Monday, June 26, 2017

Patriarchal Ponderings - Hagar and Ishmael (and Abraham and Sarah and Isaac)

Readings: Psalm 86:1-10, Romans 6:1-11,Matthew 10:24-39, Genesis 21: 8-21
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, June 25 2017

Not that I’m an avid watcher of them myself, but there are those who find themselves faithful devotees of afternoon soap operas with titles such as “The Bold and the Beautiful” and “Bored and the Braindead.” There have been occasions when I’ve watched an episode, and I’ll be honest, it’s hard to figure out what exactly is going on.

All those relationships and so-and-so having something going on with somebody who is actually somebody elses half sister twice removed and then some dark figure from the past appears and upsets the whole thing… and all this in just the first five minutes.

Yet truth can be stranger than fiction, and our Bible reading this morning gave us a plot just as thick with twists and turns as your average afternoon soap. A tale of family betrayal, jealousy, separation and survival against the odds.

There is Abraham, the man of destiny, but a man who couldn’t always wait for his dreams to be fulfilled and tried to force the issue. There is Hagar, the mother of his firstborn son, Ishmael, a lady scorned by Abraham’s first wife, Sarah. Sarah has become increasingly jealous of Hagar and is fearful that her son, Isaac, will never inherit the promises she hoped would be all his.

And so, at a family celebration that should have been a time of great rejoicing, Abraham is convinced both by his wife and the intervention of God, to send Hagar and Ishmael away. Dispatched into the desert, Hagar struggles to survive, but all is well. Ishmael turns out to also be a child of promise. And in next weeks episode….

Of course it’s not the plot of a soap opera, it’s an account from the Word of God and therefore has a whole lot that it can reveal to us about our lives, as individuals and as a community of faith. It speaks to us and the situations that come our way.
  1. Even with the best of intentions things can go terribly wrong.
  2. Even with the highest aspirations we still mess up.
  3. Although things go wrong and we mess up, God is the Redeemer.
Even with the best of intentions things can go terribly wrong.

As we go through our lives day by day we don’t set out with the intention of making everything go wrong. We don’t get out of bed and think, “Let’s see what we can make a total disaster of this morning”. Oftentimes the worse acts are done with, what seems to their perpetrators, the best intentions.

It was no different with Abraham. Abraham had entered into a covenant relationship with God in which God had promised that Abraham would be the father of a great nation. His wife Sarai was childless and the years were moving along. So, together, Abraham and Sarai agreed that Abraham should take Sarai’s maid, Hagar, as a wife and bear a child for them through her.

When Hagar proved fruitful and became pregnant, Sarai, far from being pleased becomes bitter and treats her unfairly, causing her to run away. After an angelic intervention Hagar decides to return and in due time a son, Ishmael is born. Abraham presumes that Ishmael is to be the child of promise through whom his line would be established.

Not so! The unthinkable happens. Sarai in her old age now becomes with child. This child is to be the one through whom Abraham’s line is established. After Isaac is born, Sarah’s enmity towards Hagar returns and Hagar is forced to separate from them and go her own way.

This wasn’t the first separation among Abraham and his kinfolk. He has been having a long running dispute with his nephew Lot. Such was the nature of their disagreement that they mutually agreed to go their separate ways, even though their paths were destined to cross again.

All of which I share with you to point out that in families, even families of faith, things don’t always run smoothly. If you’re looking around this morning at your family or somebody else's family and you are thinking, “Good Lord, what a mess!” I encourage you to take heart and not to feel that your situation is unique or unforgivable. Families have always been complicated. Don’t beat yourself up over things that seem to be part of the way life is! Which brings us to our second observation.

Even with the highest aspirations we still mess up.

Sarai/Sarah was a woman of tremendous faith. She did indeed turn out to be the mother of all Israel. Yet her relationship with Hagar was disgraceful. She used her. She was abusive towards her. She was jealous of her and eventually got rid of her.

Abraham was without doubt a man of tremendous faith. But he also made some tremendous mistakes, because whilst he trusted God most of the time, there were those other times when he thought he could do a better job than God and tried to sort things out in his own way.

Back in Chapter 12 you can read of how, when Abraham journeyed to Egypt, he was afraid that the Egyptian’s would find his wife Sarai so attractive that they’d kill him in order to take Sarai as their own. So he pretends Sarai is his sister, not his wife. It turns out that the Pharoah does indeed find her attractive and takes her to his house, rewarding Abraham with servants and material possessions.

Sounded like a good plan, but Abraham lost her in any case, so it backfired. Even worse, God is on the case and Pharoah’s household starts to be subject to all kinds of plagues, and they can’t understand why, until it is discovered that Pharoah’s latest wife wasn’t Abraham’s sister but actually Abraham’s wife. High aspirations, best intentions, but Abraham messed up.

He messed up when he fathered a child through Hagar. Again, that was him trying to take control of a situation God had all figured out. He shouldn’t have listened to Sarai’s idea, he should have kept trusting God, but, no, as we do so often in our lives, it was a case of, “I’m sure God’s Word is right… but I’ll do things my way, thank you very much.”

Was it not Frank Sinatra who had a hit with “I did it my way”? Very commendable, if by doing things ‘our way’ we mean taking responsibility for our own actions. Not so commendable if doing things ‘our way’ means neglecting to seek for our lives to be guided by God and nurtured by God’s Holy Spirit. ‘Our way’ can be the wrong way.

The bible plainly insists that we are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God. Even though we have the highest aspirations, we still mess up. The Bible story also insists that with God there is the hope of redemption.

Although things go wrong and we mess up, God is the Redeemer.

In spite of Abraham and Sarai’s mess ups and moral failings, Abraham did indeed become the father of a geographical nation and a spiritual father to many people of faith. God’s plans were not thwarted by their misunderstanding or disobedience. Maybe things may have taken a different course had their faith expressed itself in different ways, but that’s always going to be one of the “Well we just don’t know” moments of history.

Nowhere clearer though in this account is God shown to be the Redeemer than in the situation of Hagar and Ishmael. They are not among the chosen people. They were not considered the inheritors of God’s promises by those who thought that God’s ways were something exclusive to them. A child seemingly born in circumstances that were not the will of God. A mother who is little more than a slave at the whim of Sarah’s manipulations. Their fate is uncertain and they languish in the desert, desperate for nourishment.

Hagar cries out to God. God answers. God tells her that she too is a child of promise. That her son Ishmael will also know God’s blessing. That there is room in God’s promises and within God’s covenant for all people of faith. Eventually things work out for Hagar and Ishmael in unexpected ways. Under God’s blessing they prosper.

Life may not have dealt us the best hand. We may well mess up and make wrong decisions that cause our selves and others harm. Our families, our relationships, our homes, may not be the places of refuge and picture of harmony that some would expect of people who know God.

So remember this. God remains the redeemer. God has sent Jesus Christ to be our Savior. Jesus Christ demonstrated through His life and works that every human life is of concern to God, even those lives whom others have little time or respect for. Know yourself loved by God, in spite of the fact that you make a mess of things and so often try and do things your way instead of living God’s way.

God is the Redeemer. Seek then for the Holy Spirit of God to redeem the times of your life. Ask Jesus Christ to help you through whatever the coming week may bring your way. The same God who heard the cry of Hagar and Ishmael knows the needs of our hearts and lives.

Do not then be afraid to commit your life to Him.
Seek the way of the Lord and live for the service of Jesus Christ,
to whose name be all
glory, honor and power

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Alex's Index

Reading: Psalm 116:1-19,Exodus 19:2-8a, Romans 5:1-8, Luke 18:1-8
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, June 18 2017

The gospel of Luke gives us a story about a lady of amazing persistence. This lady, a widow, is struggling to get the attention of a particularly useless judge. The judge is not doing his job properly and the lady is not getting the attention she deserves. But she's like a dog with a bone. She won't give up. “Give me justice” No. “Give me justice” No. “Give me justice” No. “Give me justice” “Alright then... but will you now just shut up .. you are wearing me out!” Her persistence paid off! We'll come back to her later.

But for now I want to tell you about another person of persistence, this time not a widow, but a Scotsman named Alex. Alex loved the bible. Loved the bible I think more than almost anybody I've ever heard of, and knew it better than most anybody. He certainly worked harder than anyone I can think of to let other people learn about it as well.

Alex, or Alexander to give him his full name, came from a city in Scotland called Aberdeen. And although he was devout Christian with a love for God's word, he was also a very, very unique character. Some said he was a little bit odd. And sometimes, because he was a little different and people found him strange, he could get into trouble and be hard to get along with.

At one point in his life, Alex thought about being a minister, but that didn't work, because the idea of going to a college and having to stay in one place didn't suit him. So he decided to be a teacher. Then he decided to work for a printer, preparing the type on the printing press. Then he got bored of making books and decided, “I want to sell the books!”

One time he read about a job teaching children to speak French in London. “I'll do it” he volunteered and caught the train to London arriving a week before the classes began. Just one thing he didn't tell the school. He couldn't speak French. But during that week... he taught himself.

He was a wee man, gentle by nature and had a bad stutter, particularly when he got excited about some new project... which happened quite regularly. Yet Alex was afraid of nothing and nobody. One time, while he was in London, he came across two men fighting in the road. In an attempt to stop them, he picked up a shovel and joined in. The police came, arrested him and, because he was such a little fellow decided he must be insane and committed him to the local psychiatric hospital.

Because he was such a kind hearted fellow though, he was soon released. In fact those who got to know him, learned to live with his unpredictable ways.

Once he heard about an uneducated sailor, who had been arrested and sentenced to death for forgery. Alex understood that this guy was not capable of forging a document... he couldn't even spell his own name... and set about saving him from the death penalty. Well... like the widow in Jesus parable... Alex wouldn't give up. Somebody described him as having “appalling persistence.” He kept on and on at important people, the judges, the Lord Mayor of London, the secretary of state, the house of the Lords. His case eventually came before the King... and... in the end he succeeded in proving the man innocent.

Alex would often go to visit Newgate prison to help comfort the prisoners and share with them the Christian message. Always, in his own way he tried to befriend those nobody else seemed to care about and tell them about the wonderful message of the love of Jesus Christ, who accepted anybody and everybody, even unusual people like himself! “It was all about grace.” he would tell them. “Turn away from the person you have become and become the person you could be! Only Jesus can help you do this!”

All of these tales about Alex may have been forgotten were it not for one other, amazing thing, that Alex achieved. And it has to do with his love for the Bible. He did something other people had tried to do but nobody ever did it as well as Alex eventually did. In fact Alex did it so well, that until the age of computers came along, nobody ever tried to do it again.

The bible is BIG book. Actually it's not a book, it's 66 books. It's a whole library of books. And every book is divided into chapters. And every chapter is divided into verses. And every verse contains many words.

Sometimes, you think of a verses in the bible and you think... “I know roughly how it goes, but I can't remember exactly where in the bible that verse is!” These days you can get on the Internet and do a search. But Alex lived in a time long, long before computers and internet had ever been thought of. He was born around 1699 And in his day, there were not so many translations, so everybody used the King James version of the Bible.

What Alex did.. .or to give him his full name Alexander Crudens, was create an index to every verse in the whole King James Bible bible. If you can remember just one word of a verse, then Alex's index can help you find it.

Do you know what the shortest verse in the Bible is? “Jesus wept”. But if you don't know where it is... and google did not exist, what did you do?

In his index... the word “wept” occurs 67 times.
No 63... is Jesus wept... and we are told that that is Johns Gospel, Chapter 11, verse 35.

Now... to ministers and Sunday School teachers... and just about anybody who wanted to study the bible... this book was pure gold! Really, until computers came along, CRUDEN”S CONCORDANCE was the go to place for finding bible verses. It was first printed in the year 1737 and has never been out of print since that day, and can still be found on many a ministers bookshelf

To make it he had to list every word in the bible... and he did so, by hand on page after page of paper, filling whole rooms! He needed all that “Appalling persistence” he was credited with. On each list, he would list chapter and verse for each word. .. in total some 250,000 entries.

Just for good measure, he also tells us what some of the more unusual words mean, so it also functions as a dictionary as well as an index! Some people say he did it all in a year... but it probably took a bit longer than that! But for sure, he loved his bible and his passion was for other people to come to know God's Word and discover God's love.

He had a hard and a strange life, but lived to a good age. He was in and out of hospitals and took some looking after. A loose cannon. Some thought he was crazy. Others that he was a genius. He spoke out against many of the injustices of his day and the immoral lives of some of the most influential people in the land. Often they would use accusations of insanity to get him off their case!

One thing is for sure though. His Appalling persistence created a tool that has blessed many peoples study of Scripture. Through not giving up on what he felt God was calling him to accomplish, great blessing came to others.

Which brings me back to our bible story of the woman and the corrupt judge. This woman knows she is on the side of right and keeps on keeping on. Eventually she is heard.

Now God is NOT an unjust judge. God knows what we need to live lives that are blessed. But other people... and sometimes our selves... need a bit more persuasion. So don't give up on yourself and don't give up on your dreams! Keep doing the right and by God's grace the right will come around. Not always in ways we can anticipate or ways we expect, but God is faithful and invites us to trust in God's love and the action of God's Spirit, even when others don't see things the same way.

And God has made every one of us so unique. Maybe not quite so unique as Alexander Crudens, but nevertheless we are invited to accept our own unique self, while at the same time embracing other peoples differences

What a boring place the world would be if we were all the same! I mean blue is a wonderful color. Blue sky. Blue sea. But I want grass to be green. And the sun to be a blazing ball of yellow. And Ferrari's to be red. And gray hair to be a sign of wisdom. And hot days wouldn't be so hot if it weren't for the cold ones!And there's enough colors in the rainbow to remind us that God loves diversity and we are all welcome at God's table.

In God's eyes the greatest gift we have is our selves. God's given us the gift of life and we are all different. “God didn't have to wake us up this morning, but the Lord so did”... so let's get on with it.

  • By allowing God's Holy Spirit to make us into who God wants us to be...
  • by seeking to learn as much as we can about the life and love of Jesus and how we His disciples can be...
  • by knowing that though Christ's death on the Cross we are all offered the opportunity to walk forgiven, empowered and free...
  • by making the most of all the amazing ways we can learn about God's word such as google and concordances and Alex's index … we are blessed!

Truly we are.
  • Blessed with the gifts of people like Alexander from Aberdeen.
  • Blessed with a great heritage across the centuries that for we Presbyterians includes the gift of the Scottish church and the insights of the reformation and the rousing sounds of the bagpipes.
  • Blessed with a beautiful amphitheater and air conditioned sanctuary!
  • Blessed with Sunday School teachers, graduates and on this Fathers Day, earthly fathers to mentor us and a Heavenly Father to love us!

To God be the glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

(Message based on a chapter in Rev. R.E.O Whites book “52 stories for children”)

Monday, June 12, 2017

Matthew's Vision for the Church

Reading: Psalm 8, Genesis 1:1-2:4a, 2 Corinthians 13:11-13, Matthew 28:16-20
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, June 11 2017

The Gospel of Matthew is an amazing piece of work. The best thing I can think of comparing it to is a movie. It starts of like a movie, giving us a list of opening credits that invite us to consider that the central figure of the story that is about to take place is somebody of great historical significance.

Then it moves to the mystery of Christ’s birth, to the preaching of john the Baptist and the Baptism of Jesus by John in the Rivers of Jordan. Matthew then takes through a whole series of scenes. Sometimes it’s action, sometimes it’s a story that’s told, sometimes a sermon. It all reaches a climax in the crucifixion of Jesus and then the frantic muddled excitement of the empty tomb.

Our reading for this morning was from the very last verses of Matthew’s epic. In our pew Bibles it was titled “The Commissioning of the Disciples.” Staying with the film analogy, it’s the perfect ending that cries out for a sequel. Matthew seems to say, as his movie draws to an end… ‘and all this was just the start.’

Matthew never got to make the sequel. That was left to Luke (who gives us the Book of Acts) and comes to us through the letters that circulated among the early church that we know as the Epistles.

Part of the genius of the Gospel of Matthew is its ability to give us a story that functions on so many different levels. The last few verses are no exception.

Today is Trinity Sunday and it is in these closing words of Matthew that we are invited to “Make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.” Those words, across the centuries, have inspired numerous mission enterprises. These are words that teach us about the authority of Jesus. They are followed by words of great comfort and the promise “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.

Taking these verses together, we are given an insight into Matthew’s vision of what the church should be. It is that picture of the functions and duties of the Church that I want to think about on this Trinity Sunday. As we are a community in transition it does us good to pause nd ask, “Well, what are we supposed to be about as the people of God? What’s the Church for? Why do we need it?”

First and foremost, Church is a place to meet Jesus.

(Mat 28:16) “… the eleven disciples proceeded to Galilee, to the mountain which Jesus had designated.” God has designated for us a place and time where we can be together in God’s presence and meet with Jesus. At Mount Hebron Presbyterian that time is at ten o clock on a Sunday morning. That is not to say that are not other times and places when we will experience the presence of God in our lives, but Sunday Worship is a special time, one sacred hour in the week in which we can give ourselves to meeting with God in each others presence.

Sometimes people give their reasons for attending a church as “I like the music” or “I enjoy the liturgy” or “I enjoy the sermons” or even “I like the pastor.” This verse reminds us that church is not primarily about discovering an experience that tickles our senses.

Church is designated as a meeting place with Jesus Christ. He alone, the salvation He offers to us, the grace and love that flow from the heart of God to our life… that’s the reason for coming to church. If we take away our focus away from Jesus, and place it elsewhere, be it on the music, the liturgy, the preacher or the message, then we are indulging in a very subtle form of idolatry.

Idolatry is allowing something other than God to become the focus. There is nothing wrong with great music, great preachers or great liturgy. But we should never allow them to become our reason for church attendance. Church is a place to meet with Jesus.

A church I once served used to sing a chorus... “Open my eyes Lord, I want to see Jesus, to reach out and touch Him, to say that I love Him.” Which moves us on to consider...

Secondly, Church is a place of Worship.

(Mat 28:17) “And when they saw Him, they worshiped Him”
It is a plain command of Scripture that we are to worship only the Lord Our God. On Trinity Sunday we remind ourselves that we worship God, through Jesus Christ and in the power of the Holy Spirit.

In this designated time and place our worship takes a number of different forms. We offer our lives to God and pray “Our Father.” We thank God for the grace and love that is revealed to us in Jesus Christ. We seek to be empowered by the Holy Spirit to serve God.

Yet most of all worship is an act of enjoying the presence of the One God. As the catechism puts it, “The Chief end of man is to worship God and enjoy Him for ever!”

When we take the worship experience out of our life, life loses one of it’s most precious dimensions. We are called to approach worship like the Psalmist who said, “I was glad when they said let us go to the house of the Lord”.

If only we realized the awesome possibilities of what can take place as we worship, then we would never miss an opportunity to be with our brothers and sisters in Christ before the throne of God. Profound changes can come upon people in the presence of God! Worship is meant to be a happening, something that renews us and fires us up to go out and tell the Good News that God is on the move.

Can Worship be like that? Well… maybe we’re not so sure. In fact there’s probably a whole lot of things that we are not sure about when it comes to God, to the Bible, to our relationship with the Church… to spiritual things in general. Maybe you have your doubts. That’s O.K. Why?

Thirdly, Church is a place to come with our doubts

Verse 7 continues; “they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful.”
Think of that! This is the disciples we are talking about. These are the ones who saw all the miracles, heard all the teaching first hand, witnessed the death and resurrection with their own eyes and were now standing, visibly, in the presence of their Lord and Savior. And how are they handling it? “Some were doubtful”

Never stop coming to church just because you don’t agree with everything or understand everything. Fact is we are never going to be without our doubts. You may get some preachers who come along and give the impression they know it all and have fathomed out exactly what God is about and what you need to believe and will not hesitate to let you know God’s thoughts on everything under the sun. They remind me of the advert that used to be on T.V, where the guys sitting at the computer and he gets up from his chair and claims that he’s reached the end of the internet!

If God is God then no human mind can ever fathom the depths of God’s mystery. Sometimes we can’t even remember where we’ve left our car keys, which makes me realize, that we were never designed to know everything about God and makes me highly suspicious of those who make dogmatic claims to truth that seem denied to the rest of humanity. Church is a place to come with our doubts.

This idea of Trinity, is one of those you can kind of explain, but not really. The early church Fathers were content to talk of the Trinity as a sacred mystery. As a something to be experienced.

The mystery is that sometimes, as we worship, whilst our knowledge remains the same, something Trinitarian happens. We leave this place knowing that our lives are in the hands of a God who created a wonderful world for us to live in, a God who in Jesus Christ has provided all we need to get us through and a God who in the power of the Holy Spirit is going to be there for us every step of the way.

A fourth thing.

Church is a place to listen for God’s Word.

Matthew 20;18 ; “Jesus came up and spoke to them”
Jesus speaks to us today in our worship services. How? Through each other. Through the words and music. Through the conversations and teaching. Through the prayers in which we share and the Creeds to which we give assent. Through the Bible readings and sermons. All of it, the place, the time, the actions, the environment, the words and the silence… the whole experience can be a Word of God to us.

We come to church to meet with Jesus, to worship God, to find guidance for our doubts and to listen for God's word for our lives. And one Word that we will hear is that this is an experience that’s too good to keep to ourselves. God wants us to go out and spread the Word. He promises to go with us as we do so!

Church is a place of Commissioning

Matthew19-20 "Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you
We are offered here a threefold commission.
  • To make disciples
  • To baptize
  • To teach

In order for disciples to be made, the Word we have received has to be proclaimed. Proclamation takes place for us in the same way as it did for Jesus. Sometimes it is through deeds where very few words are spoken. Sometimes it is through spoken words that bring the realization of God’s presence to peoples lives. In the same way we are to reach out to others.

Our baptism is not only a sign that we belong to God, but also an indication that we belong to the church. We are a community of people united by the love of God. Others need to know they can be a part of it!

And when we are a part of it we realize we have a lot to learn. So the church has not just a role in preaching and serving but also an educational task… teaching the ways of the Kingdom.

Finally, Church is a place of promise

Matthew 28:20 : “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. "
A beautiful promise of Jesus forms the very last words of Matthew’s gospel. Were Matthews gospel really a movie this is the verse that would be written over the closing scene as they ride off into the sunset.

So I close with that thought this morning. What a wonderful thing it is to know that whatever we are traveling through in our lives right now, Jesus wants to stick with us and carry us through.

Our world, our lives, everything around us, constant change. We don’t know what lies ahead. Terrorist attacks. Natural disasters. Good fortune or the winds of change blowing against us. We just don’t know what tomorrow brings. But we can know that God promises to travel with us through whatever life may bring our way.

Jesus promises that if we entrust our lives into His hands, He’s going to stick by us, no matter what. If church means nothing more to us than it being a place where we discover God’s promise, then that alone should be sufficient to get us through the day.

Matthew concludes his gospel by giving us a vision for the church. He invites us to meet with Jesus, to come as we are, with all our doubts and fears, just come and worship. As we do so we hear God’s Word, a Word that both challenges and comforts.

The challenge is to go and let others know how great the love of God can be.

The comfort is that the love of God is greater than we dare imagine and can hold us through all our days! Recall again those words of Jesus... “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, June 5, 2017

Pentecost Sunday. "Happy Birthday"

Readings: Psalm 104:24-34, 35b, 1 Corinthians 12:3b-13, John 7:37-39, Acts 2:1-17
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, June 4 2017

I'd like to take this opportunity to wish you all a very happy birthday. "But it's not my birthday today!" Maybe not, but today is the birthday of the Church and you are the Church, the people of God, called to be God's servants and witnesses to the whole wide world.

The day of Pentecost, Whit Sunday, is the day that many traditions look back to the coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples in Jerusalem, an event foretold by the prophets, promised by Jesus and that filled the disciples with a new sense of power and boldness to accomplish the things that God was calling them to do.

There are three great celebrations in the Christian Year. Christmas, well we know about that. Easter, we have just celebrated; yet in an increasingly secular society, the message of the cross and resurrection is often lost in the midst of Easter bunnies and Spring Break. However Pentecost is the churches almost forgotten festival.

Pentecost means "The Fiftieth", so called because it fell on the fiftieth day, a week of weeks, after the Passover (or for the church a week of weeks after Easter). For the Jews it was a dual celebration. It had a historical significance for it commemorated the giving of the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai. It had a religious significance in that it was the day that thanksgiving offerings were offered to God for the blessings of the Harvest.

The coming of the Holy Spirit upon the disciples gave the celebration a deeper meaning for Christianity. As the Jews celebrated the completion of the law giving and the start of the old covenant of law, so Christians celebrate the completion of Christ's earthly ministry and the beginning of the New Covenant of Grace. As the Jews celebrated the Harvest, so the Church celebrates the spiritual harvest that the Holy Spirit brings to peoples lives.

Before the Jerusalem Pentecost, Christianity consisted of a very small group of disciples who had personally witnessed the crucifixion, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ. They had soaked up His teaching and been transformed by His works and words, but they didn't know what they were supposed to do with all that experiences, except their Master had told them to wait and pray in Jerusalem.

On the day of the Jerusalem Pentecost, the disciples became witnesses. Peter became a preacher. Many people believed the disciples message and the Church was born. So.. happy birthday y’all. It all started in that place of waiting and prayer during the Jewish festival of Pentecost. It all started when the Holy Spirit of God came upon the disciples in a new and vibrant way, with the sound of a mighty rushing wind and the sign of tongues of fire and they were filled with spiritual energy and power.

On this birthday morning I'd like to reflect on the sort of people the disciples were who gave birth to the church. My hope in so doing is that the Holy Spirit can weave into our lives the grace necessary for us to be faithful.

Firstly, the disciples were .. A people of promise

From before He even called the disciples Jesus had recognized that they were people of great potential. What the world saw was a rag-tailed gang of fishermen, laborers, clerks and hangers on who were so insecure in themselves that they left everything to follow a local carpenter with delusions of being the savior of the world.

What the world sees is not how God sees things. By the grace of God those disciples were transformed. By the grace of God the deluded carpenter turned out to be the bearer of light, truth and all that God had promised since before the foundation of the world; the Word of life in whom all creation could find meaning.

We all have a choice. To see things as the world sees them or as God sees them. We can look at our own lives the way the world does or we can see them the way God does. People will tell us all sorts of things about ourselves. They will enclose us behind all sorts of barriers.

"You can't do that. You could never manage that. You aren't capable. You’re not that sort of person. We tried that and it didn't work. We don't do things that way around here. You don't understand. You’re not listening. Stay where you belong. Do as you are told. Don't think that you are anybody ".

They were the sort of things that people said about Jesus. They are the sort of things people say about the church today. "Happy Birthday, ya bunch of losers." That's the way the world looks at the church. Are we going to listen to that? Or do we hear the voice of a God who sees in us so much more than we dare dream?

What kept the disciples from being people of unrealized potential was that they became people of promise. We are all people of potential but only when we listen to God do we become inheritors of promise.

In John 7, during a previous Pentecost celebration, Jesus said, “He who believes in me, as the Scripture said, “From his innermost being shall flow rivers of living water”. John explains, “This He spoke about the Spirit whom those who believed in Him were to receive; for the Spirit was not yet given.

The Spirits coming was the fulfillment of a promise. There are many promises in Scripture, The promises are there to unlock our faith. They are things to believe upon, to act upon. They are things to help us realize our potential.

They are gifts of grace for our life. Miss out on them and we miss out on things God has for us. How sad it would be to have birthday presents you never get around to opening because you were to busy with other things. Don’t neglect your reading of God’s Word.

The disciples were also... A people of prayer

In the Pentecost room the disciples weren’t just hanging out with no particular place to go. It wasn’t the dentists waiting room. They weren’t idly perusing back copies of the Readers Digest looking for some inspirational morsel that would take their mind off their coming examination.

These people were pumped up, excited, and expectant. Jesus had promised that if they waited in Jerusalem something good would happen. They had seen Him crucified then risen again. He had been coming and going, spending time with them, teaching them things that their minds could never have grasped before the resurrection. They had witnessed His Ascension and must have been wondering, well, what next? How much more awesome can things become?

Imagine the difference it would make to our services if every time we entered this sanctuary we were pumped up ready to meet with God? I’m reminded of those weightlifter characters from Saturday Night Live. “We are here to pump you up!”

We have been praying this morning and God has said He will meet with us in our service of Worship. We will hear God’s Words in the Scriptures and the Musik, God will speak to us through the preacher and through the prayers. And when we leave we will be ready to take on what ever the devil throws at us.”

The disciples weren’t weight lifters. They were wrestlers. They wrestled with God in prayer and by grace became empowered, not with muscle power, but Holy Ghost power. We need to be a people of prayer, to claim the promises of God and realize the potential God sees within us. In doing so we will discover another characteristic of the disciples.
The disciples were..... A people of praise.

What drew the people to marvel at the disciples on the day of the Jerusalem Pentecost was the way they were praising God. It didn’t matter where all the onlookers came from, when the Spirit fell, they all heard the good news in their own languages, they all heard those disciples praising God for what was happening to them.

It would be easy to get bogged down in theological debate, about speaking in tongues, and the significance of wind and fire and living water and a whole lot of other things in the second Chapter of Acts. Do that and we miss the point that praise in a universal language.

If your heart is lifted up to God.
If you believe on His promises...
If you build your life on His Word...
If you prayerfully live out your days...
then praise just bubbles out.

An exuberant British evangelist by the name of Ishmael had a little chorus that said:

It’s amazing what Praisin’ can do,
It’s amazing what Praisin’ can do,
If you should doubt it
You should learn to shout
It’s amazing what Praisin’ can do

It is the work of the Holy Spirit to turn dead end lives that can be self focused and full of ungodly troubles into eternity bound, Jesus focused, Spirit filled, God honoring, Grace empowered, experiences of the awesome love of a Creator God.

In a nutshell that’s what Pentecost is all about. The power of the Holy Spirit to take prayerful lives and turn them into something powerful for God. Good News in a world full of bad news. Seems to me that is something worth celebrating.

So “Happy Birthday to you!”
As disciples of Christ may we seek to be filled,
with the power of the Holy Spirit,
that God’s church may continue,
to be built into the lives of this generation.

Rev. Adrian J. Pratt B.D.