Monday, June 27, 2016

The Story 18. Daniel in Exile

Readings:Daniel 3:1-18, 1 Peter 2:11-25, John 15:17-27, 1 John 4:1-11
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, June 26th, 2016

Today we are going to be thinking about the biblical book of Daniel. In terms of the chronology of Scripture, the book of Daniel belongs to a time when the nation of Judah has collapsed and the people have been exiled to Babylon. As a teenager, maybe 16 or 17 years old, Daniel and his friends find themselves strangers in a strange land.

Moving from one culture to another, be it forcibly or voluntarily, is never an easy process. There is a lot to unlearn and a lot to learn. The greater the difference in the culture, the harder the process. It is easy to lose your identity. Such was the case for Daniel, as an ardent believer in the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, there was the temptation to abandon his beliefs and adopt those of Babylon, particularly when holding onto them threatened his very existence.

As disciples of Jesus Christ the New Testament pictures us as immigrants and strangers in the world. 1 Peter 2:11 in the Message bible “Friends, this world is not your home, so don't make yourselves cozy in it. Don't indulge your ego at the expense of your soul.” Christians are encouraged to find their identity through being citizens of the Kingdom, of God rather than any earthly nation. In John's gospel Jesus encourages His followers to regard themselves as being “In” the world but not “Of” the world.

Daniel and his friends, known by the Babylonian names of Shadrach, Mischach and Abednego, are in this strange new world. Together they seek to find ways of living faithfully with their convictions. As they do so they discover that God is with them.

From out of their exile experience I would offer  three strategies for staying faithful when we feel we are a stranger in a strange land. Firstly, we can be careful what we consume.
Secondly, we can be careful what we bow down to. Thirdly, we can be careful in regard to what habits we develop.

Be Careful What You Consume 
I remember that when we first moved over here, without really trying, and thinking that we were blessed to have so many cheap and cheerful fast food outlets all around us, as a family we started to put on the pounds. We thought it that it was awesome when we went out to a restaurant, that the plates would be piled so high. Coming from a culture where we were raised, for the sake of politeness, to eat everything on the plate, it took us a while to realize there was a difference between “Eat as much as you like” and “Eat as much as you possibly can.” After a few years our over consumption started to create some health concerns. So we made some changes and are doing better than we used to.

For Daniel and his pals, when they arrived in Babylon their food concerns were not to do with obesity, but their religion. They were known for having an aptitude for learning and well qualified to serve in the Kings court, a job they happily took on. But one of the conditions of their royal appointment was that they were expected to live on the King's provisions of wine and meat that had been offered to idols.  Eating 'idol-offered' food went against their religion.

The chief official responsible for feeding them is scared that he will get into big trouble for not doing the Kings bidding. Daniel suggests to him that they should be given just vegetables and water and that if, after ten days, they looked unwell, then fair enough, they'd accept the kings diet. We read “At the end of ten days they looked healthier and better nourished than any of the young men who ate the royal food.”

I'm not sure that this is meant as an ad promoting a vegan diet, but you can take it that way if you like. The theological point is that they were blessed by obeying God's commands. Yet it also offers us the message that we need to take care what we consume.

The old computer expression was that “Garbage in” resulted in “Garbage out”. Whatever we fill our lives with impacts the kind of life we lead. That does not only apply to food, but to lifestyle as a whole. What activities we involve ourselves in, what sorts of advice we take, even what TV and movies we watch and music we listen to, can impact the way we act.

If we feed constantly on negativity, on sources that offer a world view that is inaccurate or anti-christian, then it will shape the person that we become. If we feed our lives on a diet of prayer and spiritual reading and worship and service, it helps define the person we are and puts flesh on the words of faith that we declare. Be careful what you consume.

Be careful what you bow down to.

Nebuchadnezzar builds this enormous gold statue of himself. He orders that every time his special band of musicians played, everybody had to bow down and worship the statue. Bowing down to idolatrous statues was not a thing that Daniel and his buddies were prepared to embrace.

There were those in the royal court who had become jealous of Daniel, partly on account of Daniels ability to be able to interpret some dreams that that been troubling the King. Even though by interpreting the dreams Daniel had saved the lives of all the soothsayers in the nation, those whom he had saved felt he was being treated better than them, so he had to go.

Daniels opponents are quick to point out to King Nebuchadnezzar that were are a small handful of folk not doing as he had ordered. They turn out to be Shardrach, Mischach and Abednego, Daniels buddies.  Nebuchadnezzar threatens to throw them into a fiery furnace if they don't do as he commands.

They reply,  If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty's hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up." (Daniel 3:17-18 )

I love the 'get-out' clause in that statement. “Even if we do get burnt alive, it proves nothing. You are still not God”. I like the fact that they have this bold faith, but still say, “Then again...”. Some times we get the impression that  biblical characters have it all figured out with out a shred of doubt in their minds. Their statement reminds us that real faith doesn't function like that.

Thrown into the furnace they are. Something miraculous takes place. The King looks into the furnace and sees, not only are they not being burnt up, but there is another figure, one like a 'son-of-man' in the furnace with them. Christian tradition interprets that figure as being an appearance of Christ to them, per-figuring His birth in Bethlehem.

Shadrach, Mischach and Abednego receive a promotion while those that betrayed them end up in the fire. Nebuchadnezzar is impressed. “Nebuchadnezzar said, "Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Mischach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king's command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God. Therefore I decree that the people of any nation or language who say anything against the God of Shadrach, Mischach and Abednego be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble, for no other god can save in this way." (Dan 3:28-29 NIV)

There are times in our lives when because of what we believe we take a stand. We speak out. We refuse to go along with something. If we do that, we are not going to win any popularity contests. We may be called narrow minded or killjoy and we may lose friends. In other lands, such bold stands may cause the lives of ourselves and families to be under threat.

The assurance in this passage is that when we refuse to bow down in the face of what we know is wrong then God stands with us. In the midst of the flames, God's presence was seen. The outcome was not certain... it never is.... but by their integrity a tremendous witness to God's power takes place. Be careful what you consume.  Be careful what you bow down to.

Be careful what habits you develop.

Daniel is a pray-er. No, I didn't say player, I said pray-er. He has a regular discipline and routine of prayer, of sharing his life with God and allowing God to set his agenda. His habit leads him into conflict with a later Babylon King, King Darius.

As he is in an influential position in Darius's court, there are, again, folk who are jealous of his standing and want to bring him down. They go to he King and suggest a crazy ordinance that if anybody should offer prayer for a period of thirty days, to anybody other than the king, they should be thrown to the lions.

Of course Daniel doesn't go along with it, but sticks with his personal prayer habit. His enemies report him to the King, and, reluctantly, because the King likes Daniel, to save face he has to stick to his original ruling and have Daniel thrown into the lions den.

I'm sure you remember the story. The den is sealed. The King goes home and returns in the morning. “Daniel, you OK?” “Yes. No problem God shut the mouths of the lions. They have not hurt me anymore than I have ever hurt you, your majesty.” Darius is suitably impressed and Daniel is released. His accusers become the next item on the menu at the lions den.

Daniels confidence is entirely a result of his active prayer life. He has developed an awesome prayer habit. It would be good for us to follow his example. We are after all, creatures of habit. And many of us develop bad habits and patterns of living. It is also possible to develop good habits. It has been said that if we make good our habits, then our habits make us good”.

Daniel, Shadrach, Mischach and Abednego. Strangers in a strange land who develop strategies for faithful living. They teach us that wherever we are God will be there for us just as long as we seek to be there for God. After all, all the world is God's own field. There is no part of it that God was not initially involved in creating.

The exile in Babylon turned out to be a temporary situation. God promised to bring God's children home. Is it any different for us? In the light of eternity our life on earth is just a temporary dwelling. Again, 1 Peter 2:11 in the Message bible “Friends, this world is not your home, so don't make yourselves cozy in it. Don't indulge your ego at the expense of your soul.

So take these simple lessons to heart.

  • Be careful what you consume.
  • Be careful what you bow down to.
  •  Be careful what habits you develop.

 May we all dare to be a Daniel!

 The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, June 20, 2016

The Story 17. The Kingdom's Fall

Readings: 2 Kings 22:1-20, 2 Kings 25:1-12, Lamentations 1:1-12, Ezekiel 37:1-14
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, June 19th, 2016

Today I want to talk about “Survival Strategies in the midst of Calamities” This year as a church we have been exploring a book called “The Story”, a chronological Readers Digest version of the 66 books of the Bible. Over the next 5 weeks we hope to complete the Old Testament section.

We have reached chapter 17, titled “The Kingdom's Fall.” In terms of Hebrew history this is a moment of great catastrophe. The Northern tribes of Israel have already been conquered and assimilated into Assyria. The Southern tribe, Judah, are about to experience defeat and be sent into exile in Babylon. Around them are mighty empires. The scattered Hebrew tribes cannot match their stealth.

They have lost their spiritual center. They have fallen into the kind of unfaithfulness and idolatry they once despised. At the start of chapter 17 we are introduced to one of Judah's worst ever kings, Manasseh. Among things Manasseh is remembered for is desecrating the temple, sacrificing his sons to pagan gods in the fire and shedding so much innocent blood that it ran through the streets of Jerusalem. Scriptures testimony is that “Manasseh led the people astray. He did more evil than the nations the Lord had destroyed before the Israelites.” (2 Kings 21:9)

It's time for a reboot. It's time for the nation to be taught a lesson they would never forget. God hadn't given up on them. But it was going to take drastic means to set them back on the right path. The chilling word that comes to them during Manasseh's reign is found in 2 Kings 21:13-14 I will wipe out Jerusalem as one wipes a dish, wiping it and turning it upside down. I will forsake the remnant of my inheritance and give them into the hands of enemies.

So that's the setting. Collapse. Everything that could go wrong is going wrong. Terrible times and disastrous days. Maybe today we know people who are experiencing difficult days or we are personally facing unexpected trials. Maybe we feel the church has lost it's way, or the nation, or even the whole world.

So... I return to the theme for today, and it doesn't matter if you have read the chapter or not, it's a topic we can all relate to; “Survival Strategies in the midst of Calamities.” In the story of the Kingdoms fall, three characters stand tall. There are three individuals who have the capacity to stay on track when everybody else is derailed. And they each have a lesson to teach us.
  • A young faithful King, called Josiah, points us to the importance of Scripture.
  • A prophet called Jeremiah recalls us to the discipline of totally transparent prayer.
  • The prophet Ezekiel teaches us never to underestimate the power of God's revival Spirit.
Josiah was only 8 years old when the mantle of King fell upon him. The verdict over his reign is found in 2 Kings 22:2 “He did what was right in the eyes of the LORD and followed completely the ways of his father David, not turning aside to the right or to the left.

The particular thing that happened during the reign of Josiah is that the “Book of the Law” is rediscovered. When he is eighteen years old Josiah sets about restoring the temple which had fallen into disrepair. As the workmen get busy they discover some discarded scrolls which they take to the priest. The priest knows what they are. God's Word. So the priest takes them to the Kings secretary, who takes them to Josiah.

“So” asks Josiah “What's it all about?” As the scrolls are read folk become involved. The prophecy is given that the nation will fall. Josiah is devastated. He calls the people together to fast and pray and seek God's mercy. His faithfulness is rewarded.

He receives the message “Because your heart was responsive and you humbled yourself before the Lord when you heard what I have spoken against this place and its people--and because you tore your robes and wept in my presence, I also have heard you, declares the LORD. Therefore I will gather you to your ancestors, and you will be buried in peace. Your eyes will not see all the disaster I am going to bring on this place.'" (2 Kings 22:19-20)

Josiah discovered that when you take the words of Scripture with the seriousness that they deserve, everything changes. For many people today the 66 books that make up the Bible are a closed book. Unread. Unstudied. Unacted upon. The Bible has been described as “The least read best seller in all of history.” That's why we are doing this “Story” program. Biblical illiteracy is at epidemic proportions. Even among church going folk.

In the face of biblical neglect we can do two things. We can be like everybody else and just say, “Oh, its just a sign of the times.” Or we can be a Josiah. We can get hold of that book, dust off the covers, and start trying to live into the ways of the Kingdom that Jesus pictures for us.

To do that we have to have the faith that the Bible is indeed God's word for today. I get it. Many people question that. Many people don't accept that. Many people say, “Oh, it's so hard to understand.” But if you allow the words of Scripture to become God's Word to your heart, you will be blessed.

I'm not talking about study for studies sake. I'm not talking about bible reading as an intellectual discipline. I'm talking about reading scripture prayerfully, in conversation with and in the presence of God, seeking the illumination of God's Holy Spirit.

If you feel like you are the only person in your household, in your family, in your street, in your community, or even in your church who's doing that, then take courage from Josiah. He was the only one who treated God's word right and through him, his faith community, his geographic community, his family and his household were blessed.

After Josiah died another unfaithful King took his place. So for sure, Josiah's dedication only lasted a season. But it was a good season. A time of peace and growth and blessing. Even in the midst of unfaithfulness, those who seek God can find blessing. Which brings us to our next character. Jeremiah.

Jeremiah was a bullfrog. At last he was in a song by Three Dog Night, but that's not he Jeremiah of Scripture. If Josiah speaks to us about the discipline of Scripture reading, then Jeremiah's life points us to the value of transparent prayer.

What do I mean by transparent prayer? Jeremiah told it as he saw it. He didn't flinch from asking God the hard questions, nor from proclaiming to the people uncomfortable truths that they did not want to hear.

Jeremiah's call begins with a godly conversation. God tells him, "Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations." (Jeremiah 1:5) Jeremiah's first reaction is to say, “I'm way too young to serve you and anyway... I never got the memo.”

The he tells us, “But the Lord said to me, “Do not say, “I am too young'. You must go to everyone I send you and say whatever I command you.” We read, Jeremiah 1: 9, “Then the Lord reached out His hand and touched my mouth and said to me, "I have put My words in your mouth.”

Despite his youthfulness, despite his concern that he really didn't have anything to say, Jeremiah finds comfort in these statements. First of all, his age was irrelevant, God was sending him, so he had to go. Secondly, he didn't have to conjure up some inspirational message out of nowhere, the Word he had to proclaim was God's Word!

It's no different for us. Firstly, it does not matter how old or young we are, we are somebody called to share God's love with others. Secondly, the message we share is not one we have to manufacture for ourselves but the message of God's love we find in the Scripture.

Jeremiah has to say some difficult things, but behind every proclamation is the idea that God will have mercy on God's people if only they will come to their senses, stop trying to get along without God's help, stop filling their lives with empty junk and idols and worthless pursuits and get with the program God wants for their lives. The only thing they have to lose, is God's blessing. Because if they kept living in ways that pushed God out of their lives, that was not the place blessing was found! He tells it like it is.

But did people listen? Of course not! They went their own way. They ended up being defeated and carted off to exile in Babylon. So that was it, right? Game over. Never say never when it comes to God! Because our third figure is the weird and wonderful, Ezekiel.

Ezekiel's call is like something out of a Sci-Fi movie. Ezekiel 1:4-6 “I looked, and I saw a windstorm coming out of the north--an immense cloud with flashing lightning and surrounded by brilliant light. The center of the fire looked like glowing metal, and in the fire was what looked like four living creatures. In appearance their form was human, but each of them had four faces and four wings.” And it just gets weirder! And I'm not going to spend time right now exploring all of that, you can read it for yourself.

What I am going to offer you is this. Never, ever underestimate the power of God's revival Spirit. Despite the example of Josiah, who called people to get back to God's word, despite Jeremiahs call for people to get on their knees and pray, they still went their own way and it looked like the nation would never recover.

Then along comes Ezekiel with his vision of skeletons, his vision of dry bones, that, by the mighty Spirit of God, come back to life. Ezekiel 37:4-5 "Prophesy to these bones and say to them, 'Dry bones, hear the word of the LORD! This is what the Sovereign LORD says to these bones: I will make breath enter you, and you will come to life.”

The church in our day is going through a time of transformation. You may see dry bones. But I hear God's call. I believe that it's not about what we can do, it's about what God can do. Sometimes things get worse, before they can get better. In God's time, dry bones take flesh and live. That is the work of God's revival Spirit. Never underestimate what God can do.

So today I offer you three faithful characters who offer to us “Survival Strategies in the midst of Calamities.”
  • A young faithful King, called Josiah, points us to the importance of Scripture.
  • A prophet called Jeremiah recalls us to the discipline of totally transparent prayer.
  • The prophet Ezekiel teaches us never to underestimate the power of God's revival Spirit.
To God be the glory for all God's faithful servants. Amen and Amen!

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, June 13, 2016

St Columba - Scottish Heritage Sunday

One of the great saints in the story of Scotland's religion is St Columba, the founder of the abbey on the island of Iona, which still serves today as an oasis of spiritual renewal. Indeed at the most recent Presbytery of Baltimore meeting, a new minister to the Presbytery spoke to me of the influence the island had been upon their own personal spiritual journey. That means that Columba's life is still influencing Presbyterian life in the 21st here in Maryland!

Who was he? St Columba was born around the year 521 AD into a powerful family with links to the High Kings of Ireland in County Donegal. He studied to become a priest and founded churches in County Derry. While studying as a student he copied a Psalter belonging to a guy called Finnian. As he did this without Finnian's permission, this made Finnian really angry.  And I mean really. When Columba refused to hand the Psalter over, a King called Dermott, raised an army to get it back by force, but Columba was from a high-born family and he raised an army to defend himself. (And we think church conflicts are bad in our day!)

The two sides clashed in battle in the year 561 AD. Many warriors were slain on both sides before Columba, who eventually won the day, was still forced to leave Ireland as an exile. Along with twelve companions he sailed to Scotland where he founded a monastery on the barren island of Iona. He swore that he would convert as many people to the new religion as had died in battle because of him. His name, Columba, comes from the Irish words 'Colm Cille', meaning 'dove of the church'. There are many stories associated with his life. Let me share two of the most famous ones. 

Not afraid of Nessie

St Columba set out for the court of the Pictish King Bridei in order to make converts among his people. While he was journeying through Scotland he had to cross the River Ness, which flows from that great body of water Loch Ness. When he reached the side of the river he saw a group of people busily burying the body of a friend. Columba asked what had killed the man and the frightened people said that there was a terrible monster that lived in the river and that it had attacked this poor man and had savagely torn him with its awful teeth. 

Columba ordered one of his men to swim over the lake to where a boat was tied on the other side and to row it back over to him. The man stripped off his clothes and jumped into the river and began to swim across it. The monster, which was lying on the bottom of the river, saw the man swimming above it and rose to the surface with a terrible roar. It started to swim towards the man with its mouth wide open showing its long, sharp teeth, much to the horror of the onlookers who were standing by the riverbank.

 When it reached out it neck to bite the man Columba raised his hand and commanded it to stop, in the name of God, and to leave this place in peace. He made the sign of the cross in the air as he spoke. The monster stopped dead in the water and then turned and fled, like his life depended on it. Columba’s man reached the other side and returned with the boat, much to the amazement of the people who had been watching the whole thing. Columba made converts of them all, and after that they were no longer troubled by the monster of Loch Ness.

The story is actually the earliest reference to the legend of the Loch Ness monster, but for early Christian it had a symbolic meaning. You may remember a story about a time Jesus was in a boat with His disciples when a great storm broke out on the sea of Galilee. It's from Luke 8:22-25.

One day Jesus said to his disciples, "Let us go over to the other side of the lake." So they got into a boat and set out. As they sailed, he fell asleep. A squall came down on the lake, so that the boat was being swamped, and they were in great danger.  The disciples went and woke him, saying, "Master, Master, we're going to drown!" He got up and rebuked the wind and the raging waters; the storm subsided, and all was calm.  "Where is your faith?" he asked his disciples. In fear and amazement they asked one another, "Who is this? He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey him."
St Colomba's rebuke of Nessie was seen as sign that God could still calm the most terrifying storms and monsters that life can bring our way. As Christians we still believe God is greater than all our darkest fears and that the love of God, that we see in Jesus, is greater than hate and we can trust God to guide our lives.

The second story has to do with a bird... a Heron. Let me tell you first … there were no Heron's ever seen on Iona's shores. Until this happened.

Columba and the Heron.

One day in the time of Columba the little island of Iona was being buffeted by a terrible storm. The winds were blowing, the rain was pouring down and Columba called one of his young monks from the community where he was living, and he said to the young monk, ‘Today I want you to go down to the shore because we are expecting a special visitor.’ And the monk looked at him a little incredulously and said, ‘In this weather, can anyone possibly bring a boat to Iona in this storm?’ and Columba said, ‘It’s not a problem, there’s going to be a visitor today and you must be down on the shore to greet him.’

Well, the young monk was obedient and he wrapped himself up in his robe and put his hood up and hurried down to the shore. Well, he looked out at the grey sky and the choppy water and he thought, ‘Anyone in a boat today will capsize. They’ll be drowned. I can’t imagine that anyone can get here in this weather.’ He walked up and down the shore to keep himself warm and rubbed himself a bit. Kept looking out - could he see anything? No, just the crazy waves, wild. 

And just when the monk was able to give up and go back to the monastery, he happened to look up into the sky and see a dark shape around the edge of a cloud. He looked at this shape moving through the sky and as it came towards the shore he realised... it was a heron making its way to the beach. What was a heron doing here? It was buffeted by the wind and it was as if it had no strength and could hardly make its way to land.

It collapsed onto the shore and he ran over and picked it up and cradled it in his robes and made his way quickly back to the monastery.  Columba was there to meet him and he said, ‘Oh, I see you’ve found our special guest, you’ve brought him back here. Now it’s your job to look after him. You see he’s very special because he comes from the area of Ireland that I came from. He nested there and he’s come to visit us and we have a duty to look after him and make sure that he’s strong enough to return home.’

So the young monk looked after the little heron for the next couple of days. He made a warm bed for it beside the fire and he brought milk and little bits of bread and the heron recovered its appetite, recovered its energy and soon it was strutting around the flagstones of the monastery.
Columba said, ‘That’s two days we’ve had the heron here; tomorrow you must take the heron down to the beach. It’s strong and ready to return home.’ So the next morning the young monk lifted the heron and went out into a glittering sunny day down on to the beach where the light was catching the waves. He put the heron down on the shore. 

The heron stretched its body, its legs, its neck, raised its wings and flapped them into the sky and took off and with its beak pointed towards Ireland and, its legs trailing against the blue sky, it flew back in the direction from which it had come.

Columba and the Heron. The story came to be interpreted as a story about resurrection. Jesus came from His home in heaven, and like the Heron came to our world. Sadly our world treated Him badly. He was crucified and left for dead.  Do you remember what we read earlier from Mark's gospel? “He will be delivered over to the Gentiles. They will mock Him, insult Him and spit on Him;  they will flog Him and kill Him. On the third day He will rise again." 

But Jesus came for a purpose. To remind us that our true home was with God. Just like the Heron returned to Ireland after three days, so Jesus was raised to life on the three day to remind us that our eternal home was with God.

 And of course, every Easter season, the church reminds herself of the great drama of the life, betrayal, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and we try and recapture the vision that our eternal home is not the here and now, but in the arms of a loving God who constantly tries to remind is that we are His children, loved, cherished and never forgotten.

Colomba's name continues to have an influence. There are churches here in Maryland that are dedicated to “St Columba”. In fact some of you live, shop and have your being in a town called Colombia just down the road. So  he's not just a famous person for Scotland!

It is Scotland that the Presbyterian Church in the USA looks to as being a vital part of it's heritage. The Celtic spirituality of Iona, continues to influence theology today and shape the doctrine and practice of Reformed churches, not just in Scotland and Maryland, but around the globe.

It is fitting that we remember his place in our story and today will sound the bagpipes and thank God for the faithful who have kept the faith alive over many centuries. To God be the glory. Amen!

Rev Adrian J. Pratt B.D.