Monday, May 25, 2015

Pressing On (Pentecost)

"Pressing on!"
PENTECOST SUNDAY
Readings: Psalm 104:24-34, Ezekial 37:1-14, Acts 2:1-21, John 15:26-27, Romans 8:22-27
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, May 24th 2015

A group of bewildered disciples are meeting in an upper room in Jerusalem. Jesus had told them after His resurrection that they needed to wait on God and be ready for what was coming next. As they wait on God in prayer, the promise of Jesus, given us in John 15:26 is fulfilled. “When the Advocate (or in some translations 'The Helper') comes, whom I will send to You from the Father, the Spirit of Truth... He will testify on my behalf.

The room is suddenly flooded with the sounds of wind and images of fire and the disciples become inflamed with a spiritual passion that they had never before experienced. They move out into the streets and begin declaring the wonders of the gospel message in ways that all can understand.

The day of Pentecost marks the birthday of the church. From that day on, that Pentecost day when the Spirit came upon them in a new and powerful way, faithful disciples have sought to press on with the task of declaring God's love to a fragmented and needy world.

It has never been easy. There has always been misunderstanding. There has always been opposition. There has always been conflict. There has always been division. The Spirit comes as a mighty wind and as tongues of fire. You cannot contain the wind. You cannot predict the path of a wind driven fire.

Paul was not with the disciples when the church was born. He had his own personal Pentecost on the road to Damascus. It was just as dramatic and powerful for his life as the Jerusalem Pentecost was for those in the upper room. He too became inflamed with a passion to declare God's love. The task fell to him, through his letters, to attempt explain for the growing church, how the Holy Spirit was at work in the world and in their lives.

In his great theological work, the Book of Romans, Paul includes a passage that speaks of how all creation is infused with a longing for redemption. Such redemption was not just going to happen overnight. The Kingdom of God would come, but their baptism by the Holy Spirit was not the culmination of the process, it was only the beginning. 2000 years later the church still lives within the tension of the kingdom she believes will come and the world as it is. Every generation has its struggles, dreams and challenges.

As individuals we sense that tension within our selves. We understand that God loves us. We celebrate resurrection. Yet often the same old problems haunt us and stifle our ability to be faithful servants of Christ. Discipleship requires more than just going with the flow and enjoying the good times. There has to be a desire to follow wherever the road might lead and to press on with endurance with the hope that, by God's grace, the Holy Spirit will enable us to complete those tasks God is calling us to. Paul mentions two things related to pressing on; Patience and Prayer.

Patience

Eugene Petersen in the Message Bible transliterates the first part of our reading from Romans 8 like this: All around us we observe a pregnant creation. The difficult times of pain throughout the world are simply birth pangs. But it's not only around us; it's within us. The Spirit of God is arousing us within. We're also feeling the birth pangs. These sterile and barren bodies of ours are yearning for full deliverance.

We read 8:25 “If we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” It is a lot easier to endure if we have a vision of what can be birthed through the process we are traveling through. That is obvious in the case of a pregnancy. But every great endeavor began as a vision of something previously thought impossible. As an example; the history of flight.

The first commercial flight in history occurred on January 1, 1914, between St. Petersburg and Tampa, flying a total of 23 minutes between the two cities separated by 21 miles of bay waters. The plane, a Benoist 14, maintained a grand altitude of 15 feet across open waters. It was piloted by Tony Jannus, and had one paying passenger, Mr. Abram Pheil, who paid $400, around $5000 in today's currency.

100 years later we think nothing of catching a flight across the country. If you go first class the price is not much different! We take it for granted that travel by air is not only possible, but normal. In fact if ever you are around an airport when flights start being delayed, you observe that patience is a virtue that some sadly lack.

For most of human history flight was inconceivable. A few crazy dreamers persevered. The first transcontinental flight took place on September 17, 1911. Cal Rodgers lifted off from a small airfield in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. In front of him lay a 4000 mile flight, no airports, and no navigation equipment.

Upon takeoff Rodger's plane immediately snagged a tree and crashed to the ground. After making repairs, Rodger's was determined to try it again. Before his journey ended, he would crash land over 15 times and make several visits to various hospitals. By the time he arrived at his destination on the West Coast, Rodger's plane had to be repaired and rebuilt so many times that little of the original craft remained. After 70 stops, numerous injuries, and 86 hours in the air, Rodger's finally reached his destination in Pasadena, California. Next time you are stuck at the airport with a delayed flight, remember Cal Rodgers. He could teach us a thing or to about patience and pressing on!

Nothing great is ever achieved without patience. That algebra task we thought we would never master. That health challenge we thought we could never face. That relationship we thought would never work out. That trip that was on our bucket list. Such things never come to fruition unless we have the patience to press on. It's not about how many times we mess up, but how many times we pick up the pieces and move forward.

Returning to the Message Bible “That is why waiting does not diminish us, any more than waiting diminishes a pregnant mother. We are enlarged in the waiting. We, of course, don't see what is enlarging us. But the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.

But what do we do when our patience is at an end? When we feel we are never going to get there?
Paul says pray.

Prayer

I have it on the highest authority that science has proved that prayer is beneficial to our well being. I saw that on the 'Today' show, so it has to be true. Matt Lauer said so. Never mind that Scripture has been suggesting as much ever since time began, now it's been on TV we can actually believe it!

For Paul, prayer is co-operating with the Holy Spirit. It is not about getting God to do things that God is reluctant to do. It is not about seeking the impossible. It is finding strength by positioning ourselves in a place where we allow God to help us.

Message Bible. 8:26-27 “ The moment we get tired in the waiting, God's Spirit is right alongside helping us along. If we don't know how or what to pray, it doesn't matter. He does our praying in and for us, making prayer out of our wordless sighs, our aching groans. He knows us far better than we know ourselves, knows our pregnant condition, and keeps us present before God.

It is as though, when our hope is all used up, the Spirit hopes on our behalf. Our groans are caught up with the sighing of all creation. We are sustained by the grace that God offers to us through Jesus Christ, our Savior and our Lord.

A popular saying in Christian circles is 'Let go and Let God'. Such a phrase never appears in scripture and is open to misinterpretation, but it can apply to our prayer life. We can reach a point when we really do not know what to pray or how to pray. At such times it is OK to say 'I can't do this'.

There's a song I know that contains the lines “Quiet resignation, Hold me or I fall, I don't need any explanation, I just need You, that's all”. Trusting God is easy when we don't have much to trust God for. The rubber meets the road when our only hope is in God's intervention and we are willing to accept whatever God's will may bring our way. It's the kind of prayer that Jesus made in Gethsemane. “Lord, not my will, but thine be done.

I'm not sure we can fully understand the state of mind of those disciples on that first Pentecost. What a seemingly impossible situation to be in. To have witnessed the unbelievable, the death, resurrection and ascension of their leader, to have come to a position of total belief in all Jesus was and came to do, but not have a clue of how to do it, other than that He had told them to go to Jerusalem and wait for the Spirit to come.

What did that mean? How would that work? The answer came as they patiently waited on God in prayer. The boldness came, the words came, the ability to declare God's love and build a community of hope beginning right where they were, suddenly were not a dream but a happening. They had to let go of everything they had previously understood and allow themselves to be embraced by new visions and new possibilities.

How would the gentiles fit into the picture? How should they regard rituals and customs they had observed for centuries? How could they live as citizens of God's Kingdom in the kingdoms of this world? Such insights would only come as they pressed on with the business of being disciples!

Flying didn't happen overnight... and the Kingdom of God will never be seen upon earth as it is in heaven without people prepared to press on with doing those things they believe God is calling them to do. It requires prayer. It requires patience. It requires the power and presence of the Holy Spirit. God can provide safety, strength, security, serenity and service. But we have to, patiently and prayerfully, let go and let God have God's way.

To borrow from a preacher I heard on the radio; “Only God can turn our 'tests' into His testimony, only God can turn our 'mess' into His message to encourage others. Keep your head up to the sky. Press on, press on, press on. Be strong in all you do, be the you God created you to be and, by the great and glorious grace of God, be ready to fly!”

So... 'Happy Birthday Church'. With all the blessings of Pentecost may we each press on in the power of the Holy Spirit towards achieving those things we believe God is calling us to. Amen!

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.


Monday, May 18, 2015

What if? What now? What next?

Readings: Psalm 1, Acts 1:15-26, 1 John 5:1-6, John 17:1-11
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, May 17th 2015

'What If?'

Have you ever considered how powerful a few words can be? Phrases such as 'I know' 'I can help' or 'I love you' carry with them a weight far beyond the number of words. One of the most loaded phrases in the English language are the two words, 'What If?' Those two little words can wrap themselves around a person’s life bringing either despair or hope.

I was talking recently with a ministerial colleague dealing with the aftermath of a bad accident. The people involved were recovering well from their physical injuries but having a hard time coming to terms with the 'What if?' of the situation.

'What if I had been concentrating more, maybe the accident could have been avoided'.
'What if I hadn’t asked for a ride, then we wouldn’t have been out driving that night'
'What if I had decided to stay five minutes later, I wouldn’t have been on the road'
The questions were creating a great deal of guilt and questioning on top of what was already a difficult state of affairs.

It’s a question we have all asked some time or other.
'What if this hadn’t happened'
'What if I had paid more attention'
'What if I had made better choices, been more conscious of the importance of that moment.'
'What if I hadn’t said that or I hadn’t done this'
What if?

'What if?' needn’t be a negative thing.
It can be a way of bringing positive change, 'What if we did things this way?'
It can be a way of discovering our potential and reaching our dreams. 'Be all that you can be'. What if we could be all that we could be?

Two little words can lead us away from 'What if'. The words 'It’s time'.
'It’s time to get over this'
'It’s time to move forward'
'It’s time to forgive'
'It’s time to try something new'

Our bible reading from John gave us a picture of Jesus in prayer. Jesus does not make a prayer full of 'What if’s' but a prayer full of 'It’s time' John 17:5 "And now, Father, glorify thou me with thine own self with the glory which I had with thee before the world was."

It was time that plans laid from before the foundation of the earth were put into action.
It was time for Him to strengthen Himself for the ordeal He was about to face.
It was time for His glory and nature to be revealed to His disciples

In the Garden of Gethsemane He had prayed ‘What if this cup could pass from me, What if there were some other way?' Now Jesus prays 'It’s time'

'It’s time Father that we showed them what it’s all about
It’s time for the Cross.
It’s time for the Resurrection.
It’s time to bring to pass the promises of old.
It’s time the Words of the Prophets were fulfilled.
It’s time to be all that I can be.
It’s glory time.'

Let us challenge ourselves and ask: Are our lives saying to God 'What if' or 'It’s time'?
What if I got around to a more disciplined time for reading the Bible?
What if I spent more time in prayer?
What if I came to church more regularly or got more involved?
Stay with 'What if" and none of that will ever happen.

‘It's time’ makes a commitment.
‘It's time’ puts things right.
'It’s time’ opens new doorways.
Otherwise you drift forever.

Saying 'It's time' – moves us to ask 'What now?'

'What now?'

Jesus was aware that the decision He was making didn't just affect Himself but also His disciples. Just as He needed strength to face His days of trial, they would need strength to face the task that lay ahead. He prays for His followers, that they may be kept in the love of God. John 17:9 "I pray for them: I pray not for the world, but for those whom thou hast given me; for they are thine"

What now would they do without Him?
What now would be their relationship with God?
What now would prevent them from making wrong decisions?

What now would happen was that their relationship with God was to change. Jesus prays to His Father 'that they may be one, even as we (are one).'

What now would happen, came to pass on Pentecost Sunday, when the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples as they gathered in the upper room, filling them with a new boldness and ability to do the will of God.

What now can help us if we wish to do the will of God?
What now can help us is the action of God’s Holy Spirit within us and around us.
Some days things come along that frustrate us and confuse us. Some days everything goes wrong and we hold up our hands to the heavens and say to a God, who seems conspicuous in absence, 'What Now?'

Such are days when we lose sight of the larger picture. One of the remarkable things about the life of Jesus was that He always carried with Him a sense of destiny and purpose. We have a real struggle with the things we are going through because we lose sight of where we are going. We are so consumed by ‘what if?’ and ‘what now?’ that we fail to see ‘What’s next?’

'What next?'

John 17:3 'And this is life eternal, that they should know thee the only true God, and Him whom thou didst send, (even) Jesus Christ.'

In His prayer Jesus pictures Eternal Life not as something that happens when we die, but as a matter of living today with a knowledge of the Grace of God and an understanding of the One He has sent to be our Savior, Jesus Christ.

Grace is the unmerited, unwarranted, undeserved blessing of God. All of Christian life is a matter of Grace. All Christian experience is an experience of Grace. All that we are, all that good that is in us and the bad that we are saved from, all is an experience of Grace.

Unmerited, unwarranted, undeserved. Oftentimes I have heard people saying about some other whose life has taken a wrong turn, 'There but for the Grace of God go I'.
What next? More Grace.
What next should we be seeking in our lives? More grace.
What next will carry us through? More Grace.
What next can we put our hopes in? More Grace.

We know that we face troubles beyond that which we can handle.
We know that saying 'What if' is usually to late.
We worry about 'What Now'

Every time the news comes in, ‘What next?'
another shooting in a school
another tornado
another revelation of political corruption
another war or international conflict
another bombing, another scandal, another disaster.

‘What next?’ is in our hands. We can choose to try and solve things our own way or we can see things from the wider perspective of the grace of God. We can seek for the grace of Jesus Christ to change us or we can stay as we are. Spiritual grace has a power nothing else possesses. When harnessed to love and common sense then there is no telling what can happen.

Let me close with this story from Philip Yancey’s book ‘What’s so amazing about Grace?’

London, England. A huge Rock Concert to celebrate the political changes in South Africa. For some reason the organizers have chosen opera singer Jessye Norman as the closing act. For twelve hours high octane rock and rollers blast an unruly crowd, many of whom are getting high on drink and drugs.

After twelve hours it comes time for Jessye to take the stage. A single spot light follows her. No backup band. No musical instruments. Just Jessye. The crowd stirs, restless. Few recognize the opera diva. A voice yells for more of rock band ‘Guns n’ Roses’. Others take up the cry. The scene is getting ugly. Alone, she begins to sing slowly; 'Amazing Grace... How sweet the sound'

A remarkable thing happened in Wembley Stadium that night. Seventy thousand raucous fans fall silent before her aria of grace. By the time she reaches the last verse, thousands are singing along: 'When we’ve been there ten thousand years, Bright shining as the sun, We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise, Than when we first begun'

Jessye Norman later confessed that she had no idea what power fell on Wembley Stadium that night. ’I think I know’ writes Philip Yancey, 'When grace descends, the world falls silent before it.'

'What if, What now, What next?' These were questions that Jesus carried in prayer before His Father God. He needed to know personally that God would carry Him through. He needed to know that Grace would come on Spirit wings to bear up His disciples.

The whole of John 17 is a prayer. As we turn to God in our own prayers, may we find that all our questions, all our ‘What if’s’ and ‘What now’s?' and 'What next’s,' fall silent in the presence of God’s Grace. Inspired by Holy Spirit love, let us seek to live out our lives in Jesus nearer presence, to the glory of God.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Wants and Needs

Readings: Psalm 23, 1 John 3:16-24, Acts 4:5-12, John 5:1-18
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, Ellicott City, April 26th 2015

Jesus heals a crippled man He finds lying by a healing pool called Beth-zatha. John 5:6. “Jesus saw the man lying there, and He knew the man had been there for such a long time, so He asked him, “Do you want to get well?”

It seems like an odd question to ask a man who has been crippled for 38 years. 'Do you want to get well? Do you want to be healed?' This is a man who had spent most of life lying on a bed by a pool, waiting in vain for his turn to be immersed into healing waters. Every time it looks like it could be his turn, he claims somebody gets there before him. It seems a pitiful case. Jesus expresses no sympathy. He asks this strange question, 'Do you want to be made whole?'

Plainly the man would only get worse if there was not a change in his circumstances. He needed to be healed. But did he want to be? Sometimes we find it hard to discern between our wants and our needs. One can only speculate as to what the man's problem with becoming whole again might be.

Maybe he had become dependent on those around him to such an extent that he could not envisage a change in his circumstances. Presumably somebody took him to the pool every day. Presumably somebody took care of feeding him and clothing him and seeing to his everyday needs. Maybe it wasn't such a bad thing to spend everyday at the pool, hanging out with people you knew and having all your needs taken care of.

Maybe he realized that in his current situation he was an object of peoples concern and sympathy. Maybe it felt good to know you were cared for and be at the center of the picture and the prospect of losing that worried him in some way.

Maybe he had simply become so used to his predicament, to his routine and his dependency, that he simply could not imagine how life could be any different or that any change was possible in his situation. Possibly he was just resigned to his fate and his status. He was a cripple. He was waiting for the moment when his chance came to participate in the lottery of the Beth-zatha pool.

A change in his situation would bring unknown challenges. How would he make his living? Presumably he had not had the opportunity to learn a trade or participate in any kind of career. What did he know about interacting with the everyday world? How would it change his relationships with other people? To move away from the pool would be a radical step to take and there were many unknown factors he would have to deal with.

So Jesus asks him to think about it. “Do you want to made well again?” As the story progresses we see other factors. In verse 14, after he has been healed, Jesus catches up with the man and tells him, “See, you have been made well! Do not sin any more, so that nothing worse happens to you!” (John 5:14)

What has this man been doing that had somehow been sinful? We are never told. But was he staying at the poolside because there were things about his life he just did not want to confront or deal with? 'Go and sin no more!' is a loaded statement! He obviously needed help. Yet confronting the reasons for his predicament was not something he wanted to do. He seems content to make excuses. 'I haven't got anyone to put me in the pool. Everybody is ahead of me. I try, but I just never get there' (verse 7).

Jesus challenges the world with the good news of the gospel. Our world desperately needs the kinds of changes that the Kingdom He proclaimed suggested. Forgiveness. Love. Hope. Everybody needs those qualities. But not everybody wants them if it means they have to make radical changes to the way they are currently doing things.

A guy said to his wife, “I don't want to go to church this morning... they talk so much, and they'll make me sing, and they'll hand that plate around and ask for money and I'm tired and I may drop off during the prayers, and I'm not in the mood for meeting people who are going to ask me how I'm doing and invite me to things” And my wife said, “Adrian. You have to go to church. You're the pastor”

People say they need community. People believe in spirituality. Yet suggest that maybe commitment to a local church might be a great place to generate such things and they look at you like you are from another planet. People have this vague idea that prayer might help, but suggest having a regular prayer time as being part of their daily schedule and you are in danger of being branded a religious nutcase! 'That's not we want, that doesn't fit in with our lifestyle or how we want things to be.'

The world is too much with us. Life moves along smoothly without anything that jolts us out of the ruts we have made for ourselves. God becomes dim and shadowy. Prayer seems unnecessary. Yet sometimes God has a way of awakening us. Trouble comes, or we face some stinging moral failure. We see a chasm opening up where before the ground has seemed solid. It is the nature of existence that problems come our way. Sometimes God can take these disasters and turn them into golden opportunities.

Jesus came to our world with that question 'Do you want to be healed?' We have our networks. We have our dependencies. We have our ways of dealing with things, we have our comfort zones! We have our list of excuses as to why radical discipleship isn't for us. If you think about it, we all create our own ways of declaring 'There is nobody to put us in the pool!' 'We can't envisage the kinds of changes you are asking us to make' 'If we change this, how will we manage to do that?'

Our reading from the Book of Acts saw Peter being confronted in a similar manner to the the man healed by Jesus. In his case the teachers of the law want to know why he is carrying his bed on the Sabbath day. The man explains to them that Jesus had told him to get up and walk and take his bed with him!

What had happened in Peter's case was that as he and John went to pray they had encountered a lame man in the temple courts. He had asked them for money, but they had no money but Peter had said to the man, 'Silver and gold have I none, but such as I have give I thee, in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth get up and walk.' And the man had walked.

Now Peter is being challenged by the authorities We read in Acts 4:8-11 'Then Peter, inspired by the Holy Spirit, answered, "Leaders of the people and elders, are we being examined today because something good was done for a sick person, a good deed that healed him? If so, then you and all the people of Israel need to know that this man stands healthy before you because of the name of Jesus Christ the Nazarene--whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead. This Jesus is the stone you builders rejected; He has become the cornerstone!”

The cornerstone, the foundation upon which everything else was built, had changed. That's how it was for the man who had been sitting by the pool of Beth-zatha. That's the kind of radical change Jesus calls us to make.

To the man by the pool it was a challenge to turn from his life of dependent waiting and embrace something new, a greater, more possibility laden existence, a life with a greater element of risk. He would be free to make his own decisions and be responsible for their outcome, to make his own mistakes and pay their price.

Can we see here Christ's challenge to us? That as we truly open our hearts and lives to Him, then we are embracing something new, we are invited to live as part of a new kingdom, under a new Lord and subject to a new set of values. We are set free to make mistakes and learn from them, to make decisions and live with the outcome.

As soon as we launch into His service we discover our weakness and helplessness. We find the truth of the matter, that without Christ we can do nothing. We meet difficulties beyond our own strength. But there is more.

For to receive His healing, to accept the wholeness He offers, is to know that He loves us and wants us. The more of Him we accept, the more we realize our need. Maybe the bottom line is 'We believe in Jesus Christ'. For that faith to mean something in our lives it has to be expressed in visible, tangible ways. Faith is something that needs exercising before it has any meaning or value. Jesus comes and says, 'Do you want to be whole?' Our wholeness, our completeness in Him can only come as we act upon the faith God grants to us.

We must learn to know the difference between our wants and our real needs. There are a lot of things in life that we may want. But the one thing that will truly satisfy is a genuine faith relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the real need of every woman, man and child, and our hearts remain restless till they find their peace in Him.

Jesus came to a man in great need. But before He could meet his need, He had to know from that man, that he wanted his needs meeting! In a similar way we are people with needs that can only be met by the Lord Jesus Christ. We need His grace. We need His forgiveness. We need His salvation. We need His love. We need His wholeness.

Before He can meet our needs, He needs to know that we want our needs to be met by Him. 'Ask', He says “And you will receive, seek and you will find.' Where there is no asking or seeking, there is no receiving or finding. Hear then the challenge of Jesus. “Do you want the wholeness of my life to be with you?'

Then... take up your bed and walk! Whatever it is that you are currently depending on, be prepared to take it to another level. Whatever it is that you currently build your hopes upon, be prepared to make a cosmic shift and allow the teaching and life of Jesus Christ to be your cornerstone. That is what it takes to experience the wholeness He offers.

Hear the challenge of Jesus ringing across the centuries ;
  • Do you wanted be healed?
  • Do you want to be made whole?
  • Then take up your bed and walk!
May God help us to rise to the challenges that are before us. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.