Monday, March 28, 2016

Easter: Of First Importance

Readings:Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Isaiah 65:17-25, Luke 24:13-34, 1 Corinthians 15:1-14
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, March 27th, 2016

Since the beginning of this year, as a congregation here at Mount Hebron Presbyterian, we have been looking together at a chronological arrangement of the Christian Scriptures, put together by Max Lucardo and Randy Frazee, that is called 'THE STORY'. We are attempting to gain for ourselves an overview of the 66 books that make up the Bible, in order to discover common threads that bind the books together.

So far it has been a fascinating journey, that has raised as many questions, as it has answered. Whilst appreciating the chronological arrangement, we have wondered what criteria led to some passages being glossed over or missed out altogether. Some of us have tried to understand the theological perspective of the authors as we have viewed accompanying videos and study guides. We have allowed ourselves the freedom to not always agree, with them or each other, nor to take anything at face value.

We have also been granted new perspectives on passages we had read many times over. We have picked up on things that we had missed out of our view. We have already discovered common themes that run throughout the Old Testament.

We have seen that God uses the most unlikely of people and circumstances to fulfill God's purposes. We have found ourselves challenged to be the sort of people, who though outwardly are no different than anybody else, inwardly embrace the radical good news that the love of God is a force to be reckoned with, something that can truly change the way we see our world and our place within it.

And we have a long way to go, having only reached a half way point in the Old Testament. It's never to late to get on board, so feel free to jump in at any point of the journey. Today, though, Easter Sunday, we are pausing on our pilgrimage to ponder the special message of this particular day in the Church calendar.

One thing that has been in my mind as we've been going through the process, is to ask, 'Well, where is it all going, what is it all leading up to?'' Or to put it another way, “If there was one event that is the crowning glory of all the other amazing things that take place within the pages of the 66 biblical books, what would it be?”

The answer is that very thing we are celebrating today as the central message of Easter, nothing more and nothing less than the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. The greatest interpreter of the Christian message has to be the apostle Paul. Though he learned the gospel from the earliest disciples, it was his task, not to retell the story, but draw out the implications of the message Jesus proclaimed, for all time and for all the world. To say what was really important.

In a letter he writes to a church that is situated in one of the most cosmopolitan, happening cities of his day, the city of Corinth, he writes these words;

'For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that He appeared to Cephas (That is 'Peter'), and then to the Twelve.' He continues 'Then He appeared to James, (The earthly brother of Jesus) then to all the apostles,and last of all He appeared to me also.'

Paul, or Saul as he was earlier known, had been a Jewish scholar, a member of a particularly learned group of believers known as the Pharisees, had an impeccable pedigree, yet also was a citizen of Rome, familiar with Greek and Roman philosophy. At one time he had nothing but hostility and scorn for the followers of Jesus they sarcastically referred to as people of 'The Way' and supported a program to get rid of them.

Then, on a road to Damascus, he has a life changing dramatic encounter with the Risen Lord Jesus Christ, that leads him to totally re-examine everything he knew about life here on earth, it's reason, it's religion and it's purpose. The most important thing, he concludes, is that upon the Cross, Jesus died and three days later God raised Him from the dead.

A few sentences later in his letter he stresses that if that whole episode was a hoax, then like a house made of a pack of cards, the whole structure of Christian belief collapsed. 1 Corinthians 15:14 'And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.'

That's quite a statement to make! He is saying that, if the Resurrection didn't happen, everything in the 66 books of the Bible is not worth the paper it is written on, but is nothing but hollow, empty, deceptive, powerless, ramblings. The only thing, he claims, that gives them any meaning, any power, is that Jesus Christ died for our sins and was raised to give us new life.

I think that for many of us, the notion of resurrection, is part of that curiosity that we frame in questions such as “What happens when we die? What becomes of our loved ones that have crossed over? What about ghosts and messages purporting to be from the beyond?”

Before moving here, we lived in Long island, NY, a few town's away from Teresa Caputo, the lady who has made a name for herself as 'The Long Island Medium.' Never met her, but I do find the program interesting, not least because herself and family are so typical Long Islanders... and you have to have lived there to understand that!

She is portrayed as being able to channel messages of loved ones in the beyond to those who remain on earth. I have no idea how she does that, and the results she produces seem to bring great comfort to those she interacts with.

I also know that many times in scripture, believers are cautioned to have nothing to do with spirits, mediums and those who claim to have messages from beyond as it seems as humans we have a great capacity to be deceived.

Regardless of the genuineness or otherwise of such folk, many of us have experienced, in ways we don't always find easy to talk about, the presence of those we have lost, unexplained things that suggest to us, they are indeed still watching over us and present with us. Wishful thinking? Reading something out of nothing? Maybe. Maybe not.

Where am I going with this? Simply to say, that the resurrection that Paul speaks about has nothing to do with an encounter with the dead, but with the presence of the living. The presence of the resurrected Lord Jesus Christ. When Paul is confronted on his way to Damascus, it is not a voice from beyond the grave that he hears, but the living Jesus Christ stops him in his tracks!

The same thing happens on the road to Emmaus, the experience we read about from Luke's gospel. Two, downtrodden, disillusioned, one-time disciples are preparing to throw in the towel. “We had hoped” they say (notice the past tense) “We had hoped He was the one.

So deep is their despair that they don't even realize that the One they were talking about is alive and well and walking right alongside them. It is only as scripture is read and interpreted to their hearts that they start thinking, “What's going on here, why are our hearts bubbling up with excitement?”And, finally, when He breaks bread before them, it's like they see for the first time! He is alive.

So what is this. A ghost? I love ghost programs. They way they film them, like all ultra spooky, red eye and in black and white. “Tap once for yes, twice for no.” Supposed voices in the middle of random white noise. 'Please let the cat out. I can't do it. I'm dead.' A lot of presentation goes into trying to make us believe these folk are doing something genuine, and who am I to say they are not. Who are you going to call? 'Ghostbusters'.

However the gospel authors seem to go out of their way to tell us that the resurrected Jesus was not a ghost. He invites them to touch Him. They eat with Him on the beach. They have numerous encounters that lead them to completely to accept that Christ is Risen. 'He is risen indeed!'

This, says Paul, is of first importance. 'That Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day.' It's not about what happens to our loved ones when we die. It's not about ghosts that need busting. It's about how we will live our lives in the here and now.

Do we believe that there is a God who can guide us, who can walk with us, who can forgive us, who has things that we are meant to do in our lives and with our lives, who has a purpose and a plan that we can live into?

Do we believe that there is a power of love that is stronger than hate? A power of hope that can defeat despair? A power of life than can overcome death? Can we align our lives with that God, that life, that love, that was found and can be found and is the very embodiment and presence and life of Jesus Christ past, present and future?

Paul's point is that the resurrection of Jesus Christ changes everything. That Easter is not just about bunny rabbits and Easter egg hunts and the coming of spring. These are great little pointers to new life, but there is something far more glorious and awesome and game changing and it's all about God raising Jesus from the dead.

As a church we will continue our journey through 'THE STORY'. We will continue to learn about the unlikely ways that God has led people and guided people. We will continue to view the events that lead to Christ's birth in Bethlehem, His amazing words and deeds, His terrible betrayal and death... and ultimately, the mountain top, the crown, the pinnacle, of 'THE STORY' will be the resurrection.

Everything before it, leads us there, everything after it, flows from there. Not surprising then that Paul talks about that event as being “Of first importance.” I cannot say for anyone but myself, what may be of first importance in our hearts and lives. I can only share the perspective given to us by the New Testament.

It is for us, as individuals, to seek God, to ask God through God's Holy Spirit, to guide us to the things that should be of first importance, in our lives, in our families, in our communities and our world.

A blessed Easter to everyone of us and may the living love of God, that can be found through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the presence of the Holy Spirit, be a hope in your hearts and an inspiration for your lives. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

The Story 8. A Few Good Women and Men

Readings: Psalm 11, Hebrews 13:1-8, Luke 19:30-40,Judges 5:1-12
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, March 20th, 2016

As a kid growing up in a time before internet, before DVR's and 200 channels and actually before many people even had televisions there was one thing that occupied many a Saturday afternoon. Afternoon matinee performances at the local cinema, often affectionately described as the 'Flea Pit'.

For 6 pennies you could join with a multitude of other obnoxious kids and hoot and holler and create all kinds of mischief as the latest B movie block buster did the rounds of town and village cinemas. Swashbuckling Errol Flynn would fight pirates, Robin Hood would see the Sheriff of Nottingham got exactly what he deserved, and, of course, the main feature would be a cowboy film, which led to some kids wanting to be John Wayne when they grew up.

In 'The Story' we have reached the biblical book of Judges. I think of this period of Israelite history as their 'Wild West' days. It's a period of some 330 years characterized by the very last verse in Judges; 21:25 'In those days Israel had no King; everyone did whatever was right in their own eyes'

Just like the days of the Wild West in the United States, certain characters emerge as legends. In particular, in chapter 8 of 'The Story' we are introduced to two wise women known as Deborah and Jael, a doubtful hero called Gideon and a larger than life superman called Samson.

Israels fortunes rise and fall under the influence of whoever is in charge. 110 years are spent in the hands of enemies, but the rest are enjoyed in relative peace. The crazy thing is, that whenever they find peace, instead of sticking with God, they wander away, and God has to raise up somebody else to deliver them.

Two of the first characters we are introduced to are the Wisdom-Warrior-Women Deborah and Jael. The nearest contemporary TV characters you could compare them with would be Xena Princess warrior and her traveling companion Gabriell. What sets them apart from everybody else in their day, is their wisdom.

From the beginning of this series on 'The Story' we have talked about how running throughout Scripture there is an 'Upper Story', the account of God's purposes and a 'Lower Story', that is the account of how we, from a human perspective, view the events that befall us.

Deborah's wisdom is found in her ability to connect with the God of the 'Upper Story'. She sees the bigger picture. Barak, the commander of Israels army, is in total panic mode. His opponent, Sisera, has 900 iron clad chariots. This was the equivalent of guys riding horses, shooting bows and arrows, taking on a regiment with a battery of tanks and armored vehicles.
Deborah doesn't see it that way. She consults her God for marching orders. We read in Judges 4:14. ' Deborah said to Barak, "Up! For this is the day in which the LORD has delivered Sisera into your hand. Has not the Lord gone out before you?" (KJV) 'Lower Story' – it's hopeless. 'Upper Story' – the battle belongs to the Lord.

In a similar fashion Jael understands that there will be no peace in the land until Sisera was gone. Under the pretense of befriending him, she literally lays him to rest, with a tent peg and a hammer. Brutal? Yes, but this is the Wild West. That action resulted in there being 40 years of peace.

If Israel had learned the lesson that when they followed God's ways and not the practices of those who didn't know God, the peace may have lasted longer. But those other gods were mighty attractive and often less demanding. It only takes a generation and they have lost their focus. This time their enemy are the Midianites.

The Midianites are terrifying. They are described as being like a great plague of locusts. Judges 6:2 'Because the power of Midian was so oppressive, the Israelites prepared shelters for themselves in mountain clefts, caves and strongholds'. When the people cry out to God for help, who does God choose? A mighty general? A prophet? A hero?

No. A farmer from the weakest clan in his tribe called Gideon. Gideon is the 'Doubting Thomas' of the Old Testament. We first learn of Gideon, hiding out at a secret wine-press. An angel appears to him and says 'The Lord is with you mighty warrior'.

You can picture Gideon looking around; 'Say What? You talking to me?' The angel insists that Gideon is the one who can bring about the defeat of Midian, because this was what God had intended to do... and God will do it through Gideon to demonstrate God's power.

Gideon takes a lot, a lot, a lot, of convincing. He asks for signs. God gives them. Fire burns up an offering. A dry fleece is found to be wet, and then next night, a wet fleece found to be dry. Reluctantly Gideon gathers together an army. They are heavily outnumbered and stop for some refreshment. God says 'Your army is too big. Watch how they drink their water from the stream. The ones who lap like dogs, take them.' He has 300 soldiers against an army whose camels alone outnumbered the grains of sand on the seashore.

'Upper Story' – the battle belongs to the Lord. Gideon, of course, has his doubts until, along with his servant Purah, they sneak into the Midianite camp and hear about a rumor being spread among the troops. From his enemies lips he hears 'God has given the Midianites and the whole camp into Gideon's hands.'

A plan emerges that would sit well into the context of a Saturday afternoon Wild West movie matinee. The underdog is about to take control. As the guards are changing shifts, they surround the camp in the darkness. At Gideon's command they blow their trumpets and smash glass jars onto the ground, then let out a blood curdling shout; 'A sword for the Lord and Gideon' and they wave lighted torches in the air.
Total confusion descends upon the Midianite camp. In the darkness they attack each other and then run for the hills. Gideon sends messages to his allies and the soldiers who had not come along. 'Join us...the Midianites are on the run. We got this!'

Judges 8:28 'Thus Midian was subdued before the Israelites and did not raise its head again. During Gideon's lifetime, the land had peace forty years.' Gideon, the reluctant hero, was not immortal. After his death the 'Lower Story' of 'same old, same old' takes control. And once again they suffer the consequence of their unbelief. We now meet an enemy of Israel who will be a threat for years to come. The Philistines.

The Philistines had a pantheon of deities, the lord of all their gods being the Canaanite god of fertility and war, Dagon. Dagon's name appears in Babylonian texts that date back to 2300 BC, long before the period of Judges. He makes an appearance a number of times in Biblical literature after the time of Judges, as does one of his offspring called Baal.

These ancient gods had a tremendous hold on their cultures and people. As strong as (if not stronger than) that of any world religion in our own day. It is helpful to remember that, lest we become to critical of the way the Isealities could drift from their God to the influence of others.

Having that picture in our mind may also help us understand the life of our final hero in Judges. Samson. Samson is such a Wild West character. He's a brawler who wouldn't be out of place in a wrestling ring. He's a child of promise, like Isaac and others, born to a mother presumed to be barren. He's a man of principle, who, up to a point, sticks with the Nazarite vows he has made.

He's a man of passion, who puts his relationship with some of the ladies in his life over and above his relationship with God. He's got a wild west sense of justice. He's a joker, who spins riddles and sets traps. He seems to embody both the best and worst of being human in a world where right and wrong are negotiable.

Time does not permit to outline all the escapades of Samson's life. We see him, rather like the nation during this whole period of Judges, swinging from acts of great faithfulness to times of complete abandon that lead to nothing but trouble. We see how the Spirit of the Lord often intervenes in mighty ways to get him out of trouble. We see his frailty. He is the trickster who often ends up being tricked.

His relationship with Delilah is a disaster that leads him to being imprisoned and blinded and thrown into the dungeons of the Philistine fortress in Gaza. Yet it is at that lowest point of his life we see how God used this unruly child to show that at end of the day, the battle belonged to the Lord.

As he is taunted and treated as sport in the name of the great god Dagon, as the rulers and powers that be, insult him and his God, he pushes back and his final act brings the whole house down. The Wildest man of the Wild Wild West is ultimately vindicated through his faithfulness.
Chapter Eight of 'THE STORY' places before us a few good women and men, who, in an age where many powerful religions dominated the landscape and in which everybody did what was right in their own eyes, manage to discern, however imperfectly, the direction and blessing of God.

Surely that too is something for us to pursue. We live in a multi-cultural, multi-philosophy society. There are those who say there are no gods and those whose religious practice is formed by many different values. Cultural pressures often take precedence over what we claim to believe. The influence of materialism and consumerism, the many voices that clamor for our attention, make it tough to discern the voice of right among all the others.

So we can learn from Deborah and Jael, that God is no respecter of gender or position, but will use in God's service those who can see the bigger picture and look beyond the 'Lower Story'.

We can learn from Gideon that God is able to take us beyond our doubts. That questioning God's will can be a way of discerning God's will. That what the world sees as powerless can be powerful beyond belief when aligned with God's purposes.

We can learn from Samson that God really can use the roughest diamonds to achieve God's 'Upper Story' purposes. There are no limits to who God can use, how God can use them and where God will use them. No limits, that is, except for faithfulness.

Today in the wider church calendar is Palm Sunday, the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem armed with nothing but love. He was about to face both acclamation and rejection. Through Holy W
eek we see Him betrayed, arrested, tried, condemned, tortured and crucified.

As He hangs on that cross, He prays 'Forgive them, Lord, they don't know what they are doing'. The stories of Deborah, Jael, Gideon, Samson … and you can probably insert your own name there... remind us that people of faith don't always know what they are doing. But they keep on trusting that God knows exactly what God is doing!

Next Sunday we will gather in resurrection light to declare that even death can be a doorway to the unimaginable.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Story 7. The Battle Begins

Readings: Proverbs 3:1-10, Deteronomy 18:9-18, Joshua 6:1-7, Hebrews 11:23-31, Matthew 1:1-5
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, March 13th, 2016

We have reached the 7th chapter of 'THE STORY'. This is the chapter in which Joshua has taken over the mantle of leadership and the Israelites enter their promised land. It's not easy reading. We read about violent conquest and terrible destruction.

In the midst of all the madness we meet unworthy folk like greedy Achan, and read of unwise allegiances that will come back to haunt the nation. On the positive side we meet a lady called Rahab, an outsider whom we discover is totally in tune with God's purpose, and becomes an enduring example of believing.

I'd like to begin with Rahab. She is one of the most amazing women in all Scripture. She lives in the midst of this Mad Max, Apocalypse Now, horrendous, ungodly environment, yet is a person of faith, who trusts in the one, true, God.

It is hard not to focus on the destruction that takes place to some of the cities. But we need to understand just how corrupt these cultures had become. Way back in Deuteronomy chapter 18, we hear the Hebrews commanded “When you enter the land the Lord is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices their son or daughter in the fire, who practices sorcery... who consults the dead.

Century after century God had given the folk in these cities a chance to turn in God's direction, even placed people like Rahab in their midst as examples of true faith. But they remained as places of deep, deep darkness. History has taught us that there are times when the only option is to seek to eradicate evil.

I think of my parents generation, back in the U.K, who, especially after the horror of World War I, only wanted peace. My dad would never say 'boo' to a goose. When the madness of Hitler's Nazi Germany came knocking on the door, and the bombs started falling from the sky, and it became known about the evils his rule entailed, death camps, annihilation of all who didn't fit the mold, institutionalized racism and hatred based on a godless and soul destroying philosophy, there was the reluctant realization that Nazi Germany had to be stopped.

Some commentators offer the perspective that the judgment that befell these cities in the Old Testament was not so much related to the Israelites entering the promised land as it was due to their institutionalized evil. God had given them opportunity to reform, but their darkness grew deeper and deeper.

Rahab is described in scripture as 'Rahab the Prostitute'. That can raise a few eyebrows, until you consider that prostitution was one of Jericho's religious rites. This wasn't the worst of it. So was burning children alive as a sacrifice to the spirits of their dead. It wasn't O.K. It was horrific. It had to end.

Even though we seek to wipe them out, ideas have a powerful way of reestablishing themselves. The hated propaganda of Nazi Germany has never been fully eradicated and similar totalitarian philosophies, be they religious or political, are like a cancer that we can't quite destroy. We will see in 'The Story' Canaanite ideas continued to negatively impact the development of God's people.

That's what makes the faith of Rahab all the more impressive. She was in the middle of all this and, through faith, rose above it. I've had people say to me, 'Pastor. You don't understand my situation. You don't know my circumstances, the people around me make it hard for me to believe.' You are right. I don't know your circumstances. But can they really be more challenging than those of Rahab?

When the Israelite spies come to her house, she knows they are on the right side, because she knows the God whose side they represent. She hides them. She helps them escape by lowering them over the walls. The New Testament book of Hebrews has a sermon within it that lists all the greatest people of faith who have ever lived. In chapter 11:31 we read 'By faith the prostitute Rahab, because she welcomed the spies, was not killed with those who were disobedient.'

I know there are some parts of the Bible we like to gloss over, particularly those genealogies and long lists of unpronounceable names. If you get a chance, look at Matthew 1:5 and you discover that Rahab becomes part of a family line that not only brings King David into the world, but part of the ancestral line of Joseph, who marries Mary, in whose womb is formed Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God.

Here is that 'Upper Story' 'Lower Story' thing going on again. Rahab the prostitute, living in a city so evil that it's about to be erased out of existence, is the one God chooses, not only to bring Israel into their promised land, but to be an ancestor of the ultimate child of promise, the Lord Jesus Christ.

So if we are sitting here today thinking, 'I'm nobody special. Nothing good is ever going to come out of my life, everything is against me' let us put our selves in Rahab's shoes and for a moment dare to dream about what faith can do.

Let's not be like Achan.   Achan, in 'The Story' is only mentioned in one of those linking sections where we are told that 'Everyone obeyed – except for one man, Achan. As a result of Achan's sin, God was not with the Israelite army when they attacked Ai.'

Achan's misdeed was to take some of the plunder that God had explicitly forbidden them. Achan thought he knew better. It's a sin as old as the Garden of Eden. 'Did God really say you shouldn't do that. Oh that God! Such a killjoy. Go ahead, you won't die, what's the worse that could happen?'

When it came to Achan the worst happened. His act saps the power out of the army. It puits on hold the plans of God. And he does end up losing his life. You'd think that the people, particularly the people at the top would be getting the message that when God told you not to do something, it was a safe bet that if you did, there would be negative consequences.

But even Joshua had to learn this lesson over and over. We discover that some deceptive folk from a nearby place called Gibeon arrive and trick him into making a treaty with them. Joshua, instead of consulting God, just goes ahead. 'Yeh. Great idea. A treaty!' This one unfaithful act creates conflict for years to come.

Half way though the Old Testament you find a book called Proverbs, a collection of wise sayings . Among them you find these words 'Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to Him, and He will make your paths straight. Do not be wise in your own eyes; fear the LORD and shun evil.' (Proverbs 3:5-7)

Throughout our lives we have decisions to make, large and small. Everything from 'What career path shall I follow?' to 'Is this a relationship I should be involved in?' to 'How can I be a part of a faith community?' We can draw up list of 'pros and cons' and still be left scratching our heads. People tell us 'Follow your heart' but sometimes our hearts are not in the right place.

I cannot say this with any greater clarity. 'Trust in God to guide you and God will guide you.' In everything you seek to do, seek God's guidance. Be aware that there is an 'Upper Story'. The only way we connect our 'Lower Story' lives with that 'Upper Story' is through prayer, by reading God's Word, by opening our hearts to God's influence in worship and service, by being in communion with other people of faith who we can trust to help us in our decision making.

This chapter spells that out for us. Whoever we are, wherever we are, whatever our circumstances, compare the outcome of Rahab's life with the actions of Achan. Achan, the insider, loses it all. Rahab, though outwardly a total outsider, finds blessings beyond all imagining.

The way God will guide our lives is always unpredictable. Ask Joshua. The most famous passage in this chapter is the downfall of Jericho. What a crazy battle plan. March around the walls 7 times. Carry the most prized thing you have, the Ark of the Covenant with you. Have 7 priests form a marching band and play their trumpets. But don't say a word till I tell you to shout and then let loose a huge yell, as loud as if an elephant just trod on your toe.

Joshua 6:20 tells us how it worked out. 'When the trumpets sounded, the army shouted, and at the sound of the trumpet, when the men gave a loud shout, the wall collapsed; so everyone charged straight in, and they took the city.'

That was just the beginning of the campaign. In the South, Israel defeats 5 Kings, while in the North they take another 14 cities. The entire land comes under their control, Joshua divides the land among the tribes of Israel and there is, for a while, peace.

Lest there be any doubt that these victories could be achieved without God's help, Joshua, now an old man, aware that his days on earth were numbered,calls the people together for a 'State of the Union' address. His final testament to the people.

'You crossed the Jordan and came to Jericho. The citizens of Jericho fought against you, as did also the Amorites, Perizzites, Canaanites, Hittites, Girgashites, Hivites and Jebusites, but I gave them into your hands. … You did not do it with your own sword and bow. I gave you a land on which you did not toil and cities you did not build; and you live in them and eat from vineyards and olive groves that you did not plant. Now fear the LORD and serve Him with all faithfulness. (Joshua 24:11-14)

The choice is laid before the people.
Choose who you will serve.
Choose how you will live.

We are given the example of the faith of Rahab. In the midst of an impossible situation she trusts God and becomes blessed beyond measure.

We can contrast Rahab with Achan who feels he can work things out better in his life, without needing God's help, and he loses everything, including his own life.

We know that 'Joshua fit the battle of Jericho and the walls came a tumblin' down'. As we seek for God to guide us, we can never say how that will work out. God's ways are higher than our ways. But it always makes sense to align ourselves with God's purposes.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, March 7, 2016

The Story 6. Wandering

Readings: Psalm 1, Dueteronomy 30:11-20, John 3:11-15, James 3:2-10
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, March 6th, 2016

The Israelite's camp at the mountain for about a year. During that time they have God's presence revealed to them like nobody ever had before. They are given guidelines to live by. They have a special place, the Tabernacle, which overflows with God's glory and is somewhere they can go to put things right when things get messed up.

You would think they would be the happiest, most content, most faithful people on the planet. You would think that, as they set off on their journey to the promised land, with Moses as their fearless leader and the promises of God always in their reach, they would be bold, strong and courageous.

They turn out however to be a bunch of grumblers, mumblers and fearful followers who so infuriate Moses that he loses his patience with them and they cause him to go against God's word. Even as they draw near to their land of promise, and God says 'Go for it', they shrink back and a whole generation (including Moses and Aaron) die in the wilderness. One word best describes the whole desert experience. Wandering.

Wandering, geographically. Wandering away from God. Wandering into situations that blighted their lives rather than blessed them. Did anybody else find chapter six of 'The Story' a little hard going? Am I the only one who thought 'Will these people ever get it together?'

Maybe my frustration with the Israelite s in the wilderness is that it is all a little to close for comfort. I know my life is greatly blessed. I understand that God's promises are always in reach. Yet too often I am the one who is moaning and groaning rather than acting boldly and faithfully!

As we 'Lower Story' people wander through our lives, the 'Upper Story' component in these stories is God's faithfulness. I found it quite hard to pick out consistent themes from chapter six, yet as I kept reading it, three seeped through... 'The Rabble', 'The Battle' and 'The Rallying Cry'! So let me talk about each of those.

The Rabble

The rabble, or as the original Hebrew word can be translated, the 'collected multitude of moaners' never seem to be satisfied.

They have only started back into the desert for a short while and are complaining 'Oh, it's so hard'. Really? Harder than it was being slaves in Egypt? God shoots them a bolt from the blue that singes the fringes of the camp. And for a moment they conclude, 'Oh, yeah. Could be worse!'

They complain about the miracle food, the manna, that God had provided. It was more than you'd normally get in the desert! But the rabble start saying, 'What about some meat? In fact what about some meat, cucumbers, melons, leeks and garlic... like we had back in Egypt?'

This time God says, 'You want meat? I'll give you meat' Quail meat. And it's as though they have 'Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam and Spam' for every meal. I make no apology for the Pythonesque reference. God has a sense of humor. God has been guiding them with a pillar of fire by night and a cloud by day and giving them everything they needed to survive and thrive in the midst of a hostile environment. Still they moan.

The discontent spreads to Moses closest family. 'Who made Moses commander-in-chief? Why can't we make the decisions around here?' say Aaron and Miriam. Then Miriam comes down with a an incredibly nasty skin complaint and it's 'Oh Moses, help us, help us'. Which he does.

They are getting near to the promised land. Some of them check it out. 'Dudes! It's awesome!' The key word here is that this is the 'promised' land. They are to inherit the promise only by the strength and grace and 'Upper Story' purpose of God.

They go straight into 'Lower Story' mode. 'Never going to happen. There are giants in the land. You can't bypass giants. We've come all this way to die in the desert'. God doesn't flinch from telling them like it is. 'You are right. There is a whole generation of you, because of your disbelief, are never going to see it. Your children will, but as you say, so it will be'.

It's hot. They are thirsty. 'We need more to drink. Give us water, Moses.' God tells Moses, 'Got it covered. There's a big rock over there. Speak to it. It will gush.' Moses at this point is through with God and with the people. He picks up his staff... the special staff that had been used to confound the Pharaoh and part the waters of the Red Sea... and he slams it angrily into the rock. The water comes, but his anger costs him. Even Moses had to stay faithful, and when he didn't there were consequences.

The 'collected multitude of moaners' never give up. It's venom. It's poison. It's killing their relationship with God and with each other. Constant complaining does that. Ruins churches. Ruins families. Ruins relationships. They are not getting it. As though to illustrate what they were doing to each other, God allows a load of snakes to infest the camp. They start biting the people, who as always, plead with Moses, 'Do something'.

Moses does something strange. He makes a bronze snake. Holds it up on a pole and tells them 'Look up and live'. 'The snake on a stick became a symbol for healing and features as an emblem of many medical ventures today. In the 'Upper Story' it held a particular significance. In the New Testament gospel of John, we find these words 'Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in Him." (John 3:14-15 NIV)

Let's leave the rabble and think about The Battle

Our lives can be as though we are wandering in a wilderness. It is hard to connect the 'Upper Story' of God's love with our 'Lower Story' of everyday striving. It's a battle. And two major battles we face are not that dissimilar to those of the Israelites.

Firstly, we battle the nay-sayers. We battle those who say, 'You cannot inherit the promises of God. They are not for you.' For the Israelites these were physical kings and local tribal chiefs. But for us, it is often the expectations and voices of the rabble around us who tell us we are on an impossible journey. That we are foolish to believe in God's purposes. That we are wasting our time because it's all to much, all to ridiculous, all to unbelievable. God can work in your life? God can bless you? Who do you think you are? God gives us the answer. 'You are mine. I choose you!'

Our second battle is with allegiance. There are many attractive options to follow in life other than worshiping and serving God. The scriptural term for these options is 'idolatry'. Anything we pursue other than God's will for our life is a form of idolatary.

For the Israelites the temptation to idolatory came with the attractive packaging of Moabite ladies. Temptations often come in pretty packages that proimse fullfillment but lead us down dead end roads that turn out to be more of a wilderness than we had sought to escape from. Even as the Lord was delivering them from their enemies, they were embracing Moabite religion and making ritual prostituion a part of their worship. This was not the nation God was building.

As they draw near the end of their desert wanderings it's time for a change. A change in direction. A change in leadership. A change of heart. The time for wandering had gone. It was time to take a stand. The farewell spech of Moses is 'The Rallying Cry.'

For a guy with a stammer who hated speaking in public, Moses has come a long way. The people had reached a 'Now or Never' moment. He wasn't going to be with them much longer. He does not mince his words. He offers two alternatives. Be people who are going with God and know God's blessings, or go your own way, back to a wandering, desolate, godless, meaningless, purposeless life of futiliy and striving.

God had a plan. An 'Upper Story' plan. To bless. To guide. To lead. But they had to choose to go with it. It is no different for us. We all wander through our personal wildernesses. We all face challenges. Family. Work. Loss of work. Relationships. Illness. Finance. Death. These things are common to all humanity.

But in every instance, in every challenge, we get to choose how we handle it. Do we allow God to guide us? Do we seek God's way through the deserts of our lives? Do we pay more attention to the 'multitude of moaners' or find ourselves centered in God's Word and service and worship? Do we seek our satisfaction through living the way God desires or are we seeking satisfaction elsewhere through enthroning lesser gods in our hearts?

We have seen already in 'The Story' how God had brought the people to this moment in their journey. Through Noah, through Abraham, through Isaac, through Jacob, through Joseph, through the wilderness to the borders of the promised land. God has brought us to this place, this day. Through God's grace. Through God's love.

Hear then the rallying cry of Moses towards all those who would be faithful.

This day I call the heavens and the earth as witnesses against you that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Now choose life, so that you and your children may live and that you may love the LORD your God, listen to His voice, and hold fast to Him. For the LORD is your life, and he will give you many years in the land he swore to give to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (Deuternomy 30:19-20 NIV)

Through Jesus Christ we are chosen to be the inheritors of God's promises. Through the action of God's Holy Spirit, bringing conviction, understanding, and strength we are invited to go forward in faith.

We can carry on wandering with the rabble. Carry on complaining. Stay in the desert. Or we can recognize that we all have a battle on our hands, we all make wrong choices, we all fail to be all that we can be. Today then we can determine how are going to respond to the rallying cry of Moses. Today is a day to hear afresh his words.

Choose life, so that you and your children may live
and that you may love the LORD your God,
listen to His voice,
and hold fast to Him.
For the LORD is your life

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.