Monday, December 11, 2017

Advent 2 Make a Straight Path

Readings: Isaiah 40:1-11, Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13, 2 Peter 3:8-15, Mark 1:1-8
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, December 10 2017

I like the way Mark begins his gospel. Mark 1:1 ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ It raises the question as we read his words, “Well, how do we get started?" If we want to follow Jesus Christ, where can we begin?” And immediately Mark launches into a statement from one of Israel’s greatest prophets, the prophet Isaiah, ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.'

In other words, “If you really want to pursue this path, if you really want to take on board and experience some gospel good news, than you are going to have to be serious about straightening your life out.” And to hammer that point home Mark introduces us to one of the most seriously radical characters of the New Testament, the no compromise, get your life straight before it's too late, locust and wild honey eating, leather belted, camel hair clothed, John the Baptist.

When John the Baptist preaches, he isn’t about to invite you to consider joining a discussion group or ask you throw a few dollars in the plate following a minute for mission, he wants to throw you in the river. He is going to put his hand on your neck, push you down under the water and pull you up again looking undignified and possibly gasping for breath if you weren’t ready for the dunking.

Whilst John is doing all this he is proclaiming and preaching; "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of His sandals. I have baptized you with water; but He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.

Now John was a person who had a powerful a charisma that enabled him to be taken seriously. For him to say “One is coming after me is more powerful than I,” surely that should make folk sit up and take notice! Again, the one who is to come won’t baptize in water but will baptize in Holy Spirit. This is taking things to a whole new level.

I guess because we know the rest of the story, the impact of this first chapter is a little lost on us. We know how Jesus came to be baptized by John and that whole account of the dove and the voice from heaven declaring “This is my Son with whom I am well pleased.

We know from Matthew and Luke about the strange circumstances surrounding the birth of both John and Jesus. We know how another John in a great theological gospel tells us “The Word became flesh and dwelt amongst us and we have seen His glory, the glory as of a Father's only Son, full of grace and truth.” All of that is to come. All of that is what in this season of Advent we are preparing ourselves to celebrate. The coming of Christ. The ‘Christ-Mass.’ The Christ event. The Incarnation.

But today I invite us to draw back, to back up to Marks' first chapter. To try and see what there is in these first few verses that can help us truly prepare for what we know by hindsight is to come. What can help us to be embraced by the good news as we travel together through the Advent season? And we need look no further than Isaiah’s words. ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.'

The advantage of a straight path is that it gets you where you want to go in the shortest possible time. If you grew up as a schoolchild in the British Isles one of the things you learned about very early in geography class, was the historic network of Roman Roads that spanned out like a spiders web from London. As far as gradients and mountains allowed the ancient Romans built their roads in perfectly straight lines. It was upon these roads that the Roman Centurions marched, the chariots were hauled and communications kept flowing.

That network of roads, the ability to get from A to B in the shortest possible time, was nothing short of a revolution that reshaped the way a whole nation moved and traveled. Previously ancient paths would follow rivers and valleys and weave from dwelling to dwelling. The whole idea of connecting a place some 250 miles away with another place by a straight as possible line hadn’t been considered.

The Romans not only had the ingenuity to come up with the plan, but among the conquered masses found the work force to make it happen. Slavery proved to provide an extremely efficient means of achieving otherwise insurmountable tasks. So a network of roads was built in Roman times across the British Isles that have proved to be the pattern of communications ever since. What is remarkable about some of the roads the Romans built is that 2250 plus years later some are still in existence. Obsolescence was not a word they had in their vocabulary.

How where they built? Construction began by digging a ditch with plough and spades as far down as the firmest ground they could find. Into this ditch was placed layers of rock and stone. On top and around this were dumped further layers of rubble, gravel and small stones, the actual materials depending upon what was available in the area. The most important architectural feature was the use of layers.

When it came to within an inch or two of the surface these layers were covered with gravel and trampled down, a process called ‘pavimentare’ from where we get the English word ‘pavement’. Finally concrete was poured and paving stones laid, some of which would be shaped for drainage, so the elements would not destroy what had been so carefully laid down.

At the beginning of Marks gospel John the Baptist challenges the would be follower of Jesus Christ to get ready, to be prepared and make the paths straight. To do so we need to attempt a number of things. We need a plan to get straight. John would call that repentance. We need to dig down deep and build on something solid. Having found something solid we then need to build layers upon that strong foundation.

Repentance isn’t just saying sorry. Repentance is showing genuine remorse for a failure that we have been responsible for and then making plans to see that it doesn’t happen again. Repentance was a turn around moment, that John symbolized by putting people down in the waters as a public sign they wanted to wash away the old and begin again.

To get our lives straight with God, we have to make plans. We have to make choices. We have to decide how the process of repentance is going to work for us. What do we need to cut out? What do we need to avoid? What changes in direction do we need to take? Like the architect planning a Roman Road the terrain of our lives has to be surveyed. Like the repentant soul going down to the river to pray, this evaluation has to be intensely personal and a response to a call of God we feel on our life.

Let’s say we’ve reached that point. We want to change, but we don’t know how. Then we need to start digging. Digging through the false ideology, the consumerism, the hedonism, the feel-good-ism, the shallow messages and quick fixes that our culture constantly bombards us with, dig deep, dig down, until we hit the solid rock foundation of the love of Jesus Christ. Until we build our lives on the rock of His love we are the foolish person who builds on the sand. Until we find our security in His grace, we remain insecure. We need a solid foundation and God in Christ is offering us that foundation upon which to build.

Then come the layers. How do we build on the foundation? We are fortunate. We have a whole collection of 66 instructional manuals collected together in a manual we call the Bible. Among its pages we will find many suggested layers. The layer of prayer. The layer of worship. The layer of service. The layer of study. The layer of stewardship. The layer of thanksgiving. Layers of hope, joy, perseverance, peace, and truth.

Be aware this is not a process we can do alone. God has provided a personal instructor and enabler known as the Holy Spirit. It is the Spirit’s strength, not our own that will get us straightened out. God has provided a whole construction crew He calls the Church to stand alongside us and work with us. We can’t do it alone.

Keep building these layers. Keep trampling them down. You can even set in place some permanent stones… think of those as moments of commitment. That milestone you reached. That habit that was broken. That relationship that was formed. That new realization you had of just how much your life mattered to God. The moment of baptism or confirmation. That open door of opportunity. That sacred moment of deeper commitment that has stayed with you.

And of course there has to be concrete. To make it smooth. To fill in the gaps. To hold it all together. The concrete that is made of the exact same material as the foundation, namely the binding, unifying, concrete reality of Jesus love.

Making a straight path isn’t easy. But because Christ came and died and God raised Him from the dead, it is possible. It will be a lifelong journey and therefore it is important that we take time out along the way for nurture and fellowship.

Prepare the way of the Lord, make His paths straight.' counsels the incomparable John the Baptizer. Today let us recommit ourselves to building our lives on the solid foundation of Jesus Christ that His Holy Spirit may change us and renew us, that in our lives we may witness a new ‘Beginning of the Good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.’ AMEN.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.


Monday, December 4, 2017

Advent 1 Restore us, O God!

Readings: Isaiah 64:1-9, 1 Cor. 1:3-9, Mark 13:24-37, Psalm 80:1-6,17-18
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church , MD, December 3 2017

Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Earlier in our service we lit a candle for hope. We also earlier heard verse 3 from Psalm 80 that pleaded with God “Restore us O God; let Your face shine, that we may be saved

Hope can be a hard commodity to catch hold of when everything seems to be going wrong. You went along to the doctors thinking it was nothing serious, and they found something nasty. The company is downsizing and you have no seniority. A family member has gone off the rails and the implications are going to be tough to handle. How do we get through such times?

During the reign of King Josiah, (640-609 BC) Judea was ravaged by their Assyrian neighbors. Whole families were destroyed, livelihoods taken away and only a remnant survived in Jerusalem to tell the tale through their tears. They were in a hopeless situation. Their enemies mocked them. They felt abandoned by an angry God punishing them for their unfaithfulness.

Do you ever feel that way when things start going wrong? God is angry? That the bad things that happen to you are a punishment for something you’ve done? Be assured by this Psalm, you are not the first to feel that way; the whole Judean nation felt that God was mad at them.

The sobering truth was that they had been unfaithful. God told them what would happen if they carried on down that road and it had happened just like the prophets of doom had said. Likewise, there are times in our lives when the things that befall us are nobodies fault but our own. We are willful. We reject good advice. We go our own way.

The question then is if there is any hope for trapped, abandoned, foolish, people like us? When things go bad what can we do? That’s where this Psalm is coming from. And here is the advice we are offered.
  • Firstly, Remember. We remind ourselves, not of what we have done or of what has been done to us, but remind ourselves who God is and what God can do.
  • Secondly, Reach Out. We call on God to help us. We turn our tears to prayers.
  • Thirdly, Rest. We rest… in the sense of waiting. Waiting, not in the manner of one about to be ushered into the dentist’s surgery, but in quiet anticipation that in God’s time, redemption will come.
Remember

When things in our lives turn from hope to hopelessness it is good to remember that we are not God. As we say in our Ash Wednesday service “From dust we have come and to dust we shall return.” Life comes with no guarantee. We will mess up. We are all sinners who fall short of the glory of God. We are not immune from the bad things that befall the rest of creation. Chaos and decay are all around and it’s a miracle we make it through even a single day on this planet unscathed. You messed up bad enough to make God angry? Join the club! Life’s not fair? Go figure! That’s the way it’s always been.

Yet in the midst of that remembering our own mortality the Psalmist bids us to remember the immortality and character of God. Psalm 80 begins with beautiful imagery. God is ‘The Shepherd of Israel’ who ‘led Joseph like a flock’. God is the One enthroned above the angels, resplendent in light, powerful, mighty, and awesome!

Remember what God can do and has done. Troubles in the present always seem to obscure the bigger picture. When you are under a cloud you don’t see or feel the sunshine. But the sun is still shining. Like Jimmy Buffet says, “Its’ five o clock somewhere!’ Don’t allow circumstances that are currently dragging you down to define your destiny.

Israel had known God as the Shepherd that had led them through times when all had seemed lost. As they recall that fact, and remember that God was still in the shepherding business, a glimmer of hope starts to appear. If God could do it then, and God hasn’t changed, then… maybe… God really can help us now!

It is at that point of realization the Psalmist prays; “Restore us O God; let Your face shine, that we may be saved.” Already we are guided towards the second thing we need to do to if we are to journey from hopelessness to hope, we need to;

Reach Out

Oh Lord’ cries the Psalmist, “How long will you be angry with Your peoples prayers?” Notice from these words the brutal honesty of the Psalmist. Whilst in his heart he knows God can bring redemption, he also knows how bad they had messed up. God had to be angry. Their God was a just God. Yet, the psalmist reasons, God was still the Shepherd. Shepherds didn’t stay angry for ever. So the Psalmist just throws the prayer out there!

I have something to say that may be a revelation to Presbyterians like us, with our liturgy and well structured prayers and beautiful anthems and stained glass glories. The revelation? It’s O.K. to tell God how you really feel. In fact, the words and phrases you use may be grammatically correct and poetically perfect but if they don’t reflect what is in your heart, God will be listening to your heart and not hearing your words. The only prayers that God hears are the real ones.

So if today you are at one of those crossroads where you really don’t know what to pray then, follow the Psalmists lead, just throw it out there! If there are things that you really want to tell God, but are afraid to say what you are really thinking, then its time to come clean. God’s heard it all before so don’t think that when we come with our probing questions that God will be knocked from the throne.

If it helps to yell then yell. If the prayer comes through bitter tears then it comes through bitter tears. If it is made through gritted teeth then pray through gritted teeth. If you are to ashamed to admit what’s going on then tell God you are to ashamed to admit what’s going on… and take it from there. And by the way… God does know what’s been going on. That all-seeing, all knowing thing… kind of big-brother-ish, but God’s always been that way! So if you need help, ask for help. If you have messed up, own up. If you are fed up, then give it up. Time and time again that’s what the Psalmists do!

Remember who God is and what God can do.
Reach out to God with what’s really on your mind.
Thirdly; Rest.

Rest

Rest… in the sense of waiting. Wait, not in the manner of one about to be ushered into the dentist’s surgery, but in quiet anticipation that in God’s time, redemption will come. Advent is a time of waiting. Waiting for the Savior to come. We light a candle of hope. We don’t hope for things we already have, we hope for things that are yet to be.

Advent hope is not hope without purpose, it is hope focused on promise. It is hope focused on the promises of God, that God will redeem, that God will intervene, that God will come into the midst of our hurts and concerns and will help us through.

The book of Hebrews 4:9 tells us ‘There remains therefore a rest for the people of God.’ (NKJ) The ‘rest’ there being spoken of is not talking about ‘couch time’ or ‘lazing round in a hammock on a sunny afternoon,’ but rest in terms of a place where a persons heart and emotions can be settled because they know God will take care of things, in God’s way and in God’s time.

This was the rest the Psalmist was seeking. The people had messed up. They were receiving the due penalty for their wrongdoing. But a new day would come. They were forgiven. God’s love would once more shine upon them. God was still God and they were still God’s people.

“Life isn't about waiting for the storm to pass.....it's about learning to dance in the rain!” So as we begin the journey to Christmas, as the weather reminds us it’s winter and there are bills on the side waiting to be paid. As there are concerns we carry and things we don’t want to face… take time to put on your dancing shoes! God still loves us! Jesus still died for us! God still sends His Holy Spirit to comfort us!
  • Remember: Remember who God is and what God can do
  • Reach Out: With prayers, with tears, with honesty and integrity come before God aware of your need and the ability of God’s Holy Spirit to touch your life
  • Rest: Give time for God to act in your situation. Be quietly confident in God’s Word that comes through Scripture and through others peoples words and actions as they respond to God’s promptings. Trust that God will act in God’s time and rest confident in such assurances.
And to the One the Psalmist describes as ‘The shepherd of Israel, who led Joseph like a flock! You who are enthroned above the cherubim’ (Psalm 80:1), the One who sent His Son Jesus Christ to be our Savior and sends His Holy Spirit to be our comforter and guide, be all honor, praise and glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D