Monday, March 19, 2018

On the Easter Road 5 - Riding Into The Storm

Readings: Psalm 51:1-12, Hebrews 5:5-10, Jeremiah 31:31-34; John 12:20-33
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, March 18 2018

I want to reflect on some words that Jesus speaks about His mission recorded for us in John 12:27; "Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.” It is quite clear from this statement that Jesus knew His life was riding into a storm. He did so for a purpose.
  • So that we may know that God stands with us in the storms of our lives.
  • To save us from sin.
  • To bring glory to God.
Let us think about each of these in turn.

1) Jesus rode into the storm so that we may know that God stands with us in the storms of our lives.

We live in a world that always asks "Why?" particularly in the face of suffering or death. Why is a teenager killed in an auto accident? Why do the majority of airplanes or trains go along without any problem, but some, with some particular people on board, become disasters? Why do bad things happen to good people? Why can't all the rotten things happen to the rotten people and then there would be some sense in trying to be good? And … the question that we fall into in our melancholy moments… "Why me?”

I will tell you this straight. If Jesus hadn't ridden into the storm I would find it hard to believe in any kind of loving God. For when you look around the whole structure of our lives, our world seems to be going from bad to worse. It seems almost stupidity to suggest that there is a guiding hand over and above, ordering things to happen, bad as well as good, earthquakes as well as sunshine, war as well as peace.

Were it not for Jesus riding into the storm, the idea that God could be love, would make no sense to me. It would seem that although God was some great creative force, in the creation of the world He had made His greatest mistake and was now toying with us in a sadistic and haphazard manner.

When I look to Jesus, my whole conception of God is changed. When I look to Jesus my whole perception of the world into which we are born is shifted and turned upside down. It is changed by the simple fact that Christ suffered; that in Christ the very heart of God experiences the pain and confusion and striving of creation.

That does not give a neat and tidy answer to every "Why?" question that comes into mind but it does throw overboard totally the idea that God is not involved or doesn't care. Because Christ struggled and wrestled with Gods' will I know that God totally understands the confusion and pain and desire we have not to accept the sufferings of our lives. I know that although the situation of doubt or conflict which may come to us may be different in kind, it is surpassed by the suffering of Christ in depth.

You know how it is when you have a problem;-
  • One person comes along and says, "Oh, I'm sorry, that must be terrible."
  • Another comes along and says, "That's bad," and they weep with you and enter into the situation.
  • But often the only person who can really help is the one who says, "Believe me, I know how you feel, I've been into that storm as well, I rode through and came out the other side."
That is precisely the sort of person Jesus is. Whatever storms attack our lives, Christ can say, "Yes, I know, I know exactly how you feel...... now let me take you through it." And Christ alone is the only one who can tell us that about death.

He rode into the storm so that we may know that God stands with us in the storms of our lives, that God is no stranger to the realities of our existence, but One able to identify with our weaknesses in an active and positive way. This brings us to a second thing.

2) Jesus rode into the storm to save us from sin.

Sin wouldn't be much of a problem if we could drown our consciences. If it wasn't for the fact that somewhere built into us was a hint of the good and the bad (and probably the ugly) then sin wouldn't be a problem. But it is a problem. Like Jiminy Cricket in Pinnochio that little song keeps nagging at us, "Always let your conscience be your guide." So we have to deal with it.

Some try to rationalize it. "We are all in the same boat, aren't we... I mean I'm only human, what do you expect?"

Some try to deny it. "What me worry?" If you work at it, you can stifle the inner voice of conscience. You can convince yourself that your sin isn't really sin at all.

The Christian response to sin is neither to excuse it or to deny it, but to recognize it and deal with it. Why was Christ prepared to ride into the storm? In Romans 3:25, Paul explains it this way:- "God offered Him, so that by His sacrificial death He should become the means by which peoples sins are forgiven through their faith in Him".

Paul tells us that if we believe that Jesus died for our sins we are forgiven and set free. It is as simple and as complicated as that. It is simple, in that all faith is simple. It is complicated in that we like to be so sophisticated that we overlook the simple message of the gospel. People go around for years and years, being guilty, carrying around regrets and fears over past sins. Jesus, through His death declares them dealt with, but people don't let Him take care of them.

It is almost like ... I remember having a wart on my thumb. And although it wasn't very nice, it was in a strange way comforting. If I was a little bit nervous, I used to fiddle with the wart, I got used to it being there. In medical terms it was an affliction. If it wasn't dealt with it could spread. So I obtained some stuff from the drugstore which removed it. And at first, although it was something horrible and infectious, when it was gone I missed it.

We treat sin like that wart. Although we know that if we carry on in such a way we are heading for trouble, it's strangely comforting, it's what we are used to. But sin spreads. It's an infectious disease. It needs a cure, it needs cleansing. It leads to separation from God and alienation from real love. We need saving from it. And Christ has come to do just that. He rode into the storm to save us from sin. But there’s more to this than just salvation from sin. A third point needs to be made.

3) Jesus rode into the storm to bring glory to God.

Let us look at the verse from John 12 which follows the one I mentioned at the start of this message. John 12:27 "Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? 'Father, save me from this hour'? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.” John 12:28, "Father, glorify Your name." Jesus was prepared to ride into the storm because He was convinced that such an action would bring glory to God.

That raises a question. What should be the purpose of our lives, our witness and our worship? Anything that falls short of the ideal of "Glorifying God" just doesn't make the grade. Glorifying God was the number one priority in the life of Christ. It should also be the prime consideration of those who are known as Christ’s disciples.

What brings glory to God? The answer is simple enough. People who want, more than anything else, to do God’s will. People who are prepared to go where God says go, do what God says to do and act how God says act.

Sometimes it may involve resting by the clear cool waters at other times it may involve riding into the storm. Most of the time it will just meaning giving your best shot at whatever you're doing right at that moment and in doing so give God the glory.

Anyone remember that song, "Riders on the storm?" Take courage. Jesus didn’t ride on the storm, Jesus rode through the storm. On a previous occasion He calmed the storm. For sure the storms of life will rage and thunder, but we have a Savior who set His heart on glorifying God, who died that we may be forgiven, and whom, because He faced the darkness of death and undeserved suffering can enable us to battle through the storms that come to us.

As we endeavor to live lives which glorify Him, may we discover that He rides through the storms of our lives, that our faith may be strengthened and renewed... particularly as we travel along the Easter Road and recall afresh the glorious message of His death and Resurrection, a message which continues to change the world.

To God's name be the Glory!


The Reverend Adrian J Pratt B.D.

Monday, March 12, 2018

On the Easter Road 4 - Surrounded by Love

Readings: Psalm 107:1-3, Numbers 21:4-9; John 3:14-21; Ephesians 2:4-10
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, March 11 2018
How do you define a classic? What makes a classic anything? If you had to list 10 classic TV shows or name 10 classic automobiles or 10 classic breakfast cereals or 10 classic pieces of classical music, what criteria would you use? According to ‘Webster’s New Expanded Dictionary’ for something to be classic it has to be "Of the first rank; Timeless; a Masterpiece."
I want to look with you today at a classic bible verse… John 3:16.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son
So that everyone who believes in Him
Should not perish but have everlasting life.
"For God so loved the world ..."
That God loves this world is a stunning insight. Why? Because there is much not to love about this world. Suffering and violence and war to name but a few things. There are parts of the world that we don't like. There are places that we avoid because we don't want to go there. There are people, some times whole groups of people, whom we don't want anything to do with.

But God
so loves the world God created. God is not blind to its pain or its sin or the stupidity of its inhabitants. Those are things that happen in spite of God’s love. God’s love towards the world remains solid as a rock. We live as though God’s concern didn't really count for much. This verse reminds us that because God so loves this world, so we should be concerned about the way we live our lives in this world.
John explains a few verses later that we love the darkness rather than the light. We may sometimes think that we love the light more than we love the darkness, but our actions give us away. Whilst we say things like, "You know money can't buy you happiness" we then go on to daydream about riches or power, about what we'd do if we won the ultimate lottery prize. We are captivated by the thought that our deepest needs can be met without having to involve God.

We say that we think the world would be a better place if folk were more forgiving to each other, but ... hey… don’t cross me… something goes wrong, someone hurts us and instinctively we cherish the hurt and plot retaliation. We love the anger, we harbor the revenge, we want to take control and get even.
What’s more we hate the sins of others far more than we hate our own. We learn to live with our own sins. We don't like it that way, but it's easier to accommodate our shortcomings than to change.
If you are talking about sinners, let's talk about that woman up the road who can't control her tongue, or that man on television who did that awful murder, or those torturers in that country who act so inhumane. There's always someone we can point at to make our darkness look bright.

That's the sort of world we live in and that's the sort of people we are. We stumble about hardly considering that God might be concerned about the state of things in our lives. God’s up there doing holy stuff with the angels and chatting with the saints and doing whatever God does all day. You can't seriously believe God is actually concerned with the nitty-gritty of life on this planet?

Such is exactly what this classic text is telling us. That God loves this world and the people who inhabit this world. Is there anybody here who is not a member of the human race? Any Martians, or Venusians or Plutonians?
Being a British citizen I do have a Green Card that explains that I am actually an alien, but only an alien to the United States. I am a citizen of planet earth and like every one of you God does not want me to have a life that is alienated from God's love. ‘God so loves the world’ means that God so loves you... as an inhabitant of the world… that God does not want for you to live a single moment that is not surrounded by God's love.
That’s good news. No wonder this verse is a classic. It tells us that the depth of concern God has for our lives is mind-boggling in its intensity. But let’s move on. God so loved the world;

That He gave His only Son...” Paul in 2 Corinthians 5:19 writes; "In Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself" ‘In Christ’ God purposefully entered into the world’s pain and hurt and took it on. He is God with us and God for us. God knows exactly what it feels like to live as a vulnerable human being in this world.

John’s gospel links this verse to the story of Moses lifting up the bronze snake in the desert and telling the people of Israel to look upon it and be healed. Now remember… Moses was the one who came down from the mountain with the commandments saying… "Have no idols, make no images". Then, there he is saying "Look at this bronze snake and be healed". It doesn't make sense. Why doesn't God stick to the rules?

Why? Because God is the God who goes far beyond the rules, beyond even the expectations of love. To make us God’s own, God has done the unthinkable. God gave us His only Son.
I can think of many things that I might give to somebody to try and convince them of love. Chocolates maybe. Or flowers even. Buy them a car. Give them a diamond. Take them on a cruise. I wouldn't try to convince anyone of my love by arranging that they take my only son, and mock Him and torture Him and murder Him. And if my son, Matthew were here, I think he would be glad to hear that!
Think about what a shocking, unthinkable, mind boggling picture of God's love towards us that this classic verse gives. God does the very thing He forbade Abraham to do with his only son Isaac. God gave His son to die upon a Cross.
But why? Why would God do such a thing? What does it mean? We need to complete the verse. God so loved the world that He gave His only son...

So that everyone who believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
The Greek word used here for perish ‘apoletai’ (avpo,lhtai) means "shall not be ruined or destroyed; shall not be brought to nothing; shall not cease to exist or be deprived of reward."
There’s a huge paradox here. This world, the world that God loves, is also the world that is destroying and ruining us. The way of this world is not the way of God’s Kingdom. We are called by God to be in this world… because God loves this world, but not of this world… because the way of this world is a destructive way that can only offer emptiness and fruitlessness and which ultimately ruin us. “What good will it be” asks Jesus in Matthew 16:26 “For a man if he gains the whole world, yet forfeits his soul?
The Cross is the place where Jesus Christ perished. The Cross was the place where the world sought to ruin and destroy and bring to nothing and cause to cease all that Jesus came into the world to do. As they nailed Jesus Christ to the Cross the forces of evil in the world laughed out loud and said “That’s it. It’s over. We win. We don’t need God”. When Jesus cried out ‘It is finished’ they thought that it was.
But we read John 3:16 in the context of the Resurrection. ‘We are an Easter people and Hallelujah is our song.’ Three days after He was murdered there was a rumbling and an earthquake and a startling report of Good News that could only be accepted by believing in it. Three days later the message started to be proclaimed, ‘He is Alive!

At the end of his gospel account John tells us that his whole reason for writing was “That you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name.” (John 20:31).
"In Christ God was reconciling the world to Himself." In Christ’ God has made it possible for us to no longer be dominated by the ways of this world that bring us to nothing, that destroy and steal from us all that is good and true and holy, that ruin us and cause life to be a matter of little more than pointless survival.
On the Cross, In Christ, God took the force of that world upon Himself, so that, In Christ, we don’t have to. So that in this world we can live lives that are free and forgiven and being made new by the work of the Holy Spirit, revived, recreated, renewed, revitalized by the love of God.
The way, the only way, we can do that, is by believing. Who in this classic verse gets to receive and experience and know the love of God? “Everyone who believes in Him”
Do we understand that? I’m not sure that everybody realizes that this, although a classic, is a highly exclusive verse of Scripture. It is a verse that speaks of tremendous blessings for those who believe, and it is truly a classic invitation for all to believe. But there’s reverse side to this. For those who don’t, it’s a picture of total despair.
Those who don’t believe, they don’t get to experience the love. They remain alienated from the love of God. They are outside of it. They will perish. They do not have everlasting life. Move on down to John 3:18 and it tells us plainly, “People who believe in God’s son are not judged guilty. Those who do not believe have already been judged guilty, because they have not believed in God’s one and only Son”
One of the pictures of God’s salvation in the Old Testament is that of Noah’s Ark. In the story of Noah there are only two types of people. It’s not the wealthy and poor, or young and old, or clever and stupid, or any other man made division. It’s between those who believed and got on the boat and those who didn’t believe and drowned in the flood.
Our response to this classic verse is meant to be one of belief. Belief that Jesus died on the Cross for our sins. Belief that God raised Him from the dead. Belief that without Him we are lost. Belief that if we ask Him into our hearts we are saved.
For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son so that everyone who believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”
We have touched this morning on the very heart of the gospel. May these heart words touch our hearts. May we come back to them time and time again and discover fresh meaning in them. That's what makes a classic a classic. A classic captures for us, something that words can't adequately explain. We feel that here is something that is written just for us. Here is something that can shape our lives, that inspires us for the future, and helps us through each day. John 3:16… a classic verse that invites us to participate in the love of God. Pay no attention and we will be lost. Believe it and we will find that every day we live on this earth is a day to live surrounded by love.
The Reverend Adrian J Pratt B.D.

Monday, March 5, 2018

On the Easter Road 3 - Clear The Way

Readings: Exodus 20:1-17, Psalm 19, II Cor. 1:18-25, John 2:13-22
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, March 4 2018

Observing the ups and downs in the financial world must be a scary business to folks who have significant investments. That old Dow Jones index has been bouncing like a beach ball. The financial crash of 2008 was only 10 years ago. I have a friend back in the U.K, who when the market started to fluctuate called his adviser. His financial adviser assured him it was just a “blip.” Ten years on he's still not back where he was following that particular financial collapse. He also has a new financial adviser.

Back in the time of Jesus there was a big business in Jerusalem that was about to experience a collapse. It was called the Temple. The place where the deals were taking place was the Gentiles Court. The temple complex was a lofty institution that covered some thirty acres. Its inner sanctuary was the Holy place where only the High Priest could enter on special occasions.

Beyond that were a number of courts to which access was granted according to status. The Temple court, then the Court of the Priests, then the Court of the Israelites, then the Court of the Women and then finally, the largest area, the Court of the Gentiles.

Everybody was allowed to enter the Court of the Gentiles. It was designed to be a place of prayer and preparation for all people. A place where those denied access to other areas of the temple could seek and find God. A place where those who had the privilege of entering deeper into the temple could prepare their hearts for worship.

Important for worship in those days was paying the temple tax. The temple tax was equivalent to about two days wages and every Jew was expected to pay it. You couldn't pay your temple tax in any old currency. It had to be paid in Sanctuary Shekels. At Passover time Jews from all over the world, with Greek, Roman, Syrian, Egyptian, and Phoenician coins jangling in their pockets made their way to the Gentiles Court.

Before they could pay their taxes, money had to be exchanged. So, the money-changers set up their stalls in the Court. To change your coins into sanctuary shekels, a fee equivalent to half a days wages would be charged. If you didn't have the exact coinage, then you'd be charged another half a days wages. There were various other rates and schemes that all involved money flowing into the money-changers pockets. And this was before you'd paid a penny of your tax.

Along with temple taxes, worshipers would also bring an offering. This could be an oxen, or a sheep or, if you were a poorer family, a dove. You could buy a dove down at the Jerusalem market quite cheaply. However, there was a law about temple sacrifices that said that a sacrificial victim had to be without blemish. In the Gentiles Court there were appointed temple inspectors to examine the offerings and see if they came up to the grade. The strange thing was none from the market ever did.

So they advised worshipers to buy their sacrificial animals from the selection they had in the Gentiles court. The difference was that an animal purchased there could cost as much as twenty times more than one purchased down at the market.

That day when Jesus went to the temple to pray and prepare Himself for the difficult days that were ahead, did He find things as they should be… did He find a place of prayer for all nations? "No" he said, "It's a den of thieves." Far from being a place of spiritual richness it was nothing more than a market place. Financially it was doing fine. Spiritually it had collapsed.

The sellers were trying to exact as high a price as possible. The pilgrims would argue and defend themselves with an equal fierceness. The oxen would be mooing, the sheep bleating, the doves cooing, beggars begging, the children running wild.

And Jesus got mad. Real mad. The theologians use the words "Wrath" or "Righteousness indignation." He overturns the money-changers tables, scattering the coins all over the floor. He drives out the animals. He tells the ones selling the Doves, "Take these things out of here. Stop making my Fathers House a marketplace."
  • Nobody lifts a finger to stop Him because everybody knew He was doing the right thing. The temple authorities knew what was going on, but it brought in a lot of much needed revenue, some of which paid their wages, so they turned a blind eye.
  • The money-changers justified their practices because a lot of their earnings were being siphoned off by the people they had to pay for permission to put up a table in the court.
  • The temple inspectors justified their refusal to allow offerings in the temple that hadn't been purchased there, by saying they were ensuring God got the best.
  • The people went along with it because it was easier to put up with the way things were than dare challenge those who had the power to make their lives very uncomfortable. Everybody knew it was wrong, but no-one did a thing to make it right.
Except for Jesus!

He had the authority to put things right. This was His Father's business and His Father's house that they were fooling with. In the words of John’s gospel He was ‘consumed with zeal’ for His Father’s House.

Jesus claimed the temple as His own. He uniquely identified Himself with the temple. He said to the Jews who questioned His authority, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up" using a figure of speech to point towards His own death and resurrection. He spoke of the temple as His own body. He claims our lives for His own. Paul tells us, in 1 Corinthians 3:16, "Do you not know that you are a temple of God, and that the Spirit of God dwells in you?"

This passage about Jesus cleansing the temple invites us to us consider the temple of our own lives. Are there things about us that Jesus could justifiably be mad at? Are there things that we need to clear out of the way as we travel down the Easter road?

What really angered Jesus that day was the cold-heartedness. Here was something beautiful that had turned ugly, something sacred that had become profane. A place of prayer and peace had become a place of pandemonium.

Why shouldn’t God be angry when we take gifts God has given us and misuse them or waste them? The greatest gift of all God has given to us is the gift of life itself. Yet many go through life divorced from any sense of its mystery or its wonder or its sacredness. Life becomes cheap, people become numbers or objects to be manipulated for others ends and any sense of meaning or purpose goes out of the window.

As Christian people we have a particular responsibility. People look for us to model Christ-like living. "Judgment" Peter's first letter instructs us, "Begins with the house of the Lord." We are that house, we are that people. "You are a temple of God" says Paul.

But what sort of temple? The season of Lent is a time when we are called to examine our hearts in the light of God's love. And that takes time. It means taking “Time Out” of the normal routine to do so.

Did you know that one of the days when no trading takes place, one of the few weekdays that the New York Stock Exchange closes is Good Friday? If you go to the visitor’s center at the Stock Exchange and ask “Why?” they will tell you that since 1864 the Exchange has closed its doors on Good Friday for religious reasons.

If the guide is a Christian they may even add they are closed on Good Friday because that was the day when a man, who once threw money changers out of a temple, was crucified. That impressed me. That in New York, the place some call the most happening city in the world, at the financial core of the Big Apple, they take a ‘time out’ on Good Friday.

We know that the state of the money market effects the way we live our lives. Back in 2008 when the market collapsed it touched a lot of folks lives in a very negative way. We know that. What we forget is that life isn’t about wheeling and dealing and acquiring and selling. That at the last day, whether we have 2 cents in our pocket or 2 billion dollars in platinum reserves such can’t offer us a single ounce of hope for eternity.

Clear the Way!’ Anything in your life that you think that Jesus could justifiably be mad at is something you need to talk to God about and walk through with God. One of the works of the Holy Spirit in our lives is to bring conviction, to bring to our minds and consciences things that are getting in the way of our walk with God. As we realize that there are blockages there, we should pray to God to ‘Clear the Way!’

One of the biggest killers in medical terms is blockages. Blocked arteries starve the heart of blood, starve the lungs of oxygen, physically prevent us from functioning and if not dealt with what happens? We die! Physical blockages cause death. Spiritual blockages are equally perilous to our spiritual health.

The recently departed, at the grand old age of 99, Dr. Billy Graham, once told a group of young people.I urge each of you to invest your lives, not just spend them. Each of us is given the exact same amount of seconds, minutes, and hours per day as anyone else. The difference is how we redeem [them]. You cannot count your days, but you can make your days count.”

We must seek God to clear out from our lives all that is other than what God requires for us. To clear out from our lives all the junk, all the vain ideas, all the hopeless little schemes that may look good to our own eyes but in comparison to the work of God are laughable.

Allow Jesus to do some spring cleaning. Get rid of all that stuff that God could justifiably be mad at. All that cheapens. All that distorts. All that ends in dust and decay. Our lives are little temples… meant to be places of prayer, places where Christ is honored and God’s Word is known, places where others can find God, places that shine light into this worlds darkness.

Clear the Way!’ because your life, your spiritual journey is important to God. God has a plan. A plan to bless others through our lives. For that to happen we must subject our lives to the scrutiny and authority of God that we find in Jesus Christ. To the authority of God’s Word. To nurture ourselves in worship and through service.

As I read about Jesus clearing the Temple I am challenged to seek God to “Clear the Way!” for His love to be shown in clearer ways in my own life. I pray that as you consider areas of your life that could justifiably attract God’s anger rather than God’s praise, you will likewise be challenged to “Clear the Way” for a deeper relationship with our only Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. To His name be the glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J Pratt B.D.