Sunday, January 27, 2019

What's it all about?

Epiphany 3
Readings: Nehemiah 8:1-10, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 12:12-31a, Luke 4:14-21
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, January 27 2019

I'm pretty sure that I'm not the only person here who likes to browse around bookshops. It's hard to say what attracts you to a particular book. It can be the cover. It can be because you've read other books by the same author. It can be that you've heard the title is on the best-seller list and you’re interested to see whether it’s all the critics make it out to be.

I always take the time to read the back cover, where there is usually a summary of the book’s content. You know the kind of thing; "Detective Dan Dare takes on a new challenge in 'The case of the Missing Sermon' the first of a new series of mind boggling adventures." If that's what I'm looking for, then I might go ahead and buy it.

"What's it all about?" That's what you want to know when you’re going to be investing your precious time in reading something. "What's it all about?" is also a question that confronts us when we think about our faith. Luke, right near the start of his gospel, gives us an account of Jesus going to the synagogue, at the beginning of His public ministry, and outlining what the gospel He will preach is going to be all about.

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because He anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set free those who are downtrodden,
To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord"
(Luke 4:18-19)

This quotation from the prophet Isaiah is sometimes described as the “Nazareth Manifesto.” Through these words Jesus outlines where He's coming from and what He intends to do. If we want to know what the gospel is all about, this passage offers a great starting point. Join me in looking at these words a bit deeper.

Firstly, notice that Jesus describes His mission as the work of God's Holy Spirit who has anointed Him for the task. The work of the church is a Holy Spirit anointed work. Christian life is a work of grace, not an undertaking of mere human effort. If we attempt to live the Christian life without maintaining a prayerful attitude and without seeking to apply God's Word to our life, we will dry up.

Right through the gospels you see Jesus consistently working within the framework provided by the Old Testament and consistently taking time out to pray and keep His relationship with God fresh. That's the pattern He calls us to adopt if we wish to be disciples. Life in the Spirit, guided by the Word! That's where Jesus was coming from. But what did He intend to do?

The first task He speaks of is; Preaching the gospel to the poor.

Poverty takes different forms. One is economic poverty. Jesus was born into a family whom at the time of purification could only afford to make the 'poor persons' offering of two young pigeons or doves (See Luke 2:24). Many times in His parables He spoke of God's Kingdom as being a place where a reversal of fortunes would take place. Everything would be turned upside down and inside out.

Think of His parable of the rich man and Lazarus, or His encounter with a rich nobleman whom He informed needed to sell everything he had and give to the poor if he was to be saved. His comment that it was easier for a camel to squeeze through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom, all show a definite bias towards those who were economically disadvantaged.

Through New Testament injunctions to care for the widows and orphans, to the many charitable options that the different denominations today pursue, this is a bias the Church has continued to pursue. But poverty is not just an economic crisis. There also exists spiritual poverty. His message is good news to those who are lacking direction or purpose, for the Gospel offers riches of grace that cannot be found elsewhere. The gospel is good news to be preached to the poor, be they poor economically or spiritually.

Next Jesus speaks of Proclaiming release to the Captives. Elsewhere the word used for 'release' is a Greek Word, 'aphesis', that particularly relates to the forgiveness of sins. Sin is described by Paul as the crippling disease, which holds all creation captive. (See Romans 8:22).

The Good News of Jesus offers a remedy for the condition of sin that holds us back from living the way God intended. He went to the Cross and prayed for us, "Forgive them Father, for they don't know what they are doing." One of the tremendous affirmations of the Apostles’ Creed is that we believe in 'the forgiveness of sins,' made possible through Jesus Christ who was 'crucified, dead and buried' and 'rose again from the dead.'

The “New Way” Christ comes to offer is one where the past, where guilt and shame, where failures and regrets no longer haunt us, but become opportunities for Grace. We are to learn from our failings, not dwell upon them or be held back by them. Though time and time again we may fall, God's love never declares us to be failures or hopeless cases. Because He died and rose again the door to forgiveness and New Life is always open. He came to proclaim release to the captives, which means to all of us, for we are all held captive by sin.

Recovery of sight to the blind.
A new vision. A vision that perceives new possibilities where before nothing could be seen at all. The gospel can do that for us. Help us see things in a way we had never seen them before. All the time Jesus encourages us to do just that.

To see probable enemies as potential friends. To see problems as opportunities. To see broken lives as things to put back together. To see setbacks as challenges through which we grow stronger. To see others and ourselves as those who are greatly loved by a God we can call “Our Father.” To see all of life as a wonder to be cherished and even death as a doorway to glories yet to be revealed.

The wisdom of the Book of Proverbs declares that without a vision the people perish. (Proverbs 29:18). Jesus declares that He has come to bring about a restoration of vision.

As well as lifting up the poor, offering forgiveness and giving sight, the vision has to do with setting free the downtrodden. During His ministry time and time again Jesus encountered people trodden down by physical circumstances, by political circumstances, even by demonic forces. And time and time again He spoke the Word and they were set free.

There’s a song based on Martin Luther King Jr’s. words that says,

Free at Last, Free at last,
Thank God Almighty that we are free at last,
Gone are the chains of the past,
Thank God almighty we are free at last.

The gospel message has shown itself on countless occasions
to be a message that sets people free.

In the final part of the verse Jesus proclaims He has come; To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord.

In Isaiah Chapter 61 proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor is connected with the Jubilee year legislation of Leviticus 25. Following a series of seven sevens, the fiftieth year was to be a year ‘When you shall proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants.” (Leviticus 25:10). Slaves were set free to return to their families. Debts were cancelled out. Jubilee was a time of new beginnings when the field was leveled and all had an equal chance of starting afresh.

Isn’t that what the grace of God can do for us? Christ’s forgiveness offers the chance to start over again. No matter how much debt we have incurred, (be it materially or spiritually), no matter how enslaved to habits or lifestyles we have become, Jesus says to us, “It’s jubilee time! I believe in you. I see your potential. Let’s pick up the pieces and make something beautiful out of this mess! C’mon. It’s jubilee time!!!”

What’s it all about, this gospel we seek to follow?

It’s about Jesus whose Holy Spirit enriches our lives, forgives our sins, grants to us new vision and sets us free to serve. It’s about Jubilee and new beginnings and enjoying the favor of God. It’s about the relationships we have with each other and about how we treat those less fortunate than ourselves. It’s spiritual and social and political and a whole lot more. It’s about our private lives and our public lives, how we live when everybody is watching us and how we live when nobody’s watching.

Above all it is GOOD NEWS! 

"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because He anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives,
And recovery of sight to the blind,
To set free those who are downtrodden,
To proclaim the favorable year of the Lord"

GOOD NEWS – that God isn’t through with us yet.
GOOD NEWS – that God cares about the things we are going through.
GOOD NEWS – that God is on the side of those for whom life is hard.
GOOD NEWS – for those who make a mess of their lives, for God offers forgiveness.
GOOD NEWS – for those who are seeking direction and purpose because God brings us vision.
GOOD NEWS – for those who feel trodden down, because He has the power to lift you up, the Holy Spirit power that turns death into resurrections.
GOOD NEWS – that the day of the Lord’s Jubilee is here and now.
Now is the time to set things right.

Our passage closed with Jesus saying these words,
Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21).
Many years before Moses had told the Israelites,
Today, if you hear His voice, do not harden your hearts.” (See Hebrews 3:15)

Today then...
let us hear afresh Jesus in the synagaogue,
The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
Because He anointed me to preach the gospel to the poor.”
Today... let us allow ourselves to be embraced by God’s awesome love.
And to God be all glory.
Amen and Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

Did You See That?

Epiphany 2
Reading: Isaiah 62:1-5, Psalm 36:5-10, 1 Corinthians 12:1-11, John 2:1-11
Preached at Mount Hebron Presbyterian Church, MD, January 20 2019

I was watching a guitarist playing, brilliant guy, could get sounds out of guitars that you never thought they had in them. I was trying to pick up some tips to improve my own technique. This guy knew his scales, the fingers of his left hand zipped up and down the strings like greased lightning.

But it was a little trick he did with the pick he held in his right hand that I’ve never seen anybody else do, before or since. Usually he held the pick between his thumb and forefinger, but occasionally, if he wanted to play a harmonic or a bass note (Or even both at the same time) he would flick the pick to between his middle fingers, play the bass string with his thumb, a chord in the middle and a note on the top string with his little finger. He would do this just for a quick phrase, then go back to normal. Now that may not seem like much to some of you, but if you are some one who tries to play the guitar, then that is very impressive.

First time I noticed him do it, I said to my friend who was with me, “Did you see that?” “See who?” he said, thinking some pretty girl had just walked in. ‘See what he did with his pick!” “Oh” he said and laughed. “No.” You have to watch out or you can miss out!

I was watching a basketball game and one of the opposing side not only knocked one of the other players to the floor, but grabbed hold of his foot and tried to trip him when he got up. I said to my friend, “Did you see that?” The referee didn’t. Despite my ignorance of the technicalities of American sports, I suspect this was not a legal procedure. And the man about two rows down from me on the balcony certainly gave his verbal expression as to what he thought about it. You have to watch out or you can miss out!

A man goes to a party. One of the family friends has just married. It’s late in the day and the steward brings round the drinks. He thinks twice about having a glass of wine, because at these functions, as time went on, and people’s taste buds became a little desensitized, they tended to start serving the cheap and nasty stuff.

But he has a sip and then goes over to greet the bride’s Father. “Sir,” he says, “I want to shake you by the hand. Most people serve the best wine at the beginning of the day, but you have saved the best till last!” The Father smiles in appreciation, but also looks a little confused. He’d just had a message that the wine was all gone and he was anticipating complaints, not compliments.
He rushed off to find his wife, “Did you hear that?” he said, “We’ve got jars full of wine, how did that happen?” “I really don’t know” she replies, “I think it’s got something to do with Mary’s Son, y’know the carpenter who’s started going round preaching a bit. It’s amazing!”

It was amazing. It was the first miracle, the first sign that John’s gospel records, where Jesus starts to reveal His glory to the disciples, by turning water into wine. Yet most people at the wedding party saw no miracle. They just thought that the family had saved the best wine till the end and they knew nothing of great big jars being filled with water that when poured out became the richest, reddest, most sparkling wine, in town. Where Jesus is involved, you have to watch out or you can miss it!

I guess the servants who filled the jars didn’t miss out. They’d be going around for quite a while saying, “Did you see that?” Same with the disciples. They were starting to see that there was more to this Jesus than they thought possible. It was a sign to them of His glory.

His mother, Mary? Well, she’d known Jesus was something special ever since the angels had started calling. John suggests that it’s Mary who prods Jesus into performing the miracle. Maybe she’s been chatting with the bride’s mother, we don’t know how she knew, but she comes to Jesus and tells him, “Son, the wine’s running out.”

At first Jesus seems reluctant. He seems to say, “Mother, What’s that got to do with me?” He knows that she, of all people knows who He really is, has a faith that recognizes His unique connection to God, but it’s as though He says, “This isn’t the time and the place to let everybody else in on the secret.” (What He actually says is, “My hour has not yet come.”)

It’s one of those times though that mom knows best. Call it a woman’s intuition if you like. She doesn’t argue with Him or try to persuade Him. Just turns to the servants and says, “Do whatever He tells you.

There are these huge, enormous water jars there. These aren’t little wine bottles, but six, whopping, big, stone jars that hold about twenty or thirty gallons of water. They were usually used for ceremonial washings that were a significant part of the ritual life of every Jewish person.

A lot of talk took place between the rabbis and the scribes about when to wash, what to wash, and even what kind of pot could hold the water to be used in the washing. Jesus chooses to use these “holy vessels” for an act completely outside their intended purpose. It’s kind of ironic that some of the religious folk at the wedding probably would have taken issue with Jesus for putting wine in their holy stone jars!

We are never told how it happened, but after the servants have filled the jars to the brim, Jesus tells them to draw some of the water off, they take it to the steward; he tastes it, and recognizes it as the finest wine he’s tasted all day. He’s got no idea where it’s come from, but is surely pleased that the servants have managed to obtain it. The servants on the other hand, know that a miracle has taken place.

This passage of Scripture is rich in meaning. For the Jewish people, wine, like bread had a particular significance as being a symbol of God's presence and blessing. That symbolism carried over and was given new significance within the Christian Church, something we remind ourselves of at every communion service.

Yet the thing I'd like to focus on, is the ever-present possibility, of missing out on what God is doing in our midst. At times the worries of life obscure the ways of God. At other times, living as we do in such a materialistic culture, our constant craving for things of this world makes us so insensitive to the things of God's Kingdom. God acts and we just don't see it.

I've had people say to me as a pastor, "I would believe if only God gave me some definite sign." I sometimes feel like shaking them, (rather like some folk feel when a referee makes a bad call at a ball game) and saying, "Wake up, Open your mind. Your life from the moment you get out of bed is surrounded and peopled with evidences of God's blessings."

"Do you have a home? Do you have family who care about you? Is there a church you can be a part of? Do you own a bible? Do you get to eat every day? Then friend you are more blessed than many people in this world who do not enjoy a tenth of the luxuries you have, yet still every day, open their lives and receive the goodness of God's love. How much more does God have to bless you till you count it as a sign?”

There are miracles surrounding our lives every day. Miracles taking place in our schools. In our places of work. In our offices. In our hospitals. In our lives. God isn’t holding back. God is showering down blessing upon blessing upon blessing. Do you see that?

If we hadn’t been snowed out last Sunday, I would have encouraged you to make 2019 a prayerful year. That’s one sure way to see that you don’t miss out on all the good stuff that God is doing around your life. Tune in to what God is saying and tune your life into what God wants for your life, and you are less likely to miss out on what God is doing.

Now, I know that what I’m describing as miracles some would say are just everyday happenings or even coincidences or things with totally rational explanations. That’s what the Steward said. “There’s new wine in my glass, so it follows that the logical conclusion is that it must have been there all the time. No miracle here that I can see.”

But if you asked the servants who had put the water in the jars or the disciples for whom it became a sign of God’s glory; “Has a miracle taken place?” they would put you right! It’s that sort of story. It invites you either to say, “I can explain that some other way” or to say, “Wow!”

I’m impressed by the extravagance of this miracle. Six thirty-gallon stone jars full of the richest wine is more than enough for anybody throwing a party! I’m reminded that Jesus has more than enough love and grace and peace and joy to offer than we will ever need. He can turn the stagnant, insipid water of everyday experience into sparkling encounters with His love.

Now it’s time for a random fact. Did you know that the African Impala is an animal that can leap almost ten feet high and a distance of fifteen to twenty feet? Did you also know that if you keep one in a zoo that you only have to put a three foot high wall around its enclosure to keep it fenced in? Why? Because an Impala will not jump unless it can see where its feet are going to land.

The faith that Jesus calls us to is one that doesn’t give us the luxury of knowing where it will lead us. Faith in Christ does not come with a prescribed landing spot. Allow the new wine of God’s Holy Spirit to become your driving force and I cannot tell you where it will lead you.

But I do caution you that, unless you commit your life to following Jesus Christ, then every day of your life that you walk without Him, you will miss out on things that the love and grace of God are doing all around you.

It would be tragic if on the last day our judgment came in the form of an angel saying, “Did you see that?” and our only reply was, “No, I was too centered on myself to realize miracles were taking place all around me.”

The message is plain. Center your life on Jesus and the new wine of the Holy Spirit will be there, in all His richness and abundance, to surround your life. Sometimes it will come as the wine of healing. Sometimes it will be a boost in a time of joy or a pick me up in a time of sadness.

Open your heart to Jesus Christ and Christ will come. Open your eyes to the everyday miracles around you and you will see that God is there for you. Focus on the darkness and you’ll always have your back to the light. Walk in the light and even the darkness will disappear.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

Snow Happens (blast from the past)


Back in 1998 I was a minister in Fayetteville, WV. An almighty snow storm came our way, taking out the power, and eventually the water as well. As services at Mount Hebron Presbyterian are cancelled today, thought it would be an opportune moment to share a blast from the past...

Readings: Job 37:1-7: John 13:5-8
Preached at Fayetteville Presbyterian Church on February 8th
(following the Snows of 1998)

"For to the snow He says, 'Fall on the earth',
and to the downpour and the rain, 'Be strong
(Job 37:6)

I have added a new word to my vocabulary. "Tetchy".  When the power went out and the water stopped flowing and the snow kept coming a lot of folk started to get a little irritable.. a little on the edge.. a little "tetchy".  I was no exception.  I asked my wife for a cheese sandwich at one point of the powerout and.. well.. I guess it wasn't the right time. I know my household hasn't been the only one where things have been a little strained over the last few days.

The kids say, "Hooray.. no school again." But then it's, "Got nothing to do.  I'm bored."
Then more storms come along. And so it goes and again it snows.

The storms have had another affect on me than "Tetchiness".  They have been a hard lesson in humility.  Think about it.  We have computers that are monitoring the paths of storms and calculating their effects to the "n"th degree.  We have satellites circling the earth, watching us from beyond the atmosphere.  We have great nuclear power stations manufacturing power from plutonium. We have every imagined convenience, things our grandparents would never have dreamed of.

A couple of snow storms take an unpredictable course and catch us off guard.  The power stops coming.  The gadgets cease to function.  We start to realize just how dark and cold the nights can be.  We become very vulnerable.  Some people become mad about the situation.  Some get busy. Some get "tetchy". Most just get by.

All it takes is for God to say, as Elihu puts it in the book of Job, "Snow..Fall on the earth" and we're in a rare old mess.  Our technological advances seem to amount to so little when your huddled around a candle playing Scrabble for the fourth night in a row.

I feel humbled.  Things come along now and again that cut us down to size, make us realize that were it not for the Grace of God we would all be a bunch of gibbering idiots. 

These storms have been one of those things.

Somebody suggested that maybe these storms were a judgment of God on a wicked nation.  That didn't ring true to me.  If ice and snow are a sign of God's wrath then Eskimo's and Alaskans must be the most wicked people in all Creation and those near the equator the most righteous. I don't see the wrath of God as being distributed along topographic lines. Snow happens.  And that's that.

We certainly haven't had it as bad as some.  Further up towards Canada the power has been off for a month and still hasn't been restored. "No phone, no electricity, no hope of either" has become a familiar litany in New York States upper five counties.  Further North, over the border in Quebec, some families are reportedly tearing down decks and porches to use for heat because a whole years supplemental wood supply had been used up in a matter of weeks.

Storms have been hitting all over with many different effects, be it floods in California or Tornado's in Florida.  Seems the whole nation has got a reason to be tetchy! This puts me in mind of Job.  A different kind of storm hit his life.  It wasn't a judgment on him.  In God's eyes he was the righteous guy.  Then he saw his family dieing all around him, his livelihood slips away, his health deteriorates and his only place to stay is the towns garbage dump. He had more reason than most to be tetchy.

He, not surprisingly, does get mad at God. As the story unfolds his so called comforters give him all sorts of reasons why things had turned bad for him. Mostly they make him take the blame, using the argument that bad things didn't happen to good Godly people.  Then along comes Elihu, the fourth speaker who reasons with Job that whatever was going on was way out of his control and he had better just hang in there because God would show up sooner or later.

When God does show up, far from explaining anything as to the why's or whatever's, He just points Job to the mystery of the Creation around him and seems to say, "Job.. could you make all this stuff? can you make it snow or stop it raining? Can you tame sea monsters or dance along mountaintops?  Life is so much more than you can imagine".

And Job is left feeling rather small and humbled.  At the same time his faith receives a boost.  He realizes that it is not necessary to have all the answers.  He recognizes that there are things that happen you can never understand.  He feels humbled before the awesome mystery of the life God had called him to.  At the end of the book he is restored many of the things he had lost.  God even manages to turn his crisis into something good.

Springtime will come.  The sun will shine again.  The snows will melt and the waters recede.  We know that for a fact.  But it still gets us tetchy. It should humble us that compared to the Creative love of God our lives seem hopelessly limited.  To me the mystery is why God should even bother with the likes of us!

Let's think about thanksgiving. 

There are so many things right now we can be thankful for.
For power workers who have gone beyond the call of duty to get life back to normal.
Fors in touch with the outside world.
For blankets.
For hot flasks of coffee.
For warm clothing.
For firewood.
For shovels.
For chainsaws.
For emergency services.

For so many things and so many people.
We should be thankful.

When Jesus offered to wash Peter's feet, Peter wasn't thankful.  He said "No, you shouldn't be doing that, I don't need that."  He had to learn the hard way that unless he let Jesus help him and stepped down from His position of pride and self sufficiency then his journey of discipleship was coming to an end. "Unless I wash you" Jesus says, "You have no part of me".  Peter was humbled .

The mystery of a Creation which can dump so much snow on us; those around us who continue to work through this crisis, they are our wake up call.  They remind us that despite all our so called technological miracles God still calls the shots.  They remind us that we really can't get along without each other.

So be humbled.
And be thankful.
The two go hand in hand.

The words of a children's hymn that was in the Welsh Presbyterian hymnbook have been coming to mind these last days as I've been going about, shoveling snow and trying to keep warm.

"God who made the sun,
The moon, the stars, is he
Who, when lifes clouds come on,
Careth for me.

God, who made all things,
On earth, in air, in sea,
Who changing seasons brings,
Careth for me.

God, who sent His Son,
To die on Calvary
He, if I lean on him
Will care for me."

When life gets you tetchy, do a bit of leaning!
For as another popular song puts it;

"We all need somebody to lean on".

Whatever the future brings our way may God help us to see it through in the knowledge that though He may send the snow,
He also provides the sunshine that will one day,
(hopefully not to far down the road)
 be shining down on us.