Sunday, May 29, 2016

The Story 16. The Beginning of The End

                     Readings: John 6:35-51,2 Thessalonians 3:1-5, 2 Kings 18:1-7, Isaiah 6:1-8
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, May 29th, 2016

If our lives are on the wrong trajectory, eventually we are going to run into trouble. If we are driving down a dead end road where do we end up? At a dead end!  Magnify that picture and apply it, not just to the individual, but to the Old Testament story of the Hebrews.

Through Abraham, through Moses, through prophets and Judges, the Hebrews are called to walk with God. Through King David the nation became established, but then following Solomon, it split apart. The Northern Kingdom, Israel, is served by a series of idolatrous Kings. They end up being sent into captivity in Assyria. The Southern Kingdom, Judah, have a few periods of faithfulness, but are mostly unfaithful. Judah will end up in Babylon.

As a church we continue our journey through a chronological version of Scripture known as “The Story.” Chapter 16  introduces us to two faithful characters, King Hezekiah of Judah and the prophet Isaiah. The chapter  is titled “The beginning of the End.” It's a chapter about disintegration. It offers a simple perspective. “When things fall apart, get back to the heart.

Hezekiah was one of the few good Kings during the time of Judah. We are told that “He did what was right” (2 Kings 18:3) and that “The Lord was with him.” (2 Kings 18:7) Doing the right thing didn't mean he therefore lived a trouble free existence.  That has never been the way life works for faithful people of God. Faith is not an insurance policy against trouble. Trouble for King Hezekiah came from the mighty Assyrian army, who, having taken the Northern kingdom of Israel captive, now rage a war of propoganda against the Southern Kingdom of Judah.

The commander of the Assyrians calls out, in Hebrew, (which is Judah's native tongue) “Do not let Hezekiah decieve you. Your God can't protect you from the mighty Assyrians. Give up!  The commander even steals the words of Moses and promises the Hebrews that if they surrender to Assyria, they will be led  to a land flowing with milk and honey. He uses one of Moses catchphrases “Choose Life.” (2 Kings 18:32)

During World War 2 the German Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda attempted to discourage and demoralize American, Australian, British, and Canadian troops by brodacasting, on a powerful radio signal, discouraging reports of high losses and casualties among Allied forces. They used the polished English language and voice of William Joyce, 'Lord Haw-Haw', a satirical reference to his posh english accent. Fascinating to see from these ancient texts that there is nothing new about using propoganda as a weapon of intimidation.

The harrasment continues when King Hezekiah receives an intimidating personal letter that spoke of the uselessness of standing against the might of Assyria. If you are a 'Doctor Who' fan, you could summarize the contents of the letter  in one phrase “Resistance is futile.” Hezekiah knows the odds are against him. The heart of the matter was that his only hope was in God. So he has a time of serious prayer. “When things fall apart, get back to the heart.

There are times in our life when we pray... and there are times in our life when we really PRAY! When we pray because our life depends on it. “Lord, you have seen what the King of Assyria, Sennacherib, has written. You know how powerful the Assyrians are. But You are the God of Israel! You made heaven and earth! Grant us Your deliverance. You are are our only hope!”

In answer to this heart wrenching prayer, God acts. Hezekiah receives a message from the other significant person of faith we meet in this chapter, the prophet Isaiah, “God says to Hezekiah ; I have heard your prayer.” He is promised that God will act. Mysteriously, that night, death sweeps through the Assyrian camp, striking down many of the troops. We don't know how it happened, but we do know it was enough to scare the Assyrians away and they never do defeat Judah during Hezekiah's reign. 

Words are powerful things. People sometimes speak against us. Tell lies. Spread gossip. Things can be stacked against us. What can we do when that happens? The doorway of prayer is always open! When things fall apart, get back to the heart.

But be careful. If you offer a serious prayer, God may decide to get serious with you. Serious prayer should have a government health warning, “Warning, Prayer can seriously damage your skepticism and unbelief. It can have side effects of causing you to attempt the impossible, expect the unreasonable and may induce unexpected attacks of unexplainable joy.  Isaiah could see things needed to change in the nation. So, like Hezekiah, he goes into the temple to pray. It gets serious.

While he is alone in prayer, suddenly the temple is filled with the glory of God. He can hardly stand it. Such is the intensity of this experience that he fears for his life. There is the sound of voices declaring “Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God Almighty.” We read that “At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.” Isaiah shouts out “Woe to me. I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips.” (Isaiah 6:5)

This kind of thing wasn't supposed to happen when you wandered into church for a quiet prayer. He is told that his sin has been atoned for and his guilt taken away. God, in an instant wipes way any excuse he may have for not following God's call. So when a voice declares “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” he can't help himself.  Here am I.” he says “Send me!” (Isaiah 6:8)

As part of our worship service we have a “Prayer of Confession” and  The Words of Assurance.” We confess that, like Isaiah, we are a people who fall short of what God requires. Yet we believe that in Jesus Christ, our sins find their match, that His righteousness is way more powerful than our waywardness, that His grace is more effctive than our unfaithfulness.

We use expressions such as “Christ died for our sins.” We speak of His death as our atonement. We sing hymns about being forgiven and set free to serve. We make the claim that Jesus has washed our sins away.

Part of chapter 16 of “The Story” features what are known as “the Servant Songs” of Isaiah, passages of Scripture which Christian theologians claim vividly predict the suffering of Jesus.  As an example consider Isaiah 53:3-5;

He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.

At the heart of Christian faith is the Cross. We love because He first loved us. We serve because He took a towel and washed His disciples feet. If we have truly experienced God's grace, then our reponse to God's call should be as authentic as that of the prophet Isaiah, who when he is pronounced forgiven and free declares, “Here I am. Send me!”

We look around at our world and we complain, “It's terrible. What's going on?” The gospel is that God not only knows what is going on but has a plan to put things right. That's the Good News. The challenging part of that news is that God's plan involves us doing our part by responding to His call to discipleship.

Who me? Change the world? We are either part of the problem or we are part of the solution. God isn't asking us to be Hezekiah.  God isn't asking us to be Isaiah. God doesn't need another Moses or another David or another Jesus.  God needs us. God needs us to understand that the little things we do that are motivated by His love are huge leaps forward for the cause of God's Kingdom. When things fall apart, get back to the heart.

Isaiah's words are of amazing importance to the story of our Christian faith. We have spoken about there being throughout the Bible an “Upper Story” and a “Lower Story”. The “Lower Story” is how we experience everyday life. The “Upper Story” is what God is doing behind the scenes.

Isaiah is supremely the one in the Old Testament who prophetically pictures the ministry of Jesus Christ. He is the most quoted Old Testament source throughout the New. He speaks of a future when not only Judah and Israel, but people of all nations would worship the One, True God.

How they would be offered freedom from oppression and how God would provide a 'Servant' to free people from the weight of their sin, by taking their sin upon Himself. He speaks of the coming of a Messiah who would be a righteouss King, who would be just and kind, who would bring healing and reconciliation. He speaks of a time at the end of all things when war will cease and death be destroyed and he envisages a new heaven and new earth.

Some tremendous lessons about faithfulness during times that this chapter describes as “The Beginning of The End.”

  •  We see how the unfaithfulness of Israel, the Northern Kingdom, finally caught up with them and they are led into captivity in Assyria. Unfaithfulness has consequences!
  • We witness the life of Hezekiah, a faithful King in the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Though he is subject to a demoralizing campaign of propoganda at the hand of the Assyrians, he pours out his heart in prayer to God and God answers his prayer in a mighty way. If people talk trash about us or stand against us or spread negative rumors, we are in the good company of folk like Hezekiah. If such actions drive us to prayer, then they achieve a good pupose.
  •   We have been introduced to Isaiah,who when graced by God with a message of forgiveness, did not hesitate to say, “Here am I, Send me!” As we reflect on the grace of Jesus Christ, one who died for our sin and was raised to being us new life, let us likewise respond with thankful and willing hearts.
  • We have seen, through the prophesies of Isaiah, how, even though the nation was about to experience dark days of captivity, God was preparing the world for the coming of the Messiah , our Lord Jesus Christ. We are encouraged to do the little things, but remember that behind it all there is a bigger picture!
 All of which brings me back to the central message of these scripture passages When things fall apart, get back to the heart.Never underestimate the power of heartfelt prayer, to change either ourselves or our circumstances. Hezekiah experienced that. Isiah experienced that the day he was called.

And remember that there is a bigger picture, a greater perspective. God is working out God's purposes. We may not always see it, but we are challenged to believe it! And to God's name be all glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, May 23, 2016

The Story 15. God's Messengers

Readings: Psalm 8, Romans 5:1-5, John 6:12-15,1 Kings 18:18-39
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, May 22nd, 2016

In South Africa in 1861 a bishop, by the name of John Colenso, published a series of controversial papers on the earliest books of the Bible. He was a charismatic leader and when the Episcopalian church branded him a heretic, many sided with the bishop rather than the church. Others felt the church was right in upholding her standards, and it became something of an unholy mess.

Over in Windsor, England, there was a young clergyman by the name of Thomas Stone, who was both distressed by the bishop's actions and wanted to offer something to the debate. Bishop Colenso is forgotten, but the hymn Thomas Stone wrote has survived.

It is number 442 in our Church hymnal. “The Churches One Foundation, is Jesus Christ her Lord.”. The verses speak of how “The world sees her oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed.” His great hope is that all Christians will be recalled to faithfulness and once again declare “One Lord, One Faith, One Birth.” Whenever the church is in conflict, this hymn has proved to be a prophetic voice that recalls us to what is important... namely faith in Jesus Christ our one Lord and Savior.

Throughout history God has raised up individuals to challenge the people of God to return to faithfulness. In our journey through “The Story” we have reached chapter 15 which focuses on a group of people in the Old Testament known as prophet's; “God's Messengers.” Their task is to speak God's word into situations where faithfulness had become questionable.

The prophets are all very different characters. In Chapter 15 we meet just four of them. Elijah, Elisha, Amos and Hosea. They teach us is that everyone of us has a voice. Every one of us the capacity to be a world changer.

Elijah is known for his confrontation on Mount Carmel with King Ahab, Jezebel and the prophets of Baal. He challenges them to call down fire from heaven to light a bonfire upon which a sacrificial offering has been made. There are 450 prophets of Baal and one Elijah.

When nothing happens he taunts them, suggesting that Baal might be taking a siesta or on vacation or might just be deep in thought. After their unsuccessful attempt Elijah invites them three times to pour water on the bonfire. At Elijah's bidding, the fire falls, the people see what has happened and declare “The Lord – He is God, The Lord – He is God.” Faithfulness returns. At least for a moment. Jezebel the Queen is not impressed. She decides that Elijah needed to be dealt with and orders his execution.

The conflict leaves Elijah exhausted and fearing for his life. As the people quickly turn back to their idolatrous ways he has severe doubts about his call and his ability and ends up hiding in a cave. There is nothing new about “Burn-Out.”

But God comes to where he is and reveals God's presence in a gentle and beautiful way. We read 1 Kings 19:11-13 “Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.

In the stillness, with a gentle whisper, God speaks and reassures him. When Elijah protests his loneliness, God let's him know that there were actually “Seven thousand in Israel whose knees had not bowed down to Baal” (1Kings 19:18). God speaks to Elijah about how the witness would continue through one who becomes for a time Elijah's servant, the prophet Elisha.

Time passes. The mantle of prophet passes from Elijah to Elisha. Elisha has a very different mission to that of Elijah. Elisha's mission is not defined by confrontation, but by compassion.

He secures the release of soldiers from Aram and effects a peaceful resolution to their conflict. He promises a barren woman she will be with child and then later brings that child back from the dead. He heals Namaan of leprosy. He saves a widow and her sons from starvation through a jar of oil that never runs out.

There's a great passage where Elisha reveals to a servant that people of God were never alone. The servant is in the midst of battle and sees that they are surrounded. We pick up the story in 2 Kings 6:5-11 "Oh no, my lord! What shall we do?" the servant asked. "Don't be afraid," the prophet answered. "Those who are with us are more than those who are with them." And Elisha prayed, "Open his eyes, Lord, so that he may see." Then the LORD opened the servant's eyes, and he looked and saw the hills full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.

The early Celtic church used to speak about their being a great unseen cloud of witnesses that are traveling with us as we make our pilgrimage through life. In the company of angels and the company of saints we walk within the presence of God. Back in my homelands the theme tune for Liverpool Football Club, sung on the terraces every game
was the anthem “You'll never walk alone.”

Whenever we make a stand, be it a bold venture like Elijah, or through multiple acts of compassion like Elisha, we may feel like we are part of a remnant, but God intervenes to remind us that whilst we may feel like we are going against the crowd, the crowd is going in the wrong direction!

Which brings us to Amos. Amos comes on the scene during the reign of Uzziah in Judah and Jereboam in Israel. Though he was from Judah, his ministry takes place among Israel. At this stage in Israel's story, some in Samaria have grown incredibly wealthy. They have built their mansions on the backs of the poor. Such inequality was not what God had in mind for God's chosen people.

In Amos 3:8-10 we read 'The lion has roared; who will not fear? The Sovereign LORD has spoken; who can but prophesy? Proclaim ... "Assemble yourselves on the mountains of Samaria; see the great unrest within her and the oppression among her people. They do not know how to do right," declares the LORD, "they store up in their fortresses what they have plundered and looted." '

In chapter after chapter Amos catalogs their excesses, the legal system that was biased in favor of the rich, the prophets who spoke lies and told them all was well, the plight of those who were bottom of the food chain and the complacency of those who were at the top. He criticizes their worship, because though they honored him with their lips, their hearts were far away. For a while they would enjoy prosperity, but the time was coming when it was all going to be stripped away.

Amid his words of judgment he pleads for them to repent and he maintains that God's plans would not be thwarted. Though they were unfaithful, God remained faithful and would one day lift up again the house of David that they had so little regard for.

Hardly surprisingly Amos's ministry it is not met with a warm reception. In Amos 7:12 King Amaziah comes to him and say "Get out, you seer! Go back to the land of Judah. Earn your bread there and do your prophesying there. Don't prophesy anymore at Bethel, because this is the king's sanctuary and the temple of the kingdom."

Amos explains that he would be happy to do that, because he was just a shepherd who also looked after a few vines on the hillsides, but God had told him to speak to Israel, so how could he not do as he was told?

Our final prophet is Hosea. Amos had a heart for social justice. Hosea's concern is the idolatry that had gripped the people of Israel and drawn them away from the one true God.

Hosea describes it as a form of adultery and prostitution, something he vividly illustrates by marrying an unfaithful wife called Gomer. Through her he has two children, Lo-Ruhamah (which means "not loved") and a son called Lo-Ammi (which means "not my people") He describes the people of Israel as being, like Gomer, unfaithful spouses who were “Not loved” and “Not my people.” Harsh words. If ever you wanted to write a book called “A rough guide to extreme prophets” Hosea would be number 1 on the list.

Hosea 4:1-2 “Hear the word of the LORD, you Israelites, because the LORD has a charge to bring against you who live in the land: "There is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed.”

In chapter 3 of the prophet, Hosea's relationship with Gomer is restored. This is an illustration that though Israel were unfaithful, God would never stop loving them or trying to win them back to faithfulness.

Messengers of God come in many forms and address many different situations. We've seen a number of them. Elijah, who boldly challenges and ridicules false prophets. Elisha who demonstrates a mission of compassion and healing. Amos who cries out against social injustice. Hosea who admonishes the people of God to recognize the serious consequences their unfaithfulness would bring and return to the God who held them accountable, yet in love, refused to give up on them.

What unites them is that they are individuals speaking out of the conviction that their voice counted. They refuse to keep silent. In the face of false religion, they call it out. When confronted by suffering, they act. They expose injustice. They remind people that they are responsible for the outcome of their unfaithfulness.

Solo voices. Words that go against the tide spoken from within communities that are not the majority. Isn't that also the call of each one of us? To speak out? Not because it's easy. Not because we are somehow special or gifted. But speak about the things God has put on our hearts.

We can't leave that up to somebody else. What if Elijah had kept silent? What if Elisha had refused to act. What if Amos had stayed home with his sheep? What if Hosea had not obeyed God?

Never underestimate the power of your voice to change the world. You have a mission. You are called to be worldchangers. God has given every one of us a mission field. It is called “Our daily life.”

Be aware, there is no one way of acting in a prophetic manner. For Thomas Stone, as he saw his church ravaged by schism and discord, his call, back in the 1860's, was to write a song. A hymn that still speaks to us today to remind us that our center is Jesus Christ.

Some are called to serve food. Some are called to write letters or organize campaigns. Some to blog. Some to march. Some to protest. Some to quietly do subversive acts of kindness. Christians are called to be world changers. When Jesus said, “Go into all the World” I think He meant it! We are all God's messengers.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, May 16, 2016

The Story 14. A Kingdom Torn in Two

             Readings:Psalm 115, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 6:19-34, 1 Kings 13:1-6,33-34
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, May 15th, 2016

In the history of the United States one of the defining historical periods is that of the Civil War. In the story of the Hebrew people there is also a civil war that divides the South from the North.

Here at Mount Hebron have been reading a chronological version of the Bible called “The Story”. We have reached a point in our journey when God's people have had their first taste of what living under a monarchy felt like. Their first King, Saul, had not been wonderful, but under King David the nation had prospered.

Following King David came his son King Solomon, who started out well, but finished abysmally. Though in many ways Solomon was a wise King, his wisdom did not lead him to be faithful to God, but into balancing his extravagant national budget on the backs of the people he was supposed to serve. His relationships with an unnecessarily large number of wives and concubines led to him adopting pagan practices that led him away from true religion and into idolatry.

Chapter 14 of  “The Story” titled “A Kingdom torn in Two” covers the first book of Kings chapters 12 through 16. It is a time in the life of the Hebrews characterized by brief periods of faithfulness and long periods of unfaithfulness.

During Solomon's reign, two leaders arise. The first is Rehoboam, Solomon's son and the rightful heir to the United Kingdom. The second, Jeroboam was a rising star in Solomon's administration, who made an unsuccessful bid to seize the throne before fleeing to Egypt.

Solomon dies and his son Rehoboam takes over. He is given some advice by his elders, that if he really wanted to take charge, then he should lighten the burden his father had placed on the peoples shoulders. Instead he takes the advice of his peers and says “No way! I'm going to make it harder for them, not easier. That'll show them!”

So the people appeal to Jeroboam (the one who had fled to Egypt) “We need your help. Rehoboam has turned out crazier than his dad Solomon.” The scene is set for a major confrontation, a civil war,  which results in a divided Kingdom. Rehoboam becomes King of the smaller Southern Kingdom - Judah, while Jeroboam becomes King over a federation of tribes that take the name “Israel” and become the Northern Kingdom, also known as “Kingdom of Samaria.”

Throughout our series on “The Story” we have been thinking about how within Scripture there is both a“Lower Story” and an “Upper Story.”  The “Lower Story” is about how humanity, in every generation, fails to grasp this idea that God can be trusted and instead blunder from one tragedy to the next carrying with them a sense that God has nothing to say and nothing to offer their lives.

The “Upper Story” is the constantly unfolding theme throughout the 66 books of the Bible that God is preparing a people to reflect God's loving purposes to the world. Whenever people act in faithful response to God's call, even if they are only a remnant, the result is always blessing.

We sometimes think these Old Testament tales from long ago have little to offer us. Dig deeper and we will find great insights into the nature of faith and unfaithfulness.

Consider the first King of Judah, Jeroboam. His life is directed by fear rather than faith.  We are told that Jeroboam is afraid that his enemy in the North, King Rehoboam, will turn the people back to God and that they will become so powerful that it will lead to his defeat. So what does he do? Rather than turn to God, he sets up a whole alternative framework for his life that effectively, counteracts the influence of the one true God who was seeking his faithfulness.

In a society where religion is not considered a priority we need to recognize that there is a huge pressure on us to not be people of faith. We need to work at creating a framework of faithfulness in which we can live out our lives. We need to recognize that our choices can be made out of the fear of not keeping up with the trends and fads and expectations of our society, rather than be formed by our faithfulness to God.

Consider the way we raise our kids. We want the best for them. We invest in college funds, we take them here there and everywhere and give them what we believe they need to succeed in this life.

But then we come to those areas where we have to choose. Do I let them do this activity, if it means they can't be involved in a church activity? Do I send them to this science or sports or arts camp, that might help them get into college, or do I encourage them to attend a faith based camp, which might not help with college, but could significantly impact their spiritual development?

Many, many, people will choose the secular option over the spiritual one because they fear their kids might be missing out on the kind of advantage to move them on in the world. Somehow we worry more about them missing out on secular things than spiritual things. We all, subconsciously, have a framework that guides our choices. And for some of us, despite our involvement with church, church is not number one on our list.

In Jeroboam's life, when he is confronted about his choices, he goes into denial. In our Old Testament reading, as he stands by one of the idolatrous altars he has created, he is told that what he is doing is wrong. When he lashes out at the prophet who tells him this, his hand withers up. So he begs the man of God, “Please heal me, please help me.” His hand finds healing as the altar he has built falls apart before his eyes.

But does that set him back on the right path? We read in 1 Kings 13:33 “Even after this, Jeroboam did not change his evil ways.” That's a common phenomenon in our society. Something bad happens and people get religion for a while. They get what they need and  then return to living just like they always had.

Do not underestimate the power of whatever framework we are investing our lives in. If our ultimate aim is to be comfortable, or to be prosperous, or to be happy, to have the best in worldly opportunities... whilst in themselves these are not bad things... nevertheless they can totally take precedence over being faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. And Scripture has a name for any desires or motives that take precedence over seeking God's will. Idolatry. Idolatry is enthroning other things than what God desires for us in our hearts. When Jeroboam's son Ahijah becomes ill, he again seeks the help of the one true God. But this time it is too late. His son dies. The harsh lesson is that our actions, our 'framework' creates consequences.

In the North, in Israel, the list of Kings begins with Rehoboam. Despite Jeroboam's concern that Rehoboam would return from Egypt and seek the God of David, he does nothing of the sort. Instead he, in the words of 1 Kings 14:24; “Engaged in all the detestable practices of the nations the LORD had driven out before the Israelites.

He cares so little about the religious heritage he has received from King David that when an Egyptian King called Shishak invades, he let's him take all the gold from the temple and Rehoboam replaces it with bronze. “Well it's only a temple! Why waste good money on that?” Why give of your best to your church, when second or third best will do just fine?

That is the heritage he has received from his father Solomon. From Solomon's pagan wives he learned idolatry. The framework we are living our lives in, doesn't just impact the lives of our immediate family, it guides the lives of the next generation.

So here's another challenge. What kind of Christian heritage, what kind of legacy are we leaving to those who come after us? If they take on our priorities and our values... not the ones we give lip service to... but the ones we actually live by... what is that going to look like?

This litany of the Northern Kingdom's unfaithfulness reaches it peak in King Ahab – Son of Omri.  1 Kings 16:30 “Ahab son of Omri did more evil in the eyes of the LORD than any of those before him.” Some weeks ago the choir sang to us how “Joshua fit the battle of Jericho and the walls came tumbling down.” What happens during Ahab's reign? Jericho is rebuilt and a god descended from Jericho's pantheon called “Baal” becomes the focus of the nations religious life.

During the divided Kingdom, a period that lasted for 344 years from 930-586 BC there were 38 Kings. Only five of them followed God. Only five! But during the reigns of those five Kings, people prospered. God rewards faithfulness. Under those five faithful leaders, Asa, Jehoshaphat, Joash, Hezekiah and Josiah... the Southern Kingdom did well.

Chapter 14 of “The Story” speaks about one of the faithful; King Asa of Judah. We are told “Asa did what was right in the eyes of the LORD, as his father David had done.” We read of him getting rid of the idols. Of how he was not afraid to call his family to faithful living, even when it meant coming into conflict with his grandmother. How he brought into the temple of the Lord the silver and gold dedicated to God's service. When there is a conflict, he seeks God's way through it and his actions result in peace.

And following Asa came King Jehoshaphat, another faithful and exemplary King in Judah who does what is right in the Lord's eyes. His full story is found in 2 Chronicles Chapters 17 through 20. Under his leadership, again, the Southern Kingdom prospered. 

The “Upper Story” of God's purposes? God had made a promise to David to establish David's throne for ever and ever. God had made a promise that out of David's line would come a Messiah, a savior for all the nations. At times that promise is only kept alive through a faithful remnant.

We are living in an age where 'Faithfulness to God' is not number one on the list of many peoples priorities. Idols come in many forms. Consumerism drives us to believe it is possessions that offer us what we need, but in the end, the drive for possessions, possesses us. Political campaigns encourage us to make the nation great. But the 'greatness' that is spoken of has nothing to do with the greatness that Jesus outlined through His life of service and self-giving and lifting up the poor and befriending the stranger.

We say we only want the best, but often... at least subconsciously... believe that the best means the best standard of living or the best opportunities or a host of other things other than “Faithfulness.” I fear we often confuse the “Best” with meaning the “Most.”

There's a lot to consider in this chapter about the divided Kingdom. Do our lives reflect a framework of faithfulness? Or are we making our priority secular priorities? What spiritual legacy are we leaving to those who will come after us? What is really important for the lives of our selves and our families?

Don't be afraid to be identified with the faithful remnant. In the bigger picture, in the “Upper Story” the faithful  are the ones who get to really experience the blessing of God in ways that the “Lower Story” folk can never even understand. Take courage. If we find our story in God's story it will give our life a framework that is out of this world!

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, May 2, 2016

The Story 13. The King Who Had It All

Readings: Proverbs 3:1-18, 1 Samuel 8:9-22, Matthew 25:32-36,  Philippians 2:3-11, 1 Kings 10:1-9
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, May 1st, 2016

In 2011 the singer Adele had a worldwide hit with a song called “Rolling in the Deep.” It is instantly recognizable when she belts out the chorus... “We could have had it all.” The song was written as a response to a failed relationship that was dragging her down.

Such could be a fitting theme song to the life of Solomon, a King who seemingly could have had it all, and then some... but, partly through some bad decisions and relationships in his personal life, he loses so much.

Solomon's achievements are without a doubt, simply dazzling. He was dazzlingly brilliant. When he is invited by God to ask for anything that would help him in his reign, Solomon asks for wisdom.

One of the first stories we read about him is his adjudicating between two women who are arguing as to which is the true mother of a child. “Bring me a sword” he says, “I'll cut the baby in two and you can have half each.” The true mother immediately, to protect her baby, says, “No. Let the other woman have the child!” Solomon concludes that the one who wants to protect the child is the baby’s true mother.  And he is right!

Solomon is described as having a dazzling knowledge of just about any topic under the sun. We read 'He spoke about plant life, from the cedar of Lebanon to the hyssop that grows out of the walls. He spoke about animals and birds and reptiles and fish.” He is a walking encyclopedia.

He collects together a vast collection of wise sayings and songs that become known as the biblical book of Proverbs. Across the centuries they continue to instruct people in the way of wisdom. Many of them have made their way into our minds and our culture without us even realizing that is where they originated from.

He makes treaties and forms alliances that generate prosperity and wealth and maintain peace. Kings and rulers and movers and shakers from all over the world come to visit, including the Queen of Sheba, whose name still today conjures up images of wealth and opulence beyond our wildest dreams.

He builds a dazzling temple, after the directions of His father David, and then tops it off with one of the most dazzling palaces the world has ever seen. Such was the prosperity of Israel in those days that nothing was made of silver, because silver was considered of having little value. Like Adele's talent, Solomon's early reign is simply dazzling. He could have had it all.

There's a problem with dazzling. You know when you are traveling on a country road at night and somebody comes towards you and they don't turn their headlight full beam off? You can't see a darn thing. Dazzling can blind you and disorientate you. Dazzling creates blind spots. And Solomon develops a couple of huge ones. The first had to do with the way his extravagance exacted a heavy toll on the nation.

Years earlier, when Israel had first demanded a King, the prophet Samuel had warned them, “He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and bakers. He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive groves and give them to his attendants. He will take a tenth of your grain and of your vintage and give it to his officials and attendants. Your male and female servants and the best of your cattle and donkeys he will take for his own use... and you yourselves will become his slaves.” (1Samuel 8:13-17)

Those words were coming to pass. Solomon's dazzling building program was supported by slave labor and heavy taxation. For the people this became an unbearable burden and it was only a matter of time before revolution was in the air. There can be no peace without justice. As the rich became filthy rich, everybody else became pushed further and further down the food chain. The seeds were sown for disintegration.

The second blind spot Solomon had been in his relationship to his foreign born wives. Many of his wives were taken as a way of creating an alliance with neighboring states and powers. Seems like he had a lot of alliances! 700 wives, plus 300 concubines. 

Polygamy wasn't the problem. That was an acceptable part of the culture back then. The problem came when, to pacify his wives and strengthen his alliances, he also took to worshiping the pagan gods of the cultures his wives represented.

We read in 1 Kings 11:5 -8 “He followed Ashtoreth the goddess of the Sidonians, and Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites..... built a high place for Chemosh the detestable god of Moab, and for Molek the detestable god of the Ammonites. He did the same for all his foreign wives, he burned incense and offered sacrifices to their gods.

The consequence of his actions is that he is told by God  I will most certainly tear the kingdom away from you and give it to your subordinates.” (1Kings 11:11).

At the beginning of his reign Solomon was told he could ask for anything he wanted. He asked for 'Wisdom'. The problem with wisdom was that he grew wise in his own eyes and his pride got in the way of his relationship with the God who had made all his dazzling dreams come true.

When Jesus began His ministry, He had nothing good to say about those who were wealthy and wise in the things of this world, but knew little of the requirements of God.
He tells a story about a rich man and a beggar called Lazarus. Throughout his life the rich man ignores the plight of the beggar at his door. In eternity he faces judgment for his lack of compassion.

Another time a young man, who has kept the commandments to the best of his ability, comes to Jesus and asks what else he needed to do. Jesus tells him, "Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.” (Mark 10:21). Jesus even said; “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." (Mark 10:25)

In asking for “Wisdom”, Solomon asked for a good thing, but he did not ask for the best thing. Had he truly wanted to prosper the “Kingdom of God” rather than “The Kingdom of Solomon” he would have asked for “Faithfulness.”

In one of the temptations Jesus faced in the wilderness we read that  The devil led Him up to a high place and showed Him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to Him, 'I will give you all their authority and splendor; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.'  Jesus answered, 'It is written: 'Worship the Lord your God and serve Him only.' " (Luke 4:5-8)

In the parable of the talents, Jesus tells us that judgment comes not with the words, “Well done thou wise and wealthy ruler” but with the words “Well done thou good and faithful servant.” (Matthew 25:23). By the end of his life Solomon had blown it.  Had he in his relationship with God, remained faithful and true, then maybe, as Adele sings “He could have had it all.”

The life of Solomon challenges us on many lives. It calls us to embrace wisdom. To have a faith that is about the head as well as the heart, a mind that seeks to understand and a lifestyle that embraces good practices.

His life challenges us in regard to worship. He holds nothing back in creating a temple that glorifies God. He gives of the absolute best this world can offer in order to honor God's name. When it comes to church, sometimes people give what they have left over rather than the best they have. Solomon put the temple first.

We can learn from his downfall. Worldly wisdom blinded him to the need for justice in the land. His dazzling lifestyle blocked from his view the poverty and oppression that maintained it. Jesus had harsh things to say about those who valued wealth over other peoples need.

Worst of all he compromised the one thing that was most important... his relationship with God. He allowed other gods and desires and idols to take their place in his heart. His commitment was divided.

We come now to this table laid with bread and wine. The Book of Philippians tells us that Jesus, “Made Himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to death-- even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:7-8 )

Jesus was the one, who as the Son of God, could have had it all. Instead, in order that our lives may experience the forgiveness and love of God, Jesus gave it all. He gave His life as a sacrifice for sin, as atonement for our wrongdoing and as a healing for all our sickness.

So let us seek the wisdom that is from above, the mind of Christ, the guidance of God's Holy Spirit and the love that will never let us go or let us down, to move us one more step along the discipleship road.

To God's name be the glory. Amen.
The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.