Monday, February 26, 2018

On the Easter Road 2 - Which Way Should We Go?

Readings: Psalm 22:23-31, Genesis 17:15-19; Romans 4:18-25; Mark 8:31-38
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, February 25 2018

Late in the Fourth Century, there lived a young man called Telemachus. Telemachus believed that God was calling him to a life of service. He believed that Jesus wanted him to do something with his life that would bring glory to God. But what should he do? There were so many things that a person could do. There were always people around to tell him what he should do. Which way should he go?

The town where he lived wasn't a bad place. It had its faults and it had its strengths. Maybe God was telling him to stay where he was and just get on with living his life as best as he could. So, for much of his life that is exactly what he did. He worked. He played. He prayed. He involved himself in the life of his growing church community. He liked people and people liked him. But inside he was kind of restless. Although God was blessing him, He felt that where he was, wasn't where he should always stay. He kept searching for the right way.

He talked it over with some of his friends. He talked it over with some of the church people who's advice he respected. Should I stay or should I go? Some people said do this, some people said do that. He was very impressed by some of the monks at the monastery out in the desert. Those guys had given everything up for God. "That must be it," he thought. “That's what I'll do with my life.”

So he told his friends and his family and his church that he was joining the order and that things were going to be different from now on. Some of them were happy for him. Some were disappointed because they liked him being around. Others shook their heads and said, "Nothing good will come of this".

The community that he joined were big on silence and isolation. Telemachus threw himself into a life of prayer and meditation and fasting. He sought to do nothing but spend time in contact and deep fellowship with God. He knew that some great things had come to the world through the lives of those who showed such whole hearted commitment. Some had written books about their experiences which had blessed so many others. Some had experienced moments of revelation that they shared with the world and which changed the way people thought about God. There were amazing stories going around of the miracles that God had done in answer to the prayers of the faithful.

In isolation and silence Telemachus continued to seek his God. At first he was real good at it. The disciplined lifestyle suited him. There was a real bond of fellowship between the brothers. Although they spent much time alone, there were times when they got together and shared their experiences. They were really going places with God. But as Telemachus read his bible and prayed and did all the things a good monk was to do good, he became uneasy. There was something wrong.

So, again, he talked things through with some of the brothers. Some said, "It's the devil. Jesus wants you here with us. You are doing a great thing." Others said this, others said that. Which way should he go?

He had a lot of time to think things through. He had all sorts of questions in his mind. Why was he in the monastery? Was it for his sake, or was it for God's sake? Was it selfless devotion that drove him along, or was it selfish love? As he meditated on the bible he noticed that, yes, there were all these wonderful teachings about unceasing prayer and withdrawing to quiet places and about the God who sees what you did in secret rewarding you in secret ways. There were also a whole host of other passages about the way Jesus interacted with the crowds, went to peoples houses and to their parties and to their towns and to their cities.

One day he rose from his knees, went to see the head of the monastery and told them he was leaving. If he was to serve God, the desert was no longer the place. The cities were full of people needing a Savior and they weren't going to find out unless someone went and told them. Of course some of the brothers weren't so pleased. Some would miss him. Some thought he was doing the wrong thing. Some thought he was trying to tell them that what they were doing was the wrong thing. And just like when he had gone into the monastery, there were those who said "Nothing good will come of this."

Now which road should he take? He'd taken a vow of poverty when he went into the order, so he didn't have two cents to rub together. Where should he go? Back home maybe? No, it would be hard to explain. How about that town in the neighboring province? Or what about heading West? No, let's think big. Where is the biggest, most powerful, most sinful, most needful city in the world?

At that time it was Rome. Rome was miles away but he would get there. All roads led to Rome. So that's the road Telemachus chose to follow. He begged and borrowed, took a job for a while here and there, managed to work his passage on a ship across the seas. It took a while. By the time he got there, he was an older and wiser man and Rome had officially become a Christian city. Hmm. That wasn't one of his expectations. He was going there to help save their souls. Now what would he do?

A great Roman general, Stilicho, had gained a mighty victory over Rome's enemy, the Goths. Stilicho wanted to give thanks for the triumph. There were processions and celebrations and Stilicho rode through the city in triumph, with the young emperor Honorious at his side. It was a bit like the old days, with one exception. Now the crowds poured into the Christian churches to give thanks and not to the pagan temples. Telemachus arrived in the middle of these celebrations.

"Wow!" was his first thought. "This is great!" The Kingdom of God has come and arrived in Rome. A holiday had been proclaimed and a big show down at the Arena. Eighty thousand people gathered at the arena, and this time no Christians were thrown to the lions. Telemachus thrilled to see the chariot racing, but noticed a disturbing change in the mood of the crowd as it came to the grand finale, the Gladiatorial contests.

Although Rome had declared itself Christian, some of the barbaric practices of the old Rome remained. One of those was that at the climax of the games, some of the people captured in war would have to put on the gladiators costume and fight. But this was no game. This was to the death. They were to kill each other to satisfy the blood lust of the crowds.

They came into the arena and Telemachus was appalled. This wasn't right. Was not Rome now a Christian City? If so, how could this entertainment be glorifying to God? Men for whom Christ had died were killing each other for the amusement of an allegedly Christian populace!

"Let the Games commence!" shouted the Games Master. The crowd roared their approval. With hardly time for a thought of what he was doing, Telemachus leaped over the barrier. He was standing there between the two gladiators. "Get him out of there!" the crowd yelled. The gladiators pushed him aside.

"Stupid old man" shouted someone. Somebody else threw a stone. This was good sport. More stones, more shouts of abuse. Telemachus just ran between the gladiators and held up his hands, as if to speak to the crowd. He was ruining their fun. The commander of the games gave an order; a gladiators sword rose, and flashed and stabbed; and Telemachus lay dead on the ground.

At this point something strange happened. The crowd started to become quiet. All of a sudden, although there were eighty thousand people in the arena, the silence was so intense that if one of them had dropped a pin it would have sounded like a thunderclap. Nobody said anything but there was a mass realization that something dreadful had taken place; the killing of a man who had compassion for his enemies .

Some made the connection between what they witnessed in the arena to what they had learned of Christ in their churches. Some wept because a holy man had challenged them in a way words never could do. That was the last day the gladiatorial games were ever held in Rome. Telemachus, through his death, had put a stop to their barbarity.

A famous historian, Gibbon, wrote of him, "His death was more useful to mankind than his life." By losing his life he had done more than he had ever done if he had stayed at home or confined himself to a monastery in the desert.

In our reading from Marks gospel this morning we heard Jesus telling His disciples, "Whoever wishes to save his life shall lose it; but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel's shall save it." (Mark 8:35).

Many voices around us are telling us that we should go their way and that following their path will lead to happiness and satisfaction.

When Jesus started to tell Peter and the other disciples that, from then on, His road would involve being murdered and betrayed and rejected, it was too much for Peter. He couldn't see how that sort of losing your life could help anybody. He took Jesus aside and tried to put Him right. Instead Jesus put him right (and how!) "Get behind Me, Satan; for you are not setting your mind on God's interests but man's."

He wasn't saying that Peter was the Devil. He was saying that for Him to not go to Jerusalem and complete the work He came to do was precisely the thing that the Devil would have loved to have seen happening. God was interested in the salvation of mankind. Peter was only thinking about his personal salvation. Further down the road, he would see things differently.

One commentary on this passage makes the simple statement, "God gave us life to spend and not to keep." If we live in such a way as we are always thinking first of our own profit, ease, comfort and security; if our sole aim in life is to make it as long and trouble free as possible, then we are losing life all the time and we are missing out on the "abundant" life that Jesus would have us discover.

If we spend our lives for others, if we forget health and time and wealth and comfort in our desire to do something for Jesus and for those for whom He died, then we are winning life all the time. If we keep our focus on Him and the things He is calling us to do in the different situations and circumstances of our lives then although our actions will be misunderstood by some, in ourselves we'll know the real blessings and love of God.

Back in the Fourth Century, Telemachus didn't travel to Rome with the intent of stopping the brutality of the arena. He was just someone who went through their life trying to figure out which way to go. When it came to a time he felt he had to make a stand, then for a fleeting glorious moment he came out of the crowds and something totally unexpected and amazingly wonderful took place.

In your own life seek the direction and purpose of God. Try to discern His voice among all the others. Now there's a real challenge! There's always those who will say, "Nothing good will come of this." Sometimes, as Peters untimely advice to Jesus shows, even those closest to us don't really understand the choices we are facing. Sometimes, as Abraham and Sarah, who laughed in disbelief when God said they would have a child in their old age, God's Spirit takes us totally by surprise.

If you walk the Easter Road you will reach those intersections where you say, "Which way do we go now?" Trust in the capacity and grace of God to lead you. Remember, that even when we don't know what He's doing and can't understand why something bad may be happening, He is still in control. At least that's how it seemed to Telemachus, and who am I to disagree?

The Reverend Adrian J Pratt B.D.

Monday, February 19, 2018

On the Easter Road 1 - It Starts!

Readings: Genesis 9:8-17, Psalm 25:1-10, 1 Peter 3:18-22, Mark 1:9-15
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, February 18 2018

I'm not the worlds’ greatest when it comes to computer games. When others are working their way to the end I'm still struggling away on level one. We used to have a game on our old computer based on the Disney film "The Lion King." The beginning was real cute. Just before the game started, one of the characters from the film, Timone, came on screen and said "It Starts".

Today is the first Sunday of Lent. We are on the road to Easter. Over the next several Sundays we will be confronted by a number of passages that call us to travel with Christ. We start here with a passage that speaks of Jesus beginning His mission in Galilee. He is baptized. He is empowered by the Spirit. He is declared by a voice from heaven to be the Son of God. He faces temptation in the wilderness and beats it. That was the preparation. Now the real business gets under way. "It starts".

(Mark 1:14-15) “Now after John was delivered up, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of God, and saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe in the gospel.”

In this verse we see that “It Starts”-
  • With a Challenge. “Now after John was delivered up.” There are challenges that we must face.
  • At the Chosen Time. “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand.” Now is the time for us to receive and declare the Good News.
  • With a Choice. repent ye, and believe in the gospel.” We are invited to say “Yes” to the message of Jesus Christ.
The Challenge
It starts with a challenge. The journey will be a hard one. It will involve struggle and pain, opposition and death but will lead to a glorious resurrection morning. The journey begins "After John was arrested." John was a family friend of Jesus. He was someone that Jesus had high regard for, whom he called the "Elijah" of God sent to prepare the Way. But look where it had landed him! Now he was on death row in the darkness of Herod’s jail.

John’s fate foreshadowed that of Jesus. Jesus is to preach a similar message to John. A message about repentance and a coming Kingdom. The sort of message that led John to jail. It would lead Jesus to a cross. It is impossible to know what was going through the mind of Jesus as He began His ministry, but we do know that as He drew near to His death He prayed to His Father that if there were any way that cup could pass from Him then it would be so.

What should we expect as we walk the path of discipleship? Blessings, riches, health and wealth? Is that why the first disciples left everything to walk with Him? That's not what the bible tells us. "Whoever wants to be my disciple," says Jesus, "Must take up his cross and follow." When He spoke like that a lot of people weren't interested anymore. They turned back. But that was the terms from the start. That was the challenge Jesus faced as He began the journey to Easter.

You and I face challenges in our own lives. Mine are not yours and yours are not mine but they are real challenges. Whatever life may hold in front of us it is not going to be all sweetness and light. If we are to walk into the future with Christ as our King it will make us opponents of those who don't want the kingdom of God to invade their personal kingdoms.

The church today faces many challenges. Some elements in society are openly hostile to the Christian message. Others couldn’t care less. We live in a culture that has sold out to materialism and self-indulgence. The church itself often reflects the values of a compromised world rather than being a radical movement to bring the justice and love of Gods Kingdom to a hurting world. These are challenging times.

The nation faces challenges. The deaths, by shooting, of 17 children in Florida, by a fellow class mate, shows that there is something very, very, very wrong that needs to be put right. There is a huge disagreement about how that can be done. Those who are elected officials at every level of government, along with society as a whole, every community... needs to figure out what will change this deathly situation and prevent it from re-occurring time and time and time again.

People react to challenges in different ways. Some take the defeatist point of view. "There is nothing that can be done. We've left it too late. The problems are too big, too complex. Nothing will change, it will only get worse." Others react with denial. "Problem, what problem? Why do you always look on the dark side? Let's NOT talk about it." Others simply delay. "Why do today what you can put off until tomorrow?"

All this is in stark contrast to the way Jesus begins to bring in the Kingdom. He just strolls out into Galilee and says ‘Now is the time to put things right.’ "The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand."

The Chosen Time.
The fulfillment Jesus spoke of was found in His own self. He was there and He was then. The Kingdom He came to bring was not far away. It was (and still is) at hand. It is nearer than we imagine and closer than we dare believe. He was not only there and then, He is here and now. The time has come and the Kingdom is still at hand.

We pray every Sunday, "Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on the earth as it is in heaven." We recognize that whilst the Kingdom is near, it is not fully here. It is, as Bob Dylan called one of his albums, a "Slow Train Coming". Slow, not in the sense of being ponderous or hesitant, but slow in the sense of plowing purposefully onward unhindered by people’s plans.

You can interpret the word "near" in different ways. If you nearly pass an examination it means you failed it. If you are driving on the road and you swerve to avoid something, then you nearly hit it (although you actually missed it.) If you think, as I sometimes do, of family that are a long way off, you may describe them as being near to your heart, even though they are actually thousands of miles away.

When the scriptures speak of the Kingdom they do so with this element of ambiguity. Yes... the Kingdom has come in Jesus Christ. No... it has not yet fully arrived. It is near. It is at hand. Jesus begins His ministry with the message that the power of God is available to those who open themselves to the Kingdom and its way of loving service.

Do you see? The Kingdom is not a static place. It's a movement. It's a happening. Right now you are either going with its flow or you're out of it. It's either moving you or you are digging in your heels and singing "We shall not be moved". It's either changing you or you're still the same old un-redeemed miserable self that the Devil would be proud to have as a friend.

Getting back to my Lion King computer game when Timone came on the screen and raised his hands to say "It starts", you either got twiddling away on those keys or you lost your life and you were out of energy and you stayed on the same level and then it was "Game Over." Jesus walks into Galilee announcing that the time is now to face the challenges of the gospel. It starts.

And as it starts there are choices we have to make. "Repent ye, and believe in the gospel."

The choices we have to make.
The gospel challenges every part of our lives, all that we are doing and all that we are. To be a disciple does not involve defeat, denial or delay but does demand decision. The time is right. But right for what? What exactly are we supposed to be about? Jesus says "Repent" and "Believe."

Repenting is not just saying sorry. During our Ash Wednesday service, we remember that saying sorry isn't enough. What we need to do is rebuild our fragmented relationship with God and in the process rebuild our relationship to God's world and our relationships with each other.

To repent means to actively do something about the things we're sorry about. We don't repent of our sins by going about in sackcloth and ashes telling everybody what awful people we are, and how miserable our disobedience to the will of God has made us. That's not repentance. That's self-indulgence.

In the light of the current tragedy there needs to be repentance. There needs to be recognition that in some way, we are all responsible for what has happened. People need to be willing to acknowledge we all to blame and work together to solve the problem.

In the Old Testament, Noah, when he learned of the flood that was coming didn't start saying, "Oh, no it's raining. I'm going to get wet and drown." He set about building the boat. Chopping down trees, hammering it together, stocking up with resources, instructed his family on how to deal with things. A lot of those around him thought he'd lost his mind, but who cares what they thought! They weren't the ones who knew the kingdom was near. They weren't the ones who saw the rainbow. They weren't the ones who knew the power of the covenant.

We are the people of the New Covenant. We don't look to a rainbow, but to a cross and an empty tomb. And as we do so, we are changed. We see what sin is capable of in the faces of children gunned down in the middle of an ordinary school day. We see what sin is capable of in the crucifixion of our Lord. “He was pierced for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities.” It was sin like ours that placed Him there. We are responsible for sin and called o turn from it.

We awaken to the possibilities of grace as we gaze at the empty tomb and hear the words of our Risen Lord through His Spirits voice in our hearts. In the midst of tragedy we are not called to point fingers of blame, we are not called to defend our position – we are called to focus on God, on God's Word, on God's son, on God's ability to take situations of desolation and create from within them new beginnings.

Repentance involves choice. Do we choose to spend the time listening for the voice of the Lord among the many other voices that call us to follow them? When we hear His words, do we choose to follow? All the time we have to make choices. Repentance is closely related to belief. Jesus says, "Repent and believe." Believe, not just in anything, but believe in the gospel, believe in the good news. Believe that the Kingdom is near.

Believing is saying “Yes, God has revealed God's love to us in the life of the Son Jesus Christ.” Saying “Yes, He died for our sins that Gods' love may permeate our lives.” Saying “Yes, He was raised to life on Easter morning.” Saying “Yes, His Spirit came in power on Pentecost morning.” Saying “Yes, God's love can transform my life on this Sunday morning in the year of our Lord, Two thousand, and eighteen!”

Yes, God can provide me with the grace and resources I will need to see me through this coming week. Yes, God can use a life as insignificant as mine to be a channel for God's love. Yes, the things I do and say in the coming days will matter to God (and because they matter to God will have an eternal value!)

Yes, because God is a God of all hope, I will have hope in my heart, because God is a God of Peace, I will seek to be a Peacemaker, because God is a God of love I know I am loved by God and so will seek to love others.

To believe is to say “Yes” to the good, wonderful, amazingly beautiful, awe inspiring, death defying, enabling, transforming, renewing, life changing, love bringing, good news of the Gospel.

Say “Yes” to that and "It starts!" We are on the Easter Road. To use computer game terminology, when we've battled through the levels, cracked all the codes, collected all we need for our travels and the screen lights up with the message "Well Done, Game over," we'll be able to say, "Thank God, life is not a game, all the world is not a stage and we are not simply players."

We are God’s children whom God loved enough to send the Son to die upon a cross for; God’s children who though sometimes defeated will be raised up; God’s children over whom God rejoices and whom God longs to have a deeper relationship with in this life and the next. We declare on this first Sunday of Lent as we journey towards Easter... “It Starts!”

May it start in all of our hearts

The Reverend Adrian J Pratt B.D.

Monday, February 12, 2018

It happened on a Mountain

Readings: 2 Kings 2:1-12 , Psalm 50:1-6, II Corinthians 4:3-6, Mark 9:2-9
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, February 11 2018

If it’s a clear day the view from a mountain top can be spectacular. In our reading this morning it was not the view from the mountain, but what Peter, James and John saw happening on the mountain that took their breath away.

Today is Transfiguration Sunday, when churches that follow a liturgical calendar recall what happened when Jesus and a few close friends took a hike up a high mountain, got down to some serious praying and the glory of God descended with dazzling intensity.

As the disciples look on, in the midst of that blinding glory, two of the greatest figures of the Old Testament, Moses, the Law Giver and Elijah the Prophet are glimpsed talking with Jesus. Not surprisingly the disciples are awestruck by what has happened. Prayer meetings… even prayer meetings on mountain tops… didn’t usually turn out like this!

The disciple Peter was the sort of person who wasn’t afraid to speak what was on his mind. At times it won him high praise… such as when He proclaimed Jesus as the Son of God. Other times it got him a rebuke… such as when he tried to talk Jesus out of going to Jerusalem and Jesus told him, “Get behind me, Satan”.

On this occasion his words are just plain inappropriate. Excusable maybe… Peter was scared half to death… but inappropriate nevertheless. Over the sea in my homelands they describe such inappropriate comments as “Dropping a Brick.”

For example if you have an audience with her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth the II of England, ‘dropping a brick’ would be to greet her with the words, “Yo! Lizzy, you look a lot younger on the postage stamps”.

The ‘bricks’ Peter drops seem to have a particular relevance to any church that is seeking to find new ways of outreach or of understanding its mission. What can the bricks Peter dropped on the mountain teach us about our mission as individuals and as a church?

BRICK 1: Peter answers a question nobody was asking

In the pew bibles verse 5 begins, “Then Peter said to Jesus.” In Greek the words translated there as ‘Peter said to’ are from the word (avpokri,nomai) ‘apokrinomai’ which means “to give an answer to a question”. A more accurate translation would read “Then Peter answered Jesus.” (As in the NAB, KJV and NKJV)

There’s Peter’s first brick. Jesus didn’t ask him anything. Nobody asked Peter to throw in his two cents worth. Jesus is in the midst of a conversation with Moses and Elijah. He wasn’t about to start a conversation with Peter. There was stuff going on here that Peter did not understand. It wasn’t a time for offering answers. It was a time for listening and understanding.

I read somewhere that the job of the philosopher was to raise questions nobody was asking and that, correspondingly, theologians and preachers saw their task as answering the philosophers questions. No wonder no body pays attention! “Jesus is the answer.” But what’s the question?

As we seek to minister to others in a changing world we have to answer genuine questions, not simply respond with clich├ęd answers and yesterdays perceptions to what we think others may be asking.

The Gospel message of salvation through the death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ is clear. What’s not so clear is how we connect that message to the circumstances of people’s hearts and lives as they live and move and have their being in the early 21st century. To do that, we need to listen and observe and learn.

If we don’t commit to the listening then all we will be doing is dropping bricks on people from mountain tops. We’ll be interrupting people’s lives in an inappropriate way… offering solutions where there are no problems and fixing things that aren’t broken. And then... when people don’t respond… we’ll start thinking… well what is the point, these people don’t want to listen.

On the contrary, if somebody reaches the needs of your heart, in the way only the Spirit of God is able, then people respond and people are changed. Now that’s the kind of Kingdom business Jesus calls us to be involved in.

BRICK 2: Peter wants to stay on the mountain, not travel to the valley.

The remaining part of verse 5 “Rabbi, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah." Some translations say tents, some say booths, some say tabernacles, some as here use the word dwellings.

Look at Peter’s reaction. “Wow. We’ve got something good going on here. Moses, Jesus, Elijah, the Glory of God. Whatever we do we mustn’t change a thing. Make it permanent. Make this last for ever. It can’t get better than this”.

He wants to stay on the mountain. And if people want to be a part of it… then let them hike up the mountain and join in the party! I mean it’s all in place. ‘Want to know how to live. Come visit Moses. The man with the plan who gave us the Big Ten. Want to know what the future holds? Come visit the tent of Elijah the prophet! Want to meet the Son of God? Pop in to the Jesus tabernacle. It’s all here... on the mountain.’

Trouble was that the experience wasn’t meant to be permanent. Verse 8 tells us ‘Suddenly when they looked around, they saw no one with them any more, but only Jesus.’ The glory moment was just that… a moment in time. A great moment, but not the end of all moments.

Every Christian life and every Christian church travels through moments when things seem to fall into place and everything seems to be working. We even describe those times as “Glory Days.” But they don’t last.

And because they don’t last the temptation is always to enshrine them and lift them up as being the only answer or the one true solution. Traditions can become idols. We serve what has been created rather than the Creator. We like what we know… so down from the mountain we do not want to go!

Don’t change the sanctuary we like it this way. Don’t change the hymns we sing, we like the way we sing them. Don’t mess with our way of doing things we’ve done it this way for the last million years… so it has to be right. Let the people come to us… don’t make us go out to them! For heavens sake, what if they turn out to be not our sort of people?

Do you know what happens to people in churches that enshrine their way of doing things as being the only way things should be done? They get to personally experience Mark 9:8. They look around and they see no one is with them anymore. They still have Jesus. But even He’s about to head down the mountain and if they don’t go with Him it’s just going to be them and a big empty mountain.

The mountain of Transfiguration was a great mountain. Moses and Elijah were great prophets. The disciples were witnessing a great moment in the history of salvation. But it was time to go down the mountain and head for the valley where the people were. Peters ‘brick’ expressed what many of us feel. We’d like things to stay as they are. We’d love to always be in the glory days. We really, really, really, don’t want to change, but … in our more enlightened moments we understand. There are mountains and there are valleys.

Peter says it so well. “Master. It’s good to be here!” It’s great to be on the mountain. But our calling isn’t to stay on the mountain. We are called to travel to unfamiliar places. And, I don’t know about you, but I find that a little scary! And it’s when we get scared that we act inappropriately. Peter’s third mistake.

BRICK 3: Peter reacts on the basis of fear rather than acting on the foundation of faith

Verse 6He did not know what to say, for they were terrified.” You would think the disciples would be getting the hang of things after being around Jesus for a couple of years. But they were just like us. When it came to the things of God they had a lot to learn.

And one of the hardest lessons to learn was how to center their lives on faith rather than fear. We’re no different. We worry. We panic. We carry with us enough ‘what ifs’ and ‘what ever’ to dishearten the most optimistic optimist on the planet. We many times come at our problems from a position of fear instead of on the grounds of faith.

By faith, I mean faith that is focused on the Word of God. I don’t mean “Hoping for the best, puttin’ on a brave face and smile because it may never happen, feel good and everything will be O.K … faith.” The Gospel of Jesus Christ is NOT “Don’t worry about a thing. Every little things going to be allright.”

The Gospel of Mark tells us we have a lot to be concerned about. There is evil in the world. There is religion that is corrupt and politics that is warped and people bent on destruction and greed and in the midst of it all people are being chewed up and spat out again.

In the face of such a world we are invited, not to react in fear, but act in faith. The message of scripture forms the basis for our action. At the heart of the gospel is this powerful account of how the worst possible scenario took place. The Son of God came to this world and we murdered Him! We took Jesus and nailed Him to a cross and left Him to hang there pleading, “My God, My God, Why have You forsaken me?”

But by God’s Grace and love and power that event was turned around. He died for our sins. He was raised that we might live. He sends the Holy Spirit that we may be empowered to go into all the world with a message of redeeming love and power and joy.

Hold on! I missed out a verse. Verse 7. Then a cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud there came a voice, "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to Him!" Following Peter’s ‘bricks,’ the disciples are invited to tune their lives into the Word which bought all things into being, The Word for all ages, The Word of God, the beloved Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ. Listen to Him! Hear the Word of God. "This is my Son, the Beloved; listen to Him!"

It happened on a mountain. The glory of the Lord was revealed. We can learn from what transpired. Tough lessons but necessary ones as we consider our mission as individuals and as a church.
  • Beware of answering questions that nobody is asking. We end up doing more harm than good.
  • Beware of the desire to enshrine mountain top experiences because we don’t want to come down into the valleys where the people are. Traditions can become idols. Worship the Creator, not what people have created.
  • Beware of living a life that reacts out of fear rather than acts in faith.
May God help us to learn from the inappropriate words of Peter! For to God be the Glory, for ever and ever. Amen and Amen!

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, February 5, 2018

"We get knocked down" (But we get up again)

Communion Service
Readings: Psalm 147:1-11, 20c, 1 Corinthians 9:16-23, Isaiah 40:21-31; Mark 1:29-39
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, February 4 2018

I’ll probably watch some of the Superbowl today. It’s always a hard fought game. Some of those guys are huge! They will knock the stuffing out of each other. They get knocked down and they get up again. They’ve got muscles.

Did any of you have comics growing up with those Charles Atlas pictures of the bodybuilders... with the before and after pictures? When I was growing up my big brother used to tease me and suggest that I could be a model for the ‘Before’ person, in those body building ads. The school I went to had as it's main sport “Rugby.” Rugby was like Football without the padding. I was not created to play Rugby. I would throw the ball in and then run out of the way.

Very few of us are able to compete in sports at the professional level. We admire those who have the build and skills so to do. “The SuperBowl” is the most watched sporting event in America.

I watched a bit of the Gammy awards last Sunday. I guess it's a sign that you are getting older that you recognize only a few of the people and even fewer of the songs they sing. Good job they had a few folk like Elton John on there that I'd actually heard of, singing a song I knew!

The news reports are always full of the antics of superstars of stage and sport. We even give those folk who are really successful a special name... calling them cultural icons! One definition of “Cultural Icons” is that icons are people whose achievements or appearance reflect people’s values and aspirations. Which when you think about it is a little crazy.

It means people make heroes out of people they can never become. They view a particular body image or lifestyle as being the one to measure up to, knowing they will never measure up to it! Every society has a capacity to create their own icons, idols and gods. Particularly during times of struggle, defeat or uncertainty.

All of which in a very roundabout way this brings us to our bible reading. The people of Israel are far away from their homelands. They have had the stuffing knocked out of them. They are feeling defeated. They have been knocked down and don’t know how they can get up again.

And there’s a reason. The same sort of reason that brings people down today. They trust in false gods. They have put their hope in things that could never satisfy and it has drained them of their sense of purpose or reason for living.

Our particular temptation may not be to emulate superstars of stage and screen or heroes of the sporting world. But we all create our own personal icons. We build our own dreams. We find our own ways to cope. We write our own 'must have' and 'must do' lists.

Sometimes, the fact that they are our way of dealing with things, and not necessarily God's way of doing things, can lead us to feeling that God is distant and far removed from our lives.

"Lord, if you are in control, how come this has happened?" "Lord, what I have done that was so bad, why are you punishing me? Instead of reaching out to God, we focus in on ourselves.

Hear how the prophet Isaiah addresses the down trodden people of Israel;
"Have you not known? Have you not heard?
Has it not been told you from the beginning?
Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?"
(Isaiah 40:21)

Because of the way they had been influenced by the culture around them, because they had fallen for the temptation of worshiping lesser gods, because they had become self focused, the people of Israel needed to be reminded of the awesome greatness of the One True God. It is good for ourselves to recall the same thing.

Isaiah reminds us that God is the architect of all creation, the One before whom the greatest powers of earth will have to bow down. God is the one whose judgment caused the mightiest Kings to tremble. Isaiah points to the transient nature, the frailty and uncertainty of mortal life;

"Scarcely are they planted, scarcely sown,
Scarcely has their stem taken root in the earth,
When He blows upon them, and they wither,
And the tempest carries them off like stubble."
(Isaiah 40:24)

The awesome power and mystery of God is something our culture has sought to bury beneath visions of lesser idols. "Look at how strong this man is. Look at how beautiful this woman is. Look how successful this one is. You can be strong, you can be beautiful, you don't need God."

In a SuperBowl Game the players are going to tackle hard and almost every year there is some body who gets hurt and carried off the field and you are left wondering; "D'you think he's going to be O.K?"

That's life. Going along just fine. Doing what you got to do. Then .. BOOM.. there it is…in an instant, you are out of the game. Isaiah is telling us, that that is the nature of people before God. One breath, one flick of God's little finger and ... BOOM.. there it is…you're out of there. To quote again Isaiah 40:24 'The tempest carries you away like stubble' and nobody can even remember your name.

At that point I can imagine the Israelites thinking, "Well that's that then. We've messed up. God is in God's heaven and we've just got to make the best of a bad job down here. Any moment God's wrath could descend and, BOOM... there it is... we're out of here... so what's the point?"

Isaiah continues to develop his argument.
"Why do you say, "My way is hidden from the LORD,
And my right is disregarded by my God?"

He points out a big mistake we can make about God. Because God is so ... ‘out there’ and we are so... ‘down here’... we figure that God can not be remotely interested in our miserable lot on earth. We guess that we'll only get what we deserve and it's not as if what we do is going to matter much in the scheme of things any way.

"Why?" says Isaiah. "Why do you say your life is hidden from God?" Why do you think God is not great enough to deal with your problems? Why do you think God is not taking a personal interest in your life?"

He returns to his earlier words..
"Have you not known? Have you not heard?
The LORD is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth"
But then he adds....
"God does not faint or grow weary; God's understanding is unsearchable.
He gives power to the faint, and strengthens the powerless."

We grow weary. We get worn down and knocked down and sometimes don't know how we are going to get up again. But God does not faint or grow weary. Our lives do not wear God out. Our problems do not make God say, "Oh no, now we're in trouble.'

We don't understand. We can't put it all together. To us it makes no sense. But God's understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint. He strengthens the powerless. Trust in the empty icons and false ideals of this world and, for sure, they will bring us down. Wait on God, and in God's time we will be lifted.

During our communion celebration this morning we will have an opportunity to recall Isaiah's words of promise;
"Even youths will faint and be weary, and the young will fall exhausted;
But those who wait for the LORD shall renew their strength, they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint."
(Isaiah 40:30-31)

Wait for the Lord. Allow God to renew your strength this morning. Admit that at times, yes, you have sought the wrong things and trusted in your own efforts more than what God could do for you.

May God help us to believe in the promises.
May Jesus take us by the hand and raise us up to serve Him.
May the Holy Spirit be our strength and Guide.

We get knocked down, but we get up again.

As we gather around this table let us seek for the strength that causes us to “Mount up with wings like eagles!” Let us not be content to allow all that comes our way to prevent us from seeking to make this world a better place. So often, when we are down, it is as we reach out to others that we find our focus renewed and our hope returns.

To the One God be all honor, power and glory, AMEN.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.