Monday, December 14, 2015

The Angel and the Dreaming Carpenter

THIRD SUNDAY IN ADVENT
Readings; Psalm 24:1-5, Matthew 1:18-25
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, December 13th, 2015

A famous musical, a big hit on Broadway, was 'Man of La Mancha'. The highlight of the show was when the central character, Don Quixote, stood center stage and sang 'To dream the impossible dream'.

In our scripture reading today an angel brings to Joseph what seemed like an impossible dream; a dream that he would play a key role in the coming of God's redeeming love to the world.

For Joseph this is a rather surprising development that came about as he was struggling with a very different problem. Mary, the young lady to whom he was betrothed, was pregnant and he could not figure out how it had all happened. Being betrothed, was a state of affairs that was far more than being engaged. For during one year to eighteen months of betrothal, the bride was usually kept in seclusion at her parents house. So to find out she was having a baby was a major shock!

Thing was, Joesph really loved Mary and, despite this pregnancy, had a high degree of trust in her. She had said that this was no normal child or pregnancy... but how do you deal with that? It didn't make any sense.

The right thing to do would have been to break off the relationship, bring accusations of unfaithfulness before the village elders and have Mary publicly disgraced. But, as we've already said, Joseph wasn't that sort of person. Not towards his Mary.

The bible says he was a 'just' man. He was 'just' in the sense being a kind man, a gentle man, whose heart was compassionate and merciful like the heart of God. Joseph wasn't rushing into any decisions. He was considering things first. He took the time to think things over rather than jumping in feet first and doing something he may have lived to have regretted.

Well... relationships. Dang! Where do you start? If this was all there was to the story then it would still have a message for us. How quick we are to make judgments and apportion blame... particularly if it comes to teenage pregnancies or marriage breakups or when our own relationships do not work out. Of course we all learn from our mistakes, but wouldn't it be better not to make them in the first place?

Joseph was one of those rare characters who had the wisdom to think first, to not take things at face value, but consider the deeper implications. This business with Mary, it must have played on his mind all day long. During the night it became the subject of his dreams. It was during one particular troubling dream that God intervened, an angel spoke to him, and he found the way though his dilemma. The problem didn't go away. It wasn't solved or sorted. But he did find a way to handle it.

We know some other things about Joseph. We know he was by trade a carpenter. The Greek word for carpenter is 'tekton'. (The root of the English word 'architect'.) The word is used only twice in the New Testament, once of Joseph in Mathew 15:15 and once of Jesus in Mark 6:3, where we are told that He had taken up Joseph's trade. 'Tekton' literally meant 'To join together or make a frame out of wood or some other material'... the irony being that it was upon a frame of crude wood that Jesus would die.

We also know Joseph was a dreamer. The Old Testament patriarch, after whom Joseph was named, was also a dreamer. You know I'm sure the story of Joseph and his amazing technicolor dream-coat. Joseph's ancestor Joseph dreamed dreams that led to him having a position of greatness in Egyptian society.

There is something appropriate about a carpenter being a dreamer. They have to visualize plans in their mind, as they make whatever it is they are working on. I confess to not being well gifted in that area, but I'm told that when a sculptor looks at a hunk of wood or a rock, they see something in it that the rest of us can't see. 'That looks like a statue of a goddess or an excellent table top' (but probably never both at the same time!) Having seen in their minds eye what the possibilities are, then they set about making it a reality.

Joseph, as a carpenter pictured the plans in his head as he worked. It seems natural that he would continue to visualize things in his sleep. But on this occasion it wasn't a plan for a table or chair that came to mind, it was the answer to his dilemma with Mary, his loved one.

I'm sure many of us carry our problems over into our sleep time and into our dreams. There are those who tell us to listen to our dreams, as they are a subconscious way of sorting things out.

There have been occasions when I have had dreams that were tremendously helpful in granting me a sense of peace about important decisions that needed to be made. I remember a particularly vivid one that occurred when I was praying about leaving my homelands and moving to the USA. It was so real it seemed like it had really happened.

I'm not going to go into detail, but simply say that I accept those things as genuine insights from God, because I can't explain them in any other way, any more than I can explain God sometimes guides us through words of Scripture that seem to jump off the page or through the random comments of friends or family... or even through that mysterious thing called intuition.

Sometimes you just have to open up to God and say, 'Lord, I don't know why or how or where or when... all I know is that You are guiding me a little further along this particular road... and for the rest, I have no option but to leave it in Your loving hands'.

In a dream an angel tells Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife because the child in her womb was due to the action of the Holy Spirit. This is no normal child, but the One envisioned by the prophets, Jesus, God with us, who will be our savior.

It must have been an incredibly vivid dream. It convinces Joseph that God is at work in the midst of these unbelievable events. When he awakes he does as the angel has directed.

This is not the end of Joseph's dreaming. If you read further in Matthew you will find him being warned to escape from the murderous plans of Herod and flee to Egypt as well as being directed, in a dream, to return to Israel and settle in Nazareth. For Joseph, listening to his dreams is literally a matter of life and death.

Christmas is a bit of a dream, isn't it? Peace on earth. Goodwill to all people. Every year we proclaim the same hopes. Every year we hear songs on the radio like 'Do they know it's Christmastime at all' and 'Happy Christmas – War is over'. The dreams of Christmas.

It's easy to become cynical and conclude that dreams are only make believe. It's easy to dismiss the whole thing with a Scrooge-like 'bah humbug'. It's easy to suggest that Christmas is the ultimate impossible dream.

But then I get back to considering this encounter between an angel and a dreaming carpenter. I like where it begins. It begins with a love story between a good man and a young lady who are side-swiped by events that are in the hands of God. The call of God can really mess with your relationships.

Ask anybody who has ever had to choose between what they felt was the best plan for their life and what they then believed God was asking of them. The two can be poles apart! But you work through it and take whatever guidance you can find, be it through dreams, scriptures, the advice of friends or the counsel of folk you trust.

I like the way Joseph doesn't rush into his decisions. That he decides to sleep on it and seek God from an answer rather than going with any gut reaction to his loved ones unexpected pregnancy.

I like the way this story ends. Joseph listens to this impossible dream and acts upon it. He is blessed by entering into the most intimate possible family relationship with the Son of God, and becomes the earthly father of Jesus.

That happens because Joseph chooses to do God's will. And, in a peculiar way, what was true for Joseph can be true for us. In Matthew 12:50 Jesus tells us 'Whoever does the will of God is my mother, my sister, and brother' and by implication my uncle, my father, my cousin or a whole host of other relationships. Whoever does God's will is part of the family of God.

Maybe we are all dreaming carpenters. We all try and visualize the kind of life God wants us to live. We all seek to have relationships that are honorable and fulfilling. We all struggle with the problems and dilemmas life brings to our doorstep.

So maybe the most important message to take away from this passage is that we are not alone. Joseph is told Jesus is “'Emmanuel' which means 'God is with us'.” (verse 23). God is there for us, just as God was there for Joseph. God is ready not only to plant impossible dreams in our hearts, but to work with us, in the power of the Holy Spirit to bring them to their unlikely fulfillment.

That is an often repeated theme throughout the 66 books of the Bible. When we travel through 'The Story' program next year, I believe we'll see that sort of pattern emerging.

Who would have dreamed that a wandering tribesman like Abraham would become the Father of a great nation? That dysfunctional Moses would lead his people out of slavery? That David, a young shepherd boy would defeat a giant and become a great King? That a helpless child, born to a peasant, refugee family, in some backwater town in Nowheresville, would turn out to be the King of Kings, Lord of Lords, and our Savior Jesus Christ?

If only we dared to dream what the Savior can do through our lives... just maybe something wonderful could happen to make our world the sort of place that God intended it to be from the first moment of creation. There may be those who suggest we are like Don Quixote in 'Man of La Mancha'... a little crazy and out of touch with reality.

Yet personally I see nothing wrong in being a fool for Christ who dares to believe that with God all things are possible. And I pray that God would plant in all of our hearts the crazy dreams that bring His purposes to pass. To God's name be the glory. Amen.


The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.


Monday, December 7, 2015

Gabriel And The Believing Maiden

SECOND SUNDAY IN ADVENT - COMMUNION SERVICE
Readings; Malachi 3:1-4, Philippians 1:3-11, Isaiah 11:1-9, Luke 1:26-38
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, December 6th, 2015

A few years ago there was a church campaign that involved wearing badges or T-Shirts that said 'I've found it!' The idea was that when people asked, 'What did you find? you could explain the gospel message and invite them to church.

The angel Gabriel comes to Mary with a message that says, 'Mary, you've found it!' Found what? Luke 1:30 'Mary, you have found favor with God'. ' Another word for favor is 'grace'. Grace is something God wants us all to discover.

Who is this Mary? Outwardly, she was from the tribe of Judah. She was a native of a place called Nazareth. She was betrothed to be married to a guy called Joseph.

Inwardly, she had a deep faith in God and pondered spiritual things in her heart. When told she would be the one to bear the Christ - Child she responded by saying 'Let it be'. (Who knew she predated the Beatles by 2000 years?) She is described by her cousin Elizabeth, in Luke 1:42, as the most blessed of all women. 'Blessed among women are you; and blessed is the fruit of your womb'.

Over the centuries Mary grew to occupy a prominent position in many Christian traditions and became a focus for prayer and contemplation. She holds a unique place in the gospel story. As we come to a table laid with bread and wine on the Second Sunday of Advent, what lessons can Mary teach us about God's favor. In this angelic encounter we find Mary...'Surprised by Grace', 'Supplied by Grace', and 'Stretched by Grace'.

Surprised by Grace
It's not what you expect in the middle of making wedding plans. The angel Gabriel to turn up and tell you you are about to have a baby. As soon as Gabriel opens his mouth and says; 'Greetings Favored One, The Lord is with you' then in Mary's mind alarm bells start to ring.

Scripture tells us that she was perplexed. When Gabriel then tells her 'not to be afraid' you can imagine her thinking, 'This is getting worse. I was confused, but now you are telling me there is something that I should be afraid of. Being singled out for God's good favor may not be all it's cracked up to be.' Mary had been to Sunday School. She was aware of the crazy things that had happened to prophets and chosen ones of God in the past. Did she really need this, right then and at that point in her life?

There is a reason why the song 'Amazing Grace' is so popular. Grace... the favor of God upon our lives... is always awesome, terrifying, exhilarating and amazing. That God should consider people, such as we know ourselves to be, as fitting vessels through which to express the love of Jesus Christ to a hurting and needy world is … well... both perplexing and a little terrifying.

God is counting on us, depending on us, relying on us... to let the world know about the gospel message. We are to be the carriers, the ones who birth that message and allow it to grow inside us so we can share it with all people. Mary wasn't exactly thrilled at that prospect. She questions Gabriel. Verse 34 'How can this be?'

She hadn't taken the necessary steps for a birth to take place. 'I'm new to this! I'm not ready! I'm not prepared.' It didn't make sense to her. There had to be other more qualified, better placed people than she was to carry out God's mission. She was just a young girl about to get married. It didn't make sense!

One of the crazy messages concerning Mary's observation that she was still a virgin is that when it comes to birthing God's plans into our world, God is not prepared to wait till we consider ourselves ready. God is not prepared to wait till we have done everything we need to do before we start sharing the message of Jesus with others.

Often our first reaction when we aware of God's call to do just about anything is to say... 'Not now. Not ready. Not possible. How can this be?' Gabriel's reply to Mary is something we all need to hear! Verse 37 'For nothing will be impossible with God'”

The most important part of that verse might be the phrase 'With God'. Mary is not just surprised by grace, she is also promised she will be...

Supplied by Grace
Verse 35 'The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; He will be called Son of God' '

It is an oft repeated phrase. Those whom God calls, God also equips. God never invites us to single-handedly sort out the world by ourselves, in our strength and in our own time. Always, God calls us to work with others who are equally empowered by the Holy Spirit to fulfill God's purposes.

Mary needed to visit with her cousin Elizabeth to have confirmation that this was a work of God. Mary needed Joseph, just as she would later need an innkeeper, a group of shepherds and some visitors from the East to fulfill all that God was calling her to do. Mary, above all things, needed the Holy Spirit.

In 1774 the English scientist Joseph Priestly discovered the gas we know of as oxygen. Actually, he didn't discover it. It was already there. What Priestly did was identify and recognize oxygen for what it is and what it did. The grace of God has always been there. Everywhere we go and whatever we do, God is there. But recognizing and responding to God's grace is not an automatic process.

Maybe in a sunset or in the laughter of a child we catch glimpses and hear echoes of grace. But claiming it and making it ours is a process of belief. When Mary visits Elizabeth, she is greeted by the words 'Blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by her Lord' (Luke 1:45)

God equips us by grace as we go forward in faith. 1 Peter 3:18 invites us to be people who are 'growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ''. When we exercise our bodies we receive the oxygen that we need. A swimmer or a runner in a competition takes huge deep breaths and takes them more rapidly as the activity increases. If your intake of oxygen is too small, you struggle to breathe.

The same could be said for being supplied by grace. Our grace capacity is increased by repetition and by exercising our faith. The more we give ourselves to disciplines such as worship and serving alongside others in mission, then so our grace capacity increases.

We are surprised by grace. We are supplied by grace. But thirdly, we are...

Stretched by Grace
Gabriel tells the believing maiden; 'You will conceive in your womb and bear a Son, and you will name Him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the most High, and the Lord God will give to Him the throne of His ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there shall be no end' (Luke 1:32-33)

Mary is told that her body will be the channel through which the grace of God would become incarnate and bring into the world the Messiah of Israel, the greatest and final King in the line of David, the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world. That is unbelievable. That stretches the limits of faith and possibility. But that is what we are anticipating during Advent and what we celebrate at Christmas.

Now, for sure, in our lives we are not going to have the same role to play as Mary had. Yet in order for our lives to be all that God wants them to be, we need to do some stretching. We need to stop putting limits on what God can or cannot do in us and through us.

A famous book by J.B Phillips was titled 'Your God is too small'. One thing grace can never be is 'SMALL! Grace is always HUGE. Grace is always going to stretch our imaginations, stretch our hopes, stretch our believing. Grace will always challenge our preconceived notions about what God can or cannot do in our lives, in our churches, in our communities and in our world
We shouldn't need to wear a badge or a t-shirt that declares 'I've found it'. For most of us, it is fair to say that, like Joseph Priestly discovering oxygen, what we have discovered is the grace that was always there. Like Mary, who was not anticipating a close encounter of the angelic kind, it is not so much that we found grace, it is that grace has found us.

As we come to the table this morning we contemplate the end of Jesus life rather than it's beginnings. But without Mary, we would not have the rest of the story. As we come today and remind ourselves of all that Jesus was, let us also reflect on these lessons of grace that Mary has offered to us.

  • Grace is always surprising. Allow room in your life to be surprised by God.
  • Grace supplies all that we need to do the tasks God calls us to achieve.
  • Grace stretches us to attempt things we may otherwise have never considered possible.

We have a lot to reflect upon in this encounter between Gabriel and the believing maiden we know as Mary. Consider her words of praise, recorded in Luke 2;

My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
For He has looked with favor on the lowliness of His servant
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed.”

To God's name be all glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.


Monday, November 30, 2015

Gabriel And The Doubting Priest

FIRST SUNDAY IN ADVENT
Readings: Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Malachi 4, Luke 1 5-25
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, November 29th 2015

On October 31, 1939, thousands of people across the USA panicked because they thought creatures form Mars had invaded the earth. It was all the result of a radio drama by Orson Welles on the mercury theater of the Air that imitated a live news broadcast. The imitation was so good that the police received thousands of hysterical phone calls from people expecting extra-terrestrial beings to appear on their street at any moment.

The idea of extra-terrestrial beings visiting our planet is one that continues to fascinate people. T.V. Series about aliens and movies about other worldly visitors are as common entertainment feature that refuse to go away. Yet maybe the idea isn't so new.

The bible has it's own extra-terrestrial characters in the person of angels. Their function appears to be that of bringing a Word of God into a particular situation. Both the Greek and Hebrew words for angel (Angelos and Mala'ch) have the root meaning of 'Messenger'.

Angels have a particularly important role to play in the Christmas story. As we travel through Advent , heading towards Christmas, I want to take a look at some close encounters of the third kind that took place between individuals and angelic messengers. The first of them is an encounter between an angel called Gabriel and a doubting priest called Zechariah

It is fifteen months before Jesus will be born. Elderly Zechariah, married with no children, has the task of burning incense in the temple. He puts on his priestly vestments and walks into the priests quarters, and then across the porch of the temple, whilst all the people stand outside in the courtyard praying.

He carries a gold container of incense as he enters the great doors of the temple. Inside, by the flickering light of the tall seven branched lamp-stand, he pours the incense onto the golden altar in front of the huge tapestry of drapes that concealed the most Holy Place. He lights the incense and a large cloud of fragrant smoke fills the air.

Then perhaps he raised his hands and closed his eyes, to offer the prayers that accompanied the burning of the incense. Normally, once the prayers were finished he would walk back out of the temple, through the doors and then turn around and bless the people who were gathered in the courtyard outside.

But this time it is different- and how! Zechariah opens his eyes and there is an angel standing beside the altar of incense. We are not told how Zechariah knew it was an angel or even what the angel looked like. The bible simply records that an angel was there. Zechariah starts to lose it. This was scary.

The angel addresses him saying 'Don't be afraid. Your prayers have been heard'. I don't know about you, but if I was Zechariah I'd be thinking, 'Now which prayer was that, the one about world peace, the one about the idiot who lives down the road, the one about winning the next ball game, which prayer?'

The answer comes in the next words, 'Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son.' The angel went on to tell what this child's name would be, what he would do when he grew up and how he would prepare the way for the Messiah. This child was to be the special one spoken of by the prophet Malachi who would 'restore the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers'.

Bear in mind that Zechariah is now an elderly gentleman. That prayer about his wife being able to conceive and give birth to a child was probably one he had stopped verbalizing some time ago. His reaction to the angels statement is not one of joy and gratitude but of skepticism and bitterness. Essentially he says, 'How do you expect me to believe something like that after all these years?'

These are not the words of an atheist or a man indifferent to spiritual things. The bible tells us that both Zechariah and his wife were good, righteous people, religious people – full of faith. Even good and faithful servants sometimes have a problem believing in the promises of their God.

The coming of Jesus Christ is an event that positively overflows with hope and promise. As the years go by maybe we lose some of the awe and wonder that are the right response to make to the love of God being born into our world. Maybe, like Zechariah, who was after all simply doing his bit in observing an annual national festival, we don't expect to be radically confronted in a personal way by a God of promise.

God's promises though are made to all human beings throughout all history, and they involve God's readiness to do things in our lives which are just as staggering to us, as it was to Zechariah to believe that he and his wife were going to have a child in their old age. And for some of us, like Zechariah, those promises may involve things we have prayed abut for years without seeming to receive an answer.

What is there that God could do in our life or in the lives of those we love, that would absolutely stagger and astonish and amaze us? Are there prayers that we prayed long ago whose fulfillment now seems beyond the realm of possibility?

We should remind ourselves of some of the promises that come to us as a result of Jesus birth. Matthew 7:7 'Ask and it shall be given you; Seek and you shall find, knock and it shall be opened up to you' Matthew 19:26 'With God all things are possible'. John 10:10 'I have come that you might have life, and have it abundantly' Rich promises!

Some days about some things, we may be prepared to say, 'Yes, Lord, I can believe You for that.' But about other things we can be even more skeptical and cynical than Zachariah was when informed of Elizabeth's immanent pregnancy. How do we deal with that? We find some clues in the way God dealt with Zachariah.

Firstly, notice that the angel did not respond to his skepticism with anger or condemnation. He did not call down punishment on the old priest for daring to question a promise of God. Instead Zachariah is dealt with gently and kindly, as though God understands that because of our human frailty there are times when God's promises challenge our faith to the point that we find them unbelievable.

The angel identifies himself. 'I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God.' The name Gabriel, in Hebrew means 'God shows Himself mighty'. He is one of only two angels whose names are given us in scripture. The other is Michael, whose name means 'Who is like God?' When God reveals God self to us it is often in a very personal way.

For most of us we don't know God through visions of angels or burning bushes that aren't consumed. But we can know God and know that Jesus calls in a very personal way to be His disciples. Because we have the gospel, we can say that 'God shows that God is mighty' Because of the ever present help of God's Holy Spirit, we can declare 'Who is like God?'

Secondly, the angel says 'I was sent to bring you this good news.' Zechariah needed reminding that messages from God were good news. We also need reminding that the Christian message is a positive one. Some of us have been raised in such a way that we think religion is about not doing things. That the main concern of God is saying' Thou shalt not... or else'.

But the message of Jesus appears to be more about what to do, rather than what to avoid. For sure there are things to avoid in life, but being a channel of the Holy Spirit is not one of them. Jesus encourages us 'DO love your neighbor' 'Do pray for each other.' 'DO love God with whole hearted commitment'. He accentuates the positive, He brings good news.

Thirdly, the angel has an unusual prescription for the doubt and skepticism that was bothering Zechariah. He gives him – nine months of silence! This was not a punishment handed out by God in a spirit of anger. It was a kindness. Scripture teaches (And some of you may remember this from the Book of James) that words are one of the most powerful capabilities for human beings to harm each other. 'Who can tame the tongue?'

If Zachariah had gone running out of the temple telling everybody exactly what had just happened, the chances are he would have done so in the wrong spirit of mind. A spirit of disbelief and confusion. Who would have believed him, anyway? 'Yeah, Right... Zach. You saw an angel telling you something you don't believe is going to happen!'

When the promises of God are so big that we can't cope with them, the answer lies, not in frantic questioning, but in this – be quiet and wait. Don't give up on the promises of God, don't reject them or complain about them, be silent and leave it up to God.

Psalm 46:10 'Be still and know that I am God'. Isaiah 41:1 'Listen to me in silence'. Zephaniah 1:7 'Be silent before the Lord, your God'.Zechariah 2:13 'Be silent, all flesh, before the Lord' Habakkuk 2:20 'Let all mortal flesh keep silence' Psalm 37:7 'Be still before the Lord and wait patiently before Him'

Advent is sometimes described as the season of waiting. Waiting upon the astonishing promises of God. They are not promises that have to do with things that are far off and in the distant future. They are promises to apply to our lives here and now, with the great and good things we have prayed for in the past and that we still need to keep on praying and believing God for in the now.

So how do we deal with our own skepticism and cynicism? Quietly, before God. By allowing the Spirits gentle discipline to renew our struggling faith and cast out our fear. 'Do not be afraid'. Those were the Christmas words to Zechariah, to Mary and to a group of shepherds on a lonely hillside. God's perfect love casts out all fear.

At the end of nine months, after the birth of their son, John the Baptist, Zachariah poured forth one of the most eloquent songs of praise found in scripture, a great poem known as the Benedictus. His period of silent waiting was followed by a time of ecstatic praise. The silence accomplished it's purpose. He was renewed just as God intended.

The coming of Christ reveals to us that God has plans for this world, plans for God's church, plans for our lives. If in the face of such promise we find ourselves struggling with cynicism or skepticism, let us remember the way God dealt with Zachariah.
  • Firstly, note that God did not condemn him, but sent an angel to encourage him. We can be those kind of angels for each other. People who don't put others down, but lift each other up.
  • Secondly, we see how what Zachariah perceived was bad news and unbelievable, turned out to be the greatest news, the good news that something new really was to be birthed in his situation. Can we believe that God is able to do new things in our lives and our church and in our our families?
  • Finally, Gabriel's message is for us all. Don't be afraid. Be quiet before God. Wait for God to act... for the time will come when your heart will overflow in praise.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Famous Last Words

CHRIST THE KING SUNDAY
Readings: Psalm 132:1-12, Revelation 1:4-8, John 18:33-37, 2 Samuel 23:1-7
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, November 22nd 2015

Famous last words. James Rodgers, a criminal convicted of murder facing a firing squad was asked if he had a last request. 'Why yes' he said 'A bullet proof vest'. As the Irish born British dramatist Oscar Wilde lay dying in a drab Paris bedroom he said 'Either that wallpaper goes or I do'. Actor Douglas Fairbanks last words were 'I've never felt better'. Winston Churchill declared 'I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is prepared for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.'

Biographers of previous generations, particularly in the Victorian era, had a fascination with the last utterances of great people. The idea of 'famous last words' is part of a long tradition that suggests that somehow, in the last moments between life and death, heroes can impart something profound, something to hold onto... a final message to the world.

Our Old Testament passage from Samuel is one of a number of passages that offer us the last utterances of King David. If they were actually death-bed utterances or words from the latter part of life isn't quite clear. Their function in the book of Samuel is as a final testament to his life Like many a final tribute these last words gloss over some of David's less than exemplary moments, and concentrate on the way God had blessed his life. Maybe the best way to view them is as a benediction.

The passage from Samuel firstly acknowledges some of David's achievements. He was anointed by God as a King. He was a great composer and singer of the spiritual songs we know of as the book of Psalms. He is acknowledged as one through whom the Spirit of God both spoke and acted.

The meat of his benediction, his final words, can be found in verses 3 through 5.
The Rock of Israel said to me: 'When one rules over people in righteousness, when he rules in the fear of God, he is like the light of morning at sunrise on a cloudless morning.... If my house were not right with God, surely he would not have made with me an everlasting covenant.”

Today is Christ the King Sunday. We don't have Kings and royalty anymore, right? Wrong. According to the Second letter of Peter, every Christian is royalty... somebody through whom the royal authority of God's Kingdom finds expression. 'You are a special people, a holy nation, priests and kings, a people given up completely to God, so that you may make clear the virtues of Him who took you out of the dark into the light of heaven.' ( 1 Peter 2:9 BBE)

If we are called kings and priests by God's Word, then this benediction of David, that speaks about the expected attributes of a King, is talking about the royal expectations of every believer. They can be summarized in three words. Righteousness. Reverence. Reliance.

Righteousness 'When one rules over people in righteousness, … he is like... the light of morning'

Unless we have been in another country we are aware that around about a year from now there will be the election of a new president. And that means the TV ads will begin in earnest. Candidates talking with farmers under clear skies and ripening crops, chatting with little children and kissing babies heads, admonishing classes of bright eyed schoolchildren with their deep wisdom, sitting at the bedsides of wounded soldiers and working alongside grafting workers in factories.

The ads will then go onto compare their wholesome actions with those of of their opponents whom they will portray as ineffective, unsympathetic and probably slightly to the left or right of Satan.

Now we know that nothing is ever what it seems and that no politician is perfect and can solve all our problems. Yet every election they fill the airways with ad nonsense. Why do they influence us, even when we know that the claims they are making are completely exaggerated? Is it because we want more, we want better, we want people who speak with clarity and justice about the issues that face us? We want people we can trust?

These last words of David are a reminder of our longing for righteousness. It is worth reminding ourselves that David was not a good role model for right actions. Of the 10 commandments given by Moses, David completely failed on 4 of them. Adultery. Murder. Coveting (that is having excessive desire for things he had no right to) and bearing false witness . David.... 'Light of the morning'? Not exactly.

Yet, despite his evident failings, the period of his rule was indeed Israels golden age. God used him like no other. So much so, that after his reign for a thousand years the people hoped and prayed for one who come to rule with the integrity of David. As we read the gospels we see the crowds hailing Jesus as being the 'Son of David'.

These famous last words, about those who rule in righteousness being like the light of the morning, express our longing. A longing that connects us to people of faith throughout the ages. It is not the ability of being able to get everything right, always at all times in all places and in all situations that makes us right with God. It is our longing to 'do the right thing' that enables God's grace to work through us and which brings about kingdom changes in our world and in our lives.

Pursuing righteousness is not about a quest for perfection. Nobody can reach that level. When Jesus said 'Be ye perfect as your Father is perfect' (Matthew 5:48) He was giving us something to aim at, not suggesting we could ever achieve it! There is a prayer in one of our service books that says, “May God, who brought up from the dead our Lord Jesus Christ, make you perfect in all goodness so that you may do His will, and may God make of us what God would have us be

Such is one of the royal attributes every disciple of the King is called to embrace. To be all that they can be in the service of God who is rich in love and deep with mercy. Righteousness. Then there is ...

Reverence 'When he rules in the fear of God, he is like... the light at sunrise'

Though David had the capacity to fall away from God into the most compromised and darkest of situations, he also had a reverence for God that graced his fallen state and enabled him to rise above his failures. There are in his life huge holes where he seems to forget all about God's requirements and the responsibility of his office. He does stupid and terrible things.

When confronted by them, he is not only truly repentant but quite prepared to face the penalty for his transgressions. There is no question of 'Well, I'm only human' or 'Yeah, but if you were in my shoes, then you would have done the same thing.'

One of the greatest prayers of confession in all scripture, attributed to David, is Psalm 51. 'A psalm of David. When the prophet Nathan came to him after David had committed adultery with Bathsheba. 'Have mercy on me, O God, according to Your unfailing love; according to Your great compassion blot out my transgressions. Wash away all my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin. For I know my transgressions, and my sin is always before me. Against You, You only, have I sinned and done what is evil in Your sight; so You are right in Your verdict and justified when You judge.

There is no question of self justification. There is the recognition that sin totally destroys a relationship with God and therefore with every body and everything else in your life and the acknowledgment that his only way out of the deep pit into which he had fallen was by the grace of God. 'According to Your great compassion blot out my transgressions'

To have fear of God is to live before God in a reverent and respectful way. It is neither to presume upon God's grace nor to be so terrified of God's judgment that you never attempt any great thing for the cause of the Kingdom. When a person has reverence this verse tells us they are like' the light at sunrise'.

Before you get to sunrise you travel through the darkness of night. David for sure had his dark episodes. We all do. But the sun still rises and God calls all of us to live in the light of Jesus Christ, our Risen Savior and King, not in the shadows of our own shortcomings or failures.

As we reflect upon the cross where Christ died, upon the price He paid by dying for our sins, reverence and awe and wonder is the only correct response, so well captured by Isaac Watts hymn 'When I survey the wondrous Cross, Upon which the prince of glory died, my richest gain I count but loss and our contempt on all my pride

A disciple finds their righteousness though the life of Christ. A kingdom disciple lives with reverence before God. Finally... to be a Kingdom disciple means living before God with an attitude of...

Reliance David speaks of the God who made with him 'an everlasting covenant'.

There are many systems we place around our lives that we hope we can rely upon. Our families. Our church. Our doctors. Our military. Our government. Our insurance. Our pension or health care plan. Our government. Our self.

Throughout his life David kept returning to one thing time and time again. God had promised to make an everlasting covenant with God's people. To David that covenant was signed, sealed and delivered by the love of God. When all else failed him and when he failed himself, God could still be depended upon.

Such is the relationship we are all called to have with our God. Every time we gather around the table of bread and wine we speak about the new covenant God has made with us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. A covenant sealed by the Holy Spirit and which becomes real in our lives as we seek to live in reliance upon God's love, serving others, opening our hearts in worship and applying God's Word to our lives.

According to John's gospel, the famous last words of Jesus were 'It is finished' (John 19:30). Finished, not in the sense of 'GAME OVER', but in the sense that all He had come to accomplish by the grace of God was now complete. After speaking these words Jesus surrendered His spirit to God and the rest was in God's hands.

What a great testimony to anybodies life. That all God had wanted to do through us has been completed! These famous last words of David give us picture of how to live as a faithful disciple in God's Kingdom.
  • We are encouraged to practice righteousness. To pray that God will make of us what God would have us be.
  • We are encouraged to people who have reverence. Who neither presume upon God's grace nor are afraid to attempt grand things for God's Kingdom.
  • We are encouraged above all to live in reliance upon God to meet the deepest needs of our lives.
The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Hebrews 6 - Faith

Reading: Hebrews 11 (1-16 & 17- 12:2)
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, November 8th 2015

Chapter 11 of Hebrews reads like a sermon. It seems almost foolish to try and add anything to it. But when it comes to faith, foolishness can actually be a positive. Paul tells us that We preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1Corinthians 1:23 NIV)

So... really... faith. What a concept. Yet sometimes it’s the only thing that carries us through. Faith is a gift. God seems to supply it when we need it – but nothing is ever quite as clear as that. We are always stretched a little; always the situation takes us on unexpected twists and turns.

I remember visiting Jamestown in Virginia. There they have a replica of one of the boats that the earliest British settlers came across on. Am I glad that the airplane has been invented, or what? If those little boats were the only method of getting here, I believe the USA would be far less inhabited!

Then you see the place where they lived. Not so much a house as a fort. They were terrified of what may lie in the lands they had discovered. Savages. Wild animals. Scary stuff. But the people kept coming. And I guess life was good for a while. But you have to ask yourself, what was it that motivated those first settlers to look for a new homeland? Hopes for riches? Fear? Curiosity? Circumstances? Adventure?

I suggest that there was with them, a sense of faith. Faith that somewhere on distant shores lay something worth risking their lives for. The Pilgrims whom are recalled at Thanksgiving time had that hope driving them. The 'New World' was a dream worth pursuing. They stood among a long line of people of faith.

Hebrews Chapter 11 gives us, among others, the story of Abraham. Listen again to verses 8 and10. “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”

And listen to this description of a person of faith that’s given in verse 14; “People who speak in these terms make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.” What an intriguing description of faith! Faith as…. 'Seeking a Homeland'.

Let me pull some thoughts from that definition.

1. Faith is a journey.

Faith always goes somewhere. It is never static. It has a destination. It looks forward. So it should be with our Christian lives. We are never called to live in the past. Gods keeps us ‘on the go’. Elsewhere Jesus describes ‘Holy Spirit’ faith as if it were living water that flows fresh and free. The opposite of living water is stagnant water. Faith that does not move us to encounter new things is not really faith at all. Faith that boils down to nothing but repetition soon becomes a dead end.

When some of us attended a 'New beginnings' workshop hosted by the Presbytery the speaker offered us Einsteins definition of 'Insanity'. 'Insanity' said Einstein is 'Doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.' There's a huge difference between insanity and foolishness. Faith may seem foolish, but it's never insane!

Do you know what the opposite of faith is? Some wrongly suggest that the opposite of faith is doubt. Not so! We can have faith and at the same time we can have doubts.

Consider, as a simple example, taking a Driving Test. We may feel ourselves well prepared. We may think that we can get through it. We may know a whole host of people, some of whom we consider worse drivers than ourselves, who have already passed it. But until we actually do it for ourselves there is always that doubt, that something will go wrong. We have faith, yet we also have doubt!

The opposite of faith is unbelief. Unbelief never takes us anywhere. Unbelief causes us to spiritually stagnate. Unbelief keeps us locked into the same old ways of doing things that achieve zero result. Unbelief calls the promises of God untruths and laughs in the face of possibility.

Faith is not certainty. Faith is not a sure bet. Faith is not a destination we have already reached but one that we move towards. Faith is that better country that we are seeking after. Faith is a journey.

2. Faith is transformational

Having faith does not offer immunity from life’s nasty bits. It doesn’t warm deaths icy cold breath or take away pains dull thud. But it does transform the way you get through difficult experiences.

I sense that this is what the author of Hebrews is talking about at the beginning of Chapter twelve when he writes in the second verse of “Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.

In a couple of weeks it is Thanksgiving and we consider the pioneers who opened this vast land to generations past. The author of Hebrews invites us to think of Jesus as a pioneer, a pioneer of faith. Not simply a pioneer, but THE Pioneer, and the PERFECTER of all faith experience.

When Hebrews Eleven speaks of some of the things people of faith had to endure it makes you cringe. Tortured. Stoned. Friendless. Powerless. We wonder how we would face up to such things and suspect the answer would be, 'Not so good'. By comparison the troubles and trials of our daily lot seem rather feeble.

Likewise, consider the Cross. It was ‘to the Cross’ that Jesus went that we may be convinced of God’s love towards us. The Cross seems so extreme, so insane, in a world where nobody asks us to take up crosses or deems our Christianity to be of a sufficient threat that they need to destroy us!

What kept the Son of God moving forward was that Jesus never lost sight of where He was headed. He was ‘Seeking a Homeland'. As Eugene Petersen paraphrases the verses of chapter 12, 'When you find yourselves flagging in your faith, go over that story again and again, item by item, that long litany of hostility he plowed through. That will shoot adrenaline into your souls!'

Looking for a homeland”. It’s not geography that creates a homeland. It’s faith. It’s love. It’s hope. These are things we are all looking for. Faith is a journey. Faith is transformational.

3 Faith is driven by Grace.

Abraham had so many doubts about God's provision that he fathered a child by his slave girl rather than wait for God to fulfill God's promises. Moses was so confused about his identity that he struggled to discover where he belonged. He was so afraid of speaking in public that he had to persuade Aaron to speak for him.

Gideon had to keep asking God for signs. Samson couldn't stay away from a pretty girl. David was a murderer and an adulterer. Rahab was a prostitute. The disciples all denied Jesus and abandoned Him as He faced the darkness of the Cross. Peter denied he had ever known him. Paul was a persecutor of the early church.

Yet these are described as the heroes of faith. Friends, that has got to give us some hope! If God could use those fragile, compromised, people of common clay, then surely God's Holy Spirit can also work through us. In the words of Hebrews 11:34 they were, without exception, people 'Whose weakness was turned to strength' (Hebrews 11:34 NIV)

I love the words of that old gospel hymn;

'I am weak, but Thou art strong; Jesus, keep me from all wrong;
I’ll be satisfied as long, As I walk, let me walk close to Thee.'

That is grace. The power of the Holy Spirit to take what is broken and bruised and infuse resurrection power, in a way that is so totally transformational, that we suddenly wake up to the idea that God is calling us to make the journey to a new homeland, within a new kingdom, with a new set of values informing our every step and a new vibrancy and dynamic firing up our souls.

Faith is a journey. Faith takes us somewhere. A pilgrimage. A new beginning. A new destination.

Faith is transformational. It changes the way we do things. It changes the way we deal with the darkness that sometimes cast shadows upon our path. It changes the way we view crosses and defeats and failure. It transforms with the power of resurrection hope.

Faith is driven by grace. It's not about what we can do. It's about what God can do as we place our trust in Jesus Christ as our Lord and our Savior.

Surely when those earliest pilgrims set out to settle in a New World there were many who doubted their sanity. 'You believe God is calling you to do what?' Foolish. Maybe. But insane? Certainly not. Had they not made such a journey then the blessings we enjoy may never have come to be.

And all that brings us full circle to the faith of Abraham we spoke about at the beginning. 'By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.'

Let us seek, by the grace of God, to be a people, as individuals and as a community, who move forward in the faith that God is both our architect and our builder. Of course that idea, God as architect as a builder, would be a whole other sermon, but that one will have to wait for another time.

For now, to God's name be all glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Hebrews 5 - How Much More?

COMMUNION SERVICE
Readings: Psalm 27, Ruth 3:1-5, 4:13-17, Mark 12:28-34, Hebrews 9:11-14
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD on November 1st 2015

The last few weeks I’ve been preaching on Hebrews. We have seen how the concern of the author is to paint a picture of Jesus Christ as being so much greater than anything that had come before Him. Greater than any angel or leader of Israel, greater than any prophet or priest. He is the Son of God who helped put Creation together! Jesus, God’s eternal Word!

Through his once and for all sacrifice upon the cross He achieved what none of the sacrifices or rituals could ever do. He brings God as close to our lives as a prayer’s breath. He showed that the love of God was always available to us. Nobody and no thing in all Creation had done or has done since, what Jesus Christ has done for us. No other can atone for our sins. No other promises to walk through the valley of the shadow of death with us! No other can still the storms around us or heal the hurts of our hearts like Jesus can!

The author of Hebrews was a pastor. He is writing these things because people at the church he served were giving up on the habit of meeting together for worship and instead were getting their lives into all sorts of weird and wonderful things. He’s trying to get them to see that what they are turning their backs on is something far more wonderful than anything they will find elsewhere.

There were all sorts of reasons why people were moving away from the church. They were weak in their knowledge of the gospel. At one point the author complains that they are like children who have lived on a diet of spiritual milk and never got as far as eating anything solid. They are loose in their living, undisciplined and easily led astray. They lacked faith.

Faith is one of those words that we can easily misunderstand. We can think of it as some kind of magic fairy dust that will instantly solve all our problems. Faith, as far as this author is concerned is something that only comes by whole-hearted, deliberate commitment to God’s will being achieved in our lives. Faith was an active to verb in the author’s vocabulary.

When we lived in Fayetteville, WV, my son was in school marching band and my daughter was a cheerleader. That meant Yvonne and I had to go to virtually every football game, home or away! I was a little alarmed when a member of my congregation in WV passed onto me this information. If you know anything about small towns and Friday Night lights... you may well identify with some of these.

TOP 10 REASONS WHY I WON'T GO TO FAYETTEVILLE HS FOOTBALL GAME

1. Every time I’ve been, they’ve asked me for money. It’s not enough that I grace them with my presence! They expect me to make some financial contribution. And once your inside, then you have to pay more for a program, and they’re selling all these other things to raise money for this and that.

2. Sometimes the people I sit next to don't seem to friendly. Not that I make much of an effort to communicate, I mean that’s their job isn’t it! Particularly when I sit on the other side of the field. Why, one person even said ‘Boo’ when the Fayetteville Pirates came on. I mean what do they go for, to support the opposition? I can’t cope when people disagree.

3. The seats are too hard and not comfortable at all and the temperature is so variable. It’s always too hot or too cold.

4. I’ve lived in Fayetteville, WV, for many years now attended many, many games but not one single coach has ever been to visit me.

5. I fully, totally and completely understand the game of football, and sometimes the referees make decisions that I don’t agree with. I don’t see why I should have to put up with that.

6. The game went into overtime and I was late getting home.

7. The band played numbers I'd never heard before. I don’t like this new music. (Mind you, I don’t like the old much either). It’s not my style. And those annoying cheerleaders are always trying to get you to participate. ‘Stamp your feet, Clap your hands’. It’s just not dignified.

8. It seems the games are always scheduled when I could be doing other things, like visiting friends, watching TV, washing my car or having a few more hours in bed. Who knows, those lighter evenings early in the year I could have put a round of golf in.

9. I suspect that a large number of the people there are hypocrites. They only go to see
their friends, they can’t really be supporters because they don’t give the field their complete undivided attention during the games.

10. I was taken to too many games by my parents when I was growing up.

What do you think?
Good reasons for giving up on Friday Night Football games?

The guy who passed it on explained, I thought you'd like that. Particularly as these are exactly the reasons people offer for not coming to church!

It's stewardship season. I imagine that there are those, when they receive stewardship materials, ask “How much more does this church want from me?” I believe the author of Hebrews would turn the question around and ask “How much more do you want from Jesus?”

The giving of our time, talents and treasure is an act of faith. Faith, not in the church or any individual within the church, or the building or the activities, but faith that Jesus gave His life on a Cross and was raised to glory - and that this is such a glorious, overwhelmingly wonderful truth, that the only right response to make to it, is to be intentional in the way we use our days, our gifts and our money for God’s Kingdom.

When Jesus ministered among people in Gospel times, everything that He did was an intentional act. He offered himself, without blemish to God, so that we may discover God’s forgiveness. He offered Himself so that we may be free to worship the Lord our God, with all heart, mind and soul, and love our neighbor… as much as we ourselves are loved by God. We are set free, not so that we can live in any way that we choose, but so that we can live a life that is pleasing to God.

Before we even think to evaluate what commitment to Christ may cost us, we should ask, “What did it cost Jesus to set us free?” For I believe, that if our focus is truly on the cross of Jesus Christ, then we will realize that no amount of time, talents or treasure is capable of even coming close to repaying the debt of gratitude that the love of Jesus should draw from our hearts.

I like the way Eugene Peterson translates Hebrews 9:14

If that animal blood and the other ritual purifications were effective in cleaning up certain matters of our religion and behavior, think how much more the blood of Christ cleans up our whole lives, inside and out. We should live all out for God!

The price He paid was written in blood. He gave His life. Do you know what always astounds me about that? He didn’t have to. He was under no obligation. He does not owe us a thing. We are the debtors. We are the idiots who think they know better than God how things should be done. Jesus didn’t have to come and lower Himself to our level. He didn’t have to put up with all that pain and hurt and hatred that was heaped upon Him.

All that comes into focus as we gather around a table laid with bread and wine. The bread is His broken body. The wine is His blood, blood shed through an act of once and for all sacrifice on the cruel cross of Calvary.

How much more could God give? Such is more than enough. The challenge is always to ask ourselves how realistic our response to the grace of God truly is! The love of God is laid before us at this table. Let us seek for God's Holy Spirit to teach us how best we can respond. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.