Monday, October 30, 2017

Thessalonian Songs 2. Pass It On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which leads us to a second thing,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Thessalonian Songs 1. Standing On The Promises

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Wilderness Living 7. Sacred Cows and Faithful Souls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

His desire that God's name be honored.

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

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

His remembrance of God's promises.

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

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

His belief in prayer.

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

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

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

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

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

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Wilderness Living 6. Survival Strategies

Readings: Psalm 19, Philippians 3:4b-14, Matthew 21:33-46, Exodus 20:1-4, 7-9, 12-20
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, October 8 2017

In recent years there has been no shortage of TV reality shows about surviving in the wilderness. “Survivorman”, “Man, Woman, Wild,” “Man vs. Wild” with Bear Grylls. In such shows members of the general public are pitted against the forces of jungle, nature and wilderness. With a little help from their celebrity presenters, we see if they can survive. We witness them struggling, arguing, complaining, and we wonder if they can actually make it out alive.

Our Old Testament readings over the summer and into Fall have followed the wilderness struggles of the Hebrew people. It was great to be delivered from slavery in Egypt. Their celebrity guide Moses was certainly one tough dude! We have seen them struggling, arguing, moaning and mumbling and, if we didn't know how the story turned out, we may be wondering if they would ever make it to the promised land.

For all of us, life can sometimes turn out to be a wilderness experience. We wonder how we are going to get through. In the book of Exodus, God offers to the people 10 survival strategies. We know them by their much more religious title of “The 10 commandments.” How can we, in our day, interpret the big 10 in such a way as they help us through the struggles and strains of 21st Century living? That's what I'd like to think about this morning.

The laws Moses brings down from the mountain have a lot to say about “getting along.” “Getting along” with each other, with God, and sometimes with themselves, was a real problem for the Hebrews as they traveled together.

“Getting along” continues to be a major source of friction at almost every level of life today. Be it international or national politics, getting along with neighbors, getting along with our church family or our natural family, or simply trying to come to terms with our own peculiarities, “Getting along” remains a huge concern for us all. The Ten commandments offer us some wonderful instruction for at least three areas of the relationship game.

  • Getting along with God
  • Getting along with ourselves
  • Getting along with each other.

Getting along with God

I am confident that every one of us here has come across the biblical text that tells us “God is love.” Have we considered the implication in that saying? That there is no greater love in all creation than God. That the love of God is the standard by which all other love is measured. That the love of God surpasses all other loves and expressions of love and descriptions of love.

So when I say that “God loves you,” please be clear that what I mean is that God is crazy, madly, furiously, unflinchingly, insatiably in love with you. That God cares for you in a deeper and more intimate and passionate way for you than any other ever will. That's why God sent His only begotten Son to die upon a cross. That's how much God could not stand being apart from us, separated from us or divorced from us. God's love has broken every barrier down.

When you read that the Lord our God is a jealous God, then absolutely that has to be the case. Because if you really care about somebody you are possessive and guarded and zealous and totally desire to be the center of their hearts desire and you don't allow other commitments to darken and minimize your love.

So the first two commandments are about having no other gods or idols and the third one is about not using the name of the One who loves you in a way that betrays and cheapens that love. “You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself an idol. You shall not make wrongful use of the name.”

The gods of the ancients were nothing more than personifications of people desires. You want war? You got Mars. You want love? You have Aphrodite. You want wine? Meet Bacchus. You want beauty? Try Venus. Today we may not assign supernatural status to our desires but they are no less powerful than the gods of the ancients.

Power. Beauty. Status. Gratification. Money. Celebrity. Call them by whatever name you wish. They are the gods people seek instead of the God whose nature is self-giving love. And the hole they seek to fill remains empty until God's true love fills that chasm in our soul.

No wonder, when Jesus was asked what was the first and most important command of them all, He replied:Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. (Mark 12:30). It was St Augustine who centuries later would write; You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.

All these other passions that we have... all these other 'gods' and 'idols' that call to us … they cannot satisfy our greatest need. Only when we enthrone the one true God as the core of our desire, does everything else take it's rightful place. God alone can satisfy the hungry heart. Jesus tells us "Put God's kingdom first. Do what God wants you to do. Then all other things will be added on!” (paraphrase of Matthew 6:33)

We also need to be aware that God is not remotely interested in what our personal agenda might be. If we believe we can use God to get what we want out of this life, then that is taking God's name in vain. We were created to honor Him. Don't get that the wrong way round. Discipleship is not “My will be done” it is “Lord, whatever it costs, whatever it takes, wherever it leads, Thy will be done!”

As they wandered in the wilderness the Hebrew people were neglectful of their relationship with God. They quickly allowed troubles and trials to obliterate from their perspective that fact the God of life who had delivered them from slavery, was on their side. As we navigate the wilderness of our own life, we can learn from their mistake!

But, if that is ever going to happen, then we need to take seriously the fourth commandment. “Remember the sabbath day, and keep it holy.” I would suggest to you that if the first three commandments are about getting along with God, the fourth one is about ...

Getting along with ourselves

The fourth commandment is linked to the first creation account and the notion that God rested on the seventh day. It reminds us that if we spend every hour of every day with the sole purpose of gain in mind then we eventually lose our souls. If we do not allow creation itself to rest, it can no longer have time for rejuvenation. If we do not allow ourselves time to reflect and renew our lives, we lose our sense of self.

By the time Jesus walked among the Hebrew people the “Sabbath” command had become a burden. There were so many laws about what could and couldn't be done on the Sabbath that only the most rigorous and legalistic could ever hope to succeed in keeping to them. Enforcing Sabbath laws had become yet another way for a small minority to exercise control over others.

When Jesus, in compassion, performs acts of healing on the Sabbath, the religious elite call Him to task as a transgressor of the law. We read His response in Mark 2:27 “Then Jesus said to them, "The Sabbath was made to meet the needs of people, and not people to meet the requirements of the Sabbath. Or as it appears in the Message Bible “Jesus said, "The Sabbath was made to serve us; we weren't made to serve the Sabbath.

If we are to build a relationship with God, we have to take time away from other things to focus on that relationship. The Sabbath was designed to give us that time. We need Sabbath time to connect with God. We need Sabbath time to connect with creation. We need Sabbath time to connect with each other. And, most of all, we need Sabbath time to connect with ourselves.

“God... you don't know what You are asking. I'm so busy!” And God replies; “I'm asking you to live!
To stop acting like a human 'doing' and become a human 'being'.” As Jesus elsewhere in Mark's gospel tells us;And what do you benefit if you gain the whole world but lose your own soul? (Mark 8:36)

When we look at “Sabbath” through the lens of legalism, as though it were yet another thing to gain us extra credit on our heavenly CV, as though we will end up at the pearly gates and the first question will be, “Now you didn't miss church to mow the lawn last Sunday did you?” then we are totally missing the meaning of Jesus words, "The Sabbath was made to serve us; we weren't made to serve the Sabbath.

In the list of God's survival strategies is this one command that is all about us taking the time and making the space to rest in God's presence and build our relationship with God, not as a legalistic observance but as a way of experiencing wholeness and “Shalom”... as a way of imbibing the peace which passes all understanding.

If we don't take care of ourselves and our relationship with God we are not well placed to take care of others. The final survival strategies are all about...

Getting along with each other.

These are principles that we hold in common with people of all religions and those who claim no religion. They are principles that just make sense.

We are invited to treat those who have nurtured our lives with honor and respect. Particularly as they get older and are unable to take care of themselves. Be they parents or mentors or carers … whoever it is that has helped make us into the people we are today... it's just the right thing to do to acknowledge that we wouldn't be here without them... and to care for those nearest and dearest to our hearts. Honor your father and mother.

Don't go around killing each other. (So terrible what just happened in Las Vegas.) Don't go around killing each other. That seems so obvious, yet in a world that remains addicted to violence as a way of problem solving and never ceases from the task of preparing for war, maybe it is a strategy so obvious that we struggle to relate to it beyond the personal level. Jesus did tell us to love our enemies... and every generation struggles to understand how that best can be done. His example of self-sacrifice remains as a light to guide our thoughts and actions.

Be faithful in your relationships. Don't be divided in your loyalties. Don't profess love for one and then go and profess love for another while they are looking the other way. Let your love be as genuine as Christ's love for you. Don't use people as though they were commodities put on this planet for your own personal fulfillment, as though their feelings didn't matter. All of this is implicit in that commandment “You shall not commit adultery.”

Taking stuff that you have no rights to is another no-no. Don't steal. Don't steal peoples time. You can never repay that. Be punctual. Don't make every meeting with others all about yourself, because you are taking away other peoples right to be heard. Don't belittle people with harsh words and actions because you are stealing their dignity in an attempt to cover your own insecurities. Theft is not just about personal property.

Don't tell lies. Don't live lies. Don't have words on your lips that have no meaning because eventually people stop listening. Use your words to encourage not to pull down. If you can't say something positive, consider if your words are actually accomplishing anything except massaging your personal ego. Walk in the truth. John's third letter tells us; I have no greater joy than to hear that my children are walking in the truth. (3John 1:4). Just as truth is a lifestyle so can deception be a way of living. Only truth is a fruit of the Spirit!

Finally, don't go around making your focus “Stuff other people have.” Learn to be content with the blessings God has given you. Because until you do, no matter how much more you get, you will never be satisfied. Don't envy the abilities and achievements of others while belittling your own. We are not all the same. Acknowledge and accept your uniqueness. Be the you that God designed you to be. Don't try and be somebody else or think that if only you had all that stuff somebody else seems to have then that would bring you happiness. If you don't find joy in the Lord, then you'll never discover it.

Survival Strategies for wilderness living. The Ten Commandments are a gift that speak to us about getting along with God, getting along with ourselves and getting along with each other. In the midst of a world that can seem like a wilderness, we would do well to take their advice.

I sometimes wonder if the final wish of Moses would be to suggest that we “Keep taking the tablets!”
May we continue to apply the wisdom of God to our daily lives. And to God's name be the Glory! Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Wilderness Living 5: Bread of Heaven

Reading: Psalm 105: 1-6,37-45, Matthew 20:1-16, Philippians 1:21-30, Exodus 16:2-15
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, September 24 2017

I admit it. When I am hungry, I’m a grouch. Blame it on the blood sugar, blame it on the stomach sending negative messages to the brain, blame it on my “I eat, therefore I am” nature, but (and my wife Yvonne will agree with me on this one, and that’s not something a husband can always say about a wife,) when I’m not a regular eater I become a complainer. A Big-Time Grouch.

Exodus16:2 tells us that ‘The whole congregation of the Israelites complained against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness.’ I read that and I’m thinking, “I don’t blame them. They were hungry!” I can “High Five” and say “AMEN” to folks with that kind of temperament. I suspect that if I’d been there I’d have been in the line to put my complaint to Moses and Aaron.

In a lot of ways they have a very legitimate complaint. Being slaves under the Pharaoh’s repressive regime, was no picnic, yet it was preferable to starving to death in the desert. Some commentators suggest that the people had forgotten how bad it was in Egypt and point to how nostalgia has a habit of glossing over the bad and making too much of the benefits, but, from this stomach’s perspective, I beg to disagree.

There are times when it’s O.K. to complain. You meet somebody and you ask them, “How’s things?”. They sigh and say, “Oh.. well.. I can’t complain .. and even if I did nobody wants to listen.” When people say “Can’t complain” sometimes what they really mean is, “You wouldn’t believe how cruddy life is right now, and I’m at my wits end and I really don’t know how I’m getting through.”

British people have often got this off to a fine art! The Australians call the British “Wingin’ Poms”, because some of my fellow countryfolk have such a reputation for constant moaning and groaning, under the guise of saying “Hey everything’s O.K, really, don’t worry”.

I think it’s in the movie about the Griswald’s European Vacation, that there’s a scene where one of the ex-Monty Python actors, Eric Idle gets knocked off his bicycle, then he falls over, then something else bad happens and all the time he just keeps saying, “Oh no. No problem. Quite all-right.” Or I think of that scene in Monty Python’s “Holy Grail” movie where the two knights are in combat and after one of them is almost totally dismembered, he says, “Oh no, just a flesh wound, I’ve had worse”.

Nobody likes a complainer. People of all nationalities try and avoid making it look like they are complaining even when they are. Yet, in spite of all that, I maintain that there are times when complaining is legitimate. I think that if I were out in the desert, with a whole host of people facing starvation, without even catching a glimpse of the Promised Land I would feel I had grounds for filing a grievance.

From a human perspective it seems that getting mad at Moses and antagonizing Aaron would be justifiable. But, and I hate to say this, from a Divine perspective, their complaining was entirely the result of a lack of faith. Their problem isn’t that they had forgotten how bad it was in Egypt, but rather that they had forgotten how good God was in bringing them out from Egypt.

“God is Good.. all the Time
All the Time.. God is Good”

They failed to remember that this God who had led them into the wilderness, had, when they were in Egypt, heard their cries, seen their tears and acted on their behalf. They had lost sight of the fact that God still heard their fears, still saw their plight and was still acting on their behalf.

Being a disciple of Jesus Christ opens up to us options that are not available to people who don’t have faith. Become a disciple of Jesus Christ and you will unlock your life to a whole spectrum of possibilities. A disciple can, in any given situation, make a choice as to how they will view their circumstances. We can look at life from the human side, and find a whole lot to complain about, or we can look at things from a Divine perspective and discover whole areas of life in which we are called to exercise trust in God.

The community calls Moses and Aaron to account for themselves. “What are you doing, bringing us out here to starve?” Did you pick up on the answer that they give the people? Moses firstly assures them that by the time evening came around they would know that the Lord God had led them out of Egypt. Then, Exodus 16:8 ‘Moses said, "When the LORD gives you meat to eat in the evening and your fill of bread in the morning, because the LORD has heard the complaining that you utter against Him - what are we? Your complaining is not against us but against the LORD."

To complain about hunger and express legitimate fears was one thing. God had heard that complaint and was doing something about it. To suggest that the whole Exodus from Egypt had somehow been the work, not of any divine agent, but attributed to Moses and Aaron’s hands, that was the mistake.

It may be flattering that the people considered Moses and Aaron capable of coming up with such a cunning plan, but the dark side of the picture is that it revealed the people had shifted their focus from trusting God, to trusting in each other. One thing is for sure. We can’t always be sure about each other.

Fact is we make compromises, we forget promises, we lose sight of what God calls us to be, and we need each others prayers and encouragement, because at times our service of God feels like a wilderness and we get hungry for something better and the temptation is always for us to look to each other rather than to God to meet our needs.

When we hear of pastors who fall by the wayside or Christian leaders found guilty of some misdemeanor we think, “How can people called by God turn out to be such rotten apples?”

Reformed theology suggests the reason is simply that we are all rotten apples, that aside from the love of God we are all hopeless cases, that for all of us, be we pastors, elders, deacons, youngsters, oldsters, rich or poor, male or female, black or white, whether we put our milk in the coffee before we put the coffee in the cup or whether we prefer to put the coffee in the cup before we put the milk in it, for all of us the natural inclination of our lives is to do anything but serve God and do God’s will.

Presbyterian doctrine takes Grace seriously because it takes sin seriously. Somebody was once alleged to have said, “I didn’t know what sin was until I met a Presbyterian.” In our bulletin we put our “Prayer Confession of Sin and Word of Assurance” way near the start of our service because we know that it doesn’t take us long, in the presence of God, to realize that we’ve messed up and need God’s renewing and forgiving, before we can get on with anything else in our lives.

Our final hymn this morning, “Guide me Oh thy great Jehovah, pilgrim through this barren land” contains that wonderful stanza, “Bread of Heaven, Bread of Heaven, Feed me till I want no more, Feed me till I want no more”. Over here in America I’m afraid you don’t sing this hymn with the same passion as some of your brothers and sisters over in Wales.

See, when the Welsh sing that hymn, it builds to a roof-raising climax. The first “Feed me till I want no more” is echoed by the tenors and basses, “Want no more”... that phrase is often held as long as whoever may be leading the singing can stand it, before it crashes back down to earth with a resounding and resolute “Feed me till I want no more”.

Quite what the significance is in that the Welsh seem to sing it as much at Rugby games as they do in chapel, I’ve never really analyzed, but I’m of the opinion that it’s got something to do with passion and feeling and the desire to be a winner – be it on a field of play or in the much less glamorous game of life.

The quails came. The Manna came. And the people turned to God in worship and in praise. They stopped complaining and they started rejoicing. And, (wow!) what a change it can make in a persons life if they can move from being a complainer to being a proclaimer of the Good News that Jesus Christ died for our sins, was raised that we might have abundant life and that the Holy Spirit of God can nurture our lives as though we were feeding on “Bread from Heaven.” So what’s it going to be? Complainer or Proclaimer?

As a church what a difference it makes when we can shift our focus from what we can do to what God can do. As a body of God’s people in this place, what a difference it can make when we face our challenges not as ‘Cause for complaints’ but as “Opportunities to experience the Grace of God”. So what’s it going to be? Complainer or Proclaimer?

Of course we have bills to pay. Of course we have physical needs. But where are we finding the resources to meet that challenge? Are we making the same mistakes the Israelites did in the Wilderness? Trying to find somebody to blame when actually the problem is we’ve lost sight of trusting in God?

It is much easier to ‘murmur and complain’ than take up the challenge of carrying a Cross in Jesus name. There is nothing radical in pretending that everything’s all right when there are some things that are wrong and need putting right. I’m not suggesting to anybody that we should put a brave face on things and carry with us some vague hope that we’ll get by in the end.

What I am suggesting is that we put our focus where it ought to be as Christians, that we look to our Savior Jesus Christ. So again I say; What’s it going to be? Complainer or Proclaimer?

In conclusion I’d remind you of some words that are recorded for us in John’s Gospel.

John 6:35, “Jesus said to them, "I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.”

Hear the Word of God. Hear that invitation afresh today, “Come to me and find satisfaction for your hunger” Hear God’s call for us to exercise faith “Believe in me and I will satisfy your thirst”

“God is Good.. all the Time
All the Time.. God is Good”

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.