Sunday, December 10, 2017

Sermon: Galatians 6: 1-18 Freedom to do good

We’re getting into that time of year when you start thinking about the year that is almost past, and you start thinking about the year that is coming up. It’s three weeks today until New Year’s Eve, and 2017 will be behind us, a new year will be opening up before us. And perhaps that makes you think of New Year’s Resolutions.

Maybe you think back to 1st January this year, to see how you got on this year with those resolutions... if you kept them past January, or if you’ve still been keeping them up. So, with January coming, you think to yourself, next year, I’ll give it a go. Next year I’ll make a change. New Year, New Me, and all that.

But you don’t have to wait for the new year to have a new you. You don’t need to have a new calendar or diary to make a change. You can do it today. As Paul closes his letter to the Galatians, he calls us to do good.

But this isn’t the Santa Claus is coming to town kind of command to be good - you know, he’s making a list, checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty or nice... he sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake, he knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake!’ Be good or you won’t get anything. Now it seems it’s the elf on the shelf doing the same job of you better be good...

But as we’ve seen throughout Galatians, we can’t be good without God - it’s only God who gives us the freedom to do good, because we are his.

The Galatians were suffering from false teachers, who were promoting a kind of DIY religion - you can Do It Yourself, by obeying the law and earning your place by your own efforts. But the whole way through the letter, Paul has been showing us that we can’t do it by ourselves. We’ve all broken the law - it only condemns us. We can only be ransomed, freed through the death of Jesus for us, giving us his undeserved grace - received by faith alone in Jesus alone.

But now that we ARE saved, we have the freedom to live by the Spirit. We saw that last week, as the Spirit wants to grow his fruit in us - that love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control that only he can bring. It’s as we keep in step with the Spirit that we become more like Jesus. And this morning’s reading shows us how this works out in a church community. How can we, together, live out our freedom by the power of the Spirit? How can we do good?

Church should be the place where we bear one another’s burdens. V1: ‘Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfil the law of Christ.’

Paul doesn’t say - if someone is caught in a sin, then go and tell everyone about it; gossip it far and wide. No, if (or when!) someone is caught in sin - then we are to restore them gently. Gossiping relentlessly, or gently restoring? And who is to do it? You who are spiritual - those who belong to the Spirit, the Christians. Not just the pastor or elders. We’re to be a community of caring Christians - bearing one another’s burdens - and watching out in case we are tempted in the same way.

Is this a picture of what St Matthew’s is like; or something we need to grow into?

The next verses (3-5) ask us to evaluate ourselves individually - to take a good hard look at ourselves. I was reading recently about Illusory Superiority. What it means is that people tend to think more highly of themselves. So, in an American survey, 93% of people thought they were an above average driver (but only 50% can be above the average...). This effect plays out all the time in surveys where people are asked to rate themselves.

And Paul says it can happen with us as well, in the spiritual realm. ‘If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load.’

Paul says we’re deceiving ourselves if we think of ourselves more highly than we should. Rather, we should test our actions. Don’t compare yourself with anyone else - because at the end of the day, you’ll stand before the judge by yourself - carrying your own load.

We’re to share one another’s burdens, but we have to carry our own load (a different word, a different idea). (And therefore not a contradiction!)

As we think about ourselves, our actions, our choices, Paul wants us to consider what it is we’re sowing; what we’re investing in; what we’re working towards. That image of sowing and reaping runs through verses 6-10. The principle is in v7: ‘Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.’

The farmer decides what he wants to harvest, and then has to sow that very thing. It’s no good sowing potatoes if you want to grow carrots. Or planting apple seeds if you want strawberries. Whatever you sow, you will reap. Whatever you invest in is what you will receive in return. ANd it’s no good deciding at the harvest time what you want to get - you’ve already made that decision beforehand.

So if we sow to please our sinful nature - we will reap destruction. But if we sow to please the Spirit - we will reap eternal life.

So what are you sowing towards? How are you investing your time, your money, your talents? When you have a free half hour, what do you turn your mind to? We’re called to sow to please the Spirit, to do good. John Wesley put it like this: Do all the good you can by all the means you can in all the ways you can in all the places you can at all the times you can to all the people you can as long as ever you can.

And yet, sometimes, you can get a bit fed up of doing good. When you give, and give, and give. Or when you’ve given up your time to serve in an organisation so that boys and girls get to hear about Jesus. Or when you see how much easier people without faith seem to have it. So in verse 9 Paul becomes a cheerleader, urging us on, wanting us to keep going, like the people cheering on the marathon runners... ‘Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.’ Don’t give up. Don’t become weary. Keep an eye on the harvest to come. And therefore, v 10: ‘Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.’

Our doing good is for all people, everyone, but with a special focus on the family of believers. We have been freed from our sins in order to do good, as we sow to the Spirit. So let’s do it. Let’s share the good news as we do good.

It’s at this point that Paul takes the pen to write a bit himself. Normally there was someone acting as scribe, writing down the letter, but here, Paul writes: ‘See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!’ He’s wanting to emphasise this last bit of the letter. It’s as if we’re using bold type, underlined, font size 50 (this sermon is font size 12).

So how does he close the letter? What is it he wants to leave with us? He returns to circumcision, and to boasting. All the way through the letter, Paul has been warning them about the dangers of being circumcised. And there’s one last warning here. Why did the false teachers want them to be circumcised? So that they wouldn’t be persecuted for the cross, so that they would boast in the Galatians’ flesh.

The false teachers could avoid the persecution from the Jews if they could show that they were obeying the law. In that way, the cross wouldn’t matter to them. The important thing, the thing they would boast in, was their circumcision. The false teachers wanted to boast in the flesh, the skin of the Galatians. That was what they valued above everything else.

But Paul says there’s only one thing to boast in. It’s not our achievements; not our religious observance; not our goodness or our good deeds; it’s simply the cross: ‘May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.’

The only thing to boast in; the only place to find our value; the only thing that frees us from our sins, and frees us to live lives of good by the power of the Spirit - it’s the cross. We can’t boast in ourselves, we must boast in Jesus, what he has done for us. Because it’s only his death for us, that makes us a new creation - the only thing that matters.

Circumcision doesn’t matter. uncircumcision means nothing. ‘What counts is a new creation.’ As Paul says elsewhere, ‘if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation.’

Have you been made new? Forget about new year’s resolutions, or diets that always start tomorrow. Jesus will make you new. A new creation. A fresh start. It comes as you trust in Jesus. So have you trusted in Christ for your forgiveness and salvation? Then boast only in Christ and his cross. See the whole world as your mission, to live out the life of love that Christ has set you free to live. You’re free to love, free to do good, so don’t be weary. Look to the harvest, and keep going.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 10th December 2017.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Sermon: Luke 1: 39-56 A People Prepared (3) - Mary's Melody of Mercy

We haven’t been to London recently, but whenever we’re there, we like to take in a show. And if you’ve been to London for the West End, or New York for Broadway, you’ll know that musical theatre is big business. Packed theatres, telling a story through song and dance. One of our friends regularly takes trips to London to make it to two or three shows per day, and then writes reviews of them.

But musicals strike me as slightly strange, if you think about them logically. As you watch in the theatre, or maybe as you watch the Sound of Music on TV this Christmas - think of it this way. It’s a normal day, people going about their business, when suddenly, someone starts singing. They burst out into a song, and everyone else is able to join in! If you were walking down the street after church and you started into a song, people would wonder what you were doing! It just doesn’t happen in real life - this spontaneous singing... or does it?

As Luke tells us about the preparations for the first Christmas, the things that God was doing to make a people prepared for the coming of Jesus, so far he has told us about the important missions of the angel Gabriel. Bringing news of two babies to be born in unlikely circumstances - John, to Zechariah and Elizabeth, the elderly parents; and Jesus to Mary the virgin. This week and next, we’ll hear the responses of Mary and Zechariah. And we’ll see that, just like musical theatre, they both break into song, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

We’re told that when Mary heard the angel’s news, she packed up, and went off to visit Elizabeth, where she stayed three months. When Mary arrives, Elizabeth is filled with the Spirit, and declares: ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear!... Blessed is she who has believed that what the Lord has said to her will be accomplished!’

Elizabeth recognises the blessing God has given Mary - and even the baby in Elizabeth’s womb recognises the mother of his Lord - leaping for joy in her womb! And then Mary begins her salvation song; her melody of mercy.

Now if you’ve been around the Church of Ireland long enough, you’ll recognise this song as the Magnificat, from the opening line in the prayer book, ‘My soul doth magnify the Lord.’ Well our version here has ‘My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.’

Whichever word you use - magnify or glorify, they both have the same idea. If you have a magnifying glass, it helps you to make something bigger, to make it easier to read the newspaper or your Bible. For Mary to magnify the Lord is to glorify him, to ‘big up’ his reputation; to rejoice in him.

So why is she rejoicing? Her song seems to divide into two sections, each of which end with the theme of mercy. The words and phrases are Bible words and phrases - you might even notice links to Hannah’s song, sung when she gave birth to the great prophet Samuel. So why is Mary rejoicing?

Mary rejoices because of 1. What God has done for Mary. ‘...for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.

We’re nearly at the time of year when the next round of the Queen’s Honours will be announced, at the new year. All over the country, people will receive letters from the Queen, inviting them to receive an MBE or OBE for their community service, or charity work or whatever. Now, the Queen doesn’t sit down herself, going through the phonebook thinking, who will I honour this year? There’s a network of nominations, advisors, and yet it’s a great honour to go to Buckingham Palace to receive the award.

Put yourself in Mary’s sandals. The God who is mighty, ruling over the universe, the all-powerful one - he has chosen and blessed Mary! That’s why all generations will call her blessed - she has been blessed by God, chosen to be the mother of the Messiah - not even a once in a lifetime opportunity - a once in the entire history of the world opportunity!

As Mary finishes off her first section, she celebrates God’s mercy - mercy for her, yes, but mercy extending ‘to those who fear him, from generation to generation.’ God is holy - holy is his name (his character) - but Mary knows that she is a sinner, there’s nothing special about her. She wasn’t chosen because she was sinless or immaculate; yet she fears God - she acknowledges him as God her Saviour. And she says this mercy is for all who fear him

I wonder if you can echo these words? Just as Mary speaks out about what God has done for her, I wonder if you could do the same? Testimony might not be a very Church of Ireland thing, yet there’s power in being able to say what God has done for you. this past week, I marked 25 years since the night I became a Christian. What’s your story? Has the Mighty One done great things for you?

Mary rejoices because of what God has done for her. but Mary also rejoices because of 2. what God has done for all his people. Her song is connected to her son, and what he will achieve as the kingdom is unleashed. And yet, you might see, that it’s all past tense. Every sentence starts ‘he has...’ Why is that? It’s a bit like the prophets - when God says something, or promises something, it’s as good as done, it’s so certain, you can say it as if it has already happened. So, he has performed mighty deeds with his arm...

Things are being turned upside down, as God performs his mighty deeds, as he shows strength (old BCP). The proud, the rulers, the rich, they are scattered, brought down, sent away empty; while the humble and hungry are lifted up and filled with good things.

Remember that Mary lives in Israel, under occupation, under the evil King Herod, who was under the even more evil Caesar. Various Zealot movements had tried to get rid of the Romans, and had failed miserably, their leaders executed on crosses. But Mary can celebrate because God us putting his plan into action, and nothing will stop it. God’s kingdom will turn these earthly kingdoms upside down. The mighty rulers will be dethroned, the meek will inherit the earth.

And all this, in fulfilment of those promises of mercy for Israel, for God’s people going right back to Abraham. God had promised that through Abraham’s seed every nation will be blessed - and it’s in Mary’s child these promises are going ahead, and God’s mercy is spreading to all who fear him.

What Mary sings about, Jesus puts into action when he says that those who humble themselves will be exalted, but those who exalt themselves will be humbled. This song is like the gospel before the gospel, the first taster of life in the kingdom. But the question remains - where will we put ourselves? When the world is turned upside down, where will we be? Will we be clinging to our pride in our achievements or our goodness? If so, we’ll be brought down in the judgement to come.

Or will we humble ourselves, acknowledge our sin and poverty, our low estate, and find his rich mercy in Jesus, and so rejoice in God our Saviour?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 3rd December 2017.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

Sermon: Galatians 5: 16-26 Freedom to live by the Spirit

Sermons can sometimes be lengthy affairs. A few years ago, the former rector of Lambeg preached a record-breaking sermon, which lasted for five hours and fifty minutes without a break. But the Guinness World Record for the longest speech was a sermon preached by Pastor Zach Zehnder from Florida, which lasted 53 hours and 18 minutes. Now, as Roy Castle would have said on his TV programme, dedication’s what you need if you want to be a record-breaker, so, if you’re sitting comfortably, let’s break some records!

No, don’t worry, we’ll not try to beat five hours or fifty-three hours today. In fact, this could have been the shortest sermon ever. Could have been - not will be! You see, we can sum up the whole sermon in four words that Paul gives us in the first verse of our reading. Just four words. Do you see them there in verse 16? ‘Live by the Spirit.’ That’s what Paul wants to emphasise; it’s what God wants us to hear today; it’s the application right at the very start of the sermon.

God says: Live by the Spirit. So go and do it.

It might have been the shortest sermon, but I’m not sure it would be the most helpful sermon. So let’s take some time to unpack those four words, to understand what we’re being told to do - and then how to do it.

You might have noticed that we’re near the end of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. And in quite a few of his letters, Paul arranges them into two parts. First up, the doctrine; and then the doing. He gives us the truth, and then shows us how to live it out. It’s a bit like doing your driving test - you do the theory first, and then the practical.

So over the autumn term, we’ve worked our way through this letter. And we’ve seen that the Galatians were in danger of forgetting the free grace of God. They had started by believing, but now they were trying to earn their way by observing the Old Testament law, and by submitting to circumcision. So Paul has reminded them of the grace God has given us in the Lord Jesus - how he was crucified for us to redeem us, and so that we would receive the promise given to Abraham - the promise of the Holy Spirit. That’s the theory bit. As we trust in Jesus, we receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Now comes the practical instructions.

We have the Holy Spirit if we’re believers, but we need to live by the Spirit - not being like Walt Disney’s housekeeper whose story I told a few weeks ago. Remember? She was given these bits of paper for her birthday and Christmas, and put them away safely. She died a millionaire, and she didn’t even realise. She didn’t know the resources she had. So don’t be like her. Live by the Spirit.

You see, God has given us his Holy Spirit in order to help us live out our Christian faith. We just can’t do it by ourselves. And yet many of us think that we CAN do it by ourselves. That’s what the Galatians were trying to do, as they tried to add what Jesus has done for us on the cross. Or, to think of Roy Castle again, we think that to live out the Christian life, to defeat the sin that so easily entangles us and the powerful sinful desires that rise within us, dedication’s what we need.

But Paul tells us what we need to do. Look again at verse 16. ‘So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.’ Notice what he doesn’t say - he doesn’t say try really hard to resist your sinful desires, and then you’ll be able to live by the Spirit. He doesn’t even say, live by the Spirit and then try really hard... No, he says, live by the Spirit (by his power), and you WILL NOT gratify the desires of the sinful nature. Live in this way, by the power of the Spirit, and you will not gratify those desires.

You see, there are two ways to live presented in these verses. We either live by the Spirit, or we live by the sinful nature (the flesh). But it’s not a take it or leave it kind of choice - that it doesn’t really matter which you follow. Rather, they are in conflict. It’s like the line from Dad’s Army - ‘Don’t you know there’s a war on?’ But the battle isn’t out there somewhere else - it’s a battle on the inside, for our heart, our choices, our actions.

Have you ever had a time when you want to do something good, but then you follow a different prompting and so something selfish, or downright evil instead? Like, maybe seeing someone waiting for a bus, so you think to yourself, I’ll stop and give them a lift... only for you to instead drive up close to the kerb and splashing them... I hope that hasn’t happened, but you get the idea? We’re in a war - or rather, a war is in us, between the Spirit and our sinful nature.

Whenever you do not do what you want - this is what’s going on. Now that’s not to give us a way out, an easy excuse, to just go and be nasty to someone and then say, sorry, it’s my sinful nature just getting the better of me! No, Paul calls us to live by the Spirit, and so not gratify those desires that rise within us. As he says in verse 18: ‘but if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.’

The law has no hold on us if we’re led by the Spirit, because if we have the Spirit, then we’ve already been justified, declared righteous. So what are you being led by? Your sinful desires, or the Spirit of God?

To follow our sinful desires is to follow a path of destruction. That’s the point of v19-21. Paul lists out the acts of the sinful nature - obvious things. And he seems to group them into four categories (indicated by the semi-colon in the NIV) - sex; religion; relationships; and drink. When you’re following your sinful nature, these are the outcomes - sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions, envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.’

And look at where these lead: ‘I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.’ To live by the sinful nature, to do what we like, is to end up outside God’s kingdom. To go through life saying, ‘my will be done’ will end with God saying, ok, your will be done.

But there is another way to live. Not following our sinful desires, but living by the Spirit. Taking our lead from him, letting his power guide us, and grow us. Do you see the contrast at the start of verse 22? The acts of the sinful nature are like this... ‘But the fruit of the Spirit is...’

Have you got your Christmas tree up yet? What’s the difference between a Christmas tree and an apple tree? The decorations are hung on the Christmas tree (and getting the lights untangled...), but the apples on the apple tree are produced by the tree itself. And the Holy Spirit wants to produce his fruit in our lives. As we live by his power, and we allow him to lead us, he will produce the fruit of the Spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Do you see how they contrast with the acts of the sinful nature?

Some writers point to the three groups of three - the first three (love, joy, peace) all about our attitude to God; the next three (patience, kindness, goodness) in relation to other people - ‘social virtues’ (Stott); and the last three (faithfulness, gentleness, self-control) in relation to self.

We can’t work these things up by ourselves - they come as the power of the Holy Spirit works through us, moulding us, shaping us, changing us to be more like the Lord Jesus. The fruit of the Spirit point us to Jesus - his life of perfect love, perfect joy, perfect peace and so on. There’s no law against this fruit.

So how do we do it? How do we live by the Spirit, triumph over our sinful desires, and produce the fruit of the Spirit? In our final two verses we’re told how - one past, one present continuous.

V24: ‘Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.’ If we are Christ’s, then we have crucified our sinful nature. We’ve nailed it to the cross. We have put it to death. We don’t need to listen to it any more.

And instead of following our sinful nature, we’re told the positive steps to take in v25. ‘Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.’ A long time ago, the BB World Council was held in Newcastle. On the Sunday, all the companies from Down Battalion took part in the parade to church - which was in the Slieve Donard hotel. But our company made their way up the street like Brown’s cows. What was the problem? We were a good bit back from the band we were following, trying to keep in step with it. But the band behind was keeping a different beat, a different step. So some of us were in step with the band in front, some with the band behind. Brown’s cows.

Paul says we’re to keep in step with the Spirit. March to the beat of his drum. Live by his power, following what he wants us to do, and what he wants to do in us. And one of the ways we do that is by not being conceited (proud); provoking and envying each other. (26)

Well, it didn’t turn out to be a short sermon. But it does have just one point, and one big application - live by the Spirit. You’ve crucified your sinful nature, so don’t listen to it; yield to the power of the Spirit, producing his fruit, keeping in step with him.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday 3rd December 2017.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Sermon: Luke 1: 26-38 A People Prepared - Mary

The angel Gabriel was having a busy time. Now, I’m not sure how angels normally put their time in, but as Luke begins to tell the story of Jesus, we hear of a couple of Gabriel’s special missions. Last week, you might remember, we saw him meeting Zechariah in the temple, delivering the message that the old priest and his wife would soon be having a baby boy. Zechariah didn’t believe it, and was quite literally rendered speechless, he was dumbstruck, until it all happened as he had been told.

As we approach tonight’s reading, it looks as if it’s business as usual for Gabriel, as he brings the news of another baby. But really, last week’s mission was almost like a rehearsal for the real thing; the warm-up act before the star takes to the stage.

Did you notice the contrasts between the two missions? Last time it was to the temple, but this time it’s in a home. He went to Jerusalem, the capital, previously, but now it’s the town of Nazareth in Galilee, in the far north of the country. He goes to a woman this time, not a man; and a young virgin, rather than an old priest.

Mary is introduced in verses 26-27. She is a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. They’re engaged, but they’re not married yet. She’s just going about her business, it’s just an ordinary day, when something extraordinary happens. The angel appears to her, and gives her a strange greeting.

‘Greetings, you who are highly favoured! The Lord is with you.’ (28)

We’re told that ‘Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.’ (29). It’s not every day you meet an angel, never mind one bringing words like these. And what words they are! Gabriel says that Mary is highly favoured - God has favoured her, chosen her, given her his undeserved grace. And not only that, but the Lord is with her.

Out of all the people in Nazareth, and everyone in Israel, the Lord has chosen and favoured her. The Lord is with her. For us, we’re so used to talking about the Lord being with us, we even use that response ‘The Lord be with you...’ But for Mary, this was an incredibly amazing greeting.

But the greeting was just the start. Gabriel has some news that will change Mary’s life forever, and will change the whole world. Let’s hear what he says about the baby Mary is going to have: ‘You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High...’ (31-32)

The very first thing that Gabriel says about Jesus is that he will be... great. Now, I don’t know about you, but that word seems to have lost some of its impact. If you were out for dinner, the meal might be great. A movie you saw was great. You can even use the word as a kind of opposite, with the right tone of voice. So here’s what we’re going to do tomorrow, and you think ‘Great.’ So what does it mean when it says that Jesus will be great?

Perhaps the Greek word can help us. Now, you might be thinking to yourself, I don’t know any Greek. But I’m fairly sure you’ll know this word - mega. So, when I was growing up, a new computer game console came out which, the makers claimed, was the best, fastest computer game console ever. And what was it called? The Sega Megadrive. Or think of the music shops that used to be around - the Virgin Megastore - it wasn’t just a shop, it was a mega store, a great shop.

Now you might remember that John would be ‘great in the sight of the Lord’ (15). Jesus will be great. No other conditions. It’s as if Jesus is at the top of the league of greatness, in a league of his own, even. Why is he great? Well, as Gabriel continues, he is the Son of the Most High. This is no ordinary baby - this is God on earth, the Son of God.

Can you see who Jesus is? As we come near to Christmas and hear again about the baby lying in the manger, do you just see the cute wee baby? Is that all you see? Gabriel urges us to see the Son of God, having given up his power and glory to humble himself, to come and take on our flesh, to come and rescue us. Jesus is the great Son of God.

But there’s even more that Gabriel says about this baby. This great Son of God is also the great Son of David. ‘The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; his kingdom will never end.’

God is fulfilling his promises as the rescue plan goes into top gear. Back in the Old Testament, King David had conquered Jerusalem and established his throne there. He wanted to build God a house (the temple), but God instead promised to build David’s house (his line of kings - like the House of Tudor, or Stewart, or Windsor). So in 2 Samuel 7, the promise is made: ‘When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom... I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.’ (2 Sam 7:13-14)

At first glance, it looks as if God is talking about David’s son Solomon, who builds the temple, but he doesn’t reign forever. He reigned for 40 years, then died. And so the expectation continues - who is this king God has promised who will reign forever? David’s line continues, but the kings get worse and worse until Jerusalem is destroyed and there are no more kings. The promise seems to have died. Yet here, years later, God is fulfilling his promise - and his identified the son who will reign for ever! He will reign for ever because, as we know, death could not hold him - Jesus lives, and reigns, and will do for ever.

Mary might think this is all wonderful, but there’s a tiny problem. ‘How will this be, since I am a virgin?’ It sounds, well, great, but it’s surely an impossible dream. Maybe if God waits until she marries Joseph, gives them some time, then she could bring forth this son?

Gabriel tells her how it will happen - not in the future, but here and now. ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.’

This special, holy, great Son of God baby will be born to a virgin. And if she needs any more help believing it, Gabriel points her to what’s happening with her elderly relative: ‘Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month.’

And here’s the point he’s driving to: ‘For nothing is impossible with God.’ If God can give a baby to old Elizabeth, then he can bring about the birth of his Son through the virgin Mary. Nothing is impossible with God. As Paul writes to the Ephesians, God is able to do far more abundantly than all we ask or imagine. But so often we simply don’t believe it.

We would love to see that relative you pray for every day to come to faith, even though they’ve been anti-God for ever. Maybe that’s too hard for God to change, is it impossible? Is anything impossible with God? Gabriel says: No! Not even having a virgin conceive and give birth is impossible for God.

It was an ordinary day for an ordinary young woman. But it turned out to be extraordinary with news of God’s grace to Mary; and news of the great Son of God and Son of David who she would bear and birth. So how do we respond to this news? We see the way to respond in the answer that Mary gave that day: ‘I am the Lord’s servant, may it be to me as you have said.’

Mary receives the news, believes her God, and receives the Saviour. Whatever pain, and misunderstanding might come - Joseph was ready to divorce her quietly - Mary submits and obeys. May we also hear God’s word and obey.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 19th November 2017.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Sermon: Luke 1: 1-25 A People Prepared (1) - Zechariah

I asked this question the other night at Bible study, and everyone was in shock. So let’s see how the evening congregation gets on with it... Are you all set for Christmas?

You know it’s getting closer when the Sundays are in the countdown before Advent; when the Christmas stuff is in the shops; and the reminder comes that it’s just 42 days to Christmas. And perhaps your mind starts racing about all the things you have to do to be ready for Christmas. buying presents, ordering the turkey, cleaning the house, putting up the tree, and so much more, before you’re prepared.

On these Sunday nights leading up to Christmas, though, we’re going to get ready in an entirely different way. Forget the list you might be making, and checking it twice. Instead, we’re going to prepare for Christmas by revisiting the preparations for the very first Christmas. It’s not so much the house prepared, but (as we read in verse 17) a people prepared for the Lord.

Luke will tell us about the shepherds and the angels and the stable, but before we get there, he starts his story a bit further back. He tells us of the things that happened in order to get to the manger in Bethlehem, as he begins his good news story.

We all know how stories begin. ‘Once upon a time, there were...’ Or even ‘A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away’. But that’s not how Luke begins. You see, this is no fairy tale. This isn’t another part of the Star Wars story. Luke is writing history, having carefully researched what has happened. He writes ‘Since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus.’ (3-4)

Theophilus (friend of God) is a Christian, and Luke has carefully studied what happened, met the eyewitnesses, and has written it down for him, and for us, so that we can be certain about the life, teaching and events of Jesus.

Have you ever watched a film and enjoyed it, only to discover as the credits roll that it’s based on a true story? This is the true story of what happened - you see it in the details Luke includes: that Herod is the king of Judea (5), that Zechariah is a priest, married to Elizabeth, and details of which section of the priesthood he’s in. Luke is telling us the true story, something we can rely on and trust.

It’s the true story of a special child - as we can see from the special circumstances of the birth.

As we’ve said, Zechariah is a priest, and we’re taken with him to Jerusalem, to the temple. You see, there were 24 sections of priests, each taking their turn in serving at the temple. Zechariah and the rest of the priests of Abijah went up to Jerusalem for their week. While there, one of them would be selected by lot to go inside the holy place to offer a sacrifice of incense on the altar. It’s reckoned that this was a once-in-a-lifetime chance - some men never got the opportunity.

He knew what he needed to do - go in, light the incense offering, and then return outside to bless the people waiting outside. Simple. Except when he went inside, things weren’t as he expected. There was an angel inside, waiting to see him! I wonder what you think of when you hear of angels - fluffy wings and white robes? Zechariah is terrified - the sight is awesome - fear overwhelms him.

The angel Gabriel tells Zechariah that he is going to become a dad, that him and Elizabeth are going to have a child. No pregnancy testers here, nor 12 week scans. Just a heavenly messenger straight from God announcing the forthcoming birth. What a special child this is going to be. But that’s not all.

Just think of the parents of this child. Back in verse 7, we were told that ‘they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.’ It’s what Zechariah says himself in verse 18: ‘How can I be sure of this? I am an old man, and my wife is well on in years.’ All those years of childlessness, all that pain, and suddenly the news comes of this special birth of this special child.

You might be reminded of another time when an elderly couple had a baby - Abraham and Sarah were in their nineties when they suddenly had to go shopping for maternity wear and nursery furniture - when God gave them the child of promise Isaac. This is the beginning of another chapter in God’s purposes as he gives another miracle baby, this special child in special circumstances.

Gabriel tells him what the child’s name is going to be: John (which means gift from the Lord). The special child in special circumstances is a gift from God.

The news was so unexpected that Zechariah simply can’t believe it. He thinks of himself and his wife and thinks - this simply can’t happen. Surely they’re past it. So he says: ‘How can I be sure of this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well on in years.’ How can I be sure that what you have said is going to happen?

He’s given a surprising sign, isn’t he? ‘And now you will be silent and not be able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.’ (20)

Now there might be some wives would be glad of their husbands not being able to speak for a wee while. Zechariah is struck dumb because he doesn’t believe the angel’s message, this true story of a special child.

When a baby is born, there are lots of hopes and expectations. In our reading, this special child has a special purpose, as Gabriel tells Zechariah in verses 16-17. ‘Many of the people of Israel will be bring back to the Lord their God. And he will go before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’

You see John’s birth was promised in the Old Testament. God’s people have been waiting for about four hundred years for him to appear on the scene as the one who would come in advance of the Lord’s arrival. He would come in the power of Elijah - who was one of the Old Testament prophets - to prepare the way for the Lord.

This child John will grow up to go before the Lord, to make people ready for the Lord’s arrival. John will be a bit like a motorbike outrider calling people to get ready for the arrival of the king. His message is that the Lord is coming, and we need to be ready for him.

We’re not just talking about getting ready for Christmas, we’re talking about the Lord’s coming. If you turn over a page or two in the Bible you find John appearing in the wilderness preaching his message of repentance, calling people to turn around from their sins. John begins his ministry before Jesus appears on the scene to bring God’s salvation.

The true story of a special child with a special purpose. We’re not just dealing with fairy tales. Luke hasn’t just made up a nice wee story. He’s telling us of things that happened, that God has done in his world, so that we can be certain of what we believe.

All that happens here is in fulfillment of God’s promises in the Old Testament, getting people ready for the arrival of Jesus, turning people towards God. John was born, this special child with this special purpose - to point to Jesus.

When Zechariah was told the news of what God was doing, he didn’t believe, and was struck dumb. But will we believe the good news? Will we believe that what God has said and done to prepare the way for Jesus is true? Will we believe that Jesus is the Lord, the one who rules, who will bring salvation? This true story is two thousand years old now. Jesus came, heralded by John, to die for our salvation. Are you ready to receive him?

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 12th November 2017.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Sermon: Galatians 5: 1-15 Freedom to love

Today, we pause to remember - to remember those who gave their lives in the service of others, and the cause of freedom. Men from this village, and from every village, town and city, signed up to serve, and to stand against the forces of tyranny in Europe and around the world, to bring about the freedom we enjoy. We are free today, because of their dedication and sacrifice.

And yet, as our Bible reading tells us today, there was an even greater sacrifice, which has brought about an even greater freedom. We’re told in Galatians 5:1 that ‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.’ As we’ve been working our way through this letter over the last few weeks, we’ve seen how the death of Jesus on the cross brings freedom. Christ has set us free from sin, and the law, as we trust in him.

That freedom is available to you today - the freedom from guilt and shame; the freedom from the burden of our sins; Paul describes it as being released from prison, and coming to the end of school. Freedom! But what does our freedom look like? Can we really do whatever we like?
When I was becoming a teenager, one of the songs that played nonstop on the radio said this: ‘I’m free to be whatever I, whatever I choose and I’ll sing the blues if I want... I’m free to say whatever I, whatever I like if it’s wrong or right it’s alright... Whatever you do, whatever you say, yeah I know it’s alright... Whatever you do, whatever you say, yeah I know it’s alright.’ (Oasis)

So when Jesus sets us free, is it for us to be whatever, say whatever, do whatever we want? Well, imagine that you had a goldfish in a bowl in your living room. And, if it could think for long enough (because it has its short term memory), and it decided that it was imprisoned in the water in the bowl. Goldie might decide that freedom for him is to jump out of the bowl, to be free of the water. But if Goldie does manage to jump out of the water, and free himself, is he really free? Well, no. He can’t survive outside the bowl! He’s only free in the water.

In our reading today, Paul shows us what our freedom in Christ really looks like. In verse 1, we are free to not be slaves again. Jesus died to free us from the demands of the Old Testament law. We simply couldn’t obey them by ourselves. That was what Paul taught the Galatians when they became Christians. But now other teachers, false teachers had arrived, and they said that to be a real Christian, you needed to become a Jew. You needed to obey the Old Testament laws, in every detail. And it was as if they were coming to make the Galatians slaves all over again.

But what the false teachers were doing was stopping the Galatians from being free. And Paul uses a couple of pictures of what they were doing in verses 7-8.

So, imagine it’s sports day, and you’re running in one of the races. You’re doing really well, you might win a medal, and then someone gets in your way, trips you up, and puts you out of the race. The Galatians had been running a good race, but someone had cut in on them and kept them from obeying the truth.

Or, imagine you’re baking some bread. You’re going to make some flatbread, but you accidentally add in some yeast. The yeast will work through the whole batch of dough, it will affect everything. And the false teaching in these churches was affecting everyone.

So much so that, if they followed that teaching, they would be alienated from Christ, fallen from grace. So in Christ, we are free to not be slaves.

In verse 13, we are free, but not to sin. Paul says: ‘You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature.’

We are free, but not to do whatever we want. You see, each of us has a sinful nature, we want to do what we want to do. We want to please ourselves and have other people serve us. We want to go our own way, rather than God’s way.

But Jesus has freed us from our sinful nature. So we don’t have to follow it any more. We shouldn’t follow it any more.

Rather, we are free, to serve one another in love. That’s what Paul says in verse 13. ‘Do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.’ This is why Jesus freed us - not to be selfish, but to serve one another, in the way that Jesus has first served us, as he gave himself for us in love.

And what does it look like to serve one another in love? It looks like the summary of the law - the whole law is summed up in one command, from Leviticus 19: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’

Originally, this command was a demand we couldn’t attain. Could you ever really say that you always, in every moment, with every effort, were loving your neighbour as much as you love yourself? The law condemned us. But Jesus perfectly obeyed this command, he freed us from the demand; and he now makes this a delight. We have been set free, so that we serve one another in love, and do what we otherwise couldn’t do.

One of the greatest war films is Saving Private Ryan. When the American Army realise that all three of Private Ryan’s brothers have been killed in the war, a group of 8 soldiers are sent behind enemy lines to find Private Ryan, to save him, to be able to send him home to be with his mother. The film charts the efforts of Captain Miller and his men to find Ryan.When they eventually find him, Miller dies as the Germans advance. And Miller whispers in Ryan’s ear: ‘Earn this. Earn it.’

Miller wants Ryan to live in such a way that he deserves the sacrifice of the men who came to save him. As the film ends, an elderly Private Ryan stands at the war grave of Captain Miller, and he’s still haunted by those words - Earn this. He asks his wife, surrounded by his family - tell me I’ve lived a good life, tell me I’m a good man. Has he earned it? That’s the question that haunts him.

But Jesus doesn’t need or want us to earn our freedom, or somehow pay him back for all he’s done for us. We couldn’t do it! Instead, he gives us freedom - freedom to not be slaves again; freedom to not sin; freedom to serve one another in love.

So have you received the love of Jesus? The love that caused him to give himself for you.

Have you received the freedom Jesus gives? Receive it today!

When we receive the love of Jesus, we’re to pass it on. When we receive the freedom he has given, we’re to live it out in love, in a life of service, for the good of others.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Remembrance Sunday, 12th November 2017.

Monday, November 06, 2017

BB Enrolment Sermon: Mark 1: 14-20 Attention! About Turn! Quick March!

Now I’ve got a question for the members of the BB. What is so great about BB?

And what kinds of things do you do at BB? Anchor Boys? Junior Section? Company Section?

I know that there are lots of things you do at BB. But the one I want to focus on this evening is drill. So who is the best boy at drill? Come on up.

Now, you’re going to take on one of the officers at drill. Who are you going to take on? Who will win?

Drill competition - Stand at ease; attention; turn about - about turn; move to the left, left turn; move to the right, right turn.

Well done!

When you’re doing drill in the BB, you need to know who you’re listening to. So imagine, when the BB Battalion parade comes around, and you’re marching down the road towards the church, when someone from the crowd shouts out something. In the middle of the parade, this voice suddenly shouts out ‘squad will retire, about turn!’ Would you do what the voice told you?

Hopefully not! Instead, you listen out for the officer who is giving you commands. You don’t just listen to some randomer on the street. You listen to your commanding officer, and do what they say.

Well tonight, we’re listening in to something our commanding officer is saying - not James, or John, but the Lord Jesus himself. He is our great Captain and Saviour, so we want to listen to him. And the things he says in our reading from Mark’s gospel are illustrated by some of the drill moves.

So first up, if you’re standing at ease, what’s the first command? Attention! And what does that look like?

So when you hear the command - attention - you know that you’re to be listening, ready to obey. Some important commands are coming, so you need to be ready for them. And we see that in verse 15. Jesus says: ‘The time has come. The kingdom of God is near.’

Jesus appears on the scene here at the start of Mark’s gospel. And he says - pay attention!

I’ve got a question for you - whose alarm goes off the earliest in the morning? You’ve maybe been off school for a week, and tomorrow is back to school, but who gets up the earliest? What time does your alarm go off?... Any of the adults beat that for an early alarm?

The alarm clock in the morning is saying - pay attention! It’s time to get up, the time has come for you to get up for school. And Jesus appears on the scene saying, pay attention - the time has come, I have arrived, I’m here.

Jesus is the king, and so the kingdom of God is near (or has arrived). For thousands of years, the people had been waiting for God’s kingdom to come. For the last 400 years, there had been no prophets. No word from God. Then Jesus appears - the king is here. So pay attention. Listen up! Get ready for action!

The next drill movement is this - about turn. So what happens in an about turn? You change direction. If you’re facing this way, you face that way. Or if you’re marching, then you move from going one direction to going the opposite direction. You turn around.

Jesus the king says that we need to turn around. That’s what the next word in verse 15 means: repent.

Jesus says that we all need to repent, to change direction, to turn around. We’ve been going our own way, we’ve been doing things that are wrong, and we need to turn back to him.

If I decided to go to Portadown some day, so I go out onto the main road, but instead I’m heading towards Armagh, is it ok if I keep going the wrong way? Well, no, not if I want to get to Portadown! I need to realise I’m going the wrong way. I need to admit my mistake, and turn around and go the right way.

Jesus the king says, repent, about turn. Stop going away from God (by your sin), and instead turn back to God.

The last drill movement is this - quick march. What happens when you hear that command? You go! And that’s what Jesus wants us to do - when we hear him telling us to pay attention; when he calls us to about turn; then he tells us to go in the right direction - ‘repent and believe the good news.’

Believe the good news means to hear that Jesus is our Saviour, that he went to the cross to take away our sins, and to give us new life - to hear that good news, and then believe it - to throw our weight upon Jesus.

To go with Jesus as our Saviour, and to go with Jesus as our Lord, obeying all that he wants us to do. And we see in the rest of the reading what that looks like - Jesus calls Simon and Andrew to follow him, and they leave everything to follow him. James and John are next - he calls them, and they also followed him.

Twenty-five years ago this month, I heard Jesus calling to me. The time had come for me to follow him - I was always in church, I was involved in the BB, I thought I was good, but I needed to repent (to about turn, turn around), and quick march with Jesus. I was the same age as some of you - I was 11. And it was the best decision I ever made. It’s why I’m here tonight in Richhill.

It’s why the BB exists, to help you to hear and follow Jesus. Through the BB I went on the Mid-Ulster Battalion camps. I made some of my best friends there. I even got a brother-in-law through that camp - Lynsey’s sister married one of my best friends from BB Camp, and he’s now a Presbyterian minister (we’ll not hold that against him!). At last count, out of the boys and officers from my few years at the camp, six or seven of us are now ministers, and many others are still or became Christians through the camp.

Jesus says pay attention - the time has come, the kingdom of God is here, because the king is here - Jesus is here.

Jesus says about turn - change your direction, turn back to God.

Jesus says quick march - Go on with God, as you follow Jesus and trust him to be your Saviour.

This sermon was preached at the BB Enrolment Service for 1st Richhill Boys' Brigade Company in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 5th November 2017.

Sunday, November 05, 2017

Sermon: Galatians 4: 8-31 Freedom from slavery

I wonder if you’ve heard of Stockholm Syndrome? It’s not where you start to shop in Ikea and develop a fondness for Abba music. The idea of Stockholm Syndrome was developed after a hostage situation in a bank in Stockholm, Sweden in 1973. Two men walked into the bank, and took four staff hostage. After six days, the four were released - but ended up siding with their captors. None of them would testify in court against their captors - indeed, they even raised money for their defence fund.

That was the first time it had been analysed and identified, but now it’s a seemingly common problem in hostage or kidnapping situations. The person who was a slave is freed, but then decides to go back to the person who enslaved them.

Or think of some who have been in prison, they’ve been released, but they just can’t cope with life on the outside, and so they reoffend, to be able to get back into prison. They can’t cope with freedom, they would rather be on the inside, prisoners again.

Now perhaps those thoughts seem strange to you - the idea of Stockholm Syndrome, falling for your enslaver; or reoffending to re-enter the prison system. We like our freedom, we wonder why anyone wouldn’t want it. We would find it strange that someone, having been freed would want to become a slave again. And yet that’s exactly what Paul says the Galatian Christians were in danger of doing.

And it could be that we are in the same danger. It seems as if our Galatians series has been significant for some of us; that we’ve been understanding the gospel of grace through Christ alone in a fresh way; that we’ve been enjoying the freedom of knowing that we are forgiven and welcomed into God’s family; that we have been saved, and we’re now sons of God. Now if that’s you, Paul has a warning - you’ve been freed, so don’t become a slave again!

As we dive into the passage, we see that Paul is reminding them of how they were freed; as he warns them of the dangers of slavery. V8: ‘Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God - or rather are known by God - how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?’ Do you see what he says there? You used to be slaves - slaves to the pagan way of thinking, slaves to the demons.

They were freed from being slaves, by knowing God (and being known by him) - isn’t that what we pray in one of the morning collects? ‘To know you is eternal life, and to serve you is perfect freedom...’

But now, they’re turning back to the weak and miserable principles they knew before - in a different form, perhaps, but with the same basic idea. Do all this, and you’ll succeed. Observe these rules, do these things, keep these feast days, and you’ll make it by your own efforts. They’re in danger of being enslaved all over again.

In verse 12, Paul makes his appeal to them. He’s pleading with them. (This is the first imperative, the first command, the first thing they should do in the letter). ‘I plead with you, brothers, become like me, for I became like you.’ He reminds them of how he became like them - how he lived among them, because of an episode of ill health. Now we’re not told what it was, but there’s a hint it might have been eye trouble of some sort. He says there in v15 that they would have torn out their eyes and given them to him.

Whatever the exact problem, this was the reason Paul stopped in Galatia and preached the gospel to them. And even though his illness was a trial to them, they welcomed him with a great welcome - as if he was an angel, or even as if he was Christ Jesus himself. Why the welcome? Because they heard the good news of the gospel, and they experienced the freedom Paul proclaimed - freedom in Christ. But now - ‘What has happened to all your joy?... Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth?’

They knew the joy of being freed, but the joy had long gone. Now, they were trying to get back into prison, submitting to a new slavery. And they’re cross with Paul for pointing it out to them!

We see the enslavers crouching in v17. ‘Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want us to alienate you from us, so that you may be zealous for them. It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good, and to be so always, not just when I am with you.’ There’s a lot of zealousness in those verses! The enslavers are zealous to win them over - but not for good. They want the Galatians to be zealous for them, not for Paul or for the gospel.

The Galatians were really taken by the Judaizers. They felt important, because these guys were taking an interest in them. They seemed as if they were trying to help them! But Paul gives the warning - don’t fall for it! Don’t become slaves again!

These Judaizers are a bit like the Child Catcher in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He brings his horse-drawn wagon into the town square, offering free lollipops and ice cream to the children. When they wee boy hears there’s treacle tarts, he rushes out. But when the children climb into the wagon where the free treats are, they find it’s a trick; they’re trapped; they’ve become slaves. This is the danger the Galatians were in, and it’s the danger we might find ourselves in.

Someone who sounds as if they’re helping, wanting to explain things better, but they’re actually working against the gospel, making you a slave all over again. It’s no wonder Paul was concerned, it’s as if he’s experiencing the pains of childbirth all over again, wanting Christ to be formed in them. He wishes he was with them to change his tone.

Now in the last part of the passage, Paul shows from the story of Abraham that there are two ways you can go about something. You see, we imagine that the people in the Bible were all good, and moral, and perfect - that is, until we read their stories! Abraham could well inspired a storyline on Eastenders or Emmerdale; you could almost see him appearing on Jeremy Kyle.

You see, Abraham had received the promise of a great nation through his son in Genesis 12. By Genesis 16, 11 years have passed and still no son. So Sarah his wife says to Abraham - go and have a child with my slave girl Hagar. They try to take matters into their own hands, and work things out by themselves. So Ishmael is born, a son by the flesh, but not the son of promise.

Fourteen years later, the promised son, Isaac, is born. At his weaning, Ishmael is mocking Isaac, and Sarah gets upset. So she tells Abraham to get rid of Hagar and Ishmael. And Abraham does it.

And Paul takes this story and sets out the two ways you can go about something - you can work it out yourself; or you can trust God for what he has promised. And those two ways are represented by the two women - Hagar the slave, and Sarah the free. The slave woman can only produce slaves, and only the free woman can produce free children.

And what Paul says there in verses 24-26 would have been shocking to those who read it. We know that because Jesus basically says the same thing in our gospel reading from John’s gospel. Here in v24, he looks at the covenant from Mount Sinai, when God gave the law to the people of Israel through Moses. So which woman is it? Slave or free? Paul says that the Law, Mount Sinai, is like the slave woman, Hagar - it can only produce slaves (as we’ve seen in recent weeks). Hagar is like the present city of Jerusalem - the temple was still standing, in slavery with her children.

Remember in John’s gospel when the Jews say ‘We are Abraham’s descendants and have never been slaves of anyone.’ (Jn 8:33). But Jesus says they are slaves - ‘everyone who sins is a slave to sin.’ (Jn 8:34) And they’re not children of Abraham, because they aren’t doing what Abraham did - believing God and the one he sent.

Do it yourself religion of whatever flavour - they produce slaves, slaves to sin who will never inherit, who will be driven out, as Hagar and Ishmael were.

v26 ‘But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.’ The heavenly Jerusalem is our mother, We are her children, the children of God’s promise, just as Isaac was all those years ago. The child of promise was persecuted by the slave son then, and it’s still happening now. Therefore, as Paul sums up, in v31 ‘Therefore, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.’

You used to be slaves. You’ve been set free. So don’t become slaves again. As we take bread and wine, we rejoice in our rescuer, the one who gave himself to free us. You’ve been released, so live out your freedom, live out your inheritance, and don’t become slaves all over again.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 5th November.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Sermon: 2 Timothy 3: 1-17 The God-Breathed Bible

I want to ask you a question this evening. What is it the church needs to do in these changing times?

There's no doubt about it that things are changing very rapidly all around us. The past century was one of amazing technology and development. Things are vastly different to when our grandparents were children themselves. Communications, working patterns, education - all are changing. One of my parishioners in Fermanagh turned 99 earlier this year. He would sit and chat about the changes he had seen in his lifetime. One of the biggest for him was moving from ploughing with horses to getting his first tractor. He would still rather have the horses, though.

But think how much has changed even in the last few years. On the lectern sits a wee box, recording my words. Later this week, this sermon will be available to whoever wants to listen in, anywhere in the world. And as for Facebook, video calling, and so much more - it’s incredible. As a news report recently put it, the smartphone in your pocket is more powerful than the NASA computers that put man on the moon.

With all these changes going on, let alone the social changes with proposed new definitions of marriage and relationships, we’re left wondering - should the church be changing its message to fit in with the times?

Some in the emerging/emergent church are saying precisely that. Because things have changed so much, the church needs to change the message it once proclaimed, so that we can fit in better with a new society, enlightened, multicultural, influenced by reason and not superstition.

This evening, though, on Bible Sunday, we come to the apostle Paul writing to a younger church leader, Timothy. Paul knows that he is near the end of his life; he's now in prison again, the time is short, and soon he will be killed for being a Christian. Timothy seems to be shy, fearful, so Paul is writing his last letter to Timothy to encourage him. Here, in chapter 3, he tells Timothy to know two things - know the times, and know the message.

Know the times

Boy Dylan sang in 1964 ‘The times, they are a-changing,’ and yet there's a sense in which things are still the same as ever. We have increased mobility, wealth, possessions, education, and yet things are as they ever were. Sin continues unabated. Paul says that this is the way things are going to be.

Verse 1: ‘But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days.’ He then outlines a catalogue of sins, a litany of lawlessness. ‘People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God - having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with them.’

It all sounds horrible, and yet, we realise that this is what our world is like. All these things are all around us. That’s because we’re in the last days. You see, sometimes we think that the last days are just the last couple of days before Jesus returns. But we are already in the last days. We have been since the resurrection of Jesus. The last days are every day between the first coming of Jesus and his second coming. So this is our world, these are our times.

And alongside these worsening morals, we also have the threat of false teachers. We see them in verses 6-9. They worm their way into households, they gain control over weak-willed women, spreading their false teaching, leading people astray. Jannes and Jambres (8) aren’t named anywhere else in the Bible, but they’re thought to be the magicians of Egypt who opposed Moses, opposing the truth.

So this is the world that Timothy was ministering in, and it’s still the world that we are living in. The last days.

Do you remember the theme song that brought New Labour to power in 1997? The D:Ream song 'Things Can Only Get Better'. Twenty years on, as we reflect on the Labour years under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, we can't really say things have been getting better. Nor have they been getting better under the Conservatives. No matter which government is in charge, they can’t change the hearts of sinful people. Sin will continue. Just look at your newspapers or TV news. This is the world we live in, and Paul calls us to know the times.

Notice the contrast in verse 10 though. Paul is saying that Timothy is to be wise to the times, knowing the world he is working in, but not to copy their example. Instead, he writes 'You, however...' Don't follow the wicked world, but copy Paul's example, his faith, love, patience, conduct and all the rest, including persecution!

It's a strange inclusion, isn't it? Paul promises Timothy that he will face persecution - indeed, everyone who desires to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted. What a promise! Yet it's what we should expect - precisely because we know the times, we know that the world is living in rebellion against its Maker and King, so that if we stand up or stand out for Jesus, then we'll attract some opposition.

Know the times, and be prepared to stand up for Jesus.

Know the message

But as well as recognising the times, Paul also urges Timothy to know the message he has been entrusted with. Again, at the start of verse 14, notice the contrast. 'But as for you...' The evil people will go from bad to worse, but as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of. Don't change the message - hold firm to the gospel.

Paul reminds Timothy that he has been acquainted with the holy Scriptures since childhood - the scriptures which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. The Scriptures are the power of God for salvation, as they point to Jesus. Back in chapter 1, Paul mentioned Timothy's granny Lois, and his mummy Eunice, both of whom were Christians already, and had brought him up to know the Bible (the OT, of course), teaching and training him. Parents and grandparents, here's a call for you to be passing on the faith, teaching your children and grandchildren as you have opportunity.

The Scriptures, ‘All Scripture’, Paul says, are God-breathed. Sometimes we talk about how the Bible is inspired, but here Paul says that the Bible is ‘expired’ - not run out, but breathed out. As I’m speaking here, coming out of my mouth are my words, along with my breath. And God’s breath, his Holy Spirit, inspired the writers of the Scripture to communicate the words of God.

That’s why we can have confidence in the Bible - because it is God’s word. It’s not the invention of someone who wanted something to do one day; it’s not the ravings of strange people; it is the very word of God, breathed out by God.

And the Scriptures are given for a purpose. We see it in the rest of the chapter. In verse 16, there are four things that the Scripture does to us - ‘and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness.’

Teaching - The scriptures teach us more about God and about ourselves. They give us information and teach us.

Rebuking - They also rebuke us when we are in the wrong. They might show us how our behaviour is wrong; or show us that what we think about God isn’t right. They rebuke us.

Correcting - They don’t just leave us in the wrong, though, they also correct us. They give us the truth, they correct the errors we might have in our thinking or doing.

Training in righteousness - They show us how to live a righteous life, what God wants of us, and encourage us to do it.

And God gives us the Scriptures (all the Scriptures) v17 ‘so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.’ God didn’t just give us the Bible to fill our heads with Bible knowledge. The Bible isn’t just there as a source of trivia - to know who Melchizedek is; where Zarephath was; or how many donkeys Job started out with. The Bible is there to teach, rebuke, correct and train us... SO THAT we may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.

It’s good to read the Bible. But it must be changing us and leading us to live out our faith, by doing good works, against the backdrop of a sin-soaked world. We’re called to know the message, to know the Scriptures and grow in the Scriptures, so that they change us to be more like Jesus.

Our message must not change - we must continue to hold fast and preach the gospel contained in the Scriptures - God's revelation of his Son, the Lord Jesus. How we present the message may change, but not the message itself.

Let's take seriously today Paul's call to know the times we live in, but also to know the message that can turn sinful people into saints; rebels into redeemed people; lost into found.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on the evening of Bible Sunday, 29th October 2017.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Sermon: Galatians 3:15 - 4:7 Freedom in Christ

A couple of weeks ago, an Australian court decided that an unsent draft text message was indeed a valid will. A man had died, and his widow had expected to keep everything, but this unsent text message was found on the man’s phone, leaving everything to his brother and nephew. After a long court case, the judge declared the will to be valid, because the man’s intentions were clear. This human covenant had been duly established, so it couldn’t be set aside or added to.

I’m not sure that the law is the same here in Northern Ireland, so don’t be depending on a text message to serve as your last will and testament. So why am I talking about wills and such like? Isn’t it a bit morbid to talk about? Well, no, it’s better to have such things in place. But the reason I’m talking about wills is because that’s what Paul turns to in this part of Galatians.

Last week we saw that Christians receive the Holy Spirit - not by obeying the law (because we can’t do that), but by faith in Jesus. Jesus obeyed the law for us, and redeemed us on the cross, so that we receive the promise given to Abraham, the promise of the Holy Spirit. And now Paul is continuing with his line of reasoning. And, as Jimmy Cricket would say, come here, there’s more... We’ll see that we’re not just justified and left like that - there is even more for us than that.

So Paul introduces the idea of a will in verse 15. He does that to help explain the relationship between the promise given to Abraham and the law given to Moses. Just as a will isn’t set aside or added to once it comes into effect on the person’s death, so in the same way, God’s promise to Abraham isn’t changed or added to. The promise stands throughout the Old Testament period, and isn’t changed even though the law was given 430 years later.

As we saw last week - verse 18 - the inheritance doesn’t depend on the law; it depends on the promise given to Abraham - by God’s grace. But straight away, Paul knows there’ll be some objections. He voices it in verse 19. ‘What, then, was the purpose of the law?’ Why did God bother to give the Old Testament law? What’s the point of it?

He goes on to answer it in verse 19: ‘It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come.’ The law was given because of sin - to highlight and flag up our sin. We can’t be saved by the law, but the law shows that we need a Saviour.

We see that in verses 21-22. ‘Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.’

The law shows us that we’re prisoners of sin. The law declares what sin is, and so when we do those very things, then it declares that we are sinners. The law only condemns - but it shows us that we need the Saviour, the Saviour we put our faith in.

In verses 23-25, Paul gives us two pictures of what the law is. In verse 23, the law is a jailer, a prison guard. Perhaps you’ve been on a tour of a prison - Crumlin Road or at the Down County Museum in Downpatrick. You’re put in the cell, and the door is locked. That’s what the law did - it kept us as prisoners, ‘locked up until faith should be revealed.’ There was no other way out; only by believing in Jesus, trusting that his death has paid the sentence, and so we can go free.

In verse 24, Paul says, ‘So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.’ That phrase ‘put in charge’ is the idea of a tutor, nanny or governess, who is in charge of the children to make sure they go to school and do their lessons. Harsh, perhaps, but only has power until the child grows up. Now, paul says, ‘Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.’ We’ve been freed from prison; we’ve been freed from the schoolmaster!

That freedom comes in Christ, and in him, we have a new status and a new relationship. The new status is the one we’ve already seen - justified, declared innocent. But there’s more than that - we also have a new relationship, verse 26: ‘You are all sons of God through faith in Jesus Christ.’ We’re not just forgiven, we’re also family. We’re not just saved, we’re also sons.

Now, that might sound a bit strange, that we’re all sons. Why not sons and daughters? Well, it’s because in the culture of the time, sorry ladies, only sons inherited. So for the Bible to say that we are all sons means that we all share in the family inheritance, we all receive the blessings that God gives us. We see that radical inclusion in verse 28: ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ It doesn’t matter who you are, where you’re from, what your standing is, there is a welcome in Christ Jesus. Jesus, the Son of God, makes us sons of God in him.

As verse 29 says, ‘If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.’ In Christ, we are the seed of Abraham, and our name is in the will, we are heirs according to the promise. So when a will is read, what do you need to do to inherit? Just receive. It has been promised to you. And we receive the blessings God gives to and through Abraham by believing in Jesus.

Now that is an amazing thought - that we are heirs in Christ. But even more amazing, is this - your name was always written in the will from the very beginning. Back in verse 15 we saw that wills aren’t set aside or added to when they’re established. So your name was in the will, included in the promise, when it was to Abraham (and in fact, from before the foundation of the world). It’s not that God is sitting in heaven, pen poised, waiting to add someone’s name in when they believe. No, God has already named his heirs from long ago, your names are already written in heaven, and the promise is yours already.

In 4:1, the heirs were children, back in the prisoner / schoolmaster period of the law. They own the whole estate, they’re going to receive everything, but they’re still subject to guardians and trustees - they’re just like a slave.

Or, to give an up to date example. Now, perish the thought this would happen, but if the Queen, and Prince Charles and Prince William were all to perish, then who would be king? Prince George. But he’s just 4. How could he be king? There would be a Regent appointed, someone to rule on his behalf, until he came of age.

And Paul says it’s the same with us. Until we come to faith, we’re slaves (even though we’re going to be heirs). That’s what used to be the case. ‘But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.’

Now, hopefully you remembered to change your clocks last night, or managed to work out if your phone would automatically change to the right time. Hopefully no one turned up just before 10am thinking it was 11am. It’s the spring time change that’s more dangerous - I’ve had people arriving as the service is ending thinking they’re just on time... But Paul says that at just the right time, when the time had fully come, God sent Jesus - born of a woman (fulfilling the promise to Eve that her seed would come), born under law (fulfilling the law and perfectly obeying it), to redeem those under law.

When we come to faith, it’s as if we are coming of age, entering into our inheritance, receiving the full blessing of heirs and sons. And what is the blessing? It’s the one we saw last week - ‘Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’

We’re not just forgiven, we’re also family. We’re not just saved, we’re also sons. We have the Spirit, the Spirit of Jesus the Son, the Spirit who confirms that we are God’s sons by calling out ‘Abba, Father.’ We have freedom in Christ - no longer slaves, but sons; and because we’re sons, we’re also heirs.

We’ve covered a lot of ground this morning. At times I wondered if I’d bitten off more than I could chew. But God is telling us today that we are named in his will; his blessings are ours, because we’re not just forgiven, we’re his family. We’re not slaves, we’re saved. We’re not just saved, we’re his sons.

This is who you are. So live out of this identity - I am a child of the heavenly Father, redeemed by his Son, and filled with his Spirit, receiving all his blessings, and it can’t be amended or taken away from me.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 29th October 2017.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Sermon: Galatians 3: 1-14 Freedom from the Law

In 1936, Dale Carnegie published one of the first self-help books. It contained a series of principles on how to handle and deal with people, how to get on in business and in the home. The title? ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People.’ The promise is that if you follow these steps, then you’ll succeed by making friends, and influencing people to come round to your way of thinking.

The very first principle is simply this: ‘Don’t criticise, condemn, or complain.’ That’s the first step to winning friends and influencing people. Well, as we open up to Galatians 3, it’s quite clear that Paul hadn’t read How to Win Friends and influence People. Don’t criticise, condemn or complain? ‘You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?’

I’m fairly sure Carnegie wouldn’t advise calling the people you’re trying to influence - fools! But this is to show us how desperate Paul is to bring them back from the brink, to shock them out of their foolishness. If you’re jumping into Galatians for the first time, or if you’re fairly new around here, don’t worry, we’re not in the habit of calling people fools as directly as Paul does here. The reason he does it is because he’s so concerned for the Galatians. Paul had originally planted the church there, but now they were listening to false teachers, who were urging them to observe the law and be circumcised in order to be truly accepted by God.

Paul has already showed them that listening to the false teachers would be dangerous and wrong, now he says that they’re being foolish. They haven’t thought things through. So he’s going to get them to think about their experience of becoming a Christian, and their experience of being a Christian. And so he sets a question before them in verse 2. Here’s what he wants to know: ‘Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?’

In asking the question, he’s saying that they do have the Holy Spirit living and working in them. If you’ve been listening carefully, you’ll have noticed that this is the first time the Spirit is mentioned in Galatians. But it won’t be the last time we hear of the Spirit. In fact, the presence of the Spirit in the Christian is a big deal for Paul, and should be a big deal for us as well. The third person of the Trinity, living and dwelling in us, giving us power to live for God and become more like the Lord Jesus. Over the next few weeks we’ll see more of the Spirit’s work in our lives, but for now, the question is, how did they receive the Spirit? Was it by observing the law, or by believing what they heard? What do you think? (It’s like Who Wants to be a Millionaire - a 50:50 chance of getting it right, or 100% chance if you know what Paul has been saying).

In verse 3, he asks them again are they foolish? After they began with the Spirit, were they now trying to finish off by their own efforts? As if the Holy Spirit is like jump leads when your car battery is flat - just get me going and I’ll be ok by myself after that. They had even suffered because they were Christians, because the Spirit was in them - was that all for nothing now that they were turning their back on the Spirit and trying to do it themselves?

Again Paul asks in verse 5: ‘Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?’

To help them answer the question, he points them to the Old Testament, and to Abraham. ‘Consider Abraham: He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ Abraham (or Abram) was minding his own business, when God called him to follow him. God made promises to him - promises of descendants, and a land, and great blessing. And in Genesis 15, the promise of a son hadn’t yet come about. Abraham was 75 by now, and Sarah his wife was 65. But God told Abraham to go outside, and said that Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as the stars.

Abraham believed the promise, and God credited to him as righteousness. Abraham took God at his word, and God counted Abraham as his friend. And Paul says that as Abraham looked at the stars, he was seeing his children pictured - he was seeing... us. Abraham was the man of faith, and we become his children by believing God’s promise as well.

That’s how the gospel was preached in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’ The Gentiles are being justified by faith, we’re being made right with God in the same way that Abraham was - as we believe God’s word and depend on it.

Now, just to make absolutely sure that the Galatians know how they received the Spirit - by faith, not by the law - Paul shows the futility of depending on the law. You’ll notice that in verses 10-13, Paul quotes a bit from the Old Testament in each of those verses. ‘For it is written... because... on the contrary... for it is written.’ Paul’s argument is grounded in the Old Testament to show that it’s by faith, not by observing the law.

If you were to take Dale Carnegie’s principles on how to win friends and influence people, it wouldn’t matter if you only did one or two of them. You can take them or leave them. But with the Old Testament law, their demand was total commitment. Verse 10: ‘All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law’.

When I was studying at the Church of Ireland college, our degree was simply pass or fail. And the pass mark was... 40%. But with the law, the pass mark is 100%. Break any one of the 623 laws, and you’re under the curse. Just think of that - you’ve managed to keep 622 of them, but you fail in just one, and you may as well have broken all of them.

We just can’t do it; we can’t be justified by the law - declared in the right - because, (Hab 2:4) ‘the righteous will live by faith.’ This was the verse that caused Martin Luther to kickstart the Protestant Reformation. He had tried to be the best monk ever, in fact, he said later, ‘If ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery, it was I.’ But in trying to keep the rules of his monastery, he only knew despair, and failure. But when he realised that the righteous will live by faith, his life was transformed.

But the law doesn’t give comfort, only challenge - ‘The man who does these things will live by them’ (Lev 18:5) - to live by the law, you needed to perfectly obey it. but we can’t do that. Rather, we’re all under the curse. We’ve all sinned. We’ve all missed the mark. We can’t do it by ourselves.

We needed someone to do it for us. Someone to take away our curse, by suffering the effects of the curse himself. And that’s what Jesus has done for us - his gracious act of loving us and giving himself for us. We see it in verse 13:

‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.”’

To redeem is to buy back. And Jesus redeemed us from the curse, by becoming a curse for us. He had perfectly obeyed the law; he didn’t deserve to die; yet he died so that we could live. He died under the curse of Deuteronomy 21:23 - cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree - the cross. This was the message Paul had portrayed to the Galatians (see verse 1). And the word of the crucified Christ is the message of freedom from the law, freedom from the curse that condemns us, freedom to live.

But Paul says something which might be a bit surprising in verse 14. How would you complete this sentence: Christ died so that ...?

Christ died so that we could be forgiven.
Christ died so that we can go to heaven.
Christ died so that we can have hope / peace / joy.

All those answers are right, and good, and they’re the answers I would have given. But Paul tells us something else that Christ died for in verse 14.

‘He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.’

Now that’s a big sentence. But what Paul says is that through the death of Jesus, Gentiles like you and me can receive the blessing given to Abraham. We can share in Abraham’s blessing through Jesus. And what is that blessing? ‘So that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.’

Paul asked the Galatians how they had received the Spirit - by law, or by believing? It is by faith that we receive the promised Holy Spirit. God’s plan was always that his people would have the Holy Spirit living in them, empowering them to live in God’s way. And through Jesus, the promise given to Abraham is fulfilled in you and me.

As you trust Jesus, you have the Holy Spirit living inside you, helping you to live. It would be entirely foolish to start with the Spirit and then go back to our own efforts. This blessing is for you today - for the first time as you come to Christ and trust him for salvation; - or as you realise what you have already received, but have never experienced.

Thelma Howard died in 1994, just before her 80th birthday. She lived simply, frugally, and when relatives gathered to have her will read, they didn’t expect much. But Thelma had been a housekeeper for the Walt Disney for more than 30 years. She was paid her wages, given free board and lodging, and for Christmas and birthday, she was given bits of paper. She didn’t understand them, but kept them all safely in a box. It turns out they were stocks and shares in Disney. And at the time of her death in 1994, her shares were worth $9.5 million. She had this great resource, yet she never realised, and never used it.

As you trust in Jesus, you are given something even more valuable than Disney shares. You are given the Holy Spirit, living in you, the fulfilment of the promise to Abraham, the outworking of Christ’s redemption. Realise your blessing today, receive your inheritance - given freely as you believe.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 22nd October 2017.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Bowlers' Service Sermon: Philippians 3: 4-14 Paul's Aim

Tonight, we gather to give thanks to God for sport, and particularly for the friendship and fellowship we enjoy through the Bowling Club. While I haven’t thrown any bowls here yet, I was first introduced to bowls at the age of 8, when my great-aunt Rebecca brought me along to the Cathedral club in Dromore. I played for about 12 years or so, then took it up again when we moved to Fermanagh, playing for the Aghavea church team. Hopefully I’ll get an opportunity to play in the near future.

As I was preparing for this evening, and thinking about playing bowls, our Bible reading from Philippians came to mind. When you’re playing bowls, you count up, or you keep the score; there is the only thing that counts - being close to the Jack; and there’s the way you aim for it. Score, what counts, and aiming. And those three elements of bowling are the things that the apostle Paul talks about in relation to his life.

So first, let’s think about the score. In a friendly match, or when you’re having a practice night, it doesn’t really matter what the score is. But, this week as the tournament has been progressing, and especially tomorrow night when the finals are being held, the score is very important. It’s how you know who’s winning, who’s succeeding.

And in terms of life, Paul outlines in verses 4-6 the points he has scored, the reasons he had confidence in the flesh. He lists his religious achievements - the things that showed how successful he was. He was circumcised according to the Old Testament law; he was a Hebrew of Hebrews, his parents were Israelites from the tribe of Benjamin. Those things were given to him, but the next ones he chose to pursue - he became a Pharisee, a strict follower of the law; in terms of his zeal, he persecuted the church, because he thought they were false teachers; and as for legalistic righteousness, doing what he could do to obey the law, he was regarded as faultless. For a religious person, this was a high score.

We might also try to score ourselves highly, even if we use different categories - the charity work we do; the help we give to people; our paying in to church; or whatever it is that we might think - that’s in my good book. That's to my credit.

A few months ago, the team I was part of won our section of the Fermanagh Churches League. Section D, mind you, the lowest section on the league - and it wasn’t because of anything I had done. We made it to the playoffs. As our team was playing, I was keeping an eye on the scores on the other mats. And over on the far mat, their scoreboard was ticking over nicely. I was thinking to myself - our rink over there is doing well, that’ll help our overall score. And then I happened to be watching as an end finished, and I realised that it was the other team scoring all those points! The high score I thought we had was actually against us.

And that’s what Paul realised about putting his confidence in the flesh, what he could achieve: ‘But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ.’ And on over in verse 8 he says that he considers them ‘rubbish’ - or dung. The things he prized, his high score, he now realises it’s useless, something to be rid of.

And he says that, because he now knows the one thing that counts above everything else; the only thing that matters. On a bowling mat, the only thing that matters is being close to the Jack. Well, the apostle Paul says that the only thing that matters in life is being close to the Lord Jesus. ‘What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.’ Knowing Jesus is the only thing that matters for Paul, the only thing that counts.

And the way he does that isn’t by his own achievements, it’s only by faith in Christ - and receiving a right standing with God. The Lord Jesus is the one who gave himself for you; he came to this earth to rescue you from your sins by dying in your place. He freely offers us his righteousness as we trust him.

Verse 10 summarises what being close to Jesus, being in Jesus, knowing Jesus is all about: ‘I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, to attain to the resurrection of the dead.’

The one thing that counts - knowing Christ, and the power of his resurrection - having the power that raised Jesus from the dead living and working in our lives. And we think - yes, I’d like that. But we stop there. Knowing Christ, and his power, we’ll have some of that. But Paul goes further. To also have the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings. As we follow Jesus, knowing him and his power, we may also experience suffering and hardship. But it is in the way of the cross that we experience the resurrection; it is in our own sufferings that we experience the power of Christ and the grace of Christ to keep and sustain us.

This was the thing that mattered in Paul’s life. So what is the thing that matters most in your life? Is it the same? Or are you living for something different?

To get the score, you need to be close to the Jack. And to get close to the Jack, you need to aim. You have to see where you want your bowl to go, forehand or backhand, how tight to the stick, and how much weight. The skip can tell you so much, but it all comes down to your aim.

In verses 12-14, we see what Paul says about his aim in life. He realises that he isn’t there yet; he hasn’t made it yet; but in the meantime, ‘I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.’ And there in verse 13 we see the ‘one thing I do’ - ‘Forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead, I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards in Christ Jesus.’

When I was learning to drive, I had this bad habit of not turning around when I was reversing. I’d just kind of try to see in the mirrors, but it was more of a keep going till you feel the bump or hear the bang. And my driving instructor gave me some valuable advice - you wouldn’t look out the back window when you’re driving forward, so don’t face forward when you’re reversing. Look the way you’re going.

And that would probably work on the bowling mat too. You wouldn’t try to bowl backwards. So look the way you’re going, and go for it. Forget what lies behind - whatever the score might be; whether yesterday has been good or bad or indifferent, press on today! Strain towards what is ahead. Aim forward towards the goal, and win the prize of the heavenly call.

As we press forwards, looking to Jesus, the prize is already in reach. Christ Jesus has taken hold of us, and God has called us to it. It's yours for the taking as you trust Jesus and receive him as your Saviour and your Lord.

The bowling mat helps us think about:

1. the score - the things you think are for you might be against you;

2. and the only thing that matters - being close to Jesus, knowing him;

3. and the aim - pressing forward to be with Jesus. So what’s stopping you? Tonight we have this opportunity to get to know Jesus, perhaps for the first time - don't waste this opportunity. Get to know the one who gave himself for you. I'd love to introduce you to him. Or maybe you are already a Christian. May God's word to you tonight is to reevaluate your score, what you're depending on for salvation; and to refocus our aim, and press on towards the one thing that really counts - knowing Jesus.

This sermon was preached at the Bowlers' Service at the end of the St Matthew's Bowling Club Tournament in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday 15th October 2017. St Matthew's Bowling Club meets on Monday and Thursday nights, and new members are always welcome!