Monday, October 31, 2016

The Story 28. New Beginnings

THE STORY – CHAPTER 28
Readings: Psalm 103:1-13, Joel 2:22-32, Acts 2:1-4, John 12:26-36
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, October 30, 2016

Although we are only a few chapters away from finishing our journey through “The Story” we have reached one of it's most important intersections. If you divided the Bible into three sections they would correspond with our understanding of God as Trinity. The Old Testament focus is upon God the Father. The New Testament begins, with God the Son, our Lord Jesus Christ. The third section of the Bible begins with “Acts” of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus, during His earthly ministry teaches the disciples about how He would be betrayed and be taken from them. Yet He promises, “I'm always going to be with you!” How could that be? In John 14:26 He outlines how it was going to work. “The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”

The Holy Spirit would be for them the eternal resurrection presence of His love, all powerful and always available. It was in the power of His Spirit that they would succeed and with the guidance of His Holy Spirit they could proceed. But first they are told to wait. To wait in Jerusalem. And so they do. On a day we celebrate in the calendar as the birthday of the church, the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit came upon them, with tongues of fire, like a mighty rushing wind.

All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them.” As this Spirit praise party flowed out into the streets, Peter, now gifted with the ability to preach in a way like no mortal had ever preached before, explains to the astonished crowds; “"Fellow Jews and all of you who live in Jerusalem, let me explain this to you; listen carefully to what I say. These people are not drunk, as you suppose. It's only nine in the morning! No, this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel:"'In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” (Acts 2)

Peter then offers up this amazing sermon pulling together Old Testament passages, the things that had happened to Jesus, including His death and resurrection, and imploring the crowd to repent and believe. About 3000 do. They develop into a community of sharing and caring unlike anything that had been seen before. Jews and Greeks, male and female, rich and poor. The new age of the Spirit, the birth of the church.

Do things go smoothly? Of course not. Many of the powers that be are horrified at the developments. The disciples are scattered throughout the region, new congregations spring up, opposition intensifies and the first Christian martyr, a man called Stephen, loses his life.

One of those who holds the coats while Stephen is murdered is Saul. Saul is later to have his own dramatic conversion experience. On a road to Damascus on a mission to persecute Christians, he is stopped by an experience of Jesus that so turns his life around that he becomes one of this new beginning movements greatest spoke persons, the apostle Paul. The birth of the church. A new beginning. An age characterized by the activity of the third person of the Holy Trinity, the Holy Spirit.

One significant development in the growth of the church is that no longer are God's people defined by race or geography. As we traveled through the Old Testament we saw how God chose the Hebrews to become a people who would be a living embodiment of the Kingdom of God on earth. God did not choose them because they were better than anybody else. God did not choose them because they had more chance to succeed and fail than anybody else. They were chosen to be a light for the world. Sometimes they were amazing. Sometimes they fell, tragically, from grace.

God's choice of the Hebrews was a preparation for the tremendous act of love revealed to us in Jesus. As John 3:16 and 17 so beautifully explain,”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.”

As a congregation here at Mount Hebron the phrase “New Beginnings” has taken on a particular significance as we have been seeking to discern what ministries God is calling us to in the future.

This chapter of “The Story” - speaking as it does about the birth and earliest days of the church offers great insights. It reminds us of why the church exists. To continue the ministry of Jesus Christ. It points us as to how we are to operate within the guidance and with the power of the Holy Spirit. It lifts up what needs to be be central in our lives; Seeking God through worship, prayer, study and service. Allow me to lift up those three things.

Firstly, this chapter reminds us of why the church exists. To continue the ministry of Jesus Christ.

We are not here to be an alternative to the local country club, community association or local chapter of the Lion's Club. We exist to proclaim the life changing message of Jesus Christ. Whenever we allow ourselves to be sidetracked from that central purpose, we cease being a church, and morph into something other than what God intended.

That is not to say we should not provide services to the community, such as our amazing Nursery School. That is not to say we should not use our resources, such as Hebron House to help folk celebrate weddings and baby showers and hold scout meetings and all else that takes place. That is not to say we should not be diligent in maintaining this great green space at the center of a community that seems increasingly being swallowed up by development. These are good and great things to do.

But we can easily lose sight of our main purpose for existing, which is to proclaim the message of Jesus Christ. That is why the church came into being. To continue His mission here on earth. Through our mission enterprises, our support of everything from youth programs to Operation Christmas Child, we recognize our calling to proclaim His love to a hurting world.

But let us be aware how easily we can be sidetracked. Isn't that what “The Story” has taught us through out the Old Testament? The people of God were called for a purpose, to lift up the name of God and live into God's ways so that they could be a light for the world. But so often they lost their way and became embroiled in activities that reflected not God, but their own self concern and self importance. They lost sight of their whole reason for being.

We are called for a purpose. In John's gospel 12:32 Jesus tells His disciples;And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself." We are to lift up the name of Jesus over and above all the things we do. That does not mean pushing the gospel message down people's throats. That does not mean being “deer-in-the-headlights” about presenting our message. But it does require that we are intentional about being the church and unashamedly acknowledging that we are are here for one main purpose – declaring and demonstrating the love of Jesus Christ to all people.

Secondly, this chapter points us as to how we are to operate. With the guidance and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

I genuinely believe that the Holy Spirit works through our processes and committees and meetings and discussions. I get it. They can seem tedious, time consuming and sometimes become bogged down and lose their way. Yet from the start that's the way the church has worked. They met together to discern where the Spirit was moving them. To discern who were the people to deal with specific tasks. I'm sure there were days when Peter looked across the room at John and thought, 'Is this really what Jesus called us to do?”

They didn't stay in committee. They didn't believe that because they'd talked about something, the problem was solved. They went out into their communities and did amazing things. Acts of healing. Moments of encounter that brought others into the faith.

To me that is what we need to know about the work of the Holy Spirit. That the Spirit is just as active when we leave this place as when we are here within these walls. That our calling is to take the message wherever life takes us. To our workplaces. To our homes. To our schools. When we drive around. When we go the Mall. When we are online and in conversation. In our Tweets. On our Facebook page. The Holy Spirit will guide us and lead us, if we remain attentive. There are no areas in our lives that God does not want to guide us and lead us.

We, like the Hebrews before us, keep trying to put God in a box. A little church box. God does not ask us to go to church or attend a church or participate in a churches activities. God wants us to be the church. All day. Every day. 'Where ever you are. Whatever you are doing. Be my people. Be my body. Be my representatives to this harsh, hurting crazy lost world. I'm here with you. I dwell in you through the presence of my Holy Spirit. There's a lack of love out there. I place my love in your heart so you can share it. I'm depending on you.. My future mission is in your hands.'

We need the guidance and the power of the Holy Spirit. That's why this chapter thirdly lifts up ...

Seeking God through worship, prayer, study and service.

If we truly understand what Jesus is asking of us, we are never going to hesitate in making the most of opportunities to be in worship together, to study scripture together, to be in a place where we can open our lives and hearts and pray to our God and Father, “I can't do this without You! I need You! Help me deepen my love towards You!”

True worship comes out of a heart that truly understands what Jesus has done for us and what God is calling us to do. The early disciples as they gathered together in the upper room, to worship, pray, break bread and study God's word, they knew what Jesus had done for them. They saw Him crucified. They witnessed His empty tomb. They were there at the Ascension.

They knew their only hope was to wait upon Him for power on high, in order that they could be the people God was calling them to be. So prayerfully, they waited. And when the Spirit came they were filled with purpose and boldness and power to do everything God asked of them. To heal. To preach. To deliver from evil. To carry on the work Jesus had begun.

Through their lives the world would be changed, people came to know that Jesus was alive and that the love of God could change everything. The world still needs to hear that message and we are the ones God is counting on to share it.

The Story” Chapter 28. New Beginnings. The birth of the Church. The Acts of the Holy Spirit. As we continue to seek God's purposes for our own lives, we do well to remember that every day lived in God's love is a day of new beginnings, every moment spent in God's service is sowing seed for God's kingdom and that the deepest need of our world today is the love of Jesus Christ that the Holy Spirit has placed in our lives.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, October 24, 2016

The Story 27. Resurrection

THE STORY – CHAPTER 27
Readings: Psalm 40:1-8, 1 Corinthians 15:3-19, Acts 17:22-33, Luke 24:13-34
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, October 23, 2016

This week we reach Chapter 27 of 'The Story” which is all about what happened after the crucifixion of Jesus. In the Apostles Creed, our belief in resurrection is clearly stated. “On the third day He rose again.”

This belief, that Jesus defeated death, is where Christianity and other religions separate in their understanding. It is one thing to have a great religious teacher that comes to an unfortunate end, but quite another to suggest that such a teacher then returns to life. That, for many, is beyond what they are prepared to accept.

It has been that way ever since the gospel message was first proclaimed. We read in Acts chapter 17 of Paul going to one of the most religious diverse cities of his day, the city of Athens, and preaching eloquently, using illustrations from their own Athenian gods, about what Jesus taught and how Jesus died. But when Paul speaks about God raising Jesus to life, this happens; Acts 17:32 “When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, "We want to hear you again on this subject."

Paul is utterly convinced that without belief in resurrection, then Christianity is the most hollow, useless, empty philosophy that could ever be concocted by feeble human minds. He tells the church in Corinth; “If Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.” (1 Corinthians 15:14)

Chapter 27 of “The Story” does a wonderful job arranging the scattered stories of resurrection that appear in the final chapters of each of the gospels into a sequence of related events.

We read of appearances of the risen Christ to Mary, Mary and Salome, to Peter, to Mary Magdalene, to Thomas in an upper room, to disciples gathered at the sea shore and finally to the gathered apostles on a mountaintop where they are commissioned to go and tell the world the gospel message and baptize people in Jesus name.

We also hear of events surrounding the resurrection... Mary and Martha's desire to anoint His body, Joseph of Arimathea generously donating a burial place, of a sealed tomb guarded by soldiers, of Jesus appearing through walls like a ghost, yet eating a fish breakfast in a very un-ghostly fashion.

Within the gospels themselves these stories are scattered in such a way to suggest that, even though Jesus had taught His followers that He would be raised to life on the third day, they really could not grasp what He meant and truly struggled to comprehend what had taken place. Yet slowly, and gradually, the truth dawns upon them. He was alive.

Thomas sees the scars and is convinced. Peter is led to re-evaluate what love actually means. Disciples in Emmaus have hearts that burn with vitality and understanding as Jesus interprets the scriptures to them, even though their eyes are not truly opened until Jesus breaks bread with them and they momentarily glimpse the reality of His presence.

The resurrection appearances are random and fleeting and temporary. For the disciples they come to an end after the Ascension. The only exception is an appearance of Jesus on the road to Damascus to a disciple called Saul, that so turns his life around that he becomes the greatest architect and spokesperson for this new movement that would capture the world.

Over the centuries since then have been countless numbers of folk, myself included, who claim that their lives have been influenced by the risen presence of Jesus Christ in such a way as they are convinced that the resurrection is neither a fairy tale nor a story but a truth about Jesus that should change the way we view and live our lives.

I well recall, from some of my earlier days in church, Ray, a wonderful gentleman with a booming voice, who used to love to sing a chorus well known in the Pentecostal Church circles at that time, called “He lives”. As I repeat the words to you I can still see his radiant face as he testified in his own unique way:- “He lives, He lives, Christ Jesus lives today, and He walks with me and He talks with me, along life's narrow way, He lives, He lives, salvation to impart, You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart!

Something common to the gospel accounts, even to the predictions that Jesus Himself made to those who were His closest followers, is that the experience of resurrection is incredibly hard to describe, to frame, to put into words, but that it is a truth that once it touches you, leaves you never the same again.

We can argue it, we can contemplate it's unlikeliness, we can even, as some have done argue against it and find ourselves converted to it. That's what happened to author Frank Morrison who in the 1930's wrote a book called “Who moved the Stone.” His original intention was to disprove the resurrection but his book ended up as a defense of it's reality.

Likewise Lee Strobel, a journalist for the Chicago Tribune who set out to disprove Christianity, but ended up becoming a Christian and created a series of books under the title “Case for Christianity.” Then there's Josh McDowell, who set out to write a paper in college to expose Christianity as a myth, but ended up being so convinced that he became a Christian himself and wrote an influential book titled “Evidence that Demands a Verdict.”

For myself, one of my favorite resurrection accounts is that day, recorded in Luke's gospel, not long after the crucifixion has taken place, when a couple of disillusioned followers are making their way from Jerusalem to a village called Emmaus.

There are many elements present in this story that others who have come to a belief in resurrection can identify with. It begins with disillusionment and disbelief. Then we see how the Spirit works on their understanding of Scripture in such a way that they later declare that as Jesus explained the scriptures to them, their “hearts were burning.” It concludes with an act of recognition that takes place during a time of fellowship and breaking of bread.

I like the way the story begins where we are, with all our misconceptions and hurts and doubts. Belief in resurrection is not an easy thing. Life teaches us that good, wonderful and hope filled things don't happen. We are hurt and compromised and often expect the worse. We read that the two travelers were so despondent that they failed to recognize Jesus even when He came and walked alongside them. There eyes were cast down.

As we have been reading through “The Story” we have talked about there being a “Lower Story” and an “Upper Story.” The “Lower Story” is the way we experience life, and the view our experiences give to us.

These travelers had put their faith in Jesus because they really believed He was the one who was going to redeem Israel. But now look at what had happened. The powers that be had murdered Him! That's life. The reality. We knew it was to good to be true. The “Lower Story” doesn't get much lower. Everything you hoped for is shattered. All your plans are scuppered. It's back to, well “We'll just get by, because tomorrow we die.”

That's how they feel. But notice something. Where is Jesus when all this happening? Right alongside them. Walking with them. They don't see it. They don't feel it. They don't recognize His presence. Can't we be just like that? The last thing we expect to hear in the midst of our doubts and confusions is that Jesus is right there with us.

Jesus does something for them. He starts to engage them with Scripture. We read “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning Himself.” He starts sharing the 'Upper Story”, the one about God's purposes and God's plans and how the Messiah would suffer and be crucified and be raised again on the third day.

There is power in the words of scripture when we allow God to interpret them to our hearts. When we take the time to look and prayerfully listen to what God wants to share with us, it is a transformation experience. God sends the Holy Spirit to interpret God's word to our hearts. That is what was happening on that road. The “Upper Story” was invading and transforming the “Lower Story” of their lives. And they are starting to get it. They are starting to see. So much so that as they near the end of their journey, we read “They urged Him strongly, "Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over."

Jesus stays with them. They are at table. “When He was at the table with them, He took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized Him, and He disappeared from their sight.”

At that point they know that Jesus is alive. Though He disappears from physical view they now know that He will always be with them. That experience is verified when they later speak with others who likewise have come to a place where their hearts testify; “He lives, He lives, ... salvation to impart, You ask me how I know He lives? He lives within my heart!

Such a belief seems to reach people in as many different ways as they are different people. For the likes of folk like Lee Strobel and Josh McDowell it came as they were trying to disprove Christianity. For two travelers on the Emmaus Road it was as bread was broken, that their eyes were opened.

For C.S Lewis, he says that it happened as he was taking a motorcycle side car ride to the zoo. After months of intellectual struggle and the gradual realization that God was there, he writes “I was driven to Whipsnade Zoo one sunny morning. When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did. Yet I had not exactly spent the journey in thought. Nor in great emotion…. It was more like when a man, after long sleep, still lying motionless in bed, becomes aware that he is now awake.

My own testimony is that, whilst on a youth retreat as a teenager, a friend prayed that Jesus Christ would become a living reality in my life. The next day, I woke up and it was just there. A sense of God's presence, that my life was headed somewhere new, that there was more to existence than that which could be touched and tasted and seen by the naked eye. And I knew it was all related to the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ and the story that the scriptures relate to us of God's purposes and plans.

I pray that when those times of disillusionment or despair come to us, that we will discover that God is actually right alongside us. I pray that as we study scripture together the Holy Spirit will continue to reveal God's purposes and plans. I pray that as we worship and break bread together our eyes will continue to be opened and our faith continually enlivened. I pray that, wherever we are on our spiritual journey, wherever we may be along our own Emmaus roads, that we will know Jesus walks alongside us every step of the way.

May such knowledge empower us for service and enable us to commit our way to letting others know that Jesus lives for them. This is great and good news. Death has been defeated. Despair has been cast away. No matter what may come, eternity will have the last word, hate will be vanquished by love and what was thought to be lost, will be forever found. Resurrection is all of this. And so much more! To God's name be all glory. Amen.


The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, October 17, 2016

The Story 26. The Hour of Darkness

THE STORY – CHAPTER 26
Readings: Psalm 98, Isaiah 53:3-10, Romans 4:6-11, Mark 15:12-26
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, October 16, 2016

Sir John Bowring was fluent in 17 languages, served his homelands of Great Britain in numerous offices' twice being a member of Parliament, the British Commissioner to France, Foreign Minister to China and Governor of Hong Kong. At the age of 30 he was editor of “The Westminster Review” a highly influential journal that featured the writings of the brightest intellectuals of his day, including philosopher John Stewart Mill, naturalist Thomas Huxley and novelist Mary Shelley, (famous for her novel 'Frankenstein')

On his tombstone he is remembered for one thing. It is none of the above. But that he was the author of a hymn, said to have written when on a boat, sailing past the coast of Macao, China. On the shore he glimpsed the remains of an old, fire gutted church. Above the ruins, he saw that the church’s cross was still standing, bold against the skyline. The view so inspired him that he wrote down words we sang for in opening hymn, and which were eventually inscribed on his tombstone;

In the cross of Christ I glory, Towering o’er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story, Gathers round its head sublime.

In our journey through “The Story” we have reached chapter 26, passages which form the mountaintop of all that the 66 books of the Bible are seeking to tell us. These are accounts we place on our annual calendars related to“Good Friday.” Even if you have not read “The Story” you are hopefully familiar with the events being talked about. It begins with the disciples preparing for Passover and a supper where Jesus not only washes His disciples feet but also institutes a remembrance that we know as Holy Communion.

The story transitions to a Garden called Gethsemane where Jesus pleads in anxious prayer that the cup of suffering He is about to endure may pass from Him, yet in obedience concludes, “Father, not my will, but thine be done

Soon afterward He is arrested and placed on trial before both Caiaphas and Pilate, who after discourse with the crowd allows for a prisoner called Barabbas to be released, whilst Jesus is led away to be crucified.

As the disciples deny and abandon Him, a stranger is forced to carry His Cross. Though tortured, insulted, robbed and victimized, an inscription is placed upon His cross “The King of the Jews” In this darkest hour Jesus speaks to His disciple John telling him to take care of His mother.

Among other statements that are made from the Cross there is an agonizing cry of desperation, 'My God, My God, why have You forsaken me?” As Jesus dies, declaring “It is finished”, a curtain in the temple is ripped in two, the ground shakes, the skies darken and witnesses say holy people have been seen resurrected among the tombs. Chapter 26 in 'The Story' finishes with the observation that only a few, including the women who had followed Him from Galilee, actually stick around to observe the proceedings.

The Story of the Cross. But why is the Cross so central to Christianity? Why do we make such a big deal out of this hour of darkness? I would suggest to you that it is at the Cross that God reaches to the deepest needs of our lives.

  • Firstly, at the Cross we meet a God who expresses total solidarity with all humanity.
  • Secondly, at the Cross we discover that reconciliation with God is a glorious possibility, not because of anything we have done, but because of everything Jesus has done for us.
  • Thirdly, at the Cross, we witness God's ability to set us free, our redemption is actualized and we are offered the chance to walk free and forgiven in the light of God's grace.

At the Cross we meet a God who expresses solidarity
A question we often ask is “Where is God when suffering comes our way?” The Cross gives us an answer to that question. God stands with us. On that fateful day of 911 God was not in the hearts of those plotting evil and destruction but seeking to comfort and hold those who became the victims of that diabolical act.

If ever we are the victims of a robbery, remember how they stole Christ's robe and gambled for a portion. If ever we are lied against, or have violence committed against us or are unfairly treated, remember that such is the road Christ walked. If ever we stumble and fall and can go no further, remember that Christ could not carry His cross on the road.

If ever we face an injustice or an unfair trial or plead with God for another way around suffering and that way is denied, remember the prayers of Jesus in Gethsemane, the accusations of His foes and the corrupt system that allowed for His death.

If ever we feel that God has totally abandoned us and deserted us, recall those desperate words that came from Christ's lips, “My God, My God, Why have You forsaken me?” At the heart of God's being there is a love that stands with us as life happens, it's good and its bad, at its best and its worst.

Such wonderful promises are made. “I will never leave you or forsake you.” “In my Fathers house are many rooms.” Eternal promises that go beyond any life on earth. The words He speaks to a man who dies on a Cross next to Him, who recognizes in Jesus One who was unique. “Today, you will be with me in paradise.”

As another hymn, “Great is thy faithfulness” declares, in Jesus we find “Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!” At the Cross we meet a God who expresses total solidarity with the human condition.

At the Cross we discover that reconciliation with God is a glorious possibility
The whole story of the Old Testament is about humanities striving to be reconciled with God, that paradise lost may be regained. Always, sin gets in the way. What is sin? The human capacity to total mess everything up. The human inability to love God and love our neighbor. Our inbuilt capacity to not obey commandments, twist laws and fail to be the people God intends.

Throughout the books of the bible we see how sin always has consequences. It destroys the relationships between people and their creator, people and the creation and people with each other.

Through a system of sacrifices, Old Testament religion brought it to peoples attention that when we mess up, it's no little thing. As Paul reflects in Romans 6:23 “The wages of sin is death”. An innocent victim lost their life. Yet all those sacrifices still failed to convince people that sin was a bad idea, but rather became a way for them view sacrifices as a way to carry on sinning... but not personally face the consequences!

From Adam to Abraham, from Joseph to Moses, from Israel's greatest king David to the great prophet Elijah, it is crystal clear, that even for the greatest of the greats, reconciliation to God, through our own efforts and striving, just never works. We can be good, but never good enough. Our only hope is for God to intervene and restore the relationship.

The Presbyterian Book of Confessions explains how reconciliation is offered us in many different ways through the death of Jesus upon the Cross. “It is called the sacrifice of a lamb, a shepherd’s life given for his sheep, atonement by a priest; again it is ransom of a slave, payment of a debt, vicarious satisfaction of a legal penalty, and victory over the powers of evil.”

I like the way William C. Placher, professor of philosophy and religion, at Wabash College, Indiana explains it...

God seeks us out to reconcile us. Sometimes, if I have done wrong to a friend I can make it right. But sometimes the wrong is irremediable. Nothing I could do could fully fix what I have broken. What could a friend do who still loves me? To say “Don’t worry, it doesn’t matter” is to deny the seriousness of the love I betrayed. If it really doesn’t matter, we were scarcely friends. Even to say the wound is deep and cannot be healed would be more loving than that.

But a loving friend might say, “I am wounded. I am angry. That is the proof that I cared about you. It costs me to reach out toward you, to try to trust you again. Yet I love you still, and so I will take on that pain and bear that cost because I do not want us driven apart forever by the consequences of what you did.

Paul explains in 2 Corinthians 5 “All this is from God, who reconciled us to Himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ, God was reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them ... For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.”

At the Cross we meet a God who expresses solidarity. At the Cross we discover that reconciliation with God is a glorious possibility. Thirdly...

At the Cross our redemption is actualized
In the early church a redeemer was the person who paid the price to buy another out of slavery. At the Cross God does for us what we can not do for ourselves. It is Paul in Romans 7:21-25 who outlines the dilemma.

I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God's law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Randy Frazee, one of the compilers of “The Story” reflects; “Do you understand the immensity of this gift? What God has done for you offsets any difficulty you may ever have for the rest of your life. God cherishes you. God owns you. God bought you, not with gold or silver, but with the precious blood of the Son, Jesus Christ. When God was forced to choose between an eternity without you and an eternity with you, God said, 'I'll do whatever it takes to make sure you are with me'”

Another hymn writer, Isaac Watts, captures the response we should make to God's love. shown to us in Jesus Christ; “When I survey the wondrous cross, On which the Prince of glory died, My richest gain I count but loss, And pour contempt on all my pride.”
  • At the Cross we meet a God who expresses total solidarity with all humanity.
  • At the Cross we discover that reconciliation with God is a glorious possibility, not because of anything we have done, but because of everything Jesus has done for us.
  • At the Cross, we witness God's ability to set us free, our redemption is actualized and we are offered the chance to walk free and forgiven in the light of God's grace.
I pray that the shadow of the Cross may fall upon each of our lives in such a way as we are drawn into deep praise of God and the desire to live lives that reflect to others the tremendous love shown to us in Jesus, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Story 25. Jesus, Son of God


THE STORY – CHAPTER 25
Readings: Psalm 96:1-9, Isaiah 9:6-7, Matthew 16:13-21, Hebrews 1:1-3
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, October 9, 2016

Last week in our worship service we were focusing on New Testament passages that appear in chapter 24 of "The Story" that picture Jesus as being no ordinary man. We thought about His extraordinary teaching and extraordinary actions and even the peculiar way He invited us to remember Him – by sharing together bread and wine within the context of a community of faith.

Chapter 25 of “The Story” features a number of passages that reveal to us that Jesus had a unique relationship to God, so close that traditional christian theology claims Him as being God's only begotten Son who came to us on a mission of redemption.

At the start of the Old Testament we saw how people had fallen away from being the amazing creation that God intended, but that God has never given up on us. He has sent teachers and prophets and Kings and messengers to call us back into relationship.

Now we are looking at the New Testament. In the words of Hebrews 1:1-2 “In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days God has spoken to us by His Son. The great claim of Christianity is that Jesus Christ was more than just any ordinary man, but that in Him, God was stepping into the circle of time and space as an act of personal intervention for the salvation of all creation.

The claim that Jesus is the “Son of God" is a remarkable one to make. We would be foolish to do so, if it were not a claim that Jesus makes for Himself. In the gospels 80 times Jesus refers to himself as "The Son of Man". In the Old Testament, particularly the Book of Daniel, "Son of Man" is a term that refers to a "Divine Being". In John"s gospel, Jesus frequently uses the phrase “I am.” “I am the light of the world" "I am the bread of life" "I am the true Vine". The phrase “I am" was one reserved exclusively for God.

He claimed that no one was good except God Himself, (Mark 10:18) yet constantly showed a goodness in His work, words, and actions that demonstrated He was the real deal. He forgave sins, a prerogative that only belonged to God. He claimed to be greater than Jonah, Abraham, Solomon, the Temple, the Sabbath and even John the Baptist, about whom He said; Truly I tell you, among those born of women there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11)

He predicted His betrayal, His death and His resurrection. He raised people from death. He showed an authority that even the highest religious authorities could not dispute, such as when He threw the money changers out of the temple.

During His temptation the Devil challenged Him by taunting Him; “If You are the Son of God...” Jesus responds by telling the Devil “Worship God and God alone”. During many exorcisms demons cry out "What do you want with us Son of God?” It is ironic that they
recognized His divine nature before those who claimed to be on the right side of the spiritual equation!

At the time of His crucifixion we read that “When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, "Surely He was the Son of God!" (Mat 27:54)

Throughout the New Testament letters we see how the earliest church preached the message that Jesus Christ was God's Son, uniquely related to God. “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.” (Hebrews 4:14). John's first letter explains the whole purpose of his testimony. “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” (1Jo 5:13 NIV)

Jesus didn't just tell people how they could find everlasting life. He actually claimed to give life Himself. John 6:40 "For my Father's will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in Him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day." "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die...'" (John 11:25)

In his famous book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis makes this statement, "A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic--on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg--or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God.

A key passage, that appears in Matthew, Luke and Mark's gospel, is the moment when Jesus asks the disciples “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” (Matthew 16:13). The disciples offer some stock answers. Some say you are like John the Baptist, here to teach us how to turn back to God, or maybe You are a wonder worker like Elijah... here to confront the powers of evil, of maybe you are a prophet like Jeremiah, here to challenge social corruption and call us to holiness!

Jesus turns the question completely around and makes it ultra-personal. "But what about you?" he asked. "Who do you say I am?" In any journey of Christian discipleship that is the ultimate question every one of us needs to come to terms with. There comes a point when other peoples opinions are useless. That moment when you are put on the spot and God speaks to your heart and says, “Look, I know what everybody else is saying about me. But what about you?Where are we in our relationship?”

For those first disciples it was a scary moment. They had heard His claims. They understood that to identify Him as being more than just what 'everybody else was saying about Him, meant they were being called into a deeper level of commitment than they had ever dared imagine. It is only Peter who has the courage to make this declaration. Matthew 16:16 “Simon Peter answered, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God."

I encourage you, particularly if you have never done so, to allow God's Spirit to search your heart with that question, “Who do you say I am?” Set against the background of our generation with all its different options for belief, from secularism to atheism and materialism, from Islam to Buddhism to communism, whatever background in which you find yourself, consider looking closely at Christ and letting Him ask you that question, “Who do you say that I am?

C.S. Lewis, said there were only four realistic responses. I think actually there's five. The fifth is that you can dismiss the whole story of Scripture as being made up stories and claim that Jesus never said all that stuff in the first place... but really, given the evidence, that fifth option is simply not realistic.

The four remaining options are that Jesus was just a good man, that He was a mad man, that He was a bad man, or that He was exactly who He claimed to be, the Son of God who came to bring the gift of God's salvation to all creation.

JUST A GOOD MAN
Throughout history there have been amazing moral teachers and philosophers, many of whom walked the talk and have left us great examples to follow. But none have had the influence that He has had. His teaching was different. Sometimes He would preface it by saying, “You have heard it said, but I tell you...” He taught with an authority that those who listened recognized. The way He acted was different. He didn't just talk about loving, He embodied love and redefined it.

His abilities were different. Who else fed 5000? Who else walked on water? Who else appeared on a mountaintop with Moses and Elijah? His life was a fulfillment of Scripture. We have talked while studying the Story of an “Upper Story” and a “Lower Story”. In Jesus the “Upper Story” of God's purposes steps into the “Lower Story” of our lives.

And as we have seen, the claims He made for Himself were different than those made by any other. He was way more than just a good man! The quote I gave earlier from Lewis concludes with the observation... “But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.”

MAD MAN
Whilst lunatics can attract a following, they usually create other lunatics. Charles Manson turned his disciples into murderers. Hitler released a vein of cruelty in people through fear and nationalistic propaganda and scapegoating his opponents. Stalin lifted up communism as an answer to inequality, whilst lifting himself up into a position of towering dominance and control.

Scripture does claim that the foolishness of God is greater than the wisdom of humankind, but such divine foolishness is a glorious thing to witness! Jesus inspired people to be better than they believed they could ever be. He took everybody from fishermen to prostitutes, from slaves to rulers, and released in them a potential that they never dreamed existed. That is not the work of a mad man but a healer. So was he a...

BAD MAN.
A fraud could never have pulled off all the miracles He performed. He called out the dishonest and the hypocrite and the player. A fraud would never give His life for His beliefs in the way that Jesus did. His humility was real. His grace was amazing. His breadth of welcome was outside of anything anybody had ever experienced. He became the standard against which all others are measured.

The only other option, if He was not just a good man, nor a mad man, nor a bad man is to conclude that …

HE WAS EXACTLY WHO HE CLAIMED TO BE.

Peter declared “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God." That answer changes everything. Jesus tells Peter that was the right answer.

Chapter 25 of “The Story” concludes with Jesus entering into Jerusalem, welcomed by Palm Sunday crowds chanting “Hosanna, Hosanna” and asking themselves “Who is this?” Jesus spends much of the final week of His life teaching in the temple. Those who had their minds set against Him could not see beyond the labels of mad, bad and dangerous. One of His own decides to betray Him.

The stage is set for the hour of darkness. Although God repeatedly throughout history gave the nation of Israel clues that the Messiah would come, for the most part they missed the fact that Jesus was God's provision for restoring their relationship to all that God promised for their lives.

Canon Michael Green writes; “What are we going to make of this claim laid before us, that Jesus is Son of God? In the light of His character and teaching, His behavior and miracles, His fulfillment of prophecy and His astonishing claims, what are we going to say? He backed the whole thing up with a death such as the world has never seen, and, unlike any other person before or since, a resurrection from the grave.”

It all takes us right around to that very personal and very probing question that Jesus invites us to consider “But what about you? Who do you say I am?” To God be the glory! Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Sunday, October 2, 2016

The Story 24. No Ordinary Man

THE STORY – CHAPTER 24
Communion Service
Readings: Luke 10:25-37, Matthew 5:1-14, Luke 6:37-42, Mark 4:35-41
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, October 2, 2016

As we encounter the life of Jesus in the Gospels, one thing is crystal clear. Chapter 24 of “The Story” states it plainly. Jesus was no ordinary man. The stories He told, the teaching He gave, the actions He performed and even the way He invited us to remember Him were, in the truest sense – extra-ordinary. He told...

EXTRAORDINARY STORIES

We have a special word to describe the stories that Jesus shared with people. We call them parables. They are stories that go beyond entertainment, beyond even being morality tales, but stories that lift up great spiritual truths about the Kingdom of God. Though often they are incredibly simple, they contain layers of meaning that take a lifetime to discern. Once heard they are not easily forgotten, but have a way of lodging themselves in our deepest levels of consciousness.

A story like the 'parable of the sower' functions on so many levels. We hear it and think, yes, growing things is just like that! We allow it to sink deeper and discern how we can be like that seed that is easily distracted from it's purpose by the troubles and cares of daily life. We see in it a historic pattern of how the church would grow. Maybe we even consider how to be that kind of good seed which will bring forth loving fruit that changes the world.

In a society like ours, so filled with division and mistrust, we do well to consider the implications of a story like the Good Samaritan. It is told in response to a question; “Who is my neighbor?” And it blows all our preconceptions out of the water. Jews and Samaritans hated each other. Good people, like priests and lawyers, were trusted to do the right thing. The story tramples all our assumptions and prejudices into the dust and then has a sting in the tale. “Go and do the same!”

A story like that of the prodigal son gives us an insight into the loving heart of our Father God. We are astonished at the welcome the errant son receives when he returns home. We identify with the younger sons foolishness, for we have all had times in our lives when we know we have walked away from God. It ends with a cliffhanger. An elder son, who can't accept his father's actions. We wonder if he will ever join the party... and if we dig deep enough, we will ask which character in the story our own lives truly resemble.

Whenever He wanted to tell us something really important, Jesus told extraordinary stories that are so simple a child can remember them and so deep that we never truly fathom their depth. Stories were only one of the ways He communicated.

He also offered...

EXTRAORDINARY TEACHING

The sermon on the Mount contains some of the most radical teaching of any religious tradition. So much so, that many people, even Christian people, have a huge problem coming to terms with what it suggests. Many prefer to argue over matters of church order they see in Paul, or create rules and regulations on their particular interpretation of what they consider key biblical passages, rather than accept the implications of the words Jesus spoke in His groundbreaking sermon.

How do we deal with statements such as “Love your enemy” “Pray for those who persecute you” and “Judge not, lest you are judged”? Some relegate such thoughts as being principles rather than rules. Jesus suggests pacifism in the face of violence, non-resistance – walking the extra mile – in the face of injustice, that the poor are blessed, that you should rejoice when others insult you for the Kingdom's sake, that unless you forgive others you will not find forgiveness for your self, that hate should be confronted with unconditional love. Everything is turned inside out and upside down.

One of the most radical insights is the idea that everything begins in the heart. Murder. Disloyalty. Lies. Unfaithfulness. It all begins with a thought or a glance or a whisper. So get it sorted. Go to your room and close the door and pray. Be the house built on the rock, the light on the hill, the salt of the earth. Stop looking for people to blame and take responsibility for changing the world in Jesus name.

He even offers us a way of praying in a statement, that is used on occasions of national tragedy and celebration, that has been said and sung at religious and secular events where no other words can be found, and which we pray every Sunday, in that petition we call “The Lord's Prayer.”

In the light of a world where many try just to get by, whilst others are addicted to the accumulation of stuff, in which every new day appears to bring some new problem or bad news, what is His solution? “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear... Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” “Do not worry about tomorrow... Each day has enough trouble of its own.

Extraordinary stories. Extraordinary teaching. And it's all backed up by His...

EXTRAORDINARY ACTIONS

When it became stormy He told the weather to behave itself and calm down. When He was confronted by evil, He cast it out. When confronted by sickness, He offered healing. When faced with those, like lepers and the woman with an issue... people regarded as unclean... He offered acceptance them and made them whole again. When faced with 5000+ hungry folk He broke bread and everybody went home satisfied. When it looked like everything was going to be lost under the waves, He went surfing without a board and walked across the water.

He had this other worldly understanding of what was going on in peoples lives and thoughts and hearts. He predicted His own betrayal and who would be part of it. He knew people better than they knew themselves. He called many to follow Him... and didn't panic when most walked away, but went ahead and commissioned twelve to work with Him, and one of those turned out to be a traitor.

Extraordinary stories. Extraordinary teaching. Extraordinary actions. He didn't write a book or teach us a liturgy or a song. To recall all that He was and all that He did He offered us something we call communion.

EXTRAORDINARY REMEMBRANCE

One of the images He used of Himself was that He was “The Bread of Life” and that if we truly want to live in a way that honored God, then we should nourish ourselves through being in community and sharing a simple meal of bread and wine. “Do this” He said “In remembrance of me.”

To remember Him, not as some forgotten hero, but in such a way that His living presence is realized as we eat the bread and drink the wine, in such a way that we know He died for a purpose and was raised to life in order that our everyday existence can be lived in the eternal light of God's glory, in order that God's Holy Spirit, the Comforter and the Empower-er, may equip us for service of God's Kingdom.

Maybe you know this anonymous testimony “One Solitary Life.”

“Here is a man who was born in an obscure village, the child of a peasant woman. He grew up in another village. He worked in a carpenter shop until He was thirty. Then for three years He was an itinerant preacher.

He never owned a home. He never wrote a book. He never held an office. He never had a family. He never went to college. He never put His foot inside a big city. He never traveled two hundred miles from the place He was born. He never did one of the things that usually accompany greatness. He had no credentials but Himself...

While still a young man, the tide of popular opinion turned against Him. His friends ran away. One of them denied Him. He was turned over to His enemies. He went through the mockery of a trial. He was nailed upon a cross between two thieves. While He was dying His executioners gambled for the only piece of property He had on earth – His coat. When He was dead, He was laid in a borrowed grave through the pity of a friend.

Centuries have come and gone, and today He is a centerpiece of the human race and leader of the column of progress. I am far within the mark when I say that all the armies that ever marched, all the navies that were ever built; all the parliaments that ever sat and all the kings that ever reigned, put together, have not affected the life of man upon this earth as powerfully as has that one solitary life.”

Make no mistake about Jesus Christ. He was no ordinary man.

Allow His extraordinary stories to expand your understanding of what His kingdom is all about.

Allow your vision to be enlarged and your prejudices and preconceptions to be challenged by His extraordinary teaching that turns everything upside down and inside out.

Contemplate the extraordinary actions that validated His every word.

And accept His invitation this morning to remember Him through the extraordinary remembrance of sharing bread and wine. May His living Spirit continue to inspire us and guide us in the story of our own lives. And to God be the glory. Amen.


Rev. Adrian J. Pratt B.D