Monday, December 31, 2018

Anybody Home?

 Readings: 1 Samuel 2:18-26, Psalm 148, Colossians 3:12-17, Luke 2:41-52
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, December 30 2018

Luke is the only gospel author to grant us a glimpse of what happened during Jesus’ life from the time of His birth until He commenced His ministry in Galilee. He offers us a picture of a boy who is growing in wisdom and stature and who has a peculiar attachment to the temple in Jerusalem which He describes as "His Father's house."

By the age of 12 Jesus seemed to have an awareness of His identity that many people go through their whole lives never truly getting a hold of. Who He was could not be defined by the Family He belonged to, the job that He did, the company He kept or a whole host of other things. His life was defined by His relationship to God whom He knew was His heavenly Father.

Where do we find our true selves?
How do we define our identities?
Who are we?

We're here in a service of worship. The lights are on. But are we at home in our Father’s House? Is this a moment that is shaping who we are or, are we just sitting through another church service.

Let's think about some of the things that make us who we are.

One thing is our families. We are all somebody's son or daughter. We are defined by a family name. We are so-and-so's child or "Whatshisname’s" eldest or "Mr. Somebody's" youngest. When we're sitting in the waiting room and somebody calls out our name everybody knows who we are and in a small community like this also whose we are.

When we moved to the USA from Great Britain my kids only had to open their mouths and their accent gave them away. People knew they were mine. The way we look gives us away. I used to hate it when I was a kid and people would come up to me and say, "Oh you're just like your mother" and tap me on the head (in the way only great aunts can), but there isn't a thing anyone of us can do about it. As soon as we come into life we are defined by the families that we grow up in. Whether they are our natural parents, our adopted parents, our step-parents, whoever it is - they are part of the way other people see us.

We inherit certain gifts and characteristics and mannerisms from our physical parents. There's all that D.N.A. and chromosomes and genes that cause us to look and act in certain ways. We learn to live by imitation so our patterns of speech, our ways of looking at the world are all shaped by the home environment that we are reared in.

It is not just our homes that define us. It's also our occupations. "What do you do?" people will ask us. How we answer will often determine whether the conversation goes any further. At various times in my life, I have worked at different things. It's always been the same me, but I have observed how people have treated me in different ways, according to what they thought a person who did what I was doing at that time should be treated.

For a while I was the guy in the supermarket who put the boxes on the shelf and collected the karts that people had left out in the parking lot. Later I became the Assistant Warehouse manager which meant that the boss, who previously never spoke to me, would invite me for a drink on Christmas Eve. I worked for a while in an office. I was the voice on the other end of the telephone, "Hello, enquiries can I help you?" I commuted to the city on a train with thousands of others carrying a briefcase that had not a lot more in it than sandwiches and a flask of coffee.

For a while I worked on a government scheme out in the countryside doing conservation work. Some of the people I worked with then had been in a bit of trouble with the law. When I was with them, it was guilt by association. When I was in their company there were places I wasn't welcome.

When I lived on Merseyside, an employment blackspot, like so many others for a time I wore the label of being "Unemployed" and became a Welfare recipient, a social case to be investigated and in some people’s eyes a burden on their taxes. I played for a while in a Rock group. I went to college and became a student. People have their own images of how the unemployed or students or people who play in rock and roll bands behave.

Throughout it all it was still just little old me. I say "little old me" because there's another factor that can affect the way people see us. I don't mean size, (Though that is also a factor). I mean age. We hear about young people, old people, middle aged people, generation X'ers, Baby Boomers, Tots, Teens, Toddlers and so it goes. Yet it has been said that age is a state of mind. I've met ninety years old folk who have a child like twinkle in their eye that defies their years and I've come across eighteen year olds who treat themselves so seriously that you'd think they were ninety.

We are characterized by the things we see as desirable, what we aim for. Even our idea of "heaven" makes us who we are. By being here today there are those who will point the finger at us and say, "Oh, you're the religious sort!" I hate that. Particularly when the harshest words in the gospel are directed by Jesus at those who were the religious sort; the Sadducees, the Pharisees, the Teachers of the law. Who wants to be associated with that bunch of hypocrites? I know in school many of our youth come up against negative peer pressure all the time. "Church?" It's just not cool.

I've come up with an answer to confound those who disapprovingly call me "The religious sort." I just look them in the eye and say, "Religious sort? I'll have you know that I belong to Presbyterians! The only denomination whose name is an anagram of “Britney Spears.” That's no kind of answer but it sure shuts them up for a while. How easy it is to label each other, even fellow Christians. He's Baptist. She's Catholic. They're Pentecostal and all of that.

Which all brings me right back to our Bible story about Jesus in the temple. The place He called "His Father's house." One of the most startling things about His life, is that by the age of twelve, He had a sense of identity that was rooted in who He was in God. The defining factor in His life was not that he was a teenager about to become a young adult when he reached the age of thirteen, not that He was an apprentice carpenter, nor that He was of the family of Joseph and Mary but that He was a child of His Father God.

Throughout His life He refused to be defined by family or occupation or age or religion or social class or nationality. The rich would invite him for dinner, the poor were equally at home in His company. The young thronged around Him and the old made Him welcome. He was a friend to the rich young ruler and the poorest leper, who made a prostitute feel as welcome as a sister, one recognized by both Samaritan and Jew as a wise teacher. He identified with none yet was identified by most as a friend.

That was one of the things that made Him such a threat. It wasn't such a great leap for everybody's friend to suddenly become everyone's enemy. The accusation "Of course He's not really one of us" was easily made against Him. When He refused to be labeled, to be classified, to be contained, then His presence became dangerous and subversive, something that those who held the keys of power recognized right from the start of His ministry.

Throughout His life, the times of blessing and the time of persecution, Jesus remained true to Himself as a Child of His Father God, at home with who He was. I gave this message the title of "Anybody Home?" because it's a question we need to ask ourselves. Are we at home with ourselves, with our God, with our life the way it is right now? Anybody home?

Ultimately we will depart this life in much the same way as we arrived. We brought nothing in with us and can't take anything out with us. So on the last day what is going to define who we are or what we become? Ultimately it has to be our relationship with God. Everything else is in transit. Everything else is like the flowers that today blossom and grow but tomorrow are faded and return to dust.

It's not a question of who we are, it's a question of whose we are. "I am in my Father's house" declared Jesus at the age of twelve. He states He is a child of God. His life will be defined, in all its changing seasons, by His relationship with God. The things He was asked to do by His Father were the things that His life displayed. Because He knew whose He was, He knew who He was. He was at home in the Father's love.

We too shall be restless until we discover our true selves in the love of Jesus Christ. We too must say to God, "Whoever I am, Wherever I am, Whatever I am, Lord… I am Yours." One of the hymns puts it this way:
"Take my life and Let it be
Consecrated Lord to thee
Take my moments and my days
Let them flow in ceaseless praise"

The parents of Jesus came to Him, anxiously, with a question. "Where have you been, what are you doing here?" Jesus replied that they should have expected to find Him in the place of God, after all, didn't they realize that was where He was at home? "This is my Father's house."

Our lives will be an empty, anxious search until our hearts find their home in God. It is said that home is where the heart is. Do you know where your heart is? Anybody home? May we, through faith, find our hearts are at home in our Father’s love, at home with the things of His Kingdom, at home with the ways of the Spirit and the grace and peace and wholeness of Jesus Christ. Any other home will never satisfy the deepest needs of our lives.

The home God offers is a home for people of all nations, a home of healing, a prosperous place, a safe place, a home filled with hope, a place where tears come to an end and grief turns into laughter. Sounds like the sort of place we would do well to be a part of. There really is no place like home!

"In my Father’s house,"says Jesus,
"There are many mansions.
I go there on purpose
to prepare a place for you."

The Reverend Adrian J Pratt B.D.

Monday, December 24, 2018

Advent 4 "Wow!"

Readings: Psalm 89, Micah 5:2-5a, Luke 1:37-55
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, December 23 2018

When Mary went to visit Elizabeth it was one of those “Wow!” moments. Ever had those? When everything comes together and seems to make sense and you really feel that simply being alive is just about the most amazing thing that can happen to anybody?

We read that when Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, “The babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit; And she spoke out with a loud voice, and said, Blessed art thou among women”. Wow! It got to Mary as well. She starts singing out, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior!” This didn’t normally happen when they came together for morning coffee to exchange baby stories.

It’s medically impossible for many of us to have a baby leaping in our stomach but many of us have experienced what we’d call in England ‘having butterflies in your tummy.” A sense of expectation and excitement.

As a kid it always used to get me on Christmas Eve night. I never knew if Santa Claus would be bringing me what I really, really, wanted. I kind of thought that he would, but mum said that it all depended on if I’d been a good boy or not (which of course I knew I hadn’t) and that in any case Santa wouldn’t come till I went to sleep. Boy, did I have a hard time snoozing with all those butterflies flying around inside. Wow!

How about going for your first interview, or maybe starting your first job? Looking back, maybe it wasn’t the best of jobs, but suddenly you had money coming in! Wow! Not pocket money, but real money, that you’d worked for and it was yours. (Except for the bit the taxman wanted).

Did you get excited about your first car? You always have these dreams as a kid; about what car you’ll have when you’re older. Ferrari. Porsche. Rolls Royce Silver Shadow. Something red with a big engine. Then the realization breaks in that working at MacDonald’s doesn’t pay that well and you’ll settle for just about anything as long as it moves.

My first vehicle? A Bedford Van. The water came through the roof when it rained. The engine cover used to fly off when it hit 50 miles an hour. It was an unusual shade of 'greens' and had parts held on with duct tape. But – “Wow!” – it was all mine. No –correction it was all ours – because I was dating Yvonne by then.

How about that for a “Wow!” experience? Falling in love. Now there’s a mystery for you! If you’re lucky enough, you find that special person and somewhere along the way, it all gets gooey and warm and the birds sing louder and the bees buzz better and the world is such a wonderful place, just as long as you can be together.
What about the birth of a child? That’s part of what Christmas is all about. That’s the excitement that was there in our bible reading. Mary and Elizabeth looking forward to the birth of their special children. There’s a sense for all of us, that our children are special. Mostly because - Wow! - they are ours!

Did you ever watch those shows on one of the T.V. channels, "A makeover story", “A dating Story”, “A Wedding Story”, “A baby Story”? They attract a lot of viewers. I was trying to imagine them doing a ‘Christmas Special’ on the Nativity story. Mary dating this older guy. The strange tales of angels and babies. The wedding. The unexpected journey. The birth in a stable. Now that’d make for an interesting few episodes!

I can think of some other, maybe less dramatic, “Wow!” experiences. I remember the first time I saw one of those 3D pictures. All those shapes and colors. Took me a while to figure it out. Then you stare and stare and “Wow” there it is! Well, look at that! A trio of ducks flying over an open field!

I remember when I first got my glasses. I didn’t know, until I took driving lessons, that I was near-sighted. The instructor said, “Read that sign over there”. I said, “What sign?” When I got my first glasses, I was amazed. Trees had leaves on then that weren’t just little blurry green shapes. There were all these things written high up on buildings that I’d never seen before. “Wow!”

But the biggest 'Wow!" experience of my life, (and of all days today, the day before Christmas Eve, is the time to talk about it), was the discovery that Jesus Christ was not some historical figure, confined to the pages of dusty old history books, but one whose living, loving, Holy Spirit could be born into the midst of our everyday lives.

That's why I enjoy Christmas so much! I enjoy the trimmings, the food, the carols, the gifts, the goodwill, and all the rest of it. But over and above all of that, for me, Christmas is a celebration of the birth of hope into a world where love appears to be rationed; a birth of joy into a world where gloom and misery can be overwhelming.

That birthing of Christ into the womb of my every day experience has not been an overnight happening. I look back over my life, so far, and see a series of "Wow!" encounters, points of contact between my own limited life and the eternal life that is God. Moments when the Grace of God, unmerited and unexpected, just broke in on my experience and a doorway was opened up and an opportunity was given either to follow or to walk away.

I am a preacher of the gospel of Jesus Christ because I believe it is the most exciting Good News that will ever come to this world. And so much of my understanding of this fantastic, almost unbelievable message, focuses on what happened in Bethlehem.

The theologians call it the Incarnation. God, In Christ, redeeming creation. Jesus, born, to be Savior of the world. "Wow!" Those theological terms roll off the tongue so easily, the words sound so familiar, but are we any nearer to grasping their significance?

I remember the first time I sang the Christmas carols and their meaning actually came home to me. I had sung them for years and to me they were just good tunes with high-sounding words. But one time, whilst I was out carol singing as a young person, the Spirit of God got on my case. Big Time!

I could hardly sing them! Every word suddenly came alive. I had tears welling up. The beauty and the truths that were being expressed in some of those carols choked me. "Convicted by the Holy Ghost" - was what the old Welsh Presbyterian Founding Fathers would call it! The Grace of God being born into a human heart. Wow!

Take a hymn like Phillip Brooks', "O Little town of Bethlehem". The third verse;
"How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given!” That's so right! Amidst all the noise, the clamor of Bethlehem then and of our world today, quietly, God's love catches up with us. But we're so busy, and we don't always hear it. We're so full of ourselves we don't always see it!

And Christmas gifts! How feeble are attempts at gift exchanges compared to God giving the gift of Jesus Christ. Giving a life. Living a life that we may know God's love! Dying that we may taste the salvation of God. Wondrous, amazing, a "Wow!" of a thing!

"So God imparts to human hearts, the blessings of His heaven." 'Heaven, Lord? ‘Heaven in my heart? You would bless me, here and now, today, with things, not having the fading glory of this world, but tingling with the joy of heaven… eternal… everlasting... holy… wonderful... pure? Lord, you would do such things in my life?

"No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive Him, the dear Christ enters in!" You got that right Mr. Brooks when you wrote this one. A sinful world that isn't even listening, yet alone hearing the voice of God. But… Lord… you still come where your voice is welcomed. "Wow!" Here we are singing carols, and half the time we're not expecting, or listening, or prepared to welcome your love… no, not even at Christmastime... but you’re breaking in… breaking down even our hard and cold hearts!

It's Christmas. Our bible readings gave us the story of Mary and Elizabeth, who were pregnant, not just with children, but also with hope. Who looked to the birth, not just of a couple of beautiful baby boys, but of a whole new world.

And it happened. It happened in Bethlehem. Jesus was born. He lived. He died. He rose again. Do you have that faith? Can the love of Jesus be born into the womb of your everyday lives? I believe it to be so! That’s why I celebrate Christmas! That's why I'm here today, and will be here tomorrow, singing and worshiping, with a smile as broad as a Cheshire cat. "Wow!"

Christ the Savior is born!!!!!!

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D

Monday, December 10, 2018

Advent 2 "Outlasting The Energizer Bunny"

Readings: Malachi 3:1-4, Luke 3:1-6, Philippians 1:3-11, Isaiah 40:1-11
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, December 9, 2018

Bunny Rabbits at Christmas Time? Well… not just any bunny. Not good old Bugs Bunny asking “What’s up Doc?”… or even those cute little wabbits in Watership Down, “Bright eyes, burning like fire”… but the annoying little rabbit banging incessantly on the drum that used to walk across your television screen, the Energizer Bunny.

My adapted version of Isaiah 40 verse 8 this morning reads; “The Grass Withers, the flower fades, “the energizer bunny eventually runs out of gumption”; but the Word of our God will stand for ever.”

There is not a lot in life that lasts forever. Though in songs and poems artists speak of everlasting love, though there are those who suggest that hope springs eternal, though sermons can seem unbearably long if you have a table booked for Sunday lunch, science and scripture tell us that… eventually… the earth and the heavens will pass away.

But the Word, not just the words of the Bible or any other words, the living Word that is Jesus Christ, the Word through whom according to John’s gospel, God created all things, the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld His glory… if we allow our lives to be absorbed by that sort of Word, then I tell you, we have something more than snowy scenes and St Nicholas to celebrate at Christmas Time.

What this text does for us is call us to consider, not why we celebrate Christmas, but why we are on this planet in the first place. Is there a purpose? Is there a meaning? Or have we just been abandoned to futility and eventual dissolution?

This text is a Good News text. It affirms that life can have direction and purpose and meaning because the God who gave us life is a permanent fixture… a God beyond the limitations of human or earthly existence, a God who is all the things those grand theological words like immutable, immortal, and incarnational seek to convey to us.

Let’s take my adapted text phrase by phrase.

The Grass Withers, the flower fades”

Every second of our life that passes brings us one second closer to our demise. If you want to get into a business where you never have to be out of work… become an undertaker. Writer Steve Turner has a poem about death in which he writes;

Boxers can’t punch it, Nor critics dismiss it,
Don’t knows can’t not know, The lazy can’t miss it,
Capitalists can’t bribe it, Socialists can’t share it,
Terrorists can’t jump it, The Third World aren’t spared it,

Scientists can’t quell it, Nor can they disprove it,
Doctors can’t cure it, Surgeons can’t move it,
Einstein can’t halve it, Guevara can’t free it,
The thing about dead, is we’re all gonna be it.
(Steve Turner in “Nice and Nasty” Razor Books -ISBN 0551008652)

The Grass withers, the flowers fade, from dust we have come and to dust we shall return. Whatever you are today… eventually… you will not be it. In fact you won’t be anything. The time for being anything will have reached its inevitable conclusion.

Cheerful thoughts as we travel through Advent aren’t they? But that’s the point. Isaiah’s words come in the midst of a book that features a lot of gloom and doom and futility. It is partly about the way people waste their lives and live… well… for nothing but themselves and at the end of the day their selves breathe their last… and what’s left? Nothing but a huge funeral bill for the relatives to take care of. The thing about dead is we’re all going to be it. “The Grass Withers, the flower fades, and...

The Energizer Bunny eventually runs out of Gumption”

How do we cope with the inevitability of our mortality? Not so well a lot of the time. Young folks live like there was no tomorrow. Old folks keep looking back to yesterdays. And those who can’t work out if they are young or old, they just keep working for whatever it is they are working for!

Folks, we are the energizer bunny. We just keep going, going, going, banging on the same old drum. Have you seen that advertising campaign where you think that you are watching a different advert and then suddenly bang, bang, bang, in comes that bunny again. That’s us. The circumstances may change around us but we go on year after year with the same unresolved issues, accumulating more and more baggage, evading our problems rather than dealing with them.

The energizer bunny of course runs on battery power. It is powered by something that is man made and manufactured. Eventually the battery dies. Eventually the bunny runs out of gumption. A battery powered life is no guarantee of immortality.

In our lives we can accumulate a lot of stuff that we hope will keep us powered up. We pin a lot of our hopes on our stuff. Stuff is the battery that keeps us going. If we get a better job, a better car, a better house, a better neighborhood, a job with better prospects, sometimes a better husband or wife, sometimes a better church or let’s drop church altogether… then we will attain happiness and we will live more contentedly and therefore live longer and be better and life will be more fulfilled.

If that stuff doesn’t work then people turn to other stuff. Drink, drugs, endless fruitless relationships, escapism on the Internet, the shopping channel, lottery tickets. Dangerous stuff. Stuff that doesn’t tell the truth. Stuff that tells you that this is what you need. You try it and for a little while it feels just like what you need. But when you come down you are lower than where you started from. The kind of stuff that gets its teeth into you so deeply that you just can’t live without it. Addictive stuff.

The Good News we celebrate at Christmas Time has nothing to do with stuff that runs out, with batteries that die or bunnies that cease to be energized. The Good News of Christmas is contained in the last part of our text. “The Grass Withers, the flower fades, “the energizer bunny eventually runs out of gumption”; but...

The Word of our God will stand for ever.

The Word of our God will stand for ever! The Word who became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld His glory, the Word who was and is Jesus Christ, the Word to whom the words of our scriptures point us and direct us, the Word who comes to us in the person and the presence of the Holy Spirit… will stand for ever.

Not like the food at the store that has an expiration date. Not like the gas in your tank that keeps running out. Not like that account you had in the bank that because of having no funds in was terminated. Not like that series you were watching on Television that finally reached the concluding episode. Not like that game you were playing until GAME OVER illuminated the screen.

Not like that old radio you had for years and years, with glowing valves in the back, that picked up transmissions on every band from short wave to long wave and F.M and goodness knows where, but you turned it on one morning and it simply ceased to function… not like any of that. Not like anything that is not permanent or everlasting or eternal. The Word of God will stand for ever!

All the stuff that we build into our lives that is other than the Word of God, all that we put our hope in that is outside of the Word of God, is going to come to an end. But those things that are related to the Word of God will last for ever.

Ever wondered why us preacher types keep going on and on and on like the Energizer Bunny about how scripture reading and worship and private devotion and prayer and service to others are so important? Because somewhere along the way, we have been led by the grace of God to the understanding that everything else can’t hold us, everything else eventually goes kaputt, everything else just doesn’t cut it when it comes to eternity.

If we seek for our lives to be molded by the teaching of the One who came to us as a baby in a stable in Bethlehem all those centuries ago, then we are allowing principles and forces and dynamics with eternal reverberations to shape who we are and what our life will be and where our lives will take us.

God saw to it that we were born for a reason. Born to be people who know God’s love, who taste and see the salvation of the God in Jesus Christ, who are energized and recreated by the Holy Spirit. God did not put us on this planet to play ‘He who has the most toys wins’ but to dwell with one another in love and peace, in relationships that nurture and help each other to grow.

Yes, we have fallen and will fall again and again, but that’s why Jesus is known as the Savior. Outside of His love we have no hope. But when we dwell in His love and His love dwells in our hearts through the Holy Spirit we have everything to hope for, everything to live for and everything to die for.

We who believe in Jesus Christ know that we have not just been abandoned to futility and eventual dissolution. We know this because we seek to live our lives by and through His love. The love that came down at Christmas.

And so we look forward in this season of Advent. We look down the road to a day when those things we now see through the shadows will appear plain in the light of Christ. We look to what God can do and can enable us to do as we give our lives into God’s hands.

We look ahead to catch a vision of a new heaven and a new earth and the Holy Spirit brings to us a sense of confidence in the Grace of God that whatever may come our way, God is able to carry us through.

Isaiah 40 verse 8. What a wonderful text. “The Grass Withers, the flower fades; but the Word of our God will stand for ever.” Let us seek to build our lives on God’s Word. Let us not be energizer bunnies going on and on and on, oblivious to our surroundings until we eventually cease to function. Rather let us be disciples of Jesus Christ, saved by grace through faith, looking to a better day.

To God’s name be the Glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Advent 1 "Look Down The Road”

Readings: Jeremiah 33:14-16, Psalm 25:1-10,1 Thessalonians 3:9-13, Luke 21:25-36
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, December 2 2018

I’d like to start this morning with a quote from Calvin. Not John Calvin the great reformer but Calvin and Hobbes, the comic strip. In the particular one I’m thinking of, Calvin speaks to Hobbes and says: "Live for the moment is my motto. You never know how long you got."

In the second frame he explains "You could step into the road tomorrow and WHAM, you get hit by a cement truck! Then you'd be sorry you put off your pleasures. That's what I say - live for the moment." And then he asks Hobbes: "What's your motto?"

Hobbes replies: "My motto is - Look down the road."

Look down the road.” Such is not a bad theme for the first Sunday in Advent. Our brief reading from Jeremiah was one that encouraged us to look ahead. Encouraged us to look beyond the present and to a future filled with possibilities.

Fact is that the situation in which Jeremiah wrote these words was anything but hopeful. The Babylonian army were laying siege to Jerusalem. Jehoichin, a King in the Davidic line had been replaced by a puppet king called Zedekiah. There was trouble within and without the nation and Jeremiah in previous chapters has warned that it was going to get worse before it ever got better.

Yet he doesn’t leave it there. He says, “Look down the Road.” Beyond these troubled times there will come a time when God makes things right again. It won’t be the same as it ever was. Though based upon what has past it will be something new. And it will be the Lords doing. Jeremiah 33:14 “The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah.

Look down the road. The promise will be fulfilled.

As we look down the road towards Christmas, expectations, particularly among the young ones, can run high. As an old English carol proclaims, “Tis the season to be jolly, Fa La La La Lah, La Lah Lah Lah.” The Christmas celebration provides a welcome break in the dark days of winter. It’s theme of “Joy to the world” is a message seldom proclaimed among the hullabaloo of every day endeavor.

It is easy to become cynical about the materialism and gross excess that seems to parody the genuine message of Christmas spirit, but as Charles Dickens marvelous character “Mr Scrooge” reveals to us, to not allow room in ones life for celebration, even when it takes place in circumstances of desperation, is a soul destroying attitude of life to adopt.

Look down the Road. Jeremiah 33:15” In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David”.

We know about King David. That whilst he wasn’t the perfect King, he nevertheless had one thing that set him apart. He had a heart for the things of God. Now before David ever came to the throne, before even his predecessor Saul had become Israel’s first King, the prophet Samuel had warned the people that having a King wasn’t necessarily a good thing. His words had proved sadly true.

Many of the kings had led the people into the destructive worship of foreign idols. Others used their positions for selfish gain and advantage, and had depended upon military strength rather that in trust in God to get them through. In all of Israel’s history after David, only five kings in the Southern Kingdom, and none in the Northern Kingdom were remembered as being even marginally faithful to God.

Some of the people began to yearn for one who would be a worthy successor to David. Hezekiah had looked promising, but then his son Manasseh had negated much of the good he achieved. Josiah had come along with his reforms and message of renewal, but he died a sudden death.

As the nation faced the calamity of defeat and destruction the longing for a righteous royal deliverer grew more intense. Though the people knew they had fallen from God, there was also the recognition that God was faithful, and that all those promises made to Abraham and Moses and David were promises that could not be erased by the sins of the people, but had a power that remained in force. Look down the road. God would redeem God’s people! God’s promises were solid as a rock. A righteous branch would spring up from David’s line.

This was far more than just being a promise that some earthly king would come along. To the people of Israel facing an immanent catastrophe, this was a promise to them, that no matter what, God would remain faithful. It is a message about God’s faithfulness in the face of failure and despair. It shows that God is committed to God’s people, in spite of their disobedience, in spite of their failure, in spite of their sinfulness.

This morning we lit the first candle on the Advent Wreath. The candle of hope. Let’s face it, these aren’t the brightest days. Violence and unrest stalk the land. The world is still a place of famine, war and suffering for many of it's inhabitants. Questions as to the future are perplexing.

On a personal level we can face family illness and troubles of many and various kinds. Some days are just plain difficult, and it takes a good dose of holy grace to carry us through. At such times it is hard to look down the road, because the crisis of the moment takes away our vision for the future.

Yet here’s the thing. If the Advent message has nothing to say to these situations life throws at us, it could be that the Christian Gospel is the emptiest hope of all. It seems to me that our belief does not make us immune to life’s troubles, rather that it is our faith that informs us and carries us through the hard times.

It is the nature of Christian faith that sometimes the road gets tough. Sometimes it’s not our fault, but often times it is. We mess up. We make bad decisions. We sin and are sinned against. We are offered the best way and we take the easiest. We know what’s right yet time and time again choose the wrong.

Furthermore, even when we are faced with the consequences of our actions, we are more likely to complain and plead innocence rather than admit defeat! Was this not the situation of the people of Jeremiah’s day? ‘Yes we’ve been unfaithful, yes, you told us that if we didn’t change our ways, trouble would be coming, and yes, we know it’s about to hit us hard, but you know Lord? We just couldn’t seem to help ourselves!’

What were Jeremiah’s words of hope to these hopeless ones?
Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safely.
And this is the name by which it will be called:
The LORD is our righteousness.
(Jeremiah 33:16)

Did you catch those last words? ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’ I’ve heard it suggested that the way God justified people in the Old Testament era was different to the way God saved them in the New. That the old way was the way only of the law, whilst the New Testament is all about grace.

Not so with Jeremiah! Jeremiah’s only hope for the people of Israel and Judah was in the saving act of God. “Look down the Road.” You’ve tried again and again to save yourselves but it’s just not in you. The sky is dark and your enemies are at your door, but this is not the end of the story. God will redeem God’s people. Your salvation is in God’s hands. The Lord is your righteousness.

God did indeed raise up a righteous branch from the line of David. As we look to celebrating the birth of Jesus, in David’s town of Bethlehem, we see the birth of new hope into the worlds darkness, a hope we are called to make our own.

It is to Jesus Christ that we are called to turn for our salvation. He alone can be our righteousness. He alone has the power over sin and death and hell. He alone can renew life and restore life, lift up the fallen, forgive the sinner and bind up the wounds of those who need healing. His joy enriches the laughter of God’s faithful ones and His tears sanctify the tears of those who mourn.

When I’m faced with the hard times, it seems that the faith God offers to me as a gift, has a habit of rising up and taking control. It’s when I try and suppress that reliance upon God, when in my pride and foolishness I think I can get through on my own or could do better without God’s interference, then I fall.

I’m so thankful that I have a God who just won’t give up on me. I’m so thankful that my destiny is not dependent on my own works but upon the righteousness of Jesus Christ. I’m so glad that I have a Savior who calls me to “Look down the road.” To see that, even in times that are not filled with light, there’s something good just a little further away than I can glimpse right now.

Living one day at a time’ is not the same thing as ‘Living without a care for tomorrow.’ Jesus encouraged us to live life in day-tight compartments, particularly as we never know what may be coming around the next corner. At the same time He also suggested that we “Watch and Pray.” That we dream dreams and envision possibilities. That we trust in God our Father to take care of those things we can’t fix for ourselves.

Look down the Road
For those who put their faith in Jesus Christ, There’s something good in store.

It kind of puts me in a Christmas frame of mind. Recapturing that feeling of not knowing exactly what Santa had left under the tree, but knowing it was something good.

I remember one Christmas years ago being taken to my Grandmothers. I had deep questions, like ‘Had my parents left Santa a forwarding address?’ We got there and I caught the measles. But it was O.K. I’d asked Santa for a cowboy suit, and on Christmas Day I put it on over my pajamas, and everything was fine. There had been something good down the road and it had given the nasty bits of the journey a new perspective.

Now didn’t Jesus say something about having the faith of a child?
Look down the Road.
Thanks be to God.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D