Monday, November 27, 2017

Christ The King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Firstly, Considering Christ as King can bring Hope.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 20, 2017

Thessalonian Songs 4. Blessed Assurance

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Thessalonian Songs 3. Thou Art Worthy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.