Monday, October 7, 2019

Sir, I want to see again!

COMMUNION SERVICE
Readings: Psalm 137, Lamentations 1:1-6, Luke 18:35-41, Acts 9: 1-19
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, October 6 2019

Dogs and humans are different. Dogs sense the world in a different way. They smell different. Sometimes they really smell! They touch with their teeth. They hear things that we don't. They get excited about things we count irrelevant. They eat stuff we wouldn't. I don't know what they put in dog food, but I don't ever want it on a sandwich. They see things differently. A good evening in for a dog isn't to curl up on the couch with another pooch and a pizza to watch a Lassie movie.

The way we see things” is what I'd like us to think about as we come to the table this morning. The way we see things affects the way we live and the things we do. A man came to Jesus and said, "Sir, I want to see again." He had lost his vision. Paul spoke about how so often our view of God is as though we see through darkened glass. We all need to come to Jesus and say "Sir, I want to see again." Our senses need renewing.

1. We need a Deepening Sense of God's Awesome Love towards us.

From the start the ministry of Jesus was spelled out in terms of Isaiah’s' Old Testament prophecy:-
  • the blind receiving their sight
  • the lame walking
  • lepers cleansed and the deaf hear
  • the dead are raised
  • the poor have the gospel preached to them.
All this was done from a deep sense of compassion. In His dealing with people He never used them as an end to fulfill His own purposes. He offers people meaning as individuals, loves them for who they are. He does not wish for an army of nameless uniformed soldiers, but everyone was known by name and all were treated as important, from the greatest to the least. Time and time again He spent His life with those others had no time for.

In a healing account from Matthew's gospel we read of Jesus, "Moving with compassion" to touch those who came to Him. Mark gives an account of Jesus healing a man who is deaf and mute and pictures Jesus looking up to heaven and praying with a deep sigh, His heart really yearning for that individual the rest of the world wanted nothing to do with.

On the table we place elements of bread and wine that symbolize the length that Jesus was prepared to go that we may know the love of God. There is a hymn that says:

"My song is love unknown,
My Saviors love to me,
Love to the loveless shown
That they might lovely be,
O, who am I, That for my sake,
My Lord should take frail flesh and die?"

We come to the table to remember Him. If we feel low, the call is ... look up. To remember that He wants us to know His love, that He counts our insignificant lives as important, our little problems as genuine concerns. He calls us by name to be the special people of His Kingdom; special because we all have things to share, things to offer to Him and to each other in love and service. Come to the table with a prayer, "Lord, I want to see again." We need a deepening sense of God's awesome love towards us. Also, if we are to have our vision renewed...

2. We need a Deepening Sense of Commitment to Jesus Christ

The correct response to awesome love is that of commitment to its demands. As our lives encounter the love of Jesus Christ they should not remain the same. If someone says, "I gave my life for you," you don't just walk on by, you do not count their sacrifice as unimportant, you rethink your life in the light of what they have done.

That's how it was for Paul after his encounter with Jesus on the Damascus road. The initial encounter left him blinded. His initial prayer must have been that of the blind beggar, “Lord, I want to see again." But there was more to it than that. The reason for Paul's blindness was that he had set his heart against Jesus Christ. The voice he heard on the Damascus Road had said, "Saul, Saul, Why do you persecute me?”

Saul saw Christians as a threat to true religion... He saw the Christian as a challenge to all he held dear. He thought he was doing God's will in opposing them. He had the backing of the religious authorities of the day in his mission to weed out the followers of "The Way."

There are those in our day, who though they may not be as openly antagonistic as was Saul, are equally dismissive of Christ's teaching. In their blindness they believe that they are doing the right thing, that they are the enlightened ones, that it is we who profess the name of Christ who are the narrow minded ones, the out-of-touch ones, the irrelevant ones.

They are blind to the glory of the gospel, that God sent His only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, that whosoever believes in Him may not perish, but have eternal life. It means nothing to them that on the cross of Calvary the love of God calls to them offering forgiveness and acceptance, offering new life and hope. They are blind to the presence of His resurrection love, surrounding them, trying to break in on their daily lives. It means nothing to them, just as it meant nothing to Saul.

Paul only realized his spiritual blindness when a physical blindness came over him. How sad (but how true) that for many people it is only when a crisis comes along that they start to realize that maybe they don't have all the answers; that maybe all the things they have been building their lives upon are without the real substance and depth that can hold them in time of tragedy.

Don't wait for everything to go wrong before you start putting things right with God. Make that commitment to live for Him; today. Tomorrow may be too late. Come to Him with your spiritual blindness and seek for spiritual enlightenment.

We need a deepening sense of God's awesome love towards us.
We need a deepening sense of commitment to Jesus Christ

3. We need a Deepening Sense of God's Daily Presence

We read that when Ananias prayed for Saul that it was as though there fell from his eyes something like scales and that he regained his sight. Saul’s vision was gradually restored. Matthew records a healing of a blind man who looks up and says, "I see people, but they look like trees, walking around." Jesus lays His hands on the man again and the man starts to see clearly. The sense of the presence of God can come to us in a similar way, as something that slowly dawns on us, as something we glimpse with ever increasing clarity.

It starts as we realize the love of God in Christ is there for us, that Christ died to forgive us our sins and was raised to bring resurrection life to bear on our every day existence. From there on God's Holy Spirit begins to restructure our whole way of seeing things.

The blind beggar came to Jesus and said, "Sir, I want to see again." Jesus says to him, "Receive your sight your faith has made you well." And then the man starts following Jesus and glorifying God.

You see the pattern? First of all the man came to Christ with the awareness both of his need and the ability of Jesus to help him. Secondly, Christ spoke to Him the Word he so needed and his sight was renewed. Then he begins to follow. The encounter he had with Jesus was just the beginning of the story, not the end. It was the same for Paul. It can be the same for us.

Christian commitment is not a destination, it's a journey. It's not a once only, isolated moment of commitment but a life time of discovery and change and renewal of vision. One of George Herbert’s hymns says;

"Teach me, My God and King
In all things thee to see
And what I do in everything
To do it as for thee"

See here today, in this celebration of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, an opportunity to deepening your sense of God's awesome love towards you, a chance to recommit your life to Him, and a moment to seek a deepening sense of God's presence.

Seek God as to how best your life can serve God's purposes, where best to invest your time, talents and treasures in helping others to see, how your life and the life of your church community can truly bring glory to the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Come to Jesus, in this feast of bread and wine, with a simple prayer;
"Lord, I want to see again."

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Sunday, September 15, 2019

Lost without Knowing it

Readings: Psalm 14, Jeremiah 4:11-12,22-28, Luke 15: 1-10, 1 Timothy 1:12-15
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, September 15 2019

I was traveling down the road, so busy talking to the person sitting in the passenger seat that I failed to notice that there was an intersection. The road I wanted went one way, the way I went was the other way. It was only when we came upon a shopping mall and a set of traffic lights that I realized our error. We had become so preoccupied that we had become “lost without knowing it.”

Little Belinda the sheep normally stayed with the rest of the flock. But this day there was a particularly nice fresh looking patch of green grass on the other side of the fence. And what was that? A hole in the hedge? "Maybe I could just squeeze through… there we are. And look, over there, right the other side of the road.

That grass looks so good. Baa. I'll be O.K. Hey it's getting dark, I'll just take a nap and ... wait ... did I doze off... what's that crazy shepherd doing, lifting me upon his shoulders, big smile on his face... saying "Welcome home"... Was I lost without knowing it?"

It's not a very exciting life being a coin. You are created, you get passed around, then you get melted down and made into something else. Some coins get to travel the world, but most just circulate their own neighborhoods.

One of the things about being a coin is that you have absolutely no consciousness of your own worth or value. So when a woman drops you between the floorboards you have no realization that she is going frantic, sweeping, and shining lights into dark corners, all because she really wants you back. You have no idea that when she finds you she is going to throw a big party to celebrate. You're “lost without knowing it.”

It can be fatal to be “lost without knowing it.”

During World War II action in Northern Africa, a B-17 Flying Fortress, called "Lady-Be-Good" was on her way back from a mission. Guiding the plane was a radio beam from the desert airstrip where they were based. The crew didn't realize there was a strong air wind that night, and with no visual reference, they flew right past the airfield and landed in the Libyan desert.

The men survived the crash landing, only to perish, in the blazing suns heat, of thirst. Sometimes you only realize how bad a situation is when it's too late. It can be a tragic thing to be lost without knowing it.

The problem with being lost without knowing it is simply stated;
You are lost and you don't know it!

There are times when the sense of being lost does break into our hearts. There are those times when things happen and we throw up our hands and say, "Why, Lord, Why?" There are those moments when we question what purpose life has, where our lives are heading, why we are here and a hundred other things. But we tend to push those moments aside. They become lost in the business, in the routines, in the every day-ness that getting by in life demands.

The remedy for being lost without knowing it
is to be found without deserving it.

Belinda the sheep who strayed from the path could have been found by all sorts of things. Could have ended up as road-kill mutton. Could have found a ditch to fall in. Could have been found by a passing wolf. Instead, a crazy shepherd endangers the life of 99 others by leaving them on a hillside whilst he searches and searches for her.

Stupid sheep. It was her own fault. She was the one who walked away. She was the one who went off on her own. She was the one whose actions put her and the rest of the flock in danger. That crazy shepherd! Just holds her high and says "Come and rejoice… I've found my sheep!"

The old coin that rolled away. Do you think a coin is bothered if it's lost or found? Even though it was totally incapable of realizing it's own worth, the woman who owned it did. And she was a bit of a crazy woman, because when she finds it, she ends up throwing a party for her friends that may well have cost more than the coin was worth.

The great statesman and theologian of the earliest church, St. Paul, made no pretense that his former position was one of being totally lost, “without knowing it,” when he writes to his young friend Timothy, "I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because He considered me faithful, putting me into service; even though I was formerly a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent aggressor. And yet I was shown mercy, because I acted ignorantly in unbelief; and the grace of our Lord was more than abundant, with the faith and love which are found in Christ Jesus". (1 Timothy 1:12-14)

He acted ignorantly.
He didn't know he was lost.
He had to be found without deserving it.
The remedy for being lost without knowing it;
Is to be found without deserving it.

When Jesus spoke those parables about the lost sheep and the lost coin, He did so in the face of murmuring religious leaders, who felt that He was the one who was lost. They believed that He was so lost that He was turning out to be dangerous. So they opposed Him and His crazy notions about God being like a shepherd or a woman who lost a coin. They never got the point that they were the ones who were truly lost without knowing it.

Parables are stories with many layers of meaning. We may well agree that the remedy for being “lost without knowing it” is to be “found without deserving it.” Indeed we may identify with those who at times feel lost and know that they are undeserving of having received the grace of God. But if we leave it there... we're still lost.

So listen and hear these stories. A crazy shepherd leaves ninety nine in the fold and goes off in search of one. "I am the Good Shepherd" proclaims Jesus, "Who lays down His life for his sheep."

A woman loses a coin and then throws a party when she finds it. "In the same way," Jesus tells us, "There is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."

Friends, do we get it? God’s crazy about us. Even when we are not too crazy about the things of God’s Kingdom, God still calls out to us and seeks to be a part of our lives. God has a passion for our lives that they should be all that God first created them to be, a commitment so great that Jesus died upon the Cross of Calvary to kill forever any notion that God didn’t know what life was like for everyday people.

Don’t get lost without knowing it. As those airplane pilots I mentioned earlier, who ended up miles from nowhere, in the middle of the desert, being lost can cost you everything, even life itself. Today God is just waiting to take us by the hand and lead us home. And… no… it’s nothing we deserve. After all we are the ones who wander away from the path; we are the ones who can go through life remaining ignorant of the God who seeks us out.

In another story that Jesus told a son wanders away from his family. He sqaunders the family inheritance and finds himself living on leftovers. At that low point in his life, he comes to his senses. He realizes that he is lost and he hadn't realized it. Living the high life had led him to becoming a low life.

There is a moment of clarity. He realizes that he would be better off at home, working as a slave for his Father, rather than dieing in the dirt. He hopes that at least his father will allow him to somehow make amends for his terrible behavior.

When he arrives home the Father sees him in the distance. The Father runs to him and embraces him and welcomes him home. He throws a party. “This son of mine was dead but now he's alive.” Throughout the sons disobedience the Father never gave up on him. The Father knew that the boy needed to come home. But the son was lost and had no idea, until he came to himself, just how far he had fallen.

Don’t be lost without knowing it. Allow the love of God to find you and welcome you and seek to live your life in the security of that relationship. Then your life will echo the words of the many in our world whose Christian testimony is simply “I was lost, but now I am found!”

May we find in the coming days that our lives are being made new in Jesus name. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D

Sunday, September 8, 2019

The Call and the Cross

Readings: Psalm 139:1-6,13-18, Isaiah 53:1-6, Philemon 1-21, Luke 14: 25-35
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, September 8 2019

At our home we have a series of plates depicting rural English scenes. At the moment we actually have them in a box, because, even though we've been a few years, we still can't decide where to put them. See, there's quite a few of them. We hadn't meant to get quite so many, but it was one of those offers where you see an advertisement and you think it would be nice to have one of those, and then the one became a set of two, then the two became a set of six and the six became a set of twelve and you end up spending a lot more than you at first intended and then wonder what to do with them.

Same thing can happen with book clubs. You sign up thinking you have the best bargain in the world and suddenly end up with books you hadn't really wanted. It can happen with Committees. You say, in all innocence, "Yes, I'll serve on so-and-so,"and it's only further down the road you realize just exactly what you've got yourself into.

When the crowds were following Him, Jesus was uncompromising in His expectations of those who would be His disciples. He told them to count the cost and to weigh up the implications before they signed up for discipleship. He told them that commitment to Him was all or it was nothing. That followers would have to restructure their whole life, their priorities, and their commitments, if they were to inherit the blessings of the Kingdom of God. He was crystal clear that if they responded to the Call they would also need to be prepared to take up the Cross.

An old gospel chorus my youth group used to sing put it plainly and decisively,
"If you will not bear a cross, You can't wear a Crown."

Have the rules changed? Does Jesus ask any less of disciples of the twenty first century?

The impression given by some preachers is that buying into the gospel is much like buying a used car. They make it sound as easy as possible. "To ensure your salvation, call for a quotation, and make a donation." It is like a throwback to the pre-Reformation days when you could purge yourself (and your relatives) from sin and purgatory by paying the right price to the right priest.

It is always a temptation for any preacher to say what they think they want the people to hear and try and avoid saying anything that may cause them offense, because, after all, a preacher's congregation are those who put the money in the collection plate that keeps him or her comfortable. It's always a temptation to try and make the message easier to swallow for some people because they might easier become followers. It's always a temptation to play to the crowd rather than make disciples. It's a temptation for all disciples to please people rather than please God.

So pray for your church leaders that they hold before your understanding not simply the call of Jesus that is beckoning you to be His follower, but also hold before you the Cross of Jesus that He is calling you to carry! Why? Because the cross has to be central to our life if we are in any true sense of the word going to be Christian.

The fact is that our Churches, Preachers, and Christian friends are going to let us down sometimes. But the One who died upon that cross, whose name is Jesus, He is not going to let us down. Even the greatest friend who deeply loves us can not go to Calvary to die for our sins, but Jesus did that.

There are always religious folk that we can point the finger at and say; “Phoneys, do-gooders, know-it-alls, holier than thou's, religious cranks, Bible freaks, hypocrites.” You can not point the finger at Jesus Christ and make such accusations. His love is truth and His life is life, life that burnt with such intensity that death, Hell and the Devil could not extinguish it. His way, is the “Way” He is calling us to follow. His way is the way of the cross.

You may say, "But, you don't know what I'm going through, you don't know the struggles I have, you don't know what I have to put up with!" You know what? You are right. I don’t know. But Jesus Christ knows exactly what we are going through, exactly how we are trying to deal with things, exactly how we are feeling about things right now, and He is the One who uncompromisingly calls us to stand out of the crowd and make our stand, not for our church or for our preacher or our Christian friends, but for Him.

How uncompromising is that stand? Listen again to verse 26: "If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.”

Let's clear away one stumbling block that's due to translation here. Jesus is not preaching about any anti-family statements or justifying hatred. He is speaking in a manner of traditional rabbinical teaching, (sometimes called "Semitic hyperbole") that greatly exaggerates a contrast so that the meaning of a phrase or a concept is seen more clearly. The word used for hatred, in Greek mijes (miseƓ), does not imply anger or hostility.

What Jesus appears to be saying is that our response to the call of discipleship has to take precedence over and above even the most sacred of human relationships; even that of family. That there is no higher obligation in life than commitment to Him and being His disciple. That the love we are to have for Him and the things of God's Kingdom, is of such a quality and depth that it seems to make, by comparison, our love for those closest to us seem like hatred.

What are the things that we give our time to? The things that excite us? The things that make up our life? Maybe it is our family. Or maybe it's our job. Or maybe it's our home. Or maybe it's hanging out with our friends. Or maybe it's the golf course. Or maybe it's having a quiet Sunday morning snoozing in bed. There is nothing wrong with any of those things.

But hear Jesus and hear Jesus loud and clear. "Whoever comes to me and does not love me more than these things, can not be my disciple". Can not. Will not. Shall not. May go through the motions but in reality not be getting there. God calls us to have a love for Jesus Christ, that by comparison to our love of all other things, seems like the opposite!

Move on to verse 27. "Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple." Sadly we live in a world where many, faced with this challenge, will ask, "What's in it for me?" What's in it for us? What have we to gain by taking up a cross, by loving Jesus more than anything else? By making the decision to be disciples?

Think what Christ has done for us. Think on how He gave His life for our salvation, for our healing and wholeness. Think on all He said, all that He did. Think how His love has changed the world and so many of the freedoms we enjoy today have come about through those who sought to hold up His light in the darkness.

Reflect on those who died so that we could have a bible to study and freedom to worship Reflect on those who gave all so we can gain all. Look at how many hospitals and educational establishments and forms of government and structures of law bear the marks of His teaching.

Instead of asking "What's in it for me?" we should be asking, "What are we doing to reflect the love of Him who first loved us? How should we live in the light of the grace God has freely bestowed upon us? What heritage are we passing on to others?"

It was Isaac Watts who penned these words;

When I survey the wondrous Cross
On which the Prince of Glory Died
My richest gain, I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride

Were the whole realm of nature mine
That were an offering far to small
Love so amazing, so Divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Now it could be that today you are sitting in the congregation thinking, you are asking too much of me. That this whole “Taking up a cross” thing and having a love for the things of the Kingdom of God, that totally overshadows all the other loves in our lives... indeed makes them seem like the opposite... is asking the impossible.

Please do not think, even for a moment that “I” am asking anything of you. Please be aware that ... right now... I am preaching to my own heart as much as to anybody elses situation. You see my task is not to ask anything of any of you. My task is to lay before all of us what Jesus Christ asks of all us. These are His words. This is His invitation.

Like Paul, I can say, look if there is anything in me about following Jesus that you think is worthy of imitation, then for sure, do those things. But be aware, I'm a fallible, conflicted, broken, needy person just like the rest of you. I am one beggar telling another beggar where to find some food.
I don't lay down the terms of following Jesus Christ. I didn't come up with the conditions or the terms. I struggle to understand how a Cross can be anything but painful and harsh and difficult. So... in a way... and it's crazy for a communicator to say this... it doesn't matter if you don't listen to me. What matters is that we hear Jesus and listen to His word and be disciples on His terms.

When I hear “Take up your cross” there is a huge part of me that says “No way.” I am encouraged by the fact, that when that situation became a reality in the life of Jesus, it led Him to the garden of Gethsemenae, where He sweated blood and pleaded with His Father God, “Please, let this cup pass from me!” Only at the end of that struggle, did even Jesus have the courage to say, “Not my way, but Thy will be done.”

Such reminds me that when God calls us to extreme steps in our life,God also supplies what we need to see those steps can be taken. Extreme requests are matched by abundant love. God will not ask of us what God will not enable us to do. But the teaching is there!

The terms of discipleship include the Call and the Cross. Both are essential for genuine discipleship. "If you will not bear a cross, You can't wear a Crown." May God enable us to hear clearly. May God enable us, through the Holy Spirit, to daily take up our cross and go wherever this awesome discipleship journey may lead!

I believe that Jesus would not ask for such a depth of commitment unless it was leading us to something beautiful and amazing. At the core of our faith stands a cross that led to resurrection. You cannot find a concept more death defying, life enriching, positive turning everything around concept... than resurrection.

So again, I offer you the words of hymn writer Isaac Watts;

Love so amazing, so Divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all.”

The Reverend Adrian J Pratt B.D.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

JESUS AND INDIVIDUALS 5."Can You See?"

Communion Service
Readings: Psalm 81:1, 10-16, Jeremiah 2:4-13, Hebrews 13:1-8, 15-16, John 9:1-41
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, September 1 2019

Today we are taking a look at a lengthy passage from John's gospel that gives us the account of a man born blind. I'm continuing on a short series of sermons focusing on the way Jesus interacted with individuals and groups of folk. In this passage we encounter a number of different groups. The man himself, his parents and a group we have met before, the Scribes and Pharisees.

We were thinking previously about how this latter group used a woman caught in adultery to try and catch Jesus out and portray Him in a negative light. That did not work out well for them and they walked away from the encounter with their tails between their legs and with their consciences seared. Jesus has told them “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” This did not drive them towards repentance and getting their lives in order with God, but rather caused them to be even more embittered and intent on their mission to put an end to Jesus and His ministry.

When God is doing something new, when the Holy Spirit begins to move, when people sense that their way of doing things is under threat by new insights or practices, the result is invariably resistance. That shouldn't surprise us. Religious people have strong beliefs that are not easily shaken. The problem is that when things come along that don't fit in with those beliefs, they often become a battle ground rather than a cause for rejoicing.

That's why we have so many denominations. That's why we see people moving from church to church. It doesn't take much to unsettle people. Change the music. Move something around in the order of worship. Emphasize a different aspect of christian teaching. Differ on some moral issue... or even just the setting of the sanctuary thermostat...and... boomf... people leave and a church can split.

There are many different aspects to this story, but the one that drew me, was this underlying theme that renewal does not come easily. The story begins with a wonderful act of healing. A man born blind is able to see again. You'd think there would be an “Hallelujah, Praise God!” from all around.

Instead... trouble. Some people didn't like Jesus. The healing was done by Jesus. So they didn't like it. It took place on a Sabbath. For some people, that was beyond the pale. God didn't work on the Sabbath so either the man was lying, or the witnesses were lying or the whole thing was some kind of plot concocted to challenge the way things were meant to be.

THE TIME The action takes place during the Feast of Tabernacles, a thanksgiving celebration of God's ability to provide all that we need.

THE PLACE Jesus leaves the temple and encounters this man somewhere on His exit.

THE CIRCUMSTANCES The encounter begins with a question. The disciples see the man and ask Jesus, “Whose sin caused this man to be born blind? Was it something he did or something his parents did?”

The first challenge in the story is a theological one. The disciples had a theology of sickness. That if a person became sick there had to be a cause for it. Likewise, if a person was poor, it was their fault. If something bad happened, then, as all things were the will of God, they must be getting the due recompense for some bad action they had knowingly, or even unknowingly, been involved in.

Sometimes sickness can be a result of bad health choices. Sometimes poverty is a result of unwise decisions. Sometimes what goes around does come around. But there also health problems we are born into, just are we are all born into an economic environment that we had no choice in. When God created the world we are told it was a creation out of chaos, and it is plainly evident, that while creation continues, so does chaos. Stuff happens that is neither the result of blessing or curse, but it's just the nature of reality.

We need to refute once and for all the idea that God sends sickness or disability as a punishment. If God is a loving Father, what kind of loving Father would discipline a child by making them terminally ill or permanently disabled? The mission of Jesus was to heal and save, not to bring sickness and punishment. In this instance Jesus explains that the mans condition is an opportunity for God's power to be witnessed.

To me, that is the framework in which we should place all ailments. Any kind of problem, be it health related or otherwise, is a situation that needs the touch of grace. Grace is shown in many ways. Sometimes there is healing grace. Sometimes the grace comes in the form of finding the strength to get through. Sometimes the grace is shown in a peace that passes all understanding. But let us put to rest the idea that sickness is a sign of God's disapproval (or that health is a sign of God's approval!)

The disciples make the man a subject for theological discussion rather than seeing him through eyes of healing and compassion. How different is the concern of Jesus. Jesus takes the initiative. In this situation He does something with mud and spittle and then tells the man to go and wash in the Pool of Siloam, a place knows as the “Healing Pool.”

The significance of mud and spittle? I'm not sure! But what is of note is that Jesus altered His ways of dealing with people according to the type of person He encountered. Surely, as a church there is a lesson for us here. We need different approaches to reach different people. To the man born blind, Jesus speaks with tenderness and compassion. To the Scribes and Pharisees He offers warnings and words of judgment.

Again, notice this. Jesus heals the man's physical sight before healing his spiritual sight. After the man has found his physical sight restored, then Jesus encourages him to put his faith in the Son of God. At first the man is perplexed. “Well, I would believe if I could work out where to find Him!” We read in Verse 37, “Jesus said to him, 'You have already seen Him, and He is the One talking to you now.'” The man believes and worships Jesus.

Not so much the Scribes and Pharisees. Jesus uses the mans physical blindness to suggest to them that they are truly spiritually blinded. They protest, “Surely, we are not blind, are we?” … as though the very suggestion, that they, the elite representatives of God, could possibly be not seeing something, was outrageous. Jesus slams them. “If you were blind, you would not be guilty, but since you claim that you can see, that means you are guilty!”Spiritual pride has the unfortunate side effect of creating enormous blind spots!

RESULTS

The mans healing has a number of unexpected results. The mans neighbors are amazed and desire to find out more about Jesus. At first they are skeptical. They are saying, “No it can't be him, must be someone else, it has to be a trick.” But the man assures them, it was him, and that he didn't exactly know how it had happened, but he knew who had healed him.

So the amazed people think, “Woah! We gotta tell the priests about this!” They take him along to see their religious leaders. I mean, they were in touch with God. They'd know what was going on wouldn't they? Their leaders are, to put it mildly, less than sympathetic. They really do not like Jesus and put forward a solid argument that proves that the man is mistaken. He could not possibly have been born blind. Why?

  1. The law of God did not allow for anything to be done on the Sabbath. Not even healing.
  2. Therefore if anybody healed somebody, they were acting outside of God's will, and they were guilty sinners. So, Jesus was a sinner.
  3. Sinners can't go around healing people.
  4. Therefore, the man couldn't have been born blind.

The parents of the man are questioned. “Y'know,” they explain, “He is our son. I think we would have noticed if he had not been born blind, but the fact is, he was.” The religious leaders do not accept their testimony, so his parents suggest they speak to the son.

Their son insists that he was indeed born blind and that it was indeed Jesus who had performed the miracle. The leaders contradict him. They insist that such was not possible because Jesus was a sinner. The man replies, “Well I don't know if He is a sinner or not, all I can tell you is that I was blind but now I see!”

At this the Scribes and Pharisee really start to get mad. “Don't you lecture us! Tell us, how... how did he cure you of blindness?” The story takes a comical turn. The man who has been healed can only see the positive in the situation. Something in his head mistakenly makes him think that they want to know more about Jesus. He looks at them in a kind of “Oh... I get it! Because of what Jesus has done for me... You guys want to be His followers as well, That's great!”

Nope. Now they are uber-crazy. “We don't even know where he comes from, this Jesus, we are disciples of Moses, we are the people of God!” The man is not impressed. “Strange that. You being religious people and not knowing where He is from. And here am I, healed of blindness. Unless this man came from God, He would not be able to do such a thing.” And so... they kick him out of the synagogue!

All of which brings us around to where we started. The thought that religious institutions have a hard time adapting to change, even when that change is something being brought about by the work of God's Holy Spirit and is for the growth of the Kingdom.

But it's not just religious institutions. Let's make it personal. You may say to me at this point, as did the Pharisees, “You are not suggesting that we are blind are you?” Actually, yes, that's exactly what I'm suggesting. And I include myself in that condemnation.

Paul writes, in 1 Corinthians 13:12 “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. That we will never get the full picture till we are fully in the presence of God. We are all a work in progress. We all have blind spots. And none of us embrace radical change without pushing against it.

Yet what seems impossible for humankind, God makes happen through grace. And it is to God we must turn for renewal, for guidance, for whatever life may hold for us in the future, as a church or as individuals. And an amazing place to seek a renewed vision is around this table laid with bread and wine. To God's name be all Glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, August 26, 2019

JESUS AND INDIVIDUALS 4.Caught in the Act

Readings:Psalm 71:1-6, Jeremiah 1:4-10, Hebrews 4:12-19, John 8:1-11
Preached at Munt Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, August 25, 2019

Over the summer I've been preaching a series about Jesus and Individuals, taking a series of snapshots and observing how Jesus reacted with both individuals and groups of people. We saw a sinful woman at the home of Simon, we saw how He dealt with a group of Scribes who came from Jerusalem to contend with Him. We saw an encounter He had with a disturbed man in a graveyard and the reaction of the townsfolk when He healed the man.

As we've looked at those stories a number of common themes have emerged.
  • Self-Righteousness in people blocked His love from working in their lives.
  • He loved people... regardless of their social standing and was concerned to reach those others rejected.
  • While loving the sinner, He was opposed to their sin and wished to deliver them from it.
Those three themes emerge again in the account that we heard today, about Jesus and a woman caught in the act of adultery.

THE TIME Most commentators suggest this was during the latter part of the ministry of Jesus. We also know from verse 2 that events took place early one morning.

THE PLACE Again we can identify it precisely. The incident takes place in the temple, just after Jesus has come down from the Mount of Olives.

THE CIRCUMSTANCES Jesus is teaching in the temple. People are gathered around Him. They are seated, or sitting on the floor, listening, asking questions. It's an idyllic rabbi and students picture. Into this cozy gathering barge some scribes and Pharisees, dragging with them a woman. They force her to stand before them and before the people.

They explain what is happening. “Teacher” they call Jesus. This was something of a turn about. The day before they were calling Him a deceiver and telling folks He was doing the Devil's work. “Teacher” they say, “This woman was caught in the act of committing adultery.” They go on to tell Jesus what the law of Moses required. That she should be stoned to death. (As though, being a teacher, Jesus didn't know what the law of Moses required. )

Of course they are not really concerned about justice being done. Nor have they any feelings towards the woman except to use her as bait to place Jesus in a compromising situation. Maybe they had set the whole thing up in the first place. It is suspicious how they only bring the woman along with them, and not the man who was with her.

They obviously suspect that Jesus would not stone her Himself. After all, He had already been teaching them that He had come to fulfill the law in a new way. And they already knew what kind of company He had been keeping. Elsewhere we have heard them grumbling about “Harlots and tax-collectors” being His friends.

They know how to play the game. If Jesus let her go...firstly, they would prove beyond any shadow of doubt that He was not fulfilling the law of Moses, He was an enemy of the law of Moses. Secondly, it would validate their conviction that as one who had friends who were sinners, He was relaxing all laws of morality and was as guilty of sin as they were. Whatever course of action He took they would catch Him out. You can almost picture them plotting, rubbing their hands together in glee, “Hey, hey, hey, we've got Him this time!”

For the Scribes and Pharisees their concern for legalistic morality went far beyond their concern for their fellow human beings. The way they treat the woman, shaming her, dragging her along, declaring her guilty without a trial, simply using her as a prop for their hateful scheming and desire to protect their own power against the threat of the love of Jesus, is a disgrace.

You know anybody can moralize. It's easy. You just point your finger and say, “You mustn't do that” “The Bible says you need to repent” “You are going to hell if that's the way you're going to live.” It's easy to pump yourself up through pulling others down. “Oh my gosh, look at the way they are acting. We are above that sort of behavior. Look at what she's wearing. Listen to how they are talking. I wouldn't be seen dead acting like that...” And so it goes.

You can do all that, and as you do so, you stifle any remnant of compassion you may still have in your being. But, beware, for when you point the finger, the finger points back at you. When you shine a light on other peoples behavior, watch out, for the light is also shining down on you.

Jesus did not come to moralize the world. He came to save it. His teaching took morality beyond the law and into the heart.

Of course the church must speak out about sin, challenge it and call it what it is. Of course the church must call people to personal morality and speak about social and political morality, because the Bible does. A quick look at the teaching of the Old Testament prophets reveals God's Word to very political and with a bias towards justice, the downtrodden and those whose cries are often ignored.

But the unique revelation that Christianity offers is the grace of God and the forgiveness that Christ offers through a blood stained cross and the renewing, life giving, game changing power of the Holy Spirit. The Pharisees and Scribes offered to the people a religion of morality. Jesus, for sure spoke about right behavior and the danger of sin, but did so from the foundation of love and compassion.

It is the reception of the love and compassion of Christ that forms morality and through His Spirit the power to overcome sin is found. The gospel good news is not “Sort your life out and then you will be acceptable to God” But, “God loves you and as you love God back, your morality will fall into line... for your hearts desire will be seeking to do God's will.”

Returning to the scene in the temple. Jesus. The crowd. The Pharisees and Scribes mistreating this poor lady and breathing daggers at Jesus. They challenge Him. “So, teacher,” “What do you say about this... woman!

What Jesus says... is …. nothing. He instead begins to write on the floor, in the dust. There must have been a moment of roaring silence. The Pharisees and Scribes must have been thinking, “Oh Yeah. Got Him now.” Maybe they were looking around at the people and sensing they were starting to come around to their point of view. “See. What did we tell you about this guy?”

Jesus sits up and says, “Whichever of you has committed no sin may throw the first stone at her.” Then He carries on writing in the dust. Some commentators wonder if He was writing down sins related to the crowd gathered around Him.

Slowly, starting with the eldest, they file out of the temple. What He said frightened them because it sent them back to their own consciences. He had shown them to themselves. Maybe they were afraid His next words would show them to the world. We read in Hebrews 4:13 'There is nothing that can be hidden from God;everything in all creation is exposed and lies before God's eyes. And it is to God that we all must give an account of ourselves.” We can fool some people some of the time. We can even fool ourselves. But we can never fool God.

This came home to those people as they walked out of the temple. A wound had been opened. Their consciences were struck. The sad things was, that as often happens to people, rather than have the wound treated and healed by Jesus,they hope it will heal itself. Bible Commentator, Matthew Henry, writes, “It is folly for those who are under convictions to get away from Jesus Christ, for He is the only One who can heal the wounds of conscience. To whom will they go?

Then Jesus stands up. He is alone with the woman. He, as He was without sin, could have cast the first stone. Instead He asks her, “Where are your condemners?” She answers “No-one left.” Jesus declares “Then neither do I condemn you.

He then adds... “Go. And sin no more.” Though she was indeed, as we all are, a fallen human being, she is offered respect and He talks to her, not about her past, but about her future. That seems to be how the love of God deals with us. We can't change our past. But we can learn from it. We can move on from it. Forgiveness opens that doorway. The gift of the Holy Spirit enables to walk on in peace and the security of God's acceptance and love. And that changes the way we desire to live!

A FEW LESSONS FROM THIS PASSAGE

1. We should reserve our condemnation of others and concentrate on our efforts to reach them with the grace and salvation of Jesus Christ .Matthew 7:1 “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” John 3:17 “For God did not send God's son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him.

2. We should realize that we cannot change anyone by telling them how to live or giving them a set of rules. We must show by example that Jesus Christ is alive, changing and renewing our lives, by His Spirit bringing joy, peace and fulfillment to us. Then others will seek Him.

3.We should consider if our presence as Christian people makes others feel accepted or condemned. Notice how the holiness of Jesus bought to her soul a sense of peace and acceptance, while the alleged spirituality of the Scribes and Pharisees brought to her fear and rejection.

4. We, like Jesus, should not be intimidated by self righteous people who tell us what Christians should or shouldn't be doing. Rather we should hear Christ's call to reach out to the down-trodden, to the lost, to the sinful, to the hurting and the needy, regardless of personal cost or reputation. We should offer the forgiveness of Christ and explain that, through a living relationship with Jesus Christ, and in the power of God's Holy Spirit, the possibility “To go and sin no more” is available to us all.

Of course we will fall. Of course we can never be perfect. But we can strive to be a better version of the person God wants us to become. By the grace of God, may that be so. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, August 19, 2019

JESUS AND INDIVIDUALS 3. Darkness and Deliverance


Readings: Psalm 80, Jeremiah 23:23-29, Hebrews 11:32-12:2, Mark 5:1-20
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, August 18, 2019

Over the summer I'm continuing with a series of sermons I've titled “Jesus and Individuals,” taking a look at ways Jesus interacted with both individuals and groups of folk.

Our first sermon was about Jesus at Simon's house, when a lady of questionable morals anointed His feet, much to the disgust of the religious folk present. Then we looked at an encounter Jesus had with a group of Scribes come down from Jerusalem. We saw how they were warned by Jesus not to describe the things of God's kingdom as somehow being associated with any evil scheme, but rather recognize that His ministry was the real thing.

This time we leave the Jewish territories and travel to the land of the Gadarenes, a predominantly Gentile area of the country and we witness an encounter between Jesus and a man said to be possessed by a legion of demons. We also see the effect his healing has upon the locals.

THE TIME is immediately following a story about Jesus calming the Storm. On the same days as Jesus controls the chaos of the natural world, He also brings calm to a troubled soul who is a danger to himself and feared by those who are around him.

THE PLACE is a graveyard somewhere between the two cities of Gerasa and Gadara, near the Eastern shore of the lake of Galilee in the borderlands between Arabia and Judea.

THE CIRCUMSTANCES. Inhabiting this graveyard is a man in a miserable condition. He is living among the dead. He is unclothed and uncontrollable. He is strong and though people have tried to bind him, he breaks free. He is a danger to himself, inflicting self harm, and violent towards anybody who comes near. People are very afraid of him.

In our day we would probably suggest he had severe mental problems. Some of the mentally ill homeless folk in our cities, especially those who exhibit violent behavior, evoke a similar response of fear and repulsion to people not accustomed to dealing with them.

Thankfully for this man, Jesus is not among those who were intimidated. The man even recognizes something about Jesus that causes him to reach out. Though in the mans mind are many voices, somehow the light of God's love breaks through when Jesus enters the scene.

It's a dark story. As a teenager I used to watch many of the movies that came out of the Hammer Horror studios. Films that were often populated with vampires and werewolves and dark forces of the undead in draughty mansions and graveyards where the thunder and lightning would magically appear at the most dramatic moments.

In this story Mark tells us that night is drawing in, darkness is falling. Back then demons were thought to be most comfortable in lonely and desolate spots, in dark hollows and lonely caves where no human usually trespassed at night. It was a perilous place, at a perilous time, and the man was a dangerous man.

When the man speaks, it is in horror movie fashion, with multiple voices, representing some kind of internal struggle. “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the most High God?” This is in response to Jesus first attempt to release him from his predicament, an attempt that had been unsuccessful because the man was in deeper trouble than at first imagined.

Further conversation takes place and the man tells Jesus, “My name is Legion, for we are many.” This revelation offers a striking explanation of the terrible situation the man was in. The term legion would at least mean a battalion of 2000.

There's some fascinating aspects to this story. The area of the country that they are in is one that had fallen heavily to Roman occupation. The legions had conquered this region and that's why it was known as Gentile territory. That's why there were people there farming pigs, an animal unclean to the Jews, but presenting no dietary issue to Romans and Greeks.

This is also one of the first times Jesus and His disciples extend their ministry outside of the boundaries of Judaism. It is only later in the story that He begins instructing His disciples to take the gospel message to Jerusalem, Samaria and the ends of the earth. There is the hint here, that His mission was about a lot more than the locality in which He had been raised.

Then there's the fact that this legion of demons comes before Jesus and bows down. There is a hymn in our hymnbooks... “At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow, every tongue confess Him, King of Glory now.

The demons recognize His authority and power... at a time when, as we saw in Jesus confrontation with the Scribes who came up from Jerusalem... the religious authorities were suggesting He was the one who was in league with the devil. Yet here we see God's Kingly power subduing imperial domination, here we observe the beginning of a religion that would eventually dominate the Roman empire.

Returning to the encounter, the unclean spirits that the man gives voice to, beg not to be sent out of the country but to be allowed to posses a herd of pigs that are grazing near by. It is a considerable herd, about 2000, the same size as a Roman legion. Jesus gave them permission, and the whole herd jumps off the cliff and and are drowned in the same waters Jesus had earlier calmed during the storm.

In our day we may be more comfortable describing the mans condition as a sickness, rather than him being demonically possessed. Even though our culture has a fascination with the dark side... we have a problem with the notion of evil.

Our literature and movies and TV programs are filled with material that focuses on the living dead and the occult and vampires and monsters. Many classic movie franchises, from Star Wars to Harry Potter, to Lord of the Rings to the whole Marvel Universe, are stories about an other worldly struggle between good and evil. Such tales give a voice to our fears and maybe a window on our subconscious.

But how we translate that into daily life, how we deal with the demons of terrorism and war and drug abuse and Human Trafficking... well … that's a different matter. It has said that are two dangers we can make in regard to evil.

The first is to focus too much on it and end up demonizing everything. Every moral failure becomes a battle with the devil. Those who we disagree with become not just wrong, but agents of Satan. We discover secret plots where none exist. We give the Devil and his minions far more credit and power than they deserve.

The second mistake is to mystify it to such a point that we deny it. That evil becomes a matter of perspective, rather than something to be wrestled with and overcome. That we attribute everything to causes we can explain and believe that we have the power to cure all things... even the darkest desires of the human will, without reference to God.

The Lord's Prayer offers us a helpful perspective. Every week we pray “Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” Such acknowledges that, not only can we be our own worse enemies and make wrong choices, but that there are also forces and powers that can destroy us.

We may not describe those powers as “demons” but the cycles of addiction and abuse and anxiety that cause untold suffering and the loss of life, in the lives of families and communities and individuals are surely things from which we need deliverance. And the power of prayer and the gift of God's Holy Spirit are truly remarkable resources available to every disciple of Jesus Christ.

Witness the effect of Jesus ministry upon the man. It was remarkable. His storm is over. The people of the village, verse 15, “They came to Jesus and saw the demoniac sitting there, clothed and in his right mind, the very man who had had the legion.” But we also read of their reaction. “And they were afraid.

Some who were particularly afraid were the owners of the pigs who had just lost their livelihood. I'm guessing there has never been a compensation scheme for victims of exorcisms! It tells us something about the way the world works that they were a whole lot more worried about their pigs than they were delighted by the miracle of a man now in his right mind.

When the Kingdom of God invades the kingdoms of this world, there can be economic ramifications. Imagine for instance if coffee growers or garment manufacturers in the third world were paid the same wage as their counterparts in developed countries. Surely such would be a fair way of doing things.

But we also know that the price of coffee and clothes would go through the roof. Our prosperity is partly due to global economic inequality. We are not so keen on others receiving benefits that may take away our privileges. We would be more likely to complain about rising prices than rejoice at their rising standard of living. In a similar way, the pig owners are not at all pleased and want Jesus out of their neighborhood.

Other folks were simply frightened by the encounter. This encounter with evil was not something they wanted to deal with. We easily become accustomed to the way things are. We don't like radical change. Everything and every body has their place. Some may not be in a good place, but please, don't upset the apple cart!

Jesus and the disciples do as they are asked. They leave the area. They walk away. But they leave behind an incredible seed for the Kingdom in the person of the man they have delivered. The man begs the disciples to take him with them. Jesus refuses to do so.

Instead the man is told, “Go home to your friends, and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and what mercy He has shown you.” In this way the mission to the Gentiles would continue. Seeds were being planted that later Christian evangelists could build upon. For we read, “He went away and began to declare in the Decapolis (that is in the ten Greek/Roman Gentile cities in that region) how much Jesus had done for him; and everyone was amazed.

The man was moved from being in a place of darkness to becoming one of the first Christian missionaries to the world outside of Judaism. The name of Jesus, even during His earthly ministry, was becoming known in places you would never have expected.

SOME TAKE AWAYS FROM THIS ACCOUNT

Firstly, The mission of Jesus, and therefore of the Church, involves confronting evil, however such may manifest itself. Such is not always comfortable, not without anxiety or fear and involves us in having to trust in the authority and love of God as our source. Ministry isn't always pretty or decent and in order. When the light shines in the darkness, we don't always like what the light reveals.

Secondly, The mission of Jesus, and therefore of the Church, can bring disruption as well as peace. When powers are challenged and injustice is opposed, there are losers as well as winners. We may not want to go there. But the command of Jesus is clear. Go into all the world and make others my disciples.

Thirdly, The mission of Jesus, and therefore of the Church, is totally dependent on the work of God's Holy Spirit, to bring healing, to deliver from evil, and to calm the storms that threaten to destroy us.

Yet just as evil and violence and fear are a reality, so is the Cross and the forgiveness that is offered to us in Christ, and the power of His resurrection is a force to be reckoned with. Though it is not yet, there will come a time, as already spoken of in the hymn I referenced, when “At the name of Jesus, every knee shall bow, every tongue confess Him, King of Glory now.

Until that day we are called to do, as did that delivered man, to go home to our friends, and our families and our communities and tell them how much the Lord has done for us, and what mercy He has shown us. And all to the glory of God. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.