Monday, June 29, 2015

Bartimaeus


Reading: Mark 10:46-52
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, June 28th, 2015

When things go wrong most people cry out for help. 'God, help us!’ When everything else has failed, a desperate prayer, often little more than wishful thinking, is offered. 'God help me!' When there’s nothing left to lose, only then will some people start yelling into the unknown.

The gospel of Mark gives us a story of a man at rock bottom who meets Jesus and is transformed. Our kids will be learning more about him during Vacation Bible School. His name is Bartimaeus, a blind beggar man sitting by the road, pushed aside by the crowd. I sense that there is a bit of the Spirit of Bartimaeus in us all.

Blind . . . well maybe not in a physical sense, but we can be blind to the things that really count in life. Endlessly pursuing unreachable ideals. Hoping something good will happen next time, or maybe the time after. But are our ideals worth pursuing? What if nothing good happens next time? What of such things as love, beauty, and truth? What place in our lives have they--how much do they matter?

Beggars… again not in a material sense, but spiritually speaking we can be living in total poverty. We can talk a lot about God but know God very little. We can talk a lot about prayer, yet often our prayers boil down to little more than cries for help and we can find praying an empty, desperate, and desolate task.

Sitting by the road . . . sometimes we feel life is passing us by. Feelings of isolation, loneliness, just being left out of it all are common amongst most people. Pushed aside by the crowd . . . who wants to know our problems? Who cares about us, everyone’s too busy getting on with their own lives . . . our cries are drowned out amongst the crowd.

The situation of Bartimaeus, a blind beggar man sitting at the side of the road, pushed aside by the crowd. Bartimaeus came to Jesus and was healed

The story starts out with an act of recognition. At the lowest level, Bartimaeus sees his only hope in the person of Christ. He persists in his request for help in spite of what others around him suggest. Secondly there is response … he hears the call of Jesus to come to Him and he makes known to Jesus exactly what is on his mind. Finally, there’s reception. He receives from Jesus new vision and resolves to follow Him.

It starts out with an act of recognition

'When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, Bartimaeus began to shout, ‘Jesus! Son of David! Take pity on met’ Many of the people scolded him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted even more loudly. ‘Son of David, take pity on me! ‘'

Can you imagine the scene if some famous person were visiting today. A reception would be laid on. Important people would be informed. The police would be out in force. Crowds would line the roadside.

Imagine the embarrassment if among the crowd there was an old blind beggar who insisted on shouting at the top of his voice 'Take pity on me.' No doubt people would say 'Sh . . don’t make a fuss.' There would be an air of embarrassment. No one likes a scene.

Such a situation would be similar to that of Bartimaeus when Jesus came to town. He shouted out 'Jesus, have mercy on me!' and the crowd told him to be quiet. But he kept shouting. He knew that Jesus was the only one who could meet his need. The doctors had failed him. The crowd were embarrassed by him and pushed him aside. What had he to lose? If only he could get through to Jesus then he’d be fine.

As we gather together to worship God, God’s promise is that He will be present in the power of the Holy Spirit. Bartimaeus was blind. He couldn’t see Jesus, but he sensed something was happening! He’d heard enough about Him to think that Jesus was worth seeking out and worth shouting about.

The voices of the crowd come to him, scolding him, telling him to be quiet. So today may voices come to us. 'Don’t take this too serious. Even if you shout it out, nobody’s going to hear you! Jesus hasn’t got time to deal with your problems. He has more important things to do.'

The gospel proclaims Jesus is interested and that He’s already dealt with our problems. When over 2000 years ago, they nailed Him to a cross, the cry came from His lips—'It is finished' . . . His work was complete. In a once-and-for-all act, he took the penalty of sin, bore the burden upon Himself, and broke its power for eternity.

The first thing we see in Bartimaeus’ story is recognition of Christ. Bartirmaeus recognized his need of Christ and was persistent in shouting out for that need to be met in spite of what the crowds said. What happened next? Response.

V49 - 'Jesus stopped and said, ‘Call him.’ So they called the blind man. ‘Cheer up,’ they said. ‘Get up; He is calling you.’ He threw off his cloak, jumped up, and came to Jesus. ‘What do you want me to do for you?’ Jesus asked him. ‘Teacher,’ said the blind man, ‘ I want to see again.

Prayer is one of the greatest privileges of Christian life. We are called to persevere in prayer--as Paul wrote to the Ephesians (6:18) 'Pray on every occasion as the Spirit leads--for this reason keep alert and never give up. Pray always for all God’s people.'

One reason why prayers don’t always seem to be answered is that we give up too easily. We give up too easily because we don’t seriously believe in our hearts that God is listening and prepared to answer. How different was the plea of Bartimaeus. He kept yelling. He wholeheartedly believed Jesus was interested in him and could restore his vision. If something is important, then it will be on our lips in prayer to God. If our prayer is not from the heart, then God will see through the words and hear what our heart’s actually saying.

Bartimaeus yelling in the crowd was his prayer from the heart. It Jesus stopped in His tracks. Jesus said 'Call him.' Jesus calls us. We read God’s Word in the Bible, and it calls us to modify our vision on life. We look at the symbols of faith, the cross, bread and wine, water of baptism, and they are all calls of Jesus for us to come to Him.

When we pray, God calls us to see what Christ has accomplished for us in the cross. He calls us to encounter Him in the risen power of His Spirit. That is God’s response to us. How, then, should we respond to God? Bartimaeus was told to do two things. 'Cheer up' and 'Get up.'

'Cheer up'--if we believe God is calling us then we should respond with joy. The fruits of the Spirit are described as love, joy, and peace. To our shame, formal worship of God can be a joyless experience. 'People fall asleep! Church is boring!' These are accusations laid at our door. Someone has put it rather cynically 'When you’re thinking of heaven, put a smile on your face; when you’re thinking of hell, your normal face will do!' Yet this should be the most joyful place in town today--because Jesus is here and is calling us to cheer up--for He knows all about our worries and problems.

We’ve also got to 'Get up.' In Bartimaeus case, he threw off his cloak, jumped up, and came to Jesus. For a blind man, that really was a leap of faith. Beggars don’t usually have much in the way of possessions. But a cloak was a valuable piece of clothing. You could sleep in it at night, wrap it around to keep out the cold, sit on it during the day. He probably knew the texture of the cloth, rather like a well-worn pair of shoes. There’s nothing as comfortable as that which you’re used to. It was, even though not much of a cloak, worth looking after and protecting. It was all he had.

Responding to the call of Jesus means being prepared to leave our particular cloak behind. It means rethinking our attitudes and values in the light of His teaching. It means casting off those things which are not to the glory of God in our lives. To put it in the words of Scripture--casting off our cloak of unrighteousness and putting on a garment of praise.

When we respond to God by 'cheering up' and 'getting up,' we place ourselves in a position where we can bring Him our requests and needs with the assurance that He is listening and able to meet them. Once Bartimaeus had gone forth in faith, Jesus asked 'What do you want me to do for you? Bartimaeus says, 'Teacher, I want to see again.'

A simple request and an obvious one for a blind man to make, and his need is met. His story ends V52 - '‘Go,’ Jesus told him ‘Your faith has made you well.’ once he was able to see and followed Jesus on the road. ‘'

We all need healing. The love of Christ brings healing to a sick world. We can be spiritually dead. For Bartimaeus, the final step in his healing process was one of reception. He had already shown his faith by recognizing in Christ the answer to his needs and responding to His call. He had made the request. All that he had to do was to receive His healing. Jesus spoke the word, and it was done.

God has shown His love for us in Christ crucified. That death has dealt already with all our problems. If that is to be real in our own lives, we need to receive the Spirit, receive for ourselves the Spirit of the Living God. Only then will we see clearly how we can follow Jesus along roads in our present life that lead to His kingdom.

Jesus healed blind Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus was a man who recognized his need of Christ’s touch in spite of the voices of the crowd and wouldn’t keep quiet about it, for he knew that only Christ could truly meet his need. He was a man who responded to the call of Christ by launching out in faith, being prepared to leave the old way behind and look for the new. This was his joy... to respond to the call of Christ. He was a man who received. His faith translated into action. His actions meant he was in a position that Christ could say to Him 'What do you want me to do for you.' He made his request and his need was met. A vision restored and new life in Christ’s service.

If we come to Jesus as did Bartimaeus, He will also meet our needs. He has enough love for each one of us. That is the message of the story of Bartimaeus. If we come to Jesus as we are, if we seek Him for we know He alone can meet our need, then we shall not be disappointed. Resolve in your heart today to make time for meeting with Jesus, for He is closer to us than we even dare to imagine.

To His name be all honor, power, and glory. Amen.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Shadrach, Mischach and Abednego


Readings; Psalm 133, Mark 4:35-41, 2 Cor 6:1-13, Daniel 3:13-28
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, June 21st, 2015

On Wednesday a small group of us met in Hebron House for Bible study. We had no idea that later that day, in Charleston, SC, another small group of our brothers and sisters in Christ would be doing something similar, but that by the end of their study, due to the actions of a racist thug, nine of them, including their pastor, would be dead.

What kind of world do we live in? Our bible reading gave us an account of Shadrach, Mischach and Abednego, three characters who will be featured in our Vacation Bible school this year.

Shadrach, Mischach and Abednego were Jewish exiles who lived in Babylon during the time of King Nebuchadnezzar. Along with Daniel, after whom is named the biblical book in which they appear, the challenge of their lives is how to live faithfully in a world that had gone crazy and did not accept or respect their values.

Daniel chapter 3 offers some important lessons about faith.
  • Faith is not immunity
  • Faith offers security
  • Faith brings opportunity

Faith is not immunity

Although they were in a culture far from home Daniel, Shadrach, Mischach and Abednego had carved out a favorable place in King Nebuchadnezzar's government. So favorable that some, in particular a group known as the Chaldeans, resented their equality, and were extremely jealous of them.

At the start of Chapter 3 King Nebuchadnezzar erects a giant golden statue of himself and orders that, every time certain music was played, all people had to bow down and worship him. It wasn't unusual for kings of this period to proclaim themselves gods, a practice that would later be followed by some of the emperor's of Rome.

Being faithful Jews, Shadrach, Mischach and Abednego, are not about to start bowing down to any golden idol. They knew what happened when their ancestors tried to worship a golden calf in the wilderness. When the music plays, Shadrach, Mischach and Abednego, do not bow down. Their spiteful Chaldean enemies seize upon their refusal as an opportunity to get rid of them and report this act of rebellion to King Nebuchadnezzar, who is furious!

Practicing our faith in God can cause us to be in conflict with those who do not share our beliefs. Events that have just happened in South Carolina remind us that faith does not make us immune to trouble or offer a free ride. Commitment has consequences. Opening our hearts in abundant welcome is always a risk. We are called to be 'in the world but not of the world.'

The values of the kingdoms of this world are not the values of the Kingdom of God. Shadrach, Mischach and Abednego were not looking for trouble. They were placed in a situation where they had no option but to stand for what they knew was right. They are summoned before the King to answer for their non-compliance. Here we witness a second thing...

Faith offers security

Shadrach, Mischach and Abednego are not superheroes. The king gives them a chance to recant and threatens them with severe punishment if they do not. They know they have to make a stand for their faith, but they are uncertain what the outcome is going to be. In verse 17 they confidently declare that God can deliver them. But in verse 18 they don't seem so sure. Even if He does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up."

I am reminded here of the opening words to the PC(USA) brief affirmation of faith 'In life and death, we belong to God, through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit.' In life and death! That's the security our faith encourages to operate from. To believe that God will be with us, no matter what. To say 'Even if the worst possible outcome happens from this event, I am still going to trust in the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.'

In Matthew 26:37 we read how Jesus went to pray in the Garden of Gethsemane, wrestled with God's call on His life and 'became anguished and distressed.' He pleads with the Father that there may some other way His work could be achieved, but ultimately declares that God's will must be done. He, like Shadrach, Mischach and Abednego, will do the right thing, because in the security of God's love, that is the right thing to do. God alone can take care of the outcome.

Shadrach, Mischach and Abednego are tied up and thrown into the fiery furnace. That's when the unexpected happens. King Nebuchadnezzar looks into the furnace. Then he 'leaped to his feet in amazement and asked his advisers, "Weren't there three men that we tied up and threw into the fire?" They replied, "Certainly, Your Majesty." He said, "Look! I see four men walking around in the fire, unbound and unharmed, and the fourth looks like a son of the gods.'

The traditional Jewish interpretation was that it was an angel or messenger from God that was with them in the flames. But 'Son of the gods' was a close enough phrase for Christian interpreters from early times to suggest that it was Jesus, the Son of God above all others, who is there in the furnace watching over these three brave saints.

The interpretation is clear. When we walk through the flames, God is with us. Not urging us on, not shouting directions from a distance, but right there, feeling the heat, taking the blows and absorbing the pain. Some may say 'Where was God this past Wednesday?' We can say where God was not. God was not pulling the trigger. God was not in the hatred. God was not firing the bullets. God was in the midst of the fire.

Our V.B.S. materials describe the story in this way 'Right now Jesus is at work through us, right where He has placed us. We trust in Him and we help those around us in His name.' Which brings us to a third thing we see in this passage.

Faith brings opportunity

Shadrach, Mischach and Abednego escape the flames unharmed. King Nebuchadnezzar is impressed. What their Chaldean enemies had intended for harm, God had turned to good. Our story concludes (Daniel 3:28) with Nebuchadnezzar saying "Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Mischach and Abednego, who has sent His angel and rescued His servants! They trusted in Him and defied the king's command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God.”

A moment in time such as this, a day when many hearts are with the grieving congregation at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church, this is a moment to consider what we are willing to bow down to. It's a moment to reflect on all the forces that seek to deny liberty and value to fellow human beings and refuse to yield in the face of bigotry and prejudice.

Will we bow down to forces that tell us that if we want to be safe in church then we need to carry a firearm with us? Will we bow down to those who measure a persons worth by their social standing, by their race or nationality or color or political creed? Will we bow down to those who seek by force to control and coerce, be it by the force of economic control or by stifling debate through distraction or intimidation? Can we allow this moment in time to be an opportunity to bring about lasting change?

We never read of the King getting rid of his statue or of him becoming a convert to the God of Judaism, but we do know that from this point on things were different for Shadrach, Mischach and Abednego.

Faith brought opportunity. When we commit to living faithful lives we don't know what kind of witness to the presence of God we may called to offer. As we see events unfolding in Charleston, the prayers, the words of forgiveness, the declarations of both sadness and hope, we can but pray that God can take this horrible moment and do what God does best, turn tragedy into opportunity and turn crosses into resurrections.

Shadrach, Mischach and Abednego. They weren't trying to prove anything or make out they were special. They were simply being faithful to what they believed. Faithfully living out our beliefs is the best we can aim for! We are not given any guarantee what may result from such a life, but the witness of scripture is that a faithful life creates opportunity for God's grace to impact other peoples lives.

Three lessons on faith. Shadrach, Mischach and Abednego.

  • Faith is not immunity. To live faithfully is a challenge. It means going against the flow. Sometimes there will be conflict.
  • Faith offers security. In life and death we belong to God. Knowing that God promises to walk with us through the fires grants us a solid base to deal with what ever life brings our way.
  • Faith brings opportunity. We cannot predict the outcome of a faithful life. We just trust God that as we try and do the right thing, because it is the right thing to do, then God will use that witness as an opportunity for grace.

May these lessons of faith encourage us to live boldly for God even in the midst of such unsettling days. Amen!

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, June 15, 2015

The Wisdom of Deborah


Readings; Judges 4:4-16
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, June 14th, 2015

All sorts of things going on today here in the great outdoors. Baptism. Graduates. Sunday School Teachers. And of course, it's our Tartan Sunday when we recall our Presbyterian denominations Scottish heritage.

Today's lessons about a lady called Deborah. In a few weeks time, during our Vacation Bible School, we'll be thinking about Deborah. She was a wise lady who led the nation during a time when an enemy King, called Sisera, was threatening to destroy the people.

Deborah reminds me of other historic women leaders. Women like Queen Boadecia who led a rebellion against the empire of Rome in Celtic Britain. Ladies like Joan of Arc, who led the French to victory at Orleans and became both a Catholic saint and a national heroine.

According to legend around 200BC there lived, in Scotland, a great warrior queen whose name was Scáthach. Her wisdom was her ability to train young warriors to fight. Many later Scottish hero's claimed her as their inspiration. Queen Scáthach lived in a castle, Dun Scaith, on the Isle of Skye. Some suggest the island was named after her.

To be trained by Scáthach was not an easy process. To get to her fortress, first one had to cross the 'Plain of Ill-Luck' and then the 'Glen of Peril'. After that you had to cross the 'Bridge of Leaping'. As soon as you set foot on it, the end swung up and flung you back to where you had came from. Few would-be students ever made it across. If they could get there, they were worth training!

Her chroniclers claim nobody, be they man or woman, ever beat her in combat. At her castle, she taught unusual martial arts such as pole vaulting in order to assault forts, underwater fighting, and combat with a deadly spear of her own invention, called the 'Gáe Bolg'. She is said also to have been able to see the future and predict dangerous battles.

Scáthach is described as 'a tall woman, of pleasing figure and long fiery red hair.' She sounds more like Xena warrior princess than Deborah of Israel! We have no idea what Deborah looked like, but the Scottish warrior queen Scáthach reminds me of Deborah. They both lived in the hill country. They both lived at a time when their lands were not united but divided into many different clans and competing groups. They were both wise and insightful leaders. From our Scripture reading we learn how Deborah faced her responsibilities with great wisdom.

  • She knew the plan
  • She stayed close to the action
  • She witnessed the victory.

She knew the plan

We first encounter Deborah holding court under a tree named 'The Tree of Deborah'. People from all around are coming to her to have their disputes settled. Family matters. Boundary disputes. Accusations of unfairness or demands for justice. To be a judge was a high calling.

We are also told she was a prophet. To be a prophet meant having the ability to interpret the events of the day and speak the word of God to them. It was not a matter of being able to magically see the future or gazing into a crystal ball, but having knowledge of what was happening around her and knowing what action needed to be taken.

The modern celebration of Tartan Sunday stems partly from actions of a Scottish minister, Rev Peter Marshall, one time pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. In 1943 he was the first Chaplain of the U.S. Senate.

In order to encourage Scottish-Americans to sign up to fight on behalf of Great Britain, in the second world war, he revived an ancient ceremony that went back to 1746, when the English government passed an act of proscription, forbidding Scottish people to wear their tartans in public.

As an act of national pride, and great risk, once a year, the Scottish people would bring their tartans to church, usually hidden under their clothing, and the priest would bless them and pray that the clans would be restored and peace return to their land.

These were, in the truest sense of the word, prophetic actions. The Scottish people did find freedom. (And if the recent general election results are anything to go by, continue to seek independence!) Many U.S. citizens did indeed come to the aid of their allies in Europe to fight the evils of Hitler and the Nazi's.

Back in Deborah's day, she saw the threat from Sisera and his iron chariots and not only summoned one of her generals, Barak son of Abinoam from Kedesh, to take action, but also instructed him in the plans she had received from God, to fight the battle. She was wise. She knew her God. She read the signs of the times. She knew that God could guide her and her people through the most difficult of situations. But she didn't leave them to it.
She stayed close to the action

We read in verse 8 'Barak said to her, "If you go with me, I will go; but if you don't go with me, I won't go." "Certainly I will go with you," said Deborah. "But because of the course you are taking, the honor will not be yours, for the LORD will deliver Sisera into the hands of a woman.'

It was just as unusual for a woman to be in charge in Deborah's day as it was in the times of Joan of Arc, Boadecia and Scáthach. But that doesn't hold her back. The battle was in the hands of God, not any person, male or female. It is the Lord who will deliver them, and it it is to her God that Deborah, in a later chapter, sings a song of praise.

Playing a role in the victory are people known as the 'Kenites'. They appear to be neither in sympathy with the Israelites or with their enemies, but occupy a neutral role, having been descendants of a brother-in-law to Moses. What a tangled web family, kith and kin can sometimes be!

It is God who travels with us into the battles of our own lives, and often he does so by providing people, women and men, young and old, family and those not related to us in any way we are sure of, to stand with us and guide us. We do well to listen to their wisdom and hear their voices.

Why? Because when we are going through difficult times often we aren't seeing straight and we need others to guide us. That's what being a church, being a community is all about! That's what we were promising in our baptism. We'll stand by this family. That's what we hope for our graduates. That wherever they go, they'll know we desire God's blessing upon them. That's why we honor out teachers. They are our personal warrior trainers 'Scáthach's'... training our young ones in the way they should go (though hopefully with peace and love, not deadly spears!)

God promises to go with us, and we will find God's guidance in the voices of those around us. We listen to their voices and seek to be a means of guidance towards others. As it says in our VBS handbook, one of the lessons of this passage is that 'No matter what our age or vocation, we can and should learn from God's Word and share it with others as we help and serve them in God's name”. Finally, the wisdom of Deborah is shown in this,

She witnessed the victory.

Judges chapter 5 is titled 'The Song of Deborah'. Biblical scholars suggest it is one of (if not the) oldest passages in the whole of the Bible. It tells the tale of the battle, including the aftermath, when another lady warrior called Jael, the wife of Heber the Kennite, does away with Israels enemy Sisera with a tent peg!

We won't be covering that passage in VBS. As someone has observed, 'All of life is within the Bibles pages'. All I want to say about that is the final observation of chapter 5. There was peace in the land for the next 40 years. Under Deborah's wise leadership, though there were battles that had to be fought, eventually the result was that peace was restored.

Tartan Sunday is a day that recalls times of conflict that eventually led to peace. That appears to be the way of the world. Be it in the highlands of Scotland or the hill country of Israel, be it in the fortunes of empires or the struggles of our own lives, we are encouraged to trust in God to guide us and lead us.

  • To trust that God has a plan for our lives.
  • To trust that God will walk with us through the battles we face. That God will guide us through the voices of others as we seek to be a presence for good in other peoples lives.
  • To believe that if we stick with God's plan we will witness the victory of God's love!

Such are all lessons we can learn from Deborah of Israel!

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Courage of David

Readings; Psalm 138, Mark 3:20-35, 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, 1 Samuel 17:32-40
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, June 7th, 2015

In a few weeks time the churches annual Vacation Bible School will take place. I know a number of you will be involved. As I looked at the Camp Discovery' curriculum 'I realized that it contains some stories that are familiar to us, such as David and Goliath and others, such as the prophetess Deborah in the book of Judges that are not so well known. Each week leading up to V.B.S. we will take a look at one of the stories.

Today we are on familiar ground. The courage of David. The account of the shepherd boy who would become King, confronting and defeating a Philistine giant called Goliath. In the earliest part of the story we are introduced to a young man whose courage is a direct result of faith in his God.

In each of our lives we have battles to fight. They may not come to us as giant Philistines but in the guise of illness or addiction, tragedy or disappointment, loss or confusion. In each instance we are called by God to face our giants with courage. What was the source of young David's courage?

  1. Faith in his God
  2. Faith in his ability.
  3. Faith in his individuality.
Faith in God

In verse 37 David declares 'The LORD who rescued me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will rescue me from the hand of this Philistine.'

Though he will later express confidence in his own abilities, David is quite clear that whatever capabilities he had, they were a gift from God. A God who equipped him to face the challenges life brought his way. As he would later express in the 23rd Psalm, the 'Lord' was his shepherd. His God was the source of all he could achieve and all that he aspired to be.

For David, God was not some abstract theory or object for discussion. God is the atmosphere in whom he lived, and moved and had his being. God was the air he breathed. If you put the proposition to David that God did not exist, David would not understand the question. If he had a slogan on his T-Shirt it would probably say “God Is!”

Such an uncomplicated and deep faith was as unusual in his day, as it is in ours. It was not a faith shared by his brothers, by King Saul, or by most of the nation of Israel. It didn't mean David was without his faults. In his life he would later have some glaring moral failures, but even these were lived out within the larger framework of a God who was the ground of all being.

It was God who gave him courage. It is that same God who can grant us the grace and courage to face the crazy situations that life brings to our doorstep. We live in God's world. We are God's people. We can question that. We can kick against it. We can try and find different ways of dealing and coping. We can take things into our own hands and trust in our own expertise.

That's exactly the strategy the Israelite army and King Saul adopted. But not David. David's perspective was that he was God's child, this was God's world and that every battle had to be fought with God's help for God alone could bring victory. His faith gave him courage. But there was another aspect to his life.

Faith in his ability.

Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God.” (1 Sam 17:36)

There are situations where the phrase 'Let Go and Let God' does not apply. When David saw the sheep being threatened he took hands on action. He rescued one of them from the very mouth of the lion or bear. His trust in God did not mean that he stood back and let things happen. He got stuck in and fought with all his strength to fulfill the duty that God had given him... in that instance, looking after some sheep on a lonely hillside.

There's nothing particularly glamorous or enviable about David's position. He was the youngest son, the one least likely to be an achiever. He's just a kid... and a kid brother at that. The only reason David goes to the battle lines is because his father Jesse wants to provide the army with much needed provision and sends them some cheese. (1 Sam 17:18 'Blessed are the cheese-makers?') When he arrives at the battle lines his brother Eliab accuses him of neglecting his shepherding duties and tells David to go home as he was only there to be a spectator.

David does indeed witness what is going on. He's not impressed. He can't understand why everybody is so concerned about an ungodly, giant Philistine. How could God's people not understand that God was on their side? Why were they all so afraid? Didn't they realize that God could give the victory? Didn't they understand that those God calls, God also equips to face the challenges before them?

Young though he was, on numerous occasions, he had experienced God's deliverance. He knew what faithful action looked like. You did what you had to do, to the best of your ability, and let God take care of the outcome!

I'm sure that still applies to the challenges we face in our own lives. We cannot sit back and passively allow destructive things, to take their course. We take action, we intervene as best as we know how, whilst trusting that the outcome remains the work of the grace of God. To quote from the VBS lesson on David; “God gives us courage to serve in our vocations as sons or daughters, brothers or sisters, citizens or students, and other positions. In all our vocations, big or small, Jesus is at work through us as we serve others in His name with boldness and courage.” Finally, notice this about David. He had...

Faith in his individuality.

God has not created us all the same. We battle our personal giants as unique individuals. One persons way of doing things might not be our way of doing things. Another persons equipping may not be the way God is equipping us to deal with situations that threaten our well being.

Saul dressed David in his own tunic. He put a coat of armor on him and a bronze helmet on his head. David fastened on his sword over the tunic and tried walking around, because he was not used to them. "I cannot go in these," he said to Saul, "because I am not used to them." So he took them off. Then he took his staff in his hand, chose five smooth stones from the stream, put them in the pouch of his shepherd's bag and, with his sling in his hand, approached the Philistine.” (17:38-40)

If David had gone along with Saul's game plan he would have failed. Saul's armor restricted him. It didn't fit. David could hardly even walk around in it. So he took it off and equipped himself with weapons that had served him well in the past.

Every battle we face is preparing us for the next one that comes along. As we go through life we live and we learn. We discover our individuality. We learn that not one size fits all. We learn that the way one person handles something may not be the way we are called to handle something.

I believe that God uniquely places us in situations where we can be of the most use. That when Jesus talks about 'preparing a place for us', such is not a perspective that only applies to the after-life. Where we have been, is preparing us for what we are going.

Always there are people around us who will tell us 'That's not how I would do things. You need this and you need that'. Sometimes their advice is helpful. Other times we have to trust that God knows best and that the path God has led us to, at that point in our lives, is the best one to instruct us.

Such a strategy turned out pretty well in David's case. With his staff, five smooth stones and his sling in his hand, the giant is taken down. That was how God had prepared him to fight the battle and that's how he did it!

The courage of David. A theme we'll be exploring in a few weeks time during our Vacation Bible School. As we come to the table of bread and wine this morning, I invite you to reflect on the source of David's courage.

He had an unquestioning trust in God. For David, God was the air that he breathed. Everything in his life happened in relation to his faith.

David trusted in his God given abilities. When trouble came calling he did what he could do and trusted God to take care of the rest.

David was aware of his individuality. He understood that every battle in his life was equipping him to deal with the next one he would face. He learned from his past, how best he could shape his future, in a unique and personal God given way.

A verse in Psalm 23 declares 'You prepare a table before me in the presence of my adversaries'. David knew that there would be days when his faith would be threatened. He also knew the value of strengthening his faith around a table laid with good things. We are invited today to find courage through remembering Jesus Christ through participating in the sacrament of Holy Communion.

We are invited to remember that Christ is with us and that the Lord is indeed our Shepherd who, through the action of the Holy Spirit, uniquely shapes our lives into vessels suited for Kingdom service.


The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Hot Coals

 TRINITY SUNDAY
Readings: Psalm 29, John 3:1-7, Romans 8:12-17, Isaiah 6:1-8
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, on Sunday May 31st 2015

Isaiah was a creature of habit. He was a believer in God. The things of God were important to him. Faith was a matter of action as well as intellectual assent. So, as he often did, he went into the temple to pray. He had no expectation that God was about to meet with him in a deep and life-transforming manner. In fact, the thought that such a thing should ever happen to a regular guy like him, probably never crossed his mind.

Can we identify with him? I’m guessing that we have come into church this morning, because that’s what we do on a Sunday. It’s a part of our lives. We believe in God. We seek for God’s will to be done. We acknowledge that we need God’s help to get us through our days. Chances are that many of us are happy having a relationship with God on that sort of level.

In fact anything more than that may actually stress us out, even more than the stresses that we come to church to try and cope with, are already stressing us out! Maybe the the last thing we need right now is a dramatic, life changing, earth-shattering encounter with the Almighty. There is a lot to be said for the notion of a 'Comfortable God'.

Isaiah at a later date would declare, 'Comfort Ye, Comfort Me, my People'. Jesus calls us to rest in His love. And are we not Presbyterians, finding comfort in notions of decency and order, taking pride in the appearance of being in control and having things ordered and in a logical pattern? The last thing we need is a change.

Did I say 'Change?' How can I resist the change jokes!

How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb? Only one. But it takes the whole church to organize the dinner that goes with it.

How many Baptists does it take to take change a light bulb? Well the preacher will talk to it, but ultimately it has to make the decision to change for itself.

How many Methodists does it take to take change a light bulb? 'Change?' said the committee, 'What is that? We don't understand the word.'

How many Presbyterians does it take to take change a light bulb? Again only one. However it is a six year long process requiring overtures to the General Assembly and a majority vote of the Presbyteries.

Actually, here at Mount Hebron it turned out that changing bulbs is indeed a lengthy process that takes the generosity of a whole congregation and a professional firm of contractors to change our light bulbs, but that's another story and takes us way off topic!

The thing is, no matter what our religious flavor, we all have strategies in place to keep the wheels of our religious traditions well oiled and avoid the sort of dramatic confrontation that Isaiah had with God in the temple, the sort that moved him out of his comfort zone.

The problem with being in the comfort zone is, of course, that nothing ever changes. Everything is lukewarm and everyday and as predictable as finding Christmas cards in Hallmark in November. I suspect complacency results in our ministry to the world being compromised. We become so consumed with keeping the wheels in motion we forget about those who don’t have wheels!

Isaiah discovered something. When God is on our case, things change. When God draws near, you change or you are consumed. When the Spirit of God starts to move, the wind will blow and the sparks will fly.

That morning when Isaiah ambled along to church, the unexpected took a hold. He has a vision of the glory of God. Isaiah 6:1 'I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple.' In Isaiah’s vision God is robed in kingly attire. This is not a little god, this is a Godzilla of a God. Huge. Think about that phrase; 'The hem of His robe filled the temple'.

In terms of our sanctuary, just a little bit of the cloth on the bottom of God's robe filled the place. That’s a big robe. That’s one huge vision to get your mind around. And then there are angels and seraphs buzzing around and music filling the air.

Today in the church calendar is Trinity Sunday, and we read that the angels, in the presence of God are singing a threefold anthem, 'Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.' I know sometimes when we have the 'Holy, Holy, Holy' hymn, and the sopranos sing that top line, boy it makes the rafters tingle. That’s nothing, Isaiah 6:4 in the temple; 'The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke.'

The imagery is similar to that used in Acts 2 when the upper room on the Day of Pentecost suddenly became a place infused with the glory of God. Mighty rushing winds. Tongues of flame falling upon the disciples. The presence of a God whose glory filled the whole earth.

The challenge this passage places before us is to consider that our vision of God is just too small. That the lack of holiness in our lives is directly related to the lack of vision we have in regard to the holiness of God. That we have a God that is constructed from images that comfort and contain rather than the wild, untamed, un-named, glory of Isaiah’s God whose temple visions scare Isaiah half to death!

Isaiah’s response? Let him use his own words; Isaiah 6:5 'I said: 'Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!'. Isaiah’s vision of God did nothing to comfort him or cause him complacency.

It reminds me of the imagery of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord; He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword: His truth is marching on.

This vision shook him to the core of his being. Yet at the same time it placed him in a situation where he was prepared to do with his life, whatever God required of him. It was a vision that revealed his sinfulness in the light of God’s holiness. He declares, 'I am a man of unclean lips'.

Picture that. The light of God shining so intensely into your life that every sin, every compromise, every wrong thought or deed is lit up like the streets of Las Vegas at the peak of holiday season. Lit up for all the world to see. 'Woe is me. I am lost'. What happened in Vegas, didn't stay in Vegas after all.

God is light. Light that lights things up. That’s what light does. Lights things up. Reveals them. Makes them incredibly easy to see. That can be a scary thought. If that’s how God is then no wonder we often prefer the shadows. No wonder we want to stay in our comfort zone. That kind of God could be dangerous. Wasn’t that just the reaction that Jesus incited in his opponents? They couldn’t take the light. They preferred the darkness.

John’s Gospel 12:5 'The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it'. Going back to the 'How many people to change the light bulb' jokes, it’s almost as though sometimes we are like a group of people who want to remove the light bulb because it is is working too well. It is making the place look untidy by revealing the cobwebs and mess that needs dealing with!

But the light does not undo Isaiah. An angel comes with a hot coal that is placed on his lips. 'Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out. ' An act of grace. It is in response to this act of grace that Isaiah then declares, 'Here am I; send me!'

I cannot recreate you for you exactly what happened to Isaiah with the hot coal on his lips. Maybe you could smother your chicken in Tabasco sauce at lunch and see if that gives you a zing. It won't convince you of the reality of God’s call on your life, but it may give the people at the next table a smile.

God has not come to us with a hot coal. God’s love has been revealed to us through something far more intense. Through a cross upon which Jesus died a torturous death, praying, 'Father, Forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing'. We have a glimpse of the Glory of God that Isaiah was never able to view. We have a cross and an empty tomb, which reveal that not only does God tower over the earth, but over death and hell, and evil, and all that would detract from life being lived in freedom and wholeness.

That should be enough to move us out of our comfort zone. The question we should ask is 'Does our faith in God mean enough to us to change the way we live? To shine a little more, so that we dare to commit a little more and actually achieve a little more in the way of being the people God wants us to be?'

We’re headed in the right direction. Like Isaiah we’ve come to the temple to pray. Christian growth seems to take place with us kicking and screaming against God every step of the way. We really don’t want to move out of our comfort zone. We fear the sort of changes God may have in mind.

But it shouldn't be that way. Can we reflect on the greatness and glory of God? Can we seek to nurture in our spirits a sense of awe and the mystery of God? Can we recognize the radical, revolutionary, hot coal-like, awesome actions of God in Christ’s death and resurrection? Are our hearts prepared to be empowered by the Holy Spirit who can sometimes be found in the wind and flame, but at other times in the stillness of the quiet following the storm?

If we apply ourselves to such things, we are, I believe, moving in the right direction. Who knows, maybe this Sunday will not be your average Sunday. Maybe somebody here and now is hearing the voice of God saying; 'Whom shall I send, and who will go?' Maybe you are that somebody? Indeed, it is probable, in a world where 'the fields are ripe for harvest, but the laborers are few', we are all people that God is calling to particular areas of service.

The right response to make to the call of God is 'Here am I; send me!'. If we make the excuse that 'We are not worthy', then God comes with the hot coal of Christ's forgiveness and says, 'No, you are not worthy, but through the forgiveness of the Cross and the empowerment of resurrection glory, my Holy Spirit will guide you!'

Isaiah went, as he often did, to pray in the temple. It turned out to be a day that changed his life. Are we prepared this day to allow this not to be your average Sunday? Are we prepared to allow God to change us and remake us? Will we embrace the call that God places upon our lives to love this world with all the strength God gives to us? 'Whom shall I send, and who will go?'. Isaiah declared 'Here am I; send me!'

What will be our response to this challenging passage of scripture?


The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.