Monday, February 29, 2016

The Story 5. New Commands and a New Covenant

Readings: Exodus 20:2-24, Luke 19:1-6, Matthew 22:35-40, Romans 6:17-23
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, February 28th, 2016

Every organization, every community, every society, every family, if they are to survive, needs 3 things.
  • A rule to live by
  • A sense of purpose
  • A way to put things right when things go wrong.
The nation that God was building was no exception to this pattern.

We've come a long way since those early chapters of Genesis where God is pictured as walking with God's children in the paradise of Eden. We have learned about Noah and Abraham and Joseph. Last week we witnessed the call of Moses and the dramatic exodus of the Hebrews from Egypt.

We have talked about two stories running through the 66 books of the bible. The 'Upper Story', that is the story about God's desire to be with people, and the 'Lower Story', our never ending ingenuity in misinterpreting God's desires as being against our better interests.

From an 'Upper Story' perspective, chapter five of 'The Story' is a milestone. God offers rules to live by. God comes and dwells in the midst of the people. Through a system of sacrifices God's people are reminded that even when they mess up and go their own way, God offers a way home.

From a 'Lower Story' perspective chapter 5 is scary. We really don't like authority. We want to be free to live how we want and do what we like. We like the idea of a cozy, unobtrusive god who will do our bidding.

We left the Hebrews in happy mode. 'Yeh! We are free from Egypt!' They've been headed out towards the mountains. When they get to Mount Sinai it becomes seriously serious. It is as though they realized that God had to be amazing and powerful to do all the stuff God had done for them, but what did that look like?

When we lived in Wales there was a nuclear power plant we could visit about 20 minutes drive away from our home. When you turned into the two mile long driveway the first sign you saw read; 'A safe and secure facility'.

As you drove along the road, you passed through a number of checkpoints, and numerous more signs extolling the safety of nuclear power. It was scary. If the plant was so safe, why did they have to put up so many signs saying it was safe?

The scale of the plant when you went on the tour, the safety procedures to see that no accidents happened were, thankfully, impressive. Because, you know, if things go wrong at a nuclear power plant, you don't want to be on the same continent.

The Hebrews arrive at the mountain. Exodus 20:18-19 'When the people saw the thunder and lightning and heard the trumpet and saw the mountain in smoke, they trembled with fear. They stayed at a distance and said to Moses, "Speak to us yourself and we will listen. But do not have God speak to us or we will die."'

The people who work at nuclear power stations are some of the most unflappable, calm and collected folk you will ever meet. They have to be! They are dealing with power on a scale that is mind boggling. Moses has been developing his relationship with God. He knew the power of God. God needs to guide God's people. God keeps it simple. 'Moses, hold your hands up. Let's see. 10 fingers? Here's ten, easy to remember rules.'

On the mountain Moses is given the 10 commandments. The first 4 are about how we relate to God, the next 6 about the way we get along with each other. Ten principles, that have been the basis of law for as long as people can remember. People still write them on posters and hang them in prominent places.

When Jesus came He made it even simpler. A wise guy asked Him “Y'know that big 10? Which should be number 1?” Jesus replied 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." (Matthew 22:36-40).

In that statement Jesus reveals the 'Upper Story' intention behind the commands. They came from love. They set boundaries in which people could be free to live safely and securely and nobody would get hurt. The 'Lower Story' reaction?

Moses is back on the mountain. The people have accepted the commandments. But Moses is gone for six weeks. Six weeks. That's all it takes for them to start asking 'So, who was that Moses chap? Aaron, any chance, now that you are in charge, we could have a less scary, more controllable deity?'

Holy cow! Or rather 'Holy Golden Cow, let's party!' is the alternative that they come up with. It's not good. The lunatics have taken over the asylum. Moses comes down the mountain with the big 10 inscribed on 2 stone tablets and he smashes them on the floor.

Absolute chaos! There's no happy end to this. People die. By the sword. By plague. Moses pleads with God, 'Look, these are stiff-necked people! Go ahead. Make my day. Blot my name out of the history books'. Moses is through.

Yet God is not through with God's people. God never is. God loves us despite our ridiculous attempts to do things any way but God's way. Are you seeing that in the Story? God saying 'Do it my way?' People, like us saying, “No hold on a minute, I think we can do better!” God offers some guidelines for living. They are agreed upon and then ignored. Even this is a preparation for something wonderful.

God says 'I'm not standing by. I'm coming to where you live.' Moses is told to build something called the Tabernacle. It's a dwelling place, a meeting place, a holy place. Tabernacle is where God happens. Through the Tabernacle God declares; 'I need to be happening in the center of your life'.

There's a great story, in Luke 19, about Jesus coming to town one day when a little guy called Zacchaeus is hiding up a tree. Zak is a tax-collector for the hated Romans, and he knew better than to hang out with the local people. But he wants to see Jesus, so he climbs a tree. Jesus comes along the Jericho road, looks straight up at Zak and says 'Get down from that tree, I'm coming to your house today!'

Through the building of the Tabernacle God declares that obeying the rules wasn't enough. There are a lot of rules in the first five books of the Old Testament. People can hide behind rules. They can be totally proper, dot every 'i' and cross every 't' , yet still be without love, and still not have that heart changing relationship with God that God desires for us to experience through Jesus Christ.

God invites us to welcome God's presence as the center of all we are and all that we seek to do. As the center for our families. As the center for our faith communities. As the center for our spirituality and our worship and our service. We all have places we go, let's call them 'tree's, to avoid confrontation with our lesser selves. We all have things we hide away and don't want people to know about us. We are amazingly good at playing 'Let's pretend everything is O.K.' There is such a challenge in these words of Jesus:- "Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay (or you could say 'Tabernacle) at your house today."

What a blessing that Tabernacle – the tent of meeting- became for the Hebrews. God guided them with a moving cloud during the day and by a column of fire at night. The Tabernacle was also the place where they could put things right that had gone wrong.

Over time a system of sacrifices and offerings developed, alongside a body of people that became known as the priesthood, who acted as intermediaries between God and the community. From our sophisticated 21st Century viewpoint it seems cruel and unfair that an innocent creature should lose it's life just because a person fails to live up to God's requirements.

What that system demonstrated was that wrongdoing always had negative consequences. That when we do things wrong somebody always gets hurt. Later in Christian history, as he reflected upon the system of sacrifice, the apostle Paul, one of the great architects of later Christian teaching, would write in a letter to the center of power in his day, the city of Rome,For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 6:23)

That priestly sacrificial system was never meant to be the final word. God's final word would come through Jesus Christ. But we are not there yet! In fact 'Are we there yet?' could be a fitting title for chapter 6 of 'The Story' as we'll see the Hebrews spend a whole lot more time in the wilderness than they had ever expected!

In 'The Story' chapter 5, God gives the Hebrews three essential things to build their community.
  • He gives them rules. The 10 commandments remain one of the great historical law codes by which people seek to be guided. Though often seen as being a prohibitive code, the intention seems to have been protective... to protect peoples relationships with God and with each other. Yet we also saw how, from almost the moment Moses passed them along, they failed to bring peoples behavior in line with God's requirements. Something more was needed.
  • God directs Moses to create the Tabernacle, a physical meeting place with God. Having such a visible sign of God's presence in their midst gave the Hebrews a renewed sense of purpose. The scary God of earthquake and fire was at home in their midst. If we seek to make the love of God a central feature of our lives, it changes everything. Can we hear that call of Jesus to us, today, 'Come down from that tree, from that place you are hiding your true self, because I'm coming to your house today!'
  • Finally, we saw how the tabernacle provided a setting where people could put things right that had gone wrong. It was messy. If they had any doubts that their wrong actions could result in anything but trouble, then as an innocent creature lost it's life, they were visibly reminded, as Paul later wrote; 'The wages of sin are death'.
Underlying all of these actions is love. God loves the people enough to give them guidelines to stop them destroying themselves. In spite of their unfaithful ways, God loves the people so much that God wants to be with them and lead them and guide them. God loves the people with such grace, that God provides a way for their broken lives to be forgiven, restored and renewed

We are the ones God wants to guide and lead. We are the people God wants to fill with the Holy Spirit, that we can be living tabernacles for others. We are the ones whose broken lives God, through Christ, is prepared to forgive, restore and renew. What a mighty God we serve! Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Story 4. Deliverance

Readings: Genesis 15:12-14, Exodus 12:1-14, John 1:26-36, 2 Corinthians 12:6-9
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, February 21st, 2016

At the end of last weeks chapter things couldn't have been better. Joseph has saved his entire family from death by starvation and the whole clan have moved into one of the most desirable neighborhoods in the richest nation on earth. Fast Forward 400 years. A complete reversal of fortunes. The descendants of Joseph are now slaves.

Worse still there is a ruler in Egypt who is making them the scapegoats for just about everything that was wrong with the nation. Sadly, when it comes to the people who would become known as Jews, this became a repeated chapter in their history.

We have been talking about an 'Upper Story' and a 'Lower Story' that flow throughout the 66 books of the Bible. The 'Upper Story', God's perspective, the 'Lower Story', how it seems to us.

To understand what was going on with the 'Upper Story', we need to go back to a prophecy that was made way back in the days of Abraham. Genesis 15:13-14 "Know for certain that for four hundred years your descendants will be strangers in a country not their own and that they will be enslaved and mistreated there. But I will punish the nation they serve as slaves, and afterward... they will come out...” Everything that happens in these chapters is a fulfillment of that 'Upper Story' prophecy.

The coming out, the deliverance, takes place through a variety of means. A prime mover is a pondering prince known as Moses. We encounter a hard hearted Pharaoh and learn about a festival called Passover. We witness the people passing through the waters as they begin a perplexing journey that eventually leads to their promised land. Pondering, Passover and Passing through!

The Prince of Ponder

That baby Moses ever survived was a lucky escape. Pharaoh, out of fear of the rapidly expanding Hebrew tribes, had ordered all baby Hebrew boys to be killed. Escaping death, Moses is placed in a little basket, floats up the river and is adopted by an Egyptian princess. He lives in the royal palace, as a prince of Egypt, whilst being raised by his mother, through whom he is connected to Hebrew roots.

As he grows, the prince ponders his identity. Who am I? An Egyptian or a Hebrew? One day he sees an Egyptian task master abusing some Hebrew slaves and he kills the Egyptian. That act revealed to him where his heart lay. When he discovers that things were not as secretive as he thought, he flees Egypt for the rural backwaters and takes up being a sheep farmer, acquiring a wife and totally identifying himself, not with Egypt, but with the Hebrew people.

Everything is settled. End of story. No! Actually just the beginning. Whilst out tending the flocks he sees a bush on fire. Checking it out, weird factor one, it's not burning up. Weird factor two happens when the bush speaks to him. 'Moses, Moses'. Weird factor three. It's not just a voice. It's God. A God who tells Moses to take off his shoes as he is on holy ground. Weird factor four. God tells Moses that he is being sent to deliver the Hebrews from Egypt.

Moses is totally shocked. Top ten list of reasons why, from a 'Lower Story' perspective he should not return to Egypt. 1. He escaped from there. 2. There could be bad, bad, repercussions if he went back there. 3. He didn't want to go there. 4. He was happy where he was. 5. He hated speaking in public 6. He had a terrible stammer. 7. He didn't think this sounded like an excellent plan. 8. He had no reason to expect the Hebrews to follow him. 9. He didn't even know what he should call God. 10. He really, really, really thought God should send somebody else.

In each instance, God counteracts his excuses. Tell them 'I am who I am' has sent you. Take Aaron with you to do the talking. God gives him a staff, a big stick, that will witness to God's presence. The time to ponder had passed. It was time for action!

When God calls us, it is always weird. It is a totally mind blowing thought that the God who' boomed' creation into being requires something of us. We will respond to that call with every excuse we can think of. 'Here I am, Lord. Send somebody else.'

From the 'Lower Story' perspective we just came to church this morning. From the 'Upper Story' perspective, this is a moment of encounter with an awesome God, written in eternity, a divine meeting of eternal significance. It's never easy to take that perspective on board. For Moses, it was about to get real.

Fearsome Pharaoh and the events that lead to Passover

Moses and Aaron go to Egypt, gain the Hebrews trust and then comes a series of encounters where Moses does something, Pharoah's priests do something similar ... a nasty plague comes along, Pharaoh says, 'Go' and then he says 'Don't go'. He keeps changing his mind. The technical word is 'vacillation'.

The vacillation in the nation causes nothing but frustration as Pharaoh's administration twists and turns in provocation, success leads to humiliation, and then another miracle sensation, increases the vexation, but again Pharaoh frustrates the celebration!

Or you could sing 'Anything you can do, I can do better, I can do anything better than you. No you can't, yes I can, No you can't, yes I can, No you can't, No you can't, yes I can.” From a 'Lower Story' perspeptive it is crazy. From an 'Upper Story' perspective God is showing the people that God can do whatever God wants to do and was preparing to do something that would be an unparalleled act of deliverance. It's called Passover. The final act that convinces Pharaoh to let the people go. They are set free through the blood of a lamb.

This becomes a vital theme for the Christian Church. We will see later in 'The Story' how when John the Baptist encounters Jesus he describes Jesus as 'The Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world' (John 1:29). It is a central feature of Christianity that upon a cruel cross, Jesus, the lamb of God, died for our sins, to set us free and bring to us the forgiving love of God... not simply so we can go to any promised heavenly land, but so we can go out into this world and share the message of God's love and forgiveness with others.

The story of Passover, with the death of the first born, of wood smeared by the blood of an innocent lamb, of the Hebrews being a people on the move towards becoming a nation whose purpose was to demonstrate to the world that God's love is a reality... these themes are so important for understanding the New Testament and what Jesus has done for each of us.

A famous New Testament verse, John 3:16 tells us 'That God so loved the world that God gave God's only begotten Son, so that whoever believes in Him, should not perish, but have everlasting life'. Much of the theology and imagery of that renowned verse can be traced back to this story of the Hebrews being set free from Pharaoh

That story does not end with them being let go! The final element is this.

They Pass through the waters

If you have ever watched any of Hollywood's biblical epics then this is one of the most gripping, special effects laden moments, of the whole movie. The Hebrews are heading towards the waters. Pharaoh has vacillated once gain and his army, with chariots and horses, is in hot pursuit. Moses leads the people down to the sea. What's going to happen? They are trapped!

Then Charlton Heston raises his staff, the waters of the Red Sea part before them, they travel through, with huge walls of churning, foaming water each side of them. They make it through to the other side... but wait, the Egyptians are coming. Into the midst of the tumult they ride only to find the waves are no longer held back but come crashing down upon them and the entire army of Pharaoh is wiped out, whilst the Hebrews are safe on the other side.

Our communion rite is heavily based upon the Jewish celebration of Passover. The other sacrament that we observe in Presbyterian churches is baptism, which recalls the passing through the waters. Baptism is all about new beginnings. In our tradition, when a baby is born to a Christian family, we invite them to have their child marked with water as a sign of new life.

We recognize that Moses didn't say to the families with babies when they reached the Red Sea, 'Oh, no, they have to wait till they can decide if they want to pass through the waters.' We also administer the sacrament of baptism to adults who are embarking upon a Christian life for the first time, or who want to express their faith in Jesus Christ. Passing through the waters is one of the ways we find our story in God's story.

New Beginnings are always important. But they don't solve everything. We still have to work out who we are and where we are in our lives and in our spiritual walk. As they began their journey into the desert they had a lot to learn about how God could supply their every need … and it wasn't easy. Little did they know that God was about to offer them a top ten list that has formed the bedrock of law for many civilizations. But that is next time!

Today we have seen Moses Pondering who he was and how the 'Lower Story' of his life fitted into God's 'Upper Story' plan. That's something we also need to do. Ask ourselves what God is calling us to do as we place our lives into God's hands.

We reflected on Passover, on how through the blood of a lamb, God provided for the peoples salvation. Through faith in Jesus Christ we can also find lives that are free and forgiven through the finished work of Christ upon the Cross.

We reflected upon how the Hebrews Passed Through the waters and how the sacrament of baptism marks new beginnings. We can allow God to lead us through the milestones of our lives. Nowhere does scripture promise that such will be easy. We will lose sight of that 'Upper Story' of God's plan.

But never give up. Keep moving. There are always better days ahead for people of faith. Where we are now is not our final destination. As we seek to be faithful, we can invite others to walk with us. As we live out our own story, through grace, through prayer, through seeking to be the people God calls us to be, we find our lives become part of something so much greater than we dare imagine!

Next time 'New Commands and a New Covenant'.

To God be the Glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Story 3. Joseph: From Slave to Deputy Pharoah

Readings; Psalm 16, Romans 8:31-39, Luke 6:31-38, Genesis 37:1-8,
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, February 7th, 2016

Possibly the most influential position in today's world, that anybody could attain, would be that of chief adviser to the President of the United States. It matters not who the president is. If you become the 'go to guy or gal' who the president consults before making decisions, then 'You've got the whole world in your hands'.

How would you get that job? What route would you take? Be educated at the best schools and colleges? Serve some time in the military? Occupy a number of politically significant roles in both national and international settings? Be a total patriot with a reputation for sound decision making based on observable facts and trends?

The character we are considering today, Joseph, was none of the above. He was a spoiled, uneducated farm boy with a head full of dreams. We've been talking about an 'Upper Story' and a 'Lower Story' that flow throughout the 66 books of the Bible. The 'Lower Story' in the story of Joseph is that he didn't have a chance! The 'Upper Story' is that, when your life is in God's hands, God can turn every setback into an opportunity.

God takes Joseph from a pit into which his brothers have thrown him, to a place in life, where, in his own words, he is 'Father to Pharaoh, Lord of his entire household and ruler of Egypt'. Egypt at that time is the most influential, wealthy, glittering, super-power in the world and Pharaoh was at the head of that pyramid of power. Before God builds a nation, God grants to one of his children an experience of what world domination felt like.

Notice this about Joseph's story. The setbacks in Joseph's life actually come about because of his faithfulness to God. One of the big barriers to wholehearted commitment to living out our faith is that we are afraid what the repercussions might be.

We don't make a big thing out of our belief because we fear people will think we are religious nuts. We go along with things we know aren't right, because we fear that if we don't then it will damage our chances for promotion. We don't speak out when we see something is wrong, because we are not sure how people will react to us.

Because Joseph tells his family about his dreams and their interpretation his brothers hate him. If he'd kept quiet about them and hung his technicolor coat in the closet then they wouldn't have thrown him in the pit. But getting thrown into a pit was part of the 'Upper Story' plan.

After being taken as a slave to Egypt and becoming a servant in Pharaoh's household, it places him in a position where Mrs. Pharaoh wants to have a fling with the boy. Because of his integrity Joseph ends up in jail. This too is part of the 'Upper Story' plan.

Because of being in jail, the ability he has to interpret dreams is discovered. Though temporarily forgotten, he eventually is placed in a position where he interprets the dreams of Pharaoh and is elevated to the position of being the adviser to the most influential leader in the world.

Because, though his brothers rejected him, he still has deep love for his family, he becomes an example of how forgiveness can be more powerful than revenge. Because of his compassion, his whole family are saved and move into the most up-market neighborhood in the most prosperous nation in all creation. Not bad for a spoiled farm-boy.

Every closed door, opens another one. Every put down, becomes a step up. Every setback, becomes a step forward. Every action of hatred becomes an opportunity for showing love.

There's a verse in the New Testament book of Romans:8:28 that expresses this same idea. 'We know' writes Paul... to a church in Rome that was going through some difficult times that would get worse before they got better... 'We know... that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to God's purpose.'

Don't take that verse out of context. Paul is not saying that every bad and evil thing that happens in life is the will of God. He's not suggesting that planes flying into buildings and teenage suicides and cancer and tsunami's are God's way of saying 'I love you'. Such things are a reminder that whilst God created the world out of chaos, the chaos has never gone away, and that our destructive, sinful disposition is always with us.

This verse is an invitation to allow the 'Upper Story' of God's redemptive, saving love, transform the way we travel though the 'Lower Story' that is our lives, with all their ups and downs, setbacks and disappointments. It's a call for us to be the people God wants us to be, do the things God wants us to do and trust that, no matter what comes our way, God will be there for us. It's a call to find our story in God's story.

Nowhere is that more powerfully phrased than verse 38 of Romans 8,where Paul writes, using words that could fit so well in Joseph's situation as he rubbed shoulders with decision makers who changed the world and was informed by spiritual powers he could not explain; 'I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.'

Joseph went through some hard times. Some of them were of his own making. In his younger years he was more than a little arrogant. Some of his hard times were due to his families dysfunctional dynamics. What was his dad Jacob thinking when he allowed him to parade around in that posh coat?

None of us are dealt an equal hand by the lottery of life. Joseph had 22 years of a difficult life, but he had 71 years of a blessed life. He believed in the 'Upper Story' and it made his 'Lower Story' life so much richer. It made all the junk that happened to him survivable.

Last week as a church we celebrated communion. We took bread and drank wine to remember what Jesus went through on the Cross for our salvation. We did this because in the gospels Jesus invites us to remember Him that way.

There are hints, even in this story of Joseph, about what God was preparing to do long after God was through with nation building. One of the most moving parts of the Joseph narrative, is where he finally breaks down and reveals to his brothers who he is.

You can picture Genesis 50:20-21 Joseph explaining to them; 'You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don't be afraid. I will provide for you and your children."

A broken body. Blood that is shed. The crucifixion of a man who only desired to be faithful. The hateful actions of an unbelieving world. God takes these actions and bathes them in resurrection light. These words could have come from Jesus on the Cross. 'You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.'

We are never going to explain or understand everything that happens to us and in and around our lives. We are 'Lower Story' people. That does not preclude us from trusting in God to guide us, protect us and lead us. Through Joseph, his whole family are saved from a deathly famine and prosper in Egypt. When Joseph told his brothers 'Don't be afraid. I will provide for you and your children'... he wasn't joking!

If you have been following through 'The Story' you should already be noticing a common thread. God seems to confound our earthly definitions and expectations by taking flawed, everyday people and doing beautiful things with their lives.

Think about these heroes of faith we've been looking at. Abraham, the old childless guy living in a tent, Isaac, the blind dude who is duped into giving his inheritance to the wrong son; Jacob, whose actions lead him to be on the run from his brother; Joseph whose arrogance and dreaming lead to him being thrown into a pit.

Through their faith in God, these compromised lives are transformed. As we place our trust in Jesus Christ our lives can also be changed. If we do that we also receive the assurance; 'Don't be afraid. I will provide for you and your children'.

We may never actually become the chief advisor to the president of the universe. We may never hold the whole world in our hands. But we are invited to place our trust in the One who does!

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, February 8, 2016

The Story 2. God Builds A Nation

Readings; Psalm 84, Genesis :12:1-8, Matthew 15:32-39, Acts 3:19-26
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, February 7, 2016

It's the 20th Century - BC. A century of tremendous change. Alongside traditional practices of farming and agriculture, has come the founding of great cities. Nomadic tribal chieftains are no longer the ones with the power, but Kings and Pharaoh's, with unimaginable wealth.

Land ownership has led to the founding of nations. Technology is moving forward. Copper, iron, bronze and glass are new materials to work with. The first written languages are appearing. Arts and crafts are becoming increasingly intricate. The rich are getting very rich whilst whole people groups are being enslaved.

If I was going to build a nation then I'd want to enlist the help of some 20th century BC movers and shakers. Instead, when God builds a nation, the Bible gives us the stories of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. None of them seem like nation builders.

Abraham is an old guy living in a tent with an elderly wife who is unable to bear children. The only thing he has going for him is a faith in the one true God. We don't know how that faith developed. All we know is that it is more than words and guides everything he does.

God tells Abram 'Go from your country, your people and your father's household... I will make you into a great nation... all the people on earth will be blessed through you.' God tells him that his descendants will be as numerous as the stars in the skies.

In the 20th century BC you could understand about nation building because it was a happening. You could understand how, if you were favorably placed... which of course Abraham wasn't... you could exert influence over countless numbers of the earths inhabitants.

That is not the burning issue for Abraham. It is the fact that he didn't have, nor looked like he was about to have, any children. When his wife Sarah learns about this great plan of God she laughs out loud and comes up with the idea of having a surrogate child through their slave girl, Hagar. This happens. But it is not God's plan.

We have been talking about an Upper story and a Lower story running through the books of the Bible. Abraham and Sarah are a wonderful example. God tells them the plan. The Upper Story plan. Lower story? They take things into their hands and it doesn't work out so well. God redeems the situation and resumes with the upper plan.

In her old age Sarah bears a child. They call him, Isaac, a name meaning laughter.
But it's no laughing matter when Abraham believes that God is calling him to make a sacrificial offering of his son on a mountaintop called Moriah. It seems incredulous to us that Abraham even considers going through with such an action.

With the benefit of hindsight we see how this act prefigures one of the most famous and powerful bible verses in the whole of Scripture. John 3:16. 'For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.' Some scholars believe that the hill of Moriah is the same hill where around 2080 years later God’s one and only Son, Jesus Christ, would be offered up as a sacrifice on a cross.

Abraham and Sarah live on to a grand old age. But what of Isaac?

Isaac turns out to be no better placed than Abraham to father a great nation. He marries a girl called Rebekah, but after 20 years of married life, they have no children. Now what? They pray. They wait. They pray some more and it turns out they don't have a child, they have two... twin boys... who even in the womb begin fighting with each other.

What we know about Isaac is that he favored one of the twins, a boy called Esau, who not only is born first but is a guys kind of guy, a shock of red hair and maybe a ZZ-Top beard, a hunter, a meat catcher and consumer. Isaac obviously sees the potential in Easu to be a nation founder.

Rebekah's affections lie with mummy's boy Jacob. It comes to the time in life when the decision is to be made as to who will lead the way in building the nation of God. A cunning plan emerges. Rebekah dresses Jacob up in a hairy Easu-like fashion, sends him into Isaac, who is now blind and doing everything by touch and smell, and tells Jacob to lie about his identity and claim to be Esau.

Isaac is duped. The blessing, and the huge inheritance, go to Jacob. Esau, returns home and is so furious he desires to kill Jacob, causing Rebekah to send Jacob to live with the relatives. Not exactly a nation building strategy, but as we've seen, there is an upper story and a lower story.

The Upper story appears to be that God is determined to demonstrate that God's nation... God's kingdom... is built through the compromised and often unreliable lives of flesh and blood people. People who struggle to trust God, who often think their plans are better than God's, yet grace takes that weakness and makes something out of it.

Which brings us to Jacob. At first Jacob doesn't appear to be the most likable of characters. What goes around, comes around. Jacob certainly has his struggles. He falls in love with a girl, works like a crazy man to earn her hand in marriage, but then is tricked into marrying her sister and has to do it all over again.

He learns a lesson about forgiveness from brother Esau, whom he keeps sending gifts to in an attempt to dissuade him from murdering him. When they meet, Esau is like, 'Forgeddaboutit... what's done is done, the past is the past, time to move on, bro'

Jacob has a close encounter of the violent kind with an angel who appears to be training for the world wide wrestling federation. In a match that lasts throughout the night, Jacob wrestles with God before limping away with a blessing. The angel tells him, 'Your name will no longer be Jacob'. At that point God doesn't tell him what it will be.

That happens when arrives at a place called 'Paddan Aram' (which can be translated as 'the place of an amazing rescue') God blesses him and says, 'You will no longer be called Jacob, your name will be Israel... I am God almighty; be fruitful... a nation and a community of nations will come from you, and kings will be among your descendants'.

This is the 20th century BC, a time of great change and nation building. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob are still looking for a homeland. God's Upper story plan is taking a while. But events are about to place a young son of Jacob called Joseph at the center of one of the most powerful, inventive, luxurious cities in the world. The powerhouse of Egypt becomes the next focus for God's nation building plans.

The powerful lesson from these events is that God chooses the most unlikely people to build God's kingdom. God does so in such a way that the only explanation for the events that take place, is that God is behind them, working out an ' Upper Story' plan that can be hard to discern from a 'Lower Story' perspective.

God’s strategy of picking the least likely candidates to succeed should give us hope. God chooses people like us, beautiful, broken people, to fulfill God-sized projects. When amazing things happen through the lives of ordinary people, glory goes where it should, to God.

There are so many lessons we can learn from Abraham. In the midst of a culture where religious options were many, and a time in history where humanities achievements were escalating, he manages to tune his life to the direction of the one true God. We also live in an age of tremendous change. Yet the option is open to us all to faithfully seek the ancients paths and the wisdom of ages.

Through the strange events that take place on Mount Moriah we are given a glimpse into the mission of Jesus Christ, who would offer His life as a sacrifice on our behalf that we may discover a way of living free and forgiven and graced by God's Holy Spirit.

From Isaac we learn that the story, certainly the 'Upper Story' of God's grace, never begins or ends with us. Though we make mistakes, mistakes are forgivable and God can actually use them in unimaginable ways to build the kingdom. We are born into a heritage and have the responsibility and privilege of passing that heritage onto those who will come after us.

From Jacob we learn that, from a lower story perspective, sometimes we truly have to wrestle with the will of God for our lives, and when we do, we never walk the same again. Our priorities will change. Our hope will increase. We will wake up to the fact that there is something big... something Kingdom sized that God is seeking to do through our everyday, ordinary lives.

Next time.. we'll see how that worked out in the life of one of Jacob's sons.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Story 1. The Beginning Of Life As We Know It

Readings; Psalm 8, Genesis 1:1-5, Mark 4:35-41, Romans 8:18-23
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, January 31, 2016

I was watching the local TV news whilst living in West Virginia. There had been a gas explosion in a home in a small town and a reporter had gone there to ask the locals what had happened.

The first guy they interviewed was a man of a few, well chosen words. 'So,' asks the reporter 'Do you mind telling us what happened.' 'Well sir, it was all quiet like it usually is round here, then out of nowhere... BOOM! Whole darn top of the house blew off. 'How did it happen?'' 'I done told you. BOOM! That's how it happened. BOOM!'

The earliest chapters of Genesis tell the story of the beginning of life as we know it. It's all about the 'BOOM!, 'About the Boom, About the Boom.'

There is the BOOM of 'Creation'.
There is the BOOM of the events theologians call 'The Fall'.
And our section of readings from the Story ended with a 'BOOM' of 'New beginnings'.

Let's think firstly about the 'Boom of Creation'

The intention of these earliest passages of the bible is not to give us a scientific explanation of how all life began. God made us capable of figuring that out for ourselves. Instead we have two creation narratives about 'Why' we are here. The two stories are slightly different.

In the first creation story order is created of chaos. A seven fold process, at each stage described as 'Good'. On the sixth day, the pinnacle of God's creation, humankind, comes into being. On the seventh day God takes a timeout.

The second creation story is about relationships. How God relates to humans, how humans relate to creation (including animals) and how humans are created for relationship with each other.

We'll be talking a lot in this series about the 'Upper Story' and the 'Lower Sory'. The 'Upper Story' is the story of what God intends, the 'Lower Story' about the way we fail to be the sort of people God intends.

The 'Boom' of creation is the 'Upper Story' picture about how things could be. A perfect world. A paradise of Eden. Perfect harmony between God, humanity and all creation. The crown of that process, God's most loved, most treasured, most adored thing God created is, of course, the duck billed platypus. No. It's you and me. Humanity. People. Women and men and children.

God's pleasure was to bring you and me into this world that we may enjoy unlimited, unrestricted fellowship, with God, creation and each other. One of the great foundational Presbyterian documents, the Westminster Confession, puts it this way. 'The chief end of humankind is to glorify God and enjoy God for ever!'

One of the fascinating mysteries of the creation process is that God gives us the capacity to reject God's intentions. Some commentators explain it this way. Love has to be consensual. To experience true relationship there has to be the capacity for trust, and the willingness to please. So God gives us free-will. We are not robots, programmed to react in predictable ways. R2-D2 is a cute little guy, but would you want to go on a date with him? Love has to be given and returned. And that's where we hit our next 'Boom'

The Boom of the Fall.

A song by Larry Norman, titled 'If God is my Father' contains these lyrics: “Once we were happy, oh, yes, once in the garden, But then a lie broke the stillness, And our hearts began to harden.

I've known people dismiss this story of Adam and Eve on the grounds that it wasn't possible we could all be descended from one pair of ancient ancestors. They miss the point. This is a story about the desires and motives and capacity to pollute paradise that is a part of every persons D.N.A. The 'Boom of the Fall' is that we are all Adam; we are all Eve.

Scripture uses a little 3 letter word to describe our 'Lower Story' addiction. SIN. Romans 3:23 'For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.' The result of falling short of what God desires is that we are broken. Beautiful, but broken.

In our lives is the capacity to do all the things Adam and Eve are described as doing. We question God's word and are presumptuous of God's grace. 'Has God really said?' muses the Tempter. We disbelieve our actions have irreversible consequences. 'You will certainly not die' says the serpent. We do all we can to cover up our failings. Adam and Eve hide in the bushes and refuse to answer when God asks 'Where are you?' They are afraid.

And it just gets worse. Having broken fellowship with God, having not returned the love they had freely been given, everything becomes a struggle. Life is an everyday battle. To tame the wilderness. To earn a living. To find a home. To raise a family.

With the birth of Cain and Abel violence enters the picture. The very first act of war stems from prejudice and jealousy. Cain doesn't like the fact that God looks more favorably on Abel's way of making it through life, than his own. God cautions Cain. 'Sin is crouching at your door'. Cain doesn't get it. 'Boom' there it is. 'The Lower Story'. He murders Abel.

As humanity populates the globe the legacy of hate, anger, murder and deception plays out. It still does. But we are about to leave the 'Lower Story' and return to the 'Upper Story'. God still cares. God still wants that fellowship, still believes in humanity. The first tactic that God uses to restore that relationship is a reboot. As the computer technician played by Chris O'Dowd in the comedy 'The I.T. Crowd' used to say, 'Have you tried turning it off and on again?' The boom of the Fall is counteracted by...

The Boom of New Beginnings

'New Beginnings' is a bit of a buzz phrase for us as a congregation as we are involved in a process with our Presbytery of investigating new ways of doing mission as a church here in our community. A far more drastic new beginnings was called for as humanity descended into a spiral of corruption. God looked and saw nothing good, except for this one lone ranger called Noah, who lived in the middle of the desert.

The ultimate reboot takes place. God backs up the best of what God had made, stores it on a flash drive called the Ark, and then wipes the whole of creation clean. After 40 days and 40 nights Noah and his family become the new beginnings of human history.

There's a lot of craziness about this story. As Noah builds his boat, people laugh at him. He has his doubts, but trusts God more than his doubts. The trust in God that he has, that faith that drove Noah to take the least obvious and less traveled path, to do things right, even when they seemed incredulous? This is counted to Noah as righteousness.

As the new beginning reaches it conclusion and dry land appears God gives the 'Lower Story' people a full color, upper story, multi colored, oft repeated, billboard in the sky. We call it a rainbow and with it comes with a promise from God that 'Never again will there be a flood to destroy all the earth.'

Water, and the washing away of sin, remains a powerful Christian symbol. One of two sacraments practiced by Reformed churches is that of baptism. Through baptism we welcome people as part of the family of God. Baptism marks new beginnings, the beginning of a new life in Jesus Christ.

Something baptism can't do though is take away that 'Lower Story' desire to go our own way rather than God's way. Right after the flood, 'righteous' Noah messes up big time. He gets drunk, ends up passed out on the floor, his sons see him and are kind of 'Ha-ha, look at dad' about it all, and it becomes clear that, although a reboot has taken place, the virus that caused the system to collapse has not been eradicated. Sin is still with us.

In chapter one of the Story, the beginning of life as we know it, we see three 'Booms'.
  • The BOOM of 'Creation'. God's design for our lives is that we enjoy fellowship with God, creation and each other.
  • The BOOM of the 'The Fall'. Just like Adam and Eve, in each of us is the often practiced capacity to go our own way and break fellowship with God
  • The BOOM of 'New Beginnings'. God always makes a way for our fellowship to be restored. Trusting in God is always the right thing to do. God is prepared to reboot our lives, wash sin away and grant us new beginnings. That is something we recognize through baptism.
In time, a new way is revealed for God to demonstrate God's grace and love. It begins with a couple called Abram and Sara, and ends up as the calling of a whole nation to model for the world what faithful living could look like. Back to the garden, we cannot go.

Yet as the story unfolds we will see how God is never going to call it a day when it comes to loving us. We are still the apple of God's eye, the pinnacle of God's creation. We are still beautiful, but broken. The 'Upper Story' hasn't changed. God keeps faith. The challenge for our personal story, is... will we keep faith with God!

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.