Monday, November 30, 2015

Gabriel And The Doubting Priest

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Famous Last Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 16, 2015

Hebrews 6 - Faith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let me pull some thoughts from that definition.

1. Faith is a journey.

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Faith is transformational

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Faith is driven by Grace.

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

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

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

I love the words of that old gospel hymn;

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Hebrews 5 - How Much More?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I like the way Eugene Peterson translates Hebrews 9:14

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

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

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

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

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.