Monday, April 30, 2018

Messages from the First Letter of John - 4. Fearless Love

                                   Readings: Psalm 22:25-31, Acts 8:26-40, John 15:1-8, 1 John 4:7-21
                                  Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, April 29 2018

Everything I know about growing plants could be written on the back of a postage stamp. I claim zero experience in the green finger department. But this much I know. Nothing grows by coercion. Things only grow through nurture. If you plant tomatoes you cannot go out in the garden and terrify them into maturity. “Now come on little Tommy Tomato plant. Grow up or I'll give you a such a thrashing that you'll never even be able to say the word fertilizer.”  You have to tend plants, carefully and gently.

Spiritual growth is no different. Fear can not produce spiritually mature believers. The only fertile ground for true spiritual growth is the love of God. 1 John 4:18-19 tells us “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.  We love because He first loved us.”

The last few weeks we have been following a series on John's first letter that has taken us through the themes of sin, forgiveness and love. Last week we were considering the great legacy of love that has been passed on to us. We affirmed that love is a great mystery which opens up to us amazing possibilities. In chapter four John takes us further. He gives us the famous phrase “God is love.”

One of the amazing things about the life of Jesus was how He never acted out of fear but always out of love. That is not to say that Jesus was never afraid. In the Garden of Gethsemane He prays that He may be spared from the pain and agony He would face at the Cross. There's nothing wrong in being afraid. It's part of what makes us human. But being afraid and living in fear are different things.

There are two kinds of fear.
The first is best described as 'Honor' or 'Respect,' the second as 'Dread'.

When the Book of Proverbs tells us  'Fear the Lord' the intention is not for us go through the whole of our lives being afraid of what God may do to us if God finds out what we are really like. The fear we are to have towards God is by the way of honor and respect. That was the kind of fear that Jesus had towards His Father. He refused to do anything or be anything that didn't represent the love of God.  His whole ministry was built upon respect for and trust in what the love of God could do.

The opposite of respectful fear, the unhealthy, negative kind of fear that John tells us to have nothing to do with, is maybe best described as dread. John writes “Perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.”  Dread is the fear that has to do with punishment. Fear of punishment can never help us build a mature relationship with God or with each other. Jesus lived fearlessly because His life was centered in the loving heart of God.

He didn't care what people thought about Him. He was totally secure in His relationship with His Father God. He didn't have to gain favor with people or use people to get where He wanted to be. He was right where He wanted to be, in the will of God. He was able to act in complete freedom and without dread because He knew Himself a child of God. Both at His baptism and on the mountain of Transfiguration He found His identity in His Father's claim on His life “This is my beloved Son”.
What might it take for us to live lives defined by fearless love?

How can we apply these words about 'perfect love casting out fear' to our own lives?
In 1895 a lady called Clara Scott had a hymn published called  “Open my eyes”.

Open my eyes, that I may see, glimpses of truth Thou hast for me;
Place in my hands the wonderful key, that shall unclasp and set me free.

Only through having a clear picture of God, ourselves and each other can we unlock the mystery of fearless love. Or to put it another way...
  • We need to redefine how we see the Divine,
  • Remember the claim of God's name
  • Reach out to others as sisters and brothers!
Let us explore those themes a little more!

1. We need a clear picture of God … we need to redefine how see the Divine

What are we afraid of that prevents us from letting the love of God enfold us and envelope us?  Our fears can come from an irrational picture of God. Even with my lack of gardening skills I recognize that nothing grows by coercion. Growth takes place through nurture. The first picture the Bible gives us of God is as the Creator. The second picture is as the Gardener. As you read  the New Testament the images Jesus uses are often nurture related. He talks of sowing seeds. Of Vines and branches. Of Seeds and Weeds. Of Springtime and Harvest.

Many of us have picked up on negative images of God. A tyrannical father. A mean dictator. An uncaring judge. A strict disciplinarian. A God of hell-fire whose greatest delight is to punish unrepentant sinners with eternal torment. A warped policeman on high. A God of disapproval. Unapproachable. Unrelenting. Irrational. Making rules we can never keep. A rather scary God.

Many times I have had people say to me,'Oh, I wouldn't want to set foot in church, probably make the roof cave in or cause the place to be struck by lightning'.  A God who toys with people, who is a despot, a blue meanie, a dark disturbing brooding figure from our worst nightmares.  I have heard people describe to me the God they don't believe in and found myself thinking that I don't believe in that kind of God either!

If ever those negative images of God start creeping in on you, read this passage from 1 John and see how many times life affirming love is mentioned. “This is how God showed His love among us: He sent His one and only Son into the world that we might live through Him.' 'We know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.'  'There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.”

In order to live fearless lives we need to put our faith, not in a God we dread, but one whom we have the utmost respect for and seek to honor in the way we live our lives. The first letter of John paints a picture for us of a God whose very being is love. A God who wants to nurture us and feed us and grow us. A God who wants us to live life in all it's variety and abundance. Not a God whose desire is to restrict, control or dominate, but One who sets us free to live into the people we are meant to be.   Again hear verse 18; “Perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.”
2. We need a clear picture of ourselves... we need to remember the claim of God's name

Verse 19 reminds us “We love because He first loved us.” Our capacity for loving others comes from the security of knowing that we ourselves are loved by God. Every Sunday following our prayer of confession we celebrate, with words of Assurance, that through the grace and love of Jesus Christ, God claims us as God's own. There is nothing we have to do or can do to be God's children other than thankfully accept our salvation as the huge, undeserved , unwarranted gift that it is.

One of the greatest Christian thinkers and apologists of the last century was Karl Bath. I have the fourteen or so volumes of his “Church Dogmatics” (a study in dialectic theology) on my shelf in the study. Still working my way though it. He was the architect of one of the confessions in our Book of Confessions, “The Barmen Declaration,” a historic and incredibly brave challenge to the rise of the Nazi ideology in Germany, a work that made him an enemy of the powers that sought to destroy the world. He wrote thousands and thousands of words, some very hard to get your head around, during his life.

In 1962 he made his one and only visit to America and the story goes that he was asked how he would summarize the essence of the millions of words he had published, and replied, with words many of us have known since Sunday School Days; "Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so."

“Jesus loves me this I know, For the Bible tells me so
Little ones to Him belong, They are weak but He is strong
Yes, Jesus loves me, Yes, Jesus loves me,
Yes Jesus loves me, for the Bible tells me so.”

Verses 16 and 17 “ If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God.  And so we know and rely on the love God has for us. God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.

In a couple of weeks we celebrate a confirmation service for four of our young people. Confirmation is saying “YES!” to the promises that are made on our behalf when as little ones we were baptized. We “Confirm” that... “YES”.. we are a child of God and we claim all the blessings that such entails. In order to live fearless lives we  claim our baptismal heritage as beloved sons and daughters of a God who calls us by name and desires only the utmost best for our lives. A phrase I learned from my Lutheran friends was that Christian discipleship is all about “Growing into our baptisms.”

We need a clear picture of God … we need to redefine how see the Divine We need a clear picture of ourselves... we need to remember the claim of God's name

3. We need a clear picture of each other... reach out to others as sisters and brothers

The final verse we read this morning reminds us that the love of God isn't just about us. True, Jesus loves us, but He calls us to share that love with each other. 'Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.' 

John is keen to point out that unless love is also transforming the way we see each other, then God's Spirit is not truly at work in our lives. We are called to see each other as God sees us, as people God sent Jesus to die for, as people God loves, as people, who, like us, are marred by our sins, but nevertheless have all the potential that being human gives us.

There's a movie currently showing on Netflix, called “Come Sunday.” The movie charts the course of a highly successful fundamentalist  preacher, who, partly through his study of scripture verses his Pentecostal tradition choose not to focus upon, like these we have been considering in first John, has something of a conversion experience. At the end of the movie He is invited to speak to an inclusive Unitarian congregation... folks he would once have considered the enemy.

In speaking to the congregation he says, “I spent a lot of my life living in the fear of God. And I preached that fear. I preached it and I preached it and I preached it and I preached it.  So much so, that I became afraid not to preach it. And I have found it so hard to let go of that fear. Why is that? Is it  because, if God loves everybody unconditionally, maybe we have to? Is that it? What is it about loving each other unconditionally that scares us so much?”

In order to live fearless lives we must treat others how we would like them to treat us. Grant them all the respect and honor that we ourselves receive from God.  That's the challenge. “Whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.” That is the challenge of love, of God being love that names us and claims us, and calling us to love each other as we have been loved.

We can't grow spiritually by coercion but only by love. When it comes to growing plants, I confess I am not so good. When it comes to growing in the Spirit, by the grace and love of God, I'm hopefully doing better every day. The greatest source of love in all creation is the love of God, that we see demonstrated in Jesus Christ and which impacts our lives through the action of the Holy Spirit.

There's a whole lot of teaching that John packed into these verses we've been looking at this morning. So let me finish with a quick review.

In order to live fearlessly we need to;
  • Have a clear picture of the nature of God, we need to redefine how see the Divine.
  • Have a clear picture of ourselves, we need to remember the claim of God's name.
  • Have a clear picture of each other, we need to reach out to others as sisters and brothers.
May God help us, through the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to live lives of fearless love that truly reflect the light of Jesus Christ.  AMEN!

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, April 23, 2018

Messages from the First letter of John - 3. This is Love

Yvonne and myself are extremely fortunate in that we both came from homes where we had two parents who let us know that we belonged, we were loved and we were valued. As children this was not something we appreciated as we should have done, until we were out of the family home and making a home of our own.

Both of our parents grew up in the lean times near the beginning of the last century, just after the First World War and on into the Depression. As young people their lives were torn apart by the Second World War. Yvonne’s late father was interned in a prison camp, an experience that left its scars.

My own late father was shipped from miserable destination to squalid encampment in the North African arena. Along the way he contracted malaria. He managed to collect a kit-bag of memorabilia, only to have it stolen when he returned to port in England. Even his good memories were taken away.

Our brothers and sisters, and eventually ourselves, were born in the 1950’s, a time in Great Britain when you still shopped with ration coupons and the best food you could eat was that which you could grow for yourself.

As children we didn’t realize the giving up and the sacrifices that our parents went through so that we could have the things they never dreamed of. There were times when our childish selfishness, must have driven them to the point of despair, but they carried on loving us just the same.

We’re continuing to look this morning at the first letter of John. For the first two chapters he has spoken of the need to ‘Walk in the Light’ and live up to the name of being ‘God’s Children.’ He has spoken of the reality of sin and evil in our own lives and in the world, and the corresponding reality of God’s salvation that can be known by placing our faith in Jesus.

In the middle of the third chapter he moves on to speak about love. John speaks of God as a parent, of the love of Jesus Christ and the nurturing of the Holy Spirit. Many of us have a point of reference, in the love we have experienced at the hand of our own families. However, John’s point of reference was not his own mom or dad, but the love he had experienced at the hand of Jesus and among the community of the disciples.

Some scholars believe John’s letter to be the authentic writings of John, described as ‘the disciple Jesus loved.’ (John 13:23, 19:26 & 21:7). According to tradition, John ‘the elder’ was the only disciple whose life did not end in early martyrdom but he lived to a ripe old age and exercised leadership in the earliest church.

1 John speaks of the love of Jesus as though it were first hand experience. Jesus had washed his feet. He had heard Jesus teaching, “I am the Good Shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep.” He had stood at the cross with the mother of Jesus and heard Him pray, “Father Forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.”  John was the one who, in His dieing moments, Jesus asked to take care of His mother and John took Mary, the mother of Jesus, to his home and cared for her. (John 19:26-27)

John knew what sort of love surrounded the life of Jesus. From out of that rich experience the author of John tells us, 1 John 3:16,  “This is what love is, that Jesus laid down His life for us.

When I hear those words I think of my own parents, who during the war years, were literally prepared to lay down their lives, who went without so much that we may have an abundance, whose love was not often expressed through a gush of words, but was rather a reality we experienced through daily actions.

But hold on - ‘laying down His life’, that’s only half the verse. We who have been loved have an obligation laid upon us.  We who have been touched and nurtured and raised by those who loved us, we whom Jesus Christ calls God’s children and who claim allegiance to the church of God have a responsibility.

The verse continues “….and we ought to lay down our lives for  each other.” In particular those with material and spiritual needs.  As verse 17 lays out before us: “If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person?

C.S. Lewis comments, “It is easier to be enthusiastic about Humanity with a capital ‘H’ than it is to love individual men and women, especially those who are uninteresting, exasperating, depraved or otherwise unattractive. Loving everybody in general may be an excuse for loving nobody in particular.”

“Love everybody, Love Life, Love the world.”  It sounds good. Admirable even.  1 John insists that love is not expressed through verbalizing high-sounding ideals, but through actions that benefit people other than our selves.  Again this is a lesson that many of us first learned in our home environments. Part of our capacity to love others comes from having first been loved ourselves.

Sadly, not everybody is as fortunate as many of us have been.  Some grow up in homes where love is at a premium.  Some have parents unable to care for them. Some suffer abuse and neglect.  Some have parents unwilling to commit themselves to anything but self-interest. But we should never rule out the possibility of love.

Which brings me to Brigadoon. Our church has a Scottish connection as part of her history. Second weekend of June we hold an outdoor Scottish service, complete with bagpipes and kilts (for those brave enough to wear them.) Maybe I should have saved talking about Brigadoon till then, but it fits better with our theme today. So consider my attempts at Scottish dialect a taster for delights yet to come and part of an ongoing campaign to honor our heritage!

In fact we have a few interesting weeks coming up to celebrate. On Mothers Day our Christian Education Team is taking the lead. The week after we have a confirmation service for some of our young people.  But for now... follow me  to Brigadoon.

Brigadoon is a musical that for many years ran on Broadway. The story is about 2 men from New York, Tommy Allbright and Jeff Douglas, who are on a hunting trip in Scotland when they stumble across a village called Brigadoon in a valley that isn't even marked on the map.

It turns out that Brigadoon is a magical village that only appears out of the mist every 100 years, and whose existence will be destroyed should any of the villagers ever leave it.  There is much romance and talk of folk being married to other folk whilst all the time they are wishing they could be married to somebody else. And into this smushy mix comes Tommy Albright who is supposed to be marrying his fiance Jean in New York, but manages to fall in love with one of the Brigadoon lassies by the name of Fiona.

In the First Act of the musical, whilst all the romantic entanglements are still interweaving Tommy, looks at Fiona, and asks the wise local schoolteacher, Mr Lundie, if an outsider could be permitted to stay. Mr. Lundie replies, "A stranger can stay if he loves someone here - not jus' Brigadoon, mind ye, but someone in Brigadoon – loves them enough to want to give up everythin' an' stay with that one person. Which is how it should be. 'Cause after all, lad, if ye love someone deeply, anythin' is possible."

Anyway, to cut a long story short, they don't get married, the New Yorkers leave Brigadoon and that's the end of that. Or is it? Of course not! By the end of Act 2 Tommy and Jeff have returned to Scotland. But the village has gone. And won't be back for a hundred years.

Tommy laments, "Why do people have to lose things to find out what they really mean?" Just as he and Jeff turn to leave, they hear the music again ("Brigadoon"), and Mr. Lundie appears. Tommy walks across the bridge in a daze to him, as Mr. Lundie explains: "Oh it's you Tommy, lad. You woke me up. You must really love her," to which Tommy, still dazed, stammers "Wha- how....?" and Mr. Lundie replies "You shouldna be too surprised, laddie. I told ye when ye love someone deeply enough, anythin' is possible. Even miracles."

Tommy waves goodbye to Jeff, and disappears with Mr. Lundie into the Highland mist to be reunited with Fiona and live happily ever after. And there you go... I just went and ruined the ending for you!

But my point is that the whole musical is based upon the highly biblical proposition that with love all things are possible. As Mr Lundie explains: “I told ye when ye love someone deeply enough, anythin' is possible. Even miracles."

 In this third chapter of the first letter of John he writes, verse 18 “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”  In the real world miracles don't just happen. They are the result of loving actions. The miracle of the resurrection could not be without the commitment of the Cross. The miracle of hungry people in our community being fed only happens when we seek to meet their needs.

 It is interesting to see how 1 John 3:16 complements John 3:16.

John 3:16 “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. '

1 John 3:16 “This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down His life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.

We have received a great legacy of love from those who went before us. From our parents. From our mentors in the faith. From the examples of Church history and the saints of our traditions.

There remains only one way our families and communities can experience the love of God. That we allow it to transform our lives. That it begins in us and spreads to others.  So whomsoever our kith, kin or clan maybe, we are each invited to allow our lives to be changed by the love of God that we may draw others into the experience of the joy and love of God's Kingdom that can be found through Jesus Christ.

Through God's amazing Grace, may we seek to be those who are making a loving difference wherever this week may lead us. Amen.

Monday, April 16, 2018

Messages From the First Letter of John - 2. Sins Remedy

'Sin, Forgiveness and Love '
(Messages from the First letter of John)
Readings: Psalm 4, Acts 3:12-19, Luke 24:36b-48, 1 John 3:1-10
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, April 15 2017

I was on my way to church as a pastor in Liverpool.  I went down one road. It was blocked off. I tried a different route. No, that was closed as well. In the end I had to go miles out of my way and was late for the service. When I got to church I discovered the problem.

About 45 years (or so) earlier, in the Blitz of the Second World War, the Germans had been bombing Liverpool. As the bombs fell, those who couldn’t make it to the air raid shelters, hid in under-stairs cupboards, under the kitchen table, wherever might provide some shelter. 

Sheltered under a kitchen table during a raid was a lady who still came to the church.  She remembered during a raid, hearing a bomb coming down - then waiting for it to explode - and nothing happened.  After the all clear was sounded she forgot all about it.

45 years later (or so) a council workman was cleaning out the sewers. His shovel hit something hard and metallic. He bent down to clear the muck off  it. “Now wat does dat say -’ B -O - M - B’.   “'Arry” he shouts to his workmate,  “Duz B.O.M.B. spell wat I tink it does?” Harry responds, “Call de army!” 

For 45 years there had been an active unexploded bomb lying  in the sewer and it could have gone off at anytime – especially when Harry’s mate belted it with a shovel. The bomb disposal people evacuated the area, sealed it off , and carefully removed the potential disaster.

In his first letter John pictures sin as something dangerous and life threatening that lurks below the surface of our lives - something that has to be treated with the utmost seriousness. In his first chapters John speaks of turning the ship of our lives around and actively ‘Walking in the Light’. In the third chapter he outlines for us what it means to be a child of God. In particular how being a child of God should affect our attitude towards sin and salvation.  

There were those in the church of John's day who taught a different gospel than that which he had received first hand from Jesus Christ. A particular group of people John is writing about were known as ‘Gnostics’. 

Being a gnostic implied that you were in possession of special knowledge that made you a cut above your average believer. Some believed that this special knowledge, this ‘gnosis', made them spiritually perfect. As they were spiritually perfect, sin could not harm them. They regarded sin as so ineffectual (in comparison to their state of enlightenment), that they paid no attention to their moral lives.

As they were  'perfect'... if a thing felt good....  it was good...  and they did it...and so it went on, until it became apparent to John, that some of the things they were doing, were the opposite of the things Jesus had taught him to do. He accuses the Gnostic's of making two terrible mistakes. 

Firstly, they were denying the reality of sin and evil and it’s capacity to corrupt and destroy.  
Secondly, they were failing to see the significance of Christ’s death - that He died for their sins and that unless they put their faith in Him, they would be lost.

John hits them with this argument; if they were truly born of the Spirit of God, if they were as perfect as they made themselves out to be, then fruits of the Spirit, such as love for their brothers and sisters in Christ, would be flowing out of them.  Their lives would be models of moral magnificence.
Instead their lives were producing evil things. They were spiritually proud. They looked down on those who didn't share their enlightened views. They were inconsistent in their moral behavior. The seed that was producing these bad fruits wasn't the seed of God, but the work of the devil. 

John counteracts their philosophy, with some down to earth, no nonsense talk. Verses 8-9; "The one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, that He might destroy the works of the devil. No one who is born of God practices sin."

Such a passage warns us never to become so sophisticated in our thinking that we underestimate the real power of evil in our world. Right at the start of the passage, verse 2, he points out that, Children of God are ‘a work in progress'. “Beloved,” he writes, “We are God's children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he (Jesus) is revealed, we will be like Him, for we will see Him as He is” (v2). 

For the Gnostics this fell on deaf ears. They thought they had already arrived at perfection. As a result, they failed to see the depth and power of God’s love that was revealed to them in the Cross of Jesus Christ. After all, what good is a Savior who dies to forgive sins, if you are convinced that through your own sophistication you’ve already dealt with them? 

Over 2000 years later our sophisticated culture makes the same mistake. We are not comfortable with the concept of sin. We tend to justify our behavior in other ways. How many times have you heard these?

‘I just couldn’t help myself’
 ‘She made me do it’
 ‘He deserved it’
‘It’s just the way I am’
 ‘It’s not a problem’
‘It’s just a bad habit’
 ‘Everybody does it’
‘Don’t judge me’
‘I’m not hurting anybody’,
‘It felt so right’
 ‘Nobody’s perfect’
‘I’m no angel’

I’m sure you can think of others!
 So sophisticated have we become
 that it’s almost considered a sin
 to describe ‘sin’ as sin!

Sin is not just inappropriate behavior. It’s an enemy crouching at the door. It separates from God’s love, it cheapens life. At the end of the day it’s only pay out is death.  John pulls no punches. ‘Sin’, he says, ‘is the Devil’s work.’ Always was. Right from the beginning. 

1 John 3:8 “He who commits sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.

God’s remedy for sin is salvation. Jesus came to die upon the cross so that the power of sin may hold no sway over our lives. God calls us to put our faith in Jesus Christ, to ask God’s Holy Spirit to take up residence in our lives that we may be spiritually reborn from above. God calls us to work with the Holy Spirit in developing Christ like lives.

This is the basic gospel message.  “That God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” That “Christ died for our sins”.  As 1 John 3:5 puts it,  “You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin.

Sin is the unexploded bomb beneath the surface of our lives that is waiting to go off.  Maybe, like the lady in Liverpool who heard that bomb fall during the Blitz, we forget that it is there. It lays in the dark sewer of our souls, only to be recognized when somebody starts to dig deep down and name it for what it is. 

So hear John, as he explains that to be child of God, means accepting some fundamental truths.
  • Accepting that we are sinners.
  •  Accepting that Christ alone can be our Savior.
  •  Accepting that to walk in the light involves actively taking steps, to deepen our relationship with God in the power of the Holy Spirit.
Sophisticated? No it’s not.
    It’s the simple gospel  that has been proclaimed throughout the world.
        We are sinners who need a Savior.
            And Sins remedy is the Cross of Jesus Christ. 

Eventually an unexploded bomb causes disruption. It carries within itself all the power of destruction it has had since day one. We can excuse our sin, cover up our sin and even deny our sin. But until we confess our sin and bring it to the Cross of Jesus Christ it remains a force that can explode and destroy and wreck our spiritual walk.

Every worship service is an opportunity to renew our lives before God. To see ourselves, warts and all, in God's light. To claim for ourselves the forgiving and renewing power of the Holy Spirit. To seek for Jesus Christ  to renew us and remake us so that we can be better servants and bearers of His good fruit.

As one morning I sought to drive to church in Liverpool an unexploded bomb prevented me from reaching my destination. The army bomb squad came and the bomb was diffused. The bomb had to be dealt with before normal life could carry on.  Likewise we need daily to accept the love and life changing power of God to rise above our natural tendency towards sinful behavior that we may live every day in the light of Jesus love and peace. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J Pratt B.D.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Messages from the First Letter of John - 1. Walk in the Light

'Sin, Forgiveness and Love '
(Messages from the First letter of John)
Readings: Psalm 133, Acts 4:32-35, John 20:19-31, 1 John 1:1 - 2:2
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, April 8 2018

I must have been about thirteen years old. There was great excitement in the house. I grew up near Liverpool, England, a place which was once a bustling, active port. Sadly, by the time I came on the scene the city was a dismal shadow of it’s former self. But that day there was a big ship coming in, sailing up the River Mersey taking crude oil to one of the Oil Refineries further down stream.

This wasn’t just a big ship, it was a super tanker, a mega tanker, a monster tanker! The sort of boat that you could have five full size football fields on deck, all with games going on and still have enough room to land a Jumbo Jet. Well, maybe not quite that big, but it was the biggest thing that had sailed down the River Mersey ... ever.

So my dad drove me and my friend down to New Brighton, where you could get a good view of the river. Of course it was raining and gray and visibility was poor. Then along it came. A huge, ugly, bulk of a thing, being towed by a whole fleet of struggling tug boats, it slowly transported it’s oily cargo up stream.

I remember reading in the newspaper about how hard it was to turn this monstrous mega machine around out at sea. We’re talking a required area of many, many square miles. If you’ve ever been out on the water in just a little boat, and been going full belt, and then want to turn around and go the other way - you know how hard it is. Multiply that situation by many miles and many tons - and you get the picture. And if the boat was going with the flow and had to turn and head back against the tide, then the distances grew even greater.

The first letter of John is addressed to a church that John felt was headed at speed in the wrong direction. He knows that the inertia involved in the process was going to be hard to deal with; that turning things around was going to be a laborious process. He sets about reminding them of some of the basics of their faith.

In the first chapter (and on into the second), he recalls a fundamental Christian teaching. Humankind by nature prefers the darkness to the light. That there is in our make up, a driving force, a spirit of rebellion, a twisted desire towards unrighteousness, a bias towards what is bad rather than what is good. He calls it by a three letter word spelt S-I-N.

Sin. For John sin is not unlike the crude oil that fills the belly of the mega tankers. If ever you have been on a beach that has suffered the catastrophe of a large oil spill then you will be aware of crude oil's capability to cling and spoil and destroy.

It’s a heart breaking sight to observe sea birds trying to get the oil off themselves, trying to prune themselves and in the process covering their beaks, just becoming more and more overwhelmed by the oil, coating their wings so they can’t fly, in their eyes, in their mouths and into their bodies, slowly they die. Their only hope is for some animal rescue organization to take them to a safe place, and over a period of time clean the oil off with detergents and chemicals, until, stained, but capable of survival, they can be set free.

John use two words to describe sin. He firstly uses Greek word ‘skotos’ which means 'darkness'. He recognized such darkness within himself. He felt he had lived much of his life in the dark when it came to the things of God. He felt it was a universal human failing that we turn a blind eye to the needs of others and focus just on ourselves.

Secondly John uses the Greek word ‘harmatia’. 'Harmatia' meant 'going beyond the boundary line' or 'trespassing'. In many traditions when they say the Lord's prayer they say, forgive us our 'trespasses'. Forgive us when we overstep the mark, forgive us those times when we deliberately and purposefully choose to act in ways we know aren't right. He tells us that we are driven by sins that we commit because we can’t seem to help ourselves (we are in the dark) and we are driven by our desire to do the wrong thing (we trespass).

Because of sin, because of the darkness in our lives, we don’t walk in the light. We cherish the shadows. We are content with our masks, and our excuses, and our false reasoning, and our blind spots.
We are ships headed in the wrong direction and it takes more than high ideals to turn us around.

John really hates what sin does to our world. He saw how sin destroyed and polluted all creation. He saw how it was such a powerful thing that many people didn't even recognize it in themselves. He tells us “If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:8). We have this tendency when talking about 'sinners' that we mean somebody else other than ourselves. We like to shift the blame. Here's John saying, “Don't play that game, take the blame!”

You may have seen the Harry Potter books or movies. The death eaters are the dark spirits dispatched by Lord Voldermort to create havoc at Hogwarts. In Harry Potter terms sin is like your own personal death eater. Sin is a dark disturbing and destructive power.

Most of all John hates sin because it is a joy killer. His whole reason for writing his letter is stated in verse 4. “These things we write to you that your joy may be full.” (1 John 1:4 NKJ). God's people were meant to be joyful. And when they walked in the darkness rather than in the light, then the joy quickly evaporated from their lives and the life of their churches.

The dilemma is 'How do we turn this ship around?
How do we get out of the darkness
And ‘Walk in the Light’?'

John’s remedy is that there was no way of turning around, no remedy for the condition of sin - other than the forgiveness and grace found at the Cross of Jesus Christ. That there's nothing we can do to help ourselves. That we are like those seabirds coated with oil, we need an external agent to cleanse us and free us. That just as the only way crude oil becomes useful is when it becomes refined, so the only way our lives become the sort of lives God wants us to have, is when we are refined by the Grace of God we discover in Jesus Christ.

In the King James Bible Verse 2 of 1 John Chapter 2 reads, “Jesus Himself is the propitiation for our sins”. Propitiation. Not a word you hear very often! “Jesus is my Propitiation.” It’s not the sort of slogan you find emblazoned on Christian T-Shirts and Bumper Stickers or put on church noticeboards. Propitiation. 'Jesus is the propitiation' What does it mean? Propitiation means "getting something out of an impossible situation."

When John speaks of Jesus ‘being the propitiation for our sins’, John is telling us that 'Only Jesus is the One who can get us out of the impossible situation that sin creates'. Jesus Christ, and He alone, is the One who can turn the big, ugly, ship of our lives around. Jesus is the only one who can cleanse our lives from sins pollution. That the answer to our darkness and our trespass is found at the Cross.

Other translations use the phrase 'reconciliation' or 'atoning sacrifice'. Again the meaning is that Jesus has done for us at the Cross what we could never do for ourselves. His death reconciles us to God. His death means we can be in fellowship with God. We have through Jesus 'At-One-Ment'.

How do we make the forgiveness offered at the cross our own? Again John offers the solution. 1 John 1:9 “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.”

Another way to think of confession is to see it as admitting to something. Sometimes you will hear people involved in a confrontation and one will challenge the other, 'Come on, just admit that you messed up, then we can start putting things right!”

That's what it takes to allow the grace of God to impact our lives. That we admit to ourselves, to each other and to God that we are messed up and need all the love and hope and healing and forgiveness that God offers to us at the Cross of Jesus Christ. To admit that it was because of sins like ours that Jesus was crucified. To get down off our high horse and admit that unless God helps us through we are lost.

When we take that step, God shines light on our path. How? God offers us the presence of His Holy Spirit as a comfort and a helper and a Guide. We read God's Word in scripture and it starts to come alive and make sense. We find that worship in church is not a matter of dull repetition or duty but a living inspiring encounter with Jesus whom we know as our Lord and our Savior.

We see people in need not as a nuisance but an opportunity to serve our Lord. We find that issues become not a matter of who is right or wrong but we dream of how peace or reconciliation can be found. In moments of tragedy we do not despair but recall how death became a place for resurrection and a cross became an empty tomb.

And we find mixed up in all this... moments of indescribable joy... because we know that God is our God and we are God's children and that somehow all of this is related to the death of Jesus on the Cross, the reconciliation, the atonement, the 'propitiation' that God in love created there.

It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time. It takes consistency. Like that monstrous mega super oil tanker I saw heading up the River Mersey a long time ago, we are a tough vessel to turn around. But in the hands of the right captain, it’s amazing what can be done.

John invites us 'Walk in the light'.
Rejoice that through Jesus we can live free and forgiven.
But don't take it for granted.
Show you are truly thankful by working with God
to be all that you can be,
to the glory of God's name.


The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D

Monday, April 2, 2018

Easter Day "Bang, Woosh, Kapow!"

Readings: Isaiah 25:6-9 , Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24 , I Corinthians 15:1-11, Mark 16:1-8
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, April 1 2018

Da-Da,Da-Da,Da-Da,Da-Da; Da-Da,Da-Da,Da-Da,Da-Da; BATMAN!
Bang. Woosh. kapow!
"Holy Empty Tombs, Batman, What's Going on here?"
"It's called Easter, Robin, An annual Celebration of the Resurrection"
"Quick, To the BatMobile!"
Da-Da,Da-Da,Da-Da,Da-Da; BATMAN!
Bang. Woosh. kapow!

I used to think Batman was so cool. Not the more recent Batman Movies, where he's all broody and serious and twisted, but the old television Batman and Robin series, where the lines were corny, the fight scenes punctuated with 'Bangs, Wooshes and Kapows' and where the Baddies, like the Penguin, the Riddler, and the Joker, had even cheesier lines to say than the Caped Crusader and the Boy Blunder.

As a kid it didn't take much to play Batman. You're imaginary friend could be Robin. Mums dressing gown could be the cape. A brown paper bag with a couple of eye holes cut in it made a great mask. Put on your sisters high heel boots and your underwear over your pants - and, “Bang. Woosh. Kapow”, you were off to save the inhabitants of Gotham city from certain doom. Who needs games consoles and 3DTV when you've got a brown paper bag, a few old clothes and a vivid imagination?

Easter Sunday. The Resurrection Was it all just the disciples vivid imaginations? Did Jesus become their imaginary friend on a mission to save the world? Is what we are doing here simply a childish response to our unfulfilled dreams? Where is the reality in all of this?

To help us answer that I'd like us to think about the documents that witness to the Resurrection, the gospels and writings of the New Testament. The Four Gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, tell the story of Jesus from four different perspectives.

Matthew is keen to relate the links between the Old Testament and the Coming of Jesus and appears to have a Jewish audience in mind. Luke explains a great deal more and gives us a second volume in the Book of Acts that describes the growth of the early church. Mark is like the Readers Digest - the Condensed version. John gives the expanded version with all it's cosmic implications.

Picture this if you can. The Four Gospels as four sides to a mountain. On the top of the mountain is the Cross of Christ. They start out from different viewpoints. A lot of the time they share a common view, but sometimes from their differing perspective they tell us things the others have missed.

But as they reach the top of the mountain, as they approach the Cross, their viewpoints become extremely similar.. each of them relating the crucifixion account with less variations. One tells us what the criminals say, but the other seems to have missed it. One picks up on some of Jesus' last words, another focuses on what the crowd are saying. It's what you would expect from the perspective of four reporters standing around the cross.

But after they speak of the Cross and the Burial - something happens. It's almost as if this mountain they have built has turned out to be a Volcano. On Easter Sunday, Resurrection Day, the whole thing erupts. “Bang. Woosh. kapow!” The blinding light of unexpected revelation.

This eruption sends such bright sparks of light, that not only the gospel writers had trouble seeing clearly, but sprinkles fragments and recollections of the awesome event throughout the rest of the New Testament.

In each of the Gospels the accounts of the Resurrection read like the memories of those who struggled to comprehend the awesome reality of what they witnessed, people blinded by the light. One says, "Remember it was Mary, went down to the tomb"; the other, "No... I remember there was some other women, there!"; One says, "They met a young man". Another corrects.. "It wasn't just a man... he was an angel!"

One has Mary being confronted by Jesus, another of Peter being the first to see the folded grave clothes. And it is as though they are saying... the details aren't important... just believe us. This really happened. We were there. But it's hard to explain. And it was so unbelievable that all we can truly tell is that it was awesome!

As the Bible unfolds more recollections are given. One remembers a meal of fish down by the sea. Another an encounter with two men on the Emmaus Road. One speaks of a time when there were 500 of them on a mountain and Jesus came and taught them.

This was no comic book hero. This "Bang. Woosh. kapow!" of Resurrection was beyond their imagination. The message that unites them is that the Jesus whom they had seen tortured, crucified, dead and buried, was alive. They ate with Him. They talked with Him. They touched Him and He touched them. And now, the reality of His resurrection love inspired them to live and die for Him. Eternity had invaded their lives and nothing could ever be the same again.

The latest of all the apostles, Paul writes "If Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is in vain” (1Corinthians 15:14). " If the Resurrection holds no more validity than a Super Hero in a Comic Book then we better leave right now, shut the doors behind us, and never return. But the message that he proclaims, the message that is being proclaimed from thousands of pulpits and being embraced by millions of people throughout the world at this very moment, proclaimed as it has been in confidence and power for over 2000 years, the "Bang. Woosh. kapow!" message, is this, "Christ is Risen... He is Risen Indeed!"

One thing I love about the resurrection stories in Scripture is that they are not all the same. Every person experiences the living love of Jesus in a different way. The women in Mark have one sort of experience, Peter has another. The disciples down by the beach in John's gospel experience it one way. Paul, at a much later date, on the road to Damascus, experiences the resurrected Jesus in yet another way.

It's not a one off, one-way, isolated experience. Everybody understands it differently. And there's room for all those different stories and understandings and people. In today's church it is no different. From the most liberal to the most conservative of theologians and preachers everybody has a theory as to what happened on that first Easter morning. And there is room for them all.

What seems to be the unifying factor is the idea that whatever happened 'back then' can be a powerful force that can impact the way we live our lives today. That somehow whatever and whoever God maybe, what happened to Jesus in that tomb on the first Easter morning changes everything.

Truly it is a 'Bang, Woosh, kapow” moment. The challenge the scripture lays before us is plain. Have we allowed the "Bang. Woosh. kapow!" message of the Resurrection to erupt within our own hearts? The Resurrection is not simply a doctrine in a book or a belief we give assent to with our minds, but a living experience.... or to turn those words around... an experience that can live in us and change the way we see the whole of our lives.

On Easter Day we have the opportunity to ask God to “Bang. Woosh. kapow!" us in the Holy Spirit. Easter Day is a day to invite Jesus to come afresh into our life and live in our heart. To ask God to make resurrection a part of our life today.

This is the day of Salvation. This is the day of resurrection. This is the day that the Lord has made
And we shall rejoice and be glad it. Ask God to make Resurrection love, a living part of every day you have left to live on this planet. Ask God to fill your life with the Holy Spirit. Surrender your will to God’s will.

There's a moment in an old Batman episode where the caped crusader is seeking to save the day by shooting down the enemy. His young accomplice Robin turns to him and says, 'That's an impossible shot, Batman”. And Batman responds, “That's a negative attitude, Robin”.

Today is not a day for negativity but a day to embrace the positive joy proclaimed by the message of resurrection. Today is a day for believing. Today is a day to allow the living love of Jesus Christ, the love that defies death and blazes forth from an empty tomb, to transform our lives in such a way as nothing remains the same. And Scripture pictures Jesus as inviting us to experience His love with words like these:-

Ask and you shall receive. Seek and you shall find.”
"Behold, I stand at the door and knock.
If anyone hears My voice and opens the door,
I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with Me.”
To God’s name be the Glory."Bang. Woosh. Kapow!" AMEN

The Reverend Adrian J Pratt B.D.