Monday, April 20, 2015

Treasure Hunt


Reading: Psalm 4, Proverbs 2:1-15, 2 Corinthians 4:3-12, Matthew 13:44
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, Ellicott City, April 19th 2015

This morning I invite you to a treasure hunt. Matthew 13:44. “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

The man looking for treasure travels through three stages.

  • There was firstly DISCOVERY
  • Then there was DELIGHT
  • Then came DEDICATION

Let us consider those three things.

DISCOVERY

The hidden treasure I am inviting you to discover this morning is the Kingdom of God. Everyone of us here is somewhere along the road in the search for that treasure. It may be you have only come along for the baptism of a child. It is lovely to see you and we'd love you to come and be with us again.

The fact that you are here means that you sense the Kingdom of God is somehow important in the life of this little child, and is therefore important to you. What a treasure the gift of a child is! I know they can drive you round the bend sometimes, but life is precious. And today we have made a commitment to discover some of the treasures that life holds. Every service of worship is an invitation to come and experience the richness and the value of God. Every time we meet for worship is a treasure hunt.

If you ever have to do any digging in the garden you know that eventually you are going to strike a stone. You expect that. But it can still give you a jolt! Occasionally you hit something and you think, 'Hey, that feels different, that's not a stone'. So you look down and clear the earth away, and you see a bit at a time. If you are lucky you may have discovered something of real value.

For many people it is just like that with the Christian message. When Paul, one of the first great converts to Christianity, tried to preach his message, he knew it was something that people had to approach as a discovery. He writes to the church in Corinth If the Good News we preach is hidden , it is hidden only from people who are perishing. …. the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News.” (2 Cor. 4:3-4 NLT)

The treasure of the gospel is often hidden to us by a society that enshrines many false gods. We lift up celebrities as role models, we are cushioned by materialism, we want instant answers and quick fixes, we want the next 'thing'. Our culture often refuses to acknowledge it's need for a spiritual foundation.

At times the church hasn't helped in the process of discovery. Jesus has been hidden within our stained glass windows, traditions and theologies. We have treated faith as such an intensely private thing that we are not sure how to share our beliefs with those who don't share them.

Yet there are treasures hidden mysteriously deep in ourselves. It is a basic biblical teaching that we are all created in the image of God. Whilst in each of us that image is tarnished by our compromises and sins, there still remain resources in ourselves that we can tap into if we are prepared to dig for them. During His earthly ministry Jesus recognized that even in those society rejected, to name but two, the prostitute, the leper, even in the lives of those whom others looked down their noses at, lay the capacity for renewal and change. The darkest places still hide deep treasures. He called people by name and acknowledged their needs and affirmed that their lives counted to God.

Our lives matter to God. They are something God treasures. They are something God desperately wants to be a part of. They are something He sent His Son Jesus Christ, to die for that there be no barrier between ourselves and God's love.

To me that is one of the greatest discoveries any person can find. That the God they once thought of as distant and unreal can become personal and relevant and of more value to them than precious gold. That's what this little parable talking of hidden treasure is all about. The man digging in his field and discovering a treasure tat is going to change the rest of his life. After he makes this discovery comes a second thing.

DELIGHT

"The Kingdom of Heaven is like a treasure that a man discovered hidden in a field. In his excitement, he hid it again and sold everything he owned to get enough money to buy the field.” (Mat 13:44 NLT)

The New Living Translation talks about excitement. Other translations use the word 'joy' or 'delight'. If you find hidden treasure whilst digging in your garden you are going to be well pleased! But if you have any sense, you won't go bragging about it to the whole neighborhood. Notice that the man hides it for a while!

I was in my later teens when the things of God's Kingdom started to become a reality to me. I made a commitment to be a follower of Jesus Christ. I was stupid enough to believe that meant that I now had all the answers, or more irritatingly, that only my answers were the right ones. You remember how it was in our late teens. There were no gray areas. Everything was black and white, right or wrong.

My initial attempts at sharing my faith were a disaster. Mostly because it took a while for my lifestyle to catch up with my mindset. I was talking the talk, without walking the walk. My self righteous outpourings alienated people rather than inspiring them to draw near to God.

It took me a while to understand that one of the great values of Christian faith is that it does not provide compact, easy, answers to all our dilemmas. What it does helps us to do is ask the right questions. To think outside the box … or one could say think outside the tomb... as we are still in the season of Easter. The grace that God provides, through the help that is the guiding Spirit of our Lord Jesus Christ, we can discover life lessons to treasure and guide us through the complex mess of our lives.

That for me is where the delight comes in. When Jesus exercised His earthly ministry and people were touched by his love they came alive. No matter what sort of people they were, in terms of social standing or morality, or any other classification, once they glimpsed something of His love then they started to ask the right sorts of questions. They started to live in a way that brought some of the things of the Kingdom He kept talking about to be a part of their lives.

To use the terminology of the apostle Paul, he rejoices in the great mystery that our lives, which are nothing more than 'common clay pots' can become vessels of 'spiritual treasure'. As I heard one Pentecostal preacher proclaim “I was in the darkness, now I'm in de-light”

This delight is not simply an emotional response, it is something deeper than that. It is a delight that transforms us. Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:8-9 We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we aren't crushed. We are confused, but we aren't depressed. We are harassed, but we aren't abandoned. We are knocked down, but we aren't knocked out.” In the midst of an often unfriendly world it is a delight to know that there is a God who is on our side. But if we want that sort of treasure, there has to be a third thing;

DEDICATION

The last part of the parable tells us of the man that “In his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.”. The ancient wisdom of the book of Proverbs puts it this way: “Turn your ear toward wisdom, and stretch your mind toward understanding. Call out for insight, and cry aloud for understanding. Seek it like silver; search for it like hidden treasure. Then you will understand the fear of the LORD, and discover the knowledge of God”. (Proverbs 2:2-5)

Dedication is never an easy task. There are many stumbling blocks that prevent us from achieving our purpose. Often the biggest stumbling block we have is our self. For as we allow the Spirit of God to dig deep into our lives, what is revealed is not always sweetness and light.

In Luke 6:45 Jesus tells His listeners; “A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart, and an evil person produces evil things from the treasury of an evil heart. What you say flows from what is in your heart.
The challenge can be framed by a simple question; 'What are our hearts full of?' The gospel message is not so much about external behavior as it is about the inward attitudes that our behavior stems from. If we can get our heart in order, then everything else finds its rightful place. The treasure is inside!

But recognize this... Good treasure is always worth having! And the treasure which is Jesus Christ is the greatest treasure of all. We learn about it in the Scriptures. We can discover its living reality through prayer. We can discover it in worship.

So today we are invited to go on a treasure hunt. I've been on it for a while now and what I have discovered has changed my life for the better. It is still far from perfect, it is still treasure in a clay-pot, but that is just as well, because I don't want anybody to become followers of me, but disciples of Jesus Christ.

We have dedicated the life of a little one to God through baptism. Our little ones are just one of our treasures. God has great blessings for us all, if we can but have the commitment to keep on digging.

There is treasure beyond our wildest dreams.

  • Treasure to DISCOVER
  • Treasure to DELIGHT IN
  • Treasure to DEDICATE OURSELVES TO

Matthew 13:44
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field,
which someone found and hid;
then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Resurrection Hope

Reading: Psalm 133, 1 Corinthians 15:1-11, Mark 16:9-16
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, Ellicott City, April 12th 2015

Day by day we hear the news and it seems like there's always something negative going on. We listen to the experts telling us who it is to blame. The politicians. The economy. The banks. Always somebody to point the finger at.

When we come to church we can hear more of the same. The decline in traditional denominations. The disputes over everything from sexuality to polity that are splitting the church. The loss of influence and impact. The budget problems. The scandals of church leaders failing to live up to their calling.

It can be kind of depressing. Today in the church calendar, the Sunday after Easter, is known as 'Low Sunday'. Is it low because after the 'High' of Easter Sunday' we return to normality? Or is it because this particular Sunday seems to attract the lowest numbers of the year? What words of hope can I offer today? Seems like it's a good Sunday to take a look at the closing verses of Marks gospel and the experience of Peter.

Simon-Peter was a disciple who appeared to have a special place in Jesus affections, often being used an example of faith. But when Jesus was crucified, Peter was anything but hopeful. For Peter, when Jesus died, hope died. He denied his faith. He went back to his old ways. But that wasn't the end of the story. As the great news of resurrection became a reality in his life, for Peter hope was reborn and he went on to become a great leader in the earliest church.

Can you imagine the effect the crucifixion of Jesus must have had on the whole band of disciples? He was supposedly the Messiah, the great King, the conqueror... and now He hung dead, upon a shameful Cross, an object of mockery and contempt. Picture yourself in Peter's shoes.

Hope died for Peter when Jesus died.

Simon-Peter had been a golden boy among the earliest followers of Jesus. When he was called by Jesus to 'Leave behind his nets and come and fish for people' there is no hint of hesitation or delay in his response. His parental home becomes a place where some of Jesus earliest miracles are witnessed, including the healing of Peter's mother-in-law.

He was the first to declare that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the Son of God. Jesus praises him for having been open to the work of God's Spirit because this was a revelation that had come to him because of his faith.

Peter is there on the mountain of Transfiguration when a voice is heard 'This is my Son whom I love, listen to Him!' And after he has the misguided idea of trying to stay on the mountain, Peter accepts Jesus redirection and seems to have learned an important lesson.

He does though struggle with the idea of a Messiah who has to suffer. When Jesus talks to him about going up to Jerusalem to be betrayed and suffer, Peter tries to talk Jesus out of it, and receives the harsh rebuke, 'Get thee behind me Satan!'

This harsh lesson though does not seem to destroy him. Peter is the one who gets out of the boat and takes a few steps on the water. He's there when they feed 5000 and 4000 hungry folk. He is not one of the disciples who argues about what position he should have when Jesus comes to reign. He appears happy to serve. He is not the one who betrays Jesus to the authorities.

When Jesus starts to talk about the demands of discipleship many decide that maybe they don't want to be disciples after all! Peter is not one of them. He declares unwavering allegiance to Jesus. When Jesus is arrested it is Peter who pulls out his sword and single-handed, he seeks to take on a whole squadron of soldiers. Even after the arrest of Jesus, for a while Peter follows from afar, as though drawn by a loyalty that could never be quenched.

His tipping point into despair comes as he sits around the fire in a courtyard near where Jesus is being held. A number of times he is challenged as to his allegiance to Jesus. This time he breaks. He denies any knowledge of Him. Although his demeanor, and even his accent as a Galilean give him away, he is adamant that they are not connected.

Then the cock crows, and the crashing realization that he has denied the One he once proclaimed as the Son of God descends with great force. As the hours go by what little hope he had left is crushed. Jesus is crucified and Peter is not to be found among those who witness His last hours.

Even when it comes to the burial of the One he had such devotion for, that task is left up Joseph of Aramathea, a respected member of the council who is bold enough to approach Pilate and request the dead body of Jesus for burial. The only other people associated with this event are the women who stayed by the Cross till the bitter end and see the tomb where His body is laid.

A while later some of those same women become the first witnesses to the resurrection. By this time Peter, according to Mark has regrouped with some of the other disciples to mourn their loss. Mary Magdalene brings to them the news that Christ is risen. We read in Mark “When they heard that He was alive and had been seen by her, they would not believe it” (Mark 16:11). For Peter, when Jesus died, hope died. It was game over. It was time to go back to fishing for fish and forget about that Kingdom nonsense.

The first part of Mark 16 tells us about the women's experience. How their hope was restored. They go to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus and find the stone has been rolled away. A young man in a white robe tells them that Jesus has been raised to life. They are to go to the disciples and tell them what has happened. Which is what they do. We just heard about Peter's reaction of disbelief.

Luke fills in the story of what happened next. “Peter got up and ran to the tomb; stooping and looking in, he saw the linen cloths by themselves' then he went home, amazed at what had happened” (Luke 24:12). According to John some of the clothes had been folded. This led one commentator to point out that the first thing Jesus appeared to have done after His resurrection was tidy His room. I know for some of you who have teenagers living in your house, coming home to find a tidy room would indeed be a miracle of earth shattering proportions! Seriously, though the point to be made here is that for Peter;

Hope was Reborn by the Resurrection

We are not told exactly what it is about the folded grave clothes that convinces Peter that the women's tales were not just idle wishful thinking. Something about being there, in that tomb, at that moment, convinces Peter that Jesus is alive. In a moment hope is reborn.

The great Christian writer C.S. Lewis tells in his autobiographical work 'Surprised by Joy' of his conversion to Christian faith. “I was going up Headington Hill on the top of a bus. Without words and (I think) almost without images... I became aware that I was holding something at bay, or shutting something out... I could open the door or keep it shut; I could unbuckle the armor or keep it on. Neither choice was presented as a duty; no threat or promise was attached to either... I chose to open, to unbuckle, to loosen the rein. I say, ‘I chose,’ yet it did not really seem possible to do the opposite.”

There seems to be about Peter's experience a similar tension. He 'believes', despite his total loss of hope and in the absence of any incentive or confirmation. Mark alludes to the experience of two disciples as they were walking into the country. Luke offers us the account of two on the road to Emmaus.

Every things gone wrong. They are fed up. Good men were being murdered, evil was taking the upper hand, religion was corrupt, politics was in the hands of the power crazed. All hope was gone. About Jesus they say “We HAD hoped that He was the One who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more it is now the third day since all this happened.” (Luke 24:21) It is only when they reach their destination and break bread around the table that they understand that Jesus had been walking alongside them, revealing the scriptures and their hope is reborn.

The Women, Peter, the other disciples, believe in the power of resurrection because they experience the tough of the living Jesus Christ upon their lives. The resurrection becomes for them the starting point of hope. The renewal of what seemed hopeless, the turning around of what seemed to be the ultimate defeat.

One thing that makes Christianity unique out of all philosophies and religions is the resurrection. If you are a communist you can visit Lenin's tomb. If you are a devotee of Mohamed you can make a pilgrimage to Mecca. Christians declare that our Savior is the living one. Our hope is in a resurrected Lord. We believe in life, we believe in death shattering hope. Like Ezekial's dry bones, God can enliven our hearts through the Holy Spirit. God can do that for us.

Some times things happen. Things go wrong and our reaction can be anger and frustration. In one home we were living in, out of the blue, the water went off. No warning, no particular reason. There was just no water in the taps. I turned on the tap... and nothing came out. I was confused. What had happened? The more I couldn't figure it out, the more frustrated I became. How was it that something as basic as that could upset my whole day?

When I visited Honduras last year I discovered that turning on a tap and expecting water to flow is the exception, rather than the norm, for the majority of people in our world. How is it we so easily take things for granted? And how shallow we are shown to be when we react the way we do!

Life without God can be a dry, frustrating experience. Jesus described the Holy Spirit as 'Living Water'. His love can cause deserts to flower and create opportunities where we once only saw despair. Such is the Easter message the church is called to proclaim.

It was the Easter message that turned Peter from hopelessness to hope. It took him from being a Jesus denying, fearful disciple on the run, to becoming a bold leader of the earliest church, with a rock like faith that turned out to be as powerful as Christ had predicted!

Let us seek for a similar faith to renew and revitalize our own lives. Like Peter it can happen in the midst of our confusion. Or like C.S. Lewis, it can happen in the midst of our doubts as we traveling to our next appointment. Just have that faith that it can happen. Hope in Jesus Christ is not an illusion but a life changing reality for all those who encounter His resurrection love.

A modern hymn of Brian Wren, (#104) set to a well known tune by Beethoven – Hymn to Joy – has this wonderful second verse;

Christ is Risen! Raise your spirits from the caverns of despair,
Walk with gladness in the morning, see what love can do and dare.
Drink the wine of resurrection, not a servant, but a friend,
Jesus is our strong companion, Joy and peace shall never end!

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Easters Alarm!

 
EASTER SUNDAY
Reading: Psalm 118:1-2,14-24, Isaiah 25:6-9, Acts 10:34-43, Mark 16:1-8
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, Ellicott City, April 5th 2015

Mark 16, verse 6 “He said to them, ‘"Do not be alarmed”’. Easy for him to say that! He wasn’t the one who had traveled to a tomb to prepare a broken body for burial. He wasn’t the one who had arrived there expecting to see a great huge stone in the way and discover that it had gone. He wasn’t the one who had walked into the tomb and found, instead of a corpse, a young man dressed all in white saying, “Don’t be alarmed”.

Alarmed? Concerned? Stressed out? You bet they were! I mean it was a pretty futile endeavor in any case, going to anoint a body that you probably wouldn’t even be able to get to because of a huge stone and some guarding soldiers that would be in the way. Some would say that the whole endeavor was an exercise in pointlessness. But.. hey.. let the women go and try and do that stuff if they want to. At least they’ll feel like their doing something – no matter how senseless!

Life. That day-to-day thing that occupies all of our time. Life can sometimes seem a futile affair. We’re born, we get by, we die. If we’re lucky we have a few good times along the way, but we come from the dust and back to the dust we go. And there is so much that is pointless and meaningless. So much undeserved suffering and cruelty, so many people just feeling that their trapped, going through the same old routine and nothing ever changes and what’s the point in it in any case, whatever has happened will happen again, it’s just a cruel, tired, old circle that goes round and around.

‘Don’t be alarmed’ says the white robed young man sitting on the right side of tomb. Easy for him to say! The only other time the phrase “Don’t be alarmed” appears in Marks Gospel, is in Mark 13:7 when Jesus tells His disciples, “When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come.” Don’t be alarmed? At wars and rumors of wars? At life’s futility? At the way the world is and the way the world may be going? Don’t be alarmed? Lord, that’s not so easy!

So maybe this Easter Day is a good time to look at the reasons why the young white robed tomb guy tells the women not to be alarmed.

The first reason he tells them not to be alarmed is because they were looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who had been crucified. They are not to be alarmed because they were doing the right thing. Although some around them would tell them that they were misguided and foolish in their quest to find Jesus, they should block out those voices and be assured, that in looking for Jesus, the Jesus who died upon the Cross, they were doing the right thing.

There are always voices telling us not to look for Jesus. There are a thousand things that call us to look to them for fulfillment. To our careers, to our friends, to our families, to our possessions, to our achievements, to the next best thing or the last great thing. But look to Jesus.. oh.. don’t go there.

And Him crucified? No. Avoid suffering at all cost. Never face the dark side of life, never think for one moment about your own mortality. Pass on by, drive on through, let it go. Don’t look for crosses.

If we are here this morning seeking Jesus Christ, the Christ who died on the Cross for us, then listen for God’s word... ‘don’t be alarmed’. You are doing something right, you are doing something positive. By being here, in the presence of those seeking to know God, if you are looking for Jesus, be assured, you are looking for the right thing.

The second reason he gives them not to be alarmed is that he tells them He has been raised; He is not here.They were looking for the right person, but were they looking in the right place? Not right then! They were looking in a tomb for one who was alive. Living people tend not to live in tombs.

Maybe we are looking to Jesus. But are we looking in the right place? Are we prepared to encounter a Jesus who shatters all our illusions about why we may be here and what life is about and how we can best live it? Or do we just want a God to put the rubber stamp on the way we’ve always done things, to sanctify our everyday without making any changes, to pat us on the back and say, “Good job, carry on the way you are”?

Do we want the resurrected, living Jesus Christ? The unpredictable living Lord, who unsettles the settled, disturbs the comfortable, and turns the tables on the contented? Dead people don’t live again! Resurrections aren’t supposed to happen! It changes everything. It makes the things we count important, irrelevant! It means we’ve been spending our lives chasing things that count for nothing! 'He’s not here, He has been raised!’. Don’t be alarmed?

Don’t be alarmed. Be in awe. Be, for at least a while, dumb-struck. Allow the death shattering implication of Christ’s resurrection to knock you out of your complacency, to shake you awake, to rock your world. In Christ, death is no more. Death is a loser. All the forces that mocked Him and cursed Him, and spat upon Him and tortured Him and hammered the nails into His body and left Him for dead and wanted to do away with Him, all that and all those are … defeated and vanquished and gone. Christ has the victory.

So be not alarmed. All the garbage, all the suffering, all the evil and bad that life has thrown our way, Jesus is greater, Jesus is higher, Jesus is bigger, Jesus is over it all. He is not here. Dead. Defeated. Over. Jesus is alive. Don’t be alarmed. The game rules have changed, but praise God, we’re still in the game! And victory, in Christ, can be ours.

A third thing the young man tells them. “Go, tell His disciples and Peter that He is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as He told you." It is those last words I’d like to focus on as we draw near to a table laid with bread and wine. “Just as He told you”.

In Marks gospel, following Chapter Eight, Jesus tells the disciples on a number of occasions, ‘I am going to Jerusalem. I will be put to death. But three days later I will rise again’. He told them, but... ‘foopp’... it went in one ear and out the other. When the reality of His death hit them, it took all other thoughts away.

Tragedy and suffering have a way of doing that. They are so immense, like a huge stone rolled across a tomb, we don’t believe we can get around them. So we are called to remember what Jesus has told us.

One of the things He has told us is to remember Him by breaking bread and drinking wine. “Do this to remember me”. Do this because Jesus died, He is Risen and His word is true. Do this in such way that the reality of all that He did and said makes an impact on the way you live your life. Do this, not to remember a dead friend, but to remind yourself that the Good Shepherd who gave his life for the sheep, lives and walks with His people by the still waters, the raging torrents and through valleys full of the shadows of death.

Do not be alarmed. Recall the promises of God. Do not be alarmed. “He is going ahead of you”. Do not be alarmed. “You will see Him, just as He told you”. Do not be alarmed. You are doing the right thing looking for Jesus. Don’t let anybody convince you otherwise. Do not be alarmed. He can be found through nurturing your life with bread and wine, by accepting God on God’s terms, by placing your life into His hands and with the preparedness to do His will.

Do not be alarmed. Easy for you to say! But I’m going to say it anyway. Because the words aren’t mine. They are from God. Words spoken to anxious seekers in a time of great confusion. Do not be alarmed. Believe in the risen Christ. Do those things He is calling you to do. Live in the light of His living presence. Be those who go and, even though they are at times fearful, continue to declare the Good News, that ‘CHRIST IS RISEN’… “HE IS RISEN INDEED!” AMEN.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.