Monday, December 11, 2017

Advent 2 Make a Straight Path

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3:8-15, Mark 1:1-8
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, December 10 2017

I like the way Mark begins his gospel. Mark 1:1 ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ It raises the question as we read his words, “Well, how do we get started?" If we want to follow Jesus Christ, where can we begin?” And immediately Mark launches into a statement from one of Israel’s greatest prophets, the prophet Isaiah, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.'

In other words, “If you really want to pursue this path, if you really want to take on board and experience some gospel good news, than you are going to have to be serious about straightening your life out.” And to hammer that point home Mark introduces us to one of the most seriously radical characters of the New Testament, the no compromise, get your life straight before it's too late, locust and wild honey eating, leather belted, camel hair clothed, John the Baptist.

When John the Baptist preaches, he isn’t about to invite you to consider joining a discussion group or ask you throw a few dollars in the plate following a minute for mission, he wants to throw you in the river. He is going to put his hand on your neck, push you down under the water and pull you up again looking undignified and possibly gasping for breath if you weren’t ready for the dunking.

Whilst John is doing all this he is proclaiming and preaching; "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of His sandals. I have baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.

Now John was a person who had a powerful a charisma that enabled him to be taken seriously. For him to say “One is coming after me is more powerful than I,” surely that should make folk sit up and take notice! Again, the one who is to come won’t baptize in water but will baptize in Holy Spirit. This is taking things to a whole new level.

I guess because we know the rest of the story, the impact of this first chapter is a little lost on us. We know how Jesus came to be baptized by John and that whole account of the dove and the voice from heaven declaring “This is my Son with whom I am well pleased.

We know from Matthew and Luke about the strange circumstances surrounding the birth of both John and Jesus. We know how another John in a great theological gospel tells us “The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us and we have seen His glory, the glory as of a Father's only Son, full of grace and truth.” All of that is to come. All of that is what in this season of Advent we are preparing ourselves to celebrate. The coming of Christ. The ‘Christ-Mass.’ The Christ event. The Incarnation.

But today I invite us to draw back, to back up to Marks' first chapter. To try and see what there is in these first few verses that can help us truly prepare for what we know by hindsight is to come. What can help us to be embraced by the good news as we travel together through the Advent season? And we need look no further than Isaiah’s words. ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.'

The advantage of a straight path is that it gets you where you want to go in the shortest possible time. If you grew up as a schoolchild in the British Isles one of the things you learned about very early in geography class, was the historic network of Roman Roads that spanned out like a spiders web from London. As far as gradients and mountains allowed the ancient Romans built their roads in perfectly straight lines. It was upon these roads that the Roman Centurions marched, the chariots were hauled and communications kept flowing.

That network of roads, the ability to get from A to B in the shortest possible time, was nothing short of a revolution that reshaped the way a whole nation moved and traveled. Previously ancient paths would follow rivers and valleys and weave from dwelling to dwelling. The whole idea of connecting a place some 250 miles away with another place by a straight as possible line hadn’t been considered.

The Romans not only had the ingenuity to come up with the plan, but among the conquered masses found the work force to make it happen. Slavery proved to provide an extremely efficient means of achieving otherwise insurmountable tasks. So a network of roads was built in Roman times across the British Isles that have proved to be the pattern of communications ever since. What is remarkable about some of the roads the Romans built is that 2250 plus years later some are still in existence. Obsolescence was not a word they had in their vocabulary.

How where they built? Construction began by digging a ditch with plough and spades as far down as the firmest ground they could find. Into this ditch was placed layers of rock and stone. On top and around this were dumped further layers of rubble, gravel and small stones, the actual materials depending upon what was available in the area. The most important architectural feature was the use of layers.

When it came to within an inch or two of the surface these layers were covered with gravel and trampled down, a process called ‘pavimentare’ from where we get the English word ‘pavement’. Finally concrete was poured and paving stones laid, some of which would be shaped for drainage, so the elements would not destroy what had been so carefully laid down.

At the beginning of Marks gospel John the Baptist challenges the would be follower of Jesus Christ to get ready, to be prepared and make the paths straight. To do so we need to attempt a number of things. We need a plan to get straight. John would call that repentance. We need to dig down deep and build on something solid. Having found something solid we then need to build layers upon that strong foundation.

Repentance isn’t just saying sorry. Repentance is showing genuine remorse for a failure that we have been responsible for and then making plans to see that it doesn’t happen again. Repentance was a turn around moment, that John symbolized by putting people down in the waters as a public sign they wanted to wash away the old and begin again.

To get our lives straight with God, we have to make plans. We have to make choices. We have to decide how the process of repentance is going to work for us. What do we need to cut out? What do we need to avoid? What changes in direction do we need to take? Like the architect planning a Roman Road the terrain of our lives has to be surveyed. Like the repentant soul going down to the river to pray, this evaluation has to be intensely personal and a response to a call of God we feel on our life.

Let’s say we’ve reached that point. We want to change, but we don’t know how. Then we need to start digging. Digging through the false ideology, the consumerism, the hedonism, the feel-good-ism, the shallow messages and quick fixes that our culture constantly bombards us with, dig deep, dig down, until we hit the solid rock foundation of the love of Jesus Christ. Until we build our lives on the rock of His love we are the foolish person who builds on the sand. Until we find our security in His grace, we remain insecure. We need a solid foundation and God in Christ is offering us that foundation upon which to build.

Then come the layers. How do we build on the foundation? We are fortunate. We have a whole collection of 66 instructional manuals collected together in a manual we call the Bible. Among its pages we will find many suggested layers. The layer of prayer. The layer of worship. The layer of service. The layer of study. The layer of stewardship. The layer of thanksgiving. Layers of hope, joy, perseverance, peace, and truth.

Be aware this is not a process we can do alone. God has provided a personal instructor and enabler known as the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit’s strength, not our own that will get us straightened out. God has provided a whole construction crew He calls the Church to stand alongside us and work with us. We can’t do it alone.

Keep building these layers. Keep trampling them down. You can even set in place some permanent stones… think of those as moments of commitment. That milestone you reached. That habit that was broken. That relationship that was formed. That new realization you had of just how much your life mattered to God. The moment of baptism or confirmation. That open door of opportunity. That sacred moment of deeper commitment that has stayed with you.

And of course there has to be concrete. To make it smooth. To fill in the gaps. To hold it all together. The concrete that is made of the exact same material as the foundation, namely the binding, unifying, concrete reality of Jesus love.

Making a straight path isn’t easy. But because Christ came and died and God raised Him from the dead, it is possible. It will be a lifelong journey and therefore it is important that we take time out along the way for nurture and fellowship.

Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.' counsels the incomparable John the Baptizer. Today let us recommit ourselves to building our lives on the solid foundation of Jesus Christ that His Holy Spirit may change us and renew us, that in our lives we may witness a new ‘Beginning of the Good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ AMEN.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.


Monday, December 4, 2017

Advent 1 Restore us, O God!

Readings: Isaiah 64:1-9, 1 Cor. 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37, Psalm 80:1-6,17-18
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church , MD, December 3 2017

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Earlier in our service we lit a candle for hope. We also earlier heard verse 3 from Psalm 80 that pleaded with God “Restore us O God; let Your face shine, that we may be saved

Hope can be a hard commodity to catch hold of when everything seems to be going wrong. You went along to the doctors thinking it was nothing serious, and they found something nasty. The company is downsizing and you have no seniority. A family member has gone off the rails and the implications are going to be tough to handle. How do we get through such times?

During the reign of King Josiah, (640-609 BC) Judea was ravaged by their Assyrian neighbors. Whole families were destroyed, livelihoods taken away and only a remnant survived in Jerusalem to tell the tale through their tears. They were in a hopeless situation. Their enemies mocked them. They felt abandoned by an angry God punishing them for their unfaithfulness.

Do you ever feel that way when things start going wrong? God is angry? That the bad things that happen to you are a punishment for something you’ve done? Be assured by this Psalm, you are not the first to feel that way; the whole Judean nation felt that God was mad at them.

The sobering truth was that they had been unfaithful. God told them what would happen if they carried on down that road and it had happened just like the prophets of doom had said. Likewise, there are times in our lives when the things that befall us are nobodies fault but our own. We are willful. We reject good advice. We go our own way.

The question then is if there is any hope for trapped, abandoned, foolish, people like us? When things go bad what can we do? That’s where this Psalm is coming from. And here is the advice we are offered.
  • Firstly, Remember. We remind ourselves, not of what we have done or of what has been done to us, but remind ourselves who God is and what God can do.
  • Secondly, Reach Out. We call on God to help us. We turn our tears to prayers.
  • Thirdly, Rest. We rest… in the sense of waiting. Waiting, not in the manner of one about to be ushered into the dentist’s surgery, but in quiet anticipation that in God’s time, redemption will come.
Remember

When things in our lives turn from hope to hopelessness it is good to remember that we are not God. As we say in our Ash Wednesday service “From dust we have come and to dust we shall return.” Life comes with no guarantee. We will mess up. We are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God. We are not immune from the bad things that befall the rest of creation. Chaos and decay are all around and it’s a miracle we make it through even a single day on this planet unscathed. You messed up bad enough to make God angry? Join the club! Life’s not fair? Go figure! That’s the way it’s always been.

Yet in the midst of that remembering our own mortality the Psalmist bids us to remember the immortality and character of God. Psalm 80 begins with beautiful imagery. God is ‘The Shepherd of Israel’ who ‘led Joseph like a flock’. God is the One enthroned above the angels, resplendent in light, powerful, mighty, and awesome!

Remember what God can do and has done. Troubles in the present always seem to obscure the bigger picture. When you are under a cloud you don’t see or feel the sunshine. But the sun is still shining. Like Jimmy Buffet says, “Its’ five o clock somewhere!’ Don’t allow circumstances that are currently dragging you down to define your destiny.

Israel had known God as the Shepherd that had led them through times when all had seemed lost. As they recall that fact, and remember that God was still in the shepherding business, a glimmer of hope starts to appear. If God could do it then, and God hasn’t changed, then… maybe… God really can help us now!

It is at that point of realization the Psalmist prays; “Restore us O God; let Your face shine, that we may be saved.” Already we are guided towards the second thing we need to do to if we are to journey from hopelessness to hope, we need to;

Reach Out

Oh Lord’ cries the Psalmist, “How long will you be angry with Your peoples prayers?” Notice from these words the brutal honesty of the Psalmist. Whilst in his heart he knows God can bring redemption, he also knows how bad they had messed up. God had to be angry. Their God was a just God. Yet, the psalmist reasons, God was still the Shepherd. Shepherds didn’t stay angry for ever. So the Psalmist just throws the prayer out there!

I have something to say that may be a revelation to Presbyterians like us, with our liturgy and well structured prayers and beautiful anthems and stained glass glories. The revelation? It’s O.K. to tell God how you really feel. In fact, the words and phrases you use may be grammatically correct and poetically perfect but if they don’t reflect what is in your heart, God will be listening to your heart and not hearing your words. The only prayers that God hears are the real ones.

So if today you are at one of those crossroads where you really don’t know what to pray then, follow the Psalmists lead, just throw it out there! If there are things that you really want to tell God, but are afraid to say what you are really thinking, then its time to come clean. God’s heard it all before so don’t think that when we come with our probing questions that God will be knocked from the throne.

If it helps to yell then yell. If the prayer comes through bitter tears then it comes through bitter tears. If it is made through gritted teeth then pray through gritted teeth. If you are to ashamed to admit what’s going on then tell God you are to ashamed to admit what’s going on… and take it from there. And by the way… God does know what’s been going on. That all-seeing, all knowing thing… kind of big-brother-ish, but God’s always been that way! So if you need help, ask for help. If you have messed up, own up. If you are fed up, then give it up. Time and time again that’s what the Psalmists do!

Remember who God is and what God can do.
Reach out to God with what’s really on your mind.
Thirdly; Rest.

Rest

Rest… in the sense of waiting. Wait, not in the manner of one about to be ushered into the dentist’s surgery, but in quiet anticipation that in God’s time, redemption will come. Advent is a time of waiting. Waiting for the Savior to come. We light a candle of hope. We don’t hope for things we already have, we hope for things that are yet to be.

Advent hope is not hope without purpose, it is hope focused on promise. It is hope focused on the promises of God, that God will redeem, that God will intervene, that God will come into the midst of our hurts and concerns and will help us through.

The book of Hebrews 4:9 tells us ‘There remains therefore a rest for the people of God.’ (NKJ) The ‘rest’ there being spoken of is not talking about ‘couch time’ or ‘lazing round in a hammock on a sunny afternoon,’ but rest in terms of a place where a persons heart and emotions can be settled because they know God will take care of things, in God’s way and in God’s time.

This was the rest the Psalmist was seeking. The people had messed up. They were receiving the due penalty for their wrongdoing. But a new day would come. They were forgiven. God’s love would once more shine upon them. God was still God and they were still God’s people.

“Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass.....it's about learning to dance in the rain!” So as we begin the journey to Christmas, as the weather reminds us it’s winter and there are bills on the side waiting to be paid. As there are concerns we carry and things we don’t want to face… take time to put on your dancing shoes! God still loves us! Jesus still died for us! God still sends His Holy Spirit to comfort us!
  • Remember: Remember who God is and what God can do
  • Reach Out: With prayers, with tears, with honesty and integrity come before God aware of your need and the ability of God’s Holy Spirit to touch your life
  • Rest: Give time for God to act in your situation. Be quietly confident in God’s Word that comes through Scripture and through others peoples words and actions as they respond to God’s promptings. Trust that God will act in God’s time and rest confident in such assurances.
And to the One the Psalmist describes as ‘The shepherd of Israel, who led Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned above the cherubim’ (Psalm 80:1), the One who sent His Son Jesus Christ to be our Savior and sends His Holy Spirit to be our comforter and guide, be all honor, praise and glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D

Monday, November 27, 2017

Christ The King

 
Readings: Ezekiel 34:11-16,20-24, Psalm 100, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46
Preached on Christ the King Sunday, November 26th 2017

Today in the church calendar is the last Sunday of the Liturgical year known as "Christ the King" or "Reign of Christ" Sunday. One of the readings suggested for today was Matthew 25:31-46, the passage where Jesus speaks of the Son of Man separating sheep from goats, as a King bringing righteous judgment upon all nations. It is that image of "Christ the King" I would like to explore with you this morning.

Coming as I originally do from the British Isles, where they still have a monarchy, you'd think that maybe I had an advantage in understanding this text. However the role of the royal family in Great Britain in no way reflects the image of Christ as King in our passage. Any notion of "The Divine right of Kings" has long since passed into memory and the Queen and her family occupy a role that has more to do with promoting a charitable spirit and celebrating state occasions than wielding political power.

Now that I"m living in America where July 4th is celebrated as the day that the tyranny of King George was overthrown, I realize that the notion of "Christ as King" needs re-interpreting. The whole idea of power and authority being invested in some despotic force out there, answerable to nobody and far from benevolent, makes the whole idea of Kingship difficult.

Yet I wonder if it were any easier for those who first heard these words. I say that because Matthews gospel, from where our scripture was taken, begins by painting a picture for us of a King called Herod who is little more than a puppet in the hands of Rome.

And as such he is consumed by fear for his position, so consumed that when visitors arrive from the East asking questions about a new born King, Herod is driven to embark upon a course of infant genocide, just in case some rival to his precarious position were to arise. Not exactly a flattering portrait of Kingship!

For a positive image those who first heard these words would need to reflect on their history, and in particular the figure of King David, who led the nation through a period of great prosperity and advance, and under whom they had never had it so good. The image of David as the Shepherd King, chosen and anointed by God was a powerful one for a people who were beaten down under the rule of a far away Caesar.

The image of David was associated with passages full of promise like Ezekial 34:22-24, where God declares; “I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken.”

In our passage from Matthew the separation of the sheep and goats brings in an unexpected and radical view of the King. Judgment is made upon the basis of compassion and service. The Kings family are revealed not to be the wealthy and privileged but the unfortunate, the sick and imprisoned, the stranger, the hurting and the needy. “Truly I tell you," says the King, "Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

Jesus takes things further. He pictures the role of the Son of Man as not being just as Shepherd/King, but as being the Servant/King. My mind wanders to that encounter in the upper room, where He who reigned over the disciples takes a bowl, wraps a towel around Himself and proceeds to wash their feet. John 13:14-15 “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

What can we glean from this scriptural picture of "Christ as King" to help us live our lives today? Let me suggest three things I gained from this passage. Hope, Motivation and Encouragement.

Firstly, Considering Christ as King can bring Hope.

The notion that there will come a time when all will be right with the world, when those who currently are making life intolerable for others will be called to account, the hope of both future justice and future reward shines a ray of light in times of darkness. This life is not the end of the story. The story ends with Christ enthroned as King.

Christ's coming has not been the arrival of a now lost and lamented hero, but death and resurrection have unleashed a sequence of events that will lead to His enthronement. The lectionary reading from the epistle to the Ephesians seeks to capture this hope. Ephesians 1:20-21 “God put this power to work in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come."

The picture of Christ as the Victor occurs time and time again throughout the New Testament. To commit to Christ is to align oneself with the winning side, even though it is a victory in anticipation rather than one that is fully realized. But as in peoples lives we glimpse daily miracles of grace, we understand this hope is not an illusion, but a reality that sneaks upon us and takes us by surprise.

Christian singer/songwriter/peacemaker David Lamont speaks about hopes for peace with the thought that "God is not only mysterious, God is also mischievous." He reflects that God has a habit of shattering the traditional viewpoints and stereotypes that we try and label the Divine with. A shepherd who is really a King? A servant who reigns? An all powerful slave? Such are images that make mischief of our understanding of power and position. Christ as King can be for us an image of hope.

Secondly, the image of Christ as King can be a powerful motivator.

In a world that continues to play the game of the "one who has the most toys wins" the picture of Christ as the Servant/King invites us to invest in what really matters. This whole passage about “In as much as you did it for the least of these who are my brothers and sisters" suggests to me that we are at our best when we seek to lift up those who are at their worst.

When we celebrate our blessings, by being a blessing to others, when we invest our time in those who others have little time for, we are imitating the example of the Shepherd King. The Good Shepherd who allowed 99 well capable ones to look after themselves in order that one who was lost and abandoned could be rescued.

God's Kingdom takes all our notions and turns them inside out and upside down. Blessed are the peacemakers, Blessed are the meek, Blessed are those who hunger and thirst, Blessed are those who mourn? The little things become the big things. The unexpected becomes the defining moment. The improbable becomes the possible.

And in the end it all boils down to a couple of principles that are easily remembered but so seldom truly lived. "Love God" and "Love your neighbor." Right there is the Servant/Kings manifesto. That"s the line He draws in the sand that separates sheep and goats, good sheep from bad sheep.

Christ's Kingship is expressed through a Kingdom that is plainly not of this world, does not respect the false values and motivations that this world counts important and stands at times in radical opposition to ideals we thought were the important ones!

Seeing Christ as a King… a King who is everything we don"t expect a King to be… is to me a powerful motivator to try and be like a child of that King and rejoice in such a radical heritage.

Thirdly, the image of Christ as King can be a tremendous encouragement.

There's a lovely chant that comes from the monastic community in France known as Taizė. “Jesus, Remember me, when you come into Your Kingdom.” Usually the song is sung acapella and repeated numerous times... almost creating a wave of sound as people interject their own harmonies and nuances. The power in such repeated chants is that as you allow yourself to become absorbed in them, God is able to take you all sorts of places.

The words "Remember me when you come into Your Kingdom" were the last request of a penitent criminal. Those words received a response. “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” With all this talk of sheep and goats and casting out into the darkness and “in as much as you failed to do this unto them, you failed me,” we do well to recall that the dominant note sounded through the life of Jesus was not that of judgment but of grace.

That grace is there for all who seek it. Even dieing criminals. The only excluded ones are those who choose to put aside the invitation to feast at the Kingdoms heavenly banquet. There is hymn in our hymnbooks that puts it this way, reflecting on the 23rd Psalm;

The King of Love, My Shepherd is,
Whose goodness faileth never,
I nothing lack if I am His
And He is mine forever”

CHRIST THE KING!
THE KING OF LOVE!
THE SHEPHERD KING!
THE SERVANT KING!

Worship is such a privilege! The King has invited us to His banqueting house and His banner over us is love. I pray that our reflections upon Jesus, the Servant King, may lead us to places of hope, motivation and encouragement.
  • Hope that one day all things will be well.
  • Motivation to pursue a servant lifestyle that reflects the love of a Shepherd King
  • And encouragement from the Holy Spirit that as Jesus Christ is the King of love our labor in Him shall never be in vain.
The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Thessalonian Songs 4. Blessed Assurance

Readings: Judges 4:1-7, Psalm 19, Matthew 25:14-30, 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church on November 19 2017

A hymn written back in 1873 by Fanny Crosby… “Blessed Assurance”… remains a favorite to many people. It focuses on the themes of God’s salvation and the response that as Christians we should make to God’s Grace. Such themes complement our reading from 1 Thessalonians 5, a passage that gives Paul’s closing remarks of encouragement to the Thessalonican church.

The hymn’s first verse reads; “Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine,
O what a foretaste of Glory Divine
Heir of salvation, purchase of God,
Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood”

Our scripture passage began with Paul talking of “Glory Divine”, or rather “The Day of The Lord”. Whilst Paul insists that such a day would one day be here, he mixes illustrations in such a way as to leave us guessing as to when such a time could be. On the one hand it would come like a thief in the night. On the other hand it would also be like the onset of labor pains to a pregnant woman. Let’s explore those images.

Thieves in the night can come at any time. However - your likelihood of being the victim of a thief in the night- depends a lot on where you live and how well prepared you are. For instance, if it’s the middle of winter and you live in a one-horse town somewhere in North Dakota, the chances of a thief arriving are minimal. If however you are in an inner city ghetto known for a high crime rate, then the chances are you will have locks, chains and security devices set to warn you of the event.

The image of a pregnant woman is equally ambiguous. Usually pregnant women have a due date when they expect their labor pains to begin, before which we’d say the baby was early, after which we’d say the baby was late. By the time that due date comes around it is fairly obvious by the bulge in mothers womb that the child will be arriving any day now. Labor pains may begin at any moment during that time of being very pregnant. You can hardly describe the event is entirely unexpected. The signs are all there that something is going to happen!

Paul’s concern is not to give the Thessalonians a suggested date for the second coming, but rather to ensure them that there will come a ‘Day of the Lord’ when all things will be well and the Kingdom will be established upon earth. As to dates and times, they really didn’t need that information any more than we do. What we need to know is that God is in control and that one-day, be it today or a billion years from now, God has the final word. Such is one of the “Blessed Assurances” Paul offers to us.

It was an assurance that the Thessalonican church needed to hear because they were a persecuted people. Paul and Silas had to escape from the city under cover of darkness. Some, like Jason, a leader of that earliest church, had been bought before the courts under the charge of harboring enemies of the state.

So Paul writes to encourage them, “On the last day, on the ‘Day of the Lord’, those who stand against you now will stand no longer. Hold onto the faith that you have, because, although it doesn’t look that way right now, ultimately the victory will be yours.” In a similar way Fanny Crosby’s hymn uses phrases such as “Visions of rapture”, Angels descending” and “Watching and Waiting and looking above” to interpret the faith that was her story and her song.

Paul then moves on to consider how the coming of this event in the future should influence the lives we live from day to day. The primary image that he employs is to identify the people of God as being “children of light and children of the day” (v5). To reinforce that picture he uses opposing images, and speaks of people who were “of the night and of the darkness”.

Thessalonica, one assumes, was, like many larger towns today, the sort of place where some would spend their nighttime hours in what one older commentary describes as ‘the over-indulgence of carnal pursuits’. Paul speaks of how ‘those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk are drunk at night” (v7). So he exhorts the Thessalonians, “Therefore let us not sleep, as others do, but let us watch and be sober” (v6).

Back in the days of prohibition, preachers like Billy Sunday spoke much of abstaining from the ‘demon drink,’ and would give this passage a very literal interpretation. Alcohol addiction, like any addiction, is a terrible thing, the sort of thing that Christ died to set people free from.

It is in that framework… the framework of the Grace of God…the framework of Christ dieing to save us on the Cross of Calvary… that Paul seeks to be understood. He knows that we know the difference between living a life that is out of control, self-indulgent and destructive and a life that is self-controlled, compassionate and productive.

The wrong way to live... Paul compares to a drunken sleep. The second way, the better way, the (to use Paul’s words) the sober way, is to live a life enlightened to the dangers that are out there and being ready to defend yourself against them. It is an encouragement to know that on the last day, “The Day of the Lord” all will be well, but that doesn’t mean life can just drift along without there being any problems or struggles.

Even if you are a soldier on the winning side you are not going to last long if you go out and fight the enemy without wearing any armor. The Thessalonians had a battle to fight. A battle for survival. Paul tells them to equip themselves with two defensive items “to put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.”

The source for these items was in Jesus Christ, through the work He had accomplished on the Cross and through His resurrection presence; known to them through the Holy Spirit. Because Jesus had died for them, they had hope. Because Christ was raised from the dead, they could live every day with the assurance of God’s presence. Because God had a purpose and plan for their lives, a plan that they should not suffer God’s wrath, but enjoy God’s salvation, then the way they lived their life should reflect the faith that held them sure. No part of their existence—present, future, or eternal—was seen as untouched by the saving work of Christ.

The outcome of their “Blessed Assurance” was a security that set them free to live their lives for others. They did not simply "rest assured"; they "acted assuredly" by providing others with the kind of encouragement that blessed their lives.

Fanny Crosby’s hymn speaks of being an “Heir of salvation, purchase of God, Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood”. She had the assurance that Christ had died for her and that she was destined therefore to live a life of purpose that would culminate in the blessings of a glorious eternity in Christ’s nearer presence. Such is the security God would have each of us know in our lives. ‘Blessed Assurance’ – “This is my story, This is my Song”. Let me tell you a little more about the lady who wrote those words.

Fanny Crosby was born on March 24th, 1820, in a one-story cottage in South East, New York. Her father, John, died before her first birthday. At six weeks old, she caught a slight cold in her eyes. The family physician was away. Another country doctor was called in to treat her. He prescribed hot mustard poultices to be applied to her eyes, which destroyed her sight completely. It was later learned that the man was not qualified to practice medicine.

At five years old, her mother took her to consult the best eye specialist in the country. Neighbors and friends pooled money together in order to send her. The diagnosis? "Poor child, I am afraid you will never see again." Such experiences of loss and human mistakes had the possibility of making her attitude to life bitter and resentful. Remarkably she considered her loss of sight as a great blessing, one time explaining to her mother, “If I had a choice, I would still choose to remain blind...for when I die, the first face I will ever see will be the face of my blessed Savior.”

Moving to Ridgefield, Connecticut, she came under her Grandmothers influence and set about memorizing as much of the bible as she was able. At 15 she returned to New York to attend a school for the blind, where despite discouragement from her teachers, she developed her poetic skills.

At 23 the school, in which she was now a teacher, sought to receive financial support from Congress. Fanny decided to write a poem in celebration of the work of Congress. It worked, and not only did the school receive support, but she herself became a friend to many of the most influential people of the day, including the presidents.

Time does not permit to recount her whole life story. By the time of her death in her nineties she had witnessed over 8,000 of her poems set to music and over 100,000 copies of her songs printed. Some suggest that she was the greatest hymn writer in the history of the Christian Church. Not bad for a blind girl from a single parent family in New York!

All of which brings us back to Paul’s message to the Thessalonians. They hadn’t had an easy start to their life as a church. They faced much that was discouraging. But they fixed their hope on Jesus Christ. Their ‘Blessed Assurance’ was that the love of God was greater than the forces that opposed them.

This knowledge of God’s love kept them vigilant and on their guard. They looked to the return of Christ as a solution to their problems, yet did not allow that hope of His return to prevent them from reaching out in practical ways to the world around them. On the contrary it was the presence of God, that they were already experiencing in their midst, that kept moving them forward in faith.

Of Fanny Crosby’s hymns, they knew not a thing. Yet I can’t help thinking that they would identify with the words of this third verse: -

Perfect submission, all is at rest
I in my Savior am happy and blest,
Watching and waiting, looking above,
Filled with His goodness, lost in His love

So what of us and what of our lives?
What will be our story and our song?

May God’s Grace touch our lives in such a real way that we allow the love of Christ to encourage us and lead us through the many different circumstances that come our way, through the easy times and the hard times, with the knowledge that one day… all will be well.

We may never have a life quite as productive as Fanny Crosby’s, or a church quite as famous as that of the Thessalonians, but under the touch of Jesus Christ our lives truly can be blessed with divine significance. The blessed assurance of God’s love is available to us all. It shouts to us from the Cross of Calvary and blazes forth from the empty tomb. May God help us to respond in fruitful ways to the many blessings Christ sends our way. May faithfulness become our story and commitment become our song. AMEN.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Thessalonian Songs 3. Thou Art Worthy

Readings: Joshua 3:7-17, Psalm 43, 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, John 3:16.
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church on November 5 2017

What’s it worth? A question we ask about numerous things. We ask it about material things. In the T.V. program ‘Antiques Roadshow’ people bring their articles to the experts because they want to know, “Is this worth something; has it some value or is it just a piece of junk?” We’re asked to serve on some committee or invest our time in some activity and if we are sensible we will ask, “Is this worth my time? Do I have something I can offer? Is it worth the effort?”

We contemplate some new health kick “Will this diet work?” “Will giving up this and that or taking on a new exercise regime give us the results we are looking for?” What’s it worth to us to get in shape or alter our body weight or do this or do that?

Then there is the question of our faith. What of our beliefs? What is our religion to us? What is our church to us? How much does it matter? How much of us in invested in our relationship with God?

What of God? Let me pose the question in a peculiar way. How much is God worth? Is God a commodity that we can put a price on? Is time for God something we can choose to invest in or dismiss? What is God to us?

To Paul, God was worth investing his whole life in. The gospel inspired him and his fellow missionaries to go to extraordinary lengths that the message may be believed. The very question “What is God worth?” would be a no brainer to Paul.

Put a value on God? A price tag on the gospel? That idea would be incredulous, maybe even offensive, to Paul. His whole life was built upon the notion that what he had discovered through the Holy Spirit, the life of the resurrected Jesus Christ which was in him and around him and working through him was a priceless treasure! Paul’s heart response to God was quite simply, “Thou art Worthy O Lord”.

So it was in this morning’s lesson that he explained to the Thessalonians that when he came to them it was with the aim of preaching a gospel that had no price tag attached. This idea of worth – he doesn’t here apply to God – but turns it around.

1Thessalonians 2:11-12 “You know how, like a father with his children, we exhorted each one of you and encouraged you and charged you to lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.” He exhorts them, he encourages them, and he charges them “Lead a Life worthy of God.

In other words - Respond to the love and light that God has cast in your way – in a manner that is appropriate – that fits in with who God is and what God has done – that goes along with the amount that God feels that your life is worth.

Ever considered that one? How much your life is worth to God? What value is there upon your head from God’s perspective? This morning we are gathering around the Lord’s table. Every time we do this we visually recall one of the best known scriptures in the New Testament, the words of John 3:16 ‘God so loved the world that he gave His only begotten Son, that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but have everlasting life’.

If ever we doubt our worth to God, it is worth considering the simple truths that John 3:16 contains. For it was in the light of God’s commitment to us in Jesus Christ that Paul encouraged the Thessalonians to be faithful to God. Let us briefly think about the words Paul writes to the Thessalonians, in the light of John 3:16.

God so loved the world… Whose world? Our world! The one that we drift through day after day after day. Our family, our friends, our people, our situations, our problems, whatever it is that makes up our world, God so loved our world. When Paul went to the Thessalonians he didn’t stand far off, he sought to enter their world and understand their problems. He writes to them; ‘For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his own children.’ He loved them because he was convinced that God loved them. He gave himself to their care because… well let us continue with our verse, God so loved the world …

That He gave His only begotten Son… Paul gave himself to them because he knew God had given Jesus Christ to live and die for them. Paul believed that this was the ultimate offering God could make. In Jesus Christ the gospel… the good news of God… had been revealed and had shown that God was willing to do the unthinkable to win the hearts of those who were alienated from God’s love.

In Jesus Christ God broke every barrier down that prevented people from feeling they could have no fellowship with the Divine. Sins were forgiven. Deliverance proclaimed. Forgiveness embodied. Reconciliation attained. Through Jesus Christ the doorway to God’s presence was flung wide open and we are invited to enter into fellowship with the God ‘Who (according to verse 12) calls you into His kingdom and glory.”

But how do we enter into and experience the love of God? Only through faith. Only through placing our trust and hope, not in what we can do, but in what God has done in giving His Son to die for us. Our verse continues God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son…

So that everyone who believes in Him… ‘Believe in Him.’ What does that mean? Believe He was a historical figure? Believe that He existed? Believe that He died? Believe that He rose again? No. That’s not belief – that’s assent – that’s just saying ‘Well. O.K. that’s what happened.” When Paul spoke about belief he was talking about an activity that revolutionized the way you live your life.

Believing in Jesus meant believing something about the purpose and nature of what happened on the Cross that touched you so deeply that you lived free and forgiven. Believing in the resurrection of Jesus meant that something had changed about the way the world is – something wonderful - that you can be part of - a something that is more powerful than death and decay and destruction. Our verse continues ‘so that everyone who believes in Him…

Should Not Perish.. Perish? What do we know about perishing? Look at what they did to Jesus! They accused Him falsely. They lied about Him. They spat upon Him. They beat Him and tortured Him. They forced Him to carry His cross through the insulting, unseemly, crowds that lined the street. They took His hands and feet and nailed them to the Cross. They pierced His side with a spear.

They left Him to die, as though He were an animal that had been hit by a truck and was left on of the road, of little consequence to those who sped by. Jesus Christ perished. This is the heart of the gospel. That's perishing. He perished that we might not perish.

As a young person I remember we used to have an evangelist come to speak at our meetings. I’ve never forgotten his name ‘Peter Partington’. The reason I’ve never forgotten his name was because on all his correspondence he used to write ‘Pastor Peter Partington Preaching Perfect Peace to Perishing People.”

What does it mean to be perishing? Existing only to die. Living a life that has no future other than extinction. Having no hope for tomorrow. Just getting by. Just coping as best as you can with whatever life throws at you but never really knowing the peace that comes through faith that beyond it all is God trying to break into our everyday lives with little surprises of joy and grace and love.

At the end of our short passage from Thessalonians Paul rejoices at the way the church there had received the gospel. He praises them in verse 13 “You accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.”

The message is pictured not as something static, but something that is life sustaining and active in their midst. So the ultimate purpose of John 3:16 God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son so that everyone who believes in Him should not perish…
But have everlasting life… That we might not begin our days, live our days, or end our days far from God but live every day in the presence and with the blessing of God. Life today. Life now. Life Tomorrow. Life with God. And when this little slice of life is all burnt out and over, a life that continues with God.

Everlasting life is about the quality of life we experience. Life where eternity breaks in like the rays of the sun through a dark cloud. God didn’t send Jesus so that we can all live miserable lives today and only find redemption tomorrow in heaven. Jesus came that we may experience life, truth and freedom and joy in the now. The resurrection makes no sense until it is experienced in the present tense.

So Paul exhorts ... so Paul encourages… so Paul charges... “Live a life worthy of God” ... a life worthy of the God who loved our world with such great depth that Christ died for us whilst we were yet sinners.

This wasn’t just philosophy, or theology or any-ology. It was about the power of God transforming the way they lived. It was about realizing that they had lives deeply valued by God. The Cross confronts us with the value Jesus placed upon our lives. If we allow that gospel message to change us, truly we cannot remain the same.

It brings us to our knees. God cares more about us than we care about each other. The only enemies in the Kingdom of God are those He calls us to pray for. The only barriers to fellowship are the ones we put up through harboring resentments or not counting others as better than ourselves.

We are called to do unto others as we would like them to do unto us, to forgive as we have been forgiven, to embrace others as God has embraced others, to see strangers as those God wants to bless… and so work for wholeness, to feed the hungry, heal the broken-hearted and proclaim release to the captives.

Let us then consider Paul’s challenge. He encourages us to live a life of worship to God, a life whose inner song is “Thou Art Worthy Oh Lord! He writes:

"I exhort you, I encourage you, I charge you;
Live a life worthy of God."

Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit may we seek to live such a life, instructed by His Word, empowered through our worship and realized through our daily service.

To God’s name be the glory. Truly, as we will sing in our closing hymn; ‘To God be the glory, Great things He has done”. AMEN.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Thessalonian Songs 2. Pass It On

Readings: Deuteronomy 34:1-12, Psalm 90:1-6, 13-17, 1 Thessalonians 2:1-8, Matthew 22:34-46
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church on October 29 2017

I’m continuing this morning to look at Paul’s First Letter to the Thessalonians. Last week we saw how in the first chapter Paul gave thanks for the perseverance of the Thessalonian Church during a difficult time. He praised them for responding to God’s Call. He was pleased to see their concern for spiritual growth. He was delighted by the way they were allowing Christ to transform their lives. They were standing on the promises of God.

In this second chapter He remains thankful for their faithfulness, and continues to encourage them in their walk with God. He had ignited the spark that started the fire of the gospel among them. It was now up to them to pass it on.

Before looking at chapter 2 it is helpful to read what happened the first time Paul bought them the gospel message. We are given that story at the start of Acts Chapter 17. (1-10).

After Paul and Silas had passed through Amphipolis and Apollonia, they came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews. And Paul went in, as was his custom, and on three sabbath days argued with them from the scriptures, explaining and proving that it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead, and saying, "This is the Messiah, Jesus whom I am proclaiming to you." Some of them were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, as did a great many of the devout Greeks and not a few of the leading women. But the Jews became jealous, and with the help of some ruffians in the marketplaces they formed a mob and set the city in an uproar. While they were searching for Paul and Silas to bring them out to the assembly, they attacked Jason's house. When they could not find them, they dragged Jason and some believers before the city authorities, shouting, "These people who have been turning the world upside down have come here also, and Jason has entertained them as guests. They are all acting contrary to the decrees of the emperor, saying that there is another king named Jesus." The people and the city officials were disturbed when they heard this. And when they had taken security from Jason and the rest, they let them go. The brethren immediately sent Paul and Silas away by night to Berea.”

The Thessalonian church was born in the midst of trouble! Jason, at whose home Paul and Silas were welcomed, was hauled before the courts and accused of disloyalty to Rome. Paul and Silas have to leave the town undercover of the night such is the strength of the antagonism against them. No wonder Paul started off his letter praising them for their perseverance.

The troublemakers are continuing to create trouble. Much of 1 Thessalonians Chapter Two answers accusations that were being made against Paul and Silas by those who were hostile towards the church. The fact that Paul and Silas escaped under cover of the night has laid them open to the charge that they were up to no good and being deliberately deceitful.

Some are accusing them of perpetrating some kind of scam, as though the apostles were only in it for the money. Others have accused the disciples of using fancy words and false doctrines that had ‘brainwashed’ their hearers into accepting their message.

The accusations made against Paul have upset the congregation in Thessalonica. So much so, that in Chapter Two, he feels a need to defend himself. The only defense he has is the example of his own life. He reminds them of how he came to them and of how he acted whilst he was with them. He wants to teach them how they could keep the fire burning and so pass on the gospel message to others. He offers the following defense.

1) The Way he lived backed up the Word he preached

Although Paul was only with the Thessalonians for a short time he left a deep impression on those he stayed with. So much of an impression that within a short time they were prepared to risk their lives to defend him and see to it that he could continue on his missionary journeys.

They witnessed his boldness in the face of opposition. They witnessed, as day after day, he counseled with people and on the Sabbath entered into debate with them, that here was a man who truly believed in his words and showed evidence of having his own life transformed by Jesus Christ.

The content of his message was clear. Jesus Christ was the one the Old Testament scriptures pointed to as the Messiah. In accordance with what the scriptures proclaimed He suffered and died, and was raised from death. Paul, the one time enemy of Christ, was now a witness to the resurrection and sought for others to know God’s love in Christ, through the Holy Spirit working in their lives.

He is quite clear that what he had done among them was not for greed or personal gain. If that were the case he could have made much of the fact that, here he was, an apostle of God, deserving of support. In verse 6 he explains; “We could have made demands as apostles of Christ.” But no such demands are made. His mission was in no way a pretext for greed or for him to in some way advance his worldly status.

The most pressing evidence for the genuineness of his mission was the fact that he didn’t have to be there for any other reason than he felt God had entrusted him with the task of preaching the gospel.

Which leads us to a second thing,

2) He was more concerned about being accepted by God than being approved by people.

In verse 4 he says, “We speak not to please men, but to please God who tests our hearts.”

Maybe this is the most challenging statement of all to consider in this passage. Whose standards are we seeking to meet in our walk with God? The standards set by our church, or our culture, or our friends, or our family; or are we seeking to live a life that is being recreated and renewed and evaluated by God’s standards?

We can go through our whole life as people pleasers. Always concerned about what so and so may think or what such a person may make of us. There are times when it is a legitimate concern. If we go for a job interview, we try to make the best impression that we can, for we seek to be approved for the position we are applying for.

But living our whole life as though we were attending an interview is not advisable. In verse 6 Paul says, “We did not seek praise from men, whether from you or from others.” He’s crystal clear about whom he’s trying to be acceptable to. The desire for his life was to live life the way God wanted him to live. He didn’t care what people thought of that!

Now you could say, “Well I’m not Paul, I’m not on a mission from God to some strange city, I’m not a preacher, this is not my concern.” Fine. You are not all preachers, but you are all priests! One of the things that the Reformation rediscovered for the church is a doctrine known as the “Priesthood of all Believers”.

The plus side of the “Priesthood of all believers” is that we don’t need to go through any body such as a priest or holy man in order to commune with God. We have a “direct prayer connection” to God in Jesus Christ. The other side of the coin is that with that privilege comes a corresponding responsibility, which is to live as priests and ministers before God. It’s great being a star on the team, but guess what? If you are on the team, you have to play the game.

Paul knew that. The Thessalonians were getting the idea as well. If they were to “Pass it on” to others they had to take on the responsibility of being people of God, shining as light in a dark world. They needed to be ambassadors for the Kingdom, torch carriers for the cause of Christ.

No doubt they had heard such a message before. But when Paul told them, they sat up and took notice. Why? Because of a third thing we see in this letter.

3) Paul had genuine love and concern for those He shared the gospel with.

They cared about what Paul said because they knew he cared about them. Paul cared about them, because he knew that God cared about him. It’s all about relationship. Our relationship with God and our relationship with each other. It all fits in with what Jesus said were the two most important commandments of all, “Love God” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Paul tells them in verse 8 “Having thus a fond affection for you, we were well-pleased to impart to you not only the gospel of God but also our own lives, because you had become very dear to us.

True evangelism begins with people who realize that they are greatly loved by God. Anything less is not enough of a motivation to inspire us to “Pass It On.” But as we realize that we are chosen to be ambassadors of Gods love then our hearts cannot remain the same. As we begin to understand what the Holy Spirit can do in us and through us, we can’t help ourselves but share the love that is changing us.

As we consider the gospel message, the Cross of Jesus Christ, His life and message, His empty tomb, the dedication and lives of the apostles, and the witness of Christian people across the centuries, it can light a spark in our imaginations. Paul, through the example of his own life, offers us guidelines as to how we can go forward in mission. I’ve picked out three of those from our reading this morning.


1. Let the life you live enforce the words you speak.
2. Be more concerned about being accepted by God than for the approval of people.
3. Let your love be genuine.

That’s how we get the fire going.
‘Pass it On’

It only takes a spark to get a fire going
And soon all those around can warm up in it’s glowing’
AMEN

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Thessalonian Songs 1. Standing On The Promises

Readings: Exodus 33:12-23, Psalm 99, 1 Thessalonians 1:1-10, Matthew 22:15-22
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church on October 22 2017

Standing on the Promises. I’m starting this morning a short series I’ve called ‘Thessalonian Songs” focusing on one of the New Testament Letters, the first letter to the Thessalonians. Hopefully along the way we’ll learn a bit about their church and the challenges that they faced, and by doing so learn some good stuff from God about our own lives and situation.

This morning what I want you to know about the Thessalonians is that they were a church facing a hard time at a point in history when Christianity was barely tolerated. It was a risky business for them to practice and proclaim their faith. It could mean imprisonment or even death. Yet they kept hanging on in there. Right at the start of this letter we are given some clues as to how they managed.

Just like the Thessalonians, we are living in an age of great change. People are asking a lot of questions, about life’s purpose and meaning, about religion and the values that belief can promote. We are surrounded by conflicting lifestyles and viewpoints, and many of them are extremely negative and intolerant of what for many years might have been considered as ‘traditional values’.

Near the beginning of the last century, in fact just after the First World War, (the so called “Great War”!) when there was tremendous loss of life and hardship, the English poet W.B. Yeats wrote a piece called “The Second Coming.” Not to be confused with any modern day Armageddon saga, the piece was a prophetic poem about approaching anarchy.

In that poem he uses the phrase; “things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” The whole verse is about how all around him, certainties upon which people had built their lives were starting to crumble and fall to bits. He sensed that the culture around his life was disintegrating beyond repair and that there was no longer a stable center.

His words were prophetic in that it was that very climate of confusion that allowed for the rise of the Third Reich and Adolf Hitler’s taking control of a people desperate both for answers and somebody to blame. Through manipulating people’s fears and inflaming their prejudices countless numbers became part of a regime that justified unthinkable atrocities and led within a short time to the Second World War.

But – enough of ‘Adrian’s interpretation of European History – Volume One’ – back to the Thessalonians. They, like others before and after them, were living in one of those times where stability had gone. Worse still, they were being treated as scapegoats, as though they were the cause of some of the problems rather than part of the solution.

So how did they hold onto faith when, humanly speaking, it seems that faith was a rapidly evaporating commodity? To use the words of the hymn we will conclude worship with today, they traveled through that time by “Standing on the Promises of God.” Our letter identifies three ways that they did so, three centers that they gravitated towards that kept them on the right track.

One of them appears in verse 4. They found a centering for life as they:-
Responded Positively to the Initative of God

Paul, thanking God for the Thessalonians in Verse 4 uses this phrase :- “knowing brethren beloved by God, His choice of you.” Other translations speak of God’s election rather than God’s choice, but the meaning is the same. The Thessalonians could stand on the promises because they knew they were people that God had chosen; chosen to experience His love and care.

It’s very hard to put yourself wholeheartedly into something if you’re not sure you are the right person for the job. I’ve occasionally been asked to speak at functions and the person inviting me has said, “Well, we tried to get so and so and then we tried for what-is-name, but well none of them could make it so we thought you’d do instead.” In other words “We didn’t really want you, but we couldn’t get anybody else.”

Such invitations do not cause one to approach the engagement with great enthusiasm. “Hello, I’m sorry for being here tonight. I know you really wanted to hear Pastor Very Important speaking about the influential people he associates with or Rev Too-Good- to-Be -True on his latest mission to Mars, but here I am Reverend Last-on-the-List to speak to you about a topic you’re probably not the least bit interested in – so - unless you have something more interesting to do, like go home and watch paint dry - let’s get it over with shall we?”

On the other hand, if you’re invited to something where you know your input will be appreciated, where you actually have something to offer that is going to help others along, that there is significance to what you are doing, then it makes all the difference in the world.

Those Thessalonians, they knew that Jesus hadn’t called them to be disciples because He couldn’t get anybody else to do the job. The very fact that the Holy Spirit was at work in and around their lives meant they were at the center of something awesome, that then and there they were experiencing the Kingdom of God being near.

Be aware. God’s calling your name today. Jesus wants you on the team, not because He can’t get anybody else but because you are you and there is a uniqueness and significance to your life that makes you the ‘you’ God is looking for. He didn’t make another you! You are the only one. Take a look at your thumbprint. Think about your unique genetic coding, how it’s all working together to make you into the weird creature you’ve turned out to be!

Guess what? God’s calling you to make a positive response to the initiative launched on the Cross of Calvary where Jesus died for your sins. Wake up! There’s a resurrection going on and God wants it to be going on in your life! Know yourself called and loved and cared for and wanted by God and that’s going to center your life in a way nothing else can. Then truly, we can stand on the promises. The Thessalonians knew God’s call and were therefore empowered to face hard times.

A second thing that centered them was that they:-
Concentrated on Spiritual rather than Economic Growth.

Verse 2 Paul writes “We give thanks to God always for you all… constantly bearing in mind your work of faith.” Verse 6 speaks of how the Thessalonians had received the gospel “in much tribulation.”

Reading between the lines it is clear that, in economic terms, this congregation didn’t have a lot going for them. They weren’t growing in numbers or involved in any great outreach plan for saving the city. They were just hanging in there.

It is this tenacity of faith that greatly impresses Paul. He uses the Greek Words ‘pantote’ and ‘adialeipios’, meaning ‘always’ and ‘constantly,’ to express how impressed he was and how much he thanked God for their persistence and courage in remaining faithful in the midst of continuing alienation by society at large.

In church circles, where we should know better, we often measure success by worldly rather than godly standards. How big is the budget? How many attend? What’s the membership? In a book called “The Cynical Society”, Jeffrey Goldfarb comments that we believe “that if something is profitable it is true, real and good; if it is not, then it is without true meaning”.

Paul was more concerned about their spiritual growth than their economic or numerical growth. ‘The quality of our witness to the wider world, depends not on our statistics, but on our stability as people of God’ (New International Bible Commentary). We could have the fanciest church in Ellicott City, the biggest membership, the greatest choir, the most on the membership roll, and still be the least godly church on Howard County.

It is significant that when Jesus set about changing the world He did so by nurturing the lives of a small group. As that small group nurtured other small groups, so the message spread. The crowds? Well they were fickle, sensation seeking and shallow. He often withdrew from them or sent them away in order to concentrate on nurturing His disciples.

It challenges us to consider what we recognize as growth. On a personal level would we feel greatly blessed to have more money in the bank, or because we have broken through to a new level in our understanding of God’s Word? Would we consider that our church was successful because we had a lot of people on the membership roll or because some of us are actually living into our mission statement "Growing in Faith, Called to Serve"?

The Thessalonians were centered because,
They were allowing God to Transform Them

What they believed was making a difference to the way that they lived. People today say that they believe in all kinds of things. In this letter “Belief” was an activity, not just giving assent to a number of propositions. Belief was not reciting a creed or going through a ritual to make you feel better about yourself.

To believe that Jesus came into the world to make it a better place meant going out and working to make the worlds a better place in His name. Believing that the “Kingdom was Near” meant going out of your way to see that others felt it’s nearness. Believing that God cared meant caring about those God cared for. Believing in love meant loving others in practical ways. So in verse 3 Paul speaks of their ‘work of faith,’ their ‘labor of love’ and their ‘patience of hope’.

A meaningful life of faith requires active participation. It is not a round of fads and fashions or words that fail to hold up when the hard times come. It is unfortunate that many people rest their lives on things that cannot hold; on beauty that fades, on supposed truths that last only for a season. If we build our lives on things that fall apart it is impossible to maintain a consistent faith.

What was it that helped the believers in Thessalonica remain stable?

They responded positively to the initiative of God. They knew God had called them for a purpose. They concentrated on spiritual rather than economic growth. They were allowing God to transform them. It was their active response to God’s unstoppable Word that provided stability to their faith and lives.
Today that unfailing truth of God's promises can provide us with a center that holds. When everything else goes crazy, the word of God remains a ready and reliable resource. It is both a bridge and a buffer—a bridge bringing security to otherwise insecure lives—and a buffer to shield us from self-destruction. R. Kelso Carter was right to sing:

Standing on the promises that cannot fail,
When the howling winds of doubt and fear assail,
By the living Word of God I shall prevail,
Standing on the promises of God.”

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Wilderness Living 7. Sacred Cows and Faithful Souls

 Readings: Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23, Philippians 4:1-9, Matthew 22:1-14, Exodus 32:1-14Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, October 15 2017

The Hebrew people have been delivered from Egypt. They are in the desert and this is not a happy place for them to be. To add to their discomfort, Moses has gone off on a walkabout, up a mountain somewhere and has left no assurances about when he would back, or even if he would be back.

Impatience takes hold. The old mumbles and grumbles start to resurface. These are a religious people. But they start to question the nature of God. I mean, if this God Moses kept insisting was the one true God, how could they know? What if it wasn't the God of Moses who had been responsible for their deliverance? They weren't exactly in a good place. A wilderness. What if there were some other more accessible, less demanding deity that could get them through their wilderness?

Aaron the priest had been left in charge. He is way out of his depth. He did not have the intimate relationship that Moses enjoyed with God. He also starts to question their situation. Moses was not there. It was his responsibility to get that huge community out of the wilderness. What could he do?

Under Aaron's guidance the community decide to embrace lesser gods. They use their wealth to create a religious culture that is under their control. No longer will they trust a Deity who claimed their total allegiance and appeared to care little about their personal agendas.

Taking their earrings, Aaron fashions for them a golden calf and declares that this golden image now represented the true gods who had been responsible for their deliverance and these new deities would see to it their journey to a new future was completed. They mark their entry into this new era by throwing an exuberant party, relaxing, it seems some of their moral constraints and basking in the glory of their new found freedoms.

The root of their problem is simple to diagnose. Unfaithfulness. When it came to God, they were just not a faithful people. Over the last few weeks we've followed their escape from Egypt. We've seen how they'd only gone a little way before some said, “Don't like the desert. We'd be better off back in Egypt”

God blesses them with bread from heaven and they say “Well... a little bit of cucumber would have been nice for a change.” God brings water from them out of a rock and they still claim to be thirsty. God is about to give them 10 survival strategies to build them into a holy nation, 10 commandments, and they decide. “Nah. We're going to trust in golden cows to meet our needs for these days.”

God has promised them... note.... promised them …. that if they stick with the program then the blessings will come. That God would make of them a great nation. That they would inherit a land of wonderful things. They just don't believe it. Such unbelief produces acts of unfaithfulness.

This passage gives us an interesting picture of God. Sunday after Sunday we talk about the God of forgiveness, the God of new beginnings, the God with the patience of a potter who creates beautiful things out of the unwieldy clay of our common lives. In this passage that image of God is contradicted.

In this passage God looks upon the people and says, “That's it. You're done. Game over. C'mon Moses, let's find ourselves another people to work with.” God's got a plan. They were refusing to get with the program. “Oh well. You had your chance.”

The people are described by the Hebrew word “Qasheh” (Kawsheh). If you wanted to fully express “Qasheh” God is telling Moses that they are a “stiff-necked, obstinate, stubborn, churlish, stone-hearted, hateful group of low-lifes.” God says “I'm through with them. I'm done!” You cannot honey coat the words of verse 10. “Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation.”

For Moses that must have been a tempting option. Throw in the towel and start afresh. He had harbored some rather negative feelings about these people himself. Yet instead, in one of scriptures mysterious turnarounds, we find Moses pleading with God for the people to have another chance. Moses has the audacity to remind God of God's promises and point out to God that it would not look good in the Egyptians eyes if they all died in wilderness. They'd claim it as a victory!

We read that the Lord relented. “Relented” is such a hard word to translate from the original language. The root of the Hebrew word comes from acts of compassion and comfort which are motivated by grief. God refuses to act upon what the people rightly deserved but in response to the plea of Moses acts with compassion to redeem the situation.

God has every right to say to a community of faith that has become unfaithful. “That's it I'm through with you. You had your chance.” That's the right thing for God to do, the just process to enact. If God can't use us and we turn our back on God and embrace holy cows of our own design, shouldn't we expect God's rejection?

Moses pleads. And God continues to work with them. If you read through the chapter you'll see that the peoples unfaithful actions exact a heavy toll upon them and upon Moses. It's not all plain sailing. When we embrace other things than God's will for our life it always leaves a mark. Our actions have consequences.

For any community, and the church of today is no exception, when the future looks uncertain, when progress seems two steps backward and one step forward, there is always the temptation to enthrone lesser gods to lead us, rather than trust in promises that seem like a slow train coming down the tracks. Being in the wilderness is never a comfortable place to be.

Maybe we identify with those wilderness dwellers. In terms of attendance this church has seen better days. While some churches numerically thrive in our community, we are not one of them. Maybe we recall a time when the budget was not so tight. Maybe there were days when, if people settled in the community, they would gravitate our way and we didn't have to work hard to get new members.

Those days have gone. Denominational loyalty is a thing of the past. Children do not follow in the footsteps of their families faith. The social respectability of going to church has ended. There are a thousand other ways to spend your time on a Sunday.

The world is changing all around us, the way we communicate, the way we solve problems, the way we work, the way we play, it's a constant flux. The old certainties are not so certain and the future is an open book. Which can leave us with wilderness feelings.

It can cause us to emulate many of those Hebrew feelings. We become impatient. Impatient with the churches decisions. Impatient with each other. Impatient with our leadership, be it local, Presbytery or denominational. Frustrated at how everything seems to take so long. Disgruntled at decisions that have been made. Critical of processes that had worked in the past, but no longer seem to meet the needs of the moment.

The mumbles and grumbles become a constant backdrop to every venture we attempt. We begin to question if the church is really worthy of our investment of time and money and consider alternative ways of living our lives. We look for ways that don't demand so much commitment. Ways that offer a more certain return. Ways that meet our immediate need for a “Now” answer. Ways that don't involve statements like “Take up your cross and follow Me.” Ways that we have control over. Ways that require a lot less in the way of faithfulness.

The alternative to faithlessness is, of course, faithfulness. The shining light of faithfulness in this story is Moses. Moses chooses faithfulness in the face of defeat. Aaron, his second in command had let him down. The people had let him down. Even God is offering a way out of the situation. “Ditch these stiff-necked losers and let's try a reboot!”

We read in verse 11: “But Moses sought the favor of the Lord his God.” That is faithfulness. When all around is saying “Give it up”, when everybody else is doing just that, when it seems even God isn't on your side, to seek the favor of the Lord, that is a huge challenge. Moses faithfulness arises from three key things.
  1. His desire that God's name be honored.
  2. His remembrance of God's promises.
  3. His belief in prayer.
As we seek to move forward as a church community, as we seek to be a community of faithful people, we do well to take note of each of these aspects of Moses life.

His desire that God's name be honored.

We can spend a lot of time worrying about our own reputation. We wonder what people think about us and how our actions may be interpreted. Moses had managed to grow way past such self-centered concern. He had learned the hard way that being a representative of God meant criticism, misunderstanding, betrayal and a whole host of negativity coming your way. People don't appreciate others telling them how to live their lives!

For Moses the concern is not what they think of him, but how his actions represent the one true God. How were his actions honoring God? Do we take the time to ask that question about our own lives? Do we apply that standard to our decisions as a church? How do we honor God, lift up the name of Jesus Christ and display to this community what can happen if we allow God's Holy Spirit to move us and lead us and guide us? Well... it takes desire. It takes focus. It means putting aside our personal agendas. It takes faithfulness.

His remembrance of God's promises.

One of the deep roots of the faithfulness of Moses is that he is standing on the promises of God. He remembers that God has said “I will do this.” He has a familiarity with the Word of God that becomes a lens through which he interprets what is happening in the world around him. God had said that the people would be led to the promised land.

God hadn't said it would be easy and had made it crystal clear that they would only succeed if they followed the direction that was offered. They needed to understand that disobedience had consequences. Yet they were a people being formed by grace. Throughout their journey there is that tension, between the unfaithfulness of the people and the greatness of God's grace to move them forward. Whenever the people recall the promises, then they move on!

His belief in prayer.

Moses first resort is often our last resort. When we get a problem, we try and work it out, we complain that it's not working out, we try and try again... and eventually maybe we pray about it. Not Moses. Moses goes straight to prayer. He knows that it is through prayer and God's Word that he will get through whatever it is that he is facing. This was a lesson it took time to learn, but once he had it, he never forgot it.

He pleads with God. And the result is a blessing. A new direction. A renewed hope. A way forward. That's faithfulness.

This is challenging passage to focus on as we finish this series we've followed over the summer and into Fall titled “Wilderness living”. Sometimes our journey as a faith community and as individuals can feel like a long trek though the wilderness! And we are just as prone to have the same reactions to events around us, as as did the Hebrews. To search for less demanding gods and philosophies to guide us. To view times passed through rose tinted glasses that block out the problems that existed. To become complaining and impatient.

Moses offers us the only true way forward. Faithfulness. Faithfulness nurtured through knowing God's Word, through prayerful activity and heartfelt worship, through seeking, not the easiest or the most convenient way, but a way that is reliant on the love and promises of God to get us through. A way that seeks to bring honor to God's name.

May God help us, through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the strengthening of the Holy Spirit, to rise to the challenges of our day, with faithful lives that bring glory to God's name. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.