is Abraham, the man of destiny, but a man who couldn’t always wait for his dreams to be fulfilled and tried to force the issue. There is Hagar, the mother of his firstborn son, Ishmael, a lady scorned by Abraham’s first wife, Sarah. Sarah has become increasingly jealous of Hagar and is fearful that her son, Isaac, will never inherit the promises she hoped would be all his.

And so, at a family celebration that should have been a time of great rejoicing, Abraham is convinced both by his wife and the intervention of God, to send Hagar and Ishmael away. Dispatched into the desert, Hagar struggles to survive, but all is well. Ishmael turns out to also be a child of promise. And in next weeks episode….

Of course it’s not the plot of a soap opera, it’s an account from the Word of God and therefore has a whole lot that it can reveal to us about our lives, as individuals and as a community of faith. It speaks to us and the situations that come our way.
  1. Even with the best of intentions things can go terribly wrong.
  2. Even with the highest aspirations we still mess up.
  3. Although things go wrong and we mess up, God is the Redeemer.
Even with the best of intentions things can go terribly wrong.

As we go through our lives day by day we don’t set out with the intention of making everything go wrong. We don’t get out of bed and think, “Let’s see what we can make a total disaster of this morning”. Oftentimes the worse acts are done with, what seems to their perpetrators, the best intentions.

It was no different with Abraham. Abraham had entered into a covenant relationship with God in which God had promised that Abraham would be the father of a great nation. His wife Sarai was childless and the years were moving along. So, together, Abraham and Sarai agreed that Abraham should take Sarai’s maid, Hagar, as a wife and bear a child for them through her.

When Hagar proved fruitful and became pregnant, Sarai, far from being pleased becomes bitter and treats her unfairly, causing her to run away. After an angelic intervention Hagar decides to return and in due time a son, Ishmael is born. Abraham presumes that Ishmael is to be the child of promise through whom his line would be established.

Not so! The unthinkable happens. Sarai in her old age now becomes with child. This child is to be the one through whom Abraham’s line is established. After Isaac is born, Sarah’s enmity towards Hagar returns and Hagar is forced to separate from them and go her own way.

This wasn’t the first separation among Abraham and his kinfolk. He has been having a long running dispute with his nephew Lot. Such was the nature of their disagreement that they mutually agreed to go their separate ways, even though their paths were destined to cross again.

All of which I share with you to point out that in families, even families of faith, things don’t always run smoothly. If you’re looking around this morning at your family or somebody else's family and you are thinking, “Good Lord, what a mess!” I encourage you to take heart and not to feel that your situation is unique or unforgivable. Families have always been complicated. Don’t beat yourself up over things that seem to be part of the way life is! Which brings us to our second observation.

Even with the highest aspirations we still mess up.

Sarai/Sarah was a woman of tremendous faith. She did indeed turn out to be the mother of all Israel. Yet her relationship with Hagar was disgraceful. She used her. She was abusive towards her. She was jealous of her and eventually got rid of her.

Abraham was without doubt a man of tremendous faith. But he also made some tremendous mistakes, because whilst he trusted God most of the time, there were those other times when he thought he could do a better job than God and tried to sort things out in his own way.

Back in Chapter 12 you can read of how, when Abraham journeyed to Egypt, he was afraid that the Egyptian’s would find his wife Sarai so attractive that they’d kill him in order to take Sarai as their own. So he pretends Sarai is his sister, not his wife. It turns out that the Pharoah does indeed find her attractive and takes her to his house, rewarding Abraham with servants and material possessions.

Sounded like a good plan, but Abraham lost her in any case, so it backfired. Even worse, God is on the case and Pharoah’s household starts to be subject to all kinds of plagues, and they can’t understand why, until it is discovered that Pharoah’s latest wife wasn’t Abraham’s sister but actually Abraham’s wife. High aspirations, best intentions, but Abraham messed up.

He messed up when he fathered a child through Hagar. Again, that was him trying to take control of a situation God had all figured out. He shouldn’t have listened to Sarai’s idea, he should have kept trusting God, but, no, as we do so often in our lives, it was a case of, “I’m sure God’s Word is right… but I’ll do things my way, thank you very much.”

Was it not Frank Sinatra who had a hit with “I did it my way”? Very commendable, if by doing things ‘our way’ we mean taking responsibility for our own actions. Not so commendable if doing things ‘our way’ means neglecting to seek for our lives to be guided by God and nurtured by God’s Holy Spirit. ‘Our way’ can be the wrong way.

The bible plainly insists that we are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God. Even though we have the highest aspirations, we still mess up. The Bible story also insists that with God there is the hope of redemption.

Although things go wrong and we mess up, God is the Redeemer.

In spite of Abraham and Sarai’s mess ups and moral failings, Abraham did indeed become the father of a geographical nation and a spiritual father to many people of faith. God’s plans were not thwarted by their misunderstanding or disobedience. Maybe things may have taken a different course had their faith expressed itself in different ways, but that’s always going to be one of the “Well we just don’t know” moments of history.

Nowhere clearer though in this account is God shown to be the Redeemer than in the situation of Hagar and Ishmael. They are not among the chosen people. They were not considered the inheritors of God’s promises by those who thought that God’s ways were something exclusive to them. A child seemingly born in circumstances that were not the will of God. A mother who is little more than a slave at the whim of Sarah’s manipulations. Their fate is uncertain and they languish in the desert, desperate for nourishment.

Hagar cries out to God. God answers. God tells her that she too is a child of promise. That her son Ishmael will also know God’s blessing. That there is room in God’s promises and within God’s covenant for all people of faith. Eventually things work out for Hagar and Ishmael in unexpected ways. Under God’s blessing they prosper.

Life may not have dealt us the best hand. We may well mess up and make wrong decisions that cause our selves and others harm. Our families, our relationships, our homes, may not be the places of refuge and picture of harmony that some would expect of people who know God.

So remember this. God remains the redeemer. God has sent Jesus Christ to be our Savior. Jesus Christ demonstrated through His life and works that every human life is of concern to God, even those lives whom others have little time or respect for. Know yourself loved by God, in spite of the fact that you make a mess of things and so often try and do things your way instead of living God’s way.

God is the Redeemer. Seek then for the Holy Spirit of God to redeem the times of your life. Ask Jesus Christ to help you through whatever the coming week may bring your way. The same God who heard the cry of Hagar and Ishmael knows the needs of our hearts and lives.

Do not then be afraid to commit your life to Him.
Seek the way of the Lord and live for the service of Jesus Christ,
to whose name be all
glory, honor and power
AMEN

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Alex's Index

SCOTTISH SUNDAY – OUTDOOR SERVICE
Reading: Psalm 116:1-19,Exodus 19:2-8a, Romans 5:1-8, Luke 18:1-8
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, June 18 2017

The gospel of Luke gives us a story about a lady of amazing persistence. This lady, a widow, is struggling to get the attention of a particularly useless judge. The judge is not doing his job properly and the lady is not getting the attention she deserves. But she's like a dog with a bone. She won't give up. “Give me justice” No. “Give me justice” No. “Give me justice” No. “Give me justice” “Alright then... but will you now just shut up .. you are wearing me out!” Her persistence paid off! We'll come back to her later.

But for now I want to tell you about another person of persistence, this time not a widow, but a Scotsman named Alex. Alex loved the bible. Loved the bible I think more than almost anybody I've ever heard of, and knew it better than most anybody. He certainly worked harder than anyone I can think of to let other people learn about it as well.

Alex, or Alexander to give him his full name, came from a city in Scotland called Aberdeen. And although he was devout Christian with a love for God's word, he was also a very, very unique character. Some said he was a little bit odd. And sometimes, because he was a little different and people found him strange, he could get into trouble and be hard to get along with.

At one point in his life, Alex thought about being a minister, but that didn't work, because the idea of going to a college and having to stay in one place didn't suit him. So he decided to be a teacher. Then he decided to work for a printer, preparing the type on the printing press. Then he got bored of making books and decided, “I want to sell the books!”

One time he read about a job teaching children to speak French in London. “I'll do it” he volunteered and caught the train to London arriving a week before the classes began. Just one thing he didn't tell the school. He couldn't speak French. But during that week... he taught himself.

He was a wee man, gentle by nature and had a bad stutter, particularly when he got excited about some new project... which happened quite regularly. Yet Alex was afraid of nothing and nobody. One time, while he was in London, he came across two men fighting in the road. In an attempt to stop them, he picked up a shovel and joined in. The police came, arrested him and, because he was such a little fellow decided he must be insane and committed him to the local psychiatric hospital.

Because he was such a kind hearted fellow though, he was soon released. In fact those who got to know him, learned to live with his unpredictable ways.

Once he heard about an uneducated sailor, who had been arrested and sentenced to death for forgery. Alex understood that this guy was not capable of forging a document... he couldn't even spell his own name... and set about saving him from the death penalty. Well... like the widow in Jesus parable... Alex wouldn't give up. Somebody described him as having “appalling persistence.” He kept on and on at important people, the judges, the Lord Mayor of London, the secretary of state, the house of the Lords. His case eventually came before the King... and... in the end he succeeded in proving the man innocent.

Alex would often go to visit Newgate prison to help comfort the prisoners and share with them the Christian message. Always, in his own way he tried to befriend those nobody else seemed to care about and tell them about the wonderful message of the love of Jesus Christ, who accepted anybody and everybody, even unusual people like himself! “It was all about grace.” he would tell them. “Turn away from the person you have become and become the person you could be! Only Jesus can help you do this!”

All of these tales about Alex may have been forgotten were it not for one other, amazing thing, that Alex achieved. And it has to do with his love for the Bible. He did something other people had tried to do but nobody ever did it as well as Alex eventually did. In fact Alex did it so well, that until the age of computers came along, nobody ever tried to do it again.

The bible is BIG book. Actually it's not a book, it's 66 books. It's a whole library of books. And every book is divided into chapters. And every chapter is divided into verses. And every verse contains many words.

Sometimes, you think of a verses in the bible and you think... “I know roughly how it goes, but I can't remember exactly where in the bible that verse is!” These days you can get on the Internet and do a search. But Alex lived in a time long, long before computers and internet had ever been thought of. He was born around 1699 And in his day, there were not so many translations, so everybody used the King James version of the Bible.

What Alex did.. .or to give him his full name Alexander Crudens, was create an index to every verse in the whole King James Bible bible. If you can remember just one word of a verse, then Alex's index can help you find it.

Do you know what the shortest verse in the Bible is? “Jesus wept”. But if you don't know where it is... and google did not exist, what did you do?

Reach for “CRUDEN”S CONCORDANCE”.
In his index... the word “wept” occurs 67 times.
No 63... is Jesus wept... and we are told that that is Johns Gospel, Chapter 11, verse 35.

Now... to ministers and Sunday School teachers... and just about anybody who wanted to study the bible... this book was pure gold! Really, until computers came along, CRUDEN”S CONCORDANCE was the go to place for finding bible verses. It was first printed in the year 1737 and has never been out of print since that day, and can still be found on many a ministers bookshelf

To make it he had to list every word in the bible... and he did so, by hand on page after page of paper, filling whole rooms! He needed all that “Appalling persistence” he was credited with. On each list, he would list chapter and verse for each word. .. in total some 250,000 entries.

Just for good measure, he also tells us what some of the more unusual words mean, so it also functions as a dictionary as well as an index! Some people say he did it all in a year... but it probably took a bit longer than that! But for sure, he loved his bible and his passion was for other people to come to know God's Word and discover God's love.

He had a hard and a strange life, but lived to a good age. He was in and out of hospitals and took some looking after. A loose cannon. Some thought he was crazy. Others that he was a genius. He spoke out against many of the injustices of his day and the immoral lives of some of the most influential people in the land. Often they would use accusations of insanity to get him off their case!

One thing is for sure though. His Appalling persistence created a tool that has blessed many peoples study of Scripture. Through not giving up on what he felt God was calling him to accomplish, great blessing came to others.

Which brings me back to our bible story of the woman and the corrupt judge. This woman knows she is on the side of right and keeps on keeping on. Eventually she is heard.

Now God is NOT an unjust judge. God knows what we need to live lives that are blessed. But other people... and sometimes our selves... need a bit more persuasion. So don't give up on yourself and don't give up on your dreams! Keep doing the right and by God's grace the right will come around. Not always in ways we can anticipate or ways we expect, but God is faithful and invites us to trust in God's love and the action of God's Spirit, even when others don't see things the same way.

And God has made every one of us so unique. Maybe not quite so unique as Alexander Crudens, but nevertheless we are invited to accept our own unique self, while at the same time embracing other peoples differences

What a boring place the world would be if we were all the same! I mean blue is a wonderful color. Blue sky. Blue sea. But I want grass to be green. And the sun to be a blazing ball of yellow. And Ferrari's to be red. And gray hair to be a sign of wisdom. And hot days wouldn't be so hot if it weren't for the cold ones!And there's enough colors in the rainbow to remind us that God loves diversity and we are all welcome at God's table.

In God's eyes the greatest gift we have is our selves. God's given us the gift of life and we are all different. “God didn't have to wake us up this morning, but the Lord so did”... so let's get on with it.

  • By allowing God's Holy Spirit to make us into who God wants us to be...
  • by seeking to learn as much as we can about the life and love of Jesus and how we His disciples can be...
  • by knowing that though Christ's death on the Cross we are all offered the opportunity to walk forgiven, empowered and free...
  • by making the most of all the amazing ways we can learn about God's word such as google and concordances and Alex's index … we are blessed!

Truly we are.
  • Blessed with the gifts of people like Alexander from Aberdeen.
  • Blessed with a great heritage across the centuries that for we Presbyterians includes the gift of the Scottish church and the insights of the reformation and the rousing sounds of the bagpipes.
  • Blessed with a beautiful amphitheater and air conditioned sanctuary!
  • Blessed with Sunday School teachers, graduates and on this Fathers Day, earthly fathers to mentor us and a Heavenly Father to love us!

To God be the glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

(Message based on a chapter in Rev. R.E.O Whites book “52 stories for children”)

Monday, June 12, 2017

Matthew's Vision for the Church

Reading: Psalm 8, Genesis 1:1-2:4a, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-20
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, June 11 2017

The Gospel of Matthew is an amazing piece of work. The best thing I can think of comparing it to is a movie. It starts of like a movie, giving us a list of opening credits that invite us to consider that the central figure of the story that is about to take place is somebody of great historical significance.

Then it moves to the mystery of Christ’s birth, to the preaching of john the Baptist and the Baptism of Jesus by John in the Rivers of Jordan. Matthew then takes through a whole series of scenes. Sometimes it’s action, sometimes it’s a story that’s told, sometimes a sermon. It all reaches a climax in the crucifixion of Jesus and then the frantic muddled excitement of the empty tomb.

Our reading for this morning was from the very last verses of Matthew’s epic. In our pew Bibles it was titled “The Commissioning of the Disciples.” Staying with the film analogy, it’s the perfect ending that cries out for a sequel. Matthew seems to say, as his movie draws to an end… ‘and all this was just the start.’

Matthew never got to make the sequel. That was left to Luke (who gives us the Book of Acts) and comes to us through the letters that circulated among the early church that we know as the Epistles.

Part of the genius of the Gospel of Matthew is its ability to give us a story that functions on so many different levels. The last few verses are no exception.

Today is Trinity Sunday and it is in these closing words of Matthew that we are invited to “Make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Those words, across the centuries, have inspired numerous mission enterprises. These are words that teach us about the authority of Jesus. They are followed by words of great comfort and the promise “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.

Taking these verses together, we are given an insight into Matthew’s vision of what the church should be. It is that picture of the functions and duties of the Church that I want to think about on this Trinity Sunday. As we are a community in transition it does us good to pause nd ask, “Well, what are we supposed to be about as the people of God? What’s the Church for? Why do we need it?”

First and foremost, Church is a place to meet Jesus.

(Mat 28:16) “… the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated.” God has designated for us a place and time where we can be together in God’s presence and meet with Jesus. At Mount Hebron Presbyterian that time is at ten o clock on a Sunday morning. That is not to say that are not other times and places when we will experience the presence of God in our lives, but Sunday Worship is a special time, one sacred hour in the week in which we can give ourselves to meeting with God in each others presence.

Sometimes people give their reasons for attending a church as “I like the music” or “I enjoy the liturgy” or “I enjoy the sermons” or even “I like the pastor.” This verse reminds us that church is not primarily about discovering an experience that tickles our senses.

Church is designated as a meeting place with Jesus Christ. He alone, the salvation He offers to us, the grace and love that flow from the heart of God to our life… that’s the reason for coming to church. If we take away our focus away from Jesus, and place it elsewhere, be it on the music, the liturgy, the preacher or the message, then we are indulging in a very subtle form of idolatry.

Idolatry is allowing something other than God to become the focus. There is nothing wrong with great music, great preachers or great liturgy. But we should never allow them to become our reason for church attendance. Church is a place to meet with Jesus.

A church I once served used to sing a chorus... “Open my eyes Lord, I want to see Jesus, to reach out and touch Him, to say that I love Him.” Which moves us on to consider...

Secondly, Church is a place of Worship.

(Mat 28:17) “And when they saw Him, they worshiped Him”
It is a plain command of Scripture that we are to worship only the Lord Our God. On Trinity Sunday we remind ourselves that we worship God, through Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

In this designated time and place our worship takes a number of different forms. We offer our lives to God and pray “Our Father.” We thank God for the grace and love that is revealed to us in Jesus Christ. We seek to be empowered by the Holy Spirit to serve God.

Yet most of all worship is an act of enjoying the presence of the One God. As the catechism puts it, “The Chief end of man is to worship God and enjoy Him for ever!”

When we take the worship experience out of our life, life loses one of it’s most precious dimensions. We are called to approach worship like the Psalmist who said, “I was glad when they said let us go to the house of the Lord”.

If only we realized the awesome possibilities of what can take place as we worship, then we would never miss an opportunity to be with our brothers and sisters in Christ before the throne of God. Profound changes can come upon people in the presence of God! Worship is meant to be a happening, something that renews us and fires us up to go out and tell the Good News that God is on the move.

Can Worship be like that? Well… maybe we’re not so sure. In fact there’s probably a whole lot of things that we are not sure about when it comes to God, to the Bible, to our relationship with the Church… to spiritual things in general. Maybe you have your doubts. That’s O.K. Why?

Thirdly, Church is a place to come with our doubts

Verse 7 continues; “they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful.”
Think of that! This is the disciples we are talking about. These are the ones who saw all the miracles, heard all the teaching first hand, witnessed the death and resurrection with their own eyes and were now standing, visibly, in the presence of their Lord and Savior. And how are they handling it? “Some were doubtful”

Never stop coming to church just because you don’t agree with everything or understand everything. Fact is we are never going to be without our doubts. You may get some preachers who come along and give the impression they know it all and have fathomed out exactly what God is about and what you need to believe and will not hesitate to let you know God’s thoughts on everything under the sun. They remind me of the advert that used to be on T.V, where the guys sitting at the computer and he gets up from his chair and claims that he’s reached the end of the internet!

If God is God then no human mind can ever fathom the depths of God’s mystery. Sometimes we can’t even remember where we’ve left our car keys, which makes me realize, that we were never designed to know everything about God and makes me highly suspicious of those who make dogmatic claims to truth that seem denied to the rest of humanity. Church is a place to come with our doubts.

This idea of Trinity, is one of those you can kind of explain, but not really. The early church Fathers were content to talk of the Trinity as a sacred mystery. As a something to be experienced.

The mystery is that sometimes, as we worship, whilst our knowledge remains the same, something Trinitarian happens. We leave this place knowing that our lives are in the hands of a God who created a wonderful world for us to live in, a God who in Jesus Christ has provided all we need to get us through and a God who in the power of the Holy Spirit is going to be there for us every step of the way.

A fourth thing.

Church is a place to listen for God’s Word.

Matthew 20;18 ; “Jesus came up and spoke to them”
Jesus speaks to us today in our worship services. How? Through each other. Through the words and music. Through the conversations and teaching. Through the prayers in which we share and the Creeds to which we give assent. Through the Bible readings and sermons. All of it, the place, the time, the actions, the environment, the words and the silence… the whole experience can be a Word of God to us.

We come to church to meet with Jesus, to worship God, to find guidance for our doubts and to listen for God's word for our lives. And one Word that we will hear is that this is an experience that’s too good to keep to ourselves. God wants us to go out and spread the Word. He promises to go with us as we do so!

Church is a place of Commissioning

Matthew19-20 "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you
We are offered here a threefold commission.
  • To make disciples
  • To baptize
  • To teach

In order for disciples to be made, the Word we have received has to be proclaimed. Proclamation takes place for us in the same way as it did for Jesus. Sometimes it is through deeds where very few words are spoken. Sometimes it is through spoken words that bring the realization of God’s presence to peoples lives. In the same way we are to reach out to others.

Our baptism is not only a sign that we belong to God, but also an indication that we belong to the church. We are a community of people united by the love of God. Others need to know they can be a part of it!

And when we are a part of it we realize we have a lot to learn. So the church has not just a role in preaching and serving but also an educational task… teaching the ways of the Kingdom.

Finally, Church is a place of promise

Matthew 28:20 : “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. "
A beautiful promise of Jesus forms the very last words of Matthew’s gospel. Were Matthews gospel really a movie this is the verse that would be written over the closing scene as they ride off into the sunset.

So I close with that thought this morning. What a wonderful thing it is to know that whatever we are traveling through in our lives right now, Jesus wants to stick with us and carry us through.

Our world, our lives, everything around us, constant change. We don’t know what lies ahead. Terrorist attacks. Natural disasters. Good fortune or the winds of change blowing against us. We just don’t know what tomorrow brings. But we can know that God promises to travel with us through whatever life may bring our way.

Jesus promises that if we entrust our lives into His hands, He’s going to stick by us, no matter what. If church means nothing more to us than it being a place where we discover God’s promise, then that alone should be sufficient to get us through the day.

Matthew concludes his gospel by giving us a vision for the church. He invites us to meet with Jesus, to come as we are, with all our doubts and fears, just come and worship. As we do so we hear God’s Word, a Word that both challenges and comforts.

The challenge is to go and let others know how great the love of God can be.

The comfort is that the love of God is greater than we dare imagine and can hold us through all our days! Recall again those words of Jesus... “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.