Monday, March 30, 2015

Why a Donkey?

Readings: Psalm 118:1-2,19-29, Philippians 2:5-11, Zechariah 9:8-12, Mark 11:1-11
Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, Ellicott City, MD, March 29th 2015

Do the names Groucho, Chico and Harpo mean anything to you? Three crazy actors, collectively known as "The Marx Brothers", whose whacky films graced the Cinema back in the days when everything was black and white.

I used to own a book, that was a collection of their pictures and sayings that was called "Why a Duck?" The title was a quotation from a scene where Groucho points out to the Italian accented Chico a railway bridge over a river, which he explains is called a viaduct.

Chico responds "Why a Duck? Why a no a Chicken?"

"Not 'Why a Duck'? - VIADUCT!"

"Like I a say … Why a no a chicken, Why a Duck?"

This morning I don't want to ask, 'Why a no a chicken?' or even 'Why a no a duck?' but I do want to ask 'Why a Donkey?' Why did Jesus choose, on the first Palm Sunday, to come riding into Jerusalem on a donkey?

A good place to start is with the quotation from the Old Testament prophet Zechariah we heard in our Old Testament reading. "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, Lowly and riding on a donkey”. When Matthew and John give us the account of Palm Sunday, they use this quote to point out that the events of Palm Sunday happen within a particular framework at a particular time for a particular purpose.

The Bible never talks about fate or chance. It speaks instead, of what some call, "Sacred Time". Scripture speaks of Christian life as being, not just a random collection of disconnected events, but life with purpose and meaning. Jesus rode a donkey into town, because there was a purpose and a meaning to the action. It was an event in sacred time.

Mark gives us a fuller account of Jesus telling the disciples to go and get the donkey. If I was one of the disciples I would have been sarcastically thinking, "Yeah right... this is going to work". A couple of them are sent to an unnamed village, where, hopefully they will discover that there just happens to be a donkey tethered there at the side of the street. This donkey is special, because no one has ever ridden it.

As they untie it there is a strong possibility that someone is going to come along and say, 'Excuse me sir, What are you doing with that donkey?' and they are to say to them, simply, 'The Lord has need of it'. No need to explain who this 'Lord' is, or even say why he needs it... because that is not something you know about in the first place!

Strange thing is, when the disciples do what Jesus asks, despite their questions and the fact that it all seems kind of vague, it turns out just like Jesus said. When God speaks, things happen.

I really can't explain 'Sacred Time’ but I do know that as I put my life in God's hands all kinds of connections, affecting what I thought were insignificant events, start to happen.

Think about it! For some reason or other we have all ended up here in church this morning together. Of course we have all come here for a different reason. Maybe we were dragged here! Maybe it's a good habit we have got into. Maybe we don't have a reason for it, just something we felt we should do.

I invite you to pay attention to what happens through the week. Some one will say something, or you'll meet some one or something will happen and there will be a connection to what we're doing here this morning. Ask yourself, 'Is that a coincidence, or is there something more going on here?'

Was it a coincidence that a person just happened to have tied a donkey that had, coincidentally, never been ridden upon, to the side of that street in that town, on that day, at that time, when those two disciples came walking along?

Was it a coincidence that people came along and asked questions that Jesus said they would, and that as the disciples gave the answer that Jesus said they should, the disciples discovered that they were able to take the donkey to Jesus, as He said they could?

Was it a coincidence that as He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, crowds lined the streets shouting "Hosanna to the King of David" - in a fashion similar to Zechariah's prophecy of years before? Were the crowds aware of the connection? Not likely! Did they realize that just a week later they would be shouting, "Crucify Him, Crucify Him!” No way!

Did they for even one moment consider that a death on a cross would be transformed into a resurrection from a tomb; that on a Pentecost holiday the Holy Spirit of God would descend on those disciples who witnessed His resurrection and that the church would be born? Of course not!

Why a donkey? 'Why a no a horsee or a pony?' Because a connection was being made to what the prophet had said.

The donkey is a creature of peace. You would expect a King to arrive on a War Horse, or in a chariot pulled by a pony... not so Jesus. Just as His mother Mary is pictured by tradition as riding a donkey to Bethlehem, bearing the Christ Child in her womb, so in humility, Jesus enters Jerusalem, the City of God, riding upon a creature considered humble and gentle.

The donkey was not simply a method of transport for people. It was also a beast of burden. A donkey can carry a great deal on its back. It is sure-footed in rocky terrain. In many parts of the world it is still considered a working animal.

I remember Tom, a friend of my sisters from Greece, who visited with us when we lived in a seaside town in Mid Wales. On the beach were some donkeys that gave children rides up and down. Tom was astonished. 'Donkeys? Why you have donkeys here?' In his culture the donkey was a working animal ... not something you amused the kids with on a sunny day.

In our Lectionary Palm Sunday is linked to Passion Sunday. We remember that Jesus took the burden of our sins upon Himself when He died upon the cross. The one who took the weight of our transgressions, rode into town on a beast of burden.

Why a donkey? When you think about it, there can be all kinds of connections.

But the most important one we need to make in this Easter Season is between our lives and the Jesus who rode into Jerusalem to die upon a cross and was raised to bring Resurrection life to bear on our daily lives.

If we can get that connection right, then a whole lot of other things in our lives start to make sense as well. We may well discover that sacred time is breaking into our daily lives.

An old friend I used to visit in a previous church always used to talk about ‘synchronicity’ as the reason she couldn’t help but believe in God. When she trusted in God to guide her, random things all seemed to fall into place.

The reading in church, the song on the radio, the story in the paper, the conversation overheard in the Post Office, the book she was reading… it was as though they all were synchronized together in such a way as she became aware of something going on her life that was so much larger than herself.

Sacred Time. Synchronicity. You can call it whatever you like. It was there in the events surrounding Palm Sunday. There was a reason for the donkey. There was a purpose to the way Jesus rode into town.

Let us pray that we may have a faith in God that enables us to know His love as it is revealed in Jesus Christ as a reality guiding our own hearts and lives. As we remember this Easter Week the Christ who died upon the Cross for our sins, may we seek to live in a way that serves others and brings glory to God’s name. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J Pratt B.D.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Jeremiah and the Heart

Readings: Psalm 51:1-12, Hebrews 5:5-10, Jeremiah 31:31-34, John 19:14-22
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, Ellicott City, MD, March 22nd 2015

O.K. Here’s the situation. There’s a husband. This husband is a great guy. He’s gone out of his way to treat his wife fairly and look after her as best as he knows how. In fact, on numerous occasions he has risked everything in order to get her out of dangerous circumstances that would have destroyed their relationship.

But here’s the problem. Time and time after time, she has been unfaithful to him. Time and time again she has gone after other guys, time and time and time again she has treated their relationship as though vows had never been spoken and the good times they had together (and there had been many of them) counted for nothing at all.

Their relationship has completely broken down. She, despite his warnings, has gone off with this other guy and it has led to total disaster. She’s lost everything. She is miles from home. She’s hurting like she has never hurt before. Her laughter has turned to tears and her dancing to mourning. She’s trapped herself in circumstances that she knew could happen if she carried on the way she was, but failed to believe that they would.

Now, lest there be any misunderstanding, I’m not drawing a picture from any romance novel or something off the Lifetime T.V. Channel. I’m painting a picture for you of what had happened between Israel and her God at the time Jeremiah spoke the words that we heard as our bible reading.

Jeremiah 31:32 “ ‘I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them’ declares the LORD”. The people of Israel are in the captivity of Babylon and at the mercy of powers that sought their destruction. But God is not willing to cast them off. God’s love refuses to call it quits and, rather than the expected rejection, Jeremiah speaks in these terms.

Jeremiah 31: 33 “ ‘But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days’ declares the Lord, ‘I will put my law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I shall be their God, and they shall be my people”.

Returning to the husband and unfaithful wife picture, the husband is saying, “I’m not giving up on you. I’m going to do something that makes you realize how much I love you. Something that changes the way you’ll feel inside about our relationship. It’s not going to be about rules, it’s going to be about desire”.

I called this message, 'Jeremiah and the Heart'. When we speak of the covenant of the heart, we are talking about desire. Desire is an emotion that we associate with yearning and longing and wanting. If we desire something we want that thing so badly that it occupies our thoughts, captures our dreams and causes us to take certain course of action.

I’m not talking about just wanting something. I’m not thinking about how it would be nice to have a Ferrari or a holiday in Hawaii or a new i-phone. Such things would be nice, and if you save up your pennies enough, one day you may be able to achieve some of them.

Desire is about what rests on your heart and guides your steps each day. Desire is an emotion that, if it is not quenched it hurts. The Psalmist declares in his quest for the blessing of God.” Lord, all my desire is before thee; and my groaning is not hidden from thee” (Psalm 38:9). Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant, a covenant that will be expressed through the desires of the heart. Not the Old Covenant, which was; “Hey, if you do this I’ll bless you, if you don’t do this I’ll curse you”.

As Christian people we have an opportunity that Jeremiah’s hearers never witnessed. They never witnessed the new covenant come into being. The New Covenant, the New Testament, the New relationship with God that would write itself on peoples hearts, was only fulfilled in the coming of Jesus Christ.

Out of love God had established the old covenant as a way of blessing. 'Do this, I will bless you, and we will be in a relationship'. But the people kept walking out on that relationship. Something more was needed. Something that would break the hardness of unfaithful hearts. Something powerful that would draw out love and produce faithfulness.

That something, that expression of God’s desire for relationship, came in the shape of a cross. The Cross is the central symbol of Christian faith. The Cross. The place where we witness the love of God going to the ultimate depths of all that life can throw our way, in order to win our hearts.

The earliest history of the Presbyterian Church over in Wales, the church that personally led me to faith, was one punctuated by religious revivals. Now when I say revivals, I’m not talking about putting a little tent up and getting together and having a good sing, and maybe a few people walking down the aisle and getting saved. I’m talking about a sovereign move of God’s Holy Spirit that rocked the nation. I’m speaking about whole communities that were changed from places of despair to communities of hope.

There’s a story told of a notorious district in one of the larger urban areas. To put it plainly it was an area where some of the men-folk would go to buy time with a lady for a while. Revival meetings were taking place in town, and the men stopped visiting the ladies, because they were attending the meetings at the church. So the ladies, who depended on the men for their income, decided to go along and disrupt the meeting and entice the men to return.

It didn’t happen the way. When the ladies entered the church there was such an overwhelming sense of God’s presence that they forgot what they had gone there for! The preacher was speaking about the Cross, as being the place where God desired to forgive sins and accepted all who would come to Him, and desired to establish a new relationship with those who accepted His love that compared to nothing else in this world.

These ladies; they knew a little about desire. Through the action of the Holy Spirit the shadow of the cross fell upon them and they became changed; and as a result the whole district became changed and peoples desire was changed – faithfulness and living in a way that honored God and being people of hope and conviction – these things became foremost in peoples minds who for much of their lives had been strangers to the love of God.

On the day we call Maundy Thursday, we recall how Jesus met in the upper room with His disciples before He went out to face His torturous trials and death. At that meal He talked to the disciples of how the cup they would drink represented a New Covenant, a new relationship with God made possible through the Cross. As Jesus sits down to share this moment, forever fixed in eternity, we read in Luke 22:15 (KJV) “He said unto them, 'With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer”. A lot of desire there! What is the desire of God? Revelation 3:20; 'Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.

Jeremiahs vision is of a God who comes to us and shares in our lives, as we share in the life of God’s kingdom. It is all made possible through the Cross, upon which Jesus died to destroy the barrier that exists between people and God. It is made feasible through the Resurrection. This is not Romeo and Juliet. Although this is a love affair that gives itself up to death, this is a love that is stronger than death!

One of the features of the Welsh Revivals, a feature paralleled in similar movements throughout the world at different times, is that the Cross of Jesus Christ becomes a touching place. As people realized here is God, God giving all, God prepared to suffer, to allow His own Son to die for them, their hearts were melted. Something inside of them … moved... in such a way as their desire was to follow Jesus Christ whatever it cost, wherever He may lead, however He may touch their lives.

It is an action of the heart. Recall Jeremiah's words; “This is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days’ declares the Lord, ‘I will put my law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I shall be their God, and they shall be my people”.

We spend our lives running here, attaining this, doing that, thinking that we are getting somewhere. We play games. 'Lord, I promise I’ll be faithful... next time'. 'Lord, It’s not that I don’t trust You, I just believe that I need other things than You in my life right now'. ‘Lord, lead me not into temptation... well... just more time!”

All four gospels, Matthew, Mark Luke and John, invite us to recognize and realize the significance of what God has done for us at the Cross. They call us to reach a place where the brokenness of Jesus Christ breaks our own hard heart. It's all about the desires of our hearts.
Let us seek for God to win our hearts afresh as we realize that the love that was broken for us is the same love that seeks to heal us. Let us ask God’s Holy Spirit today to place our lives under the shadow of the cross.

May the desire that is in our hearts be truly one of commitment to God, commitment to Christ who died for us, commitment to the Holy Spirit, who seeks to empower us to live Kingdom lives. AMEN.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Moses and the Snake

Readings:Psalm 107, 1-3,17-22, Ephesians 2:1-10, John 3:14-17, Numbers 21:4-9
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, Ellicott City, MD, March 15, 2015

Harry Potter fans will be familiar with the spoilt child known as Dudley Dursley who appears at the beginning of the very first book. You may remember when it is Dudley’s birthday, his parents have assembled a huge collection of presents for him. He rushes in looks at the boxes and is immediately angered. There were more boxes last year. It wasn’t fair. What a nasty kid! Still, if you remember, he gets what’s coming to him.

For his birthday treat Dudley is taken to the zoo. There he has a nasty encounter with a snake. The snake, for Dudley turns out to be an experience of judgment... but for Harry Potter, becomes a sign that right is on his side... and that maybe, for the first time in a long while, things were going to go well for him.

In our bible story this morning, the Israelites are like a crowd of Dudley Dursley's. Although God has delivered them, and they are getting nearer the promised land; although God has continually nourished them with manna from heaven on their journey, they are in a moaning mood. 'How long are we going to be mooching around this desert? When are we going to get something else to eat other than moldy manna and queasy quail-meat? It’s not fair!'

As in Harry Potter, their answer comes in the form of a snake. Venomous snakes appear in the midst of the camp and start to bite the Israelites. Some of the people die and the rest cry out to the same Moses whose leadership they were a short time ago rejecting. 'Oh, Moses, help us, please.. we’re sorry!'

God asks Moses to do something a little strange. To make an image of a fiery serpent out of bronze, (or some translations say brass), and put it on the end of a long pole. Whoever lifted up their heads to gaze at the snake, would be healed, and the scriptures tell us that’s exactly what happened.

Many years later, when John was writing his gospel, he remembered this story of Moses and the snake, and some words that Jesus speaks to Nicodemus, a young ruler among the Pharisees, who has come to Jesus with a question as to what he must do in order to be saved. Jesus explains to Nicodemus that Nicodemus must be born again, (or ‘born from above’) and explains, in reference to His crucifixion and resurrection that was to happen; “As Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, even so must the son of man be lifted up” so that “whoever believes in Him may have eternal life”.

In a similar way to the way the people of Israel found salvation from their poisonous problem in the wilderness, by looking up to the snake, so by looking to the cross of Jesus we can find salvation from the poison of sin and gain eternal life.

Whilst ‘Lifting up our eyes to God in times of need and salvation’ is surely the important message we can learn from this passage, I don’t think it is the only lesson. I’ll return to the salvation theme again before the sermon is through, but on the way, let me mention a couple of other things.

Beware the attitude of ingratitude.

The 18th Century architect of the Methodist movement, John Wesley, has this to say about verse 5 of our reading, (the verse that pictures the Israelites complaining about the food they had to eat.) “Whereas it appears it yielded excellent nourishment, because in the strength of it they were able to go so many and tedious journeys, contemptuously did they speak of the Manna”.

I was very fortunate in my teens, when I started attending church, there were still a few old school, fiery Welsh preachers, who used to be in the pulpit. They had a passion for words and a way of preaching, that was somewhere between a dramatic performance and a political rally. I was trying to imagine what they would have done with this passage. Indulge me!

“Are you today harboring in the darkness of your heart, contempt for the manna? Is there with your soul the spiritual poison of ingratitude towards God your Gracious Father? Is there lurking in the depth of your being a cursing, murmuring spirit causing you to make light of the blessings of Almighty God? My friend... beware. You are in a stony place. You are in a rocky place. And among the rocks there are the snakes and they are ready to bite, and that attitude of ingratitude is even now giving them the opportunity to strike at your spiritual life with their venom. Death, Death, the ancient snake of Eden’s garden, is crouched and ready to wound! Oh friend, cast out those contemptuous demons. Look up to God and away from empty self-desire. Look up, today, lest that contemptuous poison of ungratefulness grants you no blessing in the morrow”

I could go on! That’s one way of putting it. How else could it be said? Not long after coming here, in one of the youth bible studies, we made up alternative versions of a bible passage, and mine turned into a rap. So, I was thinking, how would today's passage turn out if you gave it that sort of rhythmic structure?

“Yo, listen up. Fool. I’m doing what it takes, Talking about the snakes, You wanna be deceived? Rehash Adam and Eve? The poison of snake bite, will take away your life-light, cos in your heart there’s an attitude, of contempt and ingratitude, my God ain’t into messing, my God He’s into blessing, but yo mouth don’t stop whining, and your light it's not shining, so it’s time to stop complaining, it’s time to get your game on, it’s time to lift your eyes high, time to look and listen, ‘cos you don’t know what you missing, God’s grace is all around you, don’t let this world confound you, east coast, west coast, when will you believe us, I’m tired of fooling around, - the only way is Jesus!”

Those two demonstrations confirm, once and for all, why I’m not a holy rolling Welsh preacher or a rap singer, but however you say it, the fact remains that the snakes are always ready to strike. When complacency takes a hold, we stop looking for them. When we lose sight of God’s blessings, and start focusing in ourselves, then we can guarantee trouble won’t be far down the road. But that's not the whole story.

Be aware what bites us now could bless us later.

I took as a theme for our series during Lent 'Covenants of Grace'. Strictly speaking this story of the snake on a stick is not associated with any Old Testament covenant, but what it does is point us towards the New Covenant that God would make with all creation through Jesus Christ.

Moses took the image of what was biting them, and made a bronze serpent and set it upon the pole. As the people gazed upon that image, healing came. As the people turned from their ingratitude towards God and again realized their total dependence on God, then there was a turning, a repentance, a renewal, a time of blessing, once again.

It took a while for the people to realize that it was their own sin that was destroying them. It took time for Moses to meet with God, to receive what God was revealing to him, to set about creating the serpent of bronze, refine it through the fire, explain to the people what was going on and what they needed to do, to hold it high on the pole and ask the people to look up. And even when he had done all of that, the snakes continued to bite, and for sure there were those who refused to do as Moses instructed and continued to die.

Sometime we have to go through a bad experience or a hard time in order to realize where we are going wrong. Sometimes we have to hit rock bottom before we realize we are heading the wrong way. It can happen with our health. We know we need to make changes, but only when we get that doctors report that says our health is really not all we thought it was and that we are on the brink of something nasty, do we start to take any notice.

It can happen with our finances. That credit card can be a snake. All those offers of interest free this and don't pay till later can be very tempting. But if we allow them to bite, we can end up in serious debt. Spiritually we can fool ourselves into thinking we are doing just fine, when really we are running on empty. A crisis hits and we fall to pieces rather than drawing upon our relationship with God, because it's a relationship we have not nurtured or attended to.

Yet God is a God of grace. When we fall God holds an out-stretched hand. When we mess up, God offers to forgive. When we lose our way, God leaves the light on. That's the most important thing we can learn from this passage.

Looking up always remains an option.

Just as Moses bid the people to look up to the image of a snake on the pole, Jesus tells Nicodemus to look to the Christ who was lifted up. The One who comes, not to judge the world, but to save the sinner. The Cross reminds us that God does not stand far off from human suffering and strife, but that deep in God’s heart there is a pain and grief that seeks to redeem us.

I began talking about the first Harry Potter book. By the time the final seventh volume came along, the series had grown alongside it's young readers. The initial innocence of the first story had long gone. The series ends with violent conflict, significant characters lose their lives in the battle, and Harry himself lays down his life for his friends. I wonder where J.K. Rowling, who in religious terms describes her heritage as Presbyterian, got that idea from? Especially when it appears, as his friends carry on, Harry's not dead, but alive!

Of course Harry Potter is only fiction, but it was C.S. Lewis who observed that there really was only one great narrative, that all others eventually follow... that of the great drama of Christian salvation found through Jesus Christ. Lewis, an accomplished literary scholar, before ever being a Christian author, felt that was one of the reasons he eventually came to believe. That if this particular narrative, the one about loss, redemption and salvation, is one that echoes throughout time and history, then it had to be a reflection of a greater reality. He found that greater reality in the resurrected life of Jesus Christ. Look up and live!
  • Beware the attitude of ingratitude. When the people of Israel grumbled against God's grace, they found there were snakes among the rocks. Snakes that had come about through their rebellion.
  • Be aware what bites us now could bless us later. Going through bad times, sometimes can strengthen us to face worse times.
  • But above all, look up. I can frame this in no better words than that classic hymn of Joseph Scriven, a favorite of many a congregation; “What a friend we have in Jesus, All our sins and griefs to bear, What a privilege to carry, Everything to God in prayer.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Moses and the Law

Covenants of Grace – Lent 3
Readings: Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 1:18-25, Exodus 20:1-17, John 2:13-22
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, Ellicott City, MD, March 8th, 2015

They’ve been around for a long time and have formed the moral basis for countless societies and nations. They have been debated about and studied and re-interpreted and then gone through that whole process time and time again. The effects of defying or keeping them have been portrayed in movies, in songs, in literature, on stage, in pulpits, in so many ways and different places. For many Christian people they are, outside of the 23rd Psalm, their best-known passage from the Old Testament. The 10 Commandments.

As we go through Lent I'm focusing on Old Testament passages that talk about the covenant relationship that God entered into with Old Testament characters such as Noah, Abraham and today, Moses. In the case of Moses, the peoples covenant with God is marked by a series of foundational laws.

These laws functioned as boundaries in which to live their lives. Over and above these general principles were chapter after chapter of specific instructions and the penalties that would occur if the laws were not adhered to. Reading those additional laws from the perspective of the 21st century makes some of them seem incredibly odd and obscure and the penalties for their transgression harsh and severe.

The death penalty by stoning, an eye for an eye, if you knock my tooth out, I knock out your tooth, zero tolerance of other religious practices... it all appears more like a fundamentalist religious nightmare than a basis for Christian ethics. Yet among the harshness are surprises; such as the justice granted to foreigners, the provisions made for the poor, the prohibition of charging exorbitant interest on loans, the forgiveness of debt and a cycle of land use that could sustain agriculture and enable creation to renew itself.

It is important to recognize that the reason these laws are given is that people may prosper and grow. Things had not gone well since the people left Egypt. At times it looks like they are all going to perish in the wilderness and never reach the promised land. They are fickle, unfaithful, wayward and complaining. Moses on a number of occasions is in total despair of them.

God is a God of covenant grace. God loves these people. God had promised to lead them and guide them and be with them. But something needed to happen in order for any kind of progress to be made. That something, for better or worse, turns out to be the 10 Commandments; fundamental principles that continue to influence our views of right and wrong today.

A couple of things...

The commandments are given to protect, not to punish.

The first four commandments concern protecting the relationship of the people and their God. This is the second time Moses has been up the mountain to receive them. The first time he went up to the mountain, by the time he returned, the people had rejected the God who had rescued them from slavery in Egypt and were putting all their hopes in an idol Aaron had constructed from their jewelry as a golden calf.

The wandering Israelites had a major problem trusting in God. Back in Exodus 19:8 'The people all answered as one, “Everything that the Lord has spoken we will do”' Saying it and doing it were not the same thing. They never are! So they are given four specific instructions regarding their relationship with God.

They are to put God first. They are to avoid making idols of anything or anybody. They are to avoid using their belief in God as a pretext for acting on their own desires. They are to take time out once a week to remember that there is a God, and it isn't them.

The second set of six have to do with protecting themselves from each other. Commandments 6, 8 and 9 are about not murdering each other, not stealing from each other and not lying to each other. Commandments 7, 9 and 10 have to do with honoring parents, not committing adultery, and not having excessive desire for anything that belonged to somebody else. Jesus would later tell us that the commandments could be summarized in just two principles. 'Love God' and 'Love your neighbor'.

Would be that was all there was to it! Unfortunately humanity, as a whole, seems no more capable of observing even two principles, let alone ten of them. Whatever you can say about the capability of the Israelite people to totally fail to be the people God was calling them to be, you can extend to people of every age, nation and creed.

People talk about religion as being something that restricts and holds people back. They see commandments as a list of things that they can't do. They see God as some kind of frightening judge, just waiting to catch them out. They miss the whole point that the desire behind these commands was one of protection, not punishment, one of blessing not of blaming.

The commandments are given because of God desires faithfulness.

Some years ago a wealthy businessman in England had the idea of buying advertising space on railway stations and in other public places to display the Ten Commandments. Unfortunately (to my mind) the only way he saw fit to display such wonderful words was by using the majestic, but so easily misconstrued, language of King James Bible English. I saw a poster on a train when I was traveling on the underground. There, in angry black type, was the declaration “I THE LORD AM A JEALOUS GOD”. Somebody had responded by writing the words “Hah! Some God!”.

‘Jealousy’ is invariably seen as a negative emotion; a green eyed monster to be subdued and kept under control. The 10 commandments are thus seen as the laws of a very angry God. An altogether rather insecure and self-possessed deity. Like a manic school headmaster laying down non-nonsensical rules for no particular reason other than to demonstrate what meaningless wastes of space he considers the rest of us to be.

In our society Christianity is often portrayed as being a product of self righteousness. As though those who profess to believe in a deity take some unthinkable pleasure in telling everybody else on the planet how to live (whilst all the time hypocritically not even living up to their own standards). Sadly the ancient terminology and language we use can reinforce that impression rather than counteract it. So how do we deal with this notion that 'Our God is a jealous God?'

To me it all comes back to this idea of a covenant. I was talking with somebody the other day about the nature of love. We got onto the subject of unfaithfulness. This person said that if they found their partner had fallen in love with somebody else, then they believed that they loved their partner enough to let them go.

I have to come clean and say that I couldn't do that. I’ll be celebrating my 37th wedding anniversary later this year, and throughout the years of our relationship I have learned that my love for my wife is of such a nature that there is no way I would let her go, no matter how much she loved another, without trying to win back her love every step of the way, and that if I suspected…for one moment… that her affections were driving her towards another, then the green eyed monster of jealousy would kick in!

When it comes to my wife and my family, am I possessive? Yes I am. Am I going to get mad if anybody messes with them or hurts them or seeks to destroy the relationship that we have? Absolutely. Love for me means that I won’t just let it go, that if you trifle with my objects of affection then I will be jealous and feel totally justified in so doing.

Our New Testament reading gave us the account of Jesus cleansing the temple. Was He angry? You bet He was! He declares “Zeal for my Father's house consumes me!” He cared. He cared enough to take action.

It is in that sense I believe we should interpret this words that the Lord our God is a jealous God. A God who says, 'Look I’m laying down some rules so we can get along. If you mess up on these things, if you don’t stick with this covenant that we have, it is going to ruin everything for you, for your children and your children’s children. And don’t think that you’re rejection of this covenant means that it is over. I am the God who will do everything I can to win you back with my love.”

This is a love sick, crazy, unpredictable, jealous God who says, (to reinterpret the first 4 commandments) “You’re not going to go with anybody else but me, you are not going to throw my name around town as though our relationship meant nothing, you are not going to be thinking you can control me or own me just because you have an image or picture of me in your mind. I need you to make time for Me in your life… this is the covenant I am asking you to enter into with me. Why? Because I really love you!”

There is an ongoing dispute about the public display of the 10 Commandments. Some people have a problem with them. They look at them and get bent all out of shape. 'You can't tell me what to believe, You can't tell me how to live.' I just don't see them that way. I believe that the commandments are given to protect us, not punish us. They are given because God desires faithfulness.

When I see the 10 commandments, I'm just thankful. They don't speak to me of judgment or fear. They reveal a God who loves me enough to want to protect me from doing things that cause great harm. I rejoice that they are there to show me where I'm going wrong and how to get back on the right track. I rejoice that they reveal a God who is so crazy about me, that when I am unfaithful, God is crazy jealous and wants our relationship to be restored.

And I'm thankful that, through Jesus Christ, such restoration is always possible. The great reformation declaration is that we are saved, not by the law, but by grace, through our faith in Him. Moses gave the people a covenant of law. But it was just a shadow of what was to come!

As we travel through Lent and reflect on the unfolding revelation of God's covenant of grace, may we each be led to the light Christ, to whose name be all praise and glory. Amen.

The Rev Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Abraham Walks

‘James Taylor’s Greatest Hits’ has a song on it called ‘The Walking Man’.

Walking Man, Walking Man Walks,
Well, any other man stops and talks
But the walking man walks”

In our bible reading this morning God makes a covenant with Abraham. It’s a walking covenant. “Now when Abram was ninety-nine years old, the LORD appeared to Abram and said to him, "I am God Almighty; Walk before Me...” (Genesis 17:1). Abraham's call? To be one in whose life there is not only hearing and recognizing the call of God but also acting upon it. “Any other man stops and talks... but the walking man walks”.

I’d like to suggest to you three lessons this passage can teach us;

1) Walking with God involves a change of identity.
2) Walking with God involves a change of priorities.
3) Walking with God involves a change of heart.

Walking with God involves a change of identity.

In our bible story, Abram becomes Abraham and Sarai becomes Sarah. The covenant they have with God results in a changed name. Abram meaning ‘exalted Father’ becomes Abraham - ‘Father (or ‘chief’) of a Multitude'; Sarai, meaning ‘princess’, becomes Sarah meaning ‘Noblewoman or Queen’.

In both cases the change to their name indicates a change in their status. It is one thing to be regarded as head of a household, another to be head of State. It is one thing to be called princess, (a term sometimes used as a term of endearment), it is a different thing to be regarded as one endowed with royal power and authority.

Enlargement of office results in a corresponding enlargement of responsibility. The taking on of those responsibilities brings greater knowledge and awareness of the tasks that need to be accomplished. Let me put that in a different way!

When you reach a point in life where you say to Jesus Christ, 'Yes, I want to be a disciple, I hear Your call, I will follow', once you have made that commitment, you have a new name. You are Christian. You are in a different relationship to God than you were when you hadn’t heard God’s call. And this new relationship with God effects the relationship you have to everything else in your life... people, possessions, priorities… the whole of life.

The term ‘Christian’ was first used of followers of Jesus as a term of abuse. When people encountered the lives of the earliest believers they called them, mockingly, “Little Christ’s”. The term was the equivalent of being today called a ‘Jesus Freak’ or ‘Religious Nut’. ‘Christian’ was not meant as a term of endearment but of abuse.

The early disciples turned it around. They took the fact that people recognized something of Jesus in them, as a compliment. They realized that truly, their calling was to be representatives of His, to be His hands and feet and eyes and offer His touch and His Word to those around them.

Given the background to the word 'Christian', I speculate as to whether we should really use the term to describe ourselves! Maybe it’s a word that should be reserved for others descriptions of us. If other people feel we have anything about us that reminds them of Jesus,we should say 'Thank you! If my life touches you with the gospel message, then I'm doing better than I thought!' I’m challenged by the words I saw on one church noticeboard, 'If you were arrested today for being a christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?'

Abram and Sarai’s faith in God resulted in a change of their status and identity, signified by God re-naming them Abraham and Sarah. Which conveniently leads us to a second thing.

Walking with God involves a change of priorities.

Abraham and Sarah are given a promise that seems so outlandish it’s laughable. A promise that, in their advanced years, they are to have a child. Chapter 17, verse 17 “Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed, and said in his heart, "Will a child be born to a man one hundred years old? And will Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?

When a baby comes along life takes a change of direction. Abraham and Sarah are so far down the road of their life that they feel a radical change of direction... the very thought that something new may be birthed into their situation... is a cause for laughter.

The bible doesn’t say a whole lot about laughter. When it does, it usually speaks of laughter as something positive and enriching. With one notable exception. In Genesis Chapter 18, Sarah, and by implication Abraham, are rebuked by God for the laughter of unbelief. God promises them a child and they laugh about it.

This is not just a giggle of nervous apprehension or misunderstanding. Abraham falls over because he is laughing so much... Abraham, in his deepest place, in his heart, does not believe God can do what God has promised. Abraham is not being the 'Walking Man that Walks'.

This is an Abraham who, in modern day terms, is “The Walking Man who turns around goes back home, gets a Bud out the refrigerator, plonks himself down on the couch, switches on the Television, then shouts to his wife in the kitchen, ‘Y’should have been in church this morning. That stupid preacher was telling us that God can do new things in us if we commit our lives to Jesus Christ, YEH- RIGHT, … how long is dinner going to be… when is the Game on… let’s get back to the real world”.

The 'Yeh-Right' attitude cripples Christian life. God is offering God’s promises to us but inside ourselves, we’re not believing, we’re not trusting God, we’re laughing the laughter of unbelief.

You want me to be specific? Probably not, but I’ll do it anyway. Think about Stewardship. We have in our bulletins a time when we bring our tithes and offerings to God. Now I don't know who actually tithes their income, but I am thankful that some of you do. I'm grateful to serve a church who believes in modeling tithing in it's life by giving to mission outside of our church a tenth of whatever we get in. Scripture teaches that if we give a portion of what we earn to God, that God will bless us.

But I'm also aware that there is a voice that says, “Yeah Right, tithe? On what I make every month? Don't you realize the bills I have to pay, the commitments I have to meet?” In a previous church I served I tried to teach them about the blessings that God could bring through tithing. The response I had was that somebody put an article in the newsletter suggesting that such a commitment was unrealistic, and maybe we should talk about giving 2% or 3 % instead. They then had the nerve to complain 'Wasn't it terrible that they couldn't afford a full-time minister!' If folk don't believe in Scriptures guidance for giving, it has repercussions.

What about our time? About priorities and using the best of our time for the things of God? Over my years as a minister I've had countless people tell me that they don't know their bibles as well as they should or understand some aspects of their faith as deeply as they could. So I organize bible studies, suggest events they could attend, books they could read, and disciplines they could follow.

Sadly, I'm also aware that what they really want is a quick fix or instant solution. They are not in it for the long term. I’m sometimes talking to people who inside themselves are saying, “Yeh Right, I’m going to invest myself in reading the Bible, or attending a class”. Discipleship and Christian growth are lifetime investments. When Jesus said to the first disciples, 'Take up your cross and follow me' He didn't envisage them being part timers.

Jesus Christ, the Living Lord, invites us to lay our life before God with no strings attached. To put our relationship to God before every other relationship to everything else that is in our life. To our money. To our time. To our family. To our friends. To be in a position where we say to God, 'I will go wherever You want me to go, do whatever You want me to do, give whatever You want me to give, be what ever You want me to be, because You are the Lord.'

Beware the 'Yeh-Right” attitude that inwardly scoffs at God's requirements. The walking man doesn’t stop and talk, the walking man walks. Which brings us to a third thought.

Walking with God involves a change of heart.

In the story of Abraham and Sarah, God has the last laugh. They do have a child. And the child is named ‘Isaac’. Isaac is the Hebrew word for laughter. Abraham moves from his laughter of unbelief to full surrender to God. He has a total change of heart.

It’s one of many changes of heart that Abraham experiences in his life. At the time of this calling Abraham sees God as ‘El-Shaddai’, the God of the mountains and the plains, the One who made the ground on which he walked and who was a Rock upon whom he could build his life. As he walked with God, God was revealed in new ways and by different names. As he walked he discovered there was more to see and understand than he ever imagined.

I encourage you this morning to consider what it means to be in a walking covenant with God. That if in our Christian life we have reached a barrier or feel we’re not going anywhere, we remind ourselves of God’s promise that He will never leave or forsake us, just as long as we keep walking with Him. The walking man walks.

We are encouraged to reach beyond the 'Yeah-Right' attitude that so often cripples faith and immobilizes us from taking action. If we are not giving as we should or living as we should or praying as we should or reading our bibles as we should, we are encouraged not to let it be, but have a change of heart and be in a walking covenant with God.

Say to God... “I want to be a person with a heart for the things of Your kingdom, I want to make right relationships that have become messed up, I want to re-organize my time so I have more time for doing the things You are calling me to do, Lord, I want to be the walking man (or woman) who walks! Help me be strong in Your Holy Spirit and be in a walking covenant with You!”

Here and now, around this table laid with bread and wine is time to consider our walk with God. Here are signs of God's commitment to us. His Son, Jesus Christ lived and died and was raised for our salvation. God promises to send His Holy Spirit to guide us and lead us, transform us and heal us, encourage us and renew us, as we place our lives at His disposal and seek to be people who walk in the way of covenant grace. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.