Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Messages from the First Letter of John. 4. Fearless love

 

 'Sin, Forgiveness and Love' (Messages from the First Letter of John)
Readings: Psalm 22:25-31, Acts 8:26-40, John 15:1-8, 1 John 4:7-21
Preached at Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church, NY, May 2nd 2021

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 must tend plants, carefully and gently.

Spiritual growth is no different. Fear cannot 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 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 is nothing wrong in being afraid. It is a 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 did not 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 did not care what people thought about Him. He was totally secure in His relationship with His Father God. He did not 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 hellfire 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 do not believe in... and found myself thinking that... I do not 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.”

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 its 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 through 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 extremely 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."

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.

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 is not 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 is a movie, called “Come Sunday.” (It was on Netflix for a while.) The movie charts the course of a highly successful fundamentalist preacher. Through his study of scripture, particularly verses his Pentecostal tradition chose not to focus upon, (like these we have been considering in first John), he comes to have 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?”

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 is 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 calls us to love each other as we have been loved.

We cannot 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 am 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 is a whole lot of teaching that John packed into these verses we have 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.


And there is no better place to recommit our lives to fearlessly pursuing divine love than around a table laid with bread and wine. As we share these elements may we seek for God to renew our hearts and lives. 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.

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Messages from the First Letter of John. 3. This is Love

 

'Sin, Forgiveness and Love  - Messages from the First letter of John
Readings: Psalm 23, Acts 4:5-12, John 10:11-18, 1 John 3:16-24 
Preached at Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church, NY, April 25 2021

Yvonne and I 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 kitbag of memorabilia, only to have it stolen when he returned to port in England. Even his few 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 did not 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 are 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 firsthand 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 dying 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 is 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.Where? 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 is not 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. Into this smushy mix comes Tommy Albright who is supposed to be marrying his fiancĂ© Jean in New York, but falls in love with a Brigadoon lassie by the name of Fiona.

In the First Act of the musical, Tommy asks the wise local schoolteacher, Mr Lundie, if an outsider could be permitted to stay in Brigadoon. Mr. Lundie replies, "A stranger can stay if he loves someone here – loves them enough to want to give up everythin' an' stay with that one person. Which is how it should be. 'Cause after all, laddie, if ye love someone deeply… anythin' is possible."

But they do not get married, the New Yorkers leave Brigadoon and that is 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 will not 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, Mr. Lundie appears from the mist and explains: "Oh it's you Tommy, lad. You woke me up. You must really love Fiona,"… to which Tommy, still dazed, stammers "But… how....?" Mr. Lundie replies "You shouldna be too surprised, laddie. I told ye… when ye love someone deeply enough, anythin' is possible. Even miracles."

And there you go... I just went and ruined the ending for you! It has to be out there on some streaming platform or on a DVD if you want to watch it!

My point in taking us to Brigadoon, is that the whole musical is based upon a 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."

1 John 3, verse 18 “Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.”  In the real-world miracles do not just happen. They are the result of loving actions. The miracle of the resurrection could not happen 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. The miracle of justice being restored, only happens when injustice is challenged. The miracle of people being delivered from things which hold them back, only happens when people provide help and opportunities for them to renew their lives.

Miracles are the result of loving actions.

God does not abandon people. God calls people to reach out to abandoned people, following their Saviors example, so that the lost sheep once again find a home.

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 it begins in us and spreads to others.  We are all 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.

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

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Thursday, April 15, 2021

Messages from the First Letter of John. 2. Sin's 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 Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church, NY, April 18 2021

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 could not 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. “Hey Harry! Harry! This likes like one of those bomb shell things. You don’t think it could be a, y’know .. actual bomb do ya? Harry responded, “Call de army!”

For 45 years there had been an active un-exploded bomb lying in the sewer and it could have gone off at any time – 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 must 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 firsthand 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 very 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 its 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 sisters and brothers 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 did not share their enlightened views. They were inconsistent in their moral behavior. The seed that was producing these bad fruits was not 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 have 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 am sure you can think of others!
 So sophisticated have we become,
 that it has almost considered a sin
 to describe ‘sin’ as sin!

Sin is not just inappropriate behavior. Not according to Scripture. According to John’s teaching it is an enemy crouching at the door. It separates from God’s love, it cheapens life. At the end of the day its only payout is death.  John pulls no punches. ‘Sin’, he says, ‘is the Devil’s work.’ Always will be. 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 phrases it, “You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin.”

Sin is the un-exploded 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 is not.
    It is the simple gospel that has been proclaimed throughout the world.
        We are sinners who need a Savior.
            The remedy for sin is the Cross of Jesus Christ.

Eventually an un-exploded 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 un-exploded 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.

Such is a glorious possibility for every one of us. Grace is amazing. All are invited. Remember the words of Jesus from the cross. “Forgive them Father for they do not know what they are doing.” Just like that workman, banging on an un-exploded bomb under the streets of Liverpool, we underestimate the potential damage that can be done to our lives when we pursue our own agenda and make no room for God’s guidance.  

It does not have to be that way. Jesus calls us to walk with Him. To walk His way. The way of love and service and true freedom. When we commit our lives to being the sort of people who have room for the things of God’s Kingdom, it makes all the difference to ourselves and those around us.

And to God’s name be all glory. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Thursday, April 8, 2021

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

 'Sin, Forgiveness and Love '
(Messages from the First Letter of John)

1."WALK IN THE LIGHT"
Readings: Psalm 133, Acts 4:32-35, John 20:19-31, 1 John 1:1 - 2:2
Preached at Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church, NY, April 11 2021

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 its 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 downstream.

This was not 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 tugboats, it slowly transported its oily cargo up stream.  

We have witnessed recently the spectacle of a large ship being stuck in the Suez canal. I remember reading in the newspaper about how hard it was to turn these monstrous mega machines around out at sea.

We are talking a required area of many, many square miles. If you have 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 makeup, 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 is 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 do not 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 did not 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?
How do we ‘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 is 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 is 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' (atonement).

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 is 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 does not 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 do not 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.

Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Easter Day "“Who will Roll Away the Stone?" (COMMUNION SERVICE)

 

Readings: Psalm 118:1-2,14-24, Isaiah 25:6-9, Acts 10:34-43, Mark 16:1-8
Preached at Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church, NY, April 4th, 2021

In the gospel according to Mark, three of the ladies go along to the tomb of Jesus early on a Sunday morning.  They are going with the intention of anointing the dead body of Jesus as He is laid to rest. They are not feeling at all positive … indeed question if their whole venture was an exercise in futility because over the entrance of the tomb a huge stone had been placed. It was placed there by the authorities, who feared that rumors of anything weird happening to the corpse would not be good!

The account we have in Mark, refers to several resurrection appearances that take place. It is often thought to have been a late addition to the gospel of Mark as it does not appear in some of the earliest manuscripts that have been discovered of his gospel. But then... things like resurrections take time to come to terms with. It was beyond belief!

Other gospels speak of Peter and John going to the tomb, and of Jesus meeting with the disciples for a fish supper, down by the lake before His Ascension. Paul, in his letters, tells us that there were numerous appearances, including one where a crowd of some 500 folk witnessed His presence.

While the details are as though somebody was explaining a mind boggling explosion of light into darkness... and all intensely personal... we know that this event, the resurrection, while hard to define, had an impact on the disciples that was so profound that they gave the rest of their lives to proclaiming that Jesus Christ had been raised from death, that they had seen Him, and that His love could transform people’s lives if they were open to the living, loving influence of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus, at work...  within them and at work in the world around them.

His truth was marching on. The kingdom was still coming. Death had been swallowed up in resurrection. For evermore the Church were to be an Easter people, and “Hallelujah” was to be their song. Even after a year of pandemic we still take time out to celebrate, because we know this is worth it!

The sentence that struck me when reading the Mark passage was verse 3 “They had been saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?"

There is that sense, in the words, of hopelessness, of almost, “What's the point in doing this, we know nothing can come of it, the obstacles are so great! ” It is a statement of disillusionment.

As we survey the state of Christianity in Western Civilization at the beginning of the 21st Century, there is a lot that can cause anxiety. The church has seen better days.  Many, many people are no longer looking to the church for their spiritual life. There are many, many commitments that people are making that make it increasingly difficult to do so.

Folk are worried after COVID what the church will look like. Will people come back? Will they have become so used to staying home and watching services in their P.J.s with a cup of coffee in hand that they will not make the effort? We have reached folks we never reached before by having online services. Do we have to carry on doing everything online as well as in person?

Society is no longer built around the church calendar. Sunday is no longer a Sabbath to be kept holy, but just another day. Even church members, those who have stood in the front of their congregations and promised, “We will be faithful” find it virtually impossible to be even find one hour a week on a regular basis to be together in worship.

Finding volunteers to step up to the tasks that need doing is an ongoing battle. I am so thankful for those who take up their responsibilities with great seriousness, but I am also aware that as they do so, they can become quickly burnt out, because they are few. Our losses outnumber our gains.  It feels like an irreversible tide.

There is the politicization and polarization of the faith that has taken place, causing huge divisions and great skepticism of people’s genuine religious commitment. When people throw themselves wholeheartedly behind political figures, either of the right or the left, and use their views as a basis for their moral decisions, things tend to become chaotic.

The negativity, the lack of respectful discourse, the ability to both glorify and demonize at the drop of a hat, the treatment of truth as a commodity... all this and more seems like an irreversible trend that is leading us on a road to nowhere.

I know for sure, that the nation I moved to over 20 years ago, is not the nation I am currently experiencing. And yes of course you can all give me a hundred reasons why... and we can all point the finger at people or events, but the fact remains... we are not where we were!

So, do I become disillusioned? Oh yes. I too, like the women on Easter morning, find myself asking...  “Who will roll away the stone for us?” The stone of disbelief. The stone of hopelessness. The stone of disillusion.  What happens to the women?

Firstly, we read, in verse 4 “They looked up.” They moved from a position of “Oh my gosh, what is going to become of us” to a position of “Oh my gosh, the stone has moved!” They do not know why the stone has moved. They do not know how the stone has moved. They just know the stone has been moved.

We are in a better position than the women. We know that the stone has moved because Jesus has been raised from death. They would get there! But for now, they are just looking up and wondering. Friends I do not know what the future holds. But I know who holds the future. God moved the stone. And … all the shifting and rumbling and trouble going on around us, dare we believe that God is still in control. Resurrection faith invites us to do that. To trust in what God is doing, that we not seeing! Look up!

Look up in prayer.  Look up in faith. Look in hope. Look up in trust. We are not where we were, but neither are we called to stay where we are! There is a future. God has not finished with us yet. We have children. We have grandchildren. We love them and God loves them, and God cares for them just as God has cared for us throughout our lives. Look up!
 
Then we read in verse 7 “He is going ahead of you.” Who is the “He” in this verse? The verse is talking about Jesus. Jesus is going ahead of us. So maybe, like Peter, we need to put on our running shoes so we can keep up! There is a group of folks in our Presbyterian Church denomination who identify themselves as “Next Church.”

As part of this groups statement of faith they include these words “We believe God’s Kingdom comes not because we are confident in our own capacities, but because we trust in God, who can do more than we can ask or imagine. We are humbled and amazed that, in and through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, God includes us in the work of redeeming all creation and reconciling the whole world.

They acknowledge that we are going through an unusual time, but they keep asking, “What's next?” and recognize that in answering that question, God is way ahead of us! I mean isn't that the story of every day?

What did we do to make the sun rise this morning? Were we pulling the levers? Is there a little man just over the hill, in a little booth, like the Wizard of OZ, manipulating the galaxy so that the light arrived in time to celebrate an Easter outdoor service? Is somebody going to come running out and declare, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain?” Is a great big Easter bunny gong to hop into view and say, “April Fool”?

Verse 4 “They looked up.”  Verse 7 “He is going ahead of you.

Here around the communion table, as we share and reflect on Easter hope by sharing bread and wine, is a time to reinvigorate our lives and seek the faith that will get us through. As we, in the quiet and sanctuary of our homes, make this memorial, let us recall what a tough year we have travelled through. Let us remember all we have lost.

But let us not be embraced by despair. We are rising again from out of this crisis. The Stone is rolling away. Our God is good and able and powerful. We are the on the other side of midnight, walking in the Son’s light. Today is not the day for feeling a little down or a little disillusioned. Today is not the day we focus on the immovable stone.

Easter Day is the day we look up and declare, God has moved the Stone.
Easter Day is the day we declare, Christ is Risen, “He is Risen indeed!”
Easter Day is the day we declare we are Easter people and Hallelujah is our song.
Easter Day is the day when we declare, He... Jesus Christ... is going ahead of us.

So, do not fear, do not be discouraged. We believe that as there has been a yesterday church, as there remains a today church, so God is working on a next church. And we pray... Lord, help us, Lord keep us, Lord guide us, Lord feed us, Lord help us look up and help us remember that our lives and our times are always in Your hands! Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Thursday, March 25, 2021

PALM/PASSION SUNDAY "Why a Donkey?"

 

 Readings: Psalm 118:1-2,19-29, Philippians 2:5-11, Zechariah 9:8-12, Mark 11:1-11
 Preached at Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church, NY, March 28th 2021

Do the names Groucho, Chico and Harpo mean anything to you? Three crazy actors, collectively known as "The Marx Brothers," whose whacky films graced the Cinema back in the days when everything was black and white.

I used to own a book, that was a collection of their pictures and sayings that was called "Why a Duck?" The title was a quotation from a scene where Groucho points out to the Italian accented Chico a railway bridge over a river, which he explains is called a viaduct.

Chico responds "Why a Duck? Why a no a Chicken?"
"Not 'Why a Duck'? - VIADUCT!"
"Like I a say … Why a no a chicken, Why a Duck?"

This morning I don't want to ask, 'Why a no a chicken?' or even 'Why a no a duck?' but I do want to ask 'Why a Donkey?' Why did Jesus choose, on the first Palm Sunday, to come riding into Jerusalem on a donkey?

A good place to start is with the quotation from the Old Testament prophet Zechariah we heard in our Old Testament reading. "Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, Lowly and riding on a donkey.

When Matthew and John give us the account of Palm Sunday, they use this quote to point out that the events of Palm Sunday happen within a particular framework at a particular time for a particular purpose.

The Bible never talks about fate or chance. It speaks instead, of what some call, "Sacred Time."  Scripture speaks of Christian life as being, not just a random collection of disconnected events, but life with purpose and meaning. Jesus rode a donkey into town, because there was a purpose and a meaning to the action. It was an event in sacred time.

Mark gives us a fuller account of Jesus telling the disciples to go and get the donkey. If I were one of the disciples I would have been sarcastically thinking, "Yeah right... this is going to work."  A couple of them are sent to an unnamed village, where hopefully they will discover that there just happens to be a donkey tethered there at the side of the street. This donkey is special because no one has ever ridden it.

As they untie it there is a strong possibility that someone is going to come along and say, 'Excuse me sir, what are you doing with that donkey?' and they are to say to them, simply, 'The Lord has need of it.'  No need to explain who this 'Lord' is, or even say why he needs it... because that is not something you know about in the first place!

Strange thing is, when the disciples do what Jesus asks, despite their questions and the fact that it all seems kind of vague, it turns out just like Jesus said.  When God speaks, things happen.  

I really cannot explain 'Sacred Time’ but I do know that as I put my life in God's hands all kinds of connections, affecting what I thought were insignificant events, start to happen.  

Think about it! For some reason you have ended up reading this transcript of a sermon. An important part of worship is opening our hearts to God. For that to happen, we must pay attention. We must focus.

Who knows? Maybe you are multi-tasking right now. Maybe you are far less focused than you would be if we were meeting in person. Maybe you are having  breakfast and in your pajamas, enjoying a coffee. Maybe you are at the beach reading this on your phone. That’s OK. I am just glad you are reading it!

We all have different reasons for reading a sermon.  Maybe because our church is closed and we have to be online right now. Maybe a sense of duty to maintain habits of worship. Maybe to review it. Maybe some random scrolling took you here. Maybe we do not have an explanation for it, just where we ended up.  

But... is there a deeper reason to why you are reading this? Or is it, truly, only random? Well, I’m the kind of preacher who believes that, if we place ourselves into God’s care, God is able to take all the scattered pieces of our life and make something interesting out of them.

Try this little activity. Pay attention to this sermon and then pay attention to what happens through the week.  I would not be the least surprised if someone will say something, or you will meet someone, or something will happen and, strangely, there will be a connection to what you are reading right now. When that happens, ask yourself, “Is that a coincidence, or is there something more going on here?”

See that is a part of Palm Sunday experience.

Was it a coincidence that a person just happened to have tied a donkey that had, coincidentally, never been ridden upon, to the side of that street in that town, on that day, at that time, when those two disciples came walking along?  

Was it a coincidence that people came along and asked questions that Jesus said they would ask, and that as the disciples gave the answer that Jesus said they should give, the disciples discovered that they were able to take the donkey to Jesus, as He said they could?

Was it a coincidence that as He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, crowds lined the streets shouting "Hosanna to the King of David" - in a fashion like Zechariah's prophecy of years before? Were the crowds aware of the connection? Not likely!  Did they realize that just a week later they would be shouting, "Crucify Him, Crucify Him!” No way!

Did they for even one moment consider that a death on a cross would be transformed into a resurrection from a tomb; that on a Pentecost holiday the Holy Spirit of God would descend on those disciples who witnessed His resurrection and that the church would be born? Of course not! Conicidence? Or God-incidence?

Why a donkey? 'Why a no a horsee or a pony?'  Because a connection was being made to what the prophet had said. And maybe there are other connections.

The donkey is a creature of peace.  You would expect a King to arrive on a War Horse, or in a chariot pulled by a pony... not so Jesus. Just as His mother Mary is pictured by tradition as riding a donkey to Bethlehem, bearing the Christ Child in her womb, so in humility, Jesus enters Jerusalem, the City of God, riding upon a creature considered humble and gentle.

The donkey was not simply a method of transport for people. It was also a beast of burden.  A donkey can carry a great deal on its back.  It is sure-footed in rocky terrain. In many parts of the world, it is still considered a working animal.

I remember Tom, a friend of my sisters from Greece, who visited with us when we lived in a seaside town in Mid Wales.  On the beach were some donkeys that gave children rides up and down.  Tom was astonished. 'Donkeys? Why you have donkeys here?' In his culture the donkey was a working animal ... not something you amused the kids with on a sunny day.

Why a donkey? When you think about it, there can be all kinds of connections.

But the most important one we need to make in this Easter Season is between our lives and the Jesus who rode into Jerusalem to die upon a cross and was raised to bring Resurrection life to bear on our daily lives.

If we can get that connection right, then a whole lot of other things in our lives will start to make sense as well. We may well discover that sacred time is breaking into our daily lives.

An old friend I used to visit in a previous church used to talk about ‘synchronicity’ as the reason she could not help but believe in God. When she trusted in God to guide her, random things all seemed to fall into place.

The reading in church, the song on the radio, the story in the paper, the conversation overheard in the Post Office, the book she was reading… it was as though they all were synchronized together in such a way as she became aware of something going on her life that was so much larger than herself.

Sacred Time. Synchronicity. God-incidence. You can call it whatever you like.  It was there in the events surrounding Palm Sunday. There was a reason for the donkey. There was a purpose to the way Jesus rode into town. He rode towards the Cross.

In our Lectionary Palm Sunday is linked to Passion Sunday.  Though Holy Week begins with a triumphant entry on a donkey, by Friday the sky has turned dark, and Jesus will die on the cruel cross of Calvary.

He will meet with His disciples one last time for a Holy Supper that gave rise to our scared celebration of Holy Communion. He will take a towel and wash their feet reminding them that this was an example of how they must treat each other if they are to demonstrate His love to all the world.

We remember that Jesus took the burden of our sins upon Himself. The one who took the weight of our transgressions, rode into town on a beast of burden. Prior to His death there are great confrontations, trials held, lies told, and acts of deep betrayal. A stranger will be forced to carry His cross. He will be tortured, face abuse, be mocked and beaten. The earth itself will shake.

Even back when all this happened, there were those who unexpectedly made a connection. We read in Matthew 27:54, a soldier’s confession of faith.

Now the centurion, and those who were with him were keeping guard over Jesus (at the place of crucifixion). When they saw the earthquake and the things that were happening, they were terribly frightened and filled with awe, and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”’ (Amplified Bible)

Let us pray that we may have a faith in God that enables us to know God’s love, revealed in Jesus Christ, as a reality guiding our own hearts and lives.

As we remember this Easter Week the Christ who died upon the Cross for our sins, may we seek to live in a way that serves others and brings glory to God’s name. Amen.

The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.


Saturday, March 20, 2021

Covenants of Grace - Lent 5 "Jeremiah and the Heart"

 

 Readings: Psalm 51:1-12, Hebrews 5:5-10, Jeremiah 31:31-34, John 19:14-22
Preached at Bridgehampton Presbyterian Church, NY, on March 21st 2021

O.K. Here is the situation. There is a husband. This husband is a great guy.  He has gone out of his way to treat his wife fairly and look after her as best as he knows how. In fact, on numerous occasions he has risked everything to get her out of dangerous circumstances that would have destroyed their relationship.

But here is the problem. Time and time after time, she has been unfaithful to him. Time and time again she has gone after other guys, time and time and time again she has treated their relationship as though vows had never been spoken and the good times they had together (and there had been many of them) counted for nothing at all.

Their relationship has completely broken down. She, despite his warnings, has gone off with this other guy and it has led to total disaster. She has lost everything. She is miles from home. She is hurting like she has never hurt before. Her laughter has turned to tears and her dancing to mourning.  She is trapped herself in circumstances that she knew could happen if she carried on the way she was but failed to believe that they would.

Now, lest there be any misunderstanding, I am not drawing a picture from any romance novel or something off the Hallmark T.V. Channel. I am painting a picture for you of what had happened between Israel and her God at the time Jeremiah spoke the words that we heard as our bible reading.

Jeremiah 31:32 “‘I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, My covenant which they broke, although I was a husband to them’ declares the LORD”. The people of Israel are in the captivity of Babylon and at the mercy of powers that sought their destruction. But God is not willing to cast them off. God’s love refuses to call it quits and, rather than the expected rejection, Jeremiah speaks in these terms.

Jeremiah 31: 33 “‘But this is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days’ declares the Lord, ‘I will put my law within them, and on their heart I will write it; and I shall be their God, and they shall be my people”.

Returning to the husband and unfaithful wife picture, the husband is saying, “I’m not giving up on you. I am going to do something that makes you realize how much I love you. Something that changes the way you will feel inside about our relationship. It’s not going to be about rules, it’s going to be about desire.”

I called this message, 'Jeremiah and the Heart.' When we speak of the covenant of the heart, we are talking about desire. Desire is an emotion that we associate with yearning and longing and wanting. If we desire something, we want that thing so badly that it occupies our thoughts, captures our dreams, and causes us to take certain course of action.  

I am not talking about just wanting something. I am not thinking about how it would be nice to have a Ferrari or a holiday in Hawaii or a new i-phone. Such things would be nice, and if you save up your pennies enough, one day you may be able to achieve some of them.

Desire is about what rests on your heart and guides your steps each day. Desire is an emotion that if it is not quenched it hurts. The Psalmist declares in his quest for the blessing of God."Lord, all my desire is before thee; and my groaning is not hidden from thee” (Psalm 38:9.) Jeremiah speaks of a new covenant, a covenant that will be expressed through the desires of the heart. Not the Old Covenant, which was “Hey, if you do this, I’ll bless you, if you don’t do this, I’ll curse you”.

As Christian people we have an opportunity that Jeremiah’s hearers never witnessed. They never witnessed the new covenant come into being. The New Covenant, the New Testament, the New relationship with God that would write itself on people’s hearts, was only fulfilled in the coming of Jesus Christ.

Out of love God had established the old covenant as a way of blessing. 'Do this, I will bless you, and we will be in a relationship'.  But the people kept walking out on that relationship. Something more was needed. Something that would break the hardness of unfaithful hearts. Something powerful that would draw out love and produce faithfulness.

That something, that expression of God’s desire for relationship, came in the shape of a cross. The Cross is the central symbol of Christian faith. The Cross. The place where we witness the love of God going to the ultimate depths of all that life can throw our way, to win our hearts.

The earliest history of the Presbyterian Church over in Wales, the church that personally led me to faith, was one punctuated by religious revivals. Now when I say revivals, I am not talking about putting a little tent up and getting together and having a good sing, and maybe a few people walking down the aisle and getting saved.

I am talking about a sovereign move of God’s Holy Spirit that rocked the nation. I am speaking about whole communities that were changed from places of despair to communities of hope.

There is a story told of a notorious district in one of the larger urban areas. To put it plainly it was an area where some of the menfolk would go to buy time with a lady for a while. Revival meetings were taking place in town, and the men stopped visiting the ladies, because they were attending the meetings at the church. So, the ladies, who depended on the men for their income, decided to go along and disrupt the meeting and entice the men to return.

It did not happen that way. When the ladies entered the church there was such an overwhelming sense of God’s presence that they forgot what they had gone there for! The preacher was speaking about the Cross, as being the place where God desired to forgive sins and accepted all who would come to Him, and desired to establish a new relationship with those who accepted His love that compared to nothing else in this world.

These ladies? They knew a little about desire. Through the action of the Holy Spirit the shadow of the cross fell upon them and they became changed; and as a result, the whole district became changed and people’s desire was changed – faithfulness and living in a way that honored God and being people of hope and conviction – these things became foremost in people’s minds who for much of their lives had been strangers to the love of God.

On the day we call Maundy Thursday, we recall how Jesus met in the upper room with His disciples before He went out to face His torturous trials and death. At that meal He talked to the disciples of how the cup they would drink represented a New Covenant, a new relationship with God made possible through the Cross.  

As Jesus sits down to share this moment, forever fixed in eternity, we read in Luke 22:15 (KJV) “He said unto them, 'With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer.” A lot of desire there! What is the desire of God? Revelation 3:20; 'Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me.

Jeremiah’s vision is of a God who comes to us and shares in our lives, as we share in the life of God’s kingdom. It is all made possible through the Cross, upon which Jesus died to destroy the barrier that exists between people and God. It is made feasible through the Resurrection. This is not Romeo and Juliet. Although this is a love affair that gives itself up to death, this is a love that is stronger than death!

One of the features of the Welsh Revivals, a feature paralleled in similar movements throughout the world at different times, is that the Cross of Jesus Christ becomes a touching place. As people realized here is God, God giving all, God prepared to suffer, to allow His own Son to die for them, their hearts were melted.  Something inside of them … moved... in such a way as their desire was to follow Jesus Christ whatever it cost, wherever He may lead, however He may touch their lives.

It is an action of the heart. Recall Jeremiah's words; “This is the covenant which I will make with the house of Israel after those days’ declares the Lord, ‘I will put my law within them, and on their heart, I will write it; and I shall be their God, and they shall be my people.”

We spend our lives running here, attaining this, doing that, thinking that we are getting somewhere. We play games.  'Lord, I promise I’ll be faithful... next time'. 'Lord, it’s not that I don’t trust You, I just believe that I need other things than You in my life right now'. ‘Lord, lead me not into temptation... well...   just more time!”

All four gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, invite us to recognize and realize the significance of what God has done for us at the Cross. They call us to reach a place where the brokenness of Jesus Christ breaks our own hard heart.  It is all about the desires of our hearts.

Let us seek for God to win our hearts afresh as we realize that the love that was broken for us is the same love that seeks to heal us.

Let us ask God’s Holy Spirit today to place our lives under the shadow of the cross.

May the desire that is in our hearts be truly one of commitment to God, commitment to Christ who died for us, commitment to the Holy Spirit, who seeks to empower us to live Kingdom lives.


And to God be all the glory.
AMEN.


 The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.

Messages from the First Letter of John. 4. Fearless love

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