Wednesday, November 26, 2014

I Believe in the Kingdom

Readings: Psalm100, Matthew 25:31-46, Ephesians 1:15-23, Ezra 7:11-20
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, November 23rd,2014

This Sunday in the church calendar is designated as 'Christ the King Sunday'. Seemed like a good Sunday to take the theme 'I believe in the Kingdom'.

If you have been around for the last couple of months you will have heard me talking about Ezra and Nehemiah, and the period in history when the people of Israel returned from exile in Babylon to their homelands and sought to reestablish themselves in Jerusalem, refortifying the walls and rebuilding the temple. They believed that the Kingdom, which had reached it's golden age under the reign of King David, had a lot of life ahead of it.

An important aspect of their story is the role that King Artaxerxes played in their return. Artaxerxes was the most powerful King of that period of history, the ruler of the Persians and all those that the Persians had domination over - which was just about everybody! It is not insignificant that the Book of Ezra, in 7:12 describes him as 'Artaxerxes, king of kings'.

As they return to their homelands the people of Israel are on a royal mission. Verse 14 explains; 'You are sent by the king...' Their whole venture is only possible because King Artaxerxes had an agenda. He wanted there to be peace in the land. It was a wise political strategy to surround himself with communities who were grateful towards him.

They are sent back to Jerusalem with the Kings authority. When questions arise as to the validity of what they were doing, their opponents are told 'Take it to Artaxerxes.' With his authority behind them, they had considerable leverage.

Their journey is made possible through the Kings abundance. We read in verse 15 “You are to take with you the silver and gold that the king and his advisers have freely given”, and then down in verse 20 “Anything else needed for the temple of your God that you are responsible to supply, you may provide from the royal treasury.” Abundant generosity!

Today we are not on a mission empowered by King Artaxerxes. We proclaim Jesus Christ, in the tremendous refrain of Handel's Messiah, as our 'King of Kings, forever and ever, Lord of Lords... and He shall reign for ever and ever.”

We declare with Paul, “I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

Our confession is found in Philippians 2:10-11 That 'At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.'

In the words of Ezra 7:14, 'We are sent by the King'... and as such we are sent out with the King's agenda, the King's authority and the King's abundance.  Think about each of those things, as they relate to our mission.

The King's Agenda

In the first ever sermon He is recorded as preaching, Jesus laid out His Kingdom manifesto. "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)

Our New Testament reading gave us a parable from Matthew's gospel about a King, 'the Son of Man in all His glory', who separates the sheep from the goats, the sheep being the ones who hear and respond to His call to feed the hungry, provide water for the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick and visit the imprisoned.

To the sheep there is held out the promise of eternal life. Whenever they have served others they have acted in concert with Him. They have worked for Him and with Him.  The goats on the other hand are castigated for their contrary condition and convicted that nothing good could come of their callous concerns.

Less we have any doubt about the loving intentions of Jesus we need only travel to John's gospel, chapter 13, where we read “He got up from the meal, took off His outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around His waist. After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash His disciples' feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around Him.” Then verses 14-15; “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.

We are sent by the King, to pursue the King's agenda. An agenda of justice and peace, an agenda for the restoration of hope and joy, in Jesus name. His command to the disciples, that they 'Go into all the world” and make other 'disciples', is an invitation to extend the boundaries of His Kingdom, so that all may sit at His table and know themselves much loved, much valued, children of the most High God. We are sent out with the Kings agenda. We are also sent with...

The Kings Authority.

In Matthew 28:18, Jesus prefaces His charge with the words "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Earlier in His ministry, when He healed a paralyzed man who had been lowered through the roof of a house, He prefaces the physical act with the words “I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins."  (Matthew 9:6 NIV).

Historically there has been a debate between what commentators have described as the 'Spiritual gospel' and the 'Social gospel', as though they were two different ways of understanding Christian faith. Scripture makes no such distinction. 

The Gospel of the Kingdom proclaims that forgiveness, renewal and healing are possible through the person of Jesus Christ. To know Him as our Lord and Savior is vitally important. We need to ask for His Holy Spirit to transform our lives, to make us whole and to forgive our sins.

Resurrection faith informs us that transformation of the bleakest of circumstances is always a possibility.  Through personal disciplines of prayer and worship, through nourishing our lives by participating in the sacraments and the service of a worshiping community our lives can be changed in unexpected and joyful ways.

Our personal spiritual journey goes hand in hand with our communal spiritual journey. Jesus taught that the evidence of our spiritual gifting were the fruits that were produced through our lives. Matthew 7:20 “By their fruit you will recognize them.”

The Kings authority is an authority to build. That's how it was with King Artaxerxes back in the days of Ezra and Nehemiah. He sent the people of Israel back to their homelands so they could honor their God, rebuild their defensive walls and get back to being the unique people of God they were meant to be.

In the words of a Beatles song, the Kings authority, gave them the authority, to “Get back to where they once belonged”. I was talking last week on the topic 'I believe in Music'. I'm often surprised how often the lyrics, not just to our sacred hymns, but to our secular songs can inspire us, if we can but listen for the guiding voice of God's Spirit speaking to us through them.

When my life is a little out of whack, when I'm in a place I don't want to be, when I'm feeling like the prodigal, far from home and a little shaky in my faith, and the Beatles come on the radio singing “Get Back, Get Back, Get back to where you once belonged”; I'm thinking, “That's right! That's what I need to do!” Get Back! Reconnect with the God who claims my life.

As a church community, we can be become focused on all sorts of issues that sideline us from our whole reason for existing. We exist to proclaim, with all the authority of the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, 'The Kingdom of God is near!'  We exist to invite others to ask Jesus into their lives and be His disciples. We are here to demonstrate to all people that they are loved, that they are welcome in the Kingdom and that God cares for every single one of us. Some days as a church community we need to hear “Get back to where you once belonged' Get back to Kingdom business!

We are sent out with the Kings agenda. We are sent out with the Kings authority. Finally, we are sent out with...

The Kings Abundance

It has been said that no genuine work of God has ever failed because of a lack of funds.  Paul writes to the Corinthian Church, “God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” (2Co 9:8 NIV)

It's stewardship season and it's time to make our pledges. God filters the funds necessary for God's work through our pockets. God blesses us, so we can be a blessing to others. God grants to us both the ability and the opportunity to participate in the work of His Kingdom. We are encouraged to give gratefully and thankfully, with the awareness that God is abundantly able to supply all we need, both for our own lives and for the growth of Christ's church.

We are abundantly blessed so that we can abound in good works. Our good works flow out of our relationship with God; out of the knowledge that Jesus Christ died, that we may live free, forgiven 'shalom-filled' lives. We serve in response to the love that surrounds our lives, not in order to deserve or win God's love. God sends the Holy Spirit to empower us. To direct us. To open doors of opportunity that help us live in an attitude of gratitude.

We read in Ezra 7:14, 'We are sent by the King'. That is our mission. We are sent into the world with the Kings agenda, to lift up the poor, heal the broken-hearted, and do all the faithful things that the sheep in the parable we read earlier spoke about.

We are sent into the world with the Kings authority. In the words of one of our hymns, “Praise, my soul, the King of Heaven; To His feet thy tribute bring. Ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven, who like me, His praise should sing”.

We are sent out into the world with the Kings abundance. We are blessed. Our cup overflows. We are blessed with opportunity. We are blessed by each other. As we head into our Thanksgiving celebrations we recall how we are blessed with this land, its history, its achievements, and its freedoms.

It's Thanksgiving time. It's stewardship time. It's Christ the King Sunday. To reiterate some words that were part of our call to worship from Psalm 100; “Know that the LORD is God. It is God who made us, and we belong to God; we are God's people, the sheep of God's pasture.   Enter God's gates with thanksgiving and God's courts with praise; give thanks to God and praise God's name.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, November 17, 2014

I Believe in Music

Readings: Psalm 66:1-12,  Luke 10:21-24, Philippians 4:4-9,  Nehemiah 12:44-46
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, November 16th,2014

Firstly, I would like to thank all those who have contributed to make the wonderful grand piano a feature of our worshiping life here at Mount Hebron. It started out as a dream and has become a reality, due to the commitment of numerous folks working, promoting, and giving.

Secondly, I'll assure you that I am not going to speak at length. The music being produced by the skills of our music folk is enough! But I did want to direct your thoughts to a small verse in Nehemiah, Chapter 12:46 “For long ago, in the days of David and Asaph, there had been directors for the musicians and for the songs of praise and thanksgiving to God.

The idea of music being a feature of worship that glorified God has a long tradition. It is there throughout the pages of the Old Testament, continues into the New Testament and was a practice within the earliest church. Paul writes to the Church in Ephesus “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit. Sing and make music from your heart to the Lord,” (Ephesians 5:19)

I've been talking a lot over past weeks about the period of history when the people of Israel returned from exile in Babylon to Jerusalem. I wanted you to notice this morning that one of the things that they set about restoring to their lives was music.  Nehemiah talks about singers and musicians as being a vital part of their worship experience, for such reflected practices established long ago in their past by King David and Asaph.

I've always believed in the power of music. I think back to some of my earliest memories. We had a wind-up gramophone that played 78 records. There was a small collection of recordings. Some classical. Some children's songs. Some jazz. Then came the age of 45's and 331/3 vinyl disks that played on a record player. Then there was the stereogram and the Hi-Fi system and an ever expanding collection of diverse music. These days it seems music is everywhere, in more formats than you can shake a stick it. And I love to listen!

Yet that bears no comparison to attending live music events. That's one of the things I  love about the church. There are not many places left you can go to any more where you can enjoy singing as part of a group of people. 

Large mega-churches have the equivalent of rock groups leading their services. If you attend, you'll notice a lot of people are spectators rather than participants. Some churches that do traditional music have amazing choirs and orchestras, but it seems that the more elaborate the set-up, the less the congregation feel free to sing.  It is intimidating to be faced with a group of folk who not only know what they are doing, but do it very, very well!

But a piano? Yes... a thing of beauty on it's own. So versatile. You don't have to plug it in. You don't have to carry it with you. You just sit down and there it is. You can play the melody, the harmony and the bass line and combinations of all three! It's percussive. It's gentle. It's original name “Piano-Forte” is descriptive of it's ability to be so soft and yet equally capable of imitating a railroad train. There are no limits to the styles of music that the piano is part of. The classics, of course. Classic Rock as well.

We will sing after the piano dedication, Fanny Crosby's hymn “To God be the Glory.”
Fanny Crosby was an amazing lady. At six weeks old, Crosby caught a cold and developed inflammation of the eyes. Despite treatment by the methods of the day, she completely lost her sight and was blind for the rest of her days. Early in life she showed a talent for verse and music and would be seated at the piano where she poured forth her feelings.

At an early age she started to write Christian verses and hymns. By the time of her death she had composed nearly 9000 of them, in addition to a number of cantatas and numerous patriotic and political songs, not to mention volumes of poetry. Much of the money she earned (which was but a fraction of what it could have been, because the publishers pocketed most of the profits!) she gave to charitable causes, including 'The Bowery Mission' in NY City, to whom she was a patron.

The Bowery Mission continues to reach out to the homeless today. If you ever had a chance to visit, as I've been fortunate enough to, they may take you on a tour. In an upstairs room is one of Fanny Crosby's piano's upon which she wrote many of her pieces. It still works, because they let me press a few keys. It was a strange experience to think that she had sat there and done such amazing work for God's Kingdom.

It also, for me, because of where that piano was, made a connection between music, worship and service.  Crosby wrote for the glory of God and prayed that every hymn she wrote would be a means of leading somebody to her savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. She had a high vision of worship. But it was not music for musics sake, or even music used solely in the service of proclaiming a message. She wanted people to be helped in practical ways.

The music was a way into worship and worship was a way to empower people to serve. I pray that this Grand Piano will serve a similar purpose. That the beautiful music those who play upon it create may open us up to the presence of God. That as we are opened to God's love, so we are opened to the needs of those around us and God comes with the strength of the Holy Spirit, to empower us to be the hands, feet and voice of Jesus for the needy world which He died to save. Well enough talk from me!

As we prepare to dedicate this instrument to God's glory, let us enjoy some music, a piece by Mussorgsky, from his work 'Pictures at an exhibition'.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, November 3, 2014

I Believe in Stewardship

Readings: Psalm 119:33-40, 2 Corinthians 9:6-12, Matthew 6:24-33, Nehemiah 10:31-39
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, November 2nd, 2014

I'm returning this week to a series of messages prefaced by the phrase 'I believe'.  In many church calendars this time of year is when they look at their budget and wonder if all their financial commitments can be met by the time the year closes. Seemed like a good Sunday to lift up the theme 'I believe in Stewardship'.

If you are sitting there right now thinking, 'Uh-oh. The preacher is going to talk about money' then you are right. Stewardship isn't just about money, it is also about investing our time and talents and our influence. But I am going to talk today specifically about money.

Let me begin by saying that God doesn't need your money. If we believe we can make God any richer by handing over some of our hard earned cash, then we are more foolish than we look. Trying to enrich God would be like seeking to expand the ocean with a teardrop. The church? Yes, the church needs finances to do what God calls her to do.

Where I really want to go with this message is to say that 'I believe in stewardship' because I believe when we practice faithful stewardship before God it releases resources and opens up to us blessings we otherwise never experience, both individually and as a church community.

According to many marriage counselors one of the biggest stresses on any relationship is financial discord. It's not about how much or how little comes in, but how people practice  stewardship. Financial guru Dave Ramsey, who seeks to apply Christian principles to financial matters, suggests that, when handled correctly, our finances can be a source of unity, intimacy and joy, not only in our closest relationships but in our relationship to the whole community.

As in past installments in this series I am going to focus on insights from the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, books that addressed the people of Israel as they returned from exile in Babylon and sought to re-establish themselves in their homeland. Stewardship was a vital component of their life.  As we seek to be a people of God for the 21st Century, I believe there are stewardship insights offered here that we do well to take note of.

  • Their Stewardship flowed from their trust in God. 
  • Their Stewardship focused on the house of God
  • Their Stewardship was faithful to God's Word.
Their Stewardship flowed from their trust in God.
When the people were in Babylon they did what they needed to do to survive. Now they had returned to the promised land they were doing everything they could do to thrive. They had been a position where they doubted God's blessings. Now they were in a position where they had witnessed God's deliverance.  That changed the way they thought about stewardship.

In Nehemiah chapter 8, when Ezra read the law of God to the people now established in Jerusalem, it was a moment of rediscovery. People wept as they realized how far they had fallen from God's commandments. They were no longer captives, they were free. One of the ways they would express their freedom was through their stewardship. The focus of their time, talents and treasures took a dramatic shift as they focused their energies on building the Kingdom.

This shift is witnessed to in Nehemiah 10:31 where we read, 'If the peoples of the land bring in merchandise or any grain on the sabbath day to sell, we will not buy it from them'. When the people had been in Babylon, they had to go with the economic flow of  that land. Now they were in Jerusalem, those rules no longer applied. They are not going play by the old rules, even though there would be those around them who cared nothing for Sabbath observance or the law of Moses.

Christian discipleship is a process. We have been set free by Jesus Christ from all the forces and powers that destroy, enslave and cheapen life. But we live in a world molded by forces that do not claim His influence nor acknowledge His Lordship. That influence  is often greater than that of the teaching we have in Scripture, particularly in the area of Stewardship.

Every time we turn on the TV we are bombarded by voices telling us what we need to satisfy us.  We are constantly invited to believe that our happiness comes though what we possess rather than who we are. We are encouraged to live by standards that are not the standards by which God evaluates our lives.  Much of our information about what to invest in, and how to spend our money we accept from people who have no understanding of the teaching of Jesus Christ.

What we see in Nehemiah is a people who, by their experience of deliverance, have learned that God is faithful. They are Matthew 6:24-33 people. They know that God can be trusted and that God's desire was to bless them, to provide for them and for them to prosper and grow in faith and influence. That's where faithful stewardship is rooted. People who trust God that if they live their lives by His wisdom and ways, God will provide.

Christian stewardship flows from our personal experience of Jesus Christ. Without that trust in God, it makes no sense. But as we begin to perceive how God has, can and will provide for all our needs, so we understand that God expects a river of giving to flow through the life of God's people.

Why? Because that is truly the right response to make to what Jesus Christ has done for us at the Cross of Calvary... something today we are invited to recall and taste and see as we share in bread and wine. For the new community, delivered by God from exile, their stewardship flowed from their trust in God.

Their Stewardship focused on the house of God

In our passage from Nehemiah we see how a variety of different offerings were made to maintain the temple. First off, it had to be built. As things progressed there were offerings to keep the fire burning. There were offerings to support the administration. There were gatekeepers, ministers and singers who relied on the offerings for their income. Then, as now, the maintenance of divine worship needed to be funded by the people of God.

The most important verse in this passage is not the list of 'what went where' and 'to whom', but the peoples covenant.  This was a solemn agreement that they made in response to the faithfulness of God towards them and on the basis of what they were re-discovering in  God's Word. It's very simple and very clear. Nehemiah 10:39 'We will not neglect the house of God'.

Jesus came sent out His disciples not just to spread a message of love and hope, but to create living communities - 'churches' - where discipleship could be learned and lived and through whom the Kingdom of God could be actualized. So intimate was His concern for the church that she is described as 'His Body'... a body that seeks to be His hands, His feet, and His voice to the world.

It takes a lot of money to sustain a church. It takes even more money to grow a church. Growing churches have growing budgets. Declining churches have declining budgets. The budget of a congregation is determined by how much those belonging to that congregation are prepared to invest in their church. If people don't financially step up to the plate their church may survive, but it probably won't grow.

Here's some thoughts I garnished from one of my colleagues, a Baptist minister from Thomson, GA, Rev. David Lambert, on stewardship. 'How far does what you contribute towards your church, enable your church, to reach beyond the walls of your church? Does what you give support only maintenance or promote mission? If everybody in your congregation gave as you gave, would your church be cutting back on ministries or adding ministries?'
For the people who returned from exile in Nehemiah's day their stewardship flowed from their trust in God.  As they celebrated the new life God had blessed them with their stewardship focused on the house of God. Finally notice this:-

Their Stewardship was faithful to God's Word.

As they listened to God's Word being interpreted to them by Ezra, they sought to practice their stewardship in the way Moses had directed them. They promised to return to the ancient benchmarks of expressing thanksgiving to God. Our passage from Nehemiah 10 speaks about two of those benchmarks. The 'firstfruits' and the 'tithe'.

Giving of their 'firstfruits' meant that they gave off the top. They recognized that everything they had was a blessing from God, given to them by God. The circumstances of their lives, where they lived, their ability to work, their families, their livelihood... it was all a gift of God's grace. So before they even considered any other financial responsibilities they firstly expressed their thanksgiving to God.

They didn't do as I've witnessed some do as they consider their church offering. Some people sit down and work out their budget and then give God the leftovers. I give my dog leftovers. Though I love my dog, I care a whole lot more about honoring the God who gave me my dog! They gave their firstfruits.

They also gave proportionally. Nobody was asked to give more or less than anybody else. Everybody was expected to give a tithe, which was a tenth, off the top. Proportionally everybody gave the same. That was the benchmark that Moses had laid down and that they rediscovered and as they practiced it, it brought them God's blessing.

Tithing stemmed from their heart relationship with God. Because they trusted God, they trusted God's Word to guide them in their giving. They did so, not begrudgingly or reluctantly, but as a measured response as to how they felt God had blessed their lives.

I mentioned earlier financial guru Dave Ramsey, whose teaching has helped many, many people get out of debt and put their lives on a better financial footing. This is what he writes about tithing.

'The tithe, which is a scriptural mandate, was not instituted for God's benefit because He already has all the money He needs. He does not need our money. So why does God ask us to give 10% to Him? Tithing was created for our benefit. It is to teach us how to keep God first in our lives and how to be unselfish people. Unselfish people make better husbands, wives, friends, relatives, employees and employers. God is trying to teach us how to prosper over time.'

'If you cannot live off 90% of your income, then you cannot live off 100%. It does not require a miracle for you to get through the month. I think that if you sit down and look at your budget, you will see that you can make it while giving at least 10%. Read the Bible and take from it what you will, and if you tithe, (for goodness sake) do it out of love for God, not guilt.'

I believe in stewardship. We've looked today at some lessons from the newly restored community in Jerusalem about stewardship. Their stewardship flowed from their trust in God. Their stewardship focused on the house of God. Their stewardship was faithful to God's Word.

As we receive communion we will hold broken bread in our hands, bread that reflects the fact Jesus allowed Himself to be broken for our benefit. How can we reflect that through the stewardship of our finances? The cup represents His blood. We are the church. How can we through our monetary support cause the lifeblood of His resurrection to be a healing force within the community and world that surrounds our lives? 

Jesus tells us in Matthew 6:33 “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and His righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” I believe in stewardship.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.