Monday, April 24, 2017

Peter's Perspective 1. Precious Gold

Readings: Psalm 16, Acts 2:14a, 22-32, John 20:19-31, 1 Peter 1:3-9
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, April 23 2017

Gold. Precious Gold. ‘There’s Gold in dem there hills!” cried the prospector. The Gold Rush was on and thousand upon thousands hurried to far away places to earn their fortunes. Gold that had to be mined out of the ground or drained out of the creeks.

As a kid I remember watching Wild West movies where the whole plot was the acquisition of gold and the treachery of those who had obtained it, because they didn’t want to share it with their ‘pardners’ in crime. People robbed trains for it, killed for it. Lied for it. Cheated for it. Precious Gold.

In the wedding service we declare that; “Throughout the centuries the golden ring has been used to seal important covenants. A King would wear a ring with the seal of his country upon it. It's stamp signified royal authority. Friends have exchanged bands of gold to signify goodwill. In marriage the ring has particular significance. Its precious metal reminds us of the sacredness of marriage. It's never ending circle points us to the permanence that is the mark of a true love relationship.”

The groom takes the ring, places it on the bride’s finger and says something along the lines of “I give you this golden ring in God’s name, as a symbol of all we have promised - and all that we share.” Gold not only is a metal of value, it’s used as a symbol to declare the worth of things that all the gold in the world can never buy.

The first letter of Peter directs our thoughts to one thing that is more priceless than gold. Faith in God. Verse 7 speaks of “faith, being more precious than gold”. Faith, like all precious things, only comes at a price. Whilst our salvation is a gift of God, a gift that God offered two thousand years ago when Christ was crucified for our sins, our faith in God is something that we have to nurture.

Think about gold. If you are a gold prospector, you don’t just go along, dig up a little bit of earth, and expect to uncover a wedding ring, all beautifully prepared and shiny as glowing as the gleam in your lover’s eyes. No… gold is found in the depths of the earth, in the mud and among the stones. It has to be dug out, mined out, and extracted from the deep earth.

Then, if it is found, that’s just the beginning of the process. It has to be refined. It has to go through the fire. It has to be melted and shaped. It needs the application of a master craftsman’s skills if it is to ever become a thing of beauty or value. Faith, like Gold, doesn’t just happen. It’s something that takes the work of a master craftsman and the cooperation of our hearts and lives.

The faith that saves us is a gift. The account of the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is all about the God who reaches down to the depths of the earth to bring us to His love. We do not come to faith easily. God has to dig deep into the darkness, the mess and the mud of our lives to bring us into the light of the new day.

God in Christ comes to where we are, to the deep places of lives that are little more than existences, pulls us out of the gloom and bestows upon us promises of resurrection. Is this not we have just been celebrating at Easter? God in Christ redeeming a world that is hopelessly lost, buried beneath the darkness and misery of sin.

Peter in this passage rejoices – “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1Peter 1:3).

God in God’s mercy pulls us up from the mire of our lives and declares us born again to a living hope! What a blessing this is. We don’t have to live as though the only purpose life had was to die at the end of it.

There is something more, for Peter speaks of “an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:4-5).

One of the startling distinctions between the Christianity of the earliest church and the church of today is that the early church truly believed in the promises of God’s inheritance and the existence of a realm of existence that was beyond anything that we can experience in our earthly state. Because they believed in eternity they were prepared to put up with all sorts of humiliations and suffering on earth.

The preachers that attract the biggest crowds today are the ones who promise health and wealth, in the here and now, not in the hereafter. Heaven has been transformed from being the greater reality that informed and guided each step the Christian took on earth, to simply being the reward at the end of the road where the good folk go. Hopes of Heaven have been relegated and confined to the after-life to such an extent that they seem irrelevant to everyday life.

This wasn’t the case for the people Peter was writing his letter to. The church he was addressing was traveling through an era of intense persecution at the hands of those who felt the Christian faith was a pariah to be extinguished from the face of the earth. They needed to know they had a hope in heaven because they had little to rejoice about in their circumstances on earth.

It is deeply ironic, that we, who are here in the wealthiest nation on earth, are the ones whose commitment to their church is often the weakest. That it is places where the church today is undergoing intense persecution that revival is taking place. That it is where Christianity is least tolerated that hope is blossoming!

Here I stand Sunday by Sunday proclaiming the importance of what we are doing in worship and the difference Christ can make to life, and some times it’s all we can do to get our own members to come to church, let alone be sold out to the task of transforming the community in which we live.

Meanwhile in other lands, there are people who are that determined and that committed to Christ that they are prepared to risk imprisonment and torture and even the loss of life itself just for the privilege of meeting together with their fellow believers. In order to pray, in order to join in Bible Study, in order to worship, they will go to great lengths. For they are convinced and assured that this life on earth is not the greater reality.

One of the things Peter writes to tell them… and tell folk like us… is that whatever trials and troubles we pass through they can serve a great purpose. That hard times can build our faith in ways that the good times can never accomplish. C.S Lewis once said something along the lines that, “God whispers to us through our pleasures, but shouts at us, as though through a megaphone – in our troubles” Peter puts it a different way, and uses the illustration of gold.

Gold - he reminds us has to be passed through the refiner’s fire before it becomes a thing of beauty. Gold needs the application of the master craftsman’s skills. Part of our problem is that we are hooked on the idea of shaping our own lives and destinies. We don’t want God interfering with our plans. We are not keen to submit to the disciplines the Bible suggests that we should.

When there is no refining, whilst the nuggets have been removed from the depths, they remain as un-fashioned treasures and never become things of beauty. If faith is to grow then it requires the discipline of whole-hearted commitment. We should rejoice in the faith that has brought us out of the darkness into the light, but if we leave it at that, then we never become the precious gold that God desires us to be.

Faith doesn’t come easily. We are surrounded by so much that is tangible. We are constantly bombarded with images and sounds and experiences that make us feel good. It is the easiest thing in the world for us to lay back and believe that life is good, because we feel fine. There is a lot we can see. There is a whole lot we can do. There is a whole lot we can be – a whole lot of seeing and doing and being - that neither takes into account the will of God or the ways of God or the purpose of God. We have heads and lives and existences that are full of stuff.

Then along comes the gospel and invites us to believe in stuff that we can’t physically see and realities we can only guess at and live for things that are yet to come. This is how Peter describes the faith of those to whom he is writing – “though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls” (1 Peter 8-9).

That is the challenge that Peter’s letter places before us today. That we look beyond the stuff to the reality of God’s love. That we cultivate within us and among us the awareness that this – this life – is not all there is to life. That our commitment to God should not be stifled by the attractions and desires of the present time.

Peter encourages us to ‘Go for Gold’. To be thankful to God for the faith God has gifted us with, but not to leave it there… not to take it for granted... not allow ourselves to pass through life never having the rough edges removed or our hearts refined.

When the difficult times come along, he teaches us, they will deepen our faith in unexpected ways. When trouble comes he encourages us to keep our hopes up, to trust in the God who will carry us through and nurture within us a faith greater than gold.

“There’s gold in dem dere hills” was the prospector’s cry. And there’s gold... precious gold ... that God is seeking to refine in our hearts and lives… something worth more than the most precious gold in all the world… the joy and hope of a living faith in God. May our hearts desire this day be for a faith that is more precious than gold.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.


Monday, April 17, 2017

EASTER SUNDAY Our Amazing Day

"OUR AMAZING DAY”
Reading: Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24, Jeremiah 31:1-6, Colossians 3:1-4, Matthew 28:1-10
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, April 16 2017

Easter is the Christian churches amazing day. There is nothing normal about the Easter story. At the center is the astounding claim that Jesus, whom the disciples had witnessed dead and buried, had been raised from death. Risen, not like a zombie to haunt them, nor simply come alive to their imaginations, but had been clothed with a resurrected body that pulsated with eternal life.

Over a period of days that follow they experience His presence in numerous ways. He eats with them. He teaches them. They see on His body the marks of His suffering. He comes and goes as He pleases, and locked doors prove no impediment. He is witnessed to not only by those closest to Him, but also by whole groups of followers.

Because of His living presence with them the disciples are changed. They are bowled over by hope. Nothing in their world is ever the same again. After His ascension they are granted power from on high, the very presence of the resurrected Jesus through the Holy Spirit within them and around them. Eventually they are prepared to live and die for the truth they have perceived, that Christ is Risen.

Easter is our amazing day. In Matthew's account this amazing day begins with Mary Magdalene and another Mary going to visit the tomb of Jesus. They come not knowing what they are to do, yet they are drawn to the tomb out of their love and respect for the Jesus they had adored. They wish to honor Him, even though they know He is dead. They discover that His tomb is sealed and a guard has been set upon it.

It is the first day of the week. It was the first day of the rest of their lives. It was a new day. It was an amazing day. For their world is about to be shaken. Matthew describes it as an angel coming down from heaven, as an earthquake that rolls away the stone, as something that renders those in place to guard the tomb helpless and unable to keep it sealed.

It matters not that the other gospels describe things differently. These were events that were too earth shattering to put into words. Like witnesses to an explosion, all they can do is comment on the fragments that remained. Who was there, what was said, how it all happened sequentially are but small things compared to what had happened. They show a startling disinterest in the details, because the amazing revelation they witness to seems to make them not so important.

What is that amazing revelation? It is found in the words proclaimed to the two Mary's. Verse 6. “He is not here; He has Risen, just as He said”. Let us explore this verse.

He is not here

I have heard people say that they would believe in God, but are frustrated by His absence. They prayed and nothing happened. They can't believe that a loving God would allow such terrible things to take place in the world. They don't know how to find Him.
The two Mary's who went to the tomb must have felt the same way. Why hadn't God protected the One they thought could save them? When He was so obviously innocent, how could God allow Jesus to be betrayed, tortured and crucified like a common criminal? Where were You God, when we needed you?

The first part of the angels answer is startling. 'He's not here'. Where is God? 'He's not here!' God was not in the tomb. God was not dead. God was not able to be contained or confined to any place, to any kind of understanding. God was not stuck in the past. God was not contained by the tragedy. God was not in the earthquake. God was not in the darkness. 'He's not here' declares the angel.

This is how our minds work. We want God to give us a reply. To say 'Here I am'. We want a God who stays still, who has a physical address and a geographical location. We want a God who is at our beck and call, who does what we ask. We want a 'Twitter' God, a God with a Facebook page and an email address.

We want a God who prevents bad things happening, not One who allows His beloved Son to be crucified and then claims that it was due to our sins that He suffered. We don't want a God who holds us responsible for anything. That kind of God, the God we make in our image and according to our needs and desires... 'He's not here'. The next part of the verse tells us why He's not here.

He has Risen

God is where the light is. God is where the life is. God is a happening. God is where the action is. In the Psalm set for today, Psalm 118 we read, “The Lord is my strength and my defense; He has become my salvation. I will not die, but live!” In the Old Testament lesson for today Jeremiah is a cheerleader telling the people; 'There will be a day when watchmen cry out : Come let us go up to Zion, to the Lord our God”.

In our reading from Matthew the two Mary's are told; “Go on. Get out of here! He is not in this place. He has gone ahead of you!” As they leave that place, they are amazed! They don't know whether to laugh or cry. Verse 8, “Afraid yet filled with joy, they ran to tell the disciples” . And whilst they are running from that place “Suddenly Jesus met them, “Greetings” He said. They came to Him, Clasped His feet and worshiped Him.”

How can we encounter the Risen presence of Jesus Christ? I believe it takes place as we go about doing the things He asks us to do and living the way He wants us to live. When we set our hearts to the task of being Kingdom people, the King has a habit of showing up.

We may not always recognize Him. He may come asking for help in the guise of a needy person. He may come to us as an encouraging smile from a total stranger. We may hear His voice in the midst of a TV program or through a random comment in an email or quote on a Facebook page.

We may hear Him in a sunrise or see Him in a random act of kindness. We may sense Him whispering in our conscience or nudging us to respond to a situation we are encountering. We may find that where others are starting to worry we are sensing His peace. We may find that when others are in despair we can't help but hope.
And hopefully at such moments we will open up in worship and with deep thankfulness. “Suddenly Jesus met them, “Greetings” He said. They came to Him, Clasped His feet and worshiped Him.”

But we are not quite finished with the angels words. “He is not here; He has Risen, just as He said”. The final part...

Just as He said

Jesus, on numerous occasions, instructed the disciples that He would be raised from death on the third day. They listened. They heard. But they had to experience Him before they believed Him. That's how it is with the Word of God. We listen to it. We may read it. Yet it is only as we experience it that we truly believe it.

It is only as we seek to allow the Holy Spirit to make the stories of scripture our story that we break through to fresh revelation of what God can do in and through our lives. It is only as we believe on the promises that God reveals God's love through the promises.

God promises to be there for us when all others fail. God promises to provide what we need to be Kingdom people. God promises that in life and death nothing can separate us from the love of Christ if we but trust Him to lead us and guide us.

But we have to act on God's word. We have to trust in God's word. It can't be just words, we need to respond by being prepared to do what God asks us to do, go where God asks us to go, be the people God wants us to be. We have to lay aside our personal agenda and ask God to rewrite the story of our lives. We have to stop singing 'I did it my way' and start trying to do it God's way, every day, in whatever way God desires.

Then we will know God's promises are true. Then we will know His Risen presence. Then we will move beyond a life that is endlessly striving to find acceptance, to one where we know we are accepted children of the most High God.

Then we are free to be who God wants us to be instead of having to living up to other peoples expectations of us. Then we will be able to discern where to invest our time, talents and treasures. Then we won't be afraid to invest the best of the rest of our lives in our relationships and families and our communities... things that at the end of all days are revealed to have been the things that really mattered.

Easter Sunday. Our amazing day! The day we proclaim to the world... “It ain't over till it's over”. The day we are invited to wonder at an empty tomb and to invite the Spirit of the resurrected Jesus to invade our lives and fill our hearts with the possibilities opened to us through God's Kingdom, the Kingdom of hope that even death can not destroy.

I pray that the amazing good news of resurrection may capture all of our lives... that this will be an amazing day for us all. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

MAUNDY THURSDAY "Time To Remember”


Readings: Psalm 116,1-2,12-19, Exodus 12:1-14, John 13:1-17, 31-35, 1 Corinthians 11:23-26
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, Thursday, April 13 2017

The familiar words of 1 Corinthians 11:24 explain why we meet here tonight. “Do this in remembrance of me.” Of all the times we gather around a table laid with bread and wine, Maundy Thursday marks the very first time this celebration took place.

Memory is an important asset. It is our collective consciousness. It reminds of us of who we are and what are meant to be doing. A poet once claimed that God gave us memory so we could have roses in December. A nice sentiment, but a scientist would remind us that is why they invented greenhouses.

Memory gives us a sense of history, of our origins and roots and identity. By it we relive special events; birthdays, anniversaries, days of national significance. The communion celebration invites us to remember the events of the ministry of Jesus Christ, most of all His death upon the cross. Memory functions in a number of ways.

Memory relives past events.

Memory calls to mind their significance. Strong verbs are used in the account of that first Lord's Supper. Jesus TAKES bread, GIVES thanks, BREAKS bread. Although we physically were not present, we recall that we are part of the community that has continued to meet around tables laid with bread and wine to recall all that Jesus did.

With our imaginations we are to travel to the events Scripture portrays for us. Recall the event of Jesus suffering, that has become known as the Passion. Hear the cries of the crowd, Pilates protestations of innocence, see Judas's dark kiss of betrayal. Listen to the crack of a whip, the thud of a hammer, a cry of anguish from the Cross. Recall the towering crosses silhouetted against the angry Judean sky. Hear the sobs of His broken-hearted mother.

Tonight, Maundy Thursday, we also recall how the significance of this feast was demonstrated through Jesus washing His disciples feet. We hear Peter protesting 'You'll never wash my feet'. We witness Jesus gently telling them that this had to be done. We listen carefully as He explains “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”

As the power of memory calls to mind these stories and events of Jesus life, we no longer sit at the table alone, but we recognize that Jesus is here with us. We understand that we can be like Peter, who thought he could manage without Jesus's help. We realize that, it's not all about us, and we really do need God's help if we are to serve others in the way that Jesus did.

Memory teaches us who Jesus is.

Memory reminds us that He was both the Son of Mary and the Son of God. Memory recalls why He came; to show us His Father's limitless love. He came to 'To seek and save the lost”. Like the penitent thief we are urged to pray “Jesus, Remember me, when You come into Your Kingdom”.

As we recall all that He was, so our confidence that He can do all that He has promised us increases. The elements of bread and wine remind us that His ministry was more than words. It was one thing saying 'My body will be broken, my blood will be poured out'. Knowing that He went through with it, is another thing altogether. Remembering that His word was truth, that His commitments were always followed through, that He never held back, despite the cost, recalls for us that there no circumstances in life or death that are beyond His reach.

Memory teaches us about His faithfulness, about His ability to change everything, about His call that we become His disciples and take up our cross, not just in word, but through our actions, through our service of others, through our worship and witness. Memory relives past events. Memory teaches us who Jesus is.

Memory teaches us where Jesus is.

Scripture tells us that after His resurrection Jesus ascended to the Father and is at the Father's right hand, interceding on our behalf. That He promises to send His Holy Spirit, to indwell our lives and direct our path. We recall how that promise was fulfilled for the disciples on the Day of Pentecost. We recall how that promise has been fulfilled in our own lives. We recall how we have faced difficulties and trials, but by the grace of God we are still here to tell the tale.

We recall also that Jesus invited us to remember Him by breaking bread and sharing wine. That when we do so He promises to be present. We recall Him telling His disciples 'I will be with You always, even unto the end of all ages”. We recall the testimony of those who across the ages have come to tables like this and found the presence of their Lord to be a vivid reality that has inspired them to attempt great things for the cause of His Kingdom.

Maundy Thursday is a time to remember.

A time recall all that Jesus said and did. That He lived a life of obedient love and sacrifice for the sake of those who were yet to even know Him. That the bread we break is a sign of His body broken for us on the Cross and that the wine is a symbol of the new covenant made possible through His blood. A time that we recall how He has set us an example, that He washed His disciples feet, and told us that we should do for others what He has done for us.

Maundy Thursday is a time to recall His faithfulness. The mission of His Kingdom was to seek and save that which was lost. He preached. He healed. He showed how love could overcome the deepest prejudices and calm the most turbulent spirit. He broke bread and poured out wine as symbols of what He would do at Calvary, namely give His life as a sacrifice that we may be forgiven. That He came as the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world.

Maundy Thursday is a reminder that He is with us still. Though He died, God raised Him from death. He intercedes on our behalf. He sends His Spirit to indwell every believing heart. He meets with us around this table and invites us to partake of His love.

So, on this night that recalls the night when, before His betrayal Jesus met at table with His disciples, you are invited to share in bread and wine and remember Him, to the glory of God. Amen.


The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Lent 6 From the Palms to the Cross


Readings: Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, Exodus 17:1-7, John 4:5-26
Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, April 9th 2017

FROM THE PALMS TO THE GARDEN

We have started our service today by celebrating the the entrance of Jesus into Jerusalem. The sad thing is that it didn't take long for those shouts of welcome to change into shouts of accusation. The first thing that Jesus did when He got into town was go to the temple. He was horrified by what He saw there.

There were money-changers and tax collectors cheating the people. The whole thing seemed to have been corrupted by those who used religion for their own ends. Jesus got mad. This wasn't how it was meant to be. The temple was supposed to be a light for all nations, a place where all the world could discover the awesome love of God, a place of prayer. "You have turned it into a den of thieves". He storms in and turns over the tables and lets loose the sacrificial animals - and those in charge know that He is right and no-one lifts a finger to stop Him.

Now He really has peoples attention. Over the next days through parables and confrontations with the religious leaders He teaches of the danger of false religion, and of how the leaders of the day had got it terribly wrong. He prophesied how a time was coming when He would be shown for who He really was and they would be left looking foolish.

He accuses them of hypocrisy, a Greek word that comes from the world of the theater and described the way actors would wear masks as they played their parts - pretending to be something that they were not.

Matthew 23:1-10
Then Jesus spoke to the multitudes and to His disciples, saying, "The scribes and the Pharisees have seated themselves in the chair of Moses; therefore all that they tell you, do and observe, but do not do according to their deeds; for they say things, and do not do them."And they tie up heavy loads, and lay them on men's shoulders; but they themselves are unwilling to move them with so much as a finger."But they do all their deeds to be noticed by men; for they broaden their phylacteries, and lengthen the tassels of their garments."And they love the place of honor at banquets, and the chief seats in the synagogues,and respectful greetings in the market places, and being called by men, Rabbi."But do not be called Rabbi; for One is your Teacher, and you are all brothers."And do not call anyone on earth your father; for One is your Father, He who is in heaven."And do not be called leaders; for One is your Leader, that is, Christ.

Jesus makes it ever clearer to the disciples that He is the Christ, He is the One God had sent to be the Savior. He teaches them about how in serving others they would be doing His will, how at the end of time God would judge the peoples, how many would not want to listen, but still they must work for the Kingdom. Meanwhile, serious trouble was brewing.

Reader :- Matthew 26:1-5
And it came about that when Jesus had finished all these words, He said to His disciples, "You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man is to be delivered up for crucifixion."Then the chief priests and the elders of the people were gathered together in the court of the high priest, named Caiaphas;and they plotted together to seize Jesus by stealth, and kill Him. But they were saying, "Not during the festival, lest a riot occur among the people."

At the home of Simon a woman comes and anoints Jesus with oil. Jesus describes her act as preparing his body for burial. He shares a Passover meal with His disciples and tells them that the bread that was broken represented His body which would be broken and that the wine was his blood which was to be poured out for the forgiveness of sins, a sign of the new covenant.

For one of the disciples, this is too much. Maybe he was scared of Jesus getting hurt and wanted to stop Him. Maybe Jesus wasn't turning out to be the sort of Messiah he had hoped for. We don't know what it was that motivated Judas, but we know what happened.

Reader: Matthew 26:14-16
Then one of the twelve, named Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests, and said, "What are you willing to give me to deliver Him up to you?" And they weighed out to him thirty pieces of silver. And from then on he began looking for a good opportunity to betray Him.

After the Passover meal, during which Jesus predicts that all of His disciples would fall away (even those who thought they would never do such a thing) Jesus heads for the Garden of Gethsemane.

In this garden comes the turning point. We celebrate at Easter time the victory of Christ. But where was that victory won? I believe it was in the Garden. Had Jesus not at that critical moment said, "Not my will, but thine be done", there would have been no cross and no Easter Resurrection, no forgiveness for us, nor new life in the Spirit.

Where will we find the victory over the things that trouble us and drag us down? Where will we find the strength to go on when we feel all is dark? I suggest it is in our prayers, in our turning our will over to God's will.

Matthew 26:36-45
Then Jesus came with them to a place called Gethsemane, and *said to His disciples, "Sit here while I go over there and pray." And He took with Him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and distressed. Then He said to them, "My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death; remain here and keep watch with Me." And He went a little beyond them, and fell on His face and prayed, saying, "My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; yet not as I will, but as Thou wilt."And He came to the disciples and *found them sleeping, and *said to Peter, "So, you men could not keep watch with Me for one hour?"Keep watching and praying, that you may not enter into temptation; the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak."

He went away again a second time and prayed, saying, "My Father, if this cannot pass away unless I drink it, Thy will be done."And again He came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were heavy.

And He left them again, and went away and prayed a third time, saying the same thing once more.
Then He came to the disciples, and said to them, "Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? Behold, the hour is at hand and the Son of Man is being betrayed into the hands of sinners.

William Bradbury's hymn takes us to the Garden with Jesus. (Can be sung to the tune of the Doxology)

"Tis Midnight and on Olives Brow, The star is dimmed that lately shone,
Tis midnight in the garden now, The suffering Savior prays alone.

Tis midnight and from all removed, The Savior wrestles lone with fears,
E'en that disciple whom he loved, heeds not His masters grief and tears.

Tis midnight and for others guilt, The man of sorrows weeps in blood,
Yet He that hath in anguish knelt, Is not forsaken by His God.

Tis midnight and from heavenly planes, is borne the song that angels know,
Unheard by mortals are the strains, that sweetly soothe the Saviors voice."

"FROM THE GARDEN TO THE CROSS"

In the garden Judas betrays Jesus with a kiss and He is led away to be tried. For what crimes? Love. Speaking out against what was wrong. Setting free the oppressed. Giving dignity to those others had no time for. Daring to be who He was. Healing. Caring. Of course they are not the accusations. Blasphemy. Lies are uttered. False testimony created by false witnesses. Before Ciaphas and before Pilate the lies continue. Jesus confounds them with His silence, the only words He speaks cut his accusers even deeper as they reveal their hateful hearts.

Peter in fear betrays Jesus by denying that he had ever known Him. Judas tries vainly to turn back what he has done. The courts turn Jesus over to the soldiers. The law enforcement officers beat Him and spit on Him and mock Him. They press a crown of thorns into His head, for the rumor is going around that He claims to be King of the Jews.

In an attempt to wash his hands of the whole thing and prevent a riot Pilate suggests a prisoner should be freed, as was customary at Feast time. "Who do you want, Jesus the Christ or Barabbas?" The crowds shout for Barabbas. "And what of Jesus?" Now hear the voices that shouted hosanna change their tune. "Crucify Him, Crucify Him, Crucify Him".

Battered, bruised, beaten Jesus is forced to drag His Cross through the jeering crowds. The Carpenter who had made things of beauty now facing being nailed to this ugly construction of clumsily thrown together beams. He stumbles, His strength gone and a man called Simon is pressed into carrying the cross.

Matthew 27: 33-37
And when they had come to a place called Golgotha, which means Place of a Skull, they gave Him wine to drink mingled with gall; and after tasting it, He was unwilling to drink. And when they had crucified Him, they divided up His garments among themselves, casting lots; and sitting down, they began to keep watch over Him there. And they put up above His head the charge against Him which read, " THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS. "

Two thieves are also being crucified. One mocks Him. The other finds life in the midst of death. Some respectable folk hurl insults. Others, women who had stayed with Him, have no words, only tears.

Matthew 27: 45-54.
Now from the sixth hour darkness fell upon all the land until the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, "ELI, ELI, LAMA SABACHTHANI?" that is, "MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAST THOU FORSAKEN ME?" And some of those who were standing there, when they heard it, began saying, "This man is calling for Elijah." And immediately one of them ran, and taking a sponge, he filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed, and gave Him a drink. But the rest of them said, "Let us see whether Elijah will come to save Him."

And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom, and the earth shook; and the rocks were split, and the tombs were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many.

Now the centurion, and those who were with him keeping guard over Jesus, when they saw the earthquake and the things that were happening, became very frightened and said, "Truly this was the Son of God!"

A centurion comes to a statement of faith. Yet the story was far from over. Others like you and I would believe. Not simply because of the cross but because of what came after. On Easter Sunday we will not mourn, we will celebrate! On Easter Sunday we will declare that where we have left off today, is not the end, but only the beginning.

Through the week from Palm Sunday to Easter Day, from the palms to the Garden, from the Garden to the Cross, from the Cross to the Resurrection, God was working in an unprecedented way to bring salvation to the world. A later disciple, Paul, speaks of the incomparable Jesus Christ in this way;

Colossians 1:19-22
For it was the Father's good pleasure for all the fulness to dwell in Him,and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross; through Him, I say, whether things on earth or things in heaven. And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds,yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach!

Praise be to God! Amen!

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Lent 5 Life Stinks

Readings: Psalm 95, Romans 5:1-11, Ezekiel 37:1-10, John 11:1-45
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, April 2 2016

Sometimes life stinks. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try it just doesn’t work out. It’s not fair. It’s not right. And if life stinks then death stinks even more. Your born, you get by, then you die. For some that’s about it. That is what they base their days upon.

As we go through life we become disenchanted, disentangled, displaced. Things come along that we hadn’t anticipated, hadn’t thought would happen to us. They leave us hurt and confused.

Maybe you are familiar with the movie ‘The Wizard of Oz’. My favorite line comes just after the scarecrow is attacked by the evil flying monkeys. The brainless scarecrow is ripped to shreds and bits of him scattered around a clearing in the forest. “Well” he says, “That’s me all over”. We can feel like that. Things come along that knock the stuffing out of us and we are at the mercy of others to try and help us get it all back together again.

We had two bible stories this morning about displacement and scattering. Ezekial compares the Israelite people in exile as being a valley full of scattered lifeless bones. Mary and Martha try and deal with the death of Lazarus and are confused as to why Jesus wasn’t there when they really needed him.. “He could have done something; where was He when we needed Him?”

In both stories something amazing happens. It happens in response to one thing. The Word of the Lord. The Word of the Lord is spoken and everything changes. Where there once was hopelessness and despair there comes joy and vision. To where there was scattering and displacement there comes focus and energy.

It’s a story as old as Creation. Recall the very first words of Genesis. There is chaos. Then the Word of the Lord. Creation starts to happen. Darkness is turned to light. Nothingness is turned into life. God looks and God says it is good.

Follow the story of the Israelite nation throughout the Old Testament. Called into being by the Word of the Lord. New Creation, but then losing their way, no longing hearing, recognizing or acting upon the Word of the Lord. Only when they have ears to hear and eyes to see do they become once more a pilgrim people of hope.

Into this crazy scattered world comes Jesus Christ. Born into the midst of all it’s confusion. He is the New Word that God speaks. The New Covenant, the New Testament Word. Those who hear recognize His authority. Those who are touched and healed and delivered by His life know their life will never be the same again.

Then there is that dark moment when people such as you and I crucify the Lord of love. We twist His words, turn to the darkness instead of the light. We don’t hear the word of the Lord. We shout it down. We like the sound of our own voice better than His.

We can be fools. God has the last Word. The Word of Resurrection. The Word that calls death a loser. The word that reverses evil’s power. The Word that makes a laughing stock of those who think they are powerful or important over and above others. The Word that changes barren places into flower gardens of hope and deserts into rich gardens. The Word that changes the Cross from an emblem of shame to a symbol of victory.

God calls us as individuals to be remade by Holy Spirit love. We all have problems. We all have gifts. We are all alike sinners. We are all alike made in God’s image and capable of great things. We need to hear the word of the Lord that tells us to personally get our act together with God, to know ourselves God's people, saved by Grace through faith, aware of who we are and whose we are. It’s the first great commandment, that you and I , for ourselves, love the Lord our God heart-fully, mindfully and soulfully.

The second great commandment is that we love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves. It’s not just about us finding ourselves and being spiritually fulfilled, it’s about being built into a community that looks beyond the four walls of it’s own church to the people outside. It's about being built, by the power of God’s Spirit, into an army of ordinary people for the cause of Jesus Christ. It's about fighting, not with weapons of material warfare, but empowered through prayer and spiritual gifting and knowledge of God’s will and God’s Word.

We are put together as individuals and brought together as a people of God. We are not called to be a pile of old stinking bones, but a fresh and living witness to the love and grace of God in our midst. Hear the promise of God to those who hear this word. “I will put my Spirit within you, and you will come to life... you will know that I, the Lord, have spoken”.

When we hear the word of the Lord of life, life no longer stinks. Life takes on a different fragrance. Paul, in Ephesians, tells us, “Walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.

Staying on an aromatic theme, consider these words from our second reading, at the raising of Lazarus. We heard how Jesus arrived some time after Lazarus had died and how Mary and Martha weren’t exactly sympathetic to the fact that He hadn’t been there when Lazarus died, because now it was to late.

When Jesus asks to unseal the tomb, is Martha expecting a miracle? Is she thinking, “O.K. Jesus is here now, things are going to be fine?” No way. (Verse 39). “Jesus said, “Remove the stone”. Martha said, “Lord by this time there will be a stench, for he has been dead four days

They were about to witness a miracle. Don’t ask me to explain miracles. They are so out of the ordinary they defy our understanding. They are not meant to be commonplace easily understood events. They are called miracles because they are miracles.

The Word of the Lord is spoken. Jesus offers a prayer of thanks then shouts into the tomb, “Lazarus’ Come out”. Out he comes. “Get him out of those grave clothes” suggests Jesus, “He’s still got some living to do.”

I wish every time we had a bereavement I could walk along and tell the deceased to wake up and get on with living this life. But that’s not the way things are. The resurrection of Lazarus was a special event that took place prefiguring Christ’s own death and resurrection. Eventually Lazarus had to go back to tomb - just wasn’t his time right then. God had a higher purpose in mind.

Whilst there are a whole lot of layers of meaning to this passage, for me today this passage is reminding me that every day we get to wake up in the morning is a gift from God. There’s an Andrea Crouch gospel song (called “This is another Day”) that has a line it in it where he says, “He didn’t have to wake me up this morning, but the Lord so did”.

Every day that we are given we have a choice as to what we are going to make of that day. We can get up and say “Life Stinks”. We can walk around, as it were in our grave clothes, feeling that there is really no point and no reason and why bother. Or we can “Hear the Word of the Lord.” We can thank God that there is still life in our bones, whether they be older bones or newer bones. We can walk with Christ. We can welcome His Word into the different situations we encounter during the day.

We can see our lives in the larger picture. Not in the picture that is framed by being born, getting by and living only to die, but the framework that Jesus gives us of life lived from before the womb to beyond the tomb. We can hold before us that Jesus tells us that our lives matter to God, that they have meaning and purpose and are not just an aimless mistake, that there is a God who wants to love us and loves to be loved by us.

We can hold before us the resurrection picture, that we are living to live! We don’t have to be displaced people in exile from God’s love. Jesus has made the way for us to know God’s love in an intimate and personal way. We don’t have to walk around with the shadow of death stalking us like some grim Reaper. Jesus died that we may have life, abundant life, resurrection life. He says to us, as He said to Lazarus, “Come out of that tomb.”

Hear the Word of the Lord. Come out of the tombs of hopelessness, the tombs of pointlessness, the tombs of anxiety and worry, the tombs of addictions and life crushing habits. Get out of there. It stinks. Walk free and forgiven.

Whilst Lent is meant to be a time for reflection, the Sundays in Lent are set aside for proclaiming Resurrection. Passages like we have heard today, dry bones coming to life, Lazarus coming out of the tomb, lead us towards Easter when we celebrate that Christ is Risen. He is Risen indeed!

First comes Palm Sunday. And then the events of Holy Week, the crucifixion and the cross. For sure death casts it shadow heavily upon this season. There are moments of deep darkness. But at the end of the Easter road is a brilliant resurrection light whose brightness transforms everything that lies before it and that comes after it.

Ezekiel's vision of dry bones and Lazarus’s tomb are just the appetizer. The main course lies just ahead. Around this table laid with bread and wine is an opportunity to nourish our self for the journey. Thanks be to God! Amen!

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.