Monday, September 26, 2016

The Story 23. Jesus's Ministry Begins

Readings: Psalm 145:1-9, Isaiah 48:6-11, Luke 5:17-26, Romans 8:31-39.
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, September 25, 2016

Last week we began our journey into the New Testament section of “The Story.” We witnessed the birth of Jesus and concluded with Him visiting the temple around 12 years of age where He astounds the priests with His teaching. The next thing we hear of Him is as a grown man, being baptized, by John in the River Jordan.

Chapter 23 of “The Story” begins and ends with John the Baptist. John is the forerunner and the affirmer of the unique ministry Jesus would demonstrate through His life, His deeds and His teaching. John is truly the link-person between the Old and New Testament, Jesus declaring that John the Baptist is the Elijah figure who would pave the way for a new experience of God's love in the world.

Jesus is baptized by John, both as a commissioning for service and as a way of identifying Himself with all humanity. He is then led to a period of temptation in the wilderness, from which He emerges as One who has the ability to counteract all the wiles of the Devil. The stage is set for His ministry to begin.

In the earliest portions of the Gospels we observe Jesus laying down a pattern for ministry that would become the mission of the Church. We see Him declaring the purpose of His ministry. And we discover who the people are that He calls to walk with Him in His ministry. Pattern, Purpose and People.

A Pattern for Ministry

A threefold pattern emerges. Deliverance, Healing and Forgiveness.

When Jesus goes to teach in the synagogue in Capernaum, a man possessed by an impure spirit cries out “Have You come to destroy us? I know who You are – The Holy One of God!” As He travels throughout Galilee we read of numerous encounters with spirits who cry out, “You are the Son of God.” In each instance Jesus fulfills the petition we speak every week from within the Lord's prayer, “Deliver us from evil.”

Exposing and calling out evil, be it on an individual or corporate level, has always been the mission of God. From Old Testament encounters with idolatry and faithlessness, to present day encounters with racism, poverty and injustice, the church, in Jesus name, is called to challenge all deathly powers of evil that cheapen and destroy. We desire that people be delivered from cycles of poverty and need and violence. We seek to destroy powers that make existence an experience of hell on earth.

Closely related to deliverance is healing. Drive around any city in the Western world and you will see hospitals dedicated to Saint this or Saint that and you will encounter medical services that would not exist without Christ's mandate that His people reach out with healing hands. Be it in medical research, be it down at a Food pantry, be it a work camp to a disaster area, be it in medical missions across the globe, it is such a part and parcel of the gospel message that I'm stating the obvious! The first part of the word salvation is 'salve' – a word we use to describe ointment that brings healing, but has the wider use of meaning to soothe, ease, lighten, alleviate, and comfort.

From Simon's mother-in-law to crowds so deep that a paralyzed man has to be lowered through the roof, from children to victims of leprosy, the gospels offer page after page of healing stories.

Healing is not only a matter of health. The third strand is that of offering forgiveness. A leper was ceremonially unclean. A woman with an issue of blood was considered outside God's circle of acceptance. To a paralyzed man Jesus declares “Your sins are forgiven!” an act which causes those who oppose Him to cry “Blasphemy, blasphemy.”

Jesus responds; “Which is easier: to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Get up and walk'? But I want you to know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins." So He said to the paralyzed man, "I tell you, get up, take your mat and go home." Immediately he stood up in front of them, took what he had been lying on and went home praising God. (Luke 5:23-25)

Deliverance, healing and forgiveness. They complement each other and are a part of God's original intention for our life that we be made whole, physically, mentally and spiritually. Which is a convenient way of moving into thinking about;

The purpose of Ministry

Nowhere is the purpose more clearly stated than John chapter 3, verses 16 and 17. “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.

From the start of looking at “The Story” we have spoken about there being an “Upper Story” - a story about God's desire for humankind. From the beginning it has been the same thing. God desires for us to live in unbroken fellowship. That is made gloriously possible through the life, dearth and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Everybody is invited. Nobody is excluded. Nowhere is that clearer than in the stories of Nicodemus and the lady of Samaria. Nicodemus is the ultimate insider. A devout Jew who has kept the law all his life. A man with a good heart, who has studied the law and is desperate for God's acceptance.

Jesus praises him for his growth in understanding, but also outlines to him, that it is not through our own striving that we gain acceptance by God, but that we need to be 'born from above' or 'born again' by the work of God's grace ,and the action of God's Spirit. It has to be that way, because that is the only way that levels the playing field!

Only by grace can an outsider like the Samaritan lady by the well, ever have a hope of knowing God. As Jesus talks with her, it becomes obvious He can see right into her soul. He knows the troubling times this lady has faced in her life. She is the ultimate outsider. That's why she is down at the well in the heat of the afternoon sun, when nobody else is there to accuse her or condemn her.

Jesus offers her living water. The living water of His acceptance and love and presence. The first miracle recorded is that of Jesus turning water into wine. Elsewhere in John's gospel Jesus tells whoever will listen “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full. I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.(John 10:10-11)

That's what we need! Not the stagnant water of everyday experience but the living water of God's Holy Spirit. When we gather around the table of communion we talk about Jesus being the living bread... the substance of what life is all about... and we drink wine, the wine of the new covenant, to express how His life and death and resurrection continue to nourish and refresh and revitalize our lives, now and forever.

This was God's eternal purpose in Jesus. That through His life our lives can become deeply rooted in God's love. That any excuse or reasons for separation be abolished, be it sin or hate or death, be it powers above or powers below, in Paul's words from Romans, “There is nothing in all creation that is able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Rom 8:39 NIV)

The purpose of ministry is that our lives may be all that God intended them to be, that we find our story in God's story. Our pattern for ministry is no different than that which we see in the gospels. Deliverance, Healing and Forgiveness. But who is supposed to let everybody know about this great and good news?

The people of ministry.

The early chapters of the gospel see Jesus putting His team together. We know them historically as the 12 disciples, but there may not have been only 12 of them and they were certainly not the only ones who were faithfully following Him. Indeed at the end, there is not one of them left standing at His crucifixion. Only some of the ladies, who barely get a mention elsewhere, are faithful enough to do that.

We receive mention of many other faithful folk. We've mentioned Nicodemus and the Samaritan woman. And there's Joseph who gave up his tomb. And the father of the daughter He raised to life. And the leper who came back to say thank you after he had been healed. And Mary and Martha and Lazarus. The list goes on and on.

For sure there were some who received a special calling to get the show on the road. But they were a motley crew. One of them was a traitor. One of them denied ever having known Him. Another, even after everybody else said, “He's alive” just plain, flat out did not believe it. And one of the most famous of all, Paul of Tarsus, never even knew Him till after the resurrection.

Our topic today has been “Jesus' ministry begins.” We are here because it began. The Story is not meant to end here. It's an ongoing story. But that is dependent on one thing. The same thing that God's Kingdom from the very beginning has depended upon.

Faithful people. People who respond to what God has done for them by loving others. People who are prepared to follow the example of Jesus in leading the way in ministries of deliverance and healing and forgiveness. People who know that it is by grace alone they can make it through. People who know what it is to be “born from above” by the action of God's love.

That's why we re here. To learn how to be the people of God. To receive afresh God's Holy Spirit in our hearts. To be inspired to work and live and “BE” the people of God for
our day and our time and our families and our communities and our schools and our places of work. We are the ministry. As we write on our bulletin covers “Ministers” The Congregation. Our mission statement; “Growing in Faith, Called to Serve”

In these early chapters of the gospels, what do we find?

A pattern for ministry. We see how Jesus leads the way in ministries of deliverance, healing and forgiveness.

The purpose of ministry. God is seeking for our lives to be made whole, that any estrangement we fell from His love is erased by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and that we may serve the Kingdom free and forgiven, overflowing with the the new wine of eternal hope.

The people of ministry. You. Me. All of us. Saints past, present and yet to come. Wherever we are, whatever we do, may we find a way to allow God's love to be a significant part of it, so that others get the message that they are loved, accepted and needed by the God who gave us all a life in the first place. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, September 19, 2016

The Story 22. The Birth of The King

Readings: John 1:1-14, Colossians 1:15-23, Micah 5:1-4, Luke 2:41-52.
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, September 18, 2016

Back just after summer began we finished our study on the Old Testament section of “The Story” - a Readers Digest type of chronological version of the 66 books of the Bible. From this Sunday through to Advent we are going to explore the New Testament. If you are just joining the journey... welcome! Previous sermons can all be accessed through our church website.

One of the fundamental concepts behind Max Lucado and Randy Frazee's exploration of Biblical chronology is the idea that throughout Scripture there is a “Lower Story” and an “Upper Story”.

The “Lower Story” is the story of life as we experience it. The day by day circle of struggle and victory, joy and sorrow. Over and above that story, the Bible speaks to us of a different story, that is also constantly unfolding. The account of God's plan for our lives and our world. The secret to living biblically is to connect “Lower Story” life to the “Upper Story” of God's purposes, so that the Bibles message also becomes our story.

Chapter 22 of “The Story” titled “The Birth of a King” takes us through the events of Jesus birth, right through to the only story we have of His childhood, when He travels to Jerusalem. The chapter begins with this awe inspiring proclamation found in the Gospel of John.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
He was with God in the beginning. Through Him all things were made; without Him nothing was made that has been made. In Him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.(John 1:1-4 NIV)

Jump down to verse 14 and we find these words... “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us. We have seen His glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14 NIV)

Chronologically and theologically that is the right place to start our journey through the New Testament. Often we begin with Matthew and Luke and think of the Christmas stories about the birth of Jesus as being the start of the Jesus narrative. John places the whole thing into the same framework as that with which the whole Bible begins. The Creation story.

One of the theories of the beginning of the universe, based on the ground breaking work of Edwin Hubble, is that of “The Big Bang.” The idea that out of nothing came something and the universe has been expanding ever since. More recently scientists such as Stephen Hawking and Neil Turok at “The Perimeter Institute of Fundamental Physics Research” have been theorizing regarding “What came before the Big Bang?”
Much talk of inter-dimensions, multi-verses (rather than uni-verses), String Theories and 4 dimensional mem-branes, alongside mind-boggling mathematical equations, are their daily bread.

The biblical answer to “What came before The Big-Bang” would be - the creative, beyond any known dimension, outside of time, multiversal energy that is the very substance of God. The first words of Genesis “In the Beginning... God.

The genius of John's gospel is his telling us that, in an unprecedented and unrepeatable way, the energy that is God, came to us and walked among us, in the person of Jesus Christ. He links all of that to Greek concepts of reason and logic and the philosophy of Plato who offered up the possibility that a Word (a logos) may one day usher forth from God and birth something never before known.

The New Testament letter of Colossian's expands on these thoughts when the author writes “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together.” (Colossians 1:15-17)

From the perspective of Scripture having within it both an “Upper Story” and a “Lower Story” John is telling us that in the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, the God of the “Upper Story” has stepped into the midst of our “Lower Story” lives, voluntarily come among us, with all the vulnerability and restriction and limitation that being human places upon us.

This is so well captured in lines from one of the great Christmas carols, “Hark the Herald Angels sing” as Charles Wesley writes; “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail the incarnate Deity, Pleased with us in flesh to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.” Our Savior. Our Redeemer.

The other remarkable revelation that unfolds throughout the New Testament is that this creative phenomena of God is not some impersonal, disconnected, uncaring mass of energy, but has a structure and a nature which can be defined in one simple word. LOVE. 1 John 4:8 gives us the divine definition. “God is love.” The love of God has implications that become implicit through the life and actions of Jesus. So John concludes; “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” (1John 4:11)

Here, maybe, is the deeper message of the Christmas story. Though everyone of us is capable of love, though we are all designed to be loved and to give love, though there is nothing in all of existence that gives to our lives any greater meaning than love, the hardest thing we try and attempt and fail to embody while dwelling on this planet is... .... love.

Lest you think I am over-stating or exaggerating the case,think about the two great commandments that came to us through the Old Testament. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul” and “Love your neighbor as yourself”. And, of course, Jesus really ramps it up later when He tells us to “Love your enemy” and to NOT love the world weary ways which define much of human interaction on a daily basis – love not the world... be in the world, but not of the world.. not limited by it or restrained by it's unloving ways!

How does all this unfold in the early stories of Jesus life?

God continues to act in the characteristic ways we saw in the Old Testament. God works through those who are faithful. Remember that long list of Old Testament Kings during the time before the Kingdoms fell? Whenever they expressed faith, they were blessed. Time and time again that became the pattern. And when an angel comes to a young girl called Mary, she humbles herself, she can't believe it... but ultimately accepts her destiny.

God continues to act through dreams and visions. A humble carpenter, Joseph, at first disturbed by events, then with faithfulness navigates the family through a journey to Bethlehem, through an escape to Egypt and eventually to settle in Nazareth.

The first to witness the birth of the King are folk some considered the lowest of the low... shepherds on a hillside. Not to any philosopher or celebrity or royalty is glory revealed, but to those who are honest people going about their daily tasks, with no hope, except God. A little later along come the outsiders. Wise men from the East? Who invited them to the party? God did! Because a lot of the so called 'Chosen people” haven't got a clue.

King Herod is totally shaken. If God was up to something, why hadn't he had the memo?It had to be a plot. It had to be a conspiracy. His megalomaniac reaction results in innocent bloodshed as he seeks to maintain his grip of fear over his unwilling subjects.

There is disbelief and a lack of recognition. Nobody has time for love! They have lives to live, demands to meet, priorities to take care of. As Joseph and Mary seek a place for Jesus to be born, all they hear is “No Room, No Room!” Is not that still the way of the world? No room for this message of love. Too much to do. To much too deal with. Get real! Move on.

Through an innkeepers act of compassion, the One through whom all things were created gets to enter the circle of human life in the lowliest of situations. As a stranger. Far from home. Passed by. Unnoticed except by a few rare souls. Not the most auspicious of beginnings. But a beginning it is!

And maybe the biggest hint as to what is to come is the brief account Jesus in the temple as a boy. Astounding the priests with His knowledge. Confounding His parents by not acting the way that was expected. Yet declaring... “Didn't you know I had to be in my Father's house?

And we read... “His mother treasured these things in her heart. And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.

The Birth of a King. But no earthly King. As one paraphrase of Psalm 23 phrases it; “The King of Love my Shepherd is, whose goodness faileth never, I nothing lack if I am His and He is mine forever

The challenge. Can we make room for the creative energy and love of God to invade and encamp in our lives? Dare we believe that what took place in that lowly stable was truly the ultimate game changer, instigated by the One who created the game in the first place?

Mind boggling stuff. Yet it all comes back to love. God's first intention. Love that is found in relation to God and made gloriously possible through the life,death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Love that, through the work of God's Holy Spirit, can take what is broken and create something beautiful. Healing love. Powerful love. The love of God that calls us by name and invites us home.

Let us pray that such love may be born in our lives! And to God's name be the glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Stay Strong - Sunday School Kick Off

Outdoor Service/Sunday School Kick-Off
Readings: Psalm 37, Isaiah 26:1-9, Matthew 16:21-8, 1 Timothy 4:4-16
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, September 11 2016

Nobody ever wins anything without training for it! The other day I was watching a marathon on the television; thousands of people running along. Some of them were struggling, others coped quite well. On thing that all of them had done was to train themselves in preparation. Of course not everybody had it in mind to be the winner. But even those whose aim it was just to finish the course had to train.

I have a favorite soccer team. Know who? But that soccer team would not achieve anything without proper training – at the hands of a good coach. All the players have to be as fit as they can be to be allowed to play. Have you noticed what happens when a professional soccer team comes on to the pitch?

They all start jogging on the spot, doing press ups and sit-ups, practicing different shots, passes, dribbling, heading the ball. They make sure that when the whistle blows for kick-off, then they are ready to rumble! To not train for something properly brings disastrous results.

How many of you play in teams? What's your favorite sport? Anybody have a sport they really don't like... or doesn't like sports at all? I want to tell you a story, a parable, about a little boy who went to a school where I grew up. I'm calling it “The Parable of the Cross Country Cheat.

This boy had games for two blocks of time on a Thursday afternoon. And he hated Thursday afternoons, because he didn't like sport. And he particularly didn't like running Cross country, in the winter time, because it was tiring, muddy and cold! But as Thursday came around he was sent out on a Cross Country run.

The Coach was always the last to set off. He always waited 10 minutes before chasing after everybody to make sure they kept up a reasonable pace. When he caught up with anybody, he would run behind them “Run, run, C'mon. Get those knees up, get those legs moving” Not being a great runner the boy thought “This won't do at all!”

He discovered that on the route that the path took, there was a railway station (for the route crossed over a railway bridge). And in the waiting room of the railway station the station master always kept a fire burning in the winter. He saw that, by climbing through a gap in the fence, he could slide down the bank and go and sit by the fire in the waiting room, which was a lot more fun than running around being shouted out and getting cold and wet and muddy.

So every Thursday he volunteered for Cross Country. As soon as the Coach said “Go!” he would run as fast as he could to the hole in the fence, slide down the embankment, go to the wating room, and stay warm by the fire. He would watch for the teacher passing over the bridge, hang around for about 40 minutes and then, once he saw the first runner coming back, up the embankment, through the fence, and ran back to school.

People were amazed. How was he keeping up with some of the fastest runners in the school? And he looked like he had barely made an effort. No matter how fast the coach ran he never even saw him in the distance! But as with all cheats, he got caught in the end. The Bible says, “Beware! Your sins will find you out!”

It came to the end of the year annual “Inter Schools Marathon” race. And of course, the coach put the boys name near the top of the list. The boy pleaded. He protested. He pretended to be sick. He even tried to walk with a limp... but everyone could see there was nothing wrong with him.

The run took place around a different course. No railway bridge. No hole in the fence. No cozy fire. So he had to run against the best runners in the whole district. How do you think he did? Can you guess where he came,?

He lost. By a long way. Out of 60 runners he came in at number 60! Even some of the kids in the Junior race, which set off an hour later than the Senior one, caught up with him. And when he finally passed the finishing line he was exhausted, tired and cold.

Well... he learned his lesson that day. And the sad thing was, even though if he had trained he might not have won the race, he probably could have done better than last place! I know, because I was that boy! The parable of the Cross Country Cheat. The one who came last, because he did not train properly.

Physical exercise is important. God has made us with bodies that need looking after. I want to share with you a verse that Paul wrote to his young friend, Timothy, from 1 Timothy 4:8 “Training the body has some value. But being godly has value in every way.

Training the body has value. But we are not just a body. We have a mind and a spirit that also need to be trained and exercised, just as much as our bodies do. The verse carries on “Being godly has value in every way. It promises help for the life you are now living and the life to come.”

So Paul tells Timothy to “keep himself in training for a godly life”. Very simply that means “Train yourself to be the person God wants you to be”. That's what a godly person is; someone who allows God to make them into the person they are meant to be. And there are three ways we can do that, three workout essentials.

1. Talk and Listen to the Coach.

Behind every great sportsperson is a great coach who has been able to bring out the best in them. The greatest life coach there has ever been is our Lord Jesus Christ. So, to keep in training, we must listen and talk with Him. The Bible calls this praying! So rule number 1: Listen and Talk with the great coach, Jesus Christ.

2.Always refer to the Training Manual

In any sport there are ways to succeed that folk have shared and written down or made videos of or hint books about the techniques that have helped them succeed. You also need to know the rules of whatever sport you are playing.

The most important training manual for life is the Bible. Maybe we don't understand everything in it, some parts are difficult... and that's why we have church and Sunday School and Bible Study, so we can learn together how best to live. That's why this year we have been doing “The Story” program. So always refer to the Training Manual.

3. Practice Makes Perfect.

It's no good simply talking to the coach and watching the videos and reading the manual. It all has to be put into practice. You know the old joke about the musician, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice. Practice Practice.”

So you read the manual. You come across a passage in the Bible that says, “Forgive one another”. And you think, “Have I been not nice about somebody? I shouldn't have done that!” So say a little prayer. “Sorry, Lord, Help me to do do better.” But don't leave it there. Try and make it up with whoever you have a disagreement with. Do something about it!

Practice can be the hardest part... but it is the most important part.

So, three rules for a godly life.
  • Talk and Listen to the Coach.
  • Always refer to the Training Manual
  • Practice Makes Perfect.
Like the runners in a marathon, it is not a question of winning, but of simply finishing the course, becoming the person God wants you to be. To do so, you have to train. Don't be like the boy in the parable of the Cross Country Cheat, who never achieved anything because he didn't put in the work – instead apply yourself to learning to live God's way.

You'll be learning lessons that last for eternity! Remember Paul's advice to young Timothy: Training the body has some value. But being godly has value in every way. It promises help for the life you are now living and the life to come.”

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

On Putting People in Their Place - Communion Service

Readings: Psalm 8, Job 35:1-14, Phillipians 2:1-7, Luke 14:7-14
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, September 4 2016

When ever a meal is planned, for example at a wedding reception, there is a discussion about where to seat people. I'm told that down the road in this nations capital they have all sorts of fancy dinner parties and it is of great concern about where and with whom one will be seated. That if you want to know who is on the way up and who is on the way down, pay attention to where they are seated.

Even back in the first century there was a similar obsession with seating. Jesus was invited to a fancy party in the home of an influential Pharisee. He watched with some amusement, as some of the guests, believing themselves to be important, seated themselves in position of honor.

Jesus knows that when the host arrives, there will be a reshuffling, and some, much to their embarrassment, will be asked to move. It becomes an occasion for Him to teach about the Kingdom of God, and gives the disciples “The parable of the Wedding Feast.” There are lessons in the parable we do well to consider as we come to sit at this communion table in His presence. Three things I'd like to mention.
  • The Danger of Presumption.
  • The Value of Humility
  • The Enabling power of Grace
The Danger of Presumption

Philippians 2:3 teaches us Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves. Do not presume. Wait to be seated. At first glance the parable may appear to be nothing more than a lesson for party goers. But as with all parables, we miss the point if we only take it on that level.

Jesus did not come to teach us social graces. The Lord of Lords was sent to redeem the world, not to instruct it on etiquette. Indeed, one of the things Jesus was criticized for, was His willingness to sit at table with anyone.

This has implications for us as we come to share around the Lord's table. Let us not presume there is anything in us that makes us fit to be here. Let us not pretend that we are good enough to sit at the King's table, or to choose our place at His banquet.

The self-satisfied, self-sufficient and self-assured have no place here, and will find no joy here. It is the imperfect, the needy, the anxious, the uncertain, and the sinful who are invited to his feast. Who would Jesus invite to His banquet? He gave us the answer. The poor. The crippled. The lame and the blind.

Let us acknowledge our poverty of faith, let us be mindful of the sin that cripples our lives and makes us lame in our walk with God, let us be aware that when it comes to the simple Christian practice of following Christ, we often stumble along in the dark because of our self-inflicted blindness.

We do not pray as we should. We do not know God's Word as we should. We are not concerned enough with the things of God's Kingdom. We do not love our neighbors as much as we love our selves, nor love God with full heart, soul and mind. Surely the only prayer we should offer is “Lord, have mercy on me. A sinner.”

One of the prefaces to communion I sometimes invites; “Come, not because any goodness of your own gives you a right to come, but because you need mercy and help. Come not because you love the Lord enough, but want to love Him more.” There is no room for presumption around this table.

The value of Humility

Luke 14:11 For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” I can't abide a pushy person. Often it seems that it is those who shout the loudest and act the most aggressively who get what they want, but at what price? While some may applaud such self-assertion, inwardly they resent it and secretly they resist it. People eventually get put in their place … and what a lonely place their actions can lead them to.

The writer of Proverbs tells us When pride comes, then comes disgrace, but with humility comes wisdom. (Proverbs 11:2). St Augustine wrote “It is humility that makes men angels”

What greater example of humility can the Christian have than that of Jesus Himself. He was not too proud to wash His disciples feet. He was not to proud to minister to the lowest and the least. He taught that “If you would be great, you must be the servant of all.

He commended those who were prepared to accept the Kingdom with childlike joy, wonder and humility. No wonder Paul in Philippians quotes from an ancient text,: “He did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself... and humbled Himself” (Phillipians 2:6-8)

There is of course, a form of humility, that is of a calculated nature and makes a mockery of that exemplified by Christ. The kind of humility that is keen to say, “Look at everything I do! Aren't I wonderful?” If we set out to cultivate humility in order to ingratiate ourselves with others, if we pretend modesty, when we really we are quite pleased with ourselves and want everybody else to know it, then we have totally missed the point of this parable.

One of the most repugnant character in all of Charles Dickens works is that of Uriah Heep in 'David Copperfield'. Under a veil of humility he schemes and plots his own self advancement whilst rubbing his hands and proclaiming “Oh yes sir, very humble... I am, very humble.” This parable points us to the danger of presumption and the value of true humility.

The Enabling Power of Grace

Maybe the most important point of this parable is that it is not for us to either humble or exalt ourselves. Only God can do that. It's about the enabling power of grace. It's all about God, the Kingdom of God and our relationship to God. God is the host. This is God's party, God's wedding banquet. God is the One who puts people in their place through God's grace.

One of our readings today was about Job. People often talk about “The Patience of Job.” But Job wasn't patient at all. He moaned and complained about God. And God never answers his complaints. The only comfort Job receives is when his counselor, Elihu, tells him “Job, you say you can't see God, but wait patiently, your case is before him.” (Job 35:10) Job was sick of waiting. His patience had gone.

When God does answer, God shows Job the world from the point of view of it's Creator, from the side of the One whose ways were higher than his ways and thoughts higher than his thoughts. Job is dumbstruck; reduced to silence.

As we come into the presence of Almighty God, when we think of the mystery of God's love and the greatness of God's creative power, we should be humbled. For who are we that God should even bother with us?

Author, Tyrone Edwards writes, “True humility is not a grovelling,self despising spirit, it is seeing ourselves as God sees us.” When we measure our lives against the greatness of God, pride dies, and humility takes it place. “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

The mystery in that verse is that whilst before God we are humbled, in Christ, God desires to lift us up, to bring us into the kingdom and to lift our heads high. That is the enabling power of grace. The same God who puts us in our place when we think more of ourselves than we should, has set a place of high honor at His banquet table for you and for me.

Author A.M Hunter has written, “The best places are not mans choice, but God's gift.” A humbling thought. It shows humility has two faces. There is the humility of the servant who bows his head before his master. There is also the humility of the child who lifts their head and puts a smile on their parents face. The humility that makes us bow and the humility that lifts us up. God offers us both at God's banqueting table.
  • Come to the table – without any presumption that you have a right to do so.
  • Come to the table – in true humility. See here, displayed through the elements, the price Jesus paid for our sins. No, we are not worthy, and should bow our heads in awe.
  • Come to the table – and let God lift your hearts through the enabling grace of the Holy Spirit, the great Comforter, the great counselor, Inspirer and Encourager.
Know yourself a child of the King, not by right, but through the awesome love of God. To God's name be the glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

What Is That To You? Follow Me!

Readings: Psalm 12, Ezekial 47:1-12, 1 Peter 2:11-25, John 21:15-22
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, August 14th, 2016

It is not uncommon for people to feel that they have been dealt one pack of cards while those around them are dealing with a better pack. You have one kind of lot, someone else may have another. Things never seem to go your way, while everything works out wonderfully for somebody else. Now, like most people, you may be puzzled by that. You may want to ask all sorts of questions about it, and about God's will, and all the mystery of the crosses life brings our way.

Peter felt like that, puzzled and confused in our passage from John 21.Try for a few moments to put yourself in his shoes. There he is speaking with Jesus. Jesus asks him three times, 'Simon, son of John, Do you love me?”. This has upset him. Then Jesus adds, “Follow me!” as though Peter did not intend doing so. And we read in verse 20, “Peter turned around and saw behind him that other disciple, whom Jesus loved...”

Have you ever done that? You are put on the spot and turn around and look for somebody else to focus attention on? “Get of my case!” That's what Peter did. There's a biting note in the description, “That other disciple whom Jesus loved.” And then Peter comes out with it, “So... what about this man?”... as if to say, “Right Lord, now how about giving him some grief. You've always had a special place for him. How about rebuking him for a change?” We read these words from Jesus, that I take as a text for this message, John 21, verse 22, “If I want him to live until I come, what is that to you? Follow Me!

The question, 'Why me? Why not somebody else?” is not the all important one. It's no good looking around for somebody else to blame or to have your lot in life. The main thing is that we are all called to be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ. If we feel life is treating us unfairly or we envy somebody else's situation, we need to hear those words of Jesus, “What is that to you? Follow Me!

Let me put that challenge in three different ways.
  1. Never mind your questions. Follow Jesus.
  2. Never mind what others are doing. Follow Jesus
  3. Don't just be a church member. Follow Jesus
1. Never mind your questions. Follow Jesus.

As people consider the call to discipleship many people have questions. Peter had questions. Sometimes these perplexities are not genuine perplexities but merely excuses, convenient evasions, red herrings... because it is far easier to raise questions and difficulties than to rise up and follow Jesus.

Jesus does not call us to “Think about” following Him. He doesn't call us to “Talk about” following Him. He doesn't call us to “Watch other people” following Him. He plainly and simply calls us to follow Him. He wants our life, not our excuses.

That's not to say we should never ask questions .People do have genuine doubts and perplexity about the truths of religion that prevent them moving forward. If you have been though that experience then you know how painful and desolating that can be. To want and long to believe in God and build ones life upon that belief and yet to be tormented by uncertainty as to whether it is really true.

What can I offer you if you are in that situation? For me the great and reassuring lesson is that it is not just by thinking it all out, that light comes. You do not have to wait until you have figured everything out to follow Jesus. If you did then you would have to wait for ever.

There is always room in Christian experience to jump. The Christian religion can be argued for coherently and reasonably but that is never enough. A jump of commitment is always necessary, because that is part of what faith is about. Faith grants the courage to go forward.

It can be a bit like stepping into a stream. You can feel a little awkward slithering down the bank, particularly if you have been sitting on it for a while. You get your feet wet and it feels strange. But then you take the plunge and wonder why you never swam in the stream before.

There is no swimming for people who only wade. There is no enjoying the full stream of God's grace for those who hang onto the roots and bushes on the bank and never let themselves go. You have to let the water in the stream hold you up. My invitation would be to say, “Come on in, the waters fine!” Let the stream of God's grace carry you along. Get dancing in the river of life! Never mind your hesitations and your questions. Follow Jesus! Following on from that...

Never mind what others are doing. Follow Jesus

In our gospel story when Peter is challenged to follow Jesus he begins to talk about somebody else. “What about this man?” he says. The challenge of Jesus, “Follow me” is something straight and personal. It is a decision we have to make in isolation from what other people may be deciding to do. No can decide on your behalf to follow Jesus Christ. You can not designate that responsibility to some body else. He is calling you. It is pointless looking to other people in an attempt to evade that challenge.

People do it all the time, criticize others, point out their failings or to the faults and hypocrisies of those who profess to be disciples and make that an excuse for not following Christ for themselves.

A hypocrite is somebody who wears a mask... that is different from who they actually are, somebody who is pretending to be something that they are not. It is a term originally derived from the Greek theater … and the masks that the performers used to wear.

So let's get this out in the open. I am a hypocrite. I admit it. When Jesus Christ began to influence my life, one of the things that was revealed to me was that I am indeed a mask wearer. And for a long time in my life, that mask blinded me to the truth about Him. And it is a hard mask and a solid one.

But gradually, carefully and lovingly, He has, over the years, been chipping away at it, and trying to make me into the person He wants me to be. It's a lifelong process. Be patient, God has not done with me yet! There are things in my life that still need His healing and refining touch. It is because I know I am capable of masking my true self that I know I need Jesus Christ to rearrange me and renew me and restore me. Jesus has called me to follow Him. In my own impatient, imperfect, stumbling way, I'm attempting to do that. But never mind what I'm doing. What about you? Has He not also invited you to be a disciple?

Jesus does not say, “Follow the example of Pastor Adrian.” Jesus does not say “Follow the example of Peter” or “Follow the example of Paul” or “Follow the example of John” or “Follow the example of Mary or Martha”. Jesus says “Follow me”. So whenever we look to others as an excuse for not following Him, forget it. As He said to Peter, “What is that to you? Follow me!

It is not an easy road to follow or an easy decision to make. Particularly when the crowd is against you. I get it. Some people want company more than they want Christ. They don't want to make a lonely choice or invest in something their friends don't seem to be following. But the call remains the same. Never mind what other people are doing. Follow Jesus.

Don't just be a Church member. Follow Jesus.

As an institution the church is undergoing tremendous change. People reminisce about better days. Let me share something. I have never experienced those better days. The decline in traditional religion had set in 40 years ago back in the U.K. when I started going to church. It just was not on most peoples “Things you need to do” list.

As a young person there was a whole whole lot about church that I really could not relate to. I observed that for some folk it seemed to be about “Churchianity” rather than “Christianity”. It was a social thing. And I sometimes felt like I was intruding on a family gathering. I say that because it is possible to be “Churchy” without necessarily being “Christian.” And we can confuse the two.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not knocking the church. There is nothing greater than the church. The church is part of the very essence of the gospel. It's fellowship should be at the heart of Christian life. The church is God's plan to reach the world with the gospel.

What I'm saying is, don't just be a member of a church, be a follower of Jesus. As an institution the church is just that. An institution. An organization A community. A place to meet people and get certain things done. If you don't identify with those things you can get by without it. And many people in our day are taking that option.

Church can't save us. Only Jesus can do that. If the national Presbyterian church called it a day tomorrow, I may well be out of a job. But my identity as a child of God, saved by faith thought the grace of Jesus Christ would not change one iota. My capacity to live a life that was being molded and renewed by the gift of the Holy Spirit, the very influence of the risen Jesus Christ, would not for a single moment go away.

I am part of the church because of hearing Christ's call to follow Him. Being part of the institutional church is not the same thing as being a disciple of Jesus Christ. Don't just be a member of a church, be a follower of Jesus Christ. And as the years go by and society increasingly marginalizes religious belief, unless you have that genuine relationship with Jesus Christ, you will eventually find good reasons not to be involved in the social institution of organized religion because you will find those social needs being met elsewhere.

It's not going to church that matters. It's being the church, being the body of Christ, being the community that God intends to work through to bring others into a relationship with Jesus Christ. Oh yes, I get it. Belonging to a church makes a difference. But the reason to belong to the church is because you belong to Jesus Christ. Don't get that the wrong way around. Our church is never our church. It has to be God's church or we are totally missing the reason for our very existence.

There are all sorts of reasons why we may hesitate in our commitment to the things of God's Kingdom. Every generation, every person, every one of us needs to hear and decide how we will respond to the invitation of Jesus Christ to follow Him. That is the bottom line.

Never mind your questions. Follow Jesus.
Never mind what others are doing. Follow Jesus.
Don't just be a church member. Follow Jesus.

To God be all glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.