Monday, January 13, 2020

What Are You Doing Here?

Baptism of the Lord Sunday
January 12, 2020
Readings: Psalm 29, Isaiah 42:1-9, Acts 10:34-43, Matthew 3:13-17

In 1984 I was ordained as a minister within the Welsh Presbyterian Church in a little town called Pembroke, which was about as far away from my home Presbytery and home town as anything in Wales could be. So traveling across the country went a representative from my home Presbytery, David Evans from Clubmoor Church in Liverpool, England, and some of my family, including my late father, who throughout his life rarely set foot inside a church.

David Evans worked in local government. My Dad worked voluntarily as a Trade Union representative. Sometimes they had met on opposite sides of the negotiating table. They were both very surprised to walk into that church far from home and find a face they knew in the congregation.

"What are you doing here?" asked my Dad. David explained, "Adrian's one of our Presbyteries candidates for the ministry; What are you doing here?" Dad explained, “Well, Adrian's my son!" Although they had met on numerous occasions in a different setting, neither expected to meet the other in a church the other side of nowhere.

I'm sure you can think of situations when you went somewhere and met somebody you hadn't expected to see and were tempted to ask, "What are you doing here?" When Jesus went down to the shores of the Jordan to be baptized by his cousin John, such was John's first reaction.

John's baptism was a radical thing to ask the Jews to partake in. Baptism was usually seen as an initiation ceremony for converts to Judaism, but now there he was telling them to repent and prepare for the Messiah and the coming of the Kingdom, and as a sign of readiness be baptized. From what John knew of Jesus, Jesus had nothing to repent of and whilst he didn't at that point recognize Him as the Messiah, John knew that if any one was ready for the Kingdom to come, it was Jesus.

In the church calendar this Sunday is the one designated as recalling the Baptism of Jesus. When I first started thinking about it, I couldn't help but ask, "What on earth has the fact that Jesus went to be baptized by John around two thousand years ago got to do with anything that may be happening in my life right now?” One thought kept buzzing in my mind. A question, "Well, What are you doing here?"

Whilst theologians differ about how is the correct way and when is the correct time in a person’s spiritual journey that they should receive baptism, one thing they are united on; be they Catholic or Episcopalian or Presbyterian or Pentecostal or Baptist or whatever. That is this. Baptism is an external sign that we are people who belong to God. On that aspect of baptism there is common agreement among all the denominations.

If God is our God and we are God’s people, one thing is for sure. God is going to keep showing up, whether invited or uninvited, whether expected or unexpected. If we are God's people, then God is on our case. We may not be expecting God to show up. We may not recognize God when He does. God keeps showing up, despite our insensitivity to God’s Presence.

It doesn't matter where you are or what you are doing, Christ's promise remains, "I will be with you always, even unto the end of the age".

In the classroom. 
In the Workplace. 
In the Kitchen. 
Shopping in Giant.
In your decisions.
In your dreams. 
In your laughter and your tears.

God keeps showing up.

That's how it is in Scripture. God keeps showing up in the most unexpected places. Walking with the lepers. Spending time with a Samaritan Woman by a well. On a road to Emmaus. Down by the beach. At a tax Collectors house. In a stable in a little town called Bethlehem. In the High Priest's Court. On a road leading to Damascus along which Saul walked on his way to cause some grief to some faithful believers. And down by the River Jordan to be baptized by John.

Again and again the question is put to Jesus, "What are you doing here?” Even at times when we should expect God's presence to be there for us we are surprised that His love shows up. Let me share three examples I heard of this past week.

I read this past week of Robert Scott, who lost his life in his search for the South Pole, a deeply religious man. His final entry in his diary records how the presence of Jesus showed up for him when he reached the end of life’s road. He wrote: "As we sit here in this barren waste, we think of home and our loved ones. We are very lonely in these last hours. Yet we are cheered, for it seems there are three of us here, not just two. It is Jesus and His presence that comforts us. All along He seems to have journeyed with us. He faced death alone and unafraid. He is with us now." The unexpected Presence of God when all was lost.

Some of the youth who were here just after Christmas for the TYC reunion weekend, went over the New Year to a large conference for college age youth held at Montreat, NC. One shared on social media "For me, it was all very uneventful - until the very last evening service. During that service the presence of God fell on the meeting, like out of nowhere, unexpected, like nothing I'd ever experienced before. Amazing!” We can worship with thousands of others, and still be surprised when God shows up.

During last weeks service we celebrated communion and shared our Epiphany Star stories. One person told in the week, "You know, I really felt the Presence of God during that service." What? God showing up unexpectedly at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church? Believe it. What are we doing here if it isn't to meet with Jesus Christ?

This is the Day” we are called to meet with Him. We, who are the baptized people of God, can know the assurance that wherever God leads us, He promises to be with us. Sometimes that realization unexpectedly breaks through and takes us by surprise. Treasure such times.

Don't be afraid to seek such moments and realize that the more time you spend applying God's Word to your life, sharing with God in prayer and worshiping God in the company of God's people, then the more prepared you will be to encounter Him.

My late Father and an elder from a church I once served traveled half way across Great Britain to discover that they had a connection to each other that they never realized existed. They looked at each other and declared, “What are you doing here?”

We have come to this place today. We have come for different reasons. We are all very different people. “What are you doing here?” John describes Jesus telling us that while he baptizes with water, Jesus will baptize us with the Holy Spirit. Jesus needed the power and presence of the Holy Spirit to be within Him and around Him as He commenced His ministry.

The picture on the bulletin cover shows Him emerging from the water as the dove of the Spirit hovers over Him. “What are we doing here?” We gather here today to be empowered for mission. We are called together so that we can go out into the world to serve.

There is Kingdom work to be done. Our world is divided. People are hurting. Some are ready to give up. Some are suicidal. People need a healing touch, a gentle word, a demonstration that there is a God who loves and cares and sees them. A God who shows up.

We are called to be the hands and feet and hope of Jesus to this world. And to do that we need all the power and presence of God's Spirit that God can give! Every service of worship is a time to encounter the God who asks us the question, “What are you doing here?”

What are we doing here?

Please join me in this ...Affirmation of Faith
Please stand if you are able

OUR RESPONSE TO THE WORD

*Affirmation of Faith (Affirmation of Baptism)

What are we doing here? We are baptized brothers and sisters of Jesus Christ. He has called us to sit around God's family table. We are called to remember who we are and whose we are. We are unique creations of an awesome God. We belong to Jesus Christ. We call to mind the price Christ paid That we may be called His own. His death on the Cross. The unexpected glory of His resurrection. The promise of the Holy Spirit's Presence Within and around our lives. The hope of His coming Kingdom. Thank You Lord for making us Your own. Help us to discover Your love, every time we gather together in worship, and wherever life’s journey may lead. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, December 30, 2019

The Nightmare After Christmas

Readings: Psalm 148, Isaiah 63:7-9, Hebrews 2:10-18, Matthew 2:13-23
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, December 29 2019

Maybe some of you viewed Tim Burton's movie over the holidays, “The Nightmare Before Christmas.” Jack Skellington, king of Halloween Town, discovers Christmas Town, but his attempts to bring Christmas to his home causes confusion. But all ends well.

The same cannot be said of the Nativity Story. It's not an easy tale to start with. An unexpected teenage pregnancy, angels appearing in fields of sheep and cosy homes, uncomfortable journeys on a donkey to a town that has no room for a child destined to become savior of the world, to enter into life.

Then things get worse. The visit of the Magi causes the insecure puppet ruler Herod to commit an act of child genocide. The fragile family become refugees and flee for their lives. Their future is incredibly uncertain. They are only able to make a homeward move once the power of Herod has come to its end. Today I want to talk about “The Nightmare After Christmas.”

Our reading today came from the gospel of Matthew. Matthew's gospel is one that pictures Jesus as the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy and he often draws parallels between Old Testament characters and the life of Jesus. So in our account we read of the exodus to Egypt “This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son."

We read about the massacre of the infants “Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 'A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children.' " About the journey to Nazareth we are informed all takes place, “So that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, 'He will be called a Nazorean' .“

Matthew also draws parallels between Old Testament characters and Jesus. One cannot help but notice similarities to the story of Moses. Jesus escapes while other baby boys lose their life. The family end up in the land of Egypt, the land that the Israelite's were delivered from. Just as Moses led them out of Egypt, Joseph brings the child out of Egypt to begin a new life.

Dreams have a very significant role to play. Joseph in the Old Testament, the one with the multi colored coat, is known for his dreams, so Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus, is directed by the visions that come to him while he sleeps. If you recall, it was though the power of a dream that he had found the courage to take Mary as his wife after discovering she was with child.

So psychologically, geographically and theologically... there is a lot going on in these verses … and none of it is without significance. Unique claims are being made for the infant child Jesus, and all this years before His earthly ministry would begin. The challenge is to discern how these stories can relate to our own spiritual journeys.

As the year draws to a close, I offer you these three things to consider.
  • Nightmares come to us all... even the elect of God.
  • Where we see only confusion, God remains in control
  • Because the family of Jesus survived their ordeal, we can trust God will help us through our ordeals!
Nightmares come to us all... even the elect of God.

A New Year is just around the corner. None of us can predict what a New Year will bring. Of course we hope for nothing but the best. But the reality is that even the best laid plans can be diverted.

Being a disciple of Jesus Christ does not come with a “Freedom from Nightmares” ticket. Despite what the “Health, Wealth and Happiness” TV evangelists peddle on their T.V. networks, no matter how many donations you send their way, there are no guarantees of immunity from the common experiences of all humanity.

The Holy family were not immune from the problems faced by everybody in their community. Because of political decisions, made way beyond any place of influence they could reach, they had to travel to Bethlehem for that unnecessary census. Because of overcrowding, and a lack of attention to public welfare, their baby was born outside of the comfort of home or hospital.

Because of the decisions of a despotic king, they had to flee for their lives, just as many refugees are led to seek asylum far from their homelands today. As Billy Joel sang in one of his hit songs back in 1989 “We didn't start the fire, It was always burning since the world's been turning.”

You do not get to choose the place of your birth, or who your parents might be or how history may unfold around your life. While without doubt cumulative abuse of creation has an influence on the climate, we cannot predict when natural disasters or weather related events may occur. We may not start a war, but somebody else might. We may not cause a traffic accident, but we may be caught up in the middle of one somebody else caused.

Elect of God or not, there are things that are going to happen and our lives will be affected by them. Death, illness, aging... the list goes on and on, things we cannot avoid and which are simply part and parcel of being human. We can be crazy mixed up people living in a mad, mad world. Nightmares come to us all. Yet the perspective of Matthew suggests a second thing.

Where we see only confusion, God remains in control.

I mentioned earlier the parallel that Matthew draws between the life of Moses and the life of Jesus. When you consider the events of the life of Moses, it is a rather unlikely story.

Born to a family of nobodies during a time of persecution, escapes in a reed basket and ends up being raised by a Hebrew nanny (actually his birth mother) in the most powerful palace of Egypt as a prince, reconnecting with his roots and then returning to deliver his people, receiving the law and leading the people of God through the wilderness. It is a story of epic improbability. Where we see only confusion, God remains in control.

Way back in the Old Testament, in the Book of Deuteronomy (18:18) God tells Moses I will raise up for them a prophet like you from among their own people; I will put my words in the mouth of the prophet, who shall speak to them everything that I command.” Matthew paints a picture of Jesus as the “New Moses” and is keen to point out similarities between the life of Moses, the prophet and law giver of Israel, and the early life of Jesus.

Jesus, as a baby, is delivered from the death threats of the ruling power in the land. Jesus, like Moses, ends up in Egypt. Matthew is telling us that history has to repeat itself, because all of history is in God's hands and all of it is “His-Story.” Where we see only confusion, God remains in control.

I find that hard to comprehend – yet weirdly comforting. The coming of Jesus was not unexpected, but prophesied. The pattern of His life, was laid down in the lives of God's faithful people, people like Moses and Elijah and David. The very first verse of the Book of Hebrews explains “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom God appointed heir of all things.” Where we see only confusion, God remains in control.

Such was an essential element of the faith of Mary and Joseph as they navigated the unsettling waters of their times. Moving from here to there, dodging this bullet and that proclamation. They didn't start the fire, It was always burning since the world had been turning. And it was certanly confusing, but they trusted God was still in control. It is here that this passage of Scripture can intersect with our lives.

Because the family of Jesus survived their ordeal, we can trust God will help us through our ordeals!

How? One way is through our relationships. The Holy Family were just that... a family. Mary did not make decisions without Joseph, Joseph had to make decisions that affected both Mary and Jesus. They needed each other. When eventually they settled in Nazareth, Jesus had brothers and sisters. They were part of a community. Jesus gathered a community around Himself as He began His ministry. 
 
We need each other! One of the stated purposes of Jesus was to build His church. To establish a new covenant Kingdom, based on faith in God's grace. Sometimes people seem to think that Jesus came as a spiritual teacher to help them along their own spiritual path. Well... He did. But He calls us to walk that path in community with others, which is why the scriptures teach that involvement with a faith community is not an optional extra, but at the core of discipleship.

Beyond our relationships with each other we also need to develop our relationship with God. Through worship, through prayer, and through service, we discover the reality of God's presence and learn how the Holy Spirit is able to lead us and guide us.

In our Bible study group earlier this year we were looking at a book titiled “Dare To Dream.” The study invited us to see how God has a purpose for each of our lives, often communicated to us through what our dreams for our self or our world might be. In relationship with God and each other we have an opportunity to explore and put flesh on the bones of those dreams.

There also has to be obedience. It is no good God offering us a course of action and then we refuse to take it. “I will bless you if you do this!”... “But... Lord... You don't understand... I don't want to do things that way... I've got a better plan... I want … I need... won't You just...”. I am amazed that sometimes a voice doesn't thunder from haven that just says... “Really?”

So here we are at the end of the year, a New Year just around the corner. We never know what the future may bring, but we can rely on God to guide us every step of the way.

Unfortunately nightmares are common to us all, even the elect of God are not immune. But where we see only confusion, God remains in control. Because the family of Jesus survived their ordeal, we can trust God will help us through our ordeals!

May the blessing of God be with you and yours.
May there be dreams and hopes that reach glorious fulfillment.
Walk gently with God and each other.
And to God's name
Be all glory and honor and praise.
Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Advent 4: Between Ordinary and Extraordinary

ADVENT 4
Readings: Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19, Romans 1:1-17, Isaiah 7:10-16, Matthew 1:18-25
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, December 22, 2019

Goodness me, it gets dark early doesn't it? Sunset in Ellicott City today is scheduled for 4:48 pm. Still... be thankful we are not in Reykjavik, Iceland, where not only the sunset comes earlier, but the sun wouldn't have risen until after 11 in the morning.

Today is the Winter Solstice. Over at Stonehenge in England folk will be attempting to connect to their spiritual selves, dancing and chanting and joining drum circles to the celebrate the end of winter and the birth of the new sun. This tradition predates Christianity by thousands of years and the placing of those huge stones indicates the importance of the seasons for regulating life since prehistoric times.

In ancient Rome. Saturnalia, the Roman feast for Saturn, the “God of the Sun,” began on 17th December and carried on until December 23rd. The holiday was celebrated with special services at the Temple, a public banquet, private gift-giving, and a whole lot of partying. Sounds familiar!

The early Christian church was not slow in capitalizing on ancient festivals. They saw an opportunity to mark the end of December as a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus, the Son of God, who came to bring light for our darkness. Today the Christmas experience remains a strange mix of pagan, religious and secular traditions that over the centuries have become intertwined and create an ever evolving festival.

In the common Lectionary the readings for Year A (which is where we are) assigns throughout Advent, readings from Matthew's gospel. In this weeks passage Matthew gives us Joseph's side of the birth story, as well as Jesus being given the name “Emmanuel” which means “God is with us.” It's all rather condensed and if you sneezed, you might miss it. You don't want to miss it.

It is a story about extraordinary things happening to ordinary people. And the vision behind the story, is that it invites ordinary people, like you and me, to be open to the possibility of doing extraordinary, heavenly inspired, kingdom related things. We are called to be light in the darkness. How can we do that? Because God is with us.

The darkness is real. I don't just mean the nights coming in earlier, that's bad enough, I mean that other darkness that none of our lives are immune from. We have troubles and struggles and situations that we are working through. We have imperfect families and compromised lives and there is tragedy and death and illness and unwelcome surprises that throw us into a spin. Is God mad at us? No. It's just life.

Christmastime can be tough for many people. It can be dark for any of us, and it can be especially dark for the least and the last and the left out in our world. It is meant to be about peace and love and hope and joy, and if our lives are lacking in those things, the gap between where we would like to be and where we actually are seems like a insurmountable chasm. Some memories blight rather than bless. It is supposed to be this extraordinary time of the year. But we, like Mary and like Joseph, we are ordinary people.

In our reading Joseph is going through a really dark time. He has just found out that the woman of his dreams is pregnant and he can't figure out how. In their culture engagement was a lot more than engagement is today. It was a done deal. A legal contract. Those who broke it faced a harsh penalty. Stoning. Game over. You broke the rules, now you will pay. With your life.

Joseph loved Mary way too much for that. He was an ordinary guy with an extraordinary crush on the object of his affections. The text tells it rather matter of fact.“Being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, Joseph planned to dismiss her quietly.

Understatement! The guys world had just come crashing down around him. And, righteous or not, he was not going to do what the law required. For sure Mary had tried to explain that what was happening to her was tied up with God's plans. Really? God would plan to use ordinary people like them to fulfill some higher purpose? None of it made sense.

He decides to sleep on it. While he sleeps he has this vivid dream. The kind of dream that seemed more real then his waking moments. The kind of dream he would have again... and in the future it would result in his families salvation from a murderous King, their relocation to Egypt and finally settling in Nazareth. An angel tells him “Take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.

When the Holy Spirit moves upon or within a persons life, you just don't know what the outcome is going to be. You just have to go with it. I've been a pastor long enough to observe things I honestly cannot explain, rationalize or dismiss. Events that just all fell into place. Things not turning out as they should. Deliverance from natural events. Coincidences that can only be God-incidences. Healing that the doctors could not fathom. These things are way beyond me. I observe. The Holy Spirit works and I've learned to let it be. Let it go. Because if I try and make sense of it, I have no words.

Mary came to be with child. Joseph couldn't make sense of it. Neither can I. The angel tells him, “The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” Joseph, gets out of bed, gives up trying to figure it out and just goes with it. He puts into practice the faith that the angel has asked of him. As the quote on the bulletin cover suggests, “The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is practice.” When we practice the faith that God seeks to release within us, ordinary people start to experience extraordinary things.

The reason it is all happening, and the thing that can also turn our lives around, is that Jesus is now in the picture. Isn't that what we celebrate at Christmas? Is not that what we sing in our carols? “Joy to the world! The Lord is come: Let earth receive her King.” “Silent night, Holy Night, Christ the Savior is born!” “Good Christian Friends rejoice, Christ is born today!”

The next significant thing that happens in this passage is that the angel tells us the name of this child being birthed by the Holy Spirit. “You are to name Him Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’

What's in a name? In this case, a whole lot more than we realize. I've seen billboards and bumper stickers declaring the simple message, “Jesus saves.” Certainly a biblical concept. I have also heard wonderful testimonies of people telling how Jesus saved them from their sins. But sometimes I walk away thinking, well that's great what Jesus did for them back then, but what is God up to in their lives now?

These are not the easiest days for many, many traditional churches. Christian commentator Diana Butler Bass writes, “Hopelessness has worked its way onto the the spiritual DNA of many churches and denominations. It is hard to hope for the future when your congregation is declining, the Sunday School is empty, people are arguing about the issue of the day, and resources, both financial and in terms of people are dwindling.”

There is a tendency for congregations to keep looking back to their glorious past, and forget the Christmas message, that the God of the past is still with them in their present and quite capable of birthing new things for their future.

In Hebrew, the name “Emmanuel” is a phrase, rather than a static word. Its meaning is not simply “God is with us,” but can also be rendered “God is in community with us” or even “God is one of us.” The Gospel of John captures it's meaning when in his prologue he writes “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” (John 1:14)

There was a song some years ago that posed the question, “What if God was one of us?” The startling revelation of “Emmanuel” that not only has God been with God's people throughout the ages, but remains in the midst of the community of God's people, totally identifying with their struggles and with their darkness... as one of them.

This was Joseph's struggle. It wasn't just that Mary was to have a child, it was that he and Mary were just the same flesh and blood as all humanity and the very notion that God could birth something extraordinary into the heart of their incredibly ordinary lives was hard to accept.

Such remains our struggle, both as church communities and individuals. Can God's Kingdom work of salvation and healing and peace and justice and hope and love, really be actualized though ordinary people like you and me? The answer Christmas offers to us is a huge resounding, out loud and proud “Yes” because that is why Jesus came.

Whatever the season of the year, there is always darkness. Whatever season of life we are traveling through, there is darkness. Jesus was born as light in the darkness, symbolized by a star that is said to have appeared over the place of His birth, a star that even led some wise folk from afar to seek Him out. (We save that story for Epiphany!)

So much in this story would not have happened if ordinary people had not made a practice of putting their faith into action. I'm sure you know the musicians joke. “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice.” The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is practice.

Be present for your families. Be present for those whose needs you can meet. Be present for the least and the last and the left out in our world. Be present in worship, bible study and service. Be present in prayer. Be present in your faith community. Be present in your stewardship. Be present in welcoming the Holy Spirit as your guide and inspiration. Be present in those tasks to which God is calling you, be present in the midst of the ordinary every day life that we live, because it is when we practice our faith that extraordinary things can happen. The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is practice, practice, practice.

At a moment of great personal darkness and confusion, in a dream an angel appeared to Joseph and said “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid.” Our dreams remain flights of fancy until we act upon them. It is because Jesus is with us, as one of us, that we can find the strength to move forward. It is because God's Holy Spirit is still able to birth things in our ordinary lives beyond our comprehension, that we have hope and see possibilities where others see only problems.

The seasons shall follow seasons. There will be light. There will be darkness. The sun will set and the sun will rise. And every new day is an opportunity to practice our faith. The difference between ordinary and extraordinary is practice.

To God's name be all the glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian. J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, December 9, 2019

Advent 2. Stumps and Shoots

  ADVENT 2
Readings: Psalm 72:1-7, 18-19 , Isaiah 11:1-5; Romans Romans 15:4-13, Matthew 3:1-12
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, December 8 2019

In Chartes Cathedral in France is a beautiful and unique stained glass window dating back to the thirteenth century. (Pictured above). Known as ‘The Tree of Jesse’ it is based on the genealogy of Jesus that appears in Matthew’s gospel, tracing His family tree from King David’s Father (Jesse) to his birth in Bethlehem. At the base of the window is a picture of Jesse with a tree sprouting from his body. At the top of the window is Jesus, the generations of his descendants lining the branches.

Our Old Testament reading gave us this messianic verse;- “Then a shoot will spring from the stem of Jesse, And a branch from his roots will bear fruit.” The description of Jesus being from the root of Jesse or the root of David appears a number of times in the New Testament. (Romans 15:12, Rev 5:5, 22:16).

Jesse had an important part to play in the history of Israel. He fathered eight sons at a time when Israel was going through great changes. It was a time in history when they had moved from being a nation governed by priests and judges and had instituted a monarchy; the first ever King in Israel being King Saul.

But all was not well. King Saul had not turned out to be a King who always had the things of God in mind. Though he had many positive qualities, in some significant areas he was sadly lacking. A new King would be anointed, a new chosen one, and it turned out to be Jesse’s youngest son, David.

You may recall the bible story of the prophet Samuel coming to Jesse and lining up his sons one by one, but each son receiving the thumbs down from the prophet because they were not the one God had chosen. Then David, who had been left out in the fields to take care of the sheep was sent for, and he turned out to be the one on whom God’s favor rested.

There was considerable conflict before he ever ascended to the monarchy, family jealousies and giants to be overcome, but when he did, Israel enjoyed a time of prosperity never seen before or since.

By the time Jesus was born, such a time was a distant memory. The Romans were the dominant power. Israel was fragmented and without a cohesive political or religious system to hold them together. They still had a king and priests and a palace and a temple, but it was a mere shadow of the glory that had been around when David, the son of Jesse, had reigned in Israel.

Then appeared, on the banks of the Jordan, a prophet, like the prophets of old, with a stern, yet inspiring, message to the people. His name was John, the original Baptist, who called people to repent for the Kingdom of God was at hand; to turn around because God was doing something new and unexpected. From the dry stump of the Israelites ancient religion, a new, green shoot was rising up and it would grow to be a strong and powerful branch whose glory would be greater than that of the tree from which it came forth.

That image of Jesus rising up from the dying stump of Judaism is captured in the words of this 15th Century Advent hymn;

Lo, how a rose e’er blooming,
From tender stem have sprung,
Of Jesus lineage coming,
As men of old have sung...,

Isaiah twas foretold it,
The rose I have in mind...,”

That ‘Rose’ of course was Jesus.

As we look forward to celebrating Christs birth, let’s explore Isaiah 11:1;
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.”
(Revised Standard Version).

THE STUMP

The gospel authors were keen to include all those lists of names and genealogies in their Good News. Like a great tree that had been cut down so that only the stump remained, at the time of writing, the ancestry of Jesus represented in David and his father Jesse had been reduced to obscurity and insignificance.

It was important for people to understand, that though Christ was born in the poorest of circumstances, in a little known town, in a distant corner of the Roman Empire, He was the inheritor of great promises. His life was intimately tied into the work that God had been doing since the dawn of Creation. His roots were deep in the salvation history of Israel, a history that her own people had forgotten and abandoned. From out of that stump, from that forgotten root, would come hope for the world.

There is nothing particularly attractive about a stump. It is all that remains of a once proud and lofty tree that has been cut down. There’s a few stumps over in the garden at the manse. One’s covered with ivy so you can’t really see it, another functions as something to put a potted plant on. They don’t look good, just left bare, sitting there without a purpose. People tend to either uproot stumps altogether or to cover them up.

You know we’ve all met people who can identify with the stump. Life has cut them down and so they either try to cover up the hurt or just let others use them. They feel all beauty, all sense of attractiveness has gone from them. But why just talk about other people? What about ourselves?

We are all sinners who fall short of the Glory of God. We all involve ourselves in ways of thinking and being and doing, that stunt our growth in the grace and love of Jesus Christ. We have all been at some time or other cut down by what life has thrown at us; bad experiences, stupid actions we later regret, unkind words, misunderstandings. There are so many things about being human that cut us down to size.

It’s not possible to uproot and move on, because our roots run to deep. We cling to what we have, because whilst it isn’t all that it could be, it’s all that we’ve got and all that we are. To prevent our sinfulness being revealed we have numerous mechanisms for covering up, ranging from religion to role playing.

That’s one reason why John the Baptist got so mad at the Pharisees and their like. They were stunted, stumped people acting like Cedar Trees looking down on everyone else. They needed to acknowledge their real selves. Hear John’s blistering words in Matthew 3:10 “And the axe is already laid at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire”. Better, it seems, to recognize your own faults than be cut down for them!

The great Advent hope in this verse, for those who know themselves cut down:
Out of stumps can spring fresh shoots that grow into strong branches.

THE SHOOTS

Because Jesus came to us, our stunted lives can blossom with fresh shoots that cause us to grow and become strong. That can cause us to rise up and stand tall.

By using the description “Root of Jesse” the gospel authors point us to the humility of Christ. Jesse was a regular guy, a farmer, living his life as best as he could. He never aspired to having one of his sons on the nations throne. He never expected that God would bless his family in the way that history has revealed. He never dreamed that to his family line would be born the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

By describing Jesus as “The Son of the David” the bible points us to the royal glory of Christ. He is the Victor, the OverComer, the Righteous One who shall judge all people with love. The Resurrected One. The Ascended One who sits on the throne.

We may be the stunted ones, but Christ is the living one. Under the living touch of the Holy Spirit, whatever is lost can be saved, whatever has died can be reborn, whatever has been bankrupted can be redeemed, whatever has been cut down can sprout with new, tender, green shoots that grow into strong branches.

This Verse has 3 applications.

a) It applies to Jesus.
He is truly the one this messianic prophecy refers to. He is the one who came from the root of Jesse. He is the one on whom the Spirit rested mightily and whose life was filled with wisdom and understanding, with counsel and might, with knowledge and an awesome appreciation of His Father God.

b) It can be applied to us.
We are the ones who are stunted and often stumped. We are the ones that life has cut down to size. We are the ones with low expectation and who feel frustrated and unfulfilled. God worked in the life of Jesus so that the life of Jesus can be at work in us. Through the forgiveness that God offers, we are set free from our past. Through the Grace Christ offers, we can build something new. Through the love of God we learn to love others and be loved ourselves.

c) It applies to God’s Church.
Isaiah’s words were not addressed to any single individual but to a community of faith. Churches, like people, can become stunted and stumped. But as long as their roots are in Christ, then new shoots can spring out in all directions. Belonging to the body of Christ, being an active member of your church, it’s not an obligation, it’s a privilege. God places God's children in families of faith, so that they can grow, so that they can be nurtured and together bring the things of Christ's Kingdom to people who haven’t realised it yet.

It makes no sense. Why should a Holy God be bothered with an unholy bunch of idiots like the human race? God is under no contract, no obligation. If God gave us what we deserve, it certainly would not be the many blessings we receive daily from God's hand!

The thing is, Jesus loved the unlovely. God looks at the stump and says, I can see shoots coming out of that thing, I can make that branch grow, I can work with this, just give me some room!

That’s what Advent is about. Making room in our lives for the love of Christ. Preparing to receive the message of Christmas in such a way as it changes the way we live. May God help us so to do.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, December 2, 2019

Advent 1: Feasting on Hope


ADVENT 1
Readings: Psalm 122, Isaiah 2:1-5; Romans 13-11-14, Matthew 24:36-44
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, December 1 2019

Having feasted on good food for Thanksgiving and looking forward to feasting again at Christmas time, I invite you this morning to feast on hope as we worship God together.
The particular hope that our lectionary readings point us to today is the hope of God’s Coming Kingdom. This includes the hope of Isaiah’s vision when God shall “Judge among the nations: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.” The hopes of a world where the living Christ is given His rightful reign in people’s lives and darkness will be abolished by the light of His glorious presence.

Isaiah visualizes a Kingdom where the ways of God will be lifted high and justice be restored to all, in such a way as there will no longer be cause for war among the nations.
Paul calls his Roman readers to wake up and change their ways of living, because God's salvation was just around the corner.
Matthew’s gospel tells us that the day of the Lord will arrive unexpectedly, like a thief in the night, and cautions us to be ready for the kingdom to come.

Each reading has wonderful images of hope to feast upon

First of all feast on Isaiah’s vision.

Things Isaiah spoke of had a habit of coming to pass. Some of his visions had to do with the immediate future of the life of Israel. Others foretold of Christ. Other visions concerned the distant future of all the world..

He tells us that the day will come when God’s rule will tower above all other principalities and powers. The instruction of God will be the highest power of all. People from all around will want to know God’s direction in their lives. He tells us that justice and righteousness will be restored, that war will be at an end and that nationalism will be no longer a cause to fight about.

This fills me with hope. For at the present time God is dethroned from many people’s lives. At the present time many are not looking to God for direction. At the present time people are ready for war at the drop of a hat. At the present time our world is a place of injustice and unrest. It is good to know that these things will not always be so.

Armed with this hope every time I see someone opening up their lives a little more to the love of God, every time I hear of an initiative towards peace, every time some injustice is put right, we hear a whisper of greater things to come. “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”

Such is also a tremendous incentive for ourselves to be involved in initatives to create a fairer and more justice world in the present. To work towards the fullfilment of the glorious vision of peace and justice that Isaiah proclaims. To support all those efforts that feed the hungry, bring good news to the poor and bring light to those held captive in the darkness.

Such actions are not of this world, but carry the trademark of God’s Kingdom. Whenever we commit ourselves to change we are declaring ‘The Kingdom IS coming’. Maybe as Bob Dylan said in one of his songs, it is “A slow train coming,” but every now and again you can hear a distant rumbling on the tracks. The glorious hope in this passage from Isaiah is the knowledge that one day all will be well. That our efforts make a difference.

Secondly, Feast on Paul's wake up call

Not only shall all be well in the wider world, but there will also come a time when all will be well with our own lives. Those Paul wrote to in Rome were surrounded by all sorts of ungodliness and subject to all the problems that being sinful human beings places upon us.

Although they had converted to Christianity they still struggled to truly live a Christian life. They often found themselves paying more attention to bodily appetites than to their spiritual diet. From what Paul tells us they had a battle going on in the area of self-control. Some struggled with alcohol abuse. Some had no control of their sexual lives.

Some were argumentative and couldn’t control their words. Others were consumed with jealousy. Some just couldn’t resist a chance to party the night away. You’d think he was writing to guests on the Jerry Springer show, not the members of First Presbyterian Church in Rome!

Take heart from this passage. From the raw material of imperfect human lives God builds the church. Never despair of your self or of others. Be hopeful. If at times you feel your life is about as far from being holy as it could be, realize you have friends in high places and low places! If at times temptation wins, well, you’re not the first and you won’t be the last to lose a battle with temptation. Put your hope in God. Listen for God's alarm bells and wake up calls and respond to them.

Thirdly, Feast on the unpredictability of it all

Many times the return of Christ is presented to us in terms of cold analysis and as though it were a doom laden fact. At various times across the Christian centuries there have been groups of folk convinced that their generation was the last and that Christ was coming especially for them, right then and right there to rescue them from the evil world around them.

Such certainty of instant redemption obscures for us the really important element of Jesus teaching. The motif of surprise. There is a glorious sense of tension in Jesus words. On the one hand He tells us get ready, the Son of Man is coming, like a thief in the night, one will be taken, one will be left behind. But on the other hand He tells us, “Well if you think you know when all this is going to be going on, you are completely and totally wrong”. “The Son of man is coming at an hour when you do not think He will” (Matthew 24:44).

So rather than speculate about dates and times, I suggest we interpret our passage from Matthew in this way. “Always leave room in your life for God’s surprises.”.Never close your soul to the unpredictable nature of God’s love. Never let your Christian life become a humdrum routine affair that leaves God’s Spirit no room to move. Never think that God is through with you or that you have reached the end of the road in your spiritual journey or that there is not more you can do to bring about change in our world.

As our lives go through their different seasons there comes times when we can no longer serve as we would wish. This element of surprise is an incentive for us to seize the day. To do what we can with what we have while we still have the opportunity to do so.

As we move through Advent towards Christmas it is worth reflecting why Jesus was born and the nature of the mission He pursued. When invited to preach His first sermon in Nazareth he unrolled a scroll containing the words of Isaiah and proclaimed: “The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because He has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18-19)

Whenever we work towards such aims we are working with Christ, surprising the world with His presence and spreading His hope where it is desperately needed. As we do so, we find our own lives are challenged and changed. We are called to not only believe in the coming of the Kingdom God, that great vision of Isaiah, but also to work towards making God’s Kingdom a present reality.

Today we can hope to have our broken lives renewed through God’s Holy Spirit.
Today hope can spring eternal and life be made new.
Today we can look forward in hope to the coming of God’s Promised Kingdom.
Today we look forward in Advent hope.
Today we can recommit our lives to being carriers of the hope of JesusChrist.
Praise God!
Every worship service is truly an opportunity for feasting on hope.
Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, November 25, 2019

Christ the King

CHRIST THE KING SUNDAY
Readings: Psalm 46, Jeremiah 23:1-6, Colossians 1:11-20, Luke 23:33-43
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, November 24, 2019

Jesus on the Cross. A sign placed over His head: “The King of the Jews.” In Luke 23:39 we read; “One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at Him: "Aren't you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" A criminal facing death alongside Him showing nothing but contempt. He sees nothing in Jesus. His claims to be the Messiah are laughable. Save the people? He can't even save Himself! If He can't even save Himself, what kind of Savior can He be for anybody else?

In complete contrast, Paul, a one-time disbeliever and mocker himself, writes to the Church of Colossae, that Jesus is the One:- In whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins. The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:14-17)

To one Jesus is a tragic failure. To the other He is the cosmic savior. To one He doesn't mean a darn thing. To the other He is every-thing. To one He is an object of derision. To the other He's the Son of God who demands decision.


The criminals complaint is simple. If Jesus was God's chosen one, then how come He had chosen to do nothing about the suffering, evil and hatred that inhabited all of creation. Why had He allowed it to overwhelm Him? Some King!


Such questions have surely crossed our minds. Where is God when suffering comes? Why, if God is God, does God allow disasters and tragedy? Why, if Jesus is the healer, do we continue to live in a world where cancers take our loved ones? Why if Jesus is the peace maker do guns and bombs talk louder than words? Why, if Jesus is the just King of all creation do the rich get away with murder and the hungry die for lack of sustenance?

Indeed there are those who today ascribe significance to writings such as Richard Dawkins 'The God Delusion' and the late Christopher Hitchen's 'God is not Great', who would suggest that not only are we Sunday by Sunday perpetuating a dangerous and illogical myth as truth but that we are deluded idiots to believe that Jesus Christ is anything more than the ultimate invisible friend. For them Paul's portrayal of Jesus as the King of all Creation, the One who can bring forgiveness and turn life around, is nothing more than misguided and potentially hazardous, wishful thinking.

Today is Christ the King Sunday. We may, like the thief on the Cross, be wondering, “What kind of King is this, who does not use His power to get Himself off the cross? What kind of King is this who does not use His connections, influences, and resources to get you and me off the crosses we face? What kind of a King is this who allows so much immense suffering on this planet earth?”


Today we are at the very mystery of God, the mystery of the universe, at the very heart of the mystery of love. God chose to experience the place of the greatest pain, the cross. At the cross, we glimpse the mystery of God. At the Cross God chose not to avoid the suffering of this world. It has been said, “Where suffering is, love is. And where love is, God is.”


We are not God. We try to avoid suffering. When we are assaulted by forces beyond our control we complain, “Why me, God? ” We get angry at God; we become depressed, we become hurt, we no longer believe in God or that God intervenes in our lives.


One of the quirks of being human is that the whole world can be suffering, and we never ask the question, “Why?” but when something goes wrong with me, or with my family, or with my friends, or with my loved ones; when something goes wrong with my life, I then ask the question deeply and personally, “Why God? Why me? Why us? Why my loved one?”


The nature of God is not to avoid suffering. The nature of love is not to avoid pain or the places of pain. That’s the way love is. That’s the way Jesus has revealed God to us, He did not avoid pain, nor avoid the places of pain.


Loving people do not use their resources and connections to avoid the pain of their loved ones. The loving thing to do is to enter into the pain of those we love in order to help them bear it. That’s the way God is. That is the nature of love; to go and be with people in the midst of their pain and suffering. Such is at the love revealed to us through the Cross, the cross that had nailed to it the designation 'The King of the Jews'.


By becoming King, Jesus challenged the very notion of Kingship. He overturns our whole notion of power. His power is not dominating or controlling. The power He expresses is the power of redemption, the power to enter into another persons situation so totally and completely that their situation becomes a place, not of defeat, but of possibility. Paul states it clearly in Colossians. Jesus is the One 'In whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.'


I have been in ministry long enough to have witnessed the power of God at work in desperate situations. I know that prayer can change things and that trust in God can turn peoples lives around. When people are desperate for direction, when people are in the midst of pain or turmoil, even that mysterious moment when people are transitioning from this life to the next... in these situations I have witnessed the grace and peace of our Lord Jesus Christ entering in and bringing hope when... logically... there should be none.

To the mocker, to the unbeliever, to those who suggest that spiritual realities are false simply because they cannot be recreated in a laboratory or proved by statistical analysis, I have to wonder if they truly have ever experienced the deep mystery of love. And I don't mean the 'wishy-washy' emotional experience that the Western world defines as romantic love. I mean the depth of love that is found at the Cross.

There is an adaption of Psalm 23 that is found in our hymnbooks - Hymn 171.

The King of love my Shepherd is,
Whose goodness faileth never;
I nothing lack if I am His
And He is mine forever.

When we allow the 'King of Love', the Shepherd-King, the Servant-King, to take charge of our situation, when we allow Him to enter in, when we give up on thinking we can be in charge and allow Him to take charge, everything changes.

There is another criminal in our reading from Luke. Ch 23:40-43 “The other criminal rebuked him (that is, rebuked the one who mocked Jesus...) "Don't you fear God," he said, "since you are under the same sentence?We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom. " Jesus answered him, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise."


This second criminal, warped, compromised, sinful as his life may have been (and we have no way of knowing what crime he had committed) at least recognizes that there is an integrity to the life of Jesus that he had not seen in others. He recognizes in Jesus a deep connection to God and the Kingdom of God. He somehow understands that what was happening then and there, at the moment, would not define how events would eventually turn out. He says to Jesus 'Remember me when You come into Your Kingdom” In Jesus he sees hope beyond what was logical!


This mustard seed of faith the man has discovered in his final moments of life on this earth is enough for Jesus to promise him, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise." The word 'paradise' is only used three times in the New Testament, and in each case is associated with a state of being. We may be more familiar with the imagery of paradise from 17th Century poet John Milton's epic work 'Paradise Lost', in which the fall of humankind, and the loss of the innocence of the paradise of Eden, positions humanity in a state of experiencing guilt and shame.


What Jesus is promising the man is that through faith in Him, his state of being can be transformed – he will move from paradise lost to paradise gained. In our own lives, faith can also be a transforming experience. Indeed the faith we have encourages us and empowers us to seek transformation in our wider community.


On Christ the King Sunday, we are invited to remember that the “Kingdom of God,” to which Jesus constantly pointed, is as fully available now and always as it was 2,000 years ago. The question that remains is whether we will choose to live within its boundaries, something we can only do through trust and faith and by nurturing our lives through the regular disciplines of worship and study, service and prayer.


Our readings today lay before us choices. We are offered a picture of two criminals. One cries out “Some King! Can't even save Himself.” The other only asks to be remembered. We can choose to stand with the mockers, the disbelievers and the scoffers or we can put our trust in Jesus, that He was who He claimed to be and is still able to bring about transformation.


The questions will always remain with us. The 'why?' of suffering and the “why me?' are not going to go away. But if we recognize that it is the nature of love to enter into suffering, and if we can sense that such is exactly what Jesus has done at the Cross, then maybe we'll even be moved to consider, as Paul does in Colossians, that the dimensions of the love of Jesus are greater than we could ever conceive.


We also have the benefit of the rest of the New Testament witness. We know the story didn't end with three crosses. Our faith also talks of the empty tomb and the resurrection and the gift of the Holy Spirit. We proclaim Jesus to be King, over all the forces of life that cheapen, destroy and disfigure, even King over death itself.


In Colossians 9:17 Paul writes that 'In Him all things hold together.' My belief is that if we put our mustard seed of faith and belief in Christ as King, then such becomes a reality for our lives. Beyond logic, beyond understanding, our experience becomes that through faith in the rule of Jesus over our lives 'All things hold together'. And to God's name be glory. Amen.


The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.