Monday, October 31, 2016

The Story 28. New Beginnings

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.

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