Monday, September 18, 2017

Wilderness Living 4 "Turn of The Tide"

Reading: Psalm 114, Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 18:12-35, Exodus 14:19-31
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, on September 17 2017

Geographically speaking, the area where I was born and raised was known as the Wirral peninsular. On one side of the peninsular lay the River Mersey, where you could, as Gerry and the Pacemakers once sang, catch a ‘Ferry across the Mersey’ to Liverpool. On the other side of the peninsular lay the River Dee, and over the other side of that river, the nation of Wales.

The River Dee side of the peninsular held the best beaches. One of the fun things to do there was walk across the sands, at low tide, to visit a bird sanctuary called Hilbre Island, where you could watch seals playing out in the estuary (see photo above.)

In fact when the tide went out it looked as though you could walk across the sands all the way to Wales. You couldn’t because there was a deep fierce channel of water that separated the English from Wales (something historically the Welsh were rather glad about) but when you were walking out on the sand, it looked as though there were just miles of sand stretching in every direction. A beautiful place.

Beautiful, but dangerous. Almost every year people lost their lives through not paying attention to the tide. If you did not know at what hour the tide turned, then it was not safe being out on the sands. Whereas when the tide was out the sands stretched for miles, when the tide turned the whole area became sea.

The frightening thing was how quickly the change from sand to sea took place. Little streams in the sand would become rivers. The rivers overflowed. You could be walking on sandbanks, unable to reach the coast, unaware that the waters were closing in. If you were out on the sand when the tide turned, you were lost.

One can only imagine the dread that the Hebrew people felt as they fled from Pharaohs’ chariots. There lay before them a seemingly impassable body of water. Their only hope was that God would intervene on their behalf. That somehow the tide would turn.

People have a lot of questions these days about the future role of religion in national life. Many churches, our own included, have witnessed a loss of members and support. Others... strangely... to my mind... some that offer a very narrow form of belief... have seen huge growth. It seems that preaching a gospel in which not everybody is welcome in the kingdom of God, where homophobia is accepted and where the female of species is not considered an equal to their male counterpart, has a huge attraction.

From their perspective they are trying to fight against a tide of secularism that they fear is sweeping the old landmarks away... but to me it appears that cultural preservation rather than biblical faith is guiding such agendas. That's not where I'm going with this sermon. God loves them and God loves us, not because of who we are, but in spite of it. Grace is always amazing and if God loves those who differ in their views, then so must we.

It feels in the nation as a whole, to somebody who has lived here for but a couple of decades, that there is more dissent and unhappiness and fear around then when we first moved here. Of course we moved here pre-911. September 11 2001 was the day it was understood that safety can no longer be taken for granted. That security was a questionable concept. That none of us are invulnerable or isolated from the rest of the world.

On that occasion it wasn’t pursuing enemy chariots and threatening soldiers that were swept away, but the lives of ordinary people going about their daily tasks and the many heroic souls who attempted to rescue them. When the tide turns, the waves do not care if their victims are aggressors or innocents.

The reasons behind the growth of terrorism are incredibly complex. Political, economic, geographical, religious, educational, historical. Issues of poverty and injustice and imbalance and history and empire and greed. Trying to isolate any particular aspect, or people group, or religion, or nation and suggesting that ‘this’ alone is to blame is as futile as investigating a single channel flowing through the sand and claiming that it alone caused the tide to turn.

You will notice that the turn of the tide does not lead the Hebrews to the Promised Land but into the wilderness. The destruction of their enemies in the crushing waters leads them not into a place of peace, but one of fear, regret and dependence. The closing verse of the passage we read this morning; verse 31 ‘And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in Him and in Moses His servant’.

Surely we can identify with that picture. We feel like we are in the wilderness. There is mistrust. There is fear. The old certainties have been swept away and exactly where our anchor should be placed remains a topic for debate. The tide has turned. Many remain unsure which direction to go to find anything like a Promised Land.

Every passing year brings unpredictable turns of events, both for the church and society. Not only can we not predict the actions of our fellow human beings, nature herself seems happy to remind us of our own frailty and insignificance in the larger scheme of things. Natural disasters, hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, tsunamis, wildfires, climate change related events are on the rise.

Somebody told me I shouldn't talk about things like “climate” from the pulpit because it was being political. Who could have predicted mentioning weather statistics would become a political statement? We feel the changes in the tide in many areas of our lives.

Against this backdrop it is important to remind ourselves that we still have choices. The Hebrew people had a choice. They could stay in Egypt in slavery. Or they could, as a community, follow Moses.

They may well have wondered at the wisdom of their choice when they were faced with the prospect of being destroyed at the water edge by the advancing Egyptian army. Even after their miraculous deliverance, though they saw their enemies, dead and defeated, they knew their journey was far from over. They still faced an uncertain and unpredictable future.

So we have a choice. We can rally together and seek to be a community of God’s people. We can put our trust in God to lead us towards better days. We can choose to build our lives upon faith in Jesus Christ, over and above trust in any other institution.

We can choose, as did the Hebrews, to invest in nurturing the spiritual lives of both our selves and our children in the ways of God’s Kingdom. We choose our priorities. We can say ‘no’ to unreasonable demands on our time that take away our energy to invest in the things of God.

Events such as terrorist attacks and hurricanes in which some lose so much, cause us to question “What is really important?” For a moment people are taken out of the normality of the hectic everyday race we are pursuing. Think about your emotions during a power cut. For a moment the power goes away, the TV has no programs, the phone stops ringing because the connection has no connection. For a moment we realize our dependency. Do we treat it as a wake up call? Or do we just hop back into our routine and in six months time wonder why nothing has changed?

The Christian gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ, is that there is another way to live, a better way, and a higher way! But the rub is, in order to discover it, we have too choose to change. We have to let go of some of the things we are so reliant on. We cannot allow our I-pods and I-phones and I-pads to become our I-dols. We cannot pursue both God and wealth. We cannot keep seeking happiness and joy and fulfillment through every avenue but the love God and expect that somehow God will bless us anyway!

Scary, horrific events force us to examine our choices. As the Hebrews gazed across the Sea at the bodies of their enemies, there was little rejoicing. I remind you again of verse 31 ‘And when the Israelites saw the mighty hand of the LORD displayed against the Egyptians, the people feared the LORD and put their trust in Him.’ In moments of crisis you have to choose in whom you place your trust.

I started out talking about the tides that ran on the River Dee between England and Wales. Because of the tidal estuary that lay on the sands between England and Wales, I learned at an early age that you had to take notice of the changing tides. It was not anything you could control. Tides happen!

A best selling book in my home area was the ‘Tide-Tables’ that cataloged the times when the tides would turn. The tables told you how high the tides were likely to be, and all the vital information that would let you know when it was safe to walk out to Hilbre Island and when you needed to stay away from the sands.

God has not left us in the dark. We have “Tide Tables” for life. God’s Word in Scripture. But we have to read it. We have the living presence of Jesus Christ to lead and guide us. But we have to discover the guidance of His Holy Spirit, which only comes through prayer and commitment and opening our hearts to God in worship. We have a community of faith to which we can belong. But we have to make life choices that enable us to be active participants.

The tide is going to keep turning. Sometimes it will flow against us. Sometimes it will carry us along. We can't do anything about that. But we can choose who is going to navigate our lives through the shifting currents of the present day. It was a deputy of Moses, Joshua, who declared “Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve... But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord." (Joshua 24:15.) 

Amid the changing tides of opinion, may God's Holy Spirit lead us to make the right choices for ourselves, our family, and our faith community. To Jesus name be the glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Wilderness Living 3 "Fast Food to Go!"

Back to Sunday School – Outdoor Service/Picnic
Reading: Psalm 149, Matthew 18:15-20, Romans 13:8-14, Exodus 12:1-14
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, September 10 2017

“Is that for here, or is it to go?” asked the girl at McWendyKing (or some such fast food place). “To Go!” I replied, because I was on the go. A hundred things to do and a lot of folk to see. Got to keep moving. I would have gone around to the drive-thru but some days I just can’t stand talking into that little loudspeaker. I can never understand what the assistants saying on the other end. They speak with an accent!

And I don’t understand why you need to do that anyway. Couldn’t you just drive up to the window where you pay and give your order to the human being there instead of to the little box? Does it really save time? Usually there’s only about two or three cars distance to the window anyway! Seems less than efficient, particularly when, on some occasions I come away with exactly what I hadn’t asked for.

But, why worry? It’s not as if the food you are about to throw down yourself has any gastronomic integrity. It’s made as cheaply as possible, put together as quickly as do-able, and often consumed at a speed that deserves a mention in the Guinness Book of Records. FAST FOOD. – LET’S GO!

Meanwhile, back in Egypt, Moses has been having a hard time convincing Pharaoh to “Let my people go.” Although the land has been hit by a series of plagues, Pharaoh keeps changing his mind. First they can go, then they have to stay, then they can go, then they can stay. It’s becoming kind of repetitive.

But not for much longer. The Israelite's days in Egypt are numbered. The numbers have nearly run out. There is to be one, final, decisive action on the part of God, that will finally convince the Pharaoh that it would be a deadly thing to keep the Israelite's there any longer.

There is headed their way a horrible plague, a final affliction in a series of nasty events... a plague of death. At the time Moses was born, the Pharaoh was murdering every first-born Hebrew Child, ordering them to be killed at birth or thrown into the river to drown. It was a miracle that Moses had escaped with his life, let alone grown up to be an ex-prince of Egypt who now led Israel.

They do say that what goes around, comes around. That certainly seemed to be the case in Egypt. The nature of the final plague is that the angel of death will take down every firstborn in the land, both humans and animals.

The only exception is to be those households whose doorposts are covered by the blood of a sacrificial lamb, a lamb that has to be prepared and consumed in exactly the way Moses tells them. This would be a sign for all the faithful that God had set them free. It would mark the beginning of a new era in the nations life and a new stage in Israel’s history. For them history would begin again. The month that they left Egypt would be considered forever more as the first month of a New Year.

Knowing that the angel of death was approaching, I’m sure that, if they were able back then, there would have been those among the Hebrews who would have ordered their sacrificial lamb from the Egyptian equivalent of McWendyKings.

“I’ll’ have seven lambs, (make that 8, better get one for the dog in case he turns out to have been the first born).. and oh.. an extra order of blood on the side, please”. “Is that for here or to go?” To Go! Fast food to go!” (Of course being in Egypt maybe they could also have said, “I’ll have a crocodile sandwich.. oh.. and make it snappy”: ) Hmm.

Like my jokes it really was no laughing matter, in any way. The events that were about to take place were horrific. There really hadn’t been anything to rejoice about for a long, long time in Egypt for the Hebrews. Were they really, after all this time, after all that had been taking place, were they really free to go?

The answer, right at that moment, was an extremely hesitant and cautious “Ermm... yes.” They wouldn’t actually be free from Pharaoh until after they had passed through the Red Sea. They had hard times in front of them and most, including Moses, would not live to enter the Promised Land.

What they are about to do is something that would be, for all time, a symbol of faith. Something that turned that hesitant “Ermm... yes” into a declaration of faith. They are given the Passover Meal. Exodus 12:14 “This day shall be a day of remembrance for you. You shall celebrate it as a festival to the LORD; throughout your generations you shall observe it as a perpetual ordinance”.

Passover was a meal to go. Remember Moses instructions? Exodus12:11 “This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly. It is the Passover of the LORD.”

Passover was something to prepare them for the journey. Something that would etch into their minds God’s saving power. A celebration that would always remind them of their deliverance from slavery and misery.

Deliverance came at a price. They would eat, among other things, bitter herbs and unleavened bread. I don;'t think either of those are on the menu for this mornings picnic. There would be great mourning all around them, on the part of those who chose not to heed Moses instructions. The deep irony of the situation was that their deliverance to life would only come through death, the death of unblemished lambs and innocent firstborns.

There are, of course, parallels between the celebration of Passover and our own Christian celebration of Holy Communion, parallels that both the Gospel authors and the writers of the N/T letters are keen to point out.

The first time as a boy that Jesus goes to Jerusalem it is for the family to celebrate Passover (Luke 2:41). It is at the Passover meal Jesus takes the bread and cup (which represent the broken body and shed blood of God’s only begotten Son) and shares them with His disciples. To a Corinthian Church beset with division and troubles Paul writes “Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be …new …… For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. (1 Corinthians 5:7).

Passover was a meal that was eaten – ready to go. However Passover was not fast food. Passover was not something prepared hastily or carelessly or least expensively put together. It took time. It required understanding. It was costly.

Preparation for the meal began four days prior to cooking, when a lamb (from either a sheep or a goat) was chosen. The lamb was to be shared with those who were not able to afford a lamb of their own. Neighbors were to come together. Nobody was to be excluded.

The lamb had to be a yearling without blemish. In other words it was prime stock. Not the left over or the weakling. In economic terms it was the costliest. It had to be kept until at twilight there was a community act of slaughter. It was then that the blood had to be smeared on the doors of the houses where the lamb was to be eaten.

That same night it was to be eaten in equal portions by all those who came to supper. It was to be slow cooked over the fire.. not boiled or eaten raw. The whole lamb was involved… the inward parts, the head, the legs.. all had to be roasted. Anything that became left over had to be burnt up. Only then… after all of that… were they ready to go.

We live in a fast food world. People want answers, even to their religious questions, in quick, digestible bytes. Instant Spirituality. Sign up here today and tomorrow it will be yours! The problem is that ‘Fast-Food’ is sometimes called ‘Junk Food.’ In other words it doesn’t sustain, it doesn’t really nourish, it doesn’t meet the dietary needs, it just makes the hunger go away for a while.
Today is our “Back to Sunday School Rally Sunday.” By offering a year round education program we are saying that Christianity isn't something you can just pick up at a drive through window. You have to sit down and study and learn. You need folk to teach you and people to mentor you. It's a life long journey and there is always... always... always... something new to learn.

Just like the Passover was something you had to prepare for, so we have to daily be working on having hearts and lives and minds that are ready to hear God, that are ready so that when God says “Go” we “Go.”

So I encourage us all to make the most of the educational opportunities that come our way to deepen our relationship with Jesus Christ. A great way to learn something is to teach it! We are always looking for volunteers... even if it's only short term volunteers. There's nothing like preparing a lesson for somebody else to imprint it on your own mind.

And, through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior, give thanks to God! God alone can nurture our hunger for what is right, what is good and what is true. God alone satisfies the deepest needs of our hearts and lives. Not with 'Fast Food” but with the wisdom of His Word and strengthening of God's Holy Spirit.

To God be all glory. Amen!

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Wilderness Living 2 "Holy Ground"

 Reading: Psalm 105:1-6, Romans 12:9-21, Matthew 16:21-28, Exodus 3:1-15
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, September 3 2017

I received my training for ministry at the Welsh Presbyterian Theological College in Aberystwyth, on the coast of mid-Wales. Historically, Welsh Presbyterians were passionate about their theology. Whilst their church was born in the midst of Methodist Revivalism, their founding fathers looked to the work of an earlier reformer, John Calvin of Geneva, for a theological identity. They sifted and studied and sought to be faithful to God in defining what they believed. They argued. They separated. They forgave. They came together again.

That process eventually gave rise to the writing of a document, in 1823, a defining charter, that eventually became the theological statement of Welsh Presbyterian orthodoxy. It was called “The Confession of Faith of the Calvinistic Methodists.” It was the bedrock of a church that for the next 75 years of its life would experience wave after wave of religious revival, adding thousands to its membership.

As a college student, even more exciting to me, was the fact that the very building, even the actual room where that document came into being was still there in Aberystywth! I figured that those who put that document together must have experienced a powerful movement of God’s Holy Spirit in their meetings.

So one day I decided to check the place out, hoping that maybe something of the fire that inspired those early pioneers of the Welsh Presbyterian faith still lingered on the premises and that, just by going in there, it may ignite my own heart and spiritual passion. One day somebody pointed the building out to me.

I never did go inside. It had become part of the warehouse of a local supermarket. No plaque on the building. Nothing to even indicate that an event of tremendous significance, a moment of divine grace, had been felt in that place.

It was just a run down old building. The only atmosphere I may have experienced if I had gone into the place was that of the workaday world of a busy little town. There would be nothing to indicate that this, had for a brief period in history, been holy ground.

Moses had an encounter with a bush. I would imagine that if by some process we could go and stand at the actual spot where Moses stood, even view the very bush that Moses saw burning without being consumed, we would wonder what all the fuss was about. It would just be a bush.

Even more so would that be the case if we happened to be somebody who had never even heard about Moses or the encounter with God that Moses had. If that was our situation then we wouldn’t even be looking for a sign or expecting a presence. The last thing on our mind as we walked through the desert would be that we might be standing on holy ground.

Moses didn’t expect to be confronted by God either. Moses was just getting his life back together. He’d made his escape from Egypt and had finally come to terms with the fact that he wasn’t an Egyptian prince but a Hebrew son of a Hebrew slave. He had a wife and was out working for his father-in-law tending sheep. He was fully immersed in the culture and traditions shared by a long line of his ancestors.

And then what? God upsets the whole apple cart! The line between the sacred and the secular is obliterated. He thought he was treading common ground, living in the way his forefathers lived. It turned out to be holy ground and his life was never quite the same again.

It took something a bit special to get his attention. There he is, going about his daily business, when he notices a bush on fire. On further examination it turns out to be all fired up but not burning up. Then God speaks. This was not normal. God was not in the habit of encountering people in such a direct way.

Moses is awestruck. It was one thing to see the bush, but to then hear God’s call! “Here I am, Lord,” he says. “Come no closer” he is told, “Remove the sandals from your feet, for the land on which you are standing is holy ground.” Moses removes his sandals and starts to be afraid and hides his face.

After identifying Himself as being the same God whom had been followed by ancestors whom Moses had become familiar with, in verse 7, God explains how He had seen and heard and knew about the terrible circumstances under which His people suffered.

For sure many of them kept faith, but as their plight grew worse, their faith could not always rise to meet the challenge. Therefore to know that God had seen, heard and knew about their circumstances was a positive thing. The sort of thing that shone a bit of light into the darkness.

There’s a lot of times in our own lives when we need that assurance. Some of the things that life brings our way can cause us to question what we believe about God. We are easily shaken. It can be something personal like an illness or a family tragedy. It can be something that touches us all, like a natural disaster or a terrorist attack.

At times we just need to be reminded that God sees and hears and knows. Sees the things we go through. Hears the prayers, sometimes spoken, sometimes to difficult for words. That God knows not only what we are going through but also how best we can get through such times.

In verse 8 God says, “I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians”. The Hebrew word that is used for ‘come down’ is ‘yarad.’ ‘Yarad’ is rich in meaning, particularly when used of God. It pictures God as one who stoops down to lift us up, who wants to enter, in a powerful way into the circumstances that hold us back from being the people God would like us to be.

It’s a word that has particular significance for Christians, for we believe that it is precisely this God who is revealed to us in Jesus Christ. A God who is not content to let us keep going on and on in our own way, but comes where we are to open us up to possibilities never dreamed of. The Word becomes flesh and dwells among us. God Incarnate enters into our world and redeems our times.

The Hebrew word used for ‘deliver’ is also worth considering... “nawtsal.” It carries with it the ideas of rescuing, saving, plucking out, plundering or even ‘stripping away from.’ God in Christ comes to us, as He came to the Hebrews, in order to deliver us from sin and guilt, to strip away from us all that robs us of the dignity of being children of God, to plunder the dark places of our lives by flooding them with His light and life and setting us free.

As always there is a sting in the tale. Moses must have been very happy to hear that God had not only seen, heard and knew about the peoples plight and that now He was going to rescue them. But when he learned that he personally had an important and difficult role to play in the process, well, he is the first to suggest that God may be looking to the wrong person.

Who am I?” he cries out, “To do such things as these?” He complains he is not fitted for the task, not suited for such a position, that he didn’t speak right, walk right, talk right, act right… you name it... every excuse in the book goes through his mind. He is scared that nobody will believe him. He even asks God what he’s supposed to say if the people started to question him about how he was so sure that God had given him the job to do. “Who should I say sent me?

God answers that request for a name in a wonderfully ambiguous way. “I am who I am” comes the reply. “If you have to tell them something, tell them “I am” sent you.” In some bible versions the footnote is included that “I am who I am” can also be translated as “I will be what I will be” or “I am that I am”

One of the hardest things about being a preacher is that you have to explain to people that God can’t be explained! When all is said and done, at the end of the day, God defies all our theories and dogma and creeds and concerns. God remains enigmatic, mysterious and unpredictable.

Some things we can be sure about though. One of them is this. God’s purposes in the world are not going to be accomplished unless God’s people take the work of God’s kingdom upon their shoulders.

We rejoice that Christ died on the cross for us. Unless that rejoicing in turn causes us to be willing to ‘take up our cross and follow Him,’ then all that saving and setting free and liberating and healing and forgiving will never happen.

We may say, “Now if God came and spoke to me through a bush then I’d believe.” It’s not going to happen. Do you know why? God has spoken His ultimate word. God’s final word came not through a bush, but through a tree. Through a wooden cross that was outlined on Calvary’s hill, the cross upon which Jesus Christ was crucified. Moses is told in (Exodus 3:8). “I have come down to deliver them.

In Jesus Christ came to deliver us. And then God said to Moses, as God says to us today…(Exodus 3:10) “So come, I will send you…

You may have walked in here today thinking this was common ground. No. This is holy ground. I challenge you this morning to hear God’s call in this place. I challenge you to respond to God’s call. The church is not a holy place but a holy people. Unless you and I respond to the call God places upon our lives, then God’s work will not happen.

Holy Ground cannot be captured in buildings or confined to deserts. Go with God this week, and wherever you go, will be holy ground. Carry Christ in our heart and walk in the presence of the Holy Spirit and the common places of our daily lives can become touching places, places where God’s love can be known and communicated to others.

Tread gently,
walk in peace
and go with God.
For we stand on Holy ground!

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.